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.