The night before the mid-term election, and my cat, Ted, is sensing some troubling words..
Yes. No. These are decisions I get to make tomorrow. I get to vote.
I’m particularly anxious about this election, (as many of us are), but I think Ted is picking up on a sense of helplessness, and pent up rage. And apparently he doesn’t like to hear me read the ballot out loud. I call this his “Fur Emotion Sponge” posture.
When I’m writing, and he’s sitting next to me, he likes me to play new age soundtracks so he can listen to the sound of rain, and frogs, and maybe some thunder. If it isn’t too ominous.
So, I’ll write more later. Right now, I have some cat paws I have to gently reposition on my political agenda. And I’ll get to vote tomorrow.
The last few days I’ve been hearing some wild stories, and revisiting memories that seem directly broadcasted to the rewrites I’m doing . Some of the stories and phrases stalk me and won’t leave me alone until I write them down. It’s like being followed by a twenty pound cat that just wants to escort you around the house and walk in between your legs.
(That would be Ted.)
And I’m hearing unexpected stories about ghosts and hoarding and old houses.
I know it’s because my antenna is on and I’m hearing the words I’m looking for. But it is a bit overwhelming: is my writer’s radar on and that’s why I’m hearing these things? or is a form of psychosis? previous lives manifesting themselves in voices?
It seems a bit mad, to be obsessed with sorting through imaginary conversations and places and things, and witnessing such electric connections. But that’s the assignment here in the rewriting. I have my work cut out for me.
I’ll just have to watch out for that cat walking next to me in the hallway.
On Sunday afternoon, I had a chance to listen to a reading of my new script.
Ouch. Opps. Really. What.
That voice! That actress! Love that guy who’s reading. Wow. Oh – I hadn’t thought of that line that way. What? These actors: wow.
Wait. Where’s that scene? Did I drop that scene? That’s right, I dropped that scene. Maybe I don’t need that scene. Do I need this scene? Where is that scene, the other one – did I even write that other scene?
It was, as is usual for me, an astonishing and brief and intense experience to hear imagined words read out loud. I was alternately delighted and horrified by what I’ve written, and what I heard. I’ve learned to expect to be overwhelmed by staged readings of my work – and I was.
And the comments afterwards – I wrote them down in snippets so I can remember them, as I tend to rephrase them in my own memory. And it really helps to have a gifted moderator manage the conversation, – Jennie Webb helped guide the talk so I could hear/rather than react to the thoughts about the script.
And the best part about hearing really gifted actors read your script out loud:
They bring their feelings about lost love and attachment and isolation and they’re able to articulate what that sounds like. They can make a phrase really zing. And if it doesn’t, and you hear that it doesn’t, you hear that too.
I love seeing actors create characters out of memories and hopes and sadness. I’m grateful to hear the voices of longing and anger and jealousy and vulnerability.
At the end of the day, I felt a bit pixie mazed. But that’s a good thing. It’ll help with this next rewrite. My cat, Ted, will be in his chair next to me listening to his rain song.
I finished a rough (very rough) first draft of my next play two weeks ago. I feel like I opened the door to a new room in my house.
I’d been writing on different versions of this script – it seems like forever – and I just stalled out. I had written around the edges, came up with long memory scenes, and did a lot of visual research. Oh did I do research.
(This meant I spent a lot of time with art books, historical documents, auction manifests, and real estate listings for large estates. I especially loved looking at old auction lists: the descriptions!)
And it seemed – no – it was – I somehow got lost in my research: there were so many stories I wanted to tell about taxidermy. And antique crystal. Parrots that sing Mozart. Historical estates with ghosts. Timber frame barns.
I’ve taken a lot of workshops, classes and I’ve been part of several writing groups over the years, but I just had this “want” : I needed to write this story by myself. I wanted to feel that it came out of my own authentic voice, without any influence or commentary. I just didn’t expect the authentic gridlock that came with it.
Earlier this summer, I just had to end this checkmate. I took a dive into joining the recent Seedlings Dramaturgy Workshop, and for most of the writing sessions, I hedged and hawed and couldn’t seem to go forward. I brought just a few pages in, and heard them read out loud, and it just seemed this time – this is so much harder than working on my other scripts. The other playwrights shared great comments, and I had some really poignant feedback. But when the workshop was winding up, I still hadn’t made much progress.
And then. The teacher of the workshop, Jennie Webb, asked me a series of “what if” questions. Somehow she was able to ask me questions that helped me see what I wanted to do with the script. I still don’t know how she did it. She’s really a great teacher / dramaturg / word artist. Thank you Jen.
And so, after those “what if” questions, for several horrid hot summer nights, I spent hours writing until after midnight, wondering how I was going to wake up in the morning. I kept the air conditioning on. I drank a lot of ginger beer. I tried out my new “progressive” glasses, took them off, put them back on. But there I was, deep in the script, finding my way through it.
