begin anywhere…

Spring Break. Reflection time.

The middle school play is finished. Ish. There’s always a mess, always something I have to figure out in rehearsal. Apologies I make to the actors.

We started devising around images and songs that the actors brought in. Emerging from this – stories of transformation. A rose that could kill or grant eternal life; a crow that grew into human form, something about ‘soul eaters’, wood that became a living puppet, and so on.

I fell in love with these stories. Some seemed to pull from Pinocchio or The Tempest or the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, despite these being unfamiliar to my students.

The systems of magic didn’t line up, however. I couldn’t compress everything into a singular narrative.

For years, I’ve wanted to use the La Ronde structure – short plays connected with a character passing along a ring to another character until we circle around to the first. My twenties was about making short work, but I stepped away because who other than David Ives made their career on short work? Even when I wrote fiction, the question was always about when would you tackle a novel?

And so this presented the opportunity to finally write that play.

[Yes, La Ronde involves people sleeping with each other. I didn’t talk about the source material when I wrote the play.]

Seven interlocking short plays. In each, a magical transformation. In each, a major character hands a ring to a minor character, who then has a story built around them.

And every night of performance, we’ll randomly draw which play we’ll start on.

Middle school usually invites camp. It’s a ridiculous time in life, after all. And we can parody adulthood.This play only dabbles in camp. Students who advocated for comedy instead found that their work bounced into melancholy endings. Dark fairy tales.

Okay. And what about titles…

I resisted one word titles. I wanted to steer away from Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, with which this play has much in common.

So. The newest middle school play is tentatively titled: begin anywhere, little one; spin the lonely world, and where you land is where you start

If I find another title in the process, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, okay, let’s lean into the sixteen word title.

And it begins…

A new semester, a new play. Middle school.

After three years of going in with a starting point for my middle schoolers, I decided that I wanted to start fully from scratch. A blank page. Scary place to start.

Week one and two, I focused on developing ensemble, playing with stage image, and getting the kids more comfortable with devising and improv. Skills skills skills.  After that, I had them bring in images and songs that “spoke to them,” that evoked worlds that they wanted to inhabit. We did devising of stories around some using tableaux and storytelling, scenes around others, and improvised moments around others. We then listed out the most memorable moments.

On Monday, we first practiced a sort of long form improv, which I directed in the moment.  For this, I begin with a prompt, then ask the kids to create that moment. I’ll request to see a different scene that’s inspired by what I saw. I then had them improvise scenes based on the previous weeks’ work.

Yesterday, I asked a bundle of questions related to the the work they’d done. For this, we built story.

Today, I’ll be bringing them concept… and away we go.

The Apocalypse Project, post

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The Production

A tough production process on this one. Our calendar wasn’t helpful to tech or rehearsals, and a bout of food poisoning benched me for a few crucial days, but the actors stepped up and made magic.

 

This is the hardest play I’ve written at Skybridge. It’s a big swing; I think it paid off.

Now, my theatre is micro. I can get 40-ish seats in there. I’m not trying to fill hundreds of seats; I’m trying to squeeze enough chairs to serve my audience. This means I can focus on the play itself, not on marketing. This also means that we can play with staging to integrate how we do the show with the story itself.

My tech director / set designer and I were in sync, and we decided to elevate the audience to remove them from the performance space. In a play in which the adults have vanished, we liked the idea of removing them from the performance space itself, to have them bearing witness to the action but literally above it.

The play imagines the world having fallen apart on February 14, 2020. That’s less than two months away, so all cultural products are built out of the stuff of the current moment. Old Town Road and Lizzo, being primarily disseminated via digital space, are left as memories, but turn up in a memorial conducted on the anniversary of The Disappearance.

So, one benefit of this play is that we only spent about half of our budget. The apocalypse is cheap.

We start in Altierra (‘Alternative earth’), a small, pure democracy / collective in the outskirts of Austin. A fight and water crisis leads to the expulsion of a group of four. It’s these folks we follow throughout the play, as they find their way to a small fascist farm, to Sad Disneyland, to a washed out hometown and a flooded New York, while dodging traps set by Firestarters and a feral child. Eventually they make their way to New Eden, which is in Canada. This happens as one character, who has been living in a sense of hopelessness, seems about to die. He sits in the audience.

And that’s when one of the members of the audience begins to speak. This person is a surprise to my actors. I asked parents, and requested that they keep the fact that they were speaking a surprise.

