Engaging with your past writer self

by Chelsea Sutton

In September, I had the odd experience of seeing a play of mine produced. It was odd because I, frankly, am not used to people wanting to produce my work! It was also odd because I was not in the rehearsal room for this and had minimal interaction with the actors and director outside of a super sweet Zoom chat and a few exchanges with questions about the text. Also it was in Ohio and I’ve never been to Ohio or know anyone really in Ohio so that is odd in itself.

The play was The Graveyard Shift, which I wrote in the playwrights group at Skylight Theatre where we did a workshop of it in their LabWorks festival. That was in 2015.

Dev (Ben Wayne) grabs a nap during his late night shift at Sparky’s Burger Barn in The Graveyard Shift.

I’ve always felt really good about this play. We worked hard on that workshop to make sure it worked as well as it possibly could in that truncated experience. It is a very different piece from a lot of my other work – it’s a straight up comedy that becomes completely absurd, and while it might get dark it ultimately ends in hope. I have a soft spot for it. It was a finalist for the Reva Shiner Comedy Award too! But as many of us know, comedy is not generally in demand as far as new work development goes.

So walking into MADLab in Columbus, OH, I felt I was encountering not only a new company of artists I didn’t know, who had for some reason decided they believed in this play, but also another artist I thought I knew but hadn’t necessarily chatted with in quite some time: the playwright ME of 2015.

Casey (Dana Baumen) inspires her employees in The Graveyard Shift.

I was terrified, to say the least. I was planning to watch all three shows that weekend, but what if I hated it? Not necessarily what the artists were doing, but what if I hated ME and the work I thought was important seven years ago? (HOW IS IT 7 YEARS??)

Marley (Laura Falb) wonders how she ended up here in The Graveyard Shift.

I was surprised that I still liked that play. I mean I had read it since 2015, I have started adapting it into a film, I FELT good about it, but its something else to see it come alive in other artists’ hands, see what people outside of your head do with what you put on the page.

Once I let go of the lonely tension in my body that came from walking into the unknown in a town where I knew no one, I learned a lot sitting in that theatre three days in a row. I had notes for my past writer self – trims, tighter jokes, moments where I could feel myself trying to PROVE I was a playwright with deep thoughts, of course. But I learned that 1) I have grown as a writer and a critic of my own work (there have been doubts), 2) I could see the shifts of comedic timing and tone over the three nights which could help me strengthen certain structures on the page, and 3) I don’t want to ever feel as if I have to PROVE I am a playwright again.

(Also I re-learned to NOT read reviews – the one review we got loved everything about the production except my writing, which I processed before seeing the second show by crying a little and then watching Hoarders on repeat.)

The Robber (Colleen Underwood) hides in The Graveyard Shift.

There was this time in my playwriting life when I felt like I had to continually prove I was a playwright, that I deserved to be in whatever room I was in (however insignificant). I felt watched and judged and there wasn’t a ton of room to not get things right (and I often didn’t get things right). I had about 7 years there when I was writing 2 new plays a year. I was trying to keep up with what felt like the industry demanded for creation, and for myself to keep growing with each play and prove over an over that I can do this.

I recently went back to the last play I wrote in my third year at the Skylight PlayLab in 2016. Again, one I had fond memories of, which felt like a play that was inching toward some “voice” that I was maybe developing then. But looking at it again, I felt this deep sickness in my stomach. More so than The Graveyard Shift, I felt like this play was trying to be ALL things: a comedy, a horror, and a “serious” play. Every page, every sentimental monologue felt like the playwright ME of 2016 saying “hey look world – do you see? See how I’m writing the shit out of this play!” I was trying so hard with it. I know people responded to it at the time when we had our reading. But when I read it now, all I see is a writer who feels like she’s maybe realizing what she wants to write, but doesn’t know how to do it in a way that feels serious enough or important enough for Theatre to care.

The year before that messy play I had created The Graveyard Shift and got it pretty close to production ready in a short period of time. But it was a comedy and folks were confused. It is the one play of mine that is unapologetically itself. But for whatever reason I felt I had to follow that up with something more serious, a play that really had to say something. And everything I had to say didn’t feel good enough.

After 2016, most of my energy went into writing immersive work, going to an MFA to work on my fiction, starting to direct again after taking a break in 2014, and learning audio and screenwriting. Plays have been hard to write over the last few years because I’m still in the mindset of proving something. Of needing every play to be all things to everyone.

So while I have notes for my 2015 ME, I feel like she had more notes to give to NOW ME. Twist!

“Remember when this was fun?” she said. “Remember how you channeled your feelings into these characters and it felt real and you fell in love with them?” she said. “Remember how by writing broken characters in the way that you are broken and then falling in love with them while you see them on stage is a kind of way of falling in love with yourself? And that maybe you haven’t felt love for yourself in a while?” she said.

Here’s the real thing I learned, though.

After the last show I saw, I got to talk a little more with the actors and director. And I heard different ways they each needed to do this play at this moment in time. This play reflected their lives and emotions and worries in ways that 2015 ME couldn’t have predicted – with thousands of miles and seven years between us. It’s not a perfect play and I will never be a perfect playwright or perhaps never even a good one – but at the very least this play right now offered a joy and a balm to the artists and maybe some of the audience too. And definitely for me. And maybe that’s enough. That’s all we’re trying to do in the end, right?

I didn’t think this is where I was going with this blog. I thought I’d just write a nice little recap of a production and talk about how Karma handed my ass to me by making me slip and fall on the condiments and crap that littered the floor by the end of the play as a kind of punishment from the stage management gods, or how I’d successfully both humiliated myself and gotten a bad review within 36 hours of being in Ohio…

But instead, I guess, I should just shut the fuck up and go write some broken characters to fall in love with.

the stage management gods will fuck you up.

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