My grey cat, Ted curled up in the chair next to me, every night, and I would play a soundtrack of rain (with birds) and thunder and the wind in the trees. Especially during these hot summer nights, the sound of that rain, and the rumble of thunder made me feel like I was writing in another world.
Recently I’ve been looking through family photographs, and I’m astounded what powerful reminders they are. They seem to tell just a momentary fraction of all the worlds that collide in a photograph. There’s an element of disbelief in them (“Did she look like that?” “Wait – wasn’t that in Idaho?” “Who is that person?”).
Very much like the scripts we write and watch and remember, there’s an invisible world that also inhabits those images.
I’m writing something now that could be called “magical realism”. Or, as I also call it, “real magicalism”. I’m drawn to those memories in theatre where magic happened, whether it was a beautiful light cue, or an unexpected vision. Or an actor who found a moment of surprising vulnerability.
So now, in my writing, I’m looking to find the magical elements – in life – and onstage.
In my life at home I can find a brief moment of the supremely unexpected, the whimsical, the forcefully alien ideas. There’s also horror, and dark surprises, and a refrigerator that makes sounds at night that makes you think an axe murderer is at the door. (The refrigerator only does this at night.) (That must be it’s magic.)
At the moment I’m watching our tribe of hummingbirds duel over the seven feeders that they visit dozens of times during the day. They glitter like jewels in the full sun, then vanish with a zip toward the next feeder. They squeak and chirp and sound like a squeaky bicycle. But their magic, (flying backwards!), their fierce swashbuckler posturing (“This is mine! All mine!”) and their greedy gusto, is so unexpected and comic. We have names for the some of them: Me Too, Achilles, Tuffie Five, Tuffie Six, Merlin, Big Boy.
So there’s a bit of magic that I’m watching tonight. I haven’t figured out how I could cast a hummingbird in my play. But maybe there’s some kind of magic in thinking about it.
Recently, a good friend challenged me to come up with a list of those things that made me happy.
I was vexed.
I was annoyed.
And I thought this was a stupid waste of time idea. One of those “The Artist’s Way” self help kind of indulgent crap ideas. (You can probably tell I’m going through some stressful times here. Hence the negativity.)
But I also know that when I’ve written for my characters in plays, I’ve made lists of what they loved, liked, hated, wanted, and actually, what made them happy.
Part of that research fantasy.
So here is this damn list:
Build a fire in the fireplace
Make home made ice cream
Plant two trees
Visit Huntington Gardens and have Tea in the Tea Room
Make glass art
Read the book “Fools and Mortals” by Bernard Cornwall
Host a Pinot tasting party
Go to The Edison in downtown LA
Listen to more music
Go to the beach and watch the sunset
Feed the hummingbirds
Go back to the Sequoia forest
Go see an opera
Put together an irrigation system
Have lunch with Friends
This list was written on February 22nd.
Since February 22nd:
A good friend paid for a cord of firewood to be delivered to our house.
I’m slowly reading the book “Fools and Mortals” by Bernard Cornwall – I don’t want it to end.
I started wearing perfume again. Including a new rose perfume from Istanbul, thanks to a friend.
I bought another hummingbird feeder, and now there are six feeders. Many hummingbirds.
We went to see the opera – “Orpeus & Eurydice” at the Dorothy Chandler. It was strange, wonderful, good, bad, compelling and produced with dream like theatricality.
We’re now putting together an irrigation system for the house, hundreds and hundreds of dollars later, after the toilet blew up and the water regulator bit the dust. I didn’t think that would make me happy and it didn’t.
And we burned some incense.
I didn’t think that “things” could make me happy right now.
But on the other side of this damn list, I gave myself the assignment of finding something that I look at, every day, that makes me happy.
Cat paws, chocolate cake, hummingbirds, morning dew on grass, homemade soup, a full moon.
I’m seeing it more as “character development”, than an “artist’s date”. And that seems to be real progress for me.
Witnessing the Light, artwork by Cynthia Wands, 2018
Just recently, (and I mean just in the last few weeks), I began to feel hopeful about the changes in store for this year.
I started listening to the NPR news on the radio on my drive home from work, after swearing off from it last year.
After a year long quarantine (Eric has been going through a tough chemotherapy schedule), we started going out in the world again. We’ve seen two movies, and went for a long hike. It felt like waking up in daylight after being in the dark last year.
I’m seeing women reach for political office, and stand up with persistence and courage to change our leadership.
And reading the messages about the #MeToo movement, and the illumination of how women have been treated, gives me hope that the world will be seen through different eyes. (“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” I don’t know who said that it – but I love that idea.) I can see that audiences and directors and theaters will be changing in the way women are portrayed, and directed and who the leaders are.
So I have to be hopeful. I know that history and health issues can change in a moment, but I’m reaching out in my world to belong to more of the present moment.
(It took me several hours to come up with that last sentence, I kept changing it, so I can see there will be some balancing to be done with that assignment…)
I’m making a plan to see more plays, more readings, more artwork, more friends this year.
I hope this next year finds new adventures for all of you, and I look forward to seeing your work, and watching this year unfold.
