I had a blast chatting with Dr. Jimmy Chrismon on his theatre education podcast.
Take a listen:
I had a blast chatting with Dr. Jimmy Chrismon on his theatre education podcast.
Take a listen:
And thus, there’s a new play for teens in the world. Battle tested, it works, though I’ll still revise it based on our production and post the final chapter to Carl’s story this summer.
Y’all. I love this one. I love them all, and this one is a particular kind of awesome in the key of “I care about this kind of thing.” A poem in an alien language stops a battle. Every time someone dies, they talk about how they met the love of their life. There’s an element in the play that is 100% random and improvised every night. We have aliens who share hearts and brains, aliens who can switch bodies, a ship that’s a total jerk, and so much more. The heroes on their hero’s journeys even miss the climax of the play. I love that.
A student-designed poster for the play.
Want to read the play? I don’t usually post the show draft – I normally revise it first – but email me and I’ll send it to you.
This June will be the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
This July will be the 50th anniversary of the moon landing.
Small Steps, a comedy about a gay astronaut heading to be the first one to Mars, seems appropriate for both events. So any company that wants to hold a reading – even one that wants to use it as a fundraiser – can do so for free between June and July.
Lauren Gunderson did this a couple years ago, and it just makes sense.
On a completely different note, my revisions to Piper – the modern, queer re-imagination of Pinocchio – are coming along. This being a play with a puppet, drag-queen fairies, and grand spectacles, the development will require something a bit more… active than table reads. So keep an eye out.
This one is very much for mature audiences…
Space Carl it ain’t.
(Rehearsals for Space Carl OR How to Get Lost on Planet Venus) are also starting. This will open a week after a local production of The Untitled Pirate Play, so that’s fun.)
I recently lost my representation. My agent left the agency, and then the next agent left as well, and I got a Dear John letter when someone wanted to produce a play for middle school students.
It was a blow. To live in Austin and pursue a career that is usually reserved for New York-based playwrights is hard, and I relied on this connection to the larger theatrical landscape. Despite the high profile development opps, Small Steps is still searching for a home, and losing Bret Adams felt like a step back, an orphaning of this work.
This also forced me to reevaluate my priorities.
It’s undeniable that my work for teen and young adult actors has the potential to impact theatre. Young people making theatre grow up and become theatre professionals – or audience members – and shouldn’t we be making work with them in hopes they’ll embrace theatre-that-isn’t-Disney? There are fewer playwrights experimenting with form, content, and collaborative models making work for teens. Most of the theatre in America is performed by high school students or community theatres, and yet they are not included in the larger discussion about the need for new approaches, new stories, and new voices. I want to bring about this conversation.
Instead of running around looking for representation immediately, I’m going to be focusing on putting my work for teens out into the world – and on advocating for new work and new approaches to creating for teens and young adults.
I will still write plays for mature audiences. I will still look for homes for this work. I will still develop these wherever they’ll have me. These plays are where I take personal risks and expose parts of myself that I do not share with young people. Because I have to generate my drafts of my work for teens so quickly, I often rely on pulling from my bag of playwright tricks; I fill this bag with my work for adults. The experiments I made with point of view and time in Brothers, Sisters, Santos and with the polyvocal Chorus in The Briars wound up in the plays for teens. And if my argument is that we need to make the kinds of aesthetic leaps and experiments in theatre for teens as those we see in theatre for adults, then I need to be a part of the world that’s taking those risks.
And besides, I believe in my work for mature audiences. I want to see a full production of She Gets Naked in the End or Small Steps or Brothers, Sisters, Santos because I wrote the plays I want to see onstage. I don’t want to have to hide or bury my work with provocative titles.
But I will be saying again and again to whomever will listen that theatre for teens should be art. To those who make theatre with young people, I offer a challenge – make new work, make work that uses new techniques, make it interesting, MAKE IT GENDER INCLUSIVE, make it vibrant, and for f*’s sake, stop doing Disney. To those who dismiss work for teenagers, and I know there are a lot of people who do, I say, come see my plays. Compare Icarus or And Then, She Picks Up the Sword to anything making the rounds in an NNPN Rolling World Premier.
I do worry that I’ll be pigeonholed as the “Playwright for Teens.” A few weeks ago, I chatted with Nan Barnett of NNPN and the New Play Exchange, and we didn’t discuss the possible homes for Small Steps – we talked about how NPX intersected with high school producers, and I realized that there is a real potential that people will decide what I am and what I do without seeing the whole picture.
And yes, I know that I worry about the pigeonhole because of how little regard people have for work for teens, and I know that a part of me fears losing the social currency that translates into production. And that’s gross and kinda sad.
