I just paid eight bucks for two coffees. The lady called me “Mami” and gave me a free banana. “How are you?” I asked.
“Working, working,” she said. “Always working.”
Back up in our room on the fifth floor of this hotel, there’s an impressive scene out the window. About 75 construction workers in yellow hard hats and orange vests are building a hospital or something big next door.
The scene is laid out before us like a presentation. We’re far up enough to see the whole site, and can guess what each area looks like, the parking garage part and the part that’s maybe the building…but close enough to watch the details of what they’re doing. One guy measures spacing between the rebar sticks, which Dave surmises will then be moved up as a uniform grid to form the next floor. Another carries one of a million yellow scaffolding pieces with two other guys, swinging it into place. Another drops his tool belt right where he’s standing when the break bell rings.
“They all did that,” Dave reports from the window. I’m now in bed drinking my coffee and eating half a banana. “Just unbuckled them and let them fall to the ground.” What a clear and simple way to mark your place as you head to the food truck parked at the curb or grab your prepackaged bag and thermos.
I might be making up the thermos part. But we’re close enough that Dave can marvel at how many hot dogs are being ordered at 9 AM. He describes the men leaning against a mammoth dumpster and sitting on the curb, eating or opening whatever they’ve brought along. I’m too lazy to get up and check on the thermoses… Fine, hold on.
Too late. In the time it took to scribble the above, they ate and drank and are already heading back to work. I see one guy shake hands with another. Then they hug and walk arm over shoulder back through the chain-link fence and into the area we’re calling the parking lot.
I watch another guy return to his tool belt. He stands above it and first wraps a bandanna around his head. Over that goes his hard hat. Then he grabs the belt and buckles it on. Dave is watching the building area. “Those guys can NOT get the concrete saw going,” he says. “I bet they flooded the engine.”
What’s also amazing to observe from up here is how they all seem to be moving at the same speed. No one’s in a hurry. They each seem to know what they’re doing, from the guy pushing a broom to the crane operator, who Dave says must have climbed 16 or 17 ladders to get up there—there’s no little car that carries you up on this one. They all know how to pace themselves in the Houston heat. “Now they’re tying together the rebar,” he reports. It will get raised up and another floor will be laid, and the monstrous building will “go up,” as we say, like it happens by machine.
The day after a reading is always a letdown. I was very happy with how the play sounded and the response to it after, but in the pause after one phase of work on a script feels done and I’m not sure what the next phase will be, I find myself unsure what to do with the day and overly sensitive to imagined slights like an empty coffee basket. The plan is to drive to Denton to see Dave’s home town, stopping in Tyler to visit cousin Lois. Yes. That’s a good plan and it will all start once I can get myself off the bed and into the shower.
“They finally got the concrete saw going,” Dave reports. “Phew.”
She was not a dog you told your troubles to. Confidences made her uncomfortable. Also tears, hugs, too much petting. We have no stories of, “hey I was crying and you’ll never guess what she did! Cuddled at my feet and looked up at me with gentle understanding! Or nuzzled me and got me to play with a ball to distract me! So cute!” It wasn’t her job to distract you. She was a dog and you were a human and she had her own issues to deal with. That’s how it felt, anyway.
She had the neighborhood to patrol. Skateboarders to hysterically lunge at, no matter how many training techniques we’d tried over the years. Positive reinforcement. Time outs. Being the alpha. “Try putting her on her back and reminding her you are in control.” “Try abandoning her immediately, so she realizes there are consequences.” “Try ignoring her—when they only get responses for good behavior they learn to practice only good behavior.” None of it worked. She went ballistic, even in her last days, when she was shaky on her feet and the things her old eyes saw as skateboarders were actually bikers riding past. She never had anything against bikes. Only skateboards and scooters.
And certain dogs. Bill. Princess. Misty, until they made up with help from Kerry. She could sniff them out from a block away and her hackles would go up. She’d slow down, scanning the horizon and sniffing for their precise location. Even last week, when we walked up Sunnyside with Summer and Lake and Ever, Django trying to keep up with her newest favorite dog friends, maybe because they sort of looked like her, I saw Bill and his owner walking parallel to us across the street. He too was feeble, walking stiffly. I told Summer, “She used to hate that dog.” And Summer looked surprised that Django could dislike anyone. Dear sweet Django walking along, slowing down Summer’s dogs but they didn’t seem to mind. Then we reached the corner and suddenly a line rose on Django’s back like a Rhodesian ridge of backwards fur. She looked across the street, saw Bill, and let out a furious bark. “Rarrrrfff!”
