Journal, 11/28: Can’t Miss

I’m going to end this post with a request, so if you’re pressed for time, jump to the end.

First, an update: it’s been nearly two months since my last entry, due in part to my acting in the film The Golden Scallop (so fun) and the opening of Dream Walker (page updated w/reviews and pics), as well as TCG and Flux heating up. I’ve been going so non-stop since the honeymoon that as soon as Thanksgiving arrived, I promptly got sick.

One of the benefits of keeping crazy busy is you can pretend momentum is progress. Look at all I’m doing! All this motion must surely signify something! On the plane ride to and from our Thanksgiving in California, I finally had time to more closely examine all this activity.

On the one hand, as a playwright I feel as strong as I ever have: when I write something now, the first draft comes out quickly and pretty close to its final form. I have plenty of ideas – a tally on the plane found 33 plays that I have either started or plotted in my head, ready to finish or begin. And people seem to be connecting to my work – Dream Walker (so grateful to the cast and crew!) received a lovely audience response, and I have a bunch of readings and productions to look forward to in the coming year.

And yet…

I can’t shake the feeling that I’m falling short of what I’m capable of – a feeling I know most playwrights share, but knowing that the feeling is common doesn’t diminish its strength. The playwrights I truly love are Can’t Miss Playwrights – as soon as I hear about an upcoming show (or even a reading), it goes into my calendar and I do everything in my power to see it.

I think we all have artists like this; people whose work becomes essential to us. This is the kind of artist I would like to be, and though I know I only have so much control over that, I don’t want to fall short through lack of honesty, effort or daring.

So here is my question to you: who are the Can’t Miss Playwrights for you, and why are they Can’t Miss? Be as specific as you can – please list moments in plays that exemplify what makes them essential to you.

For example: Octavio Solis’ Lydia made him a Can’t Miss Playwright for me. The ending of the play balances the brutal honesty of a human trapped in an almost irredeemably broken body with the possibility that some hope remains, through the simple power of human touch. Our protagonist Ceci is a young woman left by an accident in a near vegetative state, but the magic of theatre allows her to slip out of that and share her longings with us. What she longs for more than anything is sex, touch, love. When, in the final moment of the play, her brother gives her a small measure of what she wants, his mercy is both grotesque and beautiful, magically theatrical and painfully real; morally uncertain and physically charged. The unsettling complexity of meaning and moving simplicity of action in this moment make Solis a Can’t Miss Playwright, and I have more such CMPs (enough to need two hands to count).

I’ve never taken a playwriting class, which has been both good and bad – all of the learning I’ve done has been first hand. This has perhaps given me a kind of blindness to something missing from my work; something that might be revealed by you (yes, you) sharing your Can’t Miss Playwrights, and why their work is so essential. This is how I learn best, by listening to others talk about what they love.

So please, take five minutes to write your CMPs in the comments below. You’ll help me become a better playwright, and I’ll try to pay you back by writing an unforgettable play.

(PS: If you are one of those rare and beautiful people who consider me a CMP, thank you so much, but please leave a different playwright behind – this isn’t fishing for a praise, though that is always nice.)

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21 Comments »

  1. I’ve got plenty of playwrights whose work I read & love, several whose work I’m glad to see when it comes to my area, a few whose work I’d like to produce & bring to my area. But a can’t miss playwright? I have exactly one.

    Bill Cain.

    I’ve been a fan of his work for almost fifteen years, thanks to “Nothing Sacred,” a series he created for ABC. (Don’t believe the mindless protests from the Catholic League et al; the writing and the series were doctrinally sound, said the son of a Catholic theologian.) From then on, I’ve kept track of and watched his work whenever I’ve had the chance.

    There’s a reason he’s the only playwright to win the Steinberg ATCA New Play Award in consecutive years.

    I bought a copy of “Equivocation” when Oregon Shakespeare originally produced it two years ago, and I was lucky enough to see their production remounted at Arena Stage last weekend. The script has continued to evolve in that time–it’s stronger now than when it won the 2010 award. (If you’re anywhere near DC in the next few weeks, it’s well worth the trip.) But that script sealed the deal for me.

    People often ask, “Who’s your favorite playwright?” My default answer has been Stoppard for as long as I can remember, largely because I didn’t have to think about it, and most people who knew a little about theatre knew the name if nothing else. Goodness knows I still love him, but I think I’m going to start answering that question with Cain, because more people should produce his work and know his name.

