Opening Address to Students at LEAP
November 14, 2015: Shawn Macdonald invited me to speak to participants in LEAP, which he runs with Christine Quintana at Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre. It’s a training unit for playwrights ages 15–23, culminating in public readings in April–May.
[I draw a straight chalk line across the floor between the students and me.]
What did I do just now? Three things.
1) By drawing this line, I divided the space. You are on one side of the line, and I am on the other. I am the player, and you are the audience. It's interesting that sports have spectators (from the Latin word meaning "to see"), whereas theatre, like all performing arts, has an audience (from the Latin word meaning "to hear"). The fact that this is a straight line makes no difference. A straight line has become the default setting in theatres, basically because five hundred years ago some French aristocrats got tired of playing tennis and had to use all those old rectangle-shaped courts for something. (I'm not kidding: look it up.) I could have drawn a thrust stage instead—
[I change the chalk line to a thrust.]
I could also have drawn a circle and asked you to gather around, like a busker. The shape of the line is not important. The number of people on either side is not important. What's important is that I'm asking you, for a period of time, to turn off your goddamn cell phone and pay attention to what's happening on the other side of this line. The bargain I make with you is that I'm going to do everything in my power to make it worth your while. And that's theatre.
2) By drawing this line, I created a game. Your child self understood that without having to be told. Your child self is immediately engaged in trying to figure the game out: is it a new game? Is it a game I know already? How do we play? Isn't it interesting, by the way, that all artists can create a work of art, and so do playwrights: but we are the only ones who make a play. So: theatre is a game with rules. Different genres of theatre, like Kabuki or verbatim, can impose their own parameters. (Think of the kind or genre of theatre as being like a deck of cards. You can play all kinds of games with that deck, you can add cards or take them away or set them on fire... but it's still cards and not backgammon.) The playwright designs the particular game that the actors, director, designers, and audience will play.
The game is… Two kids from warring families fall in love... in iambic pentameter.
The game is… Tell the story of a man who cannot choose between his male lover and his female lover. Use "no set, no furniture, no props, no mime.”
3) By drawing this line, I created a sense of mystery. Not a big mystery, just enough to make you want to know what happens next. And that, my friends, is the cornerstone of playwriting.
So, how did I get into this playwright racket? Well, I grew up in rural Ontario in a village of five hundred people. At the time I wrote my first musical—which I performed for our school at the request of nobody, with the grudging consent of our teachers—I had never seen a play. I got my friend to play my original songs on the school piano; I built a puppet theatre out of a cardboard box; I made paper puppets on popsicle sticks. For my next show I persuaded some reluctant classmates to say my lines and walk around at one end of the classroom. Why did I do it? Probably because it was a safe way of getting attention, not the usual unwelcome ways in which a nerd kid in a rural community finds herself getting attention. But also because theatre is the way in which I process the world. So, even before it existed in my world, I found it necessary to invent it.
Like most Canadian playwrights, I started as an actor. It's an all-consuming profession, and it took several years and a long dry spell between parts before I realized that I'd stopped writing and I missed it and PS, the parts for women sucked and there weren't enough of them and surely I could do something about that. So I saved up enough money to take five weeks off my temp job, and I told myself: "Write a first draft of something, find out if you have anything to say. And if you don't, then shut up about it." I holed up in a room of our apartment, writing and writing. I did not allow myself to reread what I had written. I wrote a first draft that was a hundred and seventy pages long. It had ten women in five interconnected story lines. It was awful, and only my husband has ever seen it, but there was some stuff buried in there that was not too bad. I crushed it down into a second draft that had eight characters and four story lines, and then started showing it to people, and it eventually became my first produced play, The Vic.
[S]omething had happened in that rehearsal room. It's like you've got this invisible friend who's been following you around, and you confide in some other people and instead of treating you like a wacko they invite the invisible friend in for cocktails, find her some awesome vintage clothes, introduce her to their friends, and take her dancing.