This person reads a letter from the missing adults.

I wrote it on a day when I’d received a particularly painful rejection, and revised it on a day when we had some intense discussions in our community. This moment is the most present I’ve ever been in a play, it’s what I want to say, and I’m okay with that. This play isn’t the most polished one I’ve put in front of audiences, and there are some Frankenstein seams, but I am proud of this piece:

THE LETTER

Listen my dears, young ones. You are in so much pain in a broken world. You are of age before you should be, and though we say this from a distance, we see you.

My dears. Go on.

What you have taught me is this: Life is clawing past yet another disappointment, it’s scratching at the dirt, and it’s even finding joy in the scratch. It’s grabbing the hand that’s offered you, getting up, and grabbing who else fell down to bring them up too. 

Yes. We, the ones who came before you, are imperfect. And we’ve passed many of our faults on to you, as you will to yours. And if aliens came to visit, they’d see creatures who… can think and know the fragility of life. Know the scarring. Know our own imperfections. And yet they’d see –

We humans, we build, we build again, and the best is when we learn from those what fell before. We stare rejection in its teeth and we say, nah. I matter. From city rubble, we hear laughter and singing and we see grass that was called weeds once upon a time break through the cracks in sidewalks through sheer force of will.

We are stubborn, us human creatures.

This is what you’ve taught me, you know. You who save each other.

So this is what I give you back: You are loved. Each and every one. Forever. Go on, my dears. Go on.

The Semester

My life is divided into semesters now. The academic calendar has been brilliantly conducive to my writing process, but it also means that I chart time through semesters.

This semester, I had a reading of Small Steps in Davis, Ca, through Bike City Theatre; the other Brothers, Sisters, Santos through UC Riverside’s Latinx Play Project. During the intermission of Small Steps, my mother texted me. She liked the play, even though there’s gobs of cursing. Small miracles.

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Although these plays are still looking for homes, it’s a pretty special thing to know they’re being read in places I love.

I’ve also been part of the Hyde Park Theatre’s writer’s group, and finally workshopped Piper. This one is too early in its development to build a webpage.

The Apocalypse Project, which is this semester’s Play-for-Teens, continues to develop. Often, theatre-for-teens is viewed as ‘practice for the REAL THING that you do when you’re an adult.’ Schools and educational theatres across the country produce ‘Junior’ versions of standard commercial musicals, and there’s something truly obnoxious about that. Imbedded in this is that theatre-for-young-actors is lesser. Yes, I would love love love to see The Untitled Pirate Play or And Then, She Picks Up the Sword performed by adults, but I don’t see the work we do as pretend practice for the real thing. It is the thing. And one element that I love about The Apocalypse Project is necessarily for and about young actors.

The Next Steps

Well, as of a little over a week ago, the script is pretty much done. As expected, I didn’t have time to update on my process while knee-deep in that very process.

When I last updated, we’d decided to destroy the world – to eliminate all of the adults through some mysterious rapture. Okay. Cool. So we started with a situation as a concept.

And, uh, that was a choice. I documented here.

Theatre is made up of time. It is our most precious commodity. You can make brilliant theatre with no money and lots of time. (The inverse doesn’t exist, except sometimes SNL.)

The challenge, I learned, with starting from a world is that gobs of the time goes to discussing the rules of this world.

Instead of building character or story, my actors debated whether or not there would be electricity. There was a general disbelief at the level of havoc our nuclear facilities would have on the environment in the post-apocalyptic scenario, because Fukushima  happened when my oldest collaborator was nine. 

This didn’t mean that the process was unsuccessful. It meant that I often felt frustrated, and that this frustration was my own fault. It also meant that I was more of a source for the story than I normally am. A third of the play takes place in a communitarian compound before the main crew is expelled – these story choices, which would normally emerge from a devising process, I had to invent.

This gave me an insight: Devising by adapting a specific property works because it’s something that gets the entire team on the same page in an efficient way.  This is true even when we’re adapting a technical element like a set design or genre or even just a picture that a student brings to class (and not a text like The Jungle Book).  Research-based work is challenging because everyone needs to have done the same research. Because I came into class with the sandbox defined, I spent my time sharing about what the sandbox meant to me.

