A Pox on my Playwriting

By Anna Nicholas

Writers write. Right? I’m a writer but I have discovered I’m not great at writing during a plague. I’m not Shakespeare. Only Shakespeare could turn out King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra while massive numbers of people were dying just outside the door of his stucco and thatched roof house. It’s amazing the aerosols didn’t penetrate the walls and take him out. Then again, maybe he had amazing antibodies–not that anyone knew what they were. It does seem as though cycles of bubonic plague were actually helpful to Mr. Shakespeare. Between 1603 and 1613, during a time when his powers as a writer were at their height, when he wrote some of his most enduring plays, the Globe and other London playhouses were shut for a total of 78 months. That’s 60% of the time.*

In contrast, during the first 2 months of our plague, I have written one short post-apocalypse play in which Jared Kushner gets eaten, and am mired in two rewrites. One is a full-length stage play that some people claim they want to produce when and if things return to normal. The other is a full-length screenplay I was hoping to direct later this year. But with all the concerns the threat of Covid19 poses to making theatre and films–love scenes with masks and the like–I don’t count on either project happening any time soon. What happens with my writing is out of my hands. But my hands can still write.

Here’s what I’ve discovered about writing during our plague that’s good: I am able to have ideas for writing projects and write them down. I am able to write first drafts. I am able to free-write without judging. Not judging IS a writing skill and one I’m not always good at, even in the best of times. But now? I give myself and everyone else a bye. What I cannot do as well during this plague is rewrite. That’s because the hardest part of writing for me isn’t writing; it’s thinking–the kind of deep thinking which is arguably the most important part of writing, where one needs to figure out what must be added/ cut/changed, and in what order, to make the rewrite work. The plague has negatively affected my ability to think deeply and lucidly about almost everything except what needs to happen in the next election cycle. But I digress…

Neurologists and brain chemistry experts might say that during times like these our fight or flight mechanisms are on high alert. We’re looking for “news we can use” all the time, which means we’re operating on a more surface level– Where do I get a Covid test? What kind of homemade face covering will be most effective? How can I help essential workers in my small measly way, while I’m out of a job, no money’s coming in and I haven’t showered in a week? 

Being in this mental state takes up a lot of brain capacity. So there’s a physical reason why I, and possibly you, are not writing like Shakespeare. But bear in mind, even Shakespeare wrote first drafts. I like to think he too, was distracted by the events outside his door, just as I am. And he wrote anyway. He wasn’t distracted by memes, TikTok and the 24-hour news cycle but he was worried about where he’d get his mutton and mead. And so, I believe, that during Shakespeare’s plague, he wrote his vomit first draft of King Lear without judging it. Then, after the plague was over and the Globe had reopened, he went deep and rewrote it. He found a way to keep writing and that’s what I’m doing too.

AR (Anna) Nicholas is a playwright, filmmaker and actor. Website: AnnaNicholas.com; Twitter/Instagram: @aroyaln

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