Rhetoric Random

Rabbi Zusya of Tarnopol told his disciples, “In the world to come, they will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ They will ask me, ‘Why weren’t you Zusya?’”

 

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I'm an old dramaturg, a Yalie, a “Brustein baby,” a survivor of literary departments in theatres large and small, in the United States and in Canada. I am well versed in great playwrights, not-so-great playwrights, obscure playwrights, and brand new playwrights. When I graduated from drama school, I aspired to become a crusading enemy of mediocre playwrights, routine productions, and all things “McTheater.” But let me tell you, writing plays kicks such self-congratulatory self-deception right in the butt. I know a lot of things, but the lot I don’t know is a lot greater. Playwriting teaches this.

Since I started writing plays, I have learned that I am not a great playwright. In fact, I may not even be a particularly good one, though I've been produced and published and have won a few awards. My talent simply does not match my ambition. The critic inside my head is silent when I finish a draft, only to start chattering again when I reread the draft a few days later. I have made some progress in stifling the subversive little faultfinder; I no longer revise the first scene of a play fifty-five times before moving on to the next scene. I treasure such small victories. Still, self-doubt lurks, plotting sabotage.

What to do?

Stop contemplating my navel and get on with it, that’s what. Imperfect scripts, imperfect productions, the toil of marketing, the annoyance of theatres that solicit scripts and then don’t respond to them, the loss of critical distance, inane comments from well-meaning people in post-show discussions—these are all part of the business, but ultimately they are peripheral.

Speaking to a roomful of dramaturgs, Romulus Linney once said, “Leave us our idiosyncrasies!” I still remember the emotion in his voice. As I write, as I learn to write, as I find that everything I’ve learned in one play may not be useful for the next play.

I have to allow myself my own idiosyncrasies as a playwright, and the only way I can discover what those idiosyncrasies are is to keep writing plays. I can’t judge my own qualities. I’m too close to them, and anyway, I don’t really know what they are. I don’t need to pretend to be an objective viewer of my own work, especially when I haven’t yet created the work I’m pretending to view. That objective mode of relating to plays, though it serves me in certain contexts, is not at all helpful when I’m creating the new universe of a new play.

“New universe” sounds a little grandiose, I know. Yet that’s what I’m trying to do, and so is every other creator of new plays. Yes. Even though the world on stage may often seem to be a mirror image of the “real” world, that’s an illusion. We’ve cut it and dried it and shaped it and pasted it according to our own visions, negotiated it with theatrical conventions like intermissions and the shape of the playhouse, and so on. But every play has its own set of rules, even the most genre-bound. The best directors find the rules behind the rules—but that’s another discussion.

 

I am learning, however, that the apparent conflict between my dramaturgical skills and my playwriting gifts, whatever they are, need not paralyze me. The argument in my head between the creative side and the analytical side of theatre-making is automatically resolved as long as I keep writing plays.

 

Last year, I had a public reading of The Rabbi of Ragged Ass Road, a surreal comedy. Afterwards, audience members asked me what the play was about, what its theme was. I declined to answer, asking them instead what their answers to those questions would be. I didn’t want to offer answers that would simplify their experience, turn the two hours of the reading into a one-line summary of a complex event. This refusal to short-circuit, to tame their messy experience, frustrated some people. One man became quite angry. “You are arrogant!” he shouted. I replied, “Of course I’m arrogant. I’m a playwright. We invent new worlds.” Now, the play in question is complicated, and in any case, a reading isn’t the best place to assess a play’s theatrical possibilities. But I do have to take note of an audience’s hunger for answers, for simple expressions of simple themes. I want to learn from their bewilderment, their understanding, their support for the effort, even their anger. All of that emotion, and the thoughts that followed, went into the revised draft that I am working on now. I hope to get the damned thing right some day.

It’s that dialogue, the one between writer and audience, that ultimately informs the dialogue that my characters speak and the actions they perform, whether to support what they say, contradict it, or both. I don’t write to please an audience, though I hope that some people who see my plays will be pleased; I don’t even write to please myself. I write because the urge to create something new that has never been seen before, that may shine a little light on our confused and confusing lives, has dragged me away from the relative safety of dramaturgy toward the edge of the known dramatic world. Is this a good thing? I don’t know.

