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Playwriting as Religious Experience

l to r: MFA, intern, teacher, intern, intern

l to r: MFA, intern, teacher, intern, intern

Maybe it was just the time away from the computer but I feel cleansed and whole again. Like I’d been down to the river or something.

There was no rolling on the floor, lifting up of eyes, or frothing at the mouth, but in the end I can say the Kenyon playwrights conference was nothing short of a religious experience. I came away refreshed of spirit and with my faith in the muse renewed. Coming home I dedicated my life to the higher power of a nicely written conflict. I’m telling you, man, I am totally saved.

Maybe it was just the joy I experienced roiling in all that Midwestern optimism. Your sardonic sense of things retreats to the background as you bask in the innocence of a small, well-kept college town like Gambier, Ohio. Or, rather, bumphrak, Ohio as I lovingly call it. Considering I live in bumphrak, PA, I wouldn’t have thought farm air and a generally neat countryside would have provided much change, but it is different there. Imagine Berks County without the hills. In addition Gambier has the primness you usually find around places like Devon and Winterthur where even the weeds are manicured to perfection. You get the picture. It was lovely there and it went on and on and on, all the way to the horizon.

And what was I doing there? I mean besides drinking, carousing, and annoying the neighbors, which is expected of anyone attending a conference of any kind be it plumbing, Democrating, or vampiring. The type of thing that always happens whenever you get a group of people with a common interest together and send them off without their spouses. We held our own and proudly kept the reputation of writers being alcoholics intact. We carried on the Great Tradition with aplomb. And that surprised me. I think of playwrights as being intellectual and superior and staid and with families. They have names like August and William and Lillian. They’re not poets for chrissake. They write dialog, the very height of connection between people. They don’t need their Jones, because theater is a collaborative art, and so its creators are in touch, not isolated. They don’t hang about in garrets or clouds. They’re on porches and railroad platforms. There’s no reason for the mood altering chemicals. And yet, and yet, there is Eugene, Tennessee, Arthur. So the tradition exists and we held our own at the bar. Pretty much every night.

During the day activity centered around the play, which is the thing, as everyone knows. Not just the play, but the Great American Play. That is to say, our own. Each and every single one of us was working on the Great American Play. We slaved over next year’s Obie, Tony, and Pulitzer winning work. Each of us. We wrote and sweated and presented. We worried and cried and wrung our hands. In all fairness, the latter was probably due to the cafeteria running out of bananas and yogurt, forcing us to eat a sausage sandwich for lunch, but really, we did worry over our plots much of the time.

We critiqued our classmates and in turn were critiqued by them. We discovered our weaknesses and returned to the drawing board, or perhaps the Village Inn. We downed another cup of coffee, rinsed and repeated. We suffered the slings and arrows of the ill-tempered artistic directors posing as our teachers. We deflected the disdain of the interns forced to read our lines before they were allowed to graduate. We withstood the sneers of the MFAs assigned to our classes. Oh those haughty MFAs with their diplomas and credentials and effing talent. How many lunches didn’t we skip to slave over our plots just to show those damn MFAs!

We clung to our shredded pride, vowing to never be hungry again. In the end, we improved. Maybe not a lot, but a little. Enough to stay in the game, to convince ourselves we can do this. We can write a plausible inciting incident.  At night, alone in our dorm rooms with the lights out and no one around to keep us down to Earth, we dreamed of having our work, eek! produced one day.

And there’s the rub. The dream di tutti dreams: a full production with actors and a paid director at somebody else’s house besides our own. Because remember how we got started was in our own little theater at our own little house. Well, our parents’ actually.

When we were little the world was still filled with possibilities. We were precocious and creative and had the can-do spirit not yet knocked out of us. So we clothing-pinned an army blanket to a rope strung from the top of the window to the top of the book case. The blanket might have had a hole in it that our overactive imaginations believed to be a bullet hole. In truth our fathers never saw any action and the hole was from a moth, but never you mind. We were young and full of possibilities. And we were the writers, directors, and producers of our very first plays. We even starred in them. We now know the star properly as the “protagonist.” We learned that in Ohio. Back then, though, we were simply the most important person on the stage. Perhaps in the world. The story was about us, of course. And maybe the zebras in the zoo. Or the monkeys. Always the monkeys. In the real world the monkeys are the protagonist and we the antagonist but that’s real life. Over in the reptile house was our first conflict, but we didn’t notice the creaking open door to the python cage. We do now, of course, having been to the Kenyon playwriting conference. It’s in there now, yessirree bob: that ratcheting tension and overwrought complication. But back then it was just a zebra and a monkey and an army blanket with a hole: a zoo story without a suicide. And now look at us: able to write conflict and tactics and tension. Don’t we clean up nice!

Yes, I’ve been down to the river and have been set free. Hallelujah!

Sue Lange

inside the tree of wishes

inside the tree of wishes


2 thoughts on “Playwriting as Religious Experience

  1. I loved it, but sandles, I mean dai, Sue dai, ( “come on” in Italian. you use it every other word, the other two words being “meno male” and “magari” google them. I can’t wait to see the new Sue Lange!!!

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