Poor Bill seemed shocked. He was long over it, and anyway I don’t think he ever hated her as much as she did him. “Okay, Django, let it go,” I said, pulling her around the corner and away from Bill and his owner. Django reluctantly stopped barking and Summer said, “Wow, her hackles are up!”
“Yeah,” I said, a little proud of her fury. As Tashie would say, She still had the fire. It took half a block for the ridge to smooth back down.
There were many more dogs she loved, or at least loved seeing. Izzy and Lulu, Sullie, Tazzy and Toby, Ginger, Jack, Barney, once we weren’t fostering him anymore. Certain dogs she liked better as time went on. Buddy, Solo, Beau. Certain ones she always liked and seemed calm with. Maize, Charlie, Millie, Larry, Ernie, Chloe and Lucy.
There were the dogs from older generations who have passed. Nina, Audrey, Venus, Tiger, Bat, Cane, Riley, Moe, Jinx, Spoof, Poncho, Cinnamon, the rough-coated charcoal dog who looked a little like Mookie. Red used to take care of her and he and her owner were in a relationship for a while. He’d take Django sometimes when we travelled, and told me Django always slept with his mom in her bed. Those were the days of Roscoe, and Wrigley, whose owners moved into Dave’s apartment when he moved out, which reminds me of Windsor, who lived downstairs. And the one German Shepard she wasn’t terrified of, whose owner was Ann and had us over for a Christmas party once. So many dogs. And also Zoe and Teva and Barkley and Bramble and that dog who killed a squirrel, whose owner was a famous photographer. And Chase up at Watervale, and that dog she met last year in the cottage next to ours. So many dogs.
So many people, as Dave just said. People here and gone. Liz. Dan. My dad. My mom, who would throw bits of scrambled egg and toast at her instead of holding them out because she didn’t like dogs. Donna and Mark. Chuck and Kate. Lisa and John, who she only snapped at once, just a little John, because your hand was too close to her face and she didn’t know you were only reaching over her for a drink. Amy and Kristen when we all used to hang out together. Tom, who gave her the best nicknames. Heather who fed her way too much cheese and thus whose boundless affection was tolerated. Patrick who ignored her sufficiently to be trusted. Deanna and Tori, who technically I guess belongs in the dog category. Kelly who meditated in the living room, drawing Django to her with her calmness. Shannon and the other dog-obsessed herding people, and Shannon’s husband Bill, who would took Django out on his postal delivery rounds when she boarded with them. Shannon said Django would run to the barn where Bill was working, ready for action or just to watch while he did barn things. And Steven, who only met her once but said as he was leaving, “Good dog, Django, thank you for letting me live today.”
Summer and Shayna. Nina P. and John Byrne and Gayle and Other-Donna and Neighbor Dave and Ruth and Elaine and the Betty’s and their men. Amy and Tracy and the fun of being at their house in Madison. Michelle, the one groomer Django was truly happy to see. Bob the woodcarver. Aaron who she only bit a little that one time, because she was already stressed out by the party. A tall blond skateboarder at the park who used to slow down when she ran after him so he could give her treats. Once she got used to this, she stopped barking at him and trotted casually over instead. This had absolutely no effect on her behavior with other skateboarders, who remained objects of outrage.
There are a hundred people I’m forgetting and a million ways in which she was spoiled, treated, appreciated, laughed at, and wondered at. “She’s so beautiful,” people would say. One woman standing on a street corner smoking asked, “Did you have her highlighted or is it natural?”
Did she know what a good life she had? Or is that something for us to know? She knew joy. She knew fun. She and Nina wrestling on Liz’s deck when they were 2 or 3. Long before she began to be frail and I worried about her back. They would shove and gnash and twist each other onto their backs, and back up and jump at each other again, so happy and ferocious, but only if they could knock into me and Liz, intertwined right under our feet. Send them down to the yard where it was safer, with grass to land on and more room, and they’d stare blankly at each other and sniff around. Then they’d wander back upstairs and into our space, and Nina would nose Django, or Django would shoulder into Nina, and one would bat a paw at the other, and they’d start again.
