Exit Strategies

“Oh, and I guess that I just don’t know.” – Heroin, Velvet Underground

Do you have an exit strategy for the thing you thought you were made to do?

Backing up a moment: writing this last post was a great relief for me. I’d never before attempted to set down all in one place what life means to me, and doing so felt delightfully foolish and oddly freeing. Whatever else happens or doesn’t, at least I’ve said out loud the little I’ve found out in the hopes it may be of use to others.

But rather than resolving into a sense of completion, that post has pushed me further into the uncertain wild. Things about myself that I thought would always be true now seem as fragile as smoke.

I’ve been a playwright now for 15 years, and the last time I counted, have written over 50 plays. The idea of myself as a playwright has been absolutely central to my sense of self, more so than any other aspect of my creative life, looming larger than my work as an actor, director and artistic director combined.

But lately…I guess that I just don’t know.

I hear some playwrights say they hate writing but love having written. For me, it is just the opposite: making a play come together is one of the greatest joys of my life, and if anything, that pleasure has grown even stronger with time.

Once the play is finished, however, that pleasure is quickly intermingled with pain. As my work as a producer has grown, I find it much more painful to produce my own work, with every little failing finding its own unique place in my body to pinch and burn. The absurd game of sending plays out grows more difficult to justify with every year, with the many readings and occasional productions never seeming to reach the crest of the hill.

Because I am a playwright who writes more quickly than he can send plays out or self-produce, I have a rising stack of plays than pain me to pick up and read again, with their voices scratching for bodies like the itch of a phantom limb.

When a play is fully staged, the weight of the joy of  someone truly connecting with it is nearly counterbalanced by the sweat of actually watching it (which is to live through the emotions of the characters all over again while doubly feeling every slalom of the audience’s attention); the emptiness of someone’s polite indifference afterwards; that foolish, foot-shuffling feeling of a bad review.

And to what end? I’ve now written 20 full-length plays that I’m proud of, far more than many playwrights whose work is far more beloved. There sits the good doctor Anton, smiling at me over his four bottomless plays. I do not see the creative act as competitive, but an objective look at what my plays have given the world (if anyone can ever be objective about such a thing) should at least make me ask, what if there was another way?

I do believe the creative act is as much a responsibility as a right, but what if there was another avenue to stroll my wondering down? I’m feeling as strong as I ever have as an actor and director, and maybe my focus should shift to those acts. I love producing the work of others, and could find full satisfaction supporting all the worthy plays that somehow have not yet found production.

Maybe the answer is outside of theatre: I’ve begun a novel that I’m very excited about, but plays always push their way to the front of the queue. Maybe the answer isn’t in the arts at all, but in turning my creative energies all the way towards social justice and activism. If I’m going to break my heart against an impossible thing, it might as well be a more tangible impossibility, like peace or justice, and not the smoke of beauty.

I guess that I just don’t know.

When I was a younger playwright, I harbored the absurd faith that I could equal and even exceed Shakespeare’s work (somebody has to – what other art form is so in the thrall of a single artist from such a long time ago?) That ambition – equal parts noble and laughable to me now – has moved from my mind to my heart; I long for it knowing full well how long I fall from it. And yet…

And yet, it seems to me the place where a truce could be made. If I could write 38 full-length plays that I loved, I could maybe walk away, knowing I had at least followed the attempt all the way down. I could then find a new means of creating. I could tell all the unfinished plays (33 at last count) clamoring to be written that this had to be enough.

The idea that there could an enough – and after this enough, there could be something new – is liberating, almost intoxicating. I could say “and there an end” before death does. I could print all of my plays into a folio, send them to all the people I love, and walk away. I could walk on to discover the next thing I was made to do.

At the current rate I write, I could reach that goal in as few as five years, and feeling that light at the end of the tunnel makes my steps feel light.

Five years is a long time; all sorts of things could come along to change my mind. In the end, the stories may force me to write them in spite of all my best intentions, and they may continue to demand to be made plays. I guess that I just don’t know, and it gives me a little thrill to not know.

How about you – do you dream of a way out of your dream?

Published by CorinnaSchulenburg

Artist and Activist

9 thoughts on “Exit Strategies

  1. Ah, gus. It is right and proper to question ourselves and our path. Despite the communal necessities of the performing arts this life is a lonely, singular life. It’s lonely, not because someone doesn’t come along for the ride with us, but because following our heart can be a singular place.

