So the big thing this week is that I finished the second draft of the Creepy Play: my Southern (Ontario) Gothic family tragedy. And you guys, there was one night—I was expanding a scene between the mother and her adult daughter. Remember, this play is an angst-fest. The mother is a roiling, toxic pit of darkness, and her daughter’s an angry, hurt young woman who can be a) the most gentle, genuinely caring person in the play, or b) casually crueller than anyone else.Anyway, the scene was rolling along, but then I had to step back. I stumbled to my couch, squished in beside Guinness, and I cried.
Not because I’m a delicate flower. But because I understood the mother’s darkness. I understood her daughter’s anger. I saw what made these broken, anguished people the way they are.And of course, it isn’t real. No more than a dream is. But it is distressing nonetheless, and so I wanted to talk about self-care when writing difficult scenes.
Except that a listicle feels trite. “Have a hot shower!” “Listen to comforting music!” “Read fluff!” Hopefully, you already know that.
(For the record: I listened to a lot of Anglican/Gregorian chant while writing the Creepy Play—I needed the familiar tone and repetitive tunes to stay grounded.)
Sometimes, we have to look into the darkness. I’m not only talking about creative-types, here. Sometimes, we all have to do it. We need to shine a light into the furthest corners of our heads—and not look away. It’s hard. No one likes seeing the darkness smile back when they look in the mirror.
“If all that’s inside me…what does that say about me?”
It says that humans are complex creatures, and we are all a mix of wonderful, noble, loving tendencies and awful, cruel, damaging ones. The best way to grapple with the darkness, I think, is to understand it. Not glorifying it; not revelling in it – but understanding.
And to do that, we need to enter it. Safely, carefully—this is where the hot showers and comforting music come in.
It’s really hard.
So what do we gain, doing it?
Connection, I think. Empathy. The ability to look at that hurt, angry young woman and say, “Yes, I can feel that too.”After all, the darkness is always worse when you don’t know what’s in it.
The trick is remembering to keep hold of the light. This has been a deeply uncomfortable play to write, and there will be another draft—but I know I’m better for having written it. I hope it serves its eventual audience, too.
What I’m Listening to This Week
For ages, I’ve been noodling the idea of borrowing polyphonic principles for my fiction. The climax of the Creepy Play is basically written that way: voices in counterpoint with each other, passing the melody back and forth, emphasizing certain phrases and motifs against each other…
Vivaldi isn’t precisely polyphony, but this section from his Gloria is what I was thinking of. Listen to the parts enter one by one, different ideas emerging to prominence and then sinking again (especially the tenors around 0:50, mirrored by the altos while the basses take the melody back). It’s a single whole—that interplay fascinates me.
I was all ready to write a post about T.S. Eliot and a particularly evocative line of his, but then this happened:
At the very least, you’ve probably heard about this. Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton. He was booed. Following the show, the cast made the following statement:
“We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
By any objective standard, it’s a measured, civil statement. Pence said he “wasn’t offended.” But of course, this happened:
So here’s the thing. The theatre is not—never has been—ought not to be—a safe space. Naturally, we need to talk about what we mean by “safe space.” The theatre ought to be a safe space in that it contains sufficient fire exits and Ministry of Labour-approved standards of workplace safety. The theatre ought to be a safe space in that it
….is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability. (Advocates for Youth)
But that, pals, is just common decency and courtesy.
A theatre ought not to be a safe space in that it is a space free from dissent, protest, and conflicting viewpoints. Drama, lest we forget, is founded on conflict. Not just conflict within the plot and characters of a piece, either. Theatre has always served—as one of its many functions—as a forum for the oppressed, the marginalized, the voiceless, and the Other.
Dissecting the history of politics-in-theatre would take a book, not a blog post, but I’ll point to Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed” (theatre as means of promoting social/political change), Bertolt Brecht and epic theatre (political theatre aimed at commenting on/changing social processes), Athenian satire plays (aimed at commenting on/changing the Athenian democracy), and even theatre-in-education (while generally not overtly political, TIE encourages students to form, test, and evaluate their own opinions on various subjects…by using theatre techniques to assist in reaching educational goals).
Do you notice any themes here?
Theatre as agent of change. Theatre as commentator. Theatre as means of education. This is what good theatre does. This is what good art does. And this is why the arts are not—will never be—ought never be—safe. Good theatre does not only entertain. Good theatre provokes. Good theatre forces reconsideration and re-evaluation of deeply held beliefs. Good theatre provides a space in which to empathize with the Other.
