On Writing Collectively


Last month, I worked with Gunfighter Nation on LA History Project: Pio Pico, Sam Yorty, and the Secret Procession of Los Angeles, a collectively written evening of theatre. Some of my writing ended up in the evening, and I did a bit of acting as well. Today, I want to talk about the writing, and tomorrow, I will talk about the acting. 

Gunfighter Nation is a new Los Angeles theatre company of actors and writers who want to take theatrical possibility to the edge and beyond. It is a multigenerational company with members ranging in age from twenties to seventies. Playwright John Steppling is the artistic director. 

When I arrived on the scene in July, half of the writers in the company had already written pieces for the evening, and I felt myself playing a bit of research catch-up. The task was to write about Pio Pico, Sam Yorty, and the history of Los Angeles as a dark mass (which appealed to my Catholic upbringing).

For me, the hardest part of the whole process was the beginning. I was working with a company I didn’t know and an artistic director whose work I knew but I didn’t know his process. Because only half of the pieces had been written, I didn’t know exactly what the aesthetic was and felt a little lost in the dark.

However, lost in the dark is not a bad place to start writing.

I looked at my empty yellow pad, and my first thought was Pico and Yorty in a bar in hell. The bar is my fall back location. If I’m stuck, I go to the bar in my head. I can move through it with ease. By the way, I no longer go to an actual bar if I’m stuck while writing.

I also started to think about what Los Angeles meant to me. What is the Los Angeles I see? Then, I stumbled into something I had been thinking about for awhile. In Los Angeles, we are a city of millions, yet we hate crowds. We drive around in cars that separate us from each other. We collectively fear contact with strangers.

One could take this fear of crowd contact into a bigger American context and into an American obesity—we need lots of fat around ourselves in order to protect ourselves from cruel human dangers.

I started writing a monologue for a heavy woman. Like many in Los Angeles urbanites, she hates crowds and doesn’t want people around her. She also can’t breathe because the air in Los Angeles is bad. She just kept talking and talking. Her talk became a song of fear and non-contact. Stay Back! Stay Back! she shouts at the audience and the world.

I am not a monologue writer, but this woman was singing out. What can I do? I’m just the writer.

I brought the pieces into our next meeting. The Pico and Yorty piece didn’t feel right to me. It was sketchy, and there was no idea to it except putting Pico and Yorty together onstage in a bar.

Then, I passed the monologue to Tina Preston, an actress in the group, and told her that she was afraid and couldn’t breathe. Tina read the monologue cold out-loud. She got into a rhythm with it. She read and read, and when she was finished, I yelped. Yes, I actually yelped.

As a writer, I sometimes have moments which confirm to me why I do what I do and remind me that I’ve still got some juice in my brain. Such moments are rare and gold. This was such a moment.

As the whole evening started to form, I thought it would be cool if the monologue was cut up and served as a transition between longer pieces. The woman could run into characters entering for the next play. I also figured that if I kept the monologues short, I would leave the audience wanting more.

Working with Tina was a true writer/actor collaboration. Tina worked extremely hard to take my conceit and turn it into something human. In the course of our working, our character who was very vulnerable and afraid became powerful and present.

As we moved closer to opening, I realized that I wasn’t feeling the usual writer nerves because I didn’t have to carry all the ideas. The ideas belonged to all the writers. The pressure was off. What did I have lose? When you have nothing to lose, the work gets better.

As writers we are taught to write plays which are complete unto themselves. They can be short or long, but they must complete themselves. The idea must reach a conclusion.


 When writing collectively, the goal is not to write to completion but to write to incompletion. It’s about the whole idea of the evening.   

 When we Americans hear words like collective or socialism, we get very scared. We don’t want to lose our American individualism. We want to be our lone ranger selves.

 But, in a collective where originality is prized, I found myself pushing the originality envelope because I was inspired by the writing around me. It’s like jazz. We were all playing a theme, but when we could break out and solo, ohhh we got hot.

 Because we writers had shared artistic ownership of the evening, I felt myself losing ego about the whole experience. It was going through me, but it wasn’t about me. It was about the group. And the result was work I am extremely proud of with a group of nonconformist artists who make sweet sweet jazz together.

 Gunfighter Nation has a collectively written Christmas Show in the works, and yes, I’m writing for that one too.

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