  2. Adam,

    Is there a play of his you particularly love that I should check out?

    David,

    That’s great – would you say there’s a particular moment in EQUIVOCATION that captures something essential about why you love Cain’s work? Same goes for Stoppard – for me, the Septimus and Thomasina dance (and relationship as a whole) is my favorite thing in all of Stoppard – I’m particularly drawn to love stories that are difficult for unusual reasons, and manifest themselves in unconventional ways, as with the charged student-teacher relationship of S and T; especially when the arc of those love stories echoes beyond the personal, as in the case, into thermodynamics, etc. In some ways, their consummation (sorry) is actually similar to the moment in LYDIA…

    I really appreciate you both sharing these thoughts!

    • One of the things I love about Equivocation in particular is that it has so many different elements & relationships that all somehow come together and work.

      For a play about the writing of a play, there are several moments where it plays like a thriller, the writer trying to tease out the truth of the events he’s supposed to write about. That alone would make an interesting play. But it’s also about a battle for Shakespeare’s will (no pun intended) and his soul. Again, good story. But it’s also about his relationship with his daughter and the memory of her dead twin brother. And those three stories still aren’t the whole of the play.

      There’s also a lovely balance between the conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot and the company of the King’s Men as each set comes together, weighs one another, tests each other’s loyalties. There’s a balance between the play Shag is hired to write–the “true story of the Powder Plot”–and the play he actually writes. And there’s balance between acting and enacting, especially with actors in multiple roles, switching between the “real” person and the written version of the person. And then the balance between the storyteller trying to find the truth and the spymaster trying to create a different “truth.”

      And while you could enjoy the play on all of those levels and be quite satisfied, then there’s the story of the Jesuit priest Henry Garnet and the concept of equivocation that gives the play its name and the seesaw on which everything balances. That’s what ties all the strands together.

      And then, having grown up the son of a theologian–I often say I was raised by Jesuits in the wild–there’s a fine, subtle thread of solid Catholic teaching woven into the story. There’s a lovely joke midway through when one of the King’s Men says in rehearsal, describing actors, “We are words made flesh.” I laughed, and a few people around me were wondering why that was funny.

      As if all of that wasn’t enough, the fact that it’s applicable today–that you could change some names and details and manage to tell much the same story about wars & truths & lies–that’s icing on the cake. The play Shag finally writes is “fictional” and set hundreds of years in the past to hold a mirror up to the then-present government, beautifully reflected in the thought that Cain’s done exactly the same thing.

      It’s easily the best play I’ve seen this year, and it’s the first in several years where I didn’t look at my watch once. Note: it’s a three hour play and earns every second.

      A particular moment? I don’t know. But the balancing act and the richness of themes criss-crossing over every character and storyline, that got me. I can’t remember the last time I saw a play so rich & layered. Maybe Arcadia. (Which is another script I love, and for the same reasons as you. Which is why the one last spring on Broadway hurt so much…)

      • This is so helpful – one of my other CMPs Johnna Adams also loved EQUIVOCATION, and I saw it on her rec, but did not connect with it at all. Reading your comment, though, I wonder if it was simply an off day for the show (or me), and/or if this is one of those blind spots that friends can help me access to see more widely, deeply. Rich & layered is a thing I love, too. Now to get my hands on a script!

    • One thing I’ve heard over and over was that the NYC production was not very good–the common thread in all those comments has been that they didn’t connect to the script or the show at all.

      Fortunately, Arena’s got the original OSF cast & Bill Rauch remounting their production. It was just fantastic. They’re also selling copies of the script onsite; I’m sure we can figure out how to get one to you. (I got two, one for my AD and one for a colleague at the college–the two of them take a group of students to Stratford every two years for a Shakespeare course, and they’ve held my OSF copy hostage since 2009.)

  3. I try to see *everything* by Lynn Nottage and Lydia Diamond–mostly because I can most easily see myself playing roles in their plays and they are the most exciting AA female playwrights out there…

    I also see everything by my crazy Amoralist friend Derek Ahonen–because he is way out there, and it is exciting watching him craft these fearless characters–that sometimes work and sometime really don’t. The risk is very exciting…which also is what I found most exciting in your own work, Perse.

    • Thanks, Erica – you gave a great (cold!) read. I do appreciate characters of a certain vitality that can only exhaust their energies in some kind of extreme collision/explosion, which is why even when I write comedies there is still a kind of death in every union (a cheery phrase). I’d like to learn to write characters whose energies are resolved solely by union, but haven’t pulled that off quite yet.

