Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sausage Gets Made, continued [All's Fair (Six Western)]

Part of COItc's pipeline for 2010-2011 includes development of the new play All's Fair (Six Western), the recipient of a performance residency at Centrum (Port Townsend WA). Throughout the year, we hope to post the thoughts of various members of the development team and track its progress.

Below, the playwright continues to recall some of the thought process behind the work. (Part One is here.)

I'm not quite sure how Neil Patterson came into being. He's not based on any one person. As depressing as it is to think that we've not been at war in Iraq and Afghanistan long enough to subdivide it into eras, there was a time in the first stages after the fall of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban when the overwhelming narrative was that of soldiers and contractors kidnapped and executed by insurgents. (It's still happening, but we don't pay much attention anymore.)

The story then was that of the armed forces of a helpless giant besieged on all sides by hostile Lilliputians who would be our undoing through many isolated--albeit barbaric--fatalities. Vietnam redux.

What struck me was how quickly those hostages disappeared from our collective view after their deaths or repatriations. Their only value was when they were in the most distress; we considered very little for them or their families after the crisis was over, one way or another. This is to be expected in our celebrity-addled times, but it seemed particularly psychotic when it came to things like war. Trapped coal miners and babies dropped down wells might be satisfied, even eager, to return to obscurity after their rescue. If the traumas of returning soldiers were anything to go on (another largely ignored narrative, because untidy), those held hostage by Islamic extremists and lucky enough to escape might have a bit more difficulty readjusting.

And while there were events in the news that no doubt inspired the plot, but the real backbone of the play, the real thrust behind the writing, were the characters around Neil, and my experience bringing them to life made me throw this script in a drawer for two years.

Some of the dialogue for my scripts starts as disembodied voices arguing in my head. My favorite parts of All's Fair (Six Western) were born when I started hearing Emily, Jane, and Cherien sparring in the back of my head beyond my control. So, like I always do, I just started transcribing their argument and tried to drape a story around them.

There was something different this time in their voices, though: I was hearing the distinct characteristics of specific actors I'd worked with -- this was something new.

I got into playwriting, if it can be believed, for more egotistical and self-serving reasons than the ones I have for pursuing it: I begin writing lines for my own voice, trying to give myself the parts I wasn't finding in auditions. (The Third Seat was assembled from the zombified remains of my first ever attempt at playwriting in 2003; the first draft was truly cringe-worthy.)

For the first time, the characters I started developing for AF(SW) weren't abstract -- they were based on performers I truly enjoyed working with; sentence cadences were starting to mold to their habits -- for more practiced playwrights I know that this is not an epiphany, but I felt like a painter discovering a whole new kind of brush; it was exhilarating.

I hastily slapped together a draft and dragged some actors into a studio. From 2003 to 2007 I had used the page as my primary laboratory, but after Danish I couldn't even get a full picture of the piece without hearing it out loud. And in the writing for this one, I had literally composed it for specific performers. It was inconceivable that the process could go one more step without their input. These were characters for them; was like a tailor assembling the materials for a custom-made suit: I needed measurements, color swatches, allergies.

So it was a special thud in the pit of my stomach when one of the performers for whom I'd written a role flipped the last page over and said, I don't really get it.
Laurel Lockhart and Roy Clary at the Third Seat first read. This is after I started photographing the carnage.

The first problem was probably that I had tried to drape the script over the episodic roll-out I'd conceived as a way to enhance an audience's engagement with the production. Trying to make a story that ostensibly would unfold over the course of two hours sustain itself for four weeks is a challenge in and of itself, compounded by the fact that my writing style in the best of times tends to be rather condensed. A frequent complaint from actors is that I often don't provide enough of a justification in text for the leaps of faith and about-faces my characters make.

Since my instinct was to be the anti-soap opera (half-submerged objectives, quick changes, non sequiturs), how could I have plausibly created a script that was, for all intents and purposes, a live soap opera?

The short answer is that I hadn't. But I thought I did. There, on the second page, was a pretentiously worded breakdown of pages, purposely indecipherable because even I didn't know that it meant:
But it sure looked like I knew what I was doing. Until we were done reading and people started asking questions.

So -- the first week -- people just leave after page 67? And then they come back and don't have any idea what's going on?

This character doesn't do anything. There's no justification for her making this choice.

I don't get it.

This was my first experience with developing a piece with other people; up until now I had worked in seclusion, not showing drafts to anyone else, and in my one single experience of producing, had held all the purse strings, and thus had final say. I had never opened my scripts up for scrutiny before we had a chance to rehearse and refine. And yet I had thought in my arrogance that these performers would be so flattered by my writing for them that they would not see this first draft for the flawed text that it was.

I had a lot to learn. A lot to process and refine. A lot of ways to get better. So, I did what any mature and self-possessed artist would do.

I threw the script in a drawer and left it there for two years.

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