A shift

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

ova ova

in the family of things 

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The Trilogy is Over

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.

Update

A week ago, we were deciding between sending Carl to Atlantis and sending him to space. We improvised around research images from the tech classes, and I decided space was setting us up better for a hero’s journey.

This week was about building plots for story starters. This is usually where the students thrive, but I found that they were struggling to think about larger narratives. I tried structured improv activities and devising around images, and eventually we had a few narrative threads. Tomorrow, I’ll look over my notes and make some choices about where to go next.

***

Flexible Grey Theatre Company will be doing a reading of Small Steps in Dallas.

It will involve a drinking game.

***

I have a couple more productions of my middle school work coming up.

A New Year

Last year, I focused on writing, and I drafted four plays – Icarus, [More] Deleted Scenes, Piper, and And Then, She Picks Up the Sword. This doubles the output from the previous year.

Piper is the new title for Knitted.

I am about to kick off the third chapter in the adventures of Carl – previously seen in And Then, She Picks Up the Sword and The Untitled Pirate Play  . 

In Pirate, Carl stows away aboard a ship – and has very little impact on the plot. In Sword, he plays a secondary character, who loses his memory and misses the climax of the play by being dead for a little while. I love this. I can see the anger of a dozen playwriting workshops as they turn on me – a hero is supposed to impact the plot, of course, and I love nothing more than doing the opposite of what I’m supposed to do when I write. This semester, I’ll be using tropes from Joseph Campbell’s work as base material, and Carl will either be in space or in Atlantis.

The Process

I’m spending the first couple week focusing on skill building – specifically improv and story-building. My tech classes did some dramaturgical research on possible ‘worlds’ – space and Atlantis – and we’ll be using the images, sounds, and videos to devise and improvise next week.

New Plays

A week ago, we finished the semester with [More] Deleted Scenes from Fairy Tales with the middle school students, and Icarus Livingstone Falls Into the Sea with the high schoolers. I’ll be getting a page up for Deleted soon, and I’ll post a post-show draft of Icarus when I have time to digest and reflect.

In the meantime, some details:

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The Dwarven Miners Union protesting Snow White’s unfair labor practices

 

[More] Deleted Scenes from Fairy Tales

Script available on NPX

Storytelling creatures share assorted apocrypha of old stories.

Three Little Pigs: The Three Little Pigs are roommates in a band. After playing at Stubbs, the band breaks up. Being creatives, they build their houses out of straw, sticks, and bricks, but the winds of gentrification threaten to blow them down and turn them into breakfast tacos. “Little pig, little pig, let me come in.” “Look, man, my money was good when I wrote you the check. If the check bounced, that’s on you, not on me.”

The Boy Who Cried Wolf: The wolf is unemployed and seriously thinking about opening an Etsy store when he hears the boy calling him.

Snow White:  The dwarves are member of the United Dwarven Miners Union, Local 64, and when Snow White takes over the house they prove that the Union keeps them strong.

Rumplestiltskin: When the Queen is unable to guess his name, Rumplestiltskin actually gets a baby – and realizes he’s far from equipped to raise it.

Little Red Riding Hood:Little Red does not guess that her grandma is, in fact, the wolf…. And the wolf must then take on some of Grandma’s responsibilities.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears: The three bears vow vengeance and break into Goldilock’s house to destroy her stuff.

 

Icarus Livingstone Falls Into the Sea

The Dead put the broken Icarus back together, assembling his story into a labyrinth. They tell of his boyhood friendship with Tor, who would later become The Minotaur, and Theseus, the hero who would kill Tor.  They tell of his ambitious and distant father – who enabled the cruelest of the king’s actions. They tell of the mothers who miss their boys. They tell a story of how the boy fell from the sky — 

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So Many Projects

Since I last posted, I’ve been in perpetual ‘generating of writing’ mode… No time for anything other than an occasional tweet.

First up: Knitted

In the ten-minute version I penned for ScriptWork’s Out of Ink Festival last year, after a one-night stand Piper turns a pair of abandoned underwear into a puppet. This puppet comes to life, and then Piper must raise it.

This is becoming a full-length play.

I liked the conceit. It’s present for me. Many of my heterosexual friends are reproducing, and some of my gay friends have also managed to figure out how to become parents, an intentional and expensive process. If you make the money a playwright/teaching artist makes and you’re single and gay and in your mid-thirties, you’re not going to accidentally end up raising a child. I don’t think that the solution to the epidemic of queer loneliness is to distribute random magical children, but I will say this: I am interested in making a story that is unique to the gay community that isn’t just about coming out or making jokes about bears and twinks. And a gay man having the issues of a single mother, well, that’s interesting to me.

I spent the latter part of the summer pushing out a rough draft. It needs a better title and scads of revision – and a workshop with people and puppets — but it’s on its way.

 

Icarus Livingstone Falls into the Sea

In the fall, I write a play for high school students. I knew that I wanted to do an adaptation this year, and so I presented a number of possible cultural products we could turn into theatre. We worked through various possibilities, and what had heat was the story of Icarus / Theseus / the Minotaur. It makes sense – these characters were necessarily young folks, as are my collaborators. I’ve already worked with this material via Fallout of the Sky; when I re-examined it with my students, I found that focusing on the stories of the young people made the most sense.

So Icarus’s father designed the labyrinth, and also helped the Minotaur come into existence. The Minotaur’s father – King Minos – is essentially rejecting his son when he locks up the Minotaur. Theseus, the guy who kills the Minotaur, learns how to do this from Ariadne, Minos’s daughter (and thus the Minotaur’s sister). Naturally, the world of the play is about examining these relationships. There’s a quasi-queer reading of the story here – the ideas of transformation and parental rejection and feeling ‘different’ from your parents metaphorically echoes the LGBTQ+ experience in the same way that The X-Men is a story about gay people. My staging isn’t leaning into these themes directly any more than the X-Men does. Future iterations could. In the meantime, I love both the script and the potential for it.

I finished the production draft three weeks ago now. More soon.

[More] Deleted Scenes From Fairy Tales

I usually commission a high school student to write the middle school play in the fall while I focus on the high school. I didn’t have the perfect budding TYA playwright this year, so I decided to return to the Deleted Scenes concept. It’s a robust creative container and allows for A LOT of student input, which I needed while I was writing the HS play.  I managed to finish this play in a week and a half – holy crap – based on weeks and weeks of student devising. While I usually have a fair amount of student imagination in all of my theatre-for-teens, this is by far the most student-co-authored play I’ve had.

 

Further Notes

A few weeks ago, a woman who teaches theatre in a public school in a small Texas town contacted me for advice on getting work-for-teens out into the world. She had LGBTQ+ themes in her work, and a good deal of my work is with LGBTQ+ youth. I gave her my thoughts, but what made me livid was she told me that her bosses force her to cast her trans kids according to the gender the child was assigned at birth – not their identities.

Professional theatre world would find this atrocious. College theatre students would be in an uproar.

Theatre is one arena where a student could, theoretically, represent their identity without outing themselves. It could be a refuge for young people. It should be.