Charles Lewis III is revisiting old demons.
“We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow.”
– Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist
About a week or so back, our esteemed Executive Director Stuart Bousel mentioned on Facebook that he’d recently come across an old script he’d written. From the way he described it, he’d put the script aside after a particularly disastrous reading and hadn’t thought much of it since. However, after stumbling upon it again and looking it over, he was relieved to find that the problem wasn’t with the script, but with the way it was read. It was one of those pleasant scenarios that artists hope for happens only upon reflection: to find out that your work wasn’t nearly as bad as you’d thought and that problem was how it was presented.
I’ve been thinking of that a lot the past few months, the idea of revisiting old work of mine that I’d initially brushed off as terrible. I’ve been particularly thinking of it as it relates to my 2012 Olympians play, Do a Good Turn Daily. Earlier this year I’d been offered an opportunity (which I can’t publicly speak of in specifics just yet) to revisit the script and give it an extended life, so to speak. As wonderful an opportunity as this was, it also meant that I would have to swallow my pride and look back at this particular script. And in the time since reading of this particular script, I’d kinda learned to hate it. A lot.
It’s not that surprising for Olympians scripts to have a life beyond the festival. In fact, that’s kinda the whole point of the festival: it’s developmental. It’s still the embryonic stage of the script’s life cycle. Hell, those of us with long-time Olympians experience instantly roll our eyes at the thought of past participants who have treated what-is-clearly-defined-as-a-staged-reading-festival as if it were opening night on Broadway – full of bells and whistles, pomp and circumstance. But every writer selected hopefully imagines that their script will be one of the illustrious alumni that go on to fully-staged productions for which people gladly pay admission. (Look up Stuart’s Juno en Victoria, Marissa Skudlarek’s Pleiades, and Megan Cohen’s Totally Epic Odyssey for just a few examples.)
I had no such illusions regarding my 2012 entry about Atlas. Of all the proposals I’d submitted the year prior, the one for Atlas was the one for which I may have been the least enthusiastic. I wanted to get picked for one of my more exciting proposals; the ones that you’d read and instantly imagine having a poster drawn by Drew Struzan. Instead I got picked to develop a script that I’d refer to as “my Jim Jarmusch play”: it’s set in the mid-‘90s and it’s just three people sitting and talking, accentuated by an eclectic collection of music both old and new.
Then again, I’ve always liked Jim Jarmusch’s work. Plus, what this proposal lacked in (perceived) marketability, it made up for in its personal nature. One of the characters, the 14-year-old Herc, is loosely based on myself in 1995. So while the other proposals, if chosen, would have seen my Id run wild, this one would require me to open a vein. Atlas it was.
I actually did have a director attached at one point, but as enthusiastic as she was, I saw that I was just adding to her already-busy schedule and took her advice to direct it myself. I wrote most of it longhand during an Olympian writers get-together at the Café La Boheme in The Mission. I did a drastic full rewrite the Saturday before our first rehearsal, causing me to miss one that day’s Iapetus vs. Hermes “matinee”. I was still cutting massive chunks of it backstage before the reading, and as I stood in the back of the theatre, I felt I should have cut more. Even as a one-act that clocked in at 53 min., it still felt too goddamn long. I was actually relieved to lose to Claire’s play, because I couldn’t imagine any method of torture as bad as reading (what I imagined to be) the worst play ever written.
Sure, people complimented me afterward, but I freely admit that I’m the worst when it comes to compliments. I’m not as bad as I used to be, so I’m improving. Still, I have a habit of treating every compliment, no matter how sincere, as I would my grandmother telling me I’m handsome: I politely nod, say “Okay” (never “Thank you”), and try put it out of my mind immediately. I’m that hypothetical actor Mamet talks about in True and False, the one who treats every compliment as a slap to the face, so they respond by slapping back with “It wasn’t as good as it could have been.” Criticisms I’ll repeat to myself ad nauseum, but compliments? Those are the greatest insult.