I wish I could say that it became a monster hit and was translated into forty-seven languages and that I was the toast of Broadway. That didn't happen. So there was a lot of hard slogging to get to my next production. But something had happened to me in that rehearsal room and in the audience. In the rehearsal room... well, I don't need to tell you a lot about what that's like, because you've either experienced it or are about to experience it for yourselves. Having all of these wickedly smart, charismatic people going to town on something that existed only in your head a short time ago is exhilarating and seductive. It's like you've got this invisible friend who's been following you around, and you decide to confide in some other people that this is happening: and instead of treating you like a wacko, they invite the invisible friend in for cocktails, find her some awesome vintage clothes, introduce her to their friends, and take her dancing. The sad part is that one day she's going to go dancing without you. But that's also the miraculous part. Something that was a nebulous ghost in your head has become embodied and is having an effect in the real world. You're like Dr. Frankenstein, but in a good way.
The other thing happened when I was sitting in the audience. Despite a strong cast, this was a troubled production, and who knows, maybe the script wasn't as hot shit as I thought it was. But our first preview, which was full of students from my old university, was electric. These young people saw past the lovely set that made entrances and exits excruciatingly awkward; past a brilliant actress, hopelessly miscast; past the numerous bits of overwriting; straight through to what I was trying to talk about with the play, around violence and power and how women are full and complicated beings capable of good and terrible things, far beyond the usual theatrical bitch fights over some man. Above all, they were all so ready to hear what we were talking about: and in our talkback, so grateful to dig into it for themselves. I think that they are the ones who set me irrevocably on this road.. I hope you will all go on writing after this experience, but even if you don't, here is something to keep in mind: that audience was as much part of the creative process as I was. They co-created the experience of that play on that particular night: they also created a playwright. To be an audience at the theatre is to participate in the creative act.
At your first reading or your first performance, you may barf. A lot. When you get that cold clammy vomity vibe and that ringing in your ears, just try to breathe through it and remember: it will pass, and it's not you. It's just the gig.
Incidentally, at your first reading or your first performance, you may barf. A lot. You may spend these next few months alternating between "I am the greatest genius in the history of the theatre" and "I am a tiny speck of poo on the bottom of these people's shoes, and now they're going to figure that out, oh God, help me Mommy." When you get that cold clammy vomity vibe and that ringing in your ears, just try to breathe through it and remember: it will pass, and it doesn't mean anything. It's not you. It's just the gig.
Yes. The gig. We're game makers. Our tools are words, but they are also time, space, and surprise. The nature of our games is that we share their playing as well as their creation... and then we give them away.
At times, I describe playwrights as the architects of houses that we will never live in. Other people build the house: they may have to adjust our blueprints when they find there's no gravel under the foundations and the family now has five kids instead of three; and they may add their own creativity, from the frames to the finishes. The joy of our task is in knowing that, when we've done it well, other people will have a place to live.
But the game designer is a pretty good metaphor, too. The trick is to create a game where everything seems fresh and surprising, but also satisfying and right, so that the surprises feel true, not like you are just changing the rules to solve your writing problems. That's like playing a game with your little brother who keeps announcing, "No, because then space aliens come down and save me from your queen-bishop attack so I'm safe and I win." Deeply frustrating. We need to let the audience know what the rules of the game are as quickly and invisibly as possible; play the game out to the end; then stop.
By the way, that can take a while to learn: knowing when the game is over. In my most-performed play, Schoolhouse, there's a mysterious boy who appears about fifteen minutes in; plays out a conflict with the heroine; then leaves. My first draft was about ninety pages long, but as far as I was concerned, that was Act I. I planned to chop it down by half, because I had a whole bunch of stuff that was going to happen in Act II. Then my dramaturg read what I thought was my partial draft and told me, no, that's your play. But, I said. But nothing, she said. "Once that boy leaves the stage, we stop caring. Wrap it up." And she was right. If you try to go past the natural resolution, the audience will make an ending for you, by clapping at a scene change or by checking out.
Of course, beginnings are no picnic either. Schoolhouse originally began with a song by the whole company; then a monologue by the lead; then a scene introducing the other characters. You see? Three beginnings. It wasn't until first preview when I saw it in front of an audience that I was able to say, "They're doing a great job, but that first act never lifts off; it just keeps lumbering down the runway. Why is that?" And the director said, "Well, there is the fact that you don't need the song."
