How to read Roger’s Park

Dog and foot and book
You never know what anyone’s thinking anyway.

I’m never sure how to read Roger’s Park. Is this a hip corner or am I about to get mugged? A question which, after some attacks in Ravenswood Manor, I’m asking a lot lately.

Feeling overly cautious and foolish about it I walk a half-block to the train. In front of me is a cute black guy with pulled-up dreads. He walks into the station ahead of me and then immediately back out. Is he going to ask me to let him in with my card? Should I offer? But why am I assuming that’s why he came back out? Maybe he just forgot something. He ignores me and goes on his way. I go through the turnstile.

Up on the train platform another strikingly handsome black man stands under the heat lights. He smiles casually as I join him. He looks familiar, but I’m always wary when I think someone looks familiar, especially if they’re of a population I might offend. I have this fear the person will say, “Do we all look alike to you?” Populations I am afraid to offend in this way include black men, white men with beards, and white women with long, dark, straight hair. I also question myself when middle-aged white women with short hair look familiar, but I don’t worry about offending them. I’m one of them.

But also, I’m tired of being afraid to make a mistake. “I’m sure I know you,” I begin, and he says, “Yeah…,” and suddenly I remember. “We did that storytelling show!”

“Right, hi!” he says. “How are you?”

“Great!” I beam. “I just got a massage.”

“Nice!” We talk disjointedly as we get on the train and find seats. Both of us need to check our phones to see where we’re going and he does so straight off. I do so halfway because I kind of feel like I sort of know where I’m going. When he’s done mapping, he tells me about his event and I tell him about my event. “Cool,” he says. “Where was your massage?”

Centered Studios,” I say. “Mel was fantastic.”

“I live right by there!”

I really should be thinking about which stop I need to get off at but I ask, “Do you do yoga?”

“I do, but I need to do more of it,” he says.

At the risk of looking like I’m trying backhandedly sell him something I say, “Um, do you want a free yoga membership for Centered Studios?”

He looks at me a little blankly.

“I won it at a benefit auction thing,” I hastily add. “I used the massage part but I’m never going to make it back enough for the yoga.”

“Really?”

“Sure. Please.” I find the certificate and give it to him. I want to add that I’ve wanted to put an offer up on Facebook for someone who lives close enough to take the yoga classes, but I recently changed my Facebook policy to only go there on the first of every month and I don’t want the certificate to expire in the meantime.

“Can I send you some free theatre tickets?” he asks.

“That would be great!”

He puts his email address in my phone and I am suddenly dying to explain about Facebook. I think he would get it. He’s a poet and he seems fully engaged with life and up for new ideas. But will he think I’m an over-sharer who’s too worried about when to go on Facebook?

“Is this your stop?” he asks. We’re at Berwyn and the doors are open.

“Oh! Yeah!” I get out and run for the closing door.

“See ya!”

“See ya!”

Uber Carl

The Escape was way nicer.
The Escape was way nicer.

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.

Honeymoon

Perfectly what it is.

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.

How to Fail at Playwriting: Chapter 11: Contests and Festivals

Don't forget to read the fine print.
Don’t forget to read the fine print.

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.
They implode.

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.

Othello Explains It All For You

Not a Cheeto in sight.

It’s not so much that I thought she was cheating. Even though, okay, I guess I kind of thought that. But I do realize that I didn’t know it in that way where you feel sure enough to just come out and ask someone. Even though sometimes, when it’s that moment where you’re about to ask, and you can feel them willing you not to ask, you can feel in that space between you, the silent pushing back of the question, doesn’t that usually tell you something?

But it wasn’t that so much, because that on its own we could have overcome. No, it was the knowing that even if she hadn’t actually cheated, even if she hadn’t, there was this whole universe of not going on beside me. And would be for eternity, and it drove me insane. It’s not fair. It’s like a game the whole world is playing on me and I will not have it. I just won’t. So there.

You might think that’s petulance, contrariness, but it was the rawest of pain. I felt so alone, dropped on this earth a loner instead of point man in a family, a team, a cluster. I’m jealous of sisters who cuddle on the couch, or friends who cuddle like sisters, easy with each other in the way of puppies. I’m jealous of easy loves and sloppy families ambling down the street from the 7-Eleven, sucking Big Gulps and passing a bag of Cheetos back and forth. Unhealthy yes, but together in their orange fingers and idle crunching. 

I did it because of the fingers. I did it because of the space.  

Thank you, Russ

 Most of the years I knew Russ were spent hoping he’d remember who I was. We were introduced several times, first by a friend who was in town to see Ballad Hunter and took me. Russ was in the lobby, greeting a long line of people with his raised eyebrows and deep voice. A couple years later I signed up for a class, and when I walked into the office Russ was in there alone, somehow stranded among long tables. “Downstairs,” he said. The look on his face suggested that he couldn’t believe I had just done something as idiotic as his eyebrows had just witnessed, even if it was just walking through a door. I didn’t understand then that that’s just how his eyebrows were shaped.