There were random things she loved, like Abbie’s too-small dachshund bed, that she crammed into instead of the proper-sized beds we bought her. And walking slowly under plants to let them stroke her face and back. And her perch at the front window. And getting her butt scratched firmly and briefly. And sleeping by herself for the first few hours at night and then standing quietly over Dave at three in the morning, staring at him, until I woke up and nudged him and said, “She wants to come under.” Then he’d lift the covers and she’d crawl all the way in, a doughnut of fur with the tip of her nose poking out only when I couldn’t stand it, positive she would suffocate, and pulled the covers back a little. She didn’t like to be petted but she did like to curl up next to me with her rump pushing into my thigh or my shin. As long as I didn’t touch her too much or make much eye contact she was a great companion on the couch.
Django was a pretty good travel dog. I think she relished stopping at random gas stations along the highway. We’d trot over to unfamiliar ground while Dave filled the gas tank, and she’d do her business efficiently, and then come back and hop into the car. When we rode the ferry long ago, on the first trip Dave and I took together, Django jumped up onto the bench next to us and sat quiet and alert, looking at the water as we travelled from Washington Island to Rock Island, where no cars were allowed. She hiked with us around the seven-mile perimeter, staying close but reveling in the rocky shore and the smells and wading in the shallow water. It was all very idyllic until we walked back toward the dock to wait for the last ferry and Django suddenly saw a herd of deer and took off. Just disappeared over a hill. We ran after her but she was gone. We panicked. We wandered and called. We blamed ourselves for letting her off leash in unfamiliar territory. Dave hadn’t had a dog in 15 years and I knew he thought I was too lax with her. We waited and wondered if we could stay there overnight. We had no water or food. We wondered if the deer would kill her if she caught up with them.
About a half hour later she trotted back, ecstatic, bristling with energy. A happy dog.
Her passing frees me to remember all the years before she was unable to do so many of the things of vigor and action. Leaping into the car or up onto walls that seemed too high for a dog her size. Chasing a ball like fury, or circling other dogs who were trying to play and barking, shouldering, nipping, doing whatever she could to break them up. Because that was fun for her? Because that was her job as a herding dog? Because she simply disapproved of their chaotic silliness? We’ll never know. Or chasing Zoe to the garbage cans across the field in the parking lot. To bring her back? To join her? To simply be a follower in the pack?
Or running at a skunk and then running from a skunk down at Kenyon during a mime school barbecue, sprayed and confused but also seeming cheerful and curious about this new scent, trailing it into the open door of the dorm where we were staying. It only took one race up the stairs and then back down to stink up the whole building so bad that Kenyon decreed, next year at mime school, No Dogs.
During the years when Dave and I drove up to Wisconsin every Wednesday, so she could go herding at Shannon’s, she’d lie quietly in the back seat for the first 87 minutes. Then, as soon as we got to Genoa City and turned left at the pizza place she’d sit up. She’d sniff the window desperately and when we opened it she’d stick her nose out, pulling in the Wisconsin air. The road turned into country and farmland and she’d pace furiously between the open windows, seeming like she couldn’t get enough of the smells and the open vistas. Then we’d pull into Shannon’s farm and she’d jump out, vibrating with excitement to get at the dumb sheep and the more challenging goat mafia. Shannon could make her behave just with a look, and we’d tell ourselves again that we were bad owners, we must learn to do the things Shannon did to make her behave. Then one day she got side-butted by a goat and wasn’t so into herding, but we kept going because she loved to walk the field after herding lessons, running with Frodo and all of Shannon’s border collies and Snowball who didn’t really run and the beautiful, perfect herder owned by the woman who was a nurse in Milwaukee.
So many great memories, it makes my heart find places I forgot were there. The last few days, we’ve been overwhelmed with messages and flowers and cookies and chocolates and cards and poems and stories and healing stones and love and kindness from people who knew her, people who know the pain of losing an animal, or who maybe haven’t lost one yet and wonder a little bit how it is that other peoples’ dogs die when theirs surely won’t. Django, I miss you so much and love you so much. You were a good dog.
