If you discover an awful secret, should you tell? Should we base our ethical decisions on principles, or only on consequences? Must we really take the interests of others into consideration? Are there intrinsically right and wrong acts?
These four questions form the basis of Fast and Loose, an ethical collaboration, at the Humana Festival at The Actor’s Theater of Louisville. It is a piece that engaged the collective wits, morals and talents of playwrights Jose Cruz Gonzalez, Kirsten Greenidge, Julie Marie Myatt, and John Walch.
For the past five years, the ATL has commissioned a collection of short plays written around a specific theme by as many as 18 writers. Last year’s theme was phobias. The result, called Trepidation Nation, explored “that particular species of fear that holds a special fascination because of its extreme, illogical nature,” as the notes say to the Humana Festival 2003 compilation. Interesting work begins with provocative ideas.
This year’s collaboration found its starting place in a newspaper advice column, “The Ethicist” by Randy Cohen, which appears in The New York Times Magazine. Literary Associate Steve Moulds read, and then asked the playwrights to read, Cohen’s recently published book, The Good, the Bad, & the Difference. As the idea for the play grew, the artistic staff came up with five provocative questions. Each of the four playwrights picked their two favorites and were eventually assigned just one.
But playwriting, like ethics, is rarely that simple. Certainly this project looked for complications—complications to the questions, complications to the process, complication to the audience, actor, and artist experience. Following a “track system,” each playwright wrote a first scene from his or her question, and then handed off the idea to a second writer, who wrote a second scene. Eventually, all four writers contributed tracks to all four plays.
It’s something like the drawing game you might have played as a child: on a thrice-folded paper, one person draws the head, leaving only the mysterious lines of the neck to guide the next artist, who draws the torso, whose legs extend to the final third of the paper, to be imagined by the final pen. The unfolding often reveals an inspiringly distorted Frankenstein of a being who nonetheless yields a whole of unexpected integrity and unfailingly unique character.
At ATL, Moulds and Wendy McClellan (Director of the Apprentice and Intern Company) gave the writers a little bit more to guide them than the pencil-line necks and limbs of childhood days. Along with the first scene based on their assigned question, they asked each writer to write a “track outline.”
“The track outline was basically a way that the originating author could lay down some broad rules, or writing prompts, for the following authors, without being too prescriptive in terms of what would happen next,” says Moulds. The artistic staff then read the track and decided what writer should continue it. The conversation, according to Moulds, went something like this: “‘I think this piece needs to go somewhere totally left field. Let’s give it to John.’” But the writers never read the previous scenes; the track outlines were the only thing that got passed on.
As playwright Walch notes wryly, “Other people gave plot lines, the sort of notes that say, ‘This is what I’m thinking.’ I was like, ‘Make the choice after the obvious choice. Include the word sage.’”
In Fast and Loose, things fall from the sky: a pink dollhouse that eventually serves as the lid for a smoking barbeque grill; a disintegrating mummy, hanging grimly above the audience entrance, from which pecans occasionally drop onto the stage. These writers share an ability to express a compelling vulnerability. They bravely welcome big, startling, and terrifying images that were striking even when the plays themselves don’t entirely hang together.
Each of the four play’s four tracks are interwoven in unpredictable ways on an undulating set of furniture partly buried under green grass. Are these characters’ real intentions hidden or exposed?
In Wake God’s Man, a trio of sisters confront the truth of their childhood relationships with an abusive priest. Union shows workers in a cotton factory struggle with the question of unionization in the face of the management’s threat to move operations overseas. The Mating Habits of the Sage Grouse starts when a guy’s friends decide it’s time for him to get laid. And then one pal gets the hots for the girl they’ve picked. In This House is about a couple adopting a baby girl. The birth mother has only one request, that they give the baby a specific middle name which is Native American and is impossibly, almost farcically long. The couple agrees, and then shortens the name to Anna. They don’t tell the birth mother.
The program listed the names of the four playwrights, the titles of the four plays, the four questions, and the list of twenty-two characters. But it had a glaring omission: attribution. Who wrote which tracks? We weren’t supposed to know.
The audience made a game out of trying to match scene with writer. After the show, we stood in the lobby and compared our guesses. Some of the time we were dead on. But it was strange—not one person I overheard consistently got all four scenes right. The way that they were pieced together sometimes threw us, like colors tend to change or blend in pointillism.