Now, I should mention that we have about 60-70% of the rehearsal hours that my favorite HS-aged company has, and 3 hours per week generating material is not the same as doing two or three or more 3-hour sessions with a group of collaborators. In a perfect world, I’d have more time.

I do think that work created collaboratively can often become about or reflective of the collaboration itself metatextually. (And this isn’t a bad thing: one reason there’s a push for diverse voices of playwrights in American theatre is the accurate presumption that there is something autobiographical in the work that lends authenticity.) In the case of the Apocalypse Project, the first third of the play takes place on a communitarian compound, which is chaotic and loud, and intentionally has the characters discussing lots of subjects simultaneously. And this is what my classroom-theatre feels like.

To build a lot of this, I would give them a prompt, ask them to come to a circle, and ‘popcorn’ out something like, “Rumors you’ve heard about something that’s happening in the country.”

The caveat for this specific activity is that each rumor is independent of the others, so that if someone suggests something that does not fit with the reality we were building, it would evaporate. Someone could say something like, “California fell into the ocean” without it shaping the discussion, so that someone else could say, “There’s no water in LA. They call it The Boneyard.”

One activity that was fruitful had the students writing a character name and then something about them on an index card. “Mr. Avers, a cartographer.” And then we’d draw from this stack and they would improvise a dramatic monologue or scene.

Often I had specific prompts for improvised scenes.  Sometimes these prompts directly pointed at the play (“Scrapper does something to get kicked out of the compound”) while others were exploring the concept through something next to the play (“Show me the world’s worst president.”)

Casting

I should mention that we always establish early on that anything we create belongs to the room. I try to have multiple students inhabit different characters throughout the process. While occasionally it becomes obvious that one actor MUST play a specific character, the shared creation of character prevents hurt feelings when it comes to casting.

In my entire career at Skybridge, I have never had problems with casting, knock wood. That said, this time around I realized that I needed to cast the play before finishing the text. I needed their voices in my head. I needed to know who was comfortable with what.

I had an hour to cast. I pulled monologues from the play for each character, printed a packet for each, and gave it to them in advance. I gave them a cover sheet that asked them their comfort for a variety of actions onstage, including killing, dying, and, of course, kissing and falling in love.

The kissing/love questions had the biggest impact on the play. I was surprised that, with one exception, they were as uncomfortable falling in love onstage as they were with a stage kiss. Based on the auditions, I had to overhaul the action to align with who was comfortable with what.

And Then What

I took a day off of work, rented a motel room, and gave myself a writer’s retreat to finish the play. I’ve never done this before. It was both glorious and hellish.

I had a workshop lined up for when I got back. I had a couple days for tweaking and revisions before printing.

We’ll continue to revise in rehearsal.

A Couple More Notes

  • I have a heavy hand in my plays because I want a unifying vision. If you are looking for ways of replicating elements of my process, I would recommend creating work that has more of a mosaic final product. The amount of emotional toil that went into Deleted Scenes, Twelve Huntsmen, and even Two Truths and Lies was less than this or Icarus because the moments in the plays were created largely independent of each other until I connected all the dots.
  • Theatre is art in time, and with this kind of intense process, it’s REALLY important to know how much time something is taking. It is also practical: I don’t want to leave an actor backstage for 45 minutes or f**k up rehearsals and spend ten minutes on something trifling without realizing it.
    • A page of dialogue with a ‘standard’ format is about a minute of stage time
    • A better gauge is word count. We clock in at about six minutes for 1000 words.
    • I know that I’ll have a higher word count for moments where there’s simultaneous dialogue, which is part of my style.
    • I know that there will be a lower word count / page count for more action/stage direction, and I try to account for this in my formatting.
  • My philosophy is to make a play where not every actor has the same line load, but every actor has something interesting to do. The fewer lines you have, the more interesting they need to be. In Romeo & Juliet, the Prince has the fewest number of lines, and you best bet they’re some of my favorites. One ‘the crew’ leaves the compound in the Apocalypse Project, the other actors become sundry strangers others meet along the way.
  • The Apocalypse Project feels less finished than my other work, but I like the heart-space it occupies. It took me about three additional days to understand what I was doing with the ending, and now that I know, it’s what I want to say.

 

A Week Into Devising

Previously: The Initial Steps

Now: A Week Into Devising

A few weeks ago, the premise occurred to me: it’s 2024, and a few years ago, every adult on the planet mysteriously disappeared. Then this happened a second time.