Yesterday started rough. Lots of anger and frustration over a writing deadline with none of the joy or appetite for the challenge. Tried various things to shake it, starting with actually doing the writing (sometimes I forget that part), but also yard work, reading, walking, sleeping. Sleeping felt dangerously good.
I got up to go to a friend’s show, and my stormcloud of dark thoughts traveled along. I blame it for making me miss the Damen stop on the Brown Line. Silently raging, I got off at Montrose and walked back to Damen to wait for the next bus.
The show took me out of myself with a beautiful performance of a hard story. Three gifted performers telling one woman’s story of forgiveness through words, Butoh, and sound telling, which was a remarkable sort of emotional Foley art.
But the magic of the piece drifted away while I waited through the talkback. I decided I couldn’t wait for a ride from my friend, so I checked Uber. I’m always scared of Uber because what if I get a weirdo? But travelling under a cloud of despair has its perks: who cares if something goes horribly wrong. I was looking at how the closest one was four minutes away, my finger hovering above the Request button, when I walked outside the theatre and saw some people I knew. Conversation seemed impossible so I hit the button.
Four minutes later Carl in his Ford Escape showed up. I asked his thoughts on the Ford Escape (see How The Volkswagen Scandal Has Changed Me), and he kept me entertained all the way home. He talked mostly about his two girls, Jordan and I didn’t catch the other one’s name, one fearless and the other “scared of everything.”
The fearless one eats anything and travels everywhere. She was walking at six-and-a-half months, born May 22 and carrying her own presents upstairs by Christmas Day to play with them in her room as Carl napped. He’s been divorced 16 years now and lives back in the city, on the South Side while his girls are in Bucktown. The scared one is living with the fearless one at the moment.
“They’re always asking me to do silly things,” he said. “‘Come over and make us grilled-cheese sandwiches!’ I was always making grilled-cheese sandwiches when they were kids.” Last Thursday he went to Buckdown and did just that but he went a little fancier. It was always tomato soup he made to go with the sandwiches but this time, “Lobster bisque.”
Lobster bisque. He said it twice, relishing the memory or maybe just the sound of the words.
He waited until I was inside before he drove away. I slept for ten hours and woke up excited to write again. It was a nice ride.
The honeymoon period after finishing the first draft of a brand new play is one of the finest rewards of writing. It’s a delicious breakfast-in-bed-on-the-balcony champagne-and-chocolate-strawberries first-scene-of-Barefoot-in-the-Park-the-movie-version mashup wall of euphoria.
This period is flush with all kinds of wonder. First there’s the wonder of sudden weightlessness. “I’m done, I’m done!” is all I need say, and the tightness lifts from my shoulders, just as it did when I pushed away from my desk after typing “End play.”
It actually takes a few tries, every few hours, at saying “I’m done!” before it feels true. Each time, I re-investigate the feeling of not having this thing to write. I examine the new spaciousness between my ears, and give myself permission to feel giddy. “I’m done!”
Then there’s the wonder of leisure. I can go to a play or go have a drink or do whatever I want without seeing the unfinished script waiting, lurking, threatening to disappear if the head and tail don’t get sewn on soon.
During this time, the play is perfect. No one has said “I don’t get it” or “I like where it’s going” or “Have you read such-and-such? You should, it’s very similar.” No one’s said they want to know more about x or less about y, or smiled in a manner that says this is exactly the kind of play I tend to write. As if it’s any easier to write the kind of play a person tends to write than any other kind.
In these first few days, I physically feel the wonder of something brand new existing in the world. I imagine other parts of the invisible world shifting to make room. The world didn’t ask for this. If asked, it might say the last thing it needed was another new play. We bring the world our offerings, these detailed instructions for performance that are somewhere between blueprint and poetry, for reasons I’m still not clear on.
The fact that I’m even thinking about this means it’s time to pack my things, maybe take one selfie on the balcony, and check out of the luxury hotel. I might have stolen a washcloth, so I need to walk quickly in case the maids notice something’s amiss and call down to the front desk, but they wouldn’t do that would they? Would they? For one washcloth? Okay fine it was a hand towel but whatever. What kind of cheapshit hotel is this where they’re like counting washcloths? No way am I leaving the four stars. It’s a slight relief: The honeymoon is over.
