To Patience

By Chelsea Sutton

In 2023, I wrote two full plays. Which, in theory, shouldn’t be HUGE for me. For about four years, 2014-2018, I wrote 2-3 full lengths a year. Some of them good (O’Neill finalists, etc.) some of them bad (let’s not talk about them). I never went to grad school for theatre, nor was it my undergrad focus. Like many of us, I just learned by MAKING SHIT. When I first moved to LA, I wrote monologues and one acts and did the weird, late-night bullshit in black box theatres, the kind where you cut your teeth to sharp points of theatrical nonsense, especially when you’re not tied to some fancy theatre school. While I wrote one full length a year in 2012 and 2013, I look at the massive uptick of WRITING from 2014-2018 as my real playwriting education.

But from 2019 to 2022, I couldn’t seem to write a play that made any sense. I truly thought I’d forgotten how to do this. I’d written my first one act as an 18 year old, my first full length in my senior year of college. And then suddenly, I just forget?

Maybe I never knew how to do this. Maybe I was a fraud.

A real picture of me as a real playwright.

Something happened to my brain in 2018 that fundamentally changed my playwriting process. I can’t pin point what, exactly. One big shift is that I was in grad school at the time for fiction writing – I’ve always been a multi-genre writer, and starting in 2016 I’d shifted some of my energy to developing that voice as well. I also shifted out of having a full time job – and haven’t gone back since.

I don’t know if those shifts had an affect. But suddenly I was approaching my plays from BIG IDEAS rather than from character or images, like my plays did during that four year education. From an adaptation of Frankenstein to a comedy about censorship to historical preservation through the lens of a dying mall – I felt like suddenly everything I’d taught myself didn’t apply anymore. These things were too big and massive – I couldn’t find my way through them to find the heart of the story. And the plays fell flat or remained confusingly chaotic or were left unfinished (I’ll blame the pandemic on that last one).

Something that felt like a huge part of my identity suddenly felt completely inaccessible.

But this year I wrote TWO plays. One I’m very proud of, one I’m very excited about because of its chaos. Whatever was rewiring in my brain between 2019 and now finally finished its work (until it has to rewire again – which, now that I know what it feels like, I’m sure will happen again). What was happening during that time, I think, is that I was synthesizing everything I’d learned from my MAKING SHIT education while combining it with my growing fiction skills and my arts leadership experiences that were putting many things into stark relief.

This was ANOTHER kind of education, I now realize. Having patience with myself. Having faith that “your process” is ever changing and growing and expanding, and that some plays you might need to WRITE in order to understand something, even if that play goes into a drawer or transforms into something else entirely. Two of my drawer plays will be transformed into novellas — the stage, I realize, is not the container they need. One play is transforming from a large immersive show into a two-person play. Another will be shedding it’s big ideas in favor of an entirely new subject that emerged from the writing and the characters.

It is hard to have patience with yourself, especially when it feels like everyone around you is shooting into the stratosphere, that they have their work figured out and have no doubts about their abilities or their rightful place in the industry. I spent most of the last two years convinced I no longer belonged, that theatre was lost to me.

I had deadlines and a strong need to prove something this year. But I had to also make patience a part of the practice. Maybe it was the thing missing all along.

Probably the only thing missing. For sure.

Just two weeks ago, I visited the South Dakota State University Department of Theatre for their second new works festival. Me and two other professional playwrights had readings of our plays, performed by the (awesome) students and directed by their (amazing) faculty. My play, THE DEAD WOMAN, was first written in (oh god) 2012, with readings and workshops in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2018, and during three of the four I did significant rewrites. Going into this reading, I was trying to approach it with patience – patience for my past, younger self, and patience for myself right now, who wanted to fix the play to perfection, to prove that it has earned the right to a production someday (hopefully). I did rewrite the ending and have some other trimming things to do – but what was so lovely about approaching the process with PATIENCE is that I could see my heart in the words – the heart of my 20-something self wrestling with big ideas and big feelings – and hear the response of the 20-somethings in the audience and in the cast.

And by rediscovering my love of these characters through these students, I could also reach through time to love myself too. Something that evades me most days. The act of falling in love with yourself is not one of ego or self-obsession – but of grace and care and patience.

In 2024, I hope you will honor whatever part of the process you’re in. I hope you will give yourself patience. I hope you will fall in love with your own heart again.

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