As someone who’s been paid on a regular basis to come up with ads over the years, I have gone into many offices with an armful of scripts and ideas that I was sure were going to change everything. Including what I might be paid every two weeks.
99 times out of a 100, I’ve left those same offices – sometimes within minutes – bleeding from the nose and feeling lucky that I got paid at all, let alone every two weeks.
Though getting your ass handed to you is never pleasant, I was usually relieved to discover that I was not alone - a quick poll of my fellow writers and art directors in the hallway often revealed they’d suffered similar fates.
For some reason though, there is no relief for me when it comes to plays. I just simply never want to miss. I never want to leave anyone unengaged. I never want to feel that someone reading, watching or hearing my play could walk away feeling like they wasted their time.
Sometimes I wonder if this is because failure in theatre is almost always a social occasion.
Or maybe it’s just that I care too much.
Or perhaps it’s just that I have too damn big an ego.
I don’t know.
But, for the record, I hate failing and my fear of it was unusually high this past week as I went into the Clubbed Thumb workshop.
Maria Striar, the producer working with me on my play, assured me – repeatedly - that the point of the workshop was to try new things, fail and try some more.
The word fail is in there, so I wasn't so sure. But she assured me that if I didn’t like any of the material created during the workshop, I could return to the original script for the final presentation.
“The play I chose,” she said, “is production ready. You don’t have to do anything to it if you don’t want. But this next week is about seeing what else you might do.”
I suppose the idea that you’ve got 7 days to play around with an option to return to the script that you started with would’ve made most writers happy, but me, well, it was something else.
Why? Because after the first read through on Wednesday the 29th, the one thing I was certain of was that the original script was not production ready. In fact, it was no good. At all. Sure, it had a good idea in it. And it had some great characters. But somehow, in that room over 42nd Street, I heard something in it that I hadn’t heard at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in March or at NJ Rep in September – a creeping flatness that kept the characters from truly engaging with each other and the problem that was keeping them at odds with themselves.
Matthew, my director, heard it. And my cast did, too. We all talked about it in different ways at the table after. It felt like an ocean of notes that I might drown in.
Having taken a red-eye in from Portland, I hoped it was just fatigue. I hit the hay and decided to worry about it later.
Matthew and I jawed about it all the next day. I hoped I could reroute the train; Matthew suggested track needed to be ripped up and re-laid. I discussed it carefully with my other collaborator, Heather, over the phone and then pulled out an old draft.
On Friday morning, I brought this older, but now more polished draft in for the cast.
We read. We looked at each other. Maria and I separated from the group to discuss.
She noted the play was different from the other plays I’d sent her. Those plays had been spare linguistically but visually interesting and laced with mysterious tension. This play had long monologs and action that happened offstage. The characters had interesting things to say but weren’t trying to change what other characters were doing.
Perhaps most notably, the play – about how a young couple is dealing with educational debt - was naturalistic when most of my other plays were decidedly not.
Maria made one concrete suggestion: Have the size of the bride’s debt revealed to the groom during the course of the play – don’t make it something he already knows at the start of the play.
This meant widening the focus of the play’s central problem from how a young couple deals with a financial problem caused by chasing dreams (school) to include the effect that hiding such a sizeable fact means in a relationship.
I went home and opened up a blank page on the computer screen. I couldn't go back to what I had. It was time to see what would happen next.
I just tried to forget that I only had 5 days to see it.