On January 1 of last year, Toots and I started a writing game. We’d spent most of New Year’s Eve watching Slings & Arrows, which is not a prerequisite for the game, but it helps.
Materials needed: phones, notebooks or laptops, a timer (see phones)
We could have spent the day watching Season 3, but unspoken between us was the knowledge that watching TV, no matter how good, was not the way we wanted 2015 to start. Django and I walked Toots to the train, and New Years festivities were officially over.
Either player can start the game. Toss a coin maybe.
After the dog walk, I wanted to lay on the couch and read. Instead, I got my notebook and a timer, and decided to write for 20 minutes, using the word “Frame” as a prompt.
Player 1 chooses a word and texts it to Player 2.
Set your timer for 20 minutes.
Write the word at the top of the page.
Continue writing anything at all until the timer goes off.
When you’re finished, text “Done” to your partner.
When your partner is finished, they text “Done” to you.
After both players have texted “Done,” Player 2 chooses the next day’s word and texts it to you.
When I was finished, I texted Toots to tell her how my new year was going. She liked “Frame” and wrote for 20 minutes too.
“Want to do this again tomorrow” she asked.
“O-okay,” I said.
So she texted me a word for the next day: “Challenge.”
Rules and Advisements:
Wait your turn: Don’t text your partner the next day’s word, even if YOU’RE done, until they’re done too. With the exception of…
Doubling down: If you absolutely cannot write on a given day, you may “Double down” the next day. Text this to your partner, and send or receive the next day’s word. On the next day, write for 20 minutes per word.
Tripling Down: See above. You’re getting into dangerous territory, but it is possible to get back on track. Don’t give up.
On a dog walk yesterday, I lamented to Dave about how much I miss this game. Not that I wasn’t relieved for it to be over – a whole year of doing this has its ups and downs, and it’s nice to be able to freely journal again, without the word “Level” (Jan 22) or “Arriviste” (July 19) or “Cope” (Nov 11) staring at you from the top of the page. But I loved sharing the ups and downs with Toots. And completing 365 days of shared words felt amazing.
Set your phone on silent if you don’t like getting texts at 3am.
After listening to me alternately whine about missing the game and celebrate the fact that I never again have to write about “Suppository” (Dec 30), Dave decided that he wanted to play this game. He called a friend who said, “Sure.” They had to double down immediately to catch up to properly start from January 1st, but they’re on track now to do it COMPLETELY WRONG. They’re writing too much. They’re texting each other every twenty minutes with a new word. I think they’re on like Word 4 and it’s only January third. They’re going to burn out! But I’m keeping my mouth shut. It’s none of my business.
Look up the word before setting your timer. Even if it’s a simple word. You might learn something.
Type if you don’t want to write. Any technology is fine.
But why a pencil? Who would write for twenty minutes with a pencil?
On today’s dog walk, Dave told me a bunch of interesting things about “Sewer.” Apparently it’s related to “Sewing” and “Serving,” which connects to “Steward.”
I might choose “Steward” today if I were still playing with Toots. But our game is complete.
All the guests came. Even Press-n-Seal, though she worried that her presence might be more hurtful than supportive. “Not that we serve the same purpose,” she half-apologized as we gathered in the darkened living room, “but if he sees me next to Cling Wrap—”
“He’ll be fine,” Cling asserted.
“I’m not saying there’s a parallel…”
“Of course there’s a parallel,” said Cling. “That’s why I want him looking straight in my eyes when we say ‘Surprise.’”
“Maybe I’ll stand farther back.”
“You’re sticking with me.”
“I don’t want to embarrass him.”
“It will bring him hope. Here’s you all bright and mega-sized, and here’s me. Standing tall. Still in the drawer.”
“Amen,” called Holiday Baggie, fiddling with a lamp near the couch.
“But how often are you out of the drawer,” I wanted to ask. But I’m new here, and although most higher-end kitchens have made a place for my double-sided parchment-foil promise, I haven’t exactly earned bragging rights.
“It’s going to be a great party,” said Aluminum Foil brightly. “Wax Paper is going to be amazed at the new opportunities out there, in crafting alone—”
“Sh-h!” hissed a Twist Tie from the window. “He just parked!”