      I am a fan of Lynne’s work, and have learned from her skill at the character reveal – that inevitable surprise at the end of her stories where we learn something essential about a character that changes the meaning of the play absolutely (Mama Nadi of course, but I think also of George Armstrong’s terrifying hunt for the money).

      I’ve only seen Pied Pipers from Derek and Stick Fly from Lydia – any other recs for their work?

    • Very interesting Gus–I can’t think of a play (at least one I like) where characters really resolve their energies through union–I think the conflict is half the fun. (and thanks btw)

      For Derek- check out Happy in the Poorhouse or Amerissiah, for Lydia, check The Gift Horse.

      My other CMP–‘m also obsessed with Steven Adly Gurgis, Athol Fugard, Adam Rapp…
      …wish I had more time at work to elaborate here 😉

  4. Terrence McNally — even some of the more recent, less successful stuff. The humanity of his work always reverberates with me. Love! Valour! Compassion! — the Swan lake scene, revealing their deaths — always knocks me out. And most of the interior monologue stuff in “Lips Together, Teeth Apart” I think are killer. Maybe I’m a sappy dope of a playwright, but I always respond deeply to his stuff.

    • Thanks, Cody – I think I skipped L!V!C! in my Contemporary American Play class, so this comment gives me good reason to finally pick up the play. I think there’s no wrong deep response to a play, and that hearing people talk about plays they love is one of the best ways to learn to write. So much of what we claim to like is tied into the kind of self we want to project, but what we love is always more interesting…

  5. Stephen Karam (‘Sons of the Prophet,’ ‘Speech and Debate’) is still relatively early in his career, but is quickly approaching ‘can’t miss’ territory.

    And, if we can consider a company that devises or creates their own work (sometimes in tandem with a playwright), I’d say The Civilians.

  6. There are so many contemporary playwrights whose work I love & admire and maybe I’ll come back with one in a minute but still, my most cmp is the one who got me into this mess to begin with, however unfashionable it may be to admit it, the most radical experimental playwright of all time: Shakespeare. Because everything in his work is outrageously generous, in everything, language, ideas, story, characters; the scale is vast but moment by moment, the intimacy is killing. You can play him on an empty stage or go wild with spectacle, works either way. Especially the great tragedies stand as not only great plays but among the greatest works of art humanity has summoned up. I love his work just this side idolatry and I never get tired of it.

    OK, and Caryl Churchill.

  7. August-

    David Lindsey-Abaire: consistently writes relevant plays that are also clearly very personal. I don’t know how he does it.
    Enda Walsh: An avant-garde pick from across the pond, Walsh’s name has either been listed as playwright or in the special thanks on a number of shows I’ve seen and loved in NYC and he just wrote the book for the musical version of the film Once, playing now at NYTW.
    Douglas Carter-Beane: Maybe the funniest American playwright working today? I also think his plays have a depth to them that many people miss.

  8. Ibsen, Chekhov, Williams, Miller, Shakespeare, Pinter, Racine, Strindberg…

    (So, Ibsen, yes, the tarantella in Doll’s House – the intensity of the fight to keep her hopes and illusions, and how this leads to such clarity of will and the premise of a person starting to think for herself and acceptation of the cost. the process of coming to this acceptation and being able to handle the pain. it just amazes me that the final scene seems a little surreal (can you leave your children and walk to…what kind of work in those days with such determination?) and yet so completely true.
    Yes, everything Hedda does maybe most of all her admission of burning the script and having those impulses…and how deeply complicated female sexuality may be.
    Miller, for me the most brilliant structure – there are the big ideas, and the structure somehow is part of expliciting those. for example the crucible …how slowly and surely a collective myth and madness is born…and how the story unfolds shows exactly that, the human failings that interact with each other to become political madness. i love the introduction to the play
    Pinter – just the brilliant structure of Betrayal, how everything progress to the first moment, when love was declared, bright, wild, clear. a reverse funnel that so epitomizes how this moment unites and illuminates these three human trajectories)

    Connor McPherson -( i just love the lengthy monologues..Irish tales and brutal honesty…the mother in the Weir, the critic in St Nicholas)

    Musset’s Lorenzaccio…a truth that haunts me “the mask sticks to the skin”

    Shepard…fool for love…the brother-sister metaphor, the mirroring of their can’t be with or without you, the father’s tortured life as a ghost presence

    …to be continued.

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