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Race Against Time

It is October the 19th, Constant Reader, and my blog post is going to be rather terse this week.  Not that there isn’t a lot to talk about, because there is.  The pandemic is still raging, as is our election season, each offering their own existential threats to our Republic.  The Tony Award nominations were finally announced, quarantimes notwithstanding.  The actors’ unions have gone to war with each other as to who has jurisdiction over the remote productions we’ve been making do with over the past seven months.  I had a play of mine performed over Zoom this past weekend.

And I’m not going to be writing about any of that.

Because, again, it’s October the 19th, and the submission deadline for the script I’m currently working on is November the 18th.  So I have one month to finish it.  And at the moment, I’m maybe a quarter to a third of the way through a rough draft.

I’m more than a little bit worried here.

It’s not that I can’t finish it, of course.  Plenty of pieces have been drafted in this sort of a time frame.  The fastest I’ve ever drafted a full-length dramatic piece, in its entirety, has been three weeks.  (There was also that time in college when I frantically had to write 90 pages of a creative writing assignment in 48 hours, but that brings up some terrible memories I’d rather not think about write now.). But that requires a heck of a lot of time to sit down and write, and a heck of a lot of time to focus, and in the world we’re currently living in I don’t have very much of either.

The thing that sucks is the sense that I might fail to make this deadline despite doing everything right under these extreme circumstances.  I haven’t blown anything off; I steadily researched and prepared everything over the summer, outlined and prepared during September.  I’ve juggled these demands against my day job, and my hosting job, and my other writers/performers group.  By any reasonable standards, I’m a successfully functioning adult.  And yet I may have nothing to show for it.

Again, I have 31 days in which to complete this task.  That can be both an endless expanse of time and a blink of an eye, and I don’t know which of the two it will prove to be, and won’t know until those 31 days are past.

I’d worry about this some more, but time spent worrying is time not spent writing.

October Surprises

Global pandemic notwithstanding, I’m happy to announce that two of my one-act plays will be receiving online productions this month!  On October 16 and 17, Boston University’s Stage Troupe will present their One-Act Festival, featuring a piece I wrote this summer especially for the online format, called Trivial.  Performances are at 7pm each evening; you can register for them here: https://questrom.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_cjchw-g6RS6omV8QskbCUg

On Friday, October 23, Naked Angels Chicago will be presenting The Horror Show – an evening of six scary short pieces, including my own Trumpets Sounding Over Harrisburg.  The event is free to all; you can sign up through the evening’s Facebook invite, here: The Horror Show

Gender is a Trivial Subject

Life, incredibly, goes on.  Despite all the havoc surrounding us, we rise and eat breakfast and stumble through the day.  Those of us fortunate enough to be employed sit down to do our jobs.  Those of us in school sit down at whatever set-up has been jury-rigged for us and attempt to learn.  Those of us who write sit down at our laptops and write (or stare at our screens for hours in helpless procrastination – we are writers, after all).

This week, two of those things will be converging in my life.  I wrote a play called Trivial over the summer, specifically for performance over Zoom, and submitted it to a few companies.  A while ago, out of the blue, I received an email from students at Boston University.  One of those submissions had found its way to them somehow, and they asked me if they could put it up this fall as part of their annual One-Act festival, which, like many a festival these days, is being conducted and performed over Zoom.  I happily gave my blessing for them to debut the work; the performances are set for this coming weekend.

I can’t post a link to the performance, because the zoom meeting still has to be created; I’ll make an announcement here on this website as soon as I can.  The company’s website does list the cast list for my piece, however, and seeing the names of these young performers who’ll be creating these characters definitely had an effect on me.  Trivial features a thinly veiled version of my own trivia team, you see, in a story where a distraught young woman accidentally interrupts their Zoom trivia session.  In real-life, the core three members of our team are two men and one woman, so that’s how I depicted us in the play; combined with an off-stage Quizmaster who can be played by anybody, and I was happy to have managed some gender parity in the script.

Well, in scanning over the cast list, I saw that the Quizmaster is being portrayed, in this inaugural production, by a man.  All the other characters are being played by women.

That’s right – my fictional doppelganger is now a woman.

