Saint John the Divine in Iowa Returns, Part 2

I finally figured out what my play is about.

I know, two years after the first draft may seem a little slow on the uptake.  But that’s how it is, you keep digging beneath the surface, and then something rises toward you suddenly.  Ah-hah!  This is the story I’ve been trying to tell myself, this is the next truth I’ve been trying to see.

Of course, the digging in this case was the script analysis I did as an actor.  I am forever grateful to Kevin Confoy, a brilliant teacher at Sarah Lawrence who developed this technique called Breaking the Code.  His theory is that all answers to an actor’s questions can be found in the text; all inspiration comes from marrying your own experience to the world the writer has created.  (That the writer is me makes little difference in my experience.)

I was doing the script analysis questions–an older version that I’d made my own, 16 questions.  And as I wrote I realized that while it is true that the play is about learning how to love, it is also about exile.  And that perhaps you can’t write about one without writing about the other.  In the play, my character, Reverend Alex, is exiled by her own hand, by the demands she has placed on her own life, and in some very sad moments, by her ability to meet those demands pretty well.  But the other characters are exiled too–Sarah, by her secrets, Young Alex by the hurt society has dished out to her, Charlie by his gender in a world of women and also by his blindness to the way judging the people around him has created the very walls he rails against.

Marrying my own life experience to the play–sometimes I think my life is just a pattern of exile and return.  In any one moment, I feel tossed out of the human family by some small thing–an off-handed criticism, a laugh at my expense, a friend not sharing, my partner’s tiredness when I’m excited to talk, tell, be.  And then I’m pulled back in a moment later–a colleague smiles across the room, a friend IM’s me a joke, I get a voice message from someone close enough to know why one day might be more challenging than another.  Inside, outside, over and over again, days, moments, years.  Oh, how I want to stay inside that connection, to cement it, hold it, but my life, the one I’ve been dealt, the one I’ve made from that, rarely allows such consistency.  In, out.  My partner, who unlike me, never moved as a child, calls it ebb and flow.  A friend in 2nd grade grows distant in 3rd, returns in 10th, shows up on Facebook 20 years later.  Ebb and flow, not frightening, not exile and return, but the nature of things.

I thought, yesterday, about how early tragedy makes us long for perfection from others.  How we want people to be safe, honest, true.  How we want to be able to change them.  Because ebb and flow is hard to ride.  And even without tragedy, we build walls to protect ourselves from loss, from the nature of life itself.

Oh, Don, how you teach me again and again, that loss is inevitable.  How powerless I am to prevent it.  And so I enter this story, a woman who knows about exile and about return, about the ridiculous behavior we have when we are frightened of either.  They call it, in couples therapy, intimacy issues.  But really, it’s just the human condition.

Tonight I’m tired, so I have been on the couch, re-reading The Riddle Master of Hed trilogy, which I have loved for thirty years.  There’s a quote in it about the way a thing returns, always, to its own nature.  I read that quote for the I don’t-know-how-many-eth time and I thought, I have been most at home in the world when I have grounded into my own sorrow, my own joy, every experience I have ever had, what it’s made of me, what I’ve made, and just accepted it all.

I enter the story I wrote as if it belongs to someone else, as if I am a new diver into these words, and I become Reverend Alex, a woman who has, in the pursuit of a spiritual life, unknowingly exiled herself from her own family and community.  When I was in graduate school, I asked Kevin Confoy what I needed to do to become a better actor and he told me to bring all my passion to the story as well as the strength of my intellect.

I’m glad I wrote this story.  I will give it all my passion.  Or I will give it, and then pull back, and then give it again, in the nature of things, in the way that I am, in the ebb and flow my partner teaches me, over and over again.

Saint John the Divine in Iowa RETURNS!

I don’t like fast-up productions.  I like to take my time and make sure everything is as perfect as possible.  I like to be over-organized with charts and calendars.  I like to not rush, or have stress or adrenaline.  In the world of theatre, this seems to make me weird (in film, not so much…you have to plan like crazy for film).

But, when the Boston Playwrights Theatre offered me 4 weeks in March, there were 2 people on full go ahead, so I allowed myself to be convinced that a fast-up production wouldn’t drive me insane.  This fits under the category of, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results.”

HOWEVER!  While it has driven me crazy, while there has been stress and adrenaline and I have compulsively organized everything trying to make up for lost time, I have also had this kind of weird surrender.  So I’ve watched as things have oddly fallen into place…the hard-working Pattersons coming on for marketing, producing and Assistant Directing, the right cast (my partner, who has never acted, and who is terrified of the stage has somehow ended up in this play, and that felt right while being so irrational it took the limits off all definitions of insanity…but the director loves her and she’s great in the part so…), Julia Short stepping in as director (I love Julia), a sound designer, an actor, a production manager who are so invested in the project for very different reasons.  I am wondering after the hell year of 2011 whether this isn’t a gift.  I keep feeling like in some energetic cosmos weird thing Don is steering this…giving me what I have wanted, which is to tell this story of what it means to love and be human, and to tell it with people who are actively being good to each other.

I miss Don, but he respected Julia a lot, and the last time he and I directed she was our lead actress.  I keep thinking he would be nodding away, happy at her choices, happy with how she sees.  Joan Mejia, who was her co-lead, is playing Jesus, so I should maybe ask him if he’s seeing Don hanging around.  To top it, Alan, who plays my husband, is an actor I met through Don, when Don brought me on to do acting coaching on a sitcom pilot.  A confluence, a coming together…

I do have to admit that I wrote the first draft of the play in a week.  I didn’t sleep much, of course.  But it was really fun to do the adaptation.  I love anything creative–I’m really kind of a one note person, made of little else but creativity–and I love creative challenges, when you have limits and you have to create new ideas to fit them.  Screen to stage is like that.

Of course, everything about fast-up is terrifying.  Is the play really ready?  (I think it is…)  Are the decisions correct?  Do I have time to settle into my role as an actor?

Or perhaps what is terrifying is this–often theatre production has been very disappointing.  Not slams, they’ve gone well and they weren’t something I was doing for myself anyhow.  But the two times I’ve produced my own work before this were challenging and disappointing.  Often my own fault it turned out that way, or partly my fault.  I couldn’t get what I wanted from a play I loved, because I was so new to producing and I did too much (as I always do).

And now here I am. This story, Saint John the Divine in Iowa, is my watershed work.  I’ve been a writer all my life, and I could never quite get to singing the song at the center of me until I wrote a memoir in 2006-08.  The memoir opened a door out of well-trained crafts person into wildness.  I started to really sing in my own voice.  So…SJDI is my ultimate song.  It’s a song to joy, to healing, to redemption, it’s a belief in love and love’s power, it’s a song to morality and human goodness.  It is frightening to me to think that this fast-up production, full of risk, might not sing the song.  Of course, I’m risking because I think it will.  Obviously.  I’m even thinking these weird thoughts about Don…about leaning back into Don’s belief in me and love for me, and letting that carry me through the hard places that are, of course, inevitable.  Because it’s taken 30 years to get to sing this.  There was dirge in the way, and lament…and while dirge and lament can be beautiful, moving, they tell the story of life’s pain and difficulty, even when there are moments of redemption.  We all know that life is painful and difficult.  But the song of belief in goodness above all things, however idealistic it might seem, is also beautiful.

And me.  Joy is a part of me, along with dirge, lament, cry.

So, the damn play is already funny with these lovely actors.  It’s already beautiful.  I am settling into letting each moment unfold, I am setting into the temporal nature of theatre, making something that happens and then is gone.  Beauty.  A play is a tree dropping its leaves.  Gold on the ground.  Then gone.

Just right.