Higher Education: My One Thing

Barbara Jwanouskos continues her meditation on her first year in a playwrighting graduate program.

Grad school puts you in these really weird situations where you simulate Real World theater experiences by collaborating with others in building new works of theater under particular guidelines. Then, you end up performing your piece before your peers, watching others perform theirs, and critiquing how successful the project ended up being. Then, you get a grade. I suppose it’s like the Real World, but more like the fun house version of it.

In the Real World, we collaborate with our friends, people we know, and people we don’t know. In the Real World, we aren’t ever really assigned guidelines on how to approach a project or what topic to write about, though we may work for a particular theater company that chooses our piece because it aligns with their aesthetic vision. Sometimes, we are commissioned to create a particular type of work. We choose the projects in which we want to be involved. Even if a project seems like it will lead to a bad experience, we still have the choice of whether to participate in it.

So, then, why is it so hard to collaborate with the people we are more or less choosing? Because everyone could seem to be on board from the get-go, but suddenly it comes crashing down into fights that from the outsider’s perspective seem a bit petty. Take out this one word of dialogue? WELL, THAT JUST CHANGES THE WHOLE FREAKING STORY! Use this red gel for the lights instead of an amber one? WHY DON’T WE JUST CANCEL THE SHOW NOW! Cross downstage after saying the line? *FAINTS*. (You get my overly dramatic point…)

Sometimes collaborating with others is kind of like an otter dealing with unstackable blocks. (Cue gif). Because if theater is about making a series of decisions, then each decision matters and each decision ultimately shapes the experience we want to give to those out there in the audience. No two people are going to see or hear the same thing and experience the same thing. Hence, disagreement. Okay, well, who’s right? (Duh, no one.) Fine, then who should we listen to? (Ummmm….)

I’m going to tell you a story about an experience I had in on one of these assigned collaborative projects. In classic SF Theater Pub fashion, I’m totally going to name the director I was working with Jesse Michaels, after the front man of one of my favorite punk bands, Operation Ivy. So, Jesse Michaels is a fantastic director, and I was excited to work with him for the last assignment of the year. It was sort of known that Jesse was the type of director that liked A LOT of re-writes from the playwrights he worked with. “Whatever,” I thought. “Cool. Bring it. I need to get better at re-writing anyway.”

Our last project was to create a ten-minute play incorporating one song (could be a known one or could be made up) and a countdown til an event at the end of the play (for example, a birthday, a rocket launch, the end of the world, etc.) Jesse and I knew our cast beforehand and were really excited to work with them. They were three uber talented actors trained in Musical Theater who each had amazing voices. And omg, we both totally love when people sing.

Jesse dove right in and asked if I wanted to brainstorm some ideas for the project together. I was so down for that because I didn’t really have any good ideas. It being the end of the semester, my inspiration take was past the E mark, and I was running off of fumes, guys. So, we talked about what we wanted to do and what we wanted to avoid. I was interested in writing a comedy (after writing so many dark or dreary pieces). We wanted to create original lyrics, but Jesse suggested using pop songs that the guys probably already knew to cut down on the rehearsal time. He even had chatted with one of the faculty members about arranging the tunes to work for our actors’ ranges.

The brainstorming sesh was going great. We exchanged ideas about what songs to use. We thought of settings and who our characters were. We came up with a story idea that we thought was simple and interesting. It was going to be a story about three guys who are in a polyamorous relationship with one another. They had just married each other in another state on a destination wedding and it was their final boarding call before the plane was set to go back to their hometown. They’re running late because one of the three has disappeared and suddenly reappears only to tell the other two that he can’t go back with them.

We laughed about the ridiculousness of the logistics of a love trio marriage. How would it work? What state was progressive enough to be open to the idea of three people marrying each other? What about polyamorous relationships in general? We speculated that you’d really have to be good at communicating. Heck, it was hard with two people, much less three.

More than anything we knew early on that these three guys really truly loved each other. We felt strongly for them that we wanted them to work out. Unfortunately, one was having second thoughts not for anything that you might expect with three people like an unbalance of love, but because one of them knew that just like we initially laughed at the “absurdity” of three men who fell in love and wanted to marry each other, in their world, they’d be dealing with people like us – who didn’t get it – all the time. And that’s when we knew there was something more to this idea. Why couldn’t three guys be in love and get married to each other?

Quickly the play evolved into a musical that we were both excited to work on. We were thrown a wrench when the play suddenly had to be cut down from ten minutes to five minutes – barely enough time to get the song and the circumstances out, but we rolled with the punches. At five minutes in length, the play was even more streamlined and the song was getting there.

I wrote something up, re-worked it, brought it to workshop, and then handed it over to Jesse, expecting the same great enthusiasm that was in our initial talks. I’d just received positive feedback from the other writers and my advisor, so I’m thinking, “Hey, this crazy idea is actually working!”

Jesse comes back with a bunch of notes and edits to the song. No worries. I defer to others that know more about singing, so I was happy with all the changes he’d made. I kept re-working the play, feeling frustrated at times, but knowing that this is what writing was, that Jesse and I were on the same page ultimately, and that the story was fun. It was something I wanted to have a hand in – a little musical that was at first comedic, but opened up a moment of self-reflection. Now that was a turning point – to start off having people laughing and hopefully move them – dare I say it – to tears. So, I continued to pass more drafts onto Jesse. Each time, he’d respond cryptically. “It’s good,” he’d say, his voice going up as if he was trying to reassure me, but his body language was saying something different. Did he really think that?

I started to dread sharing my latest drafts with him because I was so lost in what was the play missing. How could we get back on the same enthusiastic page again? I know Jesse was frustrated too. He’d say, “I think we could use a joke here” or “Let’s cut this whole section. It’s redundant.” The responses were short and blunt, but also vague. I was a little taken aback. Okay? What’s wrong with it?