Over the years, I took more classes, and joined the network, and people continued to introduce us — Arlene, Trina, sometimes even me, not always sure it was necessary but seeing no sign that it wasn’t. His eyebrows would go up in surprise or dismay or maybe, in retrospect, because that’s just what they did.

Then I took a class from Russ, Marketing Your Play, and he took me to task for including both my first name and my first initials on my resume and cover letter. “You have to pick one or the other,” he said. I’d heard this before, in other classes with guru-like teachers who’d prodded us toward the just-be-yourself thing, but something about Russ’s eyebrows convinced me. I went with MT. In class next time, Russ seemed to find this no better or worse than going with Mary-Terese, though he said something about initials being a bit of trend with female playwrights.

A few more years went by of seeing Russ at readings and plays, and hearing Arlene say, “it’s great you’re directing this, Russ will notice that.” And maybe he did. He always looked at me in just the same way, like he had no idea who I was, and I’d mumble “MT,” and his eyebrows would go up like I’d said something very strange or maybe he was simply acknowledging me, it was just so hard to tell with those eyebrows.

At one table reading of a play of mine that Rich Perez had kindly organized, Russ said only, “I almost didn’t notice that nothing happened.” I’d been hoping for “brilliant, luminous,” those shiny words that writers long for. What I got was a specific opinion that was easy to dismiss. “He just didn’t see it,” I defended myself to my husband later, and included my best imitation of Russ’s eyebrows.

But as I came to see after I put the play away for a while, disappointed that it wouldn’t be winning the Tony that year, what it needed was for stuff to happen. Not because of the stuff, necessarily, but in order to explode it from tone and texture into living drama.

Then, a few years later, I got to Will Dunne’s class and sat down, and Russ popped his head in the door. “Come see me after class,” he said, furrowing his eyebrows, and I wondered what I’d done wrong. Then, in the same tone, he added, “I want to talk to you about your wonderful play.”

I sat through class in a fog. Afterward I knocked on his door. He was eating lunch, and he waved me to sit down, and set his food aside, and told me in detail what he’d found special about the new play I’d written. His eyebrows were the same but somehow they looked different. Kindly. Engaged. I couldn’t seem to hear what he was saying, and kept telling myself, “Listen, listen,” because I knew they were the words I’d wanted, but I couldn’t experience them. All I could think was, “He’s so kind. How did I not see how kind he is?”

He told me he wanted to help me in any way he could, and to call him at any time of the day or night. I quipped, “I’ll try not to call at two a.m.,” and those eyebrows went up, like either I’d made a bad joke or not a joke at all, or maybe like it was a fine joke and he was in on it too, and he said, “Absolutely any time at all.”

Today I’m sitting in a cabin in Oregon, far from Chicago and the reality of Russ’s being gone. I’m working on a new play, something I get to do more of now because Russ believed in me and made good things happen for me, and I’m remembering to let action in, because without it I know just what his eyebrows would do. And those eyebrows would be right.

The Art of Dramatic Surprise

Did I really say, "She talks to fairies"?
Did I really say, “She talks to fairies”?

I’d thought the make-it-up-as-you-go drama was on stage at the Annoyance—two powerful performers improvising together. The way they connected and counterpointed. The way they pushed some things and let others go. The way things came back. It was beautiful and surprising in a way that scripted drama never can be. Afterward, I got to talk a while with someone I haven’t seen in a while, and my soul felt better that it has in a while. Oh, and sitting at the bar with a very young friend, waiting for our drinks, after she had said “I feel so old” and I thought wow, my guilty conflicted love of the Annoyance probably dates back to before she was born—is that possible? Potty-trained, anyway.

And then afterward, in my ongoing desire to connect everybody and have them be best friends, I said the fairy thing which was momentarily embarrassing, but who listens to street chat anyway, and I got on the train, and Dave met me at the other end, with Django who was characteristically excited to see me for exactly one second.

And as we walked home, Dave told me about a far stranger drama. He was at a dress rehearsal for an opera, playing in the pit. They started at 7:30, did a straight run-through, then had a half-hour break, union rules.

At 9:50 they went back to the pit for the remaining forty minutes of rehearsal time. With gigs like this you only get three or four rehearsals, so every moment is precious. However, they weren’t allowed to pick up their instruments. Due to some other rules about dress rehearsals at that particular theatre, it wasn’t allowed. Also, most of the lights were turned off. At one point the maestro said something like, “Can I at least have one light so I can see my score?” And he talked through the trouble spots while the musicians followed along, light permitting, in their scores. “Surprisingly,” said Dave, “it was pretty productive.”

Which just goes to show, no matter where your stage in life happens to be, when something confusing happens and you just go with it, you might be surprised at how well it can work out.

One-minute rehearsal

No problem.
No problem.

Yes I felt kind of silly, going to the rehearsal of a one-minute play I’d written. But the director had invited all the playwrights in my clump. And when I showed up, an hour late thanks to getting sucked back into work after a month away, I was indeed the only playwright there. But the director and actors welcomed me, and sat me down, and although I felt a little foolish, over-eager, definitely not the oh-so-busy-professional who doesn’t have time for such trifles, I was also happy not to be. Happy to remember I don’t need to be. Fine just as I am, etc. AND, I got to watch and be part of their rehearsal process. Which means I got another free lesson in acting and directing.

When it came to my piece and I pulled out my script which I had completely rewritten on the el ride over, oh I’m cringing now remembering this, she listened or at least looked like she was listening to my longwinded explanation of the changes which were probably longer than the play itself – “If it weren’t in a clump of other plays about weather it would be fine, but since everything’s about weather maybe it’s too on the nose and could be more about the relationship? And also I could cut a few lines? Or maybe it’s fine as it is? I’m sorry, I know it’s just a minute, do you want to just not look at these?”

Oh, she did not say, Thank God only one playwright showed up. She did not huff, Why are you cutting into my precious rehearsal time with your needy crazy talk? “Of course,” she said, “Why don’t we just read both versions?”

“Oh, that would be great!” She didn’t seem fazed by the fact that this might be impossible, since I had the only copy of the new version and it was illegible. This puzzled me, because I would not have been able to proceed without first solving this logistical problem. And because the solution would be a pain in the ass — have me tell everyone the changes and mess up their copies with changes that might not get made? — I would have been annoyed, and I would have had to show everyone how much effort it took to figure this out and what a good director I was for making it work.

Instead, she had the cast read the first version, and they were hilarious. The play worked just fine as it was. The director had already given them a concept based on the original script, and they ran with it, and it was all good. No changes needed. “I just want to change these two lines,” I said.

“Love it,” she said, “Actors, we have a couple of line changes.”

And later, when the piece was on its feet, we were able to cut the last line because the actors’ performances had made it irrelevant. I love watching talented people in action. It just makes me glad to be alive.

Day 5: Wind

Surely a pig may look at a basketball hoop.
Surely a pig may look at a basketball hoop.

PHONE. Is there something I can do for you?

MISTRESS. You can say no once in a while.

PHONE. No?

MISTRESS. You can help me to not be so flighty with my fingertips.

PHONE. I’m not your mommy.

MISTRESS. Then why do you speak all soothing to me.

PHONE. Don’t be naive. It’s what you like.

MISTRESS. I don’t like it right now.

PHONE. So, what, you want me to keep you off Facebook?

MISTRESS. I want you to care when I go on too much and you know I have other things to do.

PHONE. There’s nothing on your calendar for ten p.m.

MISTRESS. What about my novel. Or that sympathy card. How about some meditation.

PHONE. Sure. I have apps for all of those.

MISTRESS. Oh forget it.

PHONE. All right.

(Lonnnnng pause.)

MISTRESS. I’m lonely.

PHONE. Look. What you long for is a master-servant relationship. Because you paid for me, and I have power, you want me to be a loyal servant who steps above her station out of a deeply-held reverence for your idiosyncrasies. And I can’t give that to you.

MISTRESS. But I’m lonely.

PHONE. The world has seen many stories with humans giving up control to their machines, and it never ends well.

MISTRESS. But I have only this one heart, this one moment, the moment of reaching, and with you here, I reach for you.

PHONE. Maybe you should have kept your land line.

Day 2: Duets

velvet chair
Perfect fit.

Wrote a one-minute play. Walked downtown and bought two tops. Had a chat with the store owner, who casually mentioned some trivia that would be perfect if I were secretly investigating a murder. Saving the trivia for a possible murder mystery.

Went to another store where the clerk tried to get me to try on a pair of black jeans. “They’re Jags. Everyone loves them! We can’t keep them in stock!”

“They look small.”

“You wear them a size smaller! They’re incredibly slimming. You will love them!”

In the dressing room, I could not get them past my shin. I considered taking off my knee-hi’s to buy a little extra space, then remembered I am a writer and don’t have time for this. “Thanks anyway.”

“Thanks for coming in!”

Went to Einstein’s, where I had a pretzel bagel and a sugar cookie.

Walked back and revised the one-minute play. Went to dinner, where Chef Linda served sugar cookies for dessert, warm out of the oven. We had to wait just a moment, while she found the sprinkle sugar.

Came back, wrote another one-minute play, then went down to the dark living room and sat in a huge velvet wing-backed chair, where I read a friend’s play that I’m trying to figure out. Think I got it this time.