We all froze in place, and stared at the front door. No one moved. The mantel clock ticked steadily, calmly, the quiet heartbeat of a gentler era, when spaces between seconds lasted a full, round second, when kitchen drawers held three simple things: foil, cling wrap, wax paper.
At last, the jingle of keys, the satisfying hardness of one key going into one lock for which it had been fitted. A turn, and a click, the door opening, figure hunched slightly in the light from the hall, and in all of us—surely the others felt it too?—an instant realization that we were invading, that we had no right, that he should be allowed to leave the drawer in his own way, privately if that’s how he wanted, that he deserved his privacy if nothing else, but suddenly—
Holiday Baggie switched on the lamp, and someone else found the too-bright fluorescent ceiling light, starting the fan too though it was the middle of winter, and Wax’s face was flooded with light while his thinning hair ruffled in the breeze.
He gasped, and broke into a shocked smile, which I suspected—something in the eyes—was not truly spontaneous. “Well, for the love of Pete,” he drawled, yes, far too casual to be genuine, “Who let you bums in here?”
When we bought our 2010 Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen TDI, our fond hope was that we would have it for at least ten years. That’s one of the great things about diesel engines, Dave told me after much research. They can go forever. And a diesel that was also clean-burning? At last, technology and principles aligning! Then some stuff happened.
I brought home new coffee from the co-op. I cut open the top, hoping it would smell like Peet’s. It smelled good, but not as good as Peet’s.
“This smells good,” I said, shoving the bag at Dave and hoping he would say it smelled as good as Peet’s.
“Mm,” he nodded appreciatively. “But not as good as Peet’s.”
“Nothing smells as good as Peet’s,” I allowed, tossing the fair trade, people-supported, beautifully-designed packaging, perfectly good-smelling co-op coffee under the bus.
BUT THAT’S NOT HOW THE VOLKSWAGON SCANDAL HAS CHANGED ME. NO. IT’S WORSE.
“It’s a certain sweetness,” Dave mused.
“They all have it…” I added, looking for the right sweetness identifier.
“…But I can tell them all apart,” Dave clarified.
“Me too! I would totally know if I was drinking Major Dickasons versus Garuda,” I claimed, though secretly I wondered, would I?
NO, THAT’S NOT IT EITHER. IT’S DEEPER AND MORE INSIDIOUS.
“Each Peet’s blend is distinct, but they that all have that…” Dave paused.
“… something,” he finished.
It was a quiet, blissful moment that would have been otherwise unremarkable…
EXCEPT FOR WHAT HAPPENED NEXT.
“We need to either get to Peet’s or go back to the subscription service, though it feels too expensive,” was what I was about to say.
BUT SUDDENLY AN IMAGE CAME INTO MY HEAD.
At the Peet’s coffee factory, during the roasting process, workers pour the requisite amount of the synthetic extract “Peets No. 7” into the vat. This chemical cocktail was developed after much market research and consultation with a French aroma company operating out of a shell corporation in China. They’ve calculated exactly how much Peets No. 7 must be added to each batch to create the proprietary brand nose-feel experience while maximizing ROI. Too much and people will suspect foul play. Too little and they won’t find it compelling–they’ll abandon Peet’s for the stuff at the Co-op. Or Folgers. Or maybe Peet’s IS Folgers with Peet’s No. 7 added. HOW DEEP DOES THIS GO?
Old, pre-Volkswagen me would scoff.
Of course Peet’s is different, the coffee itself is better, Peet’s started in Oregon and everyone is pure there. They just wouldn’t DO that.
New, post-Volkswagen me isn’t even shocked.
I just nod dismissively, “Yeah, they probably would,” and pour the co-op coffee into the canister with the rest of the Peet’s because why bother.
Ditto Trader Joe’s “Gluten Free” Waffles, So-Delicious “Vegan” Ice Cream, Room and Board “Made in America” furniture, “eco” bee thermostats, all recycling…
Dave and I spent a week up north to be in nature, see some colors, and generally relax. In the list below, can you spot the 2 things we DIDN’T do to make our vacation a success?
The first correct guesser gets a jar of Cherry Republic cherry jelly — because Donna says it’s better than jam.
When I was writing and rewriting Twin Set, it seemed to be a play about relationships. How a relationship between two sisters both serves and confines them, how their relationship with a third woman both expands and destroys them.