And I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here. Theatre is a commentator and change agent. What else is new?
What’s new is that this may not seem so self-evident in years to come. And that’s why it is important to speak out about it—so that we don’t lose sight of what theatre does. Have you ever noticed, autocrats tend to go for artists early on? This is why. Art pushes back; it always has. What’s more, it is damn good at commenting and fostering change—because art makes the makes the Other familiar; and the familiar, Other. When the Other isn’t the Other anymore—when they’re human, when there’s common ground—it becomes a lot harder to oppress them.
Granted, there has been some debate about whether it was appropriate for the cast to address Pence. Honestly, I’m not sure they could have avoided doing so. Every incarnation of art is a product of its time, and Hamilton is perhaps more so than most. In this particular political climate, this particular play would have completely undermined its own thesis by keeping silent. Hamilton is the “Other” America—the America that did not vote for Trump. Pence, of course, is free to see whatever shows he likes, but we all understand, “Ev’ry action has its equal, opposite reaction.”
So yes, it was appropriate. It was respectful. It was not harassment. But nor was it a particularly safe move. It was something far more—it was brave.
We’re going to need more of that sort of bravery in the years ahead. May we all have the courage to speak out and provoke. May we all have the courage to not be safe.
What I’m Listening to This Week
Oh, I should probably put a Hamilton song in solidarity, but that’s not what I was listening to this week. It’s a little early, but bring on the Christmas music. This week, it was Pearsall’s arrangement of “In Dulci Jubilo.” It’s a macaronic piece, which means it throws together Latin and English willy-nilly. It’s also rather heartbreaking in the final verse, yearning, “Oh, that we were there!”
A while back, a friend sent me a link to this post: a ridiculous and then all-too-real look at a day in the writer’s life. I laughed, because it was true. Then I laughed, because if I didn’t, I might cry. And I thought – what does my day look like?
Around the same time, I realized I’d be adapting Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen into a 15-minute Christmas Pantomime in a very short, concentrated burst. “What better day to examine?” quoth I. “I shall document writing this script!”
And so I did. Here is an admittedly-not-wholly-typical day for me: in which I wrote The Snow Queen in a day.
9:22 am. Awaken, as Guinness has decided that enough is enough and he would really like breakfast. Since I was only up until 1 am or so, I feel slightly groggy, but mostly rested.
10:16 am. After coffee, Cheerios, shower, and dealing with cat, I am ready to start researching The Snow Queen. First up, an English translation of Hans Christian Anderson’s original, downloaded to Kindle.
10:37 am. Realize that when Blythe gave me a synopsis of the story on the bus, she neglected to mention the Crow that randomly sends Gerda on a wild goose chase. At the end of the story, he’s DEAD. And no one cares all that much. WTF kind of story is this?!
His tame sweetheart is a widow, and wears a bit of black worsted round her leg; she laments most piteously, but it’s all mere talk and stuff!
10:55 am. Read another translation, just to make sure the nuances are consistent. Crow still snuffs it.
11:16 am. Turn my attention to the Shelley Duvall “Faerie Tale Theatre” adaptation. It is eighties-tastic.
11:46 am. Knowing that Blythe grew up with this series explains a few things about her.
11:58 am. I would make a GREAT Robber Girl. Don’t tell me otherwise.
12:03 pm. Well, that’s creepy as f***.
12:27 pm. Lunch of grilled cheese and corn chips, because I’m seven.
1:21 pm. Back to it with another eighties-tastic adaptation…
1:36 pm. Sigourney Weaver does ALL the voices in this. The characters’ lips don’t even move. It’s like an audiobook with accompanying pictures. I guess that’s ONE way to cut costs. That said, she has a very versatile voice. Start pondering what audio roles I would write for her.
2:02 pm. Pull out whiteboard. Assemble a skeletal plot. Tally up characters. Request final instructions from project lead before writing starts.
2:16 pm. Attend to dayjob costumes, because EVERYTHING is getting washed this weekend.
3:52 pm. Still waiting. Gripped by sudden anxiety regarding garret’s cleanliness (or lack thereof). Clean furiously. Admire new Pine-Sol floor cleaner. I can indeed both see AND smell a difference!
