On Sea-Monkeys, Monologues + Producing Your Own Work

by Chelsea Sutton

I love a good monologue. My first full length play, 99 Impossible Things, was FULL of them. Too many, in fact. Far too many. I directed and produced that play in January and February of 2011, and at the time I was working at Garry Marshall’s theatre in the Valley. He read the play, and, in a few margin notes, reminded me that while monologues are great, don’t underestimate the power of a look or a gesture or silence to express everything a half page monologue can, almost always more succinctly, and sometimes in a way that words can never reach.

I’ve tried to keep that in mind when approaching each new play; though I never write a play without that ONE monologue. I have to have ONE somewhere. Maybe it’s a bad habit.

Harold and the Sea Monkey in 99 Impossible Things.

It’s now been 10 years since 99, the first thing I directed and produced and wrote in LA. The first thing that was unequivocally mine. There was nowhere for me to hide. Even though I had amazing collaborators, designers, and actors, there was no doubt that this THING you were seeing would be blamed on me.

Let’s be clear that it wasn’t a particularly good play. It was probably too long. It probably had too many characters and storylines. The monologues, as much as I still love them, were a bit on the nose. Playwright me NOW would rip it apart.

A sea monkey was a character. And it was about a group of people processing grief. 

The critics as a whole did not enjoy this play. And I got a lot of crap for being 25 and having the gall to both write AND direct a play while being a woman. I had to process the feeling of working very hard and putting my own money and all this time into something that could be so easily dismissed. But it was an exercise in gratitude. 

People were coming and watching and having thoughts about the play, after all. Writing things about it. Spending their time on it. It’s really the most a writer ever wants. I made a lot of people cry at the end of the play. Always my goal. I did have a lot of people personally tell me how much they connected to it, enjoyed it, were touched by it.  So while I didn’t get a critic’s choice in the LA Times, I got encouragement to keep going, and a lesson in the importance of and sticky art of criticism.

One of the best notes I got was from a professional psychologist, a family friend, who told me how truthful it was, to the process, to grieving specifically, and how could I already know those things?

My answer right now is that I think most of us already know these things in our bones. Some of us are forced to confront things sooner than some. And some spend their whole lives avoiding the silence that will make them have to face, well…anything uncomfortable.

In the play, the most uncomfortable character comes in the form of a Sea Monkey, who silently haunts the character of Harold, and whose silence and final lines of the play speak volumes more than many of the monologues. A Sea Monkey who represents something that was lost, something that will never return, no matter how much you want it.

This is a piece of a monologue from the play that feels most resonant right now to me: 

“There’s this spot on the wall in my kitchen – I have this awful olive green paisley wall paper from the ‘60s that was there when I moved in – and there’s this spot where the seam is, where they ran outta paper and patched it, and the design doesn’t quite match up, the little dots and twirls just end abruptly, sorta lost to the infinite void all of a sudden. That’s how things are usually – there’s no smooth exit, no gradient shading us out. So whenever I feel like I might explode, I sit on the counter and I stare at that spot in the kitchen, and I try forget.” – Harold, 99 Impossible Things

I feel like I’m living in that weird patched up wallpaper right now. And, unlike my character Harold, I’m trying not to forget.

To make sure I don’t forget, I decided to create and produce a play again on my own. Well, a kind of play. A play through the mail. A play made up of interactive fiction, audio drama, found objects, and phone calls. A “play” of disparate voices, alone, trying to find what is lost.

An image from Spite & Malice, the postal play.

I’m a little bit terrified of putting this into the world. It’s deeply personal, I’m processing things as I’m creating, and it’s a kind of thing I haven’t really created before. It doesn’t feel particularly safe. I can’t promise anything when it comes to the outcome.

But when I did 99, it was also new to me. I’d written it as a final project in college and my little theatre group and I put up our college production. That was scary, but it was a safe space. I could easily dismiss it as a thesis, as a work in progress. Producing it as a main stage show in 2011 seemed to be saying: hey all, come look, this is finished, come have thoughts.

And so, here I am again.

And yeah, there will be monologues.

Perhaps, though we need a reminder from the Great himself:

I had a reviewer friend come see 99 and wrote me an email comparing it to The Time of Your Life by Saroyan. I still have not read that play, but I offer this quote, to those who could use it. It is a cousin in sentiment to a the Mary Oliver poem “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver, which I read at my grandmother’s funeral on December 23, 2020:

In the time of your life, live—so that in that good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches…Have no shame in being kindly and gentle but if the time comes in the time of your life to kill, kill and have no regret…In the time of your life, live—so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the infinite delight and mystery of it.” ― The Time Of Your Life

I have no concluding thought for this. This monologue has already been long enough. There is, perhaps, no conclusion to draw from the moment we’re all in except to keep creating, keep living, keep doing and being the best you can.

3 thoughts on “On Sea-Monkeys, Monologues + Producing Your Own Work

  1. I love this, Chelsea. It made me hope in this small place where hope was trying to seep out and away from me. Oh, my. ..such words. I love monologues too; this one is exquisite. Thank you.

  2. A great article here, thank you for sharing your experience (especially with monologues!)

  3. Thank you for this, my friend. My brave and brilliant friend. You continue to inspire me.

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