What Happens? – or – How To Be Inspired By Great Writers

What would you write if I said “Write a play in which the characters learn they are about to die”?  My mind would immediately jump to the Titanic, a jail cell or a mine where the air is running out and the rescuers just decided to stop trying.  Some bleak, dire landscape.  In other words, my first impulse would be to telegraph from the beginning what’s about to happen.  If you were David Ives, however, you would write a cheeky little rom-com about the dating and mating of a couple of cute mayflies. In David Ives’ “Time Flies,”  two effervescent  little mayflies (you know, mayflies, the tiny creatures whose lifecycle lasts for only one day), come to understand, after much clever banter, that they have only hours left to live. And then they decide to make the best of what little time they’ve got, which is what the play is ultimately about – making the most of fleeting time. Or, rather, flying time. Because they are time flies.  Get it?

Ah, puns.  David Ives is insanely good at inventing and utlizing them. “Time Flies” is one of the plays I am assigning from the book Under Thirty: Plays for a New Generation in my Playwriting I class this winter at Boston’s Grub Street.   I admire Ives’ masterful wit, rhythmic repartee, and generously inviting sense of play, word and otherwise.   He does telegraph what’s about to happen, but he’s using dramatic irony, where the audience knows something the characters haven’t figured out yet, which is a delight. But all these qualities are not why I will be teaching the play.  Or, rather, those are not the only reasons.  It’s also a good example of the difference between what literally happens and what it feels like as it’s happening.  This play is fun, silly and sweet.  It doesn’t seem on the surface of the thing to be concerned with issues of fate, mortality and facing the truth about who you are.  But because it is about these things, it is not simply a sketch with funny costumes.

A natural first impulse for a playwright is to look at any play and ask “how can I do that, but do it better?”  But when using master playwrights who weave plays with hidden seams as your models, it can be hard to figure out where to begin without being tempted to produce shoddy imitations.  After all, the point of writing is to develop your own unique voice. Because the world doesn’t need another, almost certainly lesser, David Ives.  So, I could say to my students: “Write a play that’s funnier and cuter.” But that would be too prescriptive, setting them up to fail.  I probably also wouldn’t say, “Write a play that’s about fate, mortality and facing the truth about who you are.”  Because aren’t all plays about that on some level?

Instead, I will look to what happens in the play as a springboard for inspiration and say “Write a play in which the characters learn they are about to die.”  Because doesn’t that sound tantalizing?  I can’t wait to find out what happens next!

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.