This interested me from a practical standpoint – while I am not opposed to having teenagers portray adults, it’s not as useful as having them play people around their age, and I was excited to create a world that was intentionally young-person-only.

(The same HS theatre teachers who claim that theatre should replicate the professional world are also producing plays where teenagers play, like, 50-year-olds even though these kiddos won’t be cast in these roles for decades. If you are having a teenager play an adult, it should be intentional, and thus you should be commenting on adulthood. Take a look at Very Best Coffee or [a different] Romeo & Juliet if you want to see examples of how I try to activate this concept in a play. In both of these, the fact that you have young people playing these roles creates a commentary on adult world, a fact my friend Patrick Shaw pointed out.)

But it wasn’t just practical. I was interested in the world that a group of teenagers would create. What would disappear – good and bad? What would be utopic? What would dystopic? We’re so consumed by anxiety about our future – as a planet – I thought, well, what would happen if we leaned into this? If we imagined how we’d deal with things?

Prologue

I think it’s important that the students co-create much of this world with me. My nightmare is having a bunch of kids go home and each come up with an idea that they commit themselves to. In a process that uses devising, you have to be willing to give up ideas as quickly as you come up with them. Commitment to an idea outside of the rehearsal room can kill the process.

I held myself to this as well: I wrote a short manifesto I kept to myself, and then intentionally avoided thinking about the premise so I could make room for my collaborators.

Activity 1: Becoming an Adult

The first activity was to separate them into partners. Their job: to create a vignette where someone is experiencing an event of ‘becoming an adult.’ (Yes, a couple kids giggled, but whatever. I knew they wouldn’t go for sex jokes in the devised pieces. That would have been too awkward.) For example, some young person learning to drive.

The second step: make the same vignette, only without an adult impacting the person coming of age. In the example, the character must learn to drive by themselves.

This… kinda worked. Because I didn’t give them context for fear that they would shape it to the concept, they made… stuff. It was okay. It didn’t tell me enough to know we were on the right track.

Activity 2: Apocalypse or Catastrophic Event

I then had them identify a narrative where it’s about the aftermath of an apocalyptic or catastrophic event. Some brought in The Road, which they’d read last year. Some brought in Mad Max. Someone brought in Wall-E. I asked a few questions to get them thinking about these stories from a distance. It’s better to examine the fact that there’s nuclear fallout, authoritarian rule, and desert wasteland in Mad Max. 

From this, we did a poster dialogue about tropes we see in these narratives.

This is where I introduced the premise I was pitching to the students by having them read a monologue based on the manifesto.

Activity 3: Improv and Exploration of Tropes

Most of the students were familiar with improv, but I had a quick refresher activity on the concept of “Yes-and” for those who needed it. We then read over the tropes of apocalyptic narratives so that we could hold that stuff in our brains. Then, over the course of about 30 minutes, I had the students do an improv jam based on these ingredients. I specifically asked them to avoid the initial premise – to just make stuff from the tropes. I would ring a bell when I felt the scene had ended.

It was electric. While most of the time they went for the joke, there were enough moments where fear and stillness became a part of the world that I felt we could make the play.

Also, I would direct this process. I would ask them for specific revisions. This will become key in the future.

Activity 4-ish: A Conversation

I checked in with them. They were on board with the premise. Some had ideas. I realized that even though I’d tried to get away from developing the world without them, I’d failed. There was stuff I’d made and committed to.

But at least they were on board.

Next Up: Some World Building

It’s 2024, and they are coming up with a list of things that have changed. This is via a personal imaginative list of, “What I miss/ What I’m grateful for.” Because I want the students to generate their character relationships in class, I asked that they avoid the people they’d miss. Otherwise, the world becomes entirely consumed by grief. While grief will be a part of it, I want to start by figuring out things like, is there electricity? Internet? Cheese? (No, no, maybe.) We’ll also be reading a selection from The World Without Us so we have some starting point related to the practical impact a world where a good portion of the human biomass has vanished. That book is devastating and could force the play into becoming a treatise on environmentalism, and I am more interested in watching a group of young people connect and disconnect with each other, so I will only bring in chapters about what happens to cities without humans.

On Documenting

So. I’ll periodically update on the process, but the next part involves me doing a RIDICULOUS AMOUNT OF WRITING. This means that I can’t spend time writing about the work here.