Marissa Skudlarek, growing old thoughtfully.
In the two weeks since I turned 29, I completed a draft of my first new full-length play in five years, and discovered a secret place to pick blackberries.
If I’m being honest with myself, the blackberries sometimes feel like an even better achievement than the play.
I’ve been thinking a lot about time passing lately: cycles, parallels, how the present moment feels like a tiny, dainty pinprick caught between the vastness of the past and future. (The main character of the play I just completed does a lot of thinking along those lines too, as the director of my staged reading pointed out. Well, I put a lot of myself into her.) My birthday is in the summer and I moved to San Francisco in the summer too, nearly eight years ago. People are moving away, or moving on to different projects. The election cycle and the news cycle are all-pervasive. The last year of my twenties has commenced.
This month is also the ten-year anniversary of my first major achievement as a playwright, when I won a national contest for writers 18 and under and was awarded with a staged reading of my play in New York, plus a week of theatergoing and workshops.
I found out that I’d won on my 19th birthday. I still remember it: waking up early on a summer morning, wrapping myself in a blanket, sitting on the end of my bed and calling the New York number of the Young Playwrights organization. (They had left me a vague and maddening voice mail a few days earlier and I hadn’t been able to call them back due to the Fourth of July holiday.) The woman who ran the organization, Sheri Goldhirsch, told me that I’d won.
I wish I could say that that was the moment my life changed.
It was a wonderful experience, don’t get me wrong; but it now feels strange and distant, and I hardly ever think about it. I can’t even remember the exact date of the staged reading. When I do think about that week in New York, it is often with regret that I did not keep in better touch with the professional writers and directors to whom the organization introduced me. I was 19 years old and did not know how to network. I was shy and uncertain (some would say I still am). In my blacker moods, I pray that this contest was not the high-water mark of my playwriting career. I know New York is not the end-all and be-all of a theater career, but I haven’t had any plays in New York since then…
I’m still Facebook friends with the other seven contest winners. Some of them still seem to be involved in arts-related pursuits: theater, writing, filmmaking. One has a baby and is divorcing her husband. Nobody is wildly successful. Nobody is anybody you’ve ever read about in a puff piece touting “the latest hot young playwright.” I would be rabidly jealous if they were. There’s a decent chance that out of all of us, I’ve written the most new works for the stage in the last ten years. But I feel weird about comparing myself to the other contest winners; if I’ve kept writing plays while others have given it up, that isn’t necessarily something to be proud of. Maybe it means I am just more set in my ways and resistant to change.
Sheri Goldhirsch is now deceased.
The man who directed my staged reading went on to direct a little play off-Broadway that became a huge hit, and moved to Broadway, and earned him a Tony nomination for his direction. (Now you can see why I wish I’d kept in better touch with him.)
I also can’t shake a feeling of guilt that whenever I take advantage of an opportunity for “young people,” I’ve gamed the system. I skipped first grade and have a summer birthday, so I’ve always been younger than everyone else, or prematurely advanced for my age, depending on how you want to look at it. When I submitted my play to the Young Playwrights competition, I was 18.5 years old and had already completed three semesters of college. It was perfectly fine for me to submit according to the contest’s rules, but I couldn’t help feeling that I wasn’t the kind of person that the contest was designed for.
Similarly, tonight, a scene from my new play Juana is going to be read at Playwrights Foundation’s Night of New Works, a scene-reading and networking event that the Bay Area Playwrights Festival interns are hosting for theater-makers under 30. Again, when I submitted my work for possible inclusion in this evening, I felt slightly guilty about doing it: I am 29 years old, I am not fresh out of college, I have a long list of indie-theater credits and I write for this blog every two weeks and a lot of people seem to know my name. Is it fair for me to take up a slot in this evening? Am I going to feel like the old lady at the kids’ table?
And furthermore, are these kinds of opportunities for young people fair, or are they blatant age discrimination? What about the people who discover theater and playwriting when they are in their 30s or older? And then, if this is a youth-obsessed industry, shouldn’t I have done even more to try to become a Hot Twentysomething Playwright rather than hanging back?
When I moved to the Bay Area, it felt like my twenties would last forever. The first play I saw here was Yellowjackets, at Berkeley Rep, on one of their half-price tickets for people under 30. The time when I would age out of that benefit seemed a long way off. I was startled to realize last week that I’m now in my last year of eligibility for Berkeley Rep’s half-price tickets. I feel, simultaneously, like I haven’t done enough with my twenties and like they have gone on for an unbelievably long time.
I have a lot of work still to do this summer. Producing the Pint-Sized Plays, revising a play for Custom Made’s new-works development program, completing a new one-act play for the Olympians Festival. But despite it all, I’m going to try to go to the secret blackberry patch at sunset every chance I get. You know that you should never force a blackberry off its stem; if you have to pull too hard on the berry, it isn’t ripe. You need to pick only the berries that have hung in the sun a good long while, the ones that are on the verge of turning jammy and falling apart. I need to remember to let the berries take their time, and not regret the ones that went unplucked.