I’m currently writing a play called The Secret of the Biological Clock, about a former girl detective who is turning 37 and wants to solve the mystery of what makes a family. I have spent the past two months flipping out about stage directions.
The play itself is a mystery with overtones of spy movies. There are daring escapes and bomb plots. I’ve reread a bunch of Nancy Drew mysteries and I wanted to incorporate all the various outlandish plot points into this play, keeping it in balance with the very real aspects of someone not dealing with aging and wondering if she really wants to have a kid.
You would think this play would have me running off blithely into the land of the impossible stage directions. It has to – right?
Except I’m terrified of them.
It seems silly to say terrified – but I have spent the past month or so double and triple guessing something as simple as “The figure escapes out the attic window.”
This is not something that a rational person would be flipping out about. This isn’t something that I would have flipped out about when I started out as a playwright. I went through some really amazing training during my time at DePaul University, mostly with the excellent Carlos Murillo, who while not a fan of stage directions in general, did like assignments that included impossible ones.
This is new found fear is born of a bunch of various messages that I have internalized since graduation.
Some of these messages are pretty explicit. I’ve been told that my writing isn’t dramatic. That was a comment from a concerned (and otherwise pretty cool individual) that kept me from writing anything for three years. I’ve been told that I “can’t do that on stage,” and shouldn’t I be writing a screenplay or novel instead.
But most of the messages aren’t that direct. As a female playwright, the odds are already against me getting produced. They’re even worse in Miami, which has a hyper-masculine theatre culture and artistically prefers what I’ve called “plays where people throw chairs.” 1970s Steppenwolf is idolized by many of our artistic directors, and while we share a tendency to romanticize Chicago theatre – the Chicago Theatre I’m romanticizing is a completely different genre.
I’ve been part of conversations among playwrights that I love and respect on how Sarah Ruhl is too cutesy and trying too hard. Even worse, I’ve seen local productions of truly amazing women’s plays get trashed for being too whimsical. I think Deborah Zoe Laufer’s End Days is a delightful script with the amazing choice of having the characters of Jesus and Stephen Hawking played by the same actor. But Florida Stage’s production wasn’t well received by many local artists and Florida Stage’s audience. It wasn’t nominated for the Best New Work Carbonell the year it won the Steinberg Award. I’ve heard that whimsical plays are clever, but that a much more straightforward play can really get at the gut of the human experience.
It took a reading of In Common Hours for two of the smartest dramaturgical minds I know to get the play. It’s a delicate, domestic comedy and the charm of the play only landed for them in the hearing of it, and not on the page.
As playwright, you want everything to land on the page – so I worked to fit into the mold. I could write smaller, more straight forward, more realistic, more traditionally structured. I would write something that would be respectable. I boxed myself in and wrote a traditionally structured, five character play.
If I followed all the rules, then I would be a real playwright.
Except I was a real playwright all along and the play where I only partly followed the rules is the play that has been produced.
I’ve only now found the courage to go back to telling the types of stories that I was completely comfortable telling in college. I graduated seven years ago. And even now, I don’t have the ease of writing those stories that I had back then. Instead I flip out about stage directions.
It took flipping out about stage directions for me to realize how much I have internalized all the various messages I’ve heard and witnessed over the past seven years. And it’s even sadder that I felt the need for permission from others to embrace something that used to be instinctual to my process.
For those of us who work in this field – what are the messages we’re sending out about the value of women’s stories and storytelling? There’s been a lot of wonderful mobilization around gender parity since the Guthrie, but in addition to fighting for more women’s stories, what are we saying about those stories themselves? And what messages are we sending to women playwrights, intentionally and unintentionally?
And to the folks (admittedly all male) who have told me over the past week or so that if people don’t understand my play, they shouldn’t be directing it, I would like to say thank you. It’s unfortunate that I needed to hear that from multiple sources for this greater realization to sink in. Just because I work in this community doesn’t mean I have to let it define me as an artist. I can define myself on my own terms.