Over the last month, I had two readings of a new play of mine, The Sudden Urge to Jump, in the LABWORKS Festival at Skylight Theatre Company. It started in a year long playlab with the company, and was one of twelve plays featured in the festival. Several plays got workshops, a few are getting single readings, and mine got TWO readings, three weeks a part. Luckily, I had an amazing director and cast so the experience was pretty great. And even if the play is ultimately crap, I feel like I learned a few things. Eleven to be exact.
Failing better each time, right?
1. No explanation for a suicide will ever be enough.
This is a depressing way to start a list. Sorry for that. Anyway, one of the characters in the play has committed suicide and is sort of narrating a future story at the moment right before she jumps off a bridge, a story that may take place with her siblings after her funeral. There’s still a lot of work to do with this character as far as structure and relationships etc., but what I found interesting in the talkbacks after both readings was a question that kept popping up: why did she do it? She does have a whole monologue explaining why – but it’s not one specific reason like her lover died in war or she’s fighting a terminal disease or whatever specific tragedy you might want to put on her. It’s something more transient, more ephemeral, more suffocating. And while I’m sure I could articulate her reasons a bit more, what I came to realize is that no reason I could give on her behalf would ever be enough. What may make sense to the person committing suicide may never make sense to those left behind, and, in this case, the audience. And so I have to remember to not get caught up in the why of it, but instead immerse myself in the what and the how and the who. If those three things are more clear, and we care about her, and desperately want her to make a different decision, than the why may still be dissatisfying but the pain of it will drown out the need to reason it away and make sense of something that inherently goes against our very nature.
2. I know some truly amazing people and have created a pretty badass support system.
One of the most important things to do when starting out as an artist of any kind is to find your tribe, weave a web of people you respect and love and have fun with, people who you can feel safe with but who will also challenge you to be your very best self. And boy, I feel like I’ve somehow accumulated a wonderful batch of crazy talented and supportive people. I always feel weird about inviting people to readings – the script is in such a fragile state, and nothing is wholly fleshed out or articulated, and the poor audience is really forced to do most of the imaginative work. And this play had TWO readings – yikes. I didn’t expect anyone to attend. I certainly didn’t expect anyone to attend TWICE. But attend they did. And there was a lot of love in the talkbacks, sure, but there was a lot of pressure to push harder, make it better, don’t be so safe. I felt so loved and supported and overwhelmingly grateful. Everyone should have that once in a while.
3. Writing is rewriting.
Back in May, I had a 98 page draft. It was messy and unfocused (but it did delve into the whole “why” thing a hell of a lot more). It took a long time for me to gather the courage to fix it. (AKA, it took a long time for me to not be lazy about it.) I threw out a good 70 pages and rewrote the other 28. Then wrote new stuff. Refocused it completely so that the heart of it was this love story I had originally set out to write. The result of course was a 180 degree turn – a messy, unfocused script became something too tight, too clean, too predictable. So then I rewrote half the play again, trying to mess it up in just the right places. There’s still some more messing up to do. But this is the real work. Nothing comes out perfect. It’s almost better if it doesn’t. I’ve written two completely different versions of the play – which makes me understand what it needs to become that much more.
4. I like rewriting more than the writing part.
Getting pages out in the first place is the hard part for me. There’s still this desire for it to be perfect the first time around and it’s hard to accept that it’s not, it’s soooo sooo not. But once those pages are out, I really love the rewriting part. Writing new stuff has more urgency when there’s already a world for it to fit into. In the rewriting, you get to focus on the details. The details make something soar. I really like the details. (But it is still hard.)
5. It’s good to find a niche, but you shouldn’t get stuck there.
To quote my talented friend Sean Kozma in one of the talkbacks, “I think the dead girl needs to be there, because otherwise it wouldn’t be a Chelsea Sutton play.” I have a thing. And I like that thing, but I’m glad that at least two plays I’m going to be working on in the next couple months do not include a dead person talking. At least not yet.