The primary purpose of Fast and Loose, as with every year’s collaborative project, is to provide the company of twenty-two acting interns a platform to show their skills. “This is a piece commissioned for a very specific purpose,” Moulds says. “Even if the play might be stronger, you can’t cut roles. Everybody needs to be in it. These considerations outweigh the writer’s voice.” Here’s where the ethics comes in to the playwriting process.
At the very start of the process, McClellan and Tanya Palmer (Director of New Play Development) sat down with a list of people they wanted to work with. They looked for the right combination of writing style and collaborative experience. Gonzalez, Greenidge, Myatt and Walch hadn’t worked together before, and they were not completely familiar with each other’s work. But McClellan had seen all four of them at other readings and retreats, such as the now-defunct ASK Theatre Projects. “They were writers who enjoyed working things out. There were no divas.”
By design, each writer got to start a track, continue a track, and finish a track. They met twice in Louisville. The first time, which because of scheduling conflicts happened in pairs, was to meet the acting interns. The second time was for a read-through of the first draft. As Walch describes it, “We basically had like a TV meeting that day—the 12 hours that we were all together.” (“The last two were at my house with a bottle of bourbon,” adds McClellan.”) “And we had all read the pieces and had notes. We basically put them into workshop. Like, okay, so what is this?”
Rather than assigning a sort of script captain to each track, they kept the process collective. They kept odd shifts in tone. They figured they could make sense of sudden shifts in time. Collectivity, interestingly enough, was empowering. “We wanted to preserve the individual voices,” Walch says.
The collaborators talk about the piece as if it were a road trip they’d all been on together, and the imagery, language, and plot points are like landmarks along the way. It was flat and then there was a pink house. It was flat, and then there was a union strike that no one comes to. It was flat, and then there was an abusive priest. He’s dead.
“Kirsten’s original impetus for using the house came out of discussions we held with the apprentice company at the beginning of the process,” Moulds explains of the piece In This House. “One of the apprentices, responding to the question of ethics possibly just being cultural differences, talked about everyone staying within their own spheres. He said something like, ‘You can have your standards in your house, and I’ll have mine. And it won’t be a problem unless you step into my house.’”
He continues. “And then there’s a monologue by this character in the house—he’s the father of the baby—he sort of comes out of left field. But he’s related to the scene. You never knew if the next piece was going to engage theme more or engage plot and character more.”
The way that track, theme, character and writer engaged each other was actually sort of tidal for the audience to experience. The water underneath us crested, curled under, then went back out beneath us. Something else rose. This became the pieces’ structure, a fluid and counter-linear experience. Story wasn’t always revelatory. It wasn’t always satisfying. Stakes changed for some characters mid-way through, or slid out from under them entirely. Obviously the process had its challenges.
“We were trying to serve three masters,” Walch says, “The apprentices—making sure people got equal stage time; the piece itself; and our own individual, well, deal.” Maybe the biggest question the process asked was, What are our obligations as artists to each other?
McClellan describes the Fast and Loose writers as open-hearted and says that this is one of the keys to the project’s success. It’s true. They were open to the process. And, ultimately, Moulds says, Fast and Loose “felt bigger than the actual play could depict. That these worlds go on somewhere in the imagination and we’re only seeing four little snippets.”
Walch describes himself as a laborious writer. “I’m slow. I tend to get stuck, and when I get stuck I kind of, I know there’s something wrong in the piece, or something untrue, or something’s going on that I can’t seem to get around, and so I kind of create these little blocks for myself that last and last and last. And what this taught me was, there are certain things I just couldn’t change. I can’t change the scene that’s come before me. I can ask questions about it. I couldn’t change it. I had to accept what I was given and move on. And that’s a really big lesson for me and if I can apply it to my own work, I’ll finish a lot more plays in my day. A lot of what the block is, is fear. I don’t know what’s coming next. But I have to let that be. I have enough knowledge and understanding of the piece to carry on, to just see where it goes.”
(Dialouge excerpt below)
José Cruz González is currently working on an epic piece, Three Tuesdays, about a Mexican woman who lived a hundred years.
Kristen Greenidge also had a mainstage production at Humana this year, a surreal piece called Sans-culottes in the Promised Land.
