THE CLOWNING WAY TO WRITE A PLAY
I’m participating in Love Drunk 14, an awesome event where the producers send playwrights two cool, interesting, old-timey photos and we’re to write a play about them. I’ve done this before and loved it. This time around, when it was time to get writing, I was sick as a dog with the flu staring down this deadline. I’d taken a clowning class with Theatre 68 and Pigeonholed, where the teacher, Justin Cimino, used a clowningtechnique to help actors create real, vivid characters out of thin air in like fifteen minutes. So, flu-ridden and disgusting, I reached out to Justin to ask if he would want to direct these ten-minute plays I had due for Love Drunk, oh and also would he mind getting the actors to create the characters for me, based on these pics, with his magical clowning magic? It felt like cheating but ARTISTIC cheating, like in the “good artists borrow but great artists steal” kind of way. AWESOME. I’m a great artist!
Since I was better but still contagious and glued to my sweatpants, I watched the first rehearsal over FaceTime. We somehow convinced brilliant performers, Teresa Catherineand Kelsey Coughlin, to work with us. The only “draft” they had were these two photos and their imaginations. It was humbling as a playwright, showing up to a first rehearsal for my own plays with no pages to give out, to trust these three to come up with stories that I’d already committed to writing. I assigned each actress a picture to craft with. We all discussed observations about each picture: “She looks like she’s got a secret”; “she says ‘hello,’ while she says ‘hey’”; “she probably chews gum and drinks soda pop.” Then Justin worked his Pigeonholed magic, leading Teresa and Kelsey through an imaginative exercise that gave these characters life; and then the characters woke up for us, the audience, to talk to. Teresa had the picture we nicknamed “Victory Curls,” because the girl had beautiful curls in her hair. I’m gonna focus on Victory Curls for the rest of this jaunt into rewriting town, because The Audreys (the other picture/ play), wrote up pretty conventionally, but Victory Curls I had to hammer at, and that was scary and exciting.
Teresa’s character Ruth Amelia Williams was the daughter of a Columbia professor when FDR was president. She was shy, not many friends, one of the only single girls left at twenty-four. She was her father’s secretary and still lived at home. Her best friend had moved away to get married and have kids. Ruth’s greatest desire was to be a mother. She also had a secret skill of tap-dancing. I asked Ruth, “How did you respond to all those newspaper articles about your father? What was that like, when it all came out?” I was most interested in this father-daughter, boss-employee dynamic. So we all discovered together that Dr. Williams had been accused of something pretty bad but we didn’t know what it was.
That night I googled “professor scandal 1930’s” and found THIS fascinating historical tidbit. There was a very famous scientist in the 30’s named Dr. Cornelius P. Rhoads, the first director of the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who did some work in Puerto Rico and was a MAJOR EVIL RACIST, intentionally infecting Puerto Rican patients with tropical sprue to study the disease’s spread and effects and experiment with cures. There used to be an award in his honor (because he actually did contribute to cancer research and science, helping develop radiation and chemotherapy, I think?), but his name was stripped from the award in 2003 because the racist letter he wrote to a colleague resurfaced in modern day and everyone was ashamed of him.
I made Dr. Williams Ruth’s professor father and wrote a crude, embarrassing first draft with her and her love interest, John Banks. Let’s reread it, shall we? Remember the rule with first drafts: the crappier, the better!
I didn’t love John Banks and it felt like such a waste to not use Kelsey as a performer. So I tried again without John but with Sarah in the scene. I forgot all about the time period, so it’s a little wonky, and isn’t on-the-nose dialogue the best? But this time I had an epiphany: WAIT! I am no good at writing period dialogue. But more than that! America is still often terrible to Puerto Rico (how long were they without power?). This scenario isn’t so far off from modern-day life. And I’m far more interested in the story of a creepy racist scientist now, in 2018, than in 1933. Two birds, one stone!
Then it was like, okay yes. Modern day is where this lives. And I like how implicated these two white women are in this cover-up, I liked the stickiness and the questions it raises. The actors were into it. We had a big talk at rehearsal about what happens now: Okay, what was the extent of the letter? Was it a tweet instead? Sebastian is muddying the waters, let’s cut him. We don’t need those heavy paragraphs of backstory. Maybe the tweet was sent yesterday, not far away in Puerto Rico. Do we need Sarah to have a son with cancer, isn’t it enough for a woman to have worked her whole career for this and see it go up in flames? Isn’t it more interesting if she’s not just finding out about the letter now, at this moment in this play, but knew about it the whole time and covered it up? Actors are so smart, y‘all. 9/10 if an actor has a gut instinct about a character they’re playing/ you’re writing… they’re right. So! This draft!
Then it was like, why are they cleaning, can there be a party? I get a party vibe here like maybe they’re toasting the celebration. Is it better if Ruth’s mom is super healthy from the drug, not sick? Like it totally cured her? Why is Sebastian still here, I don’t totally get the Puerto Rico investigation? Did we accidentally just write a full-length play that spans two continents? Are we ever actually going to rehearse a draft at rehearsal? (Not until the play is worth your gorgeous actor mojo!). Also, you made it super subtext-y which is great, but now we don’t know what’s going on and it doesn’t drive anywhere, and Ruth never tips her hand that she’s framing Sarah, so we’re like, did she frame Sarah? (Actors. Too much subtext! Not enough! *Insert head into wall.*) But, they were, as usual, right.
Sooo… this draft. The polished, performance draft. Look at all that subtext + actual conflict! And there’s charactery stuff in there too! And they’re both messy, aided and abetted a racist, but a racist who’s close to curing cancer, so what’s a girl to do?
To be memorized, rehearsed and performed. We’ll probably still tweak little things in rehearsal, but this is solid enough to build something on.
We perform this play March 25, 2018, @ 11 AM (please come! Facebook event here). By my count, that’s a total of 8 drafts so far. My favorite thing about this writing process is that at no point did I have a brilliant idea. I was sick at home with the flu, stole Teresa’s beautifully crafted character, googled a play idea from history, blatantly stole it, wrote a bunch of crappy drafts, took my actors’ and director’s notes (Justin diligently sent me notes every day that were gentle but concise and on point), and wrote more. I wrote in the morning until noon, emailed a draft, and then quit for the day, letting my brain detox from the pages and absorb Justin’s notes, to come back with more hope and clarity the next morning.
The only things I can take credit for are:
Assembling a strong team.
Stealing from them and others.
Showing up at the page and hammering it down.
Is it the best thing I’ve ever written? No. Will it do? Yes. But if I’d stopped at drafts 4 or 5, would it have been worth the actors’ or the audience’s time? Uh, nope!
My other plays are like, “Eight drafts, that’s enough, write ME now!” Okay. As long as you let me steal and don’t expect me to have a brilliant idea.