And what was the problem?

by Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko

I met a playwright at a party, she was half-dead. She wasn’t drinking. But she was having trouble keeping the lines on her face in order. “Are you okay,” I said. I didn’t ask, even nodded my head. She was neck-to-toe in grey, and I was at the top of a staircase, so I figured we might have an understanding.

She explained that she couldn’t get a grip on her personal statement – which sounds much like one doesn’t know who she is, doesn’t it? No, in her applications to the litany of must-get-ins, into which she presumably never got, it’s that she never felt she knew what they wanted. They. Narrow or broad. Long or short. Casual or formal. Specific or general.

She was in between what we un-ironically call submission deadlines and had come to the soiree to escape the uncertainty, but it was not working. Amid all of the faces, smirking, wowing, grimacing, scanning as they encountered other faces, foods and beverages, she was again and constantly faced with “what do they want?” Really want. Tremendous, the secrets these expressions hold. On the face, and on the paper. Describe your role . . .

What do they want? Same question. Similarly unknown people. The sort found in theatre companies, non-profits, corporations, audiences, cities, parties. People.

It was driving her crazy. I asked her, more flippantly than planned, what it was like to care that much. And at 40+, at which point it’s all, I’m told by numerous magazines, water insouciantly dripping from a duck? It was meant to empower her.

She was unamused. “You wouldn’t be here, if you didn’t have the same problem.” Quietly, I considered the nature of my work and almost conceded but then wondered where “here” was. The staircase? The party? The conversation? California? And what, in fact, was the problem? I didn’t decide. I sat next to her, and we said nothing further. Our eyes in tandem, we peered out into the sea of secret wants as the flock of corresponding faces dwindled to fewer and fewer still, maybe mystified.

Then we went home, at least I did, and wrote a play, along with an accompanying statement, about nothing. Except the things I wanted to know more intimately.