I’ve mentioned this to my trivia team, and they’re all delighted with this casting.  I’m more surprised than anything – I didn’t explicitly say that characters were male or female, so this is a perfectly valid casting option, even if I did give the “male” characters obviously gendered names like Malcolm and Stu.  (Maybe there are girls named Malcolm?  I don’t know.) This may be a perfectly valid choice for this company – I’ve never been to Boston and don’t know if it has an all-female trivia league or something.  Really, me being thrown for a loop by this has more to do with my removal from the process – this is the first time a piece of mine is being produced without any input or involvement from me, other than me initially giving my permission.  And ultimately, this is a one-act I put out into the world just to make something happen – it’s not a grand statement, and nothing that I thought that I’d need to be consulted about.

So the folks at Boston are free to do whatever makes sense to them.  Regardless, I’ll be in the virtual audience – I look forward to meeting the young female version of myself.

Doomscrolling

This is all so damn infuriating.

And once again, I don’t just mean the news, because by now we all realize the sheer scope of what’s unfolding.  I won’t refer to it as “chaos” or “madness,” because there’s been a profound, inevitable logic to it all.  And as I mentioned two weeks ago, the narrative is so blatant, so on-the-nose, that there’s not an MFA-wielding dramaturg on any theater’s board that would allow this story to be put up on the stage.  Think of it – as she lays dying on Rosh Hashana, Ruth Bader Ginsburg asks that her replacement not be named until after the inauguration – and when her opponents flout her wishes with a celebratory public event every participant winds up being struck down by a deadly plague?!?!  You or I would be laughed out of any producer’s office if we proposed such a plotline.  You’d have to get Stephen King and a resurrected Isaac Bashevis Singer to ream up on a West Wing reboot to have the necessary start clout for such an idea to see the light of day.

But that’s the story on our television screens and laptops, and all of us are watching.

The newly coined word, I believe, is “doomscrolling.”  Compulsively scanning Twitter feeds, both respectable and not, to glean some bit of new information, catch up with the latest hairpin plot twist.  It’s impossible not to do it; it goggles up hours of time.  And of coutse, time spent doomscrolling is time not spent doing anything else.

Well, that’s not entirely true, at least for me.  I’m still co-hosting Tuesdays at Nine, still selecting pieces to read and casting over the weekend.  Unfortunately, this means I have to reach out to actors and writers who are all also busy doomscrolling, and so the necessary commnications and finalizations all wind up taking the whole weekend to achieve.

That’s the bulk of my available free time, staring at my laptop, passively waiting for responses to come in.  Waiting for things to happen.

And that’s what’s so damn infuriating.  These are perilous times that demand some sort of action, dammit.  And while the more conscientious of us may be staying indoors to keep everybody helping (and not, y’know, attending public events to celebrate the deaths of our political opponents), there’s still things we can do.  Things we can write.  Amounts we can donate.  Actions we can take.  But so many of us, despite our best intentions, are effectively paralyzed, helpless to respond to unfolding events because we’re transfixed by the coverage of those very events.

I’m taking a personal day on Wednesday, to try and get some writing done.  Hopefully I’ll be able to refrain from doom scrolling for at least part of that time.

Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

And here we go again.

Note – I’m not talking about how it’s been another week of horror and heartbreak; at this point in 2020 that should go without saying.  (Ginsburg’s trainer doing push-ups in her honor as she lay in state in the Rotunda is the moment that broke me.) No, this is another lament that one of the less-heralded side effects of living through an ongoing apocalypse not having enough time to do anything.

Even when you have a three day weekend.

Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish calendar, and I have it off from work.  Not to sound flippant, but since I’m not Jewish myself (and living through half a year of the quarantimes should be sufficient atonement for anything bad I’ve done), I’ve been looking forward to having three days of uninterrupted time to draft a playscript, in the hopes of submitting for a competition whose deadline is November 18.  You can get a lot done in three days, right?

Certainly, just not what I was planning to do.