My wonderful director then panics as she realizes I'm going to ask her to cut the song, which she has staged, rehearsed the shit out of, and built the score around. Our first-rate but exhausted company is stunned when we announce the change. "I'm so sorry," I tell them. "But it's going to make your job so much easier when you don't have to carry the weight of that endless opening. I wish I'd gotten smart earlier, but this is when I got smart." The cast did the cut, and the show, finally, took flight.
Then, of course, there's the middle of the play. Oh, the middle. Well, that's what you have the next few months for. The only thoughts I have about middles are:
(1) Information management: when and how you let the audience know a thing, is as crucial to sustaining their involvement as what the thing is; and
(2) See above re: making them want to know what happens next.
And that's about all I have to tell you about writing a play.
Before I go, though, I do want to get a few things straight. Number one: as far as your mother is concerned—as far as most of my family is concerned—I am an abject failure. I don't have a house, a car, or a pension. I don't have children. I am not rich. I am not famous. I have not met Brad Pitt. You haven't seen my plays. You've probably never even heard of them. They have never won a prize. Who knows if they will still be read or performed in ten years, in fifty years. I am sometimes extremely lonely and extremely unhappy.
What I'm here to tell you is, that's not the point. Last month, in London, England, I saw a hypermodern, brilliant take on The Oresteia of the Greek playwright Aeschylus. It featured Iraq war references, video projections, and the devastating onstage execution of an eight-year-old girl by her father. If Aeschylus himself had been sitting next to me, watching that play, 2,500 years later, in a language he had never heard, using technology he could not have imagined, in a style he would have barely recognized as theatre, chances are that he would have done this:
[I clutch my head.]
"What the Actual Fuck?"
And then that he would have had a moment of recognition…
And then that he would have wept with bewilderment, gratitude, and pride.
A few days before that, in another part of London, I was sitting in the audience for the world premiere of my own take on ancient Greek mythology: Ulla's Odyssey, an award-winning opera by New Zealand composer Anthony Young for which I had written the libretto. With that familiar good ol' barfy feeling in my throat, I observed as rows of small children on beanbags, watched by their parents on uncomfortable theatre chairs, sat rooted to the spot by this gender-switched tale of a brave and plucky girl daring goddesses and sea monsters and all the dangers of the ocean in a bid to sail around the world. The music was spellbinding; the designs were simple yet spectacular; the puppetry and performances, enchanting; and we were witnessing youngsters experiencing live performance for the very first time. They were mesmerized. It filled a need in them that they didn't even know they had. It transported them to a new place that was always within them and that they didn't know existed. And all because four years earlier,I picked up a pen and started.
Listen to your teachers and collaborators to learn about the craft, to grow. But listen also to your invisible friend, to the still, small voice inside you saying, ‘Yes, that's it. No, that's not it at all.’ That's your play talking. That's your artistic voice.
Do me a favor, will you? For the next few months, commit to finding out what it is you've got inside you, which you can only do by sharing it, then letting it go. Have the humility and strength to listen to your teachers and collaborators, really listen; to learn about the craft; to grow. But listen also to your invisible friend, to the still, small voice inside you saying, "Yes, that's it. No, that's not it at all." That's your play talking. That's your artistic voice. It will get stronger the more you honour it and exercise it; and in the end, it's all you've got; and the only one who can hear it, is you.
If the page is blank, fill it.
If the stage is empty, people it.
When the theatre is locked and they won't let you in, or you can't get the people to come into the theatre, you'll just have to busk it in the street.
Because the impulse that brought you here? That impulse is your voice, your invisible friend, and once it leaves your body, you can't just stuff it back in.
I can't promise you it'll turn out awesome for you. There's only one thing I can promise you. Decades from now, when you're lying on your deathbed, the one thing you are not going to say is: "Thank God I didn't write that play."
The opposite of theatre is boredom.
The opposite of theatre is silence.
The opposite of theatre is permanence.
The opposite of theatre is death.
By standing up and staking your claim—the way you are doing just by being here and performing this radical act of writing a world into being—you are fighting them all. It doesn't matter if it's coming directly out of your imagination, or out of your life, or out of your ass: you have crossed the line, and you are one of us.
[I erase the chalk line between us.]
If this is your first time, I welcome you. If this is your last time, I salute you. In the meantime, fight the good fight. Take your stand. Be brave. Leap.