I am learning, however, that the apparent conflict between my dramaturgical skills and my playwriting gifts, whatever they are, need not paralyze me. The argument in my head between the creative side and the analytical side of theatre-making is automatically resolved as long as I keep writing plays.

At a public reading of Wife Insurance, a comedy that I wrote with Cat Delaney, a woman commented on the central character, a bigamist. She said, “I don’t approve of bigamists. Why should I care about yours?” Her comment struck me. I could have said something like, “You’re in a theatre. You’re safe. You can observe what he does without fear that he will deceive you.” Instead, I realized that my co-author and I had more work to do, that the bigamist needed some inflection, a way of creating rapport with an audience, so that they would follow his adventures without automatic resistance. The woman’s question was one of the most useful responses I’ve ever received in a talkback. Cat and I have revised the play, and improved it. Not all talkbacks are created equal!

As I was thinking about this, my playwright friend Lucia Frangione posted the following on Facebook. She has graciously given me permission to quote her, which I want to do because she expresses feelings that I think are pretty common among us:

I can’t tell you how weird it is to carry around a cloistered invented world for four years, following characters around much like an investigator may follow a criminal, getting into their “heads” in order to capture them...to spend this much time on a story nobody has paid me to write and still wondering if it will be of any use to anyone. I'm sure I'm into 500 solitary hours now. Why am I not in the nut house? … Why do I do this? Why? And it’s such a fine line between humorous and offensive between accessible and saccharine between tragic and indulgent between subtle and boring between provocative and irritating between satisfying resolve and big red bow. And then I hear about other writers who win a Pulitzer, say, who admit to quickly sort of “farting out their story and it’s a hit. Such a mystery to me. Oh God, make me a hit farter. Please. I have a pretty good batting average but this four years to write a play for no money sort of business can’t be sustained. And that, my friends, is my prereading panic. Frankie Armitage. My sweetest and simplest little play. I hope you speak to someone other than your Mama.

Thanks, Lucia. You nailed it.

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Thanks for engaging here, David. Like Michael, I am greedy and hoping to hear more. I would love, for instance, to read your unpacking of the phrase "the relative safety of dramaturgy toward the edge of the known dramatic world." As a "Brustein baby"/Yalie, your read on contemporary new play dramaturgy-- and why it seems relatively safe to you today-- would be really helpful. What was your response to Mr. Linney's cri d'coeur at the time? Is it the same today, as you navigate the wobbly edges of the known dramatic world? Here's hoping this is just the opening scene of something at Howlround and not the program note!

Anybody who starts a post with Zusya rocks my world. So glad to hear that "Ragged Ass" (as I like to call the play) is getting some love out in the world.

Hey David: Thanks for the thoughtful post. Always good to be reminded of the Zusya story. I had the good fortune to direct a reading of The Rabbi of Ragged Ass Road here in SF a couple (?) years ago. Glad to hear the play is getting around, yes? I do believe that the way we speak -- and listen -- to ourselves -- critically, supportively, with anger or love -- is of huge importance. Not that I get much out of repeating "affirmations" to myself. It's more a question of harnessing the energy behind the self-talk and nudging it in directions that help me keep moving. Maybe it's not so different from the ways we hear the audiences' voices in talk-backs. You show how we can listen for what's most useful in a response and derive some healthy bounce from it. But as Amy says, we need to be careful about judging ourselves. I think that much in our education (at least in U.S.) wires our inner landscapes for subtle and even blatant self-sabotage around that "urge to create something new." Forums like this give us a welcome chance to challenge the hindrances we impose on ourselves.

I so enjoyed reading this, and appreciate your ardent self reflection. I admire your tenacity and your engagement. THANK YOU for continuing to write, and for following your own passionate voice and concerns, and getting your work out there. Your work adds to our field in so many ways. And BTW, I don't believe it's your place to judge your talent -- that will kill your joy. Allow your voice to flow!

Re: "Every play has it's own set of rules... Directors need to find the rules behind the rules" I'd like you to write about this and share with us as it sounds like an interesting topic. At any rate enjoyed what you wrote here. I nodded, laughed, sighed, and chewed.