TODAY, IN UNANSWERABLE QUESTIONS

 

April 15
cloudy

I asked some fellow playwrights for their responses to the following quotation.

“I have often said, and oftener think, that this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” – Horace Walpole

Do you think life is a comedy or a tragedy? 

Hansol Jung:

Life’s a comedy if you’re watching.
Tragedy if no one’s watching, or everyone’s watching but inconsequential to the solving of the problem.
If you can achieve the genius craft of watching yourself through life, it seems you could laugh yourself from cradle to grave
but as for me I experience most events in life as a series of small secret triumphs and failures in tragedies that I tend to morph into comedies in hindsight, because such earnestness is shameful after time puts a distance between the hero me and the now me, and lets me watch.

Milo Cramer:

I think life is clearly a TRAGEDY
if you think it’s a comedy OK cool but that’s insane
have you left the hot tub you were born in

perhaps life = a tragedy aspiring to comedy (?)
maybe comedy and tragedy are not helpful terms

Emily Zemba:

I think life is a comedy! If it isn’t comedy, then why is it so strange? And so fleeting? And so filled with frightening coincidences and funny-looking dogs?
I think one of the greatest things about being human, is our ability to employ critical thinking, and to analyze life’s most intense events and mysteries from a place of intellectual distance. I do wonder what would happen if I allowed myself to feel, and only feel, deeply, with every part of my being, through all life’s twists and dark turns and surprises — would the “tragedy of it all” sink in then?
Perhaps.

Ray Yamanouchi:

Life – A Play

Characters:
Comedy
Tragedy

COMEDY:
Why are you such an asshole?

TRAGEDY:
Lighten up.

End of Play.

Jacob Perkins:

Walpole’s quote reminds me of a similar saying: “In music, when you’re happy, you listen to the beats.  When you’re sad, you listen to the lyrics.” I think music functions best when the beats feed the lyrics and vice versa, so similarly, life is most interesting when it blends comedy and tragedy.  Can’t have one without the other.

 


Mary Cassatt’s “The Cup of Tea,” in which two women ponder exactly this question.

SOME MORE YELP REVIEWS OF HUMAN EMOTIONS

Overwhelm – 4/3/17

Sometimes you may look at your google calendar and weep.

In these situations, coffee = bad.
coffee = very very bad.
fear / anxiety / overwhelm -> coffee -> PANIC

Do not pair coffee with feelings of having too much on your plate.
Maybe marijuana?

1 out of 5 stars (variable, depending on the quality of your coffee / illegal substances)

 

Familiarity – 3/29/17

I came down to opening night of Blanka’s playwright debut, Adapt!

I was struck by a feeling of immersion in history, or histories – Czech history, immigrant history, but also the history of the Wilma. Everything is personal. Careers are personal. Collaborations are personal. Making theater is personal. I have been in residence for a year now with The Wilma. I have met many of the staff (and met more during this opening night), I have seen many of their productions, I know how the acting ensemble works together and I have watched them in a range of configurations. I know the strengths and personality of this institution and its artists. Are theaters people? They are so shaped by people that I think they might be.

5 out of 5 stars (this is a comforting feeling akin to love)

 
Curiosity – 4/2/17

I am curious how to make our workshop in May a real collaboration with the Hothouse.

How can I make the most room for the actors to actively contribute in shaping the characters?

Curiosity is the bedrock of creativity.
And of interesting life decisions.

5 out of 5 stars

 

Inspiration – 3/26/17

I had a new idea for the second act of my play. Can I implement it? Am I just getting carried away? Should I write two versions of the second act, and bring both in for us to consider?

Inspiration is wonderful but you don’t need it to start. You can start with curiosity and build toward inspiration. Curiosity is interest. Inspiration is state of intense positive affect, of enthusiasm… it is a peak emotion. It is easier to work your way up a ladder of emotions (boredom -> curiosity -> enjoyment-> frustration -> contemplation -> curiosity -> engagement -> uncertainty -> distraction -> engagement -> rest -> free association -> inspiration! -> burst of new energy -> focus -> hard work ) than to begin at the top.

4 out of 5 stars (because this emotion is terribly misunderstood and occasionally over hyped)

Curiosity, by Jean-Honore Fragonard

SCHEDULING IS A TETRIS GAME TRYING TO KILL YOU

March 21
Spring!

I would like you to know that being a playwright is 30% rewarding, 10% lying on the floor doing nothing, 38% worrying about money, 5% theater gossip, 25% conversations with interesting people over cocktails, 9% made up statistics, and 55% a constant scheduling nightmare.

9 out of 9 playwrights agree.

