Ambitious plays suck (until they don’t)
The Philadelphia summer continues to be hot and awful, but I was able to take a little time last weekend to endure a reading of my latest play in Sam’s living room. It’s nigh-impossible for a playwright to leave one of these things with his ego entirely intact, and my reading was no exception.
I’ve been working on a new play for the last year, which is a long time for me to write a solid draft. Generally, I allow myself eight weeks (it used to be six, but I decided to adjust for illnesses, deaths in the family, and other assorted inconveniences). If I can’t write a draft in eight weeks, I don’t have it. I don’t understand what the play is, what the thrust is, or who the characters are. For a play to work, one line needs to lead into the next, one scene into the next, into a coherent whole. It shouldn’t be work. It shouldn’t be forced. It should just happen.
And, it almost goes without saying, my latest opus didn’t. It was long, laborious, and overwritten, and I recognized my mistake almost twenty minutes into hearing it read aloud.
Here’s the important thing…I don’t think this was a waste of time.
Let me back up a bit. The play is called Tao, and it is part of that rarest (and least successful) writing genres: the science fiction play. The upshot of it is, there’s a planet called “Tao” that is being farmed by a galactic empire, due to a time dilation. One day on the spaceship equals thirty-three years on Tao, so the empire spends a month sending scions to the planet, shaping nearly a thousand years of its cultural development. The play attacks themes of imperialism, cultural interference, and synthesizing religion, but it also addresses some interesting character situations (What happens when your girlfriend ages thirty-three years overnight, when you’re still the same?). Over all of this, I’m building the world of a polytheistic empire with a quirky, militaristic worldview, to say nothing of the world of Tao, which we never see on stage but catch glimpses of from the returning scions. It’s a huge story. More than one person suggested it should be a novel. Or even multiple novels. Why on earth would I attempt to put something like that on stage?
Because ambition is good. If all playwrights write are three-actor, drawing-room plays, we’ll never create anything new. Sure, my play crashed and burned. In retrospect, it almost had to. But maybe the next one, or the one after that, or the tenth one after that…won’t. And if I can write that play, you won’t be able to shut me up.
I’m immensely grateful to Sam and the actors and the audience’s painfully insightful comments. They keep me honest. They make me better. But I’ll be damned if they’ll make me stop taking chances.
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