Putting a Face on Theatre
One afternoon a few weeks ago, as I was madly working on a new play that was going into a workshop ten days later, my wife came into the study to say goodbye before she left the house. I looked up at her, and I suddenly realized I had no idea where she was going or what she was about to do, so I asked. She was at first bewildered, then rather annoyed... because we'd just spent a good bit of time discussing exactly what she was going off to do -- and, in fact, it was important to her. I'd blanked it out completely. I was mortified.
After a very sincere (and lengthy) apology, as well as a real reconciliation (my wife is amazing), she left, and I sat in my study feeling immensely selfish and silly. I'd been staring at the same difficult scene in my laptop for a week, without making progress, while the business of our lives went on. For some reason, what I was trying to write had me paralyzed with fear... but the thought of my steadfast wife (not to mention my son) waiting for me to be done? It kicked me in the pants. I owed them both more of me than I'd been giving them. In a fierce fury -- I honestly felt like a knight with a sword facing a dragon -- I wrote the last few torturous lines of the play while my wife was out, hit "save" on the file, and didn't open it back up again until the workshop started ten days later.
(For the record, those were a very relaxing ten days.)
I would like to be able to say that this was a one-time occurrence, but in all honesty, I can't. In every play I develop, there are inevitably periods in which the act of storytelling crowds all other thoughts out of my brain. It's almost as if I enter whatever world I'm creating and live there, at least in part, instead of here, in the real world. When I'm talking to people, doing the dishes, even driving my car, I'm writing with at least part of my brain. The problem gets worse the farther along I am in the process of telling the story. While it's new, it's nebulous: a few stray thoughts or lines that barely register and certainly don't disrupt the normal course of my life. When it's more established, however, I can be writing enormous, complicated dialogues in my head while I'm trying to listen to and talk with real people... who begin to feel, at times, like a serious imposition. Excuse me, I want to say when someone approaches me, but you're interrupting. Interrupting what? A conversation that's happening entirely in my head. Never mind.
Must it be that way? Maybe. I think so, at least for me. This is difficult for me to admit. I try very hard to be other-centric in my writing: to tell stories I think audiences need or want, to the best of my ability. I devote lots of attention to thinking about how people will receive and experience and engage with and respond to what I write. And still... I crawl up into my own little (or even big) world and behave in a self-centered manner I am not very proud of. I consider it my great fortune to have a wife who both allows me the space to do it when I need to AND to call me on it when it goes too far. Every writer should be loved like that, if you ask me.
But let me ask again: must it be that way? Is this your experience, too? If it is, what do you do about it? How do you control it? Or do you? And if it isn't, why not? Do you create stories in a different way? (I'm wondering whether playwrights who work in ensembles experience the same thing.) Are you just somehow different? Do tell.