(When I say “you,” I confess I don’t actually know who you are. I know my mom reads this blog, and my fiancé, and Ellen the development director at Pig Iron, and some playwrights I have run into claim to have read it (MacArthur “Genius Grant” Award Winner Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins, just as one example) BUT HAVE THEY READ THE WHOLE THING? DO THEY HANG ON EVERY WORD I SAY?)

Anyway.

Scheduling is frustrating and I would like to complain about it right now because unexpressed emotions can make you sad or anxious or neurotic or psychotic or a manic pixie dream girl.

I don’t enjoy scheduling.

There. I said it. Now I’m emotionally free.

When playwrights get together, we have illuminating late night conversations about mortality and politics and race, and we also complain about scheduling.

Currently, we are scheduling a May workshop at the Tilma (not its real name). There have been rocks, jagged rocks, negotiations, compromises, and actor conflicts – and director conflicts – and playwright conflicts – someone was going on vacation but then lo, miracle of miracles, changed his plans – one actor is available except for an entire rehearsal day – but we probably need that rehearsal day – hmm – if we move the workshop to August will it work? No? How about a different week in May? No? Ok how about back to the original date with a different cast? Ok now this other actor has been eaten by a dragon – wait but no but it’s just his leg – do we need the actors to have legs? Now two more actors have died, also from dragons. Ok, we’re all set, we have cast the dragons instead. Wait, now all the dragons in the American theater are unavailable, they’ve just been called in for a TV audition.

It’s just how it is, but it’s not ideal. Especially when your goal is to write something for a specific ensemble.

It’ll be great, I’m sure. But also, pray for us.

MY LIFESTYLE WITH MY SON

March 6, 2017

I recently learned by reading The Atlantic that I am doing this blog all wrong. Did you know top tier mommy bloggers can earn between 1 – 6 MILLION dollars a year?

In the hopes of gaining corporate sponsorship, I am going to refer to my play as my son in this post.

“Me” and “my son”

Being a mom, as you all know, can be tiring. I have been raising my son for at least a year now, and have pegged lots of hopes and dreams on his success. So I decided to go on vacation for a month, in foreign countries, with my loving partner, while leaving my son at home.

That’s my son, crying like a girl. But he soon got over it. I missed him at first, but soon I had so much fun swimming with a sea turtle and bathing in a river of hot springs that I stopped really thinking about it. I relaxed. Time apart can be really good for all relationships. When I come back to him in the next week or two, I’m sure I will look at him with fresh eyes and new love. I expect this distance will also grant me a greater awareness of his faults, which will help me to resume dispassionately but generously molding him into exactly what I want him to be.

IS SATIRE DEAD?

February 10th, 2017                                                                                    *still in Mexico

Various funny people have been asking themselves lately if satire is now a dead horse, and if it is a dead horse, is it still worth beating?

Or: Is satire dead?

Firstly – The more pain and injustice there is, the more smart people will suffer internally, and the more smart people suffer internally, the more they will make jokes as a last bid to avoid entering mental institutions.

Secondly – Let’s talk dead horses. If I actually saw a man in the street beating a dead horse, I would not primarily think, “oh, that’s pointless,” and walk on by. I would more likely think, “oh no, that man is deranged,” and “oh, that poor horse, I know it’s dead but I can’t stop the instinctual activation of my reserves of pity” and “why the hell is this injustice happening” and “egad, I’d better call the authorities.”

Unless I didn’t trust the authorities. In which case I would likely be traumatized by my feelings of powerlessness in witnessing the event, and write about it.

I don’t believe satire will die just because the government is rude and hyperbolic and absurdist. Nor do I think current circumstances kill our need for rude, hyperbolic, absurdist artwork.

Great satire is lifted up by these qualities: intelligence, a clear-eyed sense of injustice, big picture analysis, and an unflinching commitment to examining ourselves at our worst.

Real satire is more coherent than a government led by colicky toddlers. Beating a dead horse might not bring the horse back to life but it can make you think and feel – about the horse, about the man who keeps beating, about absurdity, about desperation, about the social conditions of the man and the horse.

We need great works of satire in the intimate and ambitious mediums of theater, novels, and poetry.

Anything that can laughed at should be taken seriously, and vice versa.

SOME YELP REVIEWS OF HUMAN EMOTIONS

GRIEF – 1/27/17

Uncovered some grief after a visit to Brooklyn Open Acupuncture. They say life is a comedy to those who think, tragedy to those who feel. Certainly, joke-telling can keep painful feelings at bay, but I have some healing to do, so I let a nice woman put needles in my earlobes. Grief came to visit the next day, and for a full week thereafter. Pros: The despair was served with unexpected pairings of relief, calm, and joy. Cons: As far as feelings go, this one is a little overwhelming; not for beginners. Regardless, I’d call experiencing it a must for anyone else with trauma, tight shoulders, trump administration.