Julie Marie Myatt is currently traveling in Cambodia, where she is researching a new play about young girls and the sex slave industry, funded by the Guthrie Theater’s New Play Project, which is funded by the Bush Foundation.
John Walch is finishing up a Sloan commission for Manhattan Theatre Club.
C. Denby Swanson, a former Jerome and McKnight fellow, currently lives in NYC area. Her play The Death of Cat receives its world premiere in September at Salvage Vanguard Theater. In October, Minneapolis-based 15 Head will produce her new play Vactionland!
IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright, and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Wake God’s Man The question: If you discover an awful secret, should you tell?
Scene Zero by José Cruz González
(The shape of a human body is suspended horizontally above the stage. The body is wrapped in shards of white cloth like a mummy. Green weeds grow out of it. Onstage is a small delicate table with a vase filled with Easter lilies. BETH and ANNIE stand onstage. They are sisters. BETH is older. They are dressed in black.)
ANNIE Don’t start.
BETH She’s never on time. It’s embarrassing. I’m always the first to arrive. Call her.
ANNIE Don’t start, Beth. Sarah will be here.
BETH Why must you always protect her?
ANNIE Look, don’t even go there.
Scene Two by John Walch
(An intense light begins to shine from the mummified form hanging over the stage. The light is white hot. Something begins spilling from the mummified form—pecans. The pecans hit the stage deck and scatter. The spilling pecans stop as quickly as they started; the body remains full. A MAN wearing a hat enters carrying a bucket. He steps on one of the pecans. CRACK. He picks up the pecan and eats the nut inside. He gathers all the pecans that have spilled on stage in his hat. He moves just off, sits on the bucket, pulls out a nutcracker, and begins shelling pecans.)
MAN One thing nobody ever tells you about pecans is that they’re a powerful aphrodisiac, lot like oysters. Stronger than oysters—more zinc, I think. See it’s a chemical thing, scientific fact, nothing to do with ethics or God. Nobody ever tells you that though, ’cause who would want to blame what they done wrong on a pecan?
(The MAN cracks another pecan.)
Scene Three>/b> by Kirsten Greenidge
(Above the stage the body seems to inhale, then exhale. Hat in hand, the MAN climbs the Food Bank ladder, up to where the body is suspended. He uses a knife to cut a hole in the face of the body [the body’s eyes or mouth is a suggestion]. He carefully sifts pecan shells into the body from his hat).
MAN Nobody wants to blame it on a pecan. (sifts/pours). But. You could. (sifts/pours).
” ‘Not me. Whatever happened it wasn’t me, don’t blame me. It was something I ate, something I thought when I ate, something I thought before I ate: a mistake. Not the real me.” We do it all the time. Instead of accept. Instead of listening and accepting, we explain and explain. Or try to explain and explain. That’s got nothing to do with God, either. (sifts/pours).
(The body expands. The sound of something about to burst/stretched to its limit. It grows louder. Bright light fills the stage.)
Scene Four by Julie Marie Myatt
(The body bag is empty and body is gone from above the stage. The MAN enters with a broom and sweeps the pecan shells across the stage.)
MAN There’s always a trace of something left behind from the appetites of man. Always a crack or a shell or a wrapper or a sock or a feather or a trail of blood. A laugh. A scream. A voice…Unheard. Somewhere. Left behind. Somewhere in the wake. Of the action… (continues to sweep)…what a mess, these nuts—so much trouble just to get that little bite of pleasure—I call them pecans, while some call them peecans—I guess I can’t help myself. I must have a few guilty pleasures. You think you can give them all up, and you do, you do, give them up, but the appetite—the appetite has a mind of it’s own, and I’m not sure I was expecting that—I was a young man when I was called, Idealist, what did I know?—and I’m not sure God understands how powerful that appetite is, that to give it up is—is not always possible.
(Beth enters. Kicks a pecan shell towards him.)
BETH You missed one.
MAN Thank you.
BETH Who you talking to?
MAN No one.
BETH God abandon you?
(He continues to sweep.)
ContributorC. Denby Swanson
C. Denby Swanson is a Texas girl, a former Jerome & McKnight fellow, and an alumna of the Lark Theater, where her play The Death of a Cat was workshopped as part of Playwright Week 2005.