How To Make Freedom Art…

I am always returning to the question – why this right now? – as I sit and write, alone. I do this because I want the plays I write to mean something, not only to me, but to be worthy of other people’s blood, sweat and tears.  A play asks for the time, attention, spirit, and money of so many people.  So, whether my play is intended to make an audience cry, think, sigh or laugh, I take my job pretty seriously.  Probably, often, too seriously.

This summer I made a few discoveries on the Playwrights Commons’ Freedom Art Retreat that released me from my own silly, grandiose perfectionism and reminded me why theatre is so much fun to make and to experience.  (Whether great fun always equals great art is another question for another day, and one I was grateful to have the opportunity to leave behind for a week.)  Here are the things I was reminded of again and again as we worked in different small groups over the course of the retreat:

  1. Pick something to make and then make it.  Finding a way to do this is going to be different with every group, every time. Some of the most exciting stuff came from starting with a strong visual image, like paper boats on a pond at sunset, or someone crawling haphazardly down a flight of stairs.  Sometimes it took all day to agree on what to make, sometimes it took just a few minutes. It was always more fun when we were done with the picking part and had moved on to making something.
  2. If you’re worried about something coming out bad or clichéd, just go ahead and make the “bad” version.  Make it SO SO bad.  Clothe yourself in cliché. When I was working in a group of five people on a site-specific play, we discovered early on that the place we had found in the woods was suggesting 1960s-nostalgic-teen-car-crash-after-school-special-melodrama to us.  So we ran with that as far as we could. And I don’t think any one of us would have made what we ended up with had we been working on our own, which is great.
  3. Take every functional idea. Even keep stuff that doesn’t feel quite right, call it a placeholder, and come back to it later. Don’t worry whether that line, image, character or concept is cool, funny, poetic, intricate or sexy enough.  If it moves the process forward, keep it and move on to the next thing.
  4. Just play.  Play ukuleles. Play charades.  Eat popsicles and drink alcohol and go swimming and have a dance party.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  Also eat an unholy amount of delicious homemade food, play with dogs and tiny frogs, and travel to the top of mountain.  You’ll know it’s the very top because you can see the other side.
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