4 out of 5 stars (due to overwhelm)

GRATITUDE – 1/25/17

Brought in my commission play to my writer’s group at Ars Nova and was various shades of grateful. The other writers said smart things; they did not derail my process; some of them had acting backgrounds; there was pizza. Pros: This emotion is straightforward. It can be easily handled by small children. Cons: This emotion is self-satisfied and will not actually write the next draft of your play. It can also easily annoy others when put on public display. Are you over 30 and on the internet? Then I strongly caution against expressing gratitude. FYI, I am not bragging right now by publicly sharing. I am just trying to write an honest review. – Kate, age 6

3 out of 5 stars (due to tricky handling requirements for adults)

DELIGHT – 1/31/17

I am writing this review from San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas. I will soon also be visiting the Yucatan, Mexico City, and a butterfly sanctuary. This creates anticipatory delight, e.g: I am delighted I will not have to visit the butterfly sanctuary by horseback because I am deathly allergic to horses and do not wish to die. This past weekend I visited the famous indigenous church in San Juan Chamula, with its floor covered in pine needles, rows of saints, and rainbow candles. I was delighted by the scent, the glow, and the beautiful unfamiliarity of rituals witnessed, such as a healer passing a chicken over a young boy’s body. I quietly asked the space to help lift some of my pain. Con: I don’t think there are any real cons to this emotion. Delight is fleeting. Catch it while you can.

5 out of 5 stars

DISSONANCE

January 25

What a weekend.

I marched on Saturday, in New York.
So many people marched on Saturday.
It was beautiful. This city. Manhattan was empty and full at once. Long corridors of hushed streets and quiet office buildings. Fog pressing down against the architecture. Hundreds of thousands of voices, cresting at intersections. The mood was safe, joyous, electric, and alive.

There are two kinds of people in America: People who marched on Saturday, and people who watched TV on Friday.

(And other people.)

This morning in America is brought to you by the word dissonance, and the letter F.

Cognitive dissonance. I have it every time I read the news. If our nation were a person with a psyche this inconsistent I don’t know how she’d make it past puberty.

Cultural dissonance. Did you know there’s an actual term for what we’re experiencing?

Dissonance, in music: the opposite of consonance. If our daily bread is harshness, unpleasantness, and unacceptability, I need to hear some of that reflected honestly in our cultural output. Please dear music industry, novel writing industry, yogurt packaging design industry: Record this pain. Especially the music industry. Music crosses state lines with greater ease than novels and yogurts.

I’m gonna marry this man! Together we’ll fight our way through.

 

HOW TO KNOW WHEN A PLAY IS DONE

January 10th                                                                                               baby, it’s cold outside

Draft two.

People sometimes often ask me how I know when a play is done.

I ask Kenneth Koch. He wrote a poem about it (The Art of Poetry).

I swear by the first rule:

            ask 1) Is it astonishing?

If you can answer that, you probably don’t need all the other questions, but they are good too.

            7) Is there any unwanted awkwardness, cheap effects, asking illegitimately for attention,
Show-offiness, cuteness, pseudo-profundity, old hat checks,
Unassimilated dream fragments, or other “literary,” “kiss-me-I’m-poetical” junk?
Is my poem free of this? 8) Does it move smoothly and swiftly
From excitement to dream and then come flooding reason
With purity and soundness and joy? 9) Is this the kind of poem
I would envy in another if he could write? 10)
Would I be happy to go to Heaven with this pinned on to my
Angelic jacket as an entrance show? Oh, would I?

If you are thinking, don’t you have to sort through more analytical stuff about your play, too?
The answer is yes, but I only do a good job of it when I’m feeling like a poet.

the new york school of poets (painters welcome)

A WALTER IN A PEAR TREE

December 23

I recently came across imaginary tiny Walter Bilderback (Wilma’s Literary Manager/ Resident Dramaturg), nestled between two branches of a holiday tree in a hotel lobby. Tiny Walter was perched on a bulbous red ornament and fixing a defective Christmas light.

PLAYWRIGHT
Here we are.

TINY WALTER
The end of the year.

PLAYWRIGHT
Cheers, to 2017.

TINY WALTER
What a terrible year this has been.

PLAYWRIGHT
It has also been a great year.
I got engaged, for example.
The world has many narratives.

TINY WALTER
You wrote our play.

PLAYWRIGHT
I did! First draft.

TINY WALTER
How do you feel?

PLAYWRIGHT
Proud. Happy. Tired. Baffled.

TINY WALTER
Baffled?

PLAYWRIGHT
At the end of a draft, I often don’t feel like I wrote the play.

TINY WALTER
Did you manage to forget yourself, while writing?

