Thursday, November 19, 2009

Day Three-Hundred Twelve: Retrospective: Chapter the Last

All right, so it seems I oughta comment on the opening of my new show, Do You Hear What I Hear?, and since my wife and son are both sleeping quite soundly, and it's only 9:30, and since tomorrow is Switchfoot night, it seems that tonight will be the night to do it.

Also, the more I think on the topic, the more I'm thinking it's also a pretty decent cap to my occasionally-abandoned theatrical retrospective. Starting with the original question of, "How did I get where I am today?" I realized pretty much the only step in the process was the question of how did I get from actor/carpenter to writer/director.

So here we go.

I realized that, over the span of time that this blog has covered, we have opened two of my original scripts at our children's theater (the first one was The Hero Squad vs. The Princess Snatchers) and premiered another new script with our touring group (Teammates). That's incredible. I've received such a groundswell of support from the community of artists around me over the past two seasons. It's really stinking hard, as a new playwright, to get theaters to look at your stuff. And it's darn near impossible to become a better writer if you don't get an opportunity to have your stuff produced. Every workshop reading, every rehearsal process, every realized production over the past few years has been such a valuable learning experience for me. I feel like I can see clear traces of growth in my storytelling, my script structure, my characters, and my formatting through these experiences. I've been equipped with opportunities to succeed, and in most cases the opportunities have proved mutually beneficial for me and those who've reached out and given me the chances I've got.

When I got here, I had an idea that I thought would make a funny kids play. AN idea. I had no designs to take it past that idea, either. I was the shop intern in the 2005-06 season, and as such I didn't have a lot of interaction with the majority of the creative collective within the company. I was also in a grand total of one shows my intern year, so the majority of my year was spent doing good, hard, physical scenic construction work (and props design after our props designer left mid-season; boy, that was a rough/frustrating couple of months). The work was good, and I was glad for it, even if our shop was a large, hollow, metal building with no circulation nor air conditioner. (The thermometer in our furniture storage area occasionally read as high as 120 degrees) Nevertheless, it's pretty obvious that what was left of my innate need to create--I say "what was left" because I was still pretty burned out at this point after my senior year--didn't really have an outlet while I was in the shop, so I took to working on my first Hero Squad script late at nights that first fall.

It looked a LOT different than it does today. The cast of characters was different (no Slapshot, no Gary Gizmo, replaced with super hero characters named The Mole and--ironically--Robbie), characters were vastly different (GKJB was basically a victim of circumstance and not an arrogant, Captain Amazing-esq do-gooder), and there wasn't a terribly strong through-line, morally speaking, but it was a good start and a fun script, especially for my first ever writing project. When it was finished, I sent the script to a colleague of mine who was working for Merry-Go-Round Children's Theatre in upstate New York. He responded far more enthusiastically than I thought he should have, and I decided to try to take this puppy seriously and see if I couldn't get it produced somewhere.

I worked at Princess Snatchers and rewrote it probably twice over the next couple of years, and there were lots of frustrations in the early going. I got turned down a lot, but I also got some timely encouragements that kept me plugging away at it. I also wrote other Hero Squad plays, several of which have since been scrapped and a couple of which I still mean to revisit in the near future. Honestly, it started to look more like I was a cartoon series writer than a playwright.

Eventually, I started to come up with other stories. And I started to imagine new ways to tell certain old stories. Eventually, I decided I could, in fact, write plays that deserved to be produced. Soon, I was constantly working out several stories at a time in my mind. Some of those have since become scripts, some are still rolling around in there, and some I've scrapped. The more I've written, however, the better my judgment has been. Rather than have to read, workshop, and majorly overhaul something before I realize it's not going to work, I can usually tell while I'm writing what I'm going to need to rework. My first drafts are a lot closer to the final copy these days. That's not to say that I don't still have to go back and tweak, because anybody who's been to any of my workshop readings know that I do. But I'm tweaking now, not starting from scratch.

I never wanted to be a playwright until I realized I had something that could be good enough to be a dang good play. Often in my life, I've been willing to settle for things to be less than their best. (This is because less than MY best was usually more than enough to get me through high school and even most of college fairly comfortably) But for some reason, I cared about these stories. I wanted them to be told, but only if they could be told well. I wanted children to see them. I wanted entire classes of kids to laugh and cheer and get so involved and excited by the stories that they wanted to take them home and keep them going. I want kids to make their own Hero Squad adventures on the playground. I want children to enact their own Christmas stories using simple hats and props to play all the characters for their families. I want young minds to be so in awe of the quirky sense of wonder in literary classics that they want to read the originals themselves, to compare and contrast and think about the differences, to immerse themselves in the language.

This, I think, is what rescued me from theatre burnout. I'd been good but not great at anything my entire career, from Wellington Community Theater to MTYP to WHS to Horsefeathers to OBU to Huron. I enjoyed it all, but after awhile I just did it because it was what I did. I never felt like I was doing anything other than a play, and I never felt like I was really motivated (either by myself or any outside forces) to grow. But writing was different. I knew what I wanted with each script. I knew what I wanted for each audience. And I wanted it more for them than for myself.

My freshman year at OBU, I said to a friend of mine, "You know, I really don't think you can do theatre and do it all for yourself. It's too rough, it wouldn't be worth it. It'll just eat you alive." Now, I realize that's not entirely accurate; I know some folks who act for a living and have absolutely no regard whatsoever for anyone other than themselves, but it never worked for me. It eventually wore thin. I couldn't just do it for my sake, and I couldn't just make art for art's sake. I'm not that kinda guy. But when I realized the potential that lay in Hero Squad, or in Girl Who Wore Golden Clothes, or in Why the Bells Chimed, I had a reason for the rhyme. At last, at long last, God had given me a point, a purpose, and everything that had come before started to make sense.

So, fast-forward to Tuesday night. Another new play. (Sort of. We toured a shorter version of it last year) One I wrote, but another, highly talented director oversaw. Featuring three of the finest young actors in our company. Children and parents laughing, together. Enjoying the telling of a very familiar old story. Sharing something, in an age where parents feel like they're losing their kids to video games and cell phones before they even turn ten years old. And, miracle of miracles, what they're sharing (in this particular script, anyway) is the wonder in the profound simplicity of the gospel.

Those words came from my fingertips. They have been brought to life by some very dear friends. And they are used and blessed by almighty God.

What comes next in my artistic/writing career? Couldn't tell you. I have some guesses and some goals, but really, who knows?

Today, however, November 19th, 2009, on day three-hundred twelve of this blogging project, this is where I am. And that is where I've come from.