Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Hearing Voices

Marissa Skudlarek, listening.

At the end of September 2013, when the San Francisco Olympians Festival issued a Request for Proposals for its 2014 season, I proposed writing a short play about “a dryad and a druid.” (2014, Year 5 of the festival, focuses on monsters and other supernatural creatures, including dryads.) My proposal got selected – and then I didn’t write a word of the play. At each Olympians writers’ meeting, I had exactly zero pages to share. Months went by. An entire year went by.

Sure, I had excuses. 2014 was a busy year for me! I spent the first eight months of it self-producing a full-length play, and just when that ended, I had a health crisis! But I also know that when writers feel inspired, they’ll find the time to put some words down on paper, to write a page of dialogue in advance of a writers’ meeting. Even if what they write is the epitome of a shitty first draft, even if they are having a busy year, they can usually write something.

As the 2014 Festival ticked ever closer, I started meeting up with friends for writing sessions in cafés, thinking their company would inspire me. But mostly, I’d tootle around on Facebook, watching my computer’s battery power diminish, and feel guilty and powerless. Meanwhile, my busy-bee friends tap-tap-tapped away at their keyboards. In these café sessions, I did some desultory pre-writing – copying factoids from Wikipedia’s entries on dryads and druids, jotting down stray thoughts about what the characters and plot should be like. But I couldn’t seem to make the leap and actually start writing my play.

The real problem, you see, was that I couldn’t hear my characters’ voices, and that is lethal for a playwright. How should a dryad and a druid, meeting in the mountains of the Balkan Peninsula sometime in the third century B.C., speak? Nothing felt right. I didn’t want them to talk like denizens of the 21st century, but I didn’t want their language to sound affected and faux-archaic, either. I thought their speech should have a certain elevated quality, to reflect the fact that one was a servant of the gods and the other was a divine spirit, but I also wanted the play to be funny and lively. So yes, I could tell you what I wanted and (especially) what I didn’t want. I could take notes and make outlines. But if I couldn’t hear how my characters spoke, if I couldn’t come up with a single line of dialogue that felt right, I couldn’t write this play.

Non-writers may think it sounds odd when writers say “I need to hear my characters’ voices” or “My character just did something that surprised me.” After all, these characters don’t exist outside of my head, so how can I hear their voices as if they were external to me? How can a personage I’ve invented go on to surprise me? I don’t know, but I can tell you that it’s real. In the first full-length play I ever wrote, a character who had hitherto been rather vague and boring (he mainly existed so that other characters would have someone to talk to) suddenly burst out with “I was going to make a new translation of Ovid!” I don’t know where that line came from – at the time, I hadn’t read any Ovid. But as soon as I wrote it – or rather, as soon as I heard the character say it – everything seemed to snap into place. I knew who this character was, now: a frustrated classics scholar. I knew his secret passion, the cherished goal that he had put on hold. He’d told me so himself. And his love of Ovid went on to influence the future direction of his character and of the play.

In modern times, someone who “hears voices” might get diagnosed with schizophrenia or another mental illness; in the olden days, people who “heard voices” were thought to be communicating with ghosts or spirits. This month, when we celebrate all things spooky and mystical, I think it’s worth celebrating those moments when our characters’ voices haunt us. These fictional personages exist only in our imaginations, yet we hear them speaking to us – and it does feel magical.

This past weekend was make-or-break for my Dryads play; I’d promised to send my director a draft by Monday morning. On Sunday afternoon, still not having written a single word of dialogue, I took a long walk from my home in the Inner Sunset all the way to the Mission District. When I have a problem to solve in my writing, walking often helps me work it out, but not this time. I went to the café where Stuart Bousel was diligently working on his own Olympians play and confessed the quandary I was in.

“Why are you so wedded to your original idea?” he said. “Just write what you want.”

I took several deep breaths and started letting my mind wander down other paths. Was there a different dryad-themed play I could write – one that spoke to me more, one whose voices shouted insistently in my head? There was. Five minutes later, I’d opened up a new document on my computer and was writing a title, a cast list, and the first lines of dialogue. I heard the characters’ voices, and the words came easily. They’re a modern-day suburban husband and wife, discussing what to do about their daughter. This little girl has a problem, you see: she thinks she’s a tree spirit. In a way, she hears voices, too.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. See her new, NEW play, The Dryad of Suburbia, on November 5 at EXIT Theatre, as part of the first night of the 2014 San Francisco Olympians Festival.