I also want to avoid the idea that my work can only be done in theatres with young people. This does not appeal to me. While there is something awesome and specific about what happens when you create for young people, I don’t want to be locked in to only seeing my work performed by young people. Nameless in the Desert or The Untitled Pirate Play are great for teens, but I’d love to see a fabulous adult crew with awesome clowns tackle the shows too. Mary Zimmerman and Sarah Ruhl’s plays are performed by high schools and adult theatres alike.
But it’s worth the risk. Theatre for teens and young adults can be amazing.
(EDIT: And you can read the plays that best fit teens here.)
So I will leave with this: this is an alien’s poem. It’s meaning will be lost to the audience unless the actor can deliver it exquisitely, but I wrote it to echo my favorite Mary Oliver poem, and if you can figure out the poem it references, you understand why I’m posting it here.
Ooo dono hafa beegoo
Ooo dono hafa walon orneez
boro hunda migo toro desa reepten
yoomono hafalee da ofta dimal offa bodsta
ova vata ova
elma vita esspa, illa Ooomaina
enable zeda wolo spinna forfa
oooheva ooo ara,
No matter how lonely
sofa wolo offa toyo mindivation
in the family of things
Yesterday I put the finishing touches on Space Carl OR How to Get Lost on Planet Venus *no relation. Thus closes what accidentally became a trilogy.
In The Untitled Pirate Play, after a bad breakup, Carl sets off on a hero’s journey like young Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island. The ambition of the other characters is more than enough to propel the play, and Carl spends most of the story hiding or in the brig. When he finally tries to take a stand, other plot elements have come together at that moment to destroy the ship he’s on. The play is about ambition and the corruption of power, and in the end both the guilty and the innocent suffer the consequences. Carl is the only survivor.
There was something delicious about taking the form of the hero’s journey, positioning a character as a lead, and then having this character have no impact on the play.
In And Then, She Picks Up the Sword, Carl happens to be an attendant to the obnoxious Prince Driftwood who is supposed to marry Princess Wimberley. He spends most of the play having lost all his memories and thinking that he’s a dragon. He dies when his heart is used to make a potion, but he’s resurrected with a borrowed heart. He misses the climax of the play.
The process for creating this play was innovative – based on a student’s set design – but a major element was that this was my response to elements of Shakespeare rom coms that bother me – essentially, how the love stories happen. Initially Carl appeared as a wink to people who knew Pirate, but he ended up having his own transcendent moment at the end… and I knew he needed a story of his own.
I have a complicated relationship with the hero’s journey, both as a trope and a structure. Structurally, it centers the entire story on the actions of an individual, and the ‘right’ way for the story to end is through their choices. Luke blows up the Death Star; Odysseus defeats Penelope’s suitors. I question this for a number of reasons that I won’t get into. It’s also considered a ‘masculine’ form, and is usually centered on men. I wanted to make a play that both uses and subverts the hero’s journey genre. And the ending of Space Carl, I hope, does this – his body is ‘hosting’ an alien organism, he escapes the climax, the villains are defeated by poetry, and more.
Gender representation is an issue. I did worry that it would appear that I’d written three plays for male leads, but I also know that Carl’s impact is so negligible on Pirate Play and he’s such a side character in Sword that he’s not actually a lead in either. Part of the joy is that the audience may expect him to be the protagonist, but he’s not. Also, it doesn’t change either play to have him be a Carla.
In Space Carl I knew that pretty much any part could be played by any gender, but I also knew that if you’re trying to subvert a masculine genre, when you make the lead a woman, the statement on the subverted structure becomes, “This is the GIRL version of a hero’s journey. It’s not a real hero’s journey.” For our production, I did end up casting a young woman, though she’ll play it as a guy for that reason.
The beautiful thing about making a play set in space is that gender explodes and the limitations that are usually placed on casting go out the window. On his journey, Carl stumbles on his ex, but his ex had an encounter with a body switcher, so ANYONE can play that part. The ex (named JJJJ) has a second ex, but this character has also switched bodies. As for the other aliens, what I realized was that, although most sci fi universe bifurcate genders into male and female, you could just as easily have a species with one or five or six hundred genders, which means that every part could be played by anyone.
Why is this important now? One of the first questions people making theatre with young people ask about a play is ‘how many boy roles and how many girl roles?’ This question bothers me on many levels (not the least of which is that there are many trans and non-binary kids coming out at younger ages, and this question is insensitive to them). It gives me great joy to write a play where, should this be produced by others, that question becomes meaningless.
Anyway, there’s a new play in this world now, and I love it.