I’m still Co-Creative Director for Tuesdays at Nine (it’s our thirtieth anniversary baby, season), and much of Saturday was taken up in finalizing the writers and actors for our next virtual reading.  Combine that with some necessary errands (I still have to live, after all), and much of the day was already gone.  So was my mental ability to focus, so rather than write something new I spent the remainder of the day submitting existing scripts to various opportunities (which are still available to find on the internet, our current circumstances notwithstanding).  All in all a highly productive day in which I still managed not to do anything I’d planned to do.

Sunday, I participated in a Zoom reading in the afternoon, and had other obligations in the evening.  In the morning, I wrote the blog post you’re reading now, because try as I might I can’t get the darn things to write themselves.  So again, another productive day that didn’t bring me anywhere closer to my goal of having a useable draft in less than two months.

So, if I’m going to get any meaningful writing done – if I want to be able to say that I didn’t squander the opportunity of a three day weekend in the midst of my schedule that’s somehow still frenzied even though I’m in quarantine – I’ll need to do all of it today.  Like a college student who’s spent too much time partying, I’ll need to pull an all nighter to get my work done.  The difference being of course, that I’ve procrastinated by trying to endure a global pandemic, rather than doing keg stands.

I guess that’s why I write posts like these – to remind myself (and you, Constant Reader) that we shouldn’t feel guilty about this.  I mean, there’s plenty to feel guilty about in terms of how we got to this situation in the first place, and plenty of work to get out of it.  But I think we can forgive ourselves if we don’t do quite as much of that work in any given day as we were hoping to.  Things have been rather busy lately.

We Do Not Live In Subtle Times

Well, then.

In the course of not writing the stuff I’m supposed to be writing, and procrastinating by scrolling social media coverage of our latest calamity, I encountered the following tweet.  If, like me, you work in the theater (or would if we actually had theater happening at the moment), it’s likely to give you a rueful chuckle.  Again, I can’t take credit for it; follow the musings of @dangerfishback if you enjoy the following:

Also can I just say: if I wrote a play where Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies on Rosh Hashana a few weeks before a referendum on fascism, every dramaturg in NYC would be like: MAYBE THERE’S A MORE SUBTLE WAY YOU COULD COMMUNICATE THIS POINT.

I don’t think you need me to tell you how significant this weekend’s passing of Justice Ginsburg is, how perilous our historical moment as become (like it wasn’t perilous already).  There are already plenty of sources offering suggestions for how to donate to campaigns, demonstrate, and take other actions.  You don’t need me for that, and besides, this is an arts professional blog I’m running here.

So I’m going to complain about dramaturgs.

Because the point mentioned above is absolutely correct; this convergence of events, presented in prose or drama, would be lampooned as ham-fisted and obvious plotting.  The gatekeepers of our culture, armed with MFAs and titles from respected non-profit institutions, would cluck their tongues and take out their red pencils, and make precisely the sort of edits and appeals to subtle dramatic construction that serve as the punchline above.  It wouldn’t be the first time during this administration when they’d feel the need to do that; it wouldn’t be the first time this month.  That whole thing with the flotilla of boats where the large boats thoughtlessly swamped and sank the smaller ones in their wake?  Again, far too obvious a piece of symbolism.  And the dialogue of all these characters is just atrocious – they just blurt out the awful plans and prejudices that we’re supposed to couch in elliptical dialogue fraught with subtext.  Real life, it seems, makes for terribly simplistic drama.

Which means something has gone wrong with our concept of drama.

Euripides and Sophocles, Shakespeare and Marlowe – the tradition of world drama begins in epics of primal passion, archetypal stories full of howls of grief and rage.  They aren’t the least bit subtle, which is a large part of why they continue to work.  The rules we instill in artists today – demanding oblique and indirect plotting from our dramatists, telling actors that “anger is not an interesting choice,” and so on – have come much later.  They’ve come from a mindset that the arts are rarified, removed from the common folk.  An elite pastime.

Subtlety, in other words, is something you have to be able to afford. A luxury – of a time we’re no longer living in, if we were ever really living in it at all.

So as we rebuild drama from the wreckage of shuttered theaters and zoom readings, let’s take a moment to remember why we have to rebuild it in the first place.  Let’s resolve not to repeat our mistakes, and create an art form so removed from people’s lives that it loses any sense of relevance to them.

In other words, if you haven’t already done so, get angry.