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.

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Gettin’ Your Hard Game On

IFI’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even I know that putting sex and violence into your content is the sure way to become popular. But because I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer I don’t do that. Not usually. Sometimes people think I do, but I don’t. That doesn’t even make sense, does it? Either it’s there or it’s not there. Either there’s liftoff or Houston we got a problem. It’s been scientifically proven: you cannot be just a little bit pregnant. But I beg to differ.

I’ll show you what I mean. This past weekend I hosted a playwrighting workshop in my hometown. I write fiction, my fourth novel is coming out in August, blah, blah. You’ve heard all that before. But I’m taking a break to write strictly dialogue—my favorite part of any story. Let’s not go into the arrogance of thinking I can simply dash off a few he saids/she saids and call it a play. The point is, I had one of my first attempts at this artform critiqued this past weekend.

The result? I was duly  reminded of the arrogance of passing off a few pages of conversation as a play. I was rebuffed, rebuked, chided, scoffed at, humiliated, crucified, immolated, flayed alive, and drawn and quartered. Finally I was requested to leave the theater. Fortunately I’m a masochist and enjoy that sort of thing. There’s nothing quite like having your intestines boiled before your own eyes first thing in the morning.

I limped home, enjoying my pain. Then the night closed in. The curtains on the outside world were drawn, leaving me to my own sordid thoughts. Before I knew it, it was two a.m., the thinking hour. I tossed and turned, haunted by one particularly acidic comment. It kept replaying in my head, even as I couldn’t get my head around it: it did not compute.

The comment came from an angry man who stood up and stated, “there’s one thing in your play that had no business being there. This thing did not further the action. It did not contribute a thing. I’m talking about the hard-on. It had no business being there.”

I nodded my head and muttered something about it probably had been put there by somebody to say something about the character’s character. Or maybe the dynamics of the marriage. In my own head I was writing off the old sourpuss as a prude, a Podunk morality pusher that didn’t like anything racier than Disney.

But that didn’t make sense and that’s why I couldn’t get to sleep. There was a cognitive dissonance rolling around in my brain. See, the play opens with the married couple completely in the nude, and that hadn’t bothered the guy. It wasn’t the sex at all. He just felt the hard-on was misplaced.  He felt it didn’t need to be in a play about environmental disasters. In his mind, I was just trying to shove in a little sex or violence to get the numbers up.

As if!

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