    It’s lonely when it works and we look around and we ask ourselves, “Is this it?” It’s lonely because we are on our necessary path, in the woods looking for it. But what we don’t realize is that we have (hopefully) chosen to enter the woods at it’s deepest and darkest place because following this life is following our own true path, where NO ONE else has tread before us. It’s lonely and worthy of questioning because it is that struggle that is worthy of us, and that we can after all find not just our own path, ourselves and our art, but what makes us all human.

    I’m very proud to know you for sharing such a daring post. Know that you are NOT the only person to ever consider such things. But like sysiphus, it’s best to keep pushing that rock up the hill. We live for the ride down.

  2. Ah, but how well would Shakespeare have traveled the oceans of his life had he been compelled to check Facebook every hour, or endure the tweets of outraged fans who thought Romeo should have carried a concealed crossbow? The future is always uncertain, and it is a wise man who considers the shape of the path ahead before it is walked. But the path behind has earned a comfortable respect. The plays, the words, the flight of a remarkable imagination, have made laid memories upon the souls of so many of us and we are grateful. An uncertain future seeks a voice and you speak that. You will make choices. They will be good ones.

  3. I’m feeling very similarly right now. I’ve been writing 2 or 3 plays a year but all that happens is that I have a huge stack of plays sitting on a shelf. Right now, I’m trying to write other things. Graphic novels, Films, Fiction, Musicals, a web series. Maybe I’ll only write a play a year and then write this other stuff filling in the rest of the time. I love writing plays. I love having written screenplays and fiction. There is the rub. But there just aren’t enough stages to accept all the plays I want to write. And so my love feels misplaced. uunh.

  4. Gus, I have the opposite problem: too many “exit strategies” and nothing from which to exit. I’ve always envied those who, like you, discovered their calling early. I, on the other hand, stand perpetually at the crossroads in Frost’s yellow wood, unable to make a decision. I have so many creative pursuits I wish to follow: playwright, YA novelist, short story author, sketch comedy writer/performer, improviser, cook, game show host…but trying to pursue them all leaves me unable to truly pursue any of them. And I’m reluctant or unwilling to let any of them go.

    However, I’m not sure you need an exit strategy. Try putting down the pen for a week and see what happens. And if the week turns into a month, or four, just know that there’s no law saying you can’t return eventually. And I expect you will return: the voices from your unwritten pages will call you back.

    Best of luck with your endeavours, my friend. Give the Bard a run for his money (remember, he was an actor and director, too!)

  5. Well, Phewg, I’ve just been made aware of this post via Nicole and Dr C and am moved to respond simply (for a change) with my first reaction, albeit one that’s been 64 years in the making. It’s how you do whatever you do that matters, so much more than the ‘what’; so much more than the outcome. God, of all people I know in this world, I’m not worried about you in that regard, just worried that ‘goals’ and other external measurements may have a smothering effect. I don’t see how you can help bringing the essential ‘you’ to any task, your concentrated firecracker self, remember your wedding vow promise to Heather, how wise? You’re already brave, you already make stuff up like nobody’s business, so if the lava stops flowing for awhile, I don’t see the tragedy. much love.

  6. How I can relate to you Gus! Cathy sent me the link to your blog a few days ago and I have been a bit delayed in reading.

    Great post. I am convinced that much of what you are feeling is related to you being an “NF”. My mind is always questioning, evaluating, judging and determining whether I am on the right path. Furthermore, it is constantly questioning, evaluating, judging and determining if my motivation for being on the current path is justified, altruistic and noble. The same applies to my exit strategy plans. Complicated creatures are we…

    I will say that nothing gets one’s mind on the topic of self-actualization and life journey like 8 months at sea. I look forward to talking with you about this the next time we are together. I always love your insights and enjoy our discussions. As a preview, and adding to your sister’s well written post, I am convinced that the ‘what’ is subservient to the ‘how’, at least to a major degree. The only regret that one should have at the end of their life is if they were unremarkable in whatever path they chose…and you my brother are so very far from unremarkable.

    1. @John Marburger:

      I agree. The worst possible thing would be to be one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

  7. If you stop writing plays I will cry. And as we learned in DEINDE rehearsals I pretty much only cry for deaths of close family members and Pixar films. Don’t make me cry, Gus.

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