This month, my writing playlist consists almost entirely of songs by Break of Reality, a band made up of three cellos and a percussionist. I can’t listen to songs with lyrics when I’m writing, and this group fulfills my requirements perfectly. All instrumental, all the time. Evocative. Inspirational. But not somber. Just what I need.
I’m seeing a lot of reactions from the theatre world to the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child this past week, and for the most part, these messages are all hugely positive and filled with excitement at the prospect of people, regular, non-theatre people, reading the script for a play. Generally, among the people I’ve seen excited by this, this is the kind of thing I have been seeing:
— SeattlePublicTheater (@SeaPublicThtr) August 2, 2016
Yes. It is in fact great that people are reading a play. But the problem is that I don’t actually think that many of them intended to read a play. They went out to read a Harry Potter book and ended up with a play. And now, the backlash follows. Because of the people on my list who are not regular play readers (and there are actually a lot of them on my friend list), the generally feeling is not “Oh wow, is this what a play is? I want to read more!”; no, the general feeling is one of disappointment. And, to be honest, I’m not surprised, because I think the publisher made a huge mistake.
The publisher’s mistake was to treat this like any other Potter book. Advertisements said “Harry Potter Returns” or “The 8th Story, 19 years later” or some variation of those. I heard people I know, huge Potter fans, talking about how excited they were for the new book. And when I mentioned to them that it was the script for the play, they seemed, shocked. Now, I know that the book cover on all the advertisements said “The complete play script”, but some people just didn’t see this. And others, didn’t really know what that meant. Then, the publisher put out the book in hard cover, like they would a novel, like any of the previous Potter books. But what play has been published in hard cover in recent memory (aside form the Complete Works of Shakespeare)?
But none of those are the main failing of this book launch. The main problem is this: a play script isn’t meant to be read like a book. The script for a play is a blueprint for the director, actors, and creative team. By design, a play has spaces that are meant to be filled by the actors and the director. There are choices for the actors to make in interpretation and decisions for the director to make. These choices and decisions help to make up the final product that will be the play. A play script is not meant to be something that you sit and read like you would a novel. That’s not to say that you can’t read a play that way. I can. And I know lots of people who can. But that’s because we’ve learned how to read into a script. And anyone can do it, but it takes a different kind of effort than a novel takes. To read a play script, you have to fill in the blanks. No one will describe how something is being said, you have to do that yourself. You have to imagine how it will look on the stage. You have to imagine the costumes. You have to imagine everything. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t do it, by all means, you should; because once you are able to do that, you will find reading a play script so very satisfying.
I just wish that this was not the introduction that the masses had to reading a script. Because their disappointment is such that they aren’t likely to do so again.
Since 2005 much of the theatre I have created has been with Keystone Theatre, a Toronto theatre company that takes its inspiration from silent film. The plays that we create have all been in Keystone’s signature silent film style, which means that when I appear on stage, I wear white makeup, and most notably, I don’t speak on stage. My character might “speak”, but at no time do I make a sound. My “lines” are expressed through gesture and physical detail, but never through the spoken word. I have not spoken aloud on stage in nearly 5 years.
Rehearsing The Commandment has been a process of relearning how to do a lot of things I used to take for granted. Things like how to breathe and speak on stage. And how to remember lines. I went into this thinking that remembering lines would be easy, because I wrote the play. But writing isn’t the same as acting, and so the process of learning was not made any easier by having written it. I struggled with learning these lines more than I have with anything I have ever written or performed before. I think there are two reasons for that: first, its more lines than I’ve ever had to learn before, and second there’s some personal stuff in the play that has never been easy for me to talk about.
When I say personal stuff, I don’t mean that the play is autobiographical (I’ve never had god speak to me while I was using the toilet), but I did use writing the play to deal with the suicide of someone I loved very much.
When I first came up with the idea for The Commandment, I told myself that there was no way that I was going to turn it into something that might have any elements from my own life in it. This wasn’t going to be theatre as therapy or anything like that. It was going to be a somewhat silly, completely fictional story about a guy who finds himself in a bad situation. But it wasn’t working very well. It was missing something.
I had the idea for The Commandment, the premise, and I’d been trying to write it, but something wasn’t working. At the time, it was reading a little more like stand up act than a play. It had no emotional core. And I didn’t know where to find one. I didn’t have anything that I could draw on because I was fine, right? So I put the play aside and told myself there was nothing there.
In 2006, I picked up a copy of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. I’d heard about the play and was told it was blowing audiences away. I knew I had to read it. And it was good. But it didn’t blow me away. Until the last few pages of the play. Judas speaks to Jesus, for the first time, and he’s pouring out all his pain, and I feel something. Because he had this anger that I felt, and he is, in many ways, saying what I’d been hiding from. And then, he says “All I know is that you broke me unfixable – and I’m here”, and that’s what breaks me. Because that’s what I was, that’s what was pushed way down inside that I’d been hiding from. I couldn’t even start reading the final monologue of the play, because the floodgates opened. And I started to weep the same way I did at the funeral. And then I got angry. And I had to do something with that anger. I had to deal with it somehow. And I channelled it into The Commandment, and then I had the core of the play, its heart.
