Thursday, April 8, 2010

how to write a play in 3 or more years ...

writing a play is tough. you have to create an entire world. sometimes a universe. and let me tell you, it takes longer than 7 days, unless you're susan lori parks. and i'm not. clearly. i can't imagine how she did that ... a play a day? what? anyway, i know some playwrights who seem to write really fast (not at ms. parks' speed, but still ...). i mean, they just churn them out. a particular type of genius. i am not that type. and i'm not claiming genius either. i just love writing plays. i need to see the words come to life on stage. i crave a director's vision ... not my own. i get enough of that living inside the play as a writer. and actors ... really brilliant actors are invaluable to me. i hunger for production. there's nothing like table work and rehearsal. for now, i am one of those playwrights who actually wants to be present for all of that when i can be. i've been lucky enough to get one play on stage. or maybe lucky isn't the word. i mean, i actually incorporated a non profit to get it up. and i know that had it not been for that choice, the folks who would eventually put my work up would never have known about it. so ... i won't credit luck. more like sweat, tears, near-fist fights, a run-in with cops in an alley, a broke down rental truck to transport props and set. you know ... the usual guerilla tactics for seeing the baby live.

and i've survived the new york debut ... the applause; the mean-spirited, does this woman know that my life is on the front line while she sits there doubled over 'cause my work makes her body too conscious and her mind too awake, preferring elevator music to the raw and funky we living, didn't even stay 'til the end, critically limited and less than astute "review" by linda armstrong of amsterdam news (thank you amiri baraka for telling me that if everybody loves your work, something's wrong. but i still gotta call it out, sir.); the unflinching support of woodie king jr and his new federal theatre company (many thanks for the lessons); the actor, who shall remain nameless, who walked off the stage mid scene; the production team and cast who became a journey inside love and the thin lines that cross over to elsewhere; the pure joy of seeing it through ... and i survived the hives and swollen limbs that came after it was all said and done, too.

i emerged from all of that still in love with writing plays. not blogs. and so, i am going to record my process here, because i have nothing else to blog about. let's consider this a walk inside the mind of a playwright who exists to the left of center, radically left of center, and determined to keep writing BIG plays with many characters, even though the damn economy tells me that i should write like a black woman, which means write a one woman show inside a kitchen (i have written scenes in a kitchen. even had a character give birth on a stove, but you know what i mean.) yeah, write like a black woman. write from the knowledge that few people will fund what you do, because you are black and a woman, and what's worse, you don't write pretty. you write raw and funky. so, write more easily digestable one woman shows. and then you might be making a good choice. maybe. but no ... i take the hard way. i'd rather write the truth as it comes to me, and it is rare that my truth is one voice, one body, one story, or one song. i'd rather write what my imagination dictates onto the page, despite budget constraints. i figure doing anything less is a walk through my own personal hell. and as far as i'm concerned, there's enough hell to walk through that i didn't create. why be a sick puppy and create my own?

so, i was talking to one of my colleagues at work. what? oh, yes, i do have a job right now. i teach college students. and that has to be attributed to luck, considering the economic crisis. but less of that ... back to the point. i was talking to a colleague, and she asked me about my process. not many people ask that. in fact, not many people ask how you write a play at all, unless they're trying to write one. and then, i usually look at that person side-ways, and say, "just write," or "read some plays. go see some plays." none of these responses make any sense, by the way. but that's what you say. that's what we say. because how do you explain what must be magic? but this colleague, she asked about process, and she was asking because she has one of her own. and when i told her, she said, "wow. you are really a playwright. i wonder how many playwrights do all that?" now, i have no idea how many playwrights "do all that." i just know what makes it work for me.

first off, i write SLOW. for some reason, my gestation period can be 3 years. and that's before i actually realize that a play is being written. i have to live, journey, go through some spiritually death-defying experience that leaves me ripe with discoveries. and all of that generally takes me about 3 years to digest and recognize as material worthy of the stage.

but i am always writing. currently, i am writing inside the second draft of a 2 act play i call, "gypsy in the bronx." but before that, the title was "renegade centro," and then it was "there is no river on girard street." i wrote the first scene in 2006. i started the first draft in 2009. it is now 2010. and i am officially in love. so, that's four years. not three. damn.

here's what i must do to write the sucka:

1. go insane ... and then decide to write your way out of it, or further in. either way, you must go a little crazy, or more than a little. much more. that's my preference.

2. create drawings of characters, maps, and themes (yes, i draw these myself)

3. create collages, pastels, and micro pen drawings of spiritual realities i'm going though (obsessive? maybe. so what? what artist isn't obsessive about her work?)

4. figure out what music informs the life of the play and listen to it while writing, working, playing.

5. journal constantly ... about every single aspect of my life. i even record all dreams.

6. write whatever comes out and save it on the computer. this is before i am officially writing the play. so, these are usually scenes which seem to be random. i write them anyway. sometimes they sit for years ... like 4 years!

7. tell a friend. you've got to tell someone that you are at least TRYING to write. not just your landlord, or your boss, or your lover (unless your lover happens to be a writer/artist, too. and then, you're damn lucky. i guess i am. hmmmm). anyway, you have to tell someone who will hold you somewhat accountable. i have a director who loves me. he must be nuts! i also have one playwright friend who likes to listen to me talk. i think she finds me absurdly comical. but if you don't have any folks like these i've mentioned, join a good writing group. i have no idea where you find those. but they do exist ... i've heard. and if there's still no one to tell, tell your imaginary friends. they'll listen. maybe that will help. not so sure.

8. once you're ready, and you'll know when you're ready, commit to writing at least one scene a day. give yourself a deadline to have the first draft done. and if you've got at least one of those dope people to hold you accountable, have them give you a deadline. you have to find ways around the excuses, distractions, and real life dramas that can often get in the way.

9. read. i don't know about you, but sometimes i feel like i am losing words. so, i have to read to get inspired by language. i don't really read plays. i mean, i have my demi gods: kushner, pinter, mamet, kennedy, wilson, shange, shepard. but i don't spend most of my time reading them. i take them in small doses. very small. i'd rather read fiction, and a little poetry. but you're not me. and i definitely aint you. just read what suits your tea kettle.

10. listen to EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY. plays need dialogue. so, you need to pay attention to how people speak to one another. i even listen to the life passing by my window (i live on a first floor apartment on a busy street in the bronx. perfect. sometimes. and sometimes, i wish i could just get some sleep!)

11. drink (rum)

12. live precariously (often)

13. have courage

14. don't listen to the haters. hell, what's a hater? just a lover completely outdone with your courageous walk.

15. have fun! or struggle really hard, and have fun later.