“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?