This past weekend I participated in a writers workshop for an upcoming project called DECADE conceived by the renowned British theatre company Headlong. I was happy to be part of a great group of playwrights, twelve total. The writers workshop was facilitated by Rupert Goold, Robert Icke, and Sophie Hunter.
Here’s my diary for the workshop:
We gathered for the first time in the conference room of the Public Theater, who was hosting us for the weekend. After throwing back a few slices (two boots!), we jumped into the subject matter at hand, one that admittedly I was kind of apprehensive about. I really never felt like I should be writing a 9/11 play, for a lot of complex reasons, but mainly because I just don’t know who would want to see it. I think as Americans we are not ready to go down that path, especially through a theatrical exploration because the tragedy of that day is so seared into our collective memory. When we think of 9/11, we think of airplanes crashing into buildings, we think of fiery tower collapsing. In some ways I think it is the quintessential story of Babel.
From our Friday night “provocation” session, we aired out our thoughts and feelings about 9/11. Emotions ran high. Writers talking over writers to get their point across. To make sure they were heard. It was in no way born out of rudeness. It was complete passion. There’s something really interesting that happens when you see a fire in a writer’s eyes, voice, body. The spark of creation. Now multiply that by 16 (12 writers, 4 facilitators) and you’ve got something. We also talked about what we thought would make a bad 9/11 play: Something that’s to maudlin, sentimental and literal.
From this exploration, we learned the name of the game would be trying to write around the event, finding metaphors to dramatize that could ultimately be linked back to the event of 9/11 itself, which the artists at Headlong amusingly call the “Where’s Wally” moment aka “Where’s Waldo.” The basis behind the “Where’s Wally” moment is that the audience is going into each piece knowing that it’s about 9/11 in some way shape or form, but not knowing how or when that realization is going happen on stage. So the audience is constantly looking and listening for it, for “Wally.” When it happens, it can be a powerful moment. Or it can be a complete trainwreck. That’s one of the hardest things that I think all of us writers found to be the hardest. Finding that balance of writing a piece that was not too literal about the event, but also not so metaphorical that it becomes too obscure to the audience. I went home that night already exhausted and it thought to myself “how am I going to write something for this? It’s too hard.”
Met at 9:30am for breakfast and then it was off to work on our pieces. We could go anywhere in the theatre (for the most part) to write and Rupert, Robert and Liz were on hand to pitch and discuss ideas with. I found a really nice nook to write in
up on the third floor of the Public where they turned Luesther Hall into temporary offices. I sat down and started doing some reading. Robert had mentioned some great essays on 9/11 written by a French philosopher named Jean Baudrillard. You can read some of it here and here.
After doing research and I decided to get started. Then I sat there staring at my laptop for an hour. What do I write about? What aspect of 9/11 do I write about? At what angle? This idea is too literal. That idea is too maudlin. Shit. Shit. Shit. I told myself “you can’t just continue to sit here and do nothing. Do something. Do something.”
Belonging to a couple of writers groups (three actually) has taught me the power of talking. That one thing that I was so wrong about when I first started writing. I used to think writers go away and sit in a dark lonely room and only come out when they’ve finished something. But that’s not true. At least for me. I believe writers don’t just write. They talk. They argue with others. They argue with themselves. It’s part of the process. Like a weapons maker banging on iron to forge a shield that will eventually protect you in battle, so does a writer bang and bang and bang away on a story to find it’s shape. I’ve found the more and more I bang away at something, the more the shape will be revealed to me, and the better my story will hold up as I go through the grueling process of writing the first draft. So I went to talked to Rupert and Robert and Liz. And it was great. I pitched an idea that intrigued them, that sent shivers down their spines. And then I went back to my amazing writers nook and…shit. It’s too big of a story. I can’t begin to contain it in a short ten minute play. So I discussed it with one of my fellow writers whom I trust completely, and whom seemed to have no problems writing her piece at all. Bitch. Just kidding. I love her. She said to me something very simple. Something that every writer knows and understands and for some reason can never tell themselves. “Just write and see what happens.” Exactly. I think writers block is not about not having any ideas or not knowing what to write about. It’s more about the fear of committing words to paper or computer screen and realizing you’re not as good of a writer as you thought you were. But that’s the thing. No writer is as good as they think they are on the first draft. That’s what the first draft is for. To get something on paper. That’s it. It’s a simple action. And so I did that. It turned out to be a decent play, but it was not the premise I originally pitched to Headlong. Which sometimes you just have to give yourself permission to do that. The fact that I wrote anything is an achievement. It’s creation.
Happy May Day! From 10am-3pm we sat in the conference room and we shared each other’s pieces. It was thrilling to see what everyone came up with. I never cease to be amazed by how individual our voices are. The pieces were original, thrilling, hilarious, tender, heartbreaking. We wrapped at 3pm, said our goodbyes and went away knowing we took part in something really unique.
The workshop was an emotional and intellectual bootcamp for all of us. I definitely feel like a stronger playwright having spent three days trying to get my head around dramatizing 9/11. Yesterday we all shared some amazing pieces. So happy I participated.
And then eight hours later, news breaks on television stations and twitter about Osama Bin Laden being killed which was confirmed by President Obama’s late sunday night statement.
I thought “holy shit, did the collective conscience of twelve playwrights just kill OBL?” Well no. Navy Seals did that. But the timing was uncanny. And just like that, the world seemed to change again. A feeling of relief. I know this doesn’t erase what happened nor does the war on terror cease to exist. There’s still much work to do. But one of the things we talked about in the workshop was the feeling of not being able to move on because almost ten years after 9/11, ground zero remains a construction site and Osama Bin Laden hasn’t been caught. It was like what grieving we went through as a nation somehow did not move us closer towards closure and really in a weird way, we’re all hanging in limbo. But now OBL has been killed, and the overall sentiment seems to be “finally.” I think the mood will be a much different for the tenth year anniversary knowing that OBL was killed, that justice was served. And with the new memorial opening, a nation can finally have a place to grieve. The question remains “did it have to take so long?” I also wonder how this breaking news changes the shape of the show for Headlong. Will the writing change for the two workshops they conducted (England and New York)? Who knows. All I know is for one weekend in late April, twelve writers got together in a room and explored something frightening and difficult and tragic. Things that had been stirring in all of us. And whatever comes of it, at least we had that weekend together. As one of the writers put it, it was like a crazy summer camp. Indeed it was.