Last week, I described the twenty seven-year odyssey it’s taken for me to come up with so much as a rough draft of my new Shakespearean pastiche, Philostrate. (For reference, that’s seventeen years longer than the actual events of The Odyssey.) And having done so, Constant Reader, I’m a little worried that I’ve given the impression that I’m a hopeless procrastinator. I mean, I frequently am a hopeless procrastinator, but not where my creative energies are concerned. So to that end, I want to tell you about my next writing project, a short play I’m tentatively calling Morningside Heath.
Which I began and finished in the space of this past week.
Yes, it’s possible even for me to create something in so short a period of time. How, you ask? Well, let me take a moment and tell you the story.
A number of friends who I’ve met through the Naked Angels reading series have their own theater company, the Core Artists Ensemble. Every summer, they put together a reading series of new 10 minute plays. This summer, they’ve asked that submissions take their inspiration from an episode of the author’s choosing of the podcast Radiolab. This has me in a bit of a quandary; these folks do good work and I very much want to participate, but I’ve never listened to a minute of Radiolab. And while the entire archive of episodes is online, I have no idea of where to begin, and less than a month from when submission guidelines were announced to the deadline – Friday, June 30.
So I choose an episode at random. Heck, I’m enough of a geek that I literally roll dice to determine which episode I’ll listen to. The topic of the episode selected by random chance?
Weights and Measures.
(Yes, True Believers, there’s an hour-long podcast out there on the Interwebz dedicated to weights and measures.)
There’s something of potential interest in one of the hour’s stories, concerning places where the universal standards for things like the kilogram are actually kept and safeguarded. (There is a physical standard for the kilogram out there under lock and key, as it turns out.) Something of a heist tale, in which somebody can somehow get rich by stealing or destroying that universal standard? Like Goldfinger, but for, I dunno, kilograms? It’s an elusive idea, and I’m not that crazy about it, and I’m trying to finish the Philostrate draft before the symbolic deadline of Midsummer’s Eve, so I let these ideas simmer on the back burner.
Over the course of the month of June, the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar becomes a focus of national attention. (Maybe you’ve heard a little something about it from the three freaking posts I’ve already written related to it.) And as that madness grips our city, a thought occurs to me concerning this one-act. What if the universal standard at the center of this play was the one I’m most familiar with – a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio? What if all the right-wing commentators were right, and this production of Julius Caesar was the downfall of Western Civilization, and after the resulting apocalypse bands of survivors were trying to get their hands on the last original copy of the Folio?
This I could work with. And a cursory Google search yields a potentially useful tidbit – that the one original copy of the First Folio lies in the rare books collection at Columbia University. I had a setting! And possibly a plot! And no time to work on it! For I finished the Philostrate draft on a Friday, and had to be at my day job the entire weekend afterwards – so any writing I had to do, the research, brainstorming, and actual drafting, would have to be done in just five days.
Having some time in the morning before I have to go to work, I take an impromptu field trip to Columbia University. I still don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, or what the heck this play is actually going to be about, but I’m hoping that being in the actual location will clear things up for me.
I arrange a meeting with one of the chief librarians at the rare book collection. I don’t need to see the Folio itself, but I am curious about where it’s housed, how it’s secured, that sort of thing. This, of course, makes me look like some sort of international criminal, so I have to take a few moments to assure her that I’m simply a writer doing research. (Writers have to do this rather often.)
For precisely these security reasons, she can’t actually tell me where the Folio is stored (it’s not exhibited with the main collection, obviously), or what kind of precautions are used in working with it. Apparently, there’s a whole network of storage tunnels and secret places, which I am not allowed to know about. However, she is able to tell me that the basement of the building we’re in, Butler Hall, is where repairs are made to rare books. This is useful. If I assume that at some point before my story begins, the Folio would have been brought there to try and preserve it, then I have a setting, and the beginnings of a plot. This, combined with seeing where Butler Hall stands in relation to the rest of the campus and the surrounding area, gives me what I need to begin.
I grab a notebook as I head out the door, and on the subway ride into Manhattan I sketch out a brief timeline of what has happened before my play, what apocalyptic events unfolded in the aftermath of the “Caesar Riots.” I have an audition in the morning and work in the afternoon and evening, and in the few hours I have in between the two I sit in the Equity Lounge and do a brainstorming exercise, making up as much information as I can for each of the three characters I’ve decided are going to be in this thing. The point of these exercises (which I learned from my playwriting instructor, Andrea Ciannavei, and which were pioneered at the Royal Court theater in London) isn’t just to flesh out the characters. By generating information about them as individuals, you also start to reveal the sort of relationships they’ll have to have with each other, and from there you reveal what the plot is going to have to be. I leave the Equity building excited, confident that I now have the building blocks of a play.
Sadly, I hit a roadblock as soon as I arrive home that evening and start working on the piece. It turns out my copy of Final Draft is out of date, and I wind up losing the evening in a black hole of websurfing before I figure out how to download the necessary updates. Nevertheless, I do put down the opening stage directions, and fill out the all-important title page. I have a title. This is official now.
I have time to draft the first three pages in the morning before I have to go to work. My confidence starts to be shaken as I write, however. Despite all the rich and weird details I’ve amassed over the past two days, what’s coming out on the page feels rather generic. I feel myself losing focus as a result, and finish for the day not particularly satisfied with my progress at all. I tell myself that this is normal, and that the important thing is just to get the rough draft finished; whatever’s missing can be added in revision.
I come home from work and begin the long holiday weekend by plopping myself in front of my laptop and forcing myself to finish the draft (it ultimately runs 15 pages total). Some of it feels like it’s working, but much of it still feels generic and unfocused, and I’m fairly certain I’ve left out most of what I wanted to put in. By fits and starts, I force myself to continue and type out “End of Play” sometime around midnight. I play a little Plants and Zombies to shut my brain off, and go to bed – the deadline’s tomorrow, but I’ll have the whole day to revise.
There are some authors who are able to summon supreme confidence when they write out their drafts, only to return to them later and wonder what the hell they were thinking. I’m the exact opposite; when I open up the draft this morning I’m shocked to discover it basically works. The story is there; though it’s only fifteen pages there’s a nice clear three-act structure and it says what I want it to say. Most of the work that needs to be done is in the beginning, trimming unnecessary dialogue and adding specificity to what dialogue remains.
I also realize I need to change one of the character’s names and shorten the title, but then, that’s life.
I email my submission at quarter past one that afternoon, and then it’s off to enjoy the FIVE DAY WEEKEND! (By which I mean I go off to run errands and take care of banking. My life’s pretty boring.)
I have no idea if this piece is going to be accepted. I’m not even sure it’s good (though I think it’s pretty amusing). But after the months I’ve spent wrestling with Philostrate, it’s nice to be able to end the first half of the year by pointing to something and saying “There. I made that. Where once there was nothing but blank space, a new play now exists. I wrote that.