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.

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