When I tried to interest theatre companies in the play, it became a play about 1976 Oak Park as a metaphor for change vs. resistance, as expressed by three strong female characters. As I tried harder to get artistic directors to read the script, I all but abandoned any talk about plot or conflict and focused on “great roles for women.”
Once the play was lucky enough to get a production, it became about the things that might bring in an audience: nostalgia and intrigue.
When we moved into rehearsal, it became a play about facts. What day of the week does the play start on? How long ago did their mom die? How many other siblings do they have? When was Betty born, and when was Meggy? How do you make the sign of the cross? Why do observant Catholics abstain from communion? How is their apartment laid out? Rehearsal seemed to be a process of actors absorbing facts.
Then Heather and I took on the role of costume design, and it became a play about clothing. Betty needs 9 outfits, Meggy needs 8, Marnie needs 6. How do we find clothes that are easy to take on and off, look like 1976, fit their color profiles, and sort of fit the budget? Why are there so many different days in my play? Suddenly I saw ways to rewrite it so that the characters didn’t have to change so often.
No, that wasn’t until Tech, when it became a play about transitions. How can we most effectively and efficiently shift the actors and set and lights and sound from one scene to the next? What equipment is available? How is one stage manager going to manage all the things our creative vision demands of her? (I still have no idea but she makes it work without ever suggesting it’s impossible.)
Now that it’s up and running, and I think I’ve made my peace with all these different ways to explain the play, a friend writes and asks if he can bring his 11-year-old daughter to see it. Is it appropriate? It has now become a play about: some language, a tiny bit of violence, and women kissing.
Is that inappropriate? Women kissing men is G-rated, but is same-sex kissing too mature for 11-year-olds? Somehow in my brain it seems to depend on whether the kid lives in the city or the suburbs, which makes no sense whatsoever. In any case, I describe the play in this laundry-list style and send it off.
Big relief, none of those items causes any concern. They’re planning to attend. He’d just wanted to make sure there was no nudity.
Which reminds me there are several moments of women in underwear, which hadn’t occurred to me when I thought about appropriateness for 11-year-old girls. Should I write him back? Nudity isn’t the same as underwear, right? But what if nudity is implied by the underwear?
Once again, I realize I have absolutely no idea what my play is about.
So by this point, you have a completed, polished script that is quite possibly the most brilliant thing ever. Awesome! Or maybe it’s sort-of okay. Yay! Or perhaps it’s just some dialog strewn like dead logs across a trail in a forest no one owns, so why pay a log picker-upper to come in and clean up? Why not just leave them to soften and decay with the passing seasons, composting back into the weather and enriching it with their dormant barky-ness? It’s time to send out your work!
First, search the web for the many, many contests and festivals that feature new work by living playwrights. Remember that term: new work. It’s something you should start saying instead of a play. It sounds more important, like you’re working on a cure for something, doesn’t it?
Many contests and festivals charge a small fee. Don’t begrudge this. It costs a lot to get everything processed and reviewed and responded to. Even if the readers are volunteers, those other people who do stuff like advertise the contest usually have to be paid.
Insider tip: As a volunteer reader myself, I try to read my minimum number of submissions at the last minute, perhaps at the end of the day or when I’m completely frustrated by my actual job and need a brief distraction. “Try and hold my interest,” I tell the submission. “You’ve got fifteen seconds.” So take all you’ve learned in previous chapters about character and story arc and show-don’t-tell and pacing and stuff, and jam it all into the first half-page, because that’s probably all the time you have. As John Irving said, “try to tell the whole novel in the first line.”
What is it you want to say? Some popular themes include “Love is elusive.” “War is bad.” “Life is funny and the goofiest things can happen.” Whatever your flavor, consider shoehorning it into the first line or two of dialog, like this:
Night. A hot-air balloon. Joshua nurses his imaginary child. Gomesh helps.
Joshua: War is bad.
Gomesh: The goofiest things happen.
That way, even if your reader gives you a pass immediately, as they’re likely to do with a whole pile of submissions waiting and dinner not even started, you’ll know you are sharing your-deeply felt vision with another human soul.
Go for it!
Takeaway: The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step, but it ends any time you plop down and turn on Netflix.