5:27 pm. Writing will begin post-dinner: pasta, rapini, tomatoes, and mussels. I like these sorts of meals because it looks like something an adult might eat, but takes like, 15 minutes to make.
6:02 pm. Sit at desk. How the f*** long is this meant to be, anyway? How long was the other pantomime I wrote?
6:16 pm. Frolic about on Twitter.
6:31 pm. OKAY WE’RE STARTING NOW.
6:35 pm. Stare at screen. Realize I have no idea how to start. And I only have ten pages, tops. Softly mutter, “Tabarnac.”
6:36 pm. Frolic about on Twitter.
7:01 pm. It’s okay, it’s okay, we can do this. Make it through an excruciating first page. Then I find my rhythm. Writing feels a bit like building a house of cards: it’s taking shape, you’ve got the groove, it’s great – and it also feels like it’s a breath away from collapsing around your ears.
7:22 pm. Can I make a reference to every song on the Frozen soundtrack? Only one way to find out.
8:46 pm. Audio break, because I realize I forgot to send Lauren our Words of a Feather audio.
9:11 pm. Back to the script. It’s either fine or dreadful. I’m not sure which, but we’ll keep going.
10:07 pm. AHAHAHA I HAVE FINISHED. ALL SHALL LOVE ME AND DESPAIR.
10:08 pm. Text Blythe.
10:19 pm. Internet woes. Call Bell and express my displeasure again. While waiting, quickly scan script and fix most egregiously bad prose. Decide that it’s pretty good for a first bash-through.
10:54 pm. Finally manage to send script off.
11:16 pm. “Katie this is fabulous!”
11:17 pm. Accept praise. Mentally start making edits. (Gerda should possibly not say, “Really?” three times in a row.)
11:30 pm. Frolic about on Twitter.
11:47 pm. Sleep.
And that’s how I wrote a treatment of The Snow Queen in a day. Again, my writing days don’t always look like this. Perhaps in the off-season, we’ll try this again… 😉
What I’m Listening To This Week
This piece floated through my head this week – appropriate enough for Remembrance Day on Friday, I suppose. It’s a lovely choral setting of Christina Rossetti’s poem, “Remember.” Pieces like this really should be treated like monologues: there’s a dramatic arc, intention, a goal and change. This choir gets that across pretty well – particularly in the rising urgency around 1:25.
Six Stories, Told at Night released its first episode yesterday! If you’ve heard it, you’ll know that it’s a strange sort of hybrid piece: it’s sort of like an audiobook, but it’s really more a one-woman play, and it’s really comprised of six discrete short stories, while simultaneously being one cohesive whole…
It’s weird. It’s wonderful, and I think we’ve hit on a really interesting form of audio fiction, and also, it’s weird.
Which is fine—I’ve joked that Submissions Grinder needs to develop a filter for fiction labelled “weird af,” since that seems to be what I write. Not intentionally, necessarily—it’s just that with every story, you need to find the best (or often, only) possible way to tell it.
Look at Six Stories: the story that emerged—this story of Sam and Joëlle, of loss and friendship—was always meant to be voiced by one person. That’s what it demanded—this story of stories within stories.
So, cool. An audiobook with extra bells and whistles, a straight read supplemented with sound effects. Right?
It IS a story that absolutely must be performed aloud. It loses a layer of meaning if you’re reading it on the page, the same way that scripts only spring to life when you get them on their feet. And I choose my words very carefully: performed aloud, not read aloud. There’s a difference in energy and intention. It’s subtle, but it’s there:
“If this was a regular stage play,” I told Blythe, “it’d be black-box studio theatre, with a minimalist set.”
“I treated it like I was onstage,” Blythe told me, after. “It was different than Heartstealer.”
So. Not quite an audiobook. But not quite a conventional audio drama, either. Basically, I took that lovely taxonomy I developed at Stonecoast and threw it out the window. We have something new, I think. A weird, hybridized, emergent art form.
Because that’s how this particular story must be told.
We instinctively make these choices when we start noodling ideas. Is it a play, or prose? Short story or novel? First person or third person? Linear timeline, or jumping all over the place?
Sometimes we only find out by writing. Sometimes we change our minds halfway through. Sometimes we change our minds at the very end, when we’ve given the draft a cold, hard look.
In the end, though, it always falls to the demands of that particular piece. “This is the only way I could think of to tell this story,” is a perfectly valid reason for making certain artistic choices.
Even when they’re weird af. 😉
What I’m Listening to This Week