I had been so mistaken about my own emotional state. I thought that I was fine. I thought I had dealt with it because I had wept so much trying to deal with Erika’s suicide. I had known about her depression, it wasn’t a secret, but when she took so many pills that she died, that was a shock. I had assumed that she was in control, that her depression wasn’t as bad as that. But I had been so wrong, and in the days before and after the funeral, I wept until I didn’t have any tears left. And then, I thought I was fine.
But I wasn’t. I was angry at Erika, but it’s hard to be angry at the dead. We tend to forgive the dead and make them saints in our minds; we don’t “speak ill of the dead”. So how to deal with the fact that I was angry at Erika for what she did? I didn’t. I buried it. I held it in. And I told myself I’d forgotten it, that I’d dealt with it.
We’re a society that doesn’t do a great job of talking about death. We have lots of euphemisms that help us avoid the topic. Someone “passed” or is “no longer with us”. And when the death is a suicide, we have even more trouble with it. We don’t talk about that part. We don’t even have good euphemisms for that. The obituary might say that they “died unexpectedly”, but it will never say that they died by suicide. Even at the funeral itself, we’ll dance around the topic. And in the end, because no one is comfortable talking about it, the people left behind, the friends, the loved ones, end up feeling more alone and more lost, because they just can’t talk about it the way they need to.
The Commandment isn’t a play about suicide. It’s a play about someone in a bad situation, coming from an even worse situation. Its comes at the topic from the side. It’s not a play that throws suicide at you right away. The main character is dealing with some pretty big stuff. Like being a reluctant prophet, and his life being ruined. The play has this comedic premise (An atheist who finds he’s been chosen to deliver God’s new commandment), which provides a few laughs before it ever deals with the serious stuff. But when it comes, it doesn’t turn away. It says the words. And it looks the aftermath of suicide in the face, and finds some peace in the end.
I have been meaning to write about this here for a while. Every so often, I’ll start to write about this, and then either delete the post or just stop writing it. I’m really terrible at promoting my own stuff, though if you follow me on Twitter and Facebook, you’re probably more aware of this than if you just follow me here.
I wrote a play, and I’m going to be performing it. Of course, “I wrote a play” makes it sound like no big thing. But this play is a first for me: a solo play. And it only took ten years to do it. I actually finished a version of the play about a year after I started it, even tried to get it into the Toronto Fringe. But I wasn’t ready. I remember sitting at Theatre Passe Muraille that year, and as the draw got closer and closer to the Local 60 minute category, my confidence faltered and I started to hope that I didn’t get in. Of course, I didn’t. And I do think that’s good, because I was certainly not ready to perform this play then.
I came back to it on and off over the remaining years, until just this past year, I told myself it was time to dust it off and make it ready to perform. I entered the lottery for the Toronto Fringe, and didn’t get in (the odds are really tough on that one, let me tell you), but I was really determined this time, so I entered the Hamilton Fringe lottery. And I didn’t get in there either.
And then, just before Sarah and I left for the Farm for Christmas, I got an email: I’d been on the waiting list for Hamilton Fringe, and there was a spot if I wanted it. I said yes.
So, this play, ten years in the making, will finally see the light of day. And if I am completely honest, that scares the shit out of me. But I think it should scare me. While this play isn’t s confessional or autobiographical piece, it is still one of the most personal things I’ve ever written. And I’m going to perform it. The words I wrote will be spoken by me, standing alone on a stage in front of an audience. I think that should be scary. Doing something that matters to you should be scary.
And that’s even before I start thinking about whether people will come. And I hope you will come and see the culmination of ten years of work. You can buy tickets now, or you can buy them at the door. And you can follow the journey at TheCommandment.ca.
See you in Hamilton!
As I say every year, I don’t do Resolutions, but as the year draws to a close, I do like to look back at the year I’ve had and pick out some highlights. Sometimes I even post about things I’m looking forward to in the coming year. So let’s get to the year in review.
- Sarah and I took some wonderful trips, both road trips across Ontario (Penetanguishene in the Summer to see the amazing Sarah Strange bring the house down in a panto at the Kings Warf Theatre; and Minden for a fall getaway), as well as a powerhouse writing vacation in Montreal.
- I travelled a bunch. My awesome job gives me the chance to travel, and if I get some free time, I do some sightseeing. Highlights for me were Boston, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
- I hosted a long weekend playwrights retreat on Toronto Island at Artscape Gibraltar Point, which was a great experience. I enjoyed both taking the time to hunker down and write, as well as having the chance to get to know a few other playwrights.
- I decided that it was time to get off my butt and finally do something with the solo show I’ve been working on for almost ten years. So, I focused on it for a while and worked it into a condition that I’m pretty happy with, and then I submitted it to the Toronto Fringe lottery and promptly did not get in. So, I submitted it to the Hamilton Fringe Lottery, and also didn’t get in. Except that I did. The day that Sarah and I were heading out for our Christmas break, I got an email from them saying that I’d been on the waiting list and a slot had opened up for me.
- I wrote a lot. Not as much as I’d like to But probably more than I have before.
- Evenings and weekends just staying home with Sarah. Its not a huge thing, but its a nice thing. Just being at home, relaxing with the one you love.
And as for next year:
- Launching my weekly theatre podcast.
- Performing my solo play, The Commandment.
- Hosting another playwrights retreat at Gibraltar Point.
- More awesome times with Sarah.