Joss Whedon has a thing, but expresses it in different ways. He uses vampires. He uses space westerns. He uses musicals. He uses Shakespeare. In my dream the other night, he created an elaborate musical set in a mental institution in the early 1900s with Nathan Fillion as a new teacher coming in to teach the girls and, oh boy, did they sing some songs about masturbation and sexual abuse and the terrible reasons girls were institutionalized in those days. And there were lots of twins for some reason. I wish I could sing some of those songs to you now. And I credited Joss Whedon for this heavily detailed dream in MY head. That’s how much he’s not stuck in his niche. He’s creating stuff in my goddamn dreams.
(I guess my next project might have to be a 1900s mental institution musical. Any composers in the house?)
6. Sad Stuff is better with Humor and Humor is better with some Sad Stuff.
I sort of wrote a romantic comedy. Sort of. But the Humor is wrapped in all this Sad Stuff. But if the Humor didn’t have the Sad Stuff, it would just be a sitcom. And if the Sad Stuff didn’t have the Humor, then the play could only be about fifteen minutes long, because if you have too much Sad Stuff all at once, you get numb to it. Humor keeps you from getting numb to life’s little tragic bits.
There’s a mental institution song in there somewhere.
7. Love stories are actually okay.
I got nothing against romance or romantic comedies, they are just not usually the thing I gravitate toward. My mom is obsessed with romantic comedies so I’ve sat through a lot of them – maybe that’s why I fight against them so savagely. So when I set myself the challenge to write a love story, I’m not surprised I went into the direction of suicide first and had to pull myself off the edge (so to speak). Now that I have a play that’s a love story at its core, it’s not so bad really. It could grow on me.
8. Pink salad is universal.
Every family gathering I can remember has included a pink salad. I don’t know what is in the pink salad – marshmallows sometimes, fruit, whipped cream, I don’t know. But it’s always there. It’s like a hug. In the play, the brother and sister eat leftover pink salad that was brought to the funeral. I don’t know that anyone ever commented on the pink salad bit to me, but the inclusion made me happy. It’s a small thing, but I think every family has their own pink salad of sorts – the mysterious food that always appears and is oddly comforting. These are the details.
The mental institution musical would probably use porridge or something. Food is important.
9. Don’t be afraid to change big things.
The first rewrites were big, of course. But even the rewrites I did between readings included some big changes. A pregnancy problem became an abortion problem, for instance. The way the suicidal girl told stories changed dramatically. And the play was better for these changes. The lead character Laney makes a huge life decision before the play begins, and she’s on a path to a better life. Sometimes you just have to make the big change. Just write a new chapter. When it comes to writing, at least, you can always go back to your previous draft.
10. Talkbacks won’t kill me.
There was a time I thought they would. But I endured two in the span of three weeks, and had another one this summer. I’m not dead. In fact, the way an audience responds tells me a lot about the play – the amount of questions, the tone in their voices, how quickly they jump in. It doesn’t even matter what they are saying sometimes, you can tell how a play is landing just by the vibe in the room.
11. It’s all about falling in love over and over again.
You have to fall in love with your characters in order to write them honestly, to really immerse yourself in their world and make them whole. Then you have to fall out of love again so you can look at it all objectively. Then you have to fall in love again to fix the problems. Then fall out again to tear it all apart and stitch it back together. And when I’m in love, I find that I forget to take pictures. I’m so terrified and excited that I’m not thinking about documenting the moment, I’m just in it. Which is why I have no pictures of the reading or after. And I wish I did. Because boy, was I in love.
More new plays are getting readings and workshops in December in the second half of the festival if you’re into that sort of thing – and if you’ve read this far, you must be. So check it out. The new play Dallas Non-Stop is also a must-see (written by a good friend and also one of the playwrights in the playlab).
Now to start on that 1900s mental musical. I hope Joss doesn’t mind. But I’ve got to figure out the title first.