Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Why

We've all been there. You finish your play, pour your guts into it, bust your ass to get it all down on paper. Then you have a reading of it. There's never (or rarely) enough rehearsal, barely enough time for rewrites, but you get the sucker out there. You invite friends, colleagues, maybe a producer or two, a literary manager, hear the damned thing and hope for the best. You hope they laugh at the jokes, sigh at the sweet moments, maybe even let out a gasp at the big reveal. When it's done, you get up from your seat in the back of the hall, walk down front and start the receiving line. That's when you get it. Or when I got it.

I had a reading a couple of weeks ago of a play I've been working on for a while. I invited a young playwright I'd met around town (well, to be honest, in a bar), who hadn't read my work (or vice versa), but who I liked. This playwright had even, sight unseen, invited me to a new writers' group. This was her first experience with my writing, though. And, to be honest, I was a bit nervous. My Young Playwright Friend (YPF) is, well, young, both in terms of age and in terms of playwriting, and funny and edgy. She's affiliated with a fairly major, particularly edgy company and the other people in the group are from the same company. Not necessarily the most accomplished members of the company, but still, a good crowd. I wanted her to like this play, to like my writing. That was...not necessarily a given. This particular play is...odd.

It's old-fashioned. Unabashedly, unreservedly old-school. It's a big-hearted, ensemble comedy in the mold of The Philadelphia Story or, more correctly, Holiday. It's also a bit, shall we say, commercial. It's got a "ripped from the headlines" vibe to it, with meaty roles for older actors. Staying true to the form, it's about upper-class folks in a way (though class is very much an issue in it), but with a nice, sellable multicultural spin. And all of that is on purpose.

So I'm standing there, as the audience files out, people stopping to say "congrats" or whatnot and I look to my YPF and she is...stoic. I watched her during the reading and didn't catch many laughs at the jokes, so I was already worried. Now the blank expression? Ugh. She does smile, but it's one of those too-big ones. She flips me a thumbs-up and hightails it for the door.

Now, as one often does, I have a conversation with her in my head about it. It's easier than actually talking.

Me: What?

YPF: Um. Yeah. Didn't really like it. Sorry, dude.

Me: What? Why?

YPF: Didn't really see the point. Gotta go!

Walking away from the theatre that night, I thought about that idea. What was the point? Here I am, railing often against just this kind of play. It could be seen as safe, or easy. It's about the problems of wealthy white folk. It's even about a media figure and has a couple of jokes about the low quality of people you find working in TV (the theatre equivalent of lawyer jokes). Why the hell did I write it? How could I explain it to anyone?

There are two whys for me with this play, and most of my plays. There's the personal Why and the professional Why. The personal Why for me is...I like this kind of theatre. I like Phillip Barry. I love Holiday. I think we could use a really good, high-quality revival of The Philadelphia Story. Yes, they're about the wealthy at play, but they always know they are. That's the point. In both plays, the central female figure is trying to survive in that upper-crust world as a genuine person and has to deal with the pressures "society" puts on her. In the end, in both, she shrugs them off and pursues happiness (in the form of Cary Grant, natch). It may not be Fornes, but it's not exactly reactionary.

I like the challenge of updating it to our world, our times. What does upper-class mean in a world where a 22 year can be a multi-billionaire overnight? I think these stories still have merit; I just don't think they should be the only thing on our stages. Or even the only thing I write. This play is this play, this particular story that engages me. It is its own thing. The next play will be about something completely different, in a completely different style. Because that's how I roll.

There always comes a point, when I'm working on a script, where something clicks in and I realize what I'm really talking about. It can come early on in the process or late. This one really hit me late. The central relationship of this play is about a mother and her daughter. You'd be surprised to know how long it took me to realize how much of this play was about my mother and my relationship to her and, honestly, about making up for another play I wrote that put her in a bad light (we didn't speak for a long time after that one). Playwrights have agendas, the most complicated, mysterious, both self-serving and selfless agendas known to man. A teacher I had once said that he was a mystery to himself when he wrote. When it comes to my agendas, I know I am.

But there's also a professional Why, and that's the calculating part. This play is produceable. When I had the idea, riffing on the life and legal troubles of a major pop culture figure, I thought, Well, this is a gold mine right here, as long as I can get it on stage before someone else does. It's been a couple of years, but so far, no one else has. The cast is a little big, but it's got a single set, like I said, it's mostly older characters, so blue-haired matinee audiences can relate, it's about the foibles of highly educated people, so the critics can relate, the jokes may be a shade on the sitcom-y side, but a laugh's a laugh. It's pitched at the world of the mid-major theatres, maybe even at the major. I'd like to say it's all about the art and the story that's compelling, but daddy needs to eat and wants to get out of his day job. Art is gonna happen and this play, well, it may not be Beckett, but it's not...normally, I'd say Neil Simon here, but that seems a bit unfair these days. It's not Norman Lear. If anyone remembers who he is. It's a play. When I saw the Off-Broadway production of Proof, lo those many years ago, at the end, I thought, "I've just seen a play." I had that good, full feeling you have when you get comfort food. Maybe not exactly nourished or expanded, but full. That's what I'm aiming for with this.

How do I explain all of that to a YPF, fresh off a first play, full of piss and vinegar, ready to set shit on fire on stage? Maybe I just lay it out there. Maybe I try to win the case. Maybe I just let it go. But I was glad to have even the imaginary question of Why. Because I needed to know the answer for myself at least.

Oh, and FYI: since I'm a neurotic basket case, I e-mailed my friend for notes and she said she liked it and sent back some good thoughts. So...maybe it was just neuroses. Maybe.


Lindsay Price said...

Alas, alas, there is no explaining to YPF. All you can do is know exactly what you're writing and the why. Knowing the why puts you on solid ground. It's the bedrock of your play.

When you know the why, then when everyone in the world seems to hate your play, or is writing completely different types of plays, you have bedrock.

99 said...

I very much agree and this was my process to getting to the bedrock.

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