In fact, it was that very self-improvement that finally allowed me to take the Atlas compliments at face value. I’ve actually gotten quite a few of them in the intervening years. The pessimist in me would chalk it up to the fact that I’m more known for acting than writing, so maybe it was the only written thing of mine they could remember (hell, most thought it was the first thing I’d ever written in my life, when I’ve been writing and directing since high school). But they did remember. It was nearly one year ago exactly when one of my co-stars in The Crucible told me how much she’d enjoyed it and wondered why I hadn’t done anything more with it.
So I bit the bullet and finally decided to take a look at it again. It didn’t go well at first. I’ve kept personal journals of some kind since my teens, and on the occasions I dared to look through them, I usually cringe at the obnoxious son-of-a-bitch I used to be. So too did I cringe looking back over my Atlas script, as I nitpicked the bits of bad dialogue and lamented that I wasn’t more creative with my staging.
But as I kept reading through it, a funny thing happened: I didn’t hate it. At all. I could still see where the rough edges were, but that’s because I had the benefit of analytical hindsight with a script I’d written and rewritten in several passionate creative bursts. I have a bit of an obsession with the Freudian model of the psyche – it’s the reason the play has three characters – and this play was definitely fueled by my Id. And once my Super-Ego was done poring every line, word, and punctuation, my Ego was finally able to decide “This was nearly the piece of shit I told myself it was.”
When the aforementioned opportunity to revisit the play presented itself earlier this year, the first question I asked was how much leeway I’d have with rewriting it. I was told that the play could be “touched up”, but couldn’t be drastically different (eg. fewer or additional characters, new scenes, radical restructuring, etc.) than the draft that was that read at the festival. After pondering that for a little while, I agreed. I’ve come to think of this script like an abandoned family heirloom: I no longer want to throw it in the fire, but I think it could use a good polish.
As I sit here putting the finishing touches on this entry, I glanced at my bookshelf and saw Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, given to me by a fellow ‘Pub writer and Olympians alumnus. A few years back I was in a bookstore and read his “new” version of Noises Off. It really isn’t all that different from the original version he wrote in ’82, but what really stuck with me was the intro at the start of the book. I can’t quote it word-for-word, but it was Frayn speaking to the necessity of a writer to revisit old work to look at it out of its original context. That doesn’t necessarily mean rewriting everything, but to not just outright dismiss the person (and artist) you were, because it’s what led you to become the one you are.
I’m not an impulsive person. Hell, just this past Saturday night I did something uncharacteristically impulsive (and stupid) and have been beating myself up for it every day since. But I am reflective. I like looking at all of my scars because they remind me of exactly how not to get cut next time. The play Do a Good Turn Daily wasn’t explicitly autobiographical, nor would I really call it a “roman à clef” per se, but it was definitely me reflecting on a time that I recall as one of great transition – for the world, for the times, and yes, for me. I like to think of as akin to Jean-Luc Picard at the end of the Next Generation episode “Tapestry”; I just didn’t need a six-inch serrated blade shoved through my chest.
I never approve of an artist outright destroying or radically changing older work once it’s been established in their canon. If they feel an older work is truly deserving of some alteration, then I hope they’d at least keep the original available in some accessible for the very purpose of comparing them (I’m lookin’ at you, George Lucas). At the risk of sounding overly sentimental and really damn pretentious, I think destroying old art is destroying part of the artist and that’s akin purposely throwing away puzzle pieces.
Whereas film and television are media – specifically photographs – captured forever, we theatre folk have the privilege of working in an art form that has the tendency to change every single night, whether we notice it or not. Acknowledge the change, embrace the change, learn from the change. Hell, it was yet another ‘Pub writer/Olympians alumnus who used to paraphrase Paul Valery and say: “Good plays are never finished, only abandoned.” And look what happened with her play.
Charles Lewis III can only imagine how he’ll beat himself up next year, following his Poseidon entry for this year’s festival. As always, if you want to know more about the SF Olympians Festival, visit the official site at http://www.sfolympians.com