Finally, I came to a point where, though not completely satisfied, I felt like the best thing to do next was to just hear it in the rehearsal room. It was the day before we were going to work with our actors for the first time. I was nervous because I felt like if Jesse and I weren’t on the same page when we walked into rehearsal, it was going to be really hard to turn around this experience – that had started out good but now was getting to be a chore.

Our advisor in playwriting had this talk with us about collaboration one day. Let’s call him Brian Eno because it’s fun to name people! Brian Eno said that as playwrights (though I feel like this could extend to any artist) we had one thing (not two, not ten, not twenty million) that we could put our foot down on during the course of the collaboration as something that we could not bend on. And that was the one thing that took all our joy and desire to do the project away. We didn’t want to write the play anymore if we couldn’t do this one thing. But, you had to choose well and wisely because it was one thing and not two, ten or twenty million. (Cue Indiana Jones choosing the Holy Grail).

Well, gosh darn it! I realized I needed to stand up for my one thing!

Guys… I will be the first to admit right now that I thought my one thing was not doing anymore re-writes on the play because it was done. In my defense, the first year was brutal and you do get to a burn-out point where you feel if you write down one more word your head will explode. I told this to Jesse. And, get this, the guy has the nerve to tell me that he hope that I’d still be open to changing things once we got into the rehearsal room tomorrow. WHAT DID YOU SAY? “CHANGE THINGS”? THERE WILL BE NO MORE CHANGING!

I know, guys, I know… Hey! It was frustrating to keep hearing that this play wasn’t quite there. I could point out all the good in it. So, that’s when it all came retching out at Jesse. How I felt like I was being dismissed, how I felt like I wasn’t even a part of the project anymore, how it started out fun and now it was a chore. But, most of all, how I felt lead down a path where he knew what he wanted from me and wasn’t just coming out and saying it. Why couldn’t he just tell me what he thought wasn’t working?

Jesse listened very thoughtfully (and not in that, I’m-waiting-to-shoot-down-everything-you-say kind of way) and nodded. I do actually remember being shocked by this response. I was thinking, “is he taking me seriously?” He was. He said that others had told him similar things before and that one of the things he was working on was how to be more clear and specific with the feedback he gave. Awh, guys, don’t you see? We’re all working on stuff!

When I finally point-blank asked him, “What, for you, doesn’t work about this play?” He was able to be very specific. Oddly enough, the feedback he gave was that he felt like the characters needed more specificity – something that would make us root for them as a trio. I nodded uncomfortably. I wasn’t happy hearing this, but Jesse was absolutely right. I told him I couldn’t think of anything right now, but I was willing to look at it and think more about it both that night and when we were in the rehearsal room the next day.

I thought back to the brainstorming sessions and how Jesse and I really loved this story. What was it about it? I thought back how we thought it was absurd at first, but their love for each other was more real than a lot of people probably ever experience, and how it was so sad that a really beautiful love like that could be infected by what other people thought. DING! That was my one thing. That’s why I wanted to write it.

I remember saying to myself, “This is a love story.” What happens in your classic love story? Well, they fall in love at first sight, of course. What people laugh at is not the absurdity of three men who love each other, but even deeper seated than that. I think they laugh at the idea of love. So, why can’t there be love in the world? What’s so absurd about that?

The line came to me literally about 15 minutes before rehearsal. I was cleaning up the grammar, getting ready to print, waiting for inspiration, but also feeling so incredibly awkward about my “fight” with my director. I was scared that it was going to be painful to be in that room and I certainly expected the worst: that none of us – not me, not Jesse, not the actors, nor even Brian Eno – would find something that could fix the play.

Sure enough (cuz you all know how this goes, you get your inspiration in the eleventh hour – duh!), something did come. The line I added – and then awkwardly shrugged and mouthed “I don’t know,” silently and desperately to my computer before hitting “print” was:

Think about when we met. We walked into the coffee shop and it was love at first sight. The three of us! Do you think anyone believes that we each caught the other’s eye all at once?

Then Jesse comes up the stairs, smiling. So far, not awkward…

“Hey, I added a line. Not sure if it works…” I said.

“Great! Let’s try it!” he said, but it was kind of like, eh, no worries if it doesn’t. We’ll find something.

During that rehearsal I did feel enthusiastic again. It was fun. It was collaborative. The actors had great suggestions and input. Jesse even said, “You guys, Barb has put a lot of hard work into writing this”. Excuse me, I just, got something in my eye, um… I think it’s the pollen in Pittsburgh. Afterwards, I brought my script over and said, “Here’s what I heard that might need changing and some ideas. What do you think?”

“I think that’s absolutely right.”

During the performance, I held my breath and my hands got clammy, because, man, those laughs were pretty big in the beginning of the piece. I was worried that others weren’t going to experience what Jesse and I did when we thought about the story and the characters more and more. But then, there’s this certain point where it’s a pretty big emotional turn, and PIN DROP SILENCE! I kinda smiled then because I feel the play working.

I gave Jesse a hug afterwards and said how I had a really great time working together and I apologized for it getting all awkward the day before. That’s the thing though. Sometimes you need a little bit of friction and things that are clunky and awkward in order to find your one thing. I have to thank Jesse for going on that journey with me.

My one piece of wisdom – Real World-wise or other – is just to keep searching for what that one thing is for you, but also what it is for your collaborators, because perhaps then when we’re able to communicate what it is that really truly matters all the little things fall away and it won’t matter if we’ve got pink and green polka dots on the walls of our set or if we’ve had to redo something til our heads explode. Maybe then we’ll have re-connected to what it is that inspired us to share these experiences in the first place. And that, my friends, is truly powerful theater.