Friday, July 25, 2014

WWEAD? (Thoughts on The Gun Show, continued)

There's a war going on inside me.

There are a hell of a lot of wars going on outside of me right now, too…  and I'm not sure what to do about those, either.  The whole world seems to be falling apart.  The center cannot hold.  (Why do I wind up back with TS Eliot so frequently?)

My small war is between humility and hubris, between agency and inaction, between process and product, between past-tense and present-tense.

"The Gun Show" is up, now, at 16th Street Theater in Chicago.  We are in our third week of performances, playing to strong houses and pleased about receiving good reviews.  We've extended.  What the hell do I have to feel conflicted about?  I have a show up!

Every full-length play I've written has been the creative expression of me grappling with a question I don't have an answer for, and desperately need to.  My plays are all very different from each other in form and subject, but like most writers, I tend to circle the same set of questions on a pretty regular basis.  "How do we go on?" is a favorite for me -- taken from both existential and practical angles.  "The Gun Show" asks (amongst other things) how we as a society are going to choose to deal with guns, these dealers of death or security (depending on who you ask) which seem to be intrinsic to our American identity in a way we're no longer entirely comfortable with.  How do we go on?  Philosophically?  Practically?  With them or without them?

"The Gun Show" isn't just about guns, though.  It's about me trying to figure out how to integrate a difficult, messy, violent piece of my past into my present self.  I've been dragging it behind for a long time -- separate, heavy, albatross-like.  But at a certain point, going forward in pieces is no longer a very successful defense mechanism, but rather an impediment to progress.  

Progress hurts a bit.

I knew that it would, going into this.  It's all right.  I'm tough as an old tree, really.  I can do this.  And for the most part, I'm staying in the game -- feeling all the feels, only occasionally breaking for a Law & Order marathon with a Ben & Jerry's and bourbon chaser.  Because what good is all this art crap if it's not going to get me anywhere?  

I want to get somewhere.

I want to get somewhere farther than I am.

Personally and professionally.

I keep see-sawing between thinking the play is good and thinking it's self-indulgent crap.  I keep remembering things from the past that this play is dredging up, while trying to navigate the present and BE present and let what comes up come in, not slam the door on it like I have before.  Because it's part of me.  It's part of me.  It's part of me.

The play is going well.  People are coming to see it.  Two more theaters want to produce it.  So it's time for me to work to promote it.  Now.  Right now.  Not in a few weeks or month, but now, while it's up and running and growing and becoming.  Some people are going to hate it -- disagree with it, be appalled at it.  I am actively grappling with it myself, still.  Art isn't about the easy questions, after all.  Right?  I'm not entirely sure what to do with the people who LIKE it.  

It's at times like this that I ask myself, "WWEAD?"

I don't know Mr. Albee.  I have heard him speak a few times, and am in love with his plays.  How do you do better than "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"  How could you be more difficult and provocative than "The Goat" or "The Lady from Dubuque" or "Zoo Story?"  He has written difficult plays his whole life, and he has stayed in the game for a long, long time.  The Mr. Albee in my imagination is a grappler with angels, like Jacob in the story, when everything is at stake.  So...

Stay in the game, Ellen.

Send out the play, to the theater and the agent and the director you want to work with.

Don't stop wrestling with the play until it's done wrestling with you.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Gun Show Is Now Up on Stage at 16th Street Theater

The Bottom of the Box. 15 JULY 2014

My second full-length play production occurred in 2007.  Darin Anthony directed the world premiere of my hostage drama "Heads" at the Blank Theater in Los Angeles, California.  It's a dark little story, about four civilian westerners who are taken hostage during the early years of the war in Iraq.  The play has had five or six more productions, but that first one came to mind the other day.  I remember having a discussion with Darin about the ending of the play.  Specifically, he was asking me about the final stage direction, in which (spoiler alert!) the two surviving hostages are thrown together into a single cell.  Both of them are grieving.  One approaches the other with a tin of food; he slaps it out of her hands.  She tries again.  My final stage direction read something like "she holds out the tin again - lights out - end of play."  And Darin asked me if I thought that Michael might reach out and take the tin from Caroline, the second time she offers it.  We talked about it a lot.  I think we might have tried the scene both ways, with the actors.  I ended up choosing to end the play with Michael accepting the tin from Caroline.  It was a small change that made all the difference.  How you end something is really important.

I was thinking about the end of "Heads" because I've been thinking about the end of "The Gun Show."  It's my seventh or eighth full-length play to be produced, and as always, I have found myself having intense conversations with my director about the play as we work together to bring it to the stage.  The original ending (before the last 20 or 30 rewrites) had the actor abandoning the audience after the last story.  He leaves the stage.  Leaves the audience to think what they think and feel what they feel.  And the play still kind of ends that way, but my director, Kevin Fox, asked me if I thought that a conversation with the audience about the rather intense subject matter of the play -- guns and gun violence and gun control -- might be a natural follow up to our performances here at 16th Street Theater in Chicago, especially since the play explicitly asks, at one point, "Can we have this conversation?"  We talked about it a lot.  I was nervous about the idea, but Kevin had a carefully thought-out plan.  I ended up choosing to let him try it.  It was a small change that has made all the difference.  People have been sharing their own gun stories, and listening to each other, really listening to each other.  I have felt both humbled and supported by their willingness to take part.  How you end something is really important.

And I realized that maybe what both of these directors were asking me to do, with these dark little plays of mine, was not to step back from the darkness, but to keep reaching inside until I got to the furthest point that the plays were trying to take me to.  The bottom of the box.  

Don't close it until you let the hope out, Ellen.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Rehearsals continue for THE GUN SHOW, here in Chicago

Through the Looking Glass.  04 JULY 2014
“I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”   (Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass)
My guts hurt. They've hurt for days now, a low ache that makes me want to curl up under the covers. 

It's not appendicitis.  It's not cramps. It's not that I've been drinking too much coffee during the day and booze at night (though, you know, maybe that, too.) It's that I've been clenching those muscles tight since rehearsals began on Monday afternoon.

This play cuts a little close to the bone.

It's a strange thing to work on.  Kevin Christopher Fox is my director, for this first ever production of the play.  Juan Francisco Villa is my actor.  (Don't they have wonderful names?)  They've been troupers.  This is a public story -- THE GUN SHOW -- but it's also a private story, and they are hanging in there with me for this oddly intimate exploration of what guns mean to us here in America and what guns mean to the three of us there in that room and what guns mean to me.

Juan is playing me.  Sometimes, during the show, he talks to me, where I'm sitting out in the audience.  (I love the theater, where the most complicated things can be magicked into the most simple things.)

Kevin said something to Juan the other day, in rehearsal.  He said that when Juan looks at me, for him to think of it as looking in a mirror, since we are the same person for the duration of each performance.  That felt both surprising and deeply right to me.  It's been so strange to watch Juan wrestle with my demons.

I am a relatively emotionally contained person, generally speaking.  Carefully bottled up, one might say.  But this play is pushing me to let go a bit.  A lot.

Some moments I want to flee the theater, and some moments I want to cling to the guys, and some moments I don't want to be touched.

I'm trying to sit in my chair and not be distracting.  Because we are there to work on the play.  It is my job to be the playwright in the room, to take notes and give notes, to support and encourage and guide, to let Kevin work with Juan, as they bring my little play to life up on the stage, working all their own magic.  To be professional.

So the clenching.

It'll pass.
“The time has come," the walrus said, "to talk of many things: Of shoes and ships - and sealing wax - of cabbages and kings.”  (Lewis Carroll - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass)