Voyeurism as Experience

How Do Young Writers Forge Their Artistic Identities?

 

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The summer before I started applying for colleges, I was visiting one of my close friends who lived on the Jersey Shore before it was time to head back to school. The night before I left, her parents threw a porch-deck dinner party in which I found myself surrounded by sun-kissed middle-aged couples asking me about what I was planning to do for the rest of my life. “I'm applying to school for playwriting,” I said shyly into my wine glass filled with lemonade.

An older gentleman with a salt-and-pepper beard laughed a little as he gnawed on a lobster claw. “A playwright?” I silently looked on as he sucked on the marrow some more before he paused and asked me, “Well, aren't you a little young for that sort of thing? What exactly is it you want to—that you can—write about?”

After having spent most of my high school experience adjudicating “teen writing” as the playwriting editor for our online magazine, The Blue Pencil Online, I find the quality of writing—especially playwriting—by youths is not a question of the writer's specific voice, rhythm, or style, but of merit: is the writing any good at all? And if you can find some technical and emotional merit, is it automatically worthy of acknowledgement and mention? To reiterate the concerns of my fine, older friend from New Jersey: how can one credibly write about emotionally potent, adult situations when one hasn't experienced them yet? And furthermore: how can young writers forge artistic identities for themselves that transcend their own generational zeitgeist?

During one of the workshops for the New Playwright's Festival presented by RareWorks Theatre Company at Emerson College last year, a student director (of the other play that was chosen to be produced) gave me feedback after our read-through. “What I really love about your writing,” he said, “is that you write about things that are really important to people our age—how exactly can we reconcile our past with our present and how can we move on from there. It's something that really resonates with this generation, I think. You write for people our age.”

While the theme of last years festival was “The Memory Plays,” I found myself returning to his comment. In various writing workshops and classrooms, I have been told to “write what I know” and to “tell my story.” But as a writer—especially as a playwright—I find that my job is to fully realize voices that are not my own, stories that are weaved from different cloths, often that I have yet to wear. It is not the stories or words themselves that create our artistic identities but the vessels we choose to shape those alternate realities—and we borrow these “vessels” from other artists. Theatre is to create experience: a space and shape where people breathe in front of you. My experience becomes the experience of Miller, Pinter, and Williams simply by being an audience member. As a young theatre artist, my voice comes from voyeurism. And with the advances in technology, incredible avenues of access have flowed to my generation's fingertips, making voyeurism easier than ever before.

 

As a young theatre artist, my voice comes from voyeurism. And with the advances in technology, incredible avenues of access have flowed to my generation's fingertips, making voyeurism easier than ever before.

 

Experience then becomes dramaturgical; I find myself patching together narratives that I have yet play out myself in hopes that my observations transcend my lack of emotional intellect. I find this transcendence present and possible in the adaptation process.

Last summer, I began co-adapting the film Rachel Getting Married into a workshop script for the stage. While I had a narrative and dialogue at my disposal, research helped my understanding of the protagonist's addiction. I hope, then, that in this case the fruits of my voyeurism stands in for what I cannot articulate just yet. (And for my generation as a whole.) All of this begs the question, which I turn over to you, dear reader: does the artistic voice come from the “truth” of the real experiences that happen to us or from the artistry of our imagination—the way in which we draw and shape the grey areas of our lives?

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A series on HowlRound's partner, Emerson College.

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I resonate with what Scott wrote, especially the aspect of some element of oneself being intimately present somewhere as a driving force [even if not initially recognized] and that personal, intimate connection can indeed contribute to emotional honesty. I'm new to playwriting, started a little over three years ago at the age of 58, have yet to take a class on it, and certainly don't have an MBA. Actually I don't have a college degree. I'd like to see a few articles here on HowlRound about older playwrights with similar circumstances making their way into the field [but that's a totally different theme from what your're writing and inquiring into here]. So my short answer to your question is both. Ideally both. But one doesn't always know how that's going to come about. Example:I decided to participate in a monologue contest for a theatre company in New York City. They usually work with their own writers and were 'opening' their doors to new writers with this contest. The selected winning piece would be included in their fall fundraiser event along with presentations from their regular writers. One requirement was to see their present production and write something pertaining to the theme and issue of that play. A clever marketing tool I thought. So I went. The ticket wasn't that expensive. For the most part I enjoyed the production and the play itself. They had a talk back after that evening's performance with a social worker specializing with war veterans, and part of that conversation focused on the dynamic of resilency and PTSD. The talk back was the inspiring trigger for me [not anything in the play itself] that fueled my monologue. I didn't win the contest. But I showed the monologue to a fellow playwriting friend and he said I think you might want to consider expanding this, it's part of a larger story. So I felt into that, contemplated the possibilities, and began writing what ended up becoming a 90 minute piece about a returning veteran reintegrating into his small hometown and having PTSD. In this case the energetic spark and emotional catalyst for the play was the dynamic of resilency. Why? Who knows for certain. I'm certain there are many fascinating tid bits of contributing factors in my unconscious. The point is I recognized and went with the point of entry, and that took me to the next step.

The other thing I want to mention regarding "how can one credibly write about emotionally potent, adult situations when one hasn’t experienced them yet?" It's a valid question and at the same time chronological age does not necessarily match up with emotional age, insight . . . even wisdom. This I think is just part of the mystery of life. One of the things that astonished me when I saw the video tape of the play BLASTED by Sarah Kane [at Lincoln Center Library Theatre on Film Archives] was the ferociously vivid, true, layered, complex emotional lives of the characters, to say nothing of the raw, inventive, powerful language, it's depth of scope in the theme and storyline, and first rate structure. The play was disturbing for me and absolutely riviting. And I remember thinking "How could someone in their 20's possibly have written this?" "How could they have the necessary life experience, and processing of that experience, to display such rich understanding and depth of the human psyche? [albeit a dark place of the human psyche]. Well, on some level, we are world citizens - not just an age demographic, or a gender, race, religion, occupation etc. This is where the imagination comes in. But sometimes I wonder how much of the imaginative imput of empathy with the possible isn't on a deeper level allowing in a larger or deeper realization of another aspect of ourselves [whether we live it out in the actions of physical reality or not].

i recently started a new play that i was initially very excited about. i had good characters, an interesting premise, topical subject matter and a decent sketch of the story arc. 5 pages in i scrapped it. at first i didn't know what the issue was; i thought maybe i was just stumped, or not in the right mindset to write, but eventually i realized the issue: i couldn't connect with this play at all. more specifically, i couldn't see myself anywhere in it.the plays i write are far from autobiographical, but there is always some element of myself in there somewhere, whether it's a character, a political opinion, or even a frame of reference. it's what compels me to work on the piece, what drives me to write it. more importantly, it's what gives a piece emotional honesty and integrity. it's what makes the play ring true. if i don't put myself--my experiences, my beliefs, my flaws--in the play, i don't know why i'm writing it.there is obviously room for interpretation here, and nothing is ever set in stone, but i think the key is blending experience with imagination. if we just wrote about ourselves, no one would want to see it; but if we didn't put something of ourselves in our writing, it wouldn't be worth seeing.