I watched the full moon rise on New Year’s Day here in Los Angeles.
It seemed a comforting presence after a year of loss and gain, and I could feel how much I’ve changed just by seeing it again.
2017 was a year of firsts for me: First production of a play I wrote, first hip replacement, first draft of a play based on some rumored family history.
And that first production of my play changed me.
After many years of writing and workshops and reading, I finally had the opportunity for a script of mine to be produced, and it was a surreal experience. I had an incredible director, who was able to see more things in my script than I did. And I was able to travel to the theater to see the auditions, and the table read, and some rehearsals, and the final dress and the opening night. The progression was so…wondrous. I saw the young woman in the play blossom on stage into a character with humor and gumption and vulnerability. She brought things to the role that really delighted me. I was reminded about the gift and generosity of actors.
I also saw the leading young man in the play bring his character to an unexpected performance: he was hilarious. I didn’t know how hilarious the character was until he showed me. A lot of this I bring to the actor’s vulnerability and charm (he doesn’t even know how charming he is – which is why is so charming). But it was also the director’s instincts to pull out this performance – she knew how to bring the subtly and outrageous behaviors together. Her vision of the characters brought them to life – and I know how lucky I am to have had her direct this script.
I didn’t expect to feel such a sense of loss after the play closed, these characters had been running around in my head for years, and then they showed up, celebrated the humor and romance of my imagination, and then they left.
I also had to cope with the focus and limelight of being the playwright, and I found that I need to shoulder that a bit better. I was overwhelmed by the positive experience, it was hard to take it all in. On closing night, the director brought me onstage, and I was able to stand onstage with the cast and the director and bask in the limelight. (Even now as I write this it doesn’t seem real, but there were photographs, so I know I didn’t make that up.)
So a dream came true last year – my work was seen and I heard an audience laugh and groan and applaud the characters.
That was a wonderful part of last year. I’m so grateful to be able to have had that experience, and it means writing the next script.
More on that later.
I’m the woman in black, with the cane and roses and the lost look on her face.
A few months ago I read a wonderful account of Sarah Ruhl accepting the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award.
This was just a few weeks after the election results and I was fighting through hopelessness and fury. Not great companions – hopelessness and fury. They tend to fuel one another into that other sense: helplessness.
But her words have stayed with me the last few weeks:
“We write to extend the light of our minds into dark hollows. We write to create and model empathy in a ragged land. We write because our minds can always be free in the face of tyranny. ”
Through this turbulent period of time in our culture, I’m challenged to find that what I’m writing is of value. My humor, my sensibility, my quirks, all seem out of sync with what is happening in our country today, this afternoon, this evening.
But, like most artists I know, I’ve always felt estranged from the mainstream culture – and so I’ll continue on this next writing project – not knowing if it really reflects this period of time we’re going through.
I did want to share one other piece of Sarah’s speech, that reflects the financial reality of today’s successful playwright:
“On the morning of the day when I heard about this award, I realized I was about to bounce a check I’d just made out to my babysitter. Walking to the bank to get her a money order, I thought, oh dear. That afternoon, on the phone, I learned of this award and wept with joy and surprise.”
In two weeks, I’ll be in another place. I’ll be sitting at a table, listening to the read through for the first production of my play, THE LOST YEARS.
The Contra Costa Civic Theatre is producing a premier of this work – after I’ve stamped through different venues with three staged readings, two workshops and a couple of years of rewrites, it’s really happening.
In one of those mirror like twists of fate, the director is a friend of mine from many years ago. Last year year she directed a staged reading of the play for her theater’s new works project. I saw how respectful she was of the actors during the process, and how she was able to guide nuance and intelligence into lines that didn’t quite look that way when I wrote them.
After the read through, I had to go home and get back on the path of submitting the script to theaters, and workshops, and festivals. I did feel a bit like Mama Rose yelling: Sell it! Dammit, just sell it!
But in the best dramatic fashion, late one night last year I received a phone call. And it was my director, who let me know that a scheduled play for their 2017 season had become unavailable, and could they produce my play instead.
I think I yelled YES. I might have cried, I don’t know how professional that is. But I was tingling like I had been dusted with lightning. One of the best phone calls I have ever had.
And so, here we are months later, about to embark on this journey with the script.
The play is cast, the other theater artists have been assembled, and now we have the time to read it, and rehearse and learn from one another. I’ll get to watch a few of the rehearsals.
I’m so grateful to have this experience. I have no idea how it will sound/play/resolve itself. It is after all, a comedy. You know what they say about comedy. (Dying is easy, comedy is hard.)
I’m feeling such a need for important plays in the world right now; about our leadership and our climate and the future of women, that to have a comedy try and tinkle out the laughs, seems a bit off for the times.
But personally, I’m also feeling the effects of compassion fatigue/outrage and I could use a dose of knowing laughter.
So I’m getting a wish to come true. I’d love to hear any advice from other women playwrights about their first production: was there anything you wish had or had not done for your first show?