Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
I’ve told this story before. I’ve told this story here before.
It was, however, almost seven years ago that I told this story here, and I’m thinking of this story now in the context of current events in my life, so I’m going to tell it again.
The fall of my senior year of college, the student theatre group that I’d stepped into co-management of decided to produce an evening of one-acts titled, accidentally and apropos of nothing, Hostages in Holy Water. There were five pieces total, three written by myself and two written by my good friend Marc-Anthony Macon. My three were entitled A Good Excuse, The Playwright’s Bullet, and Plan B.
I had at this time only written three or four complete stage works, so lacked much confidence in my ability, and was additionally concerned about putting up a so-called showcase that seemed to only be concerned with the work of two young playwrights. So I did what any painfully insecure maniac would do: I invented two playwrights and gave them credit for The Playwright’s Bullet and Plan B.
Now, I don’t just mean I invented pen names. I invented playwrights. Bullet had been written by a man named Neil Garrison and Plan B had been written by one Hector Frye. They had histories and careers as complicated as any of the characters in the plays that they had allegedly written, they had temperaments, they had thematic concerns in their work. In the program notes I included an epigraph from Garrison’s play An Iceberg in Eden, and made reference to similar ideas he had mined in his work Phoenix Cube, both fictitious plays.
It goes further than that. I was directing Bullet, but under my own name. And while the production staff was aware that all three plays were by my hand, I had neglected to inform my cast of the ruse. During the rehearsal process, I would often tell the actors to cut lines or stage directions that simply weren’t working. I would often disparage the playwright while doing so. I thought this was hilarious and failed to notice that the actors were slightly discomfited by my observations that Neil Garrison was some kind of hack.
It wasn’t until a week before opening that the actors discovered that their director wasn’t actually a self-important tyrant, when they asked me if they’d get to meet the playwright and my response was “Hello.”
On at least one occasion, friends of mine left the show at intermission because they didn’t realize I had other plays happening afterward. Although I had considered the charades paper-thin, easily seen through, I had underestimated the willingness of the audience to take my lies at face value. The program accredited two plays to these authors, and I had never disabused them of the notion.
And so ended the short careers of Neil Garrison and Hector Frye.
As I’m writing this, a number of talented men and women have just finished the first public performance of my adaptation of The Man Who Was Thursday. My name is on it, just above that of the source material’s author, G.K. Chesterton.
Tech weeks make me wistful. I reminisced about the first time I emailed the script to Jessica, asking if she’d help me set up a workshop reading. I thought about all the tables–the ones around which we first sat when I heard it read aloud back in February, the ones in the diners, coffee shops, and pizza parlors where I conversed for hours with Jacob, Nick, Michelle, Amanda, Rachel, and Jess about the ideas present in the play. I thought about the weeks of communication from the actors to Jessica to me and back from me to Jessica to the actors. I thought about scenes altered and endings re-imagined and monologues delicately operated upon, I thought about the addition of prosthetic hooks, the brief flirtations with hundreds of bowler hats, with green apples, with the audience divided into teams. I thought about problems solved and circumvented, I thought about the ease with which we cut the line Mind the step. just this morning.
Earlier this week I had an exchange of emails with a young woman in high school who harbors ambitions of being a professional playwright and wanted to know more about how one might go about that. While making clear to her that my authority on such a subject is arguable, I tried to make it clear to her that, above all things, one must remember that theatre is a collaborative discipline. That it tends to work best for all involved when ego is barred from the entrance; when ego is told to go elsewhere and entertain itself for awhile.
So here’s the thing about Neil and Hector; or, at least, about Neil. I can say that I created these men for the purposes of obscuring my identity, but it wouldn’t explain why I continued to treat Neil as a real person throughout the rehearsal process. No…what explains that behavior is that not only have I always understood the fundamental that theatre was a beast of collaboration, but that I so desperately desired it to be so that I created an imaginary being just so it wouldn’t feel like I was standing there alone when I directed my own play. Because bouncing a ball against a wall by oneself may be a perfectly satisfactory activity, but it takes the addition of another person in the room to turn it into sport.
There are incredibly successful and important playwrights in the world today, certainly more successful and important than I, who police productions of their work with an Orwellian zeal. They hear that a line has been excised or a nude scene eschewed and they achieve apoplexy, they take their indignation to the press, they volley cease-and-desists from leather-bound ballista.
And that’s their prerogative, certainly. I do understand this. I’ve spent thirty minutes in the witching hours of the night agonizing over the proper sentence construction of simple exposition and I can understand.
I just can’t agree with it. I can’t agree and I won’t be a part of it. Whatever satisfaction I might have gotten from seeing the work realized as I first envisioned has always, always been trumped by the satisfaction of seeing the work evolve in rehearsal into something I hadn’t realized it could be.
That all said, maybe I just feel this way because there are levels of my career I have yet to achieve, and that with greater success will come a greater, grinchy protectiveness of my written word.
I’d hope not. It’s something I imagine I’ll be vigilant of, if I’m fortunate to get that far.
It’s something I imagine Neil and Hector will bring to my attention if I fail to notice it on my own.