PLAYWRIGHT
Yes, despite endless hours of conscious effort and revision.

I know of a poet who doesn’t look in mirrors on days when he’s writing, that’s how urgent the need is, to forget the self.

Walter plugs in the Christmas lights.

PLAYWRIGHT
Sometimes I think we would be a much kinder and wiser species if we just got rid of mirrors.

The lights turns on.

TINY WALTER
Aaah! It’s like looking at the sun!

He turns the lights back off.

TINY WALTER
I am blind.

PLAYWRIGHT
I’m sorry.

TINY WALTER
Contemplating the self is like looking at the sun.

They drink tea and think about that for hours.

PLAYWRIGHT
All I know is, we are most alive when we are inflamed with passions that draw us out of ourselves.

TINY WALTER
The self is greater than the self.

PLAYWRIGHT
The self is greater than the selfie.

TINY WALTER
May we discuss sleep and creativity. You sent me this draft at 3 am.

PLAYWRIGHT
I don’t keep banker’s hours.

TINY WALTER
No regular writing schedule?

PLAYWRIGHT
It’s never the same. Last week, I took a two-hour nap in the evening, then woke up and had five new insights about the play. A few days later, I implemented some of those intuitions from 5 am to 9:30 am. Another day later, I wrote down the rest of it from 10pm until 3 am.

TINY WALTER
I hope some day you are blessed with a regular writing schedule.

PLAYWRIGHT
Me too.

TINY WALTER
Do you want to talk about dreams.

PLAYWRIGHT
No.

TINY WALTER
Let’s talk about dreams.

PLAYWRIGHT
Let’s talk about Picasso. He said something true about process. He said (I paraphrase): The first brushstroke is always a mistake. The rest of the work is trying to correct it.

TINY WALTER
Have you had dreams about Picasso?

PLAYWRIGHT
I used to have one recurring dream. I would dream he was trying to seduce me, in his studio. He wouldn’t recognize me as an artist.

TINY WALTER
Picasso looms large in your personal mythology.

PLAYWRIGHT
I think these dreams had something to do with giving up painting.

TINY WALTER
To me, Pablo embodies that collective modernist dream of the male artist as a tempestuous, lecherous, drunken man-child.

PLAYWRIGHT
Yes! He represents this enormous life force. Unapologetic, enormous drive… the walking id… the seducer who does not worry about social norms or expectations. In my commission play, there is a character named Polybus. I drew him partly from the ribs of Silenius and Picasso. Both are handmaidens of Dionysus.

Walter?

Walter?

Walter is asleep on the branch, dreaming of sugar plum fairies.

PLAYWRIGHT
See you in the new year, Walter.

Alex Katz, Winter Branch, 1993.

RELEVANCE

December 4
How is the weather relevant?

In the light of America’s regime change, playwrights and theaters are inevitably asking themselves,  “How is what I am doing relevant?”

How is this play relevant?
How is this season programming relevant?
How is buying holiday gifts relevant?
How is taking a bath relevant?
How is this toothbrush relevant?
This chair. Relevant, or not?
How is going about my day relevant?

Awareness of The Thing is, naturally, already finding its way into my post-election writing, and I’m sure it will continue to do so in many guises.

I am thinking about it constantly and yet, I do not believe every second in our heads should become about The Thing. I also will get bored if every American theater programs Rhinoceros. Although then I suppose I can write a play called “100 Productions of Rhinoceros,” satirizing our times.

The Thing is so intrusive. The Thing is a constantly blundering fool. The Thing is a master of distraction. How to address The Thing without letting it shrink the landscape of our minds?

An offering:

In Victorian and Edwardian days, the theatre had curtain raisers. Programming would include short pieces at the beginning of the evening, or sometimes after pieces following the main event.

Why not bring this back?

It would allow theaters and writers the ability to respond swiftly to our political situation in the face of ever-shifting circumstances.
It would expand civil discourse.
It could spark debate and engagement.
It might even lead to greater understanding.
It could get your patrons talking to each other.
You could program voices you don’t necessarily agree with.
Even if you have already programmed your entire season, you could still make this change.

It could be a way to celebrate the voices of emerging playwrights whom you’re not quite ready to program but whom you fanatically adore.
Emerging directors, too.
It could spark ideas for plays to commission and develop in depth over the next season.

You could program international writers, because what is happening to us is happening in a larger context and it is easy to miss that fact. One of the weaknesses of American theatre is our paucity of exchange with other countries.

It could be a way to expand the breadth of voices that get heard in the theater.
It could be a way to defend artistic freedom and freedom of dissent.
It could be really fun.

I have programmed a sum total of zero seasons in my life. I speak only as a concerned citizen and writer.