I’m writing my second solo show. And my third. I got so stymied on my second one that I opted to abandon it temporarily and work on a third that my husband encouraged me to write because it’s about something funny-embarrassing-unusual—let’s call it quirky. My first show was autobiographical and included some painful stuff; my second does, too; so the third one is a nice break from potential angst.
The second one has been bringing up my junk, as storytelling coach Terrie Silverman would put it.
The third one’s first pages flew onto the laptop screen when I couldn’t bear to touch the second one, and they made me grin and snort. I was having fun writing fictional dialogue, because that’s how I want to begin the third show, before I go into personal narrative about something that embarrasses me yet I think/hope will make people laugh…which is not something that should concern me during the creation process. I do best when I forget “the audience” and write stuff that makes me laugh. At least one person will enjoy it, guaranteed! Meanwhile, there’s no guarantee that there will be an audience beyond my closest friends, even given my first show’s positive trajectory. And yet…I mention the audience because I want to be honest here. I have hopes for all of my projects when I’m creating them. Those hopes can be motivating, but only up to a point, after which it’s just me doing the work for one of two reasons:
- I’m feeling accountable (to a class, a deadline, etc.), or
- I’m actually feeling engaged in the creation process.
Full disclosure: I wrote most of the above in April. I’ve since worked on both the second and third shows intermittently while taking long breaks to tour my first show. The breaks have been long because a lot of time was devoted to the following:
- communicating with each venue liaison and/or technical director as each booking date loomed
- rehearsing the show to get it back on its feet or keep it sharp
- “teching” and performing it
- traveling back and forth, and
- recovering—it takes me a full week to recover from travel+performance+travel. I’ll write more about that in another post.
Anyway, I wanted to write the third solo show because it made me happy. Unlike the second one, which made me want to go all fetal and whimpering.
I couldn’t decide if the second one wasn’t ready to be written or if I had just reached the second step of writing a solo show, a.k.a. The Hard Part. The Hard Part is not rewriting (though that can be hard!). The Hard Part is rereading what you’ve got after a month and realizing that 90% doesn’t work but you’re not sure why and you’re not sure what to cut and you’re pretty sure you have more to say and you want to make it good and it doesn’t seem possible and how are you going to end this thing, anyway? (Seriously: what’s the ending?!?) And maybe you can’t meld those three themes, maybe they have to be separated into three shows, or maybe you’re just being slow witted about it, or maybe you’re repeating your first show without realizing it or writing a sucky sequel, or maybe This Time You Really Are Not That Interesting. So if you’re me, you get stuck…especially if the one person with whom you’ve shared the work thinks it needs a huge overhaul. If you trust this person (I do), then the piece might suddenly look like Pacaya.
No wonder I started working on something else, something that made me giggle.
By the way, I never intend to write a show that hurts. I always intend to tell a good true story and make people laugh. I usually manage the latter when I perform my first show, but this seems to be secondary to making people remember instances of loss or hurt in their own lives. And the discombobulating thing is: they often thank me afterward. So it seems to be therapeutic and cathartic for a lot of folks, which is deeply gratifying—I’m so glad it’s helping people. But the selfish part of me wishes I could have written it in a way that guaranteed laughter throughout. Selfish because I’m all alone up there and when they laugh I know they’re following along. And as any comedian will tell you, an audience’s appreciative/delighted laughter feels like love to the performer. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like feeling loved.
When the audience is silent it can be hard to tell if they’re listening intently and absorbing, or only partially listening while resisting and judging, or just feeling bored. Some audiences barely chuckle. Others crack up regularly. Most are somewhere in between.
Back to the second show: I know now that back in April (and May and June) I had simply reached The Hard Part. I’m feeling ready to dive in again, thanks to the fantastic theatre conference I attended in Cape Town, South Africa. When you hear:
- panelists discuss the Protest theatre they were all creating in the 1980s, making art that changed their country’s trajectory in solidarity against the Apartheid government;
- the opening keynote speaker reference brilliant playwrights you’ve heard of and African ones you haven’t, and are reminded of the breadth of good work there is out there that isn’t getting international recognition, but is enhancing lives locally;
- the closing keynote speaker mention the tremendous backlash she experienced when she and her fellow writers shared their work about being women who enjoyed sex;
- your fellow playwrights talk about the very real censorship they’ve experienced as artists in Uganda, Zimbabwe, Chile…
…you may end up feeling galvanized to finish your second show, because you’re so lucky to be able to create it in a safe environment in the first place. And if you’re in a hostile environment, then hopefully your fellow artists’ courage and tenacity will galvanize you, too, and you’ll find allies.
So, for me: creating the second show may bring up my junk, but it will also purge it, and I know that alongside any grief, acrimony, shame, and bewilderment: I will find humor, surprises, grace, bemusement, solace, and delight. And that is likely to be a story worth sharing.
BONUS: One of my favorite Brain Pickings posts—very helpful to anyone creating a solo show, whether the first or the 50th.
- Dani Shapiro on Vulnerability, the Creative Impulse, the Writing Life, and How to Live with Presence by Maria Popova
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