Where is the mess?
Recently, a local theatre group did a reading of Act One of Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at the local library. After the reading, the actors led an audience discussion.
An older lady sitting behind me asked about Shepard’s acting career and whether it had any impact on his writing. Naturally, the actors were all about how acting makes for better playwriting. Naturally, Jen’s brain started shouting NO! NO! NO!
Then, Jen raised her hand.
Then Jen’s steamroller of a brain flattened them all with words like writer’s voice and physicality and American Myth and novelists and James Joyce and on and on. I felt like Hamlet’s whore unpacking my heart with words. When I finally stopped talking, the room was awkwardly silent for a few seconds. Oooops!
I tell you this story because recently Tiffany and I were emailing back and forth about the state of playwriting and the Hot Mess script submissions. I lamented the lack of mess and immediacy in the plays I read, and Tiffany asked me to write a blog.
As I sat at my keyboard with my notes next to me, I realized I had a whole new opportunity to once again steamroll over the current theatre, but I didn’t want to be a blogging blabbermouth. What did I know anyway? I’m not successful by American standards. I’m awkward in large groups.
I was sailing a boat when I heard that this year’s Onstage theme was Hot Mess. Adding the word hot to my mess gave my playwright brain a lot of dynamite. Hot mess made me think of Satan, snakes, beer, and dead bodies being dug up, and I sent in a bunch of short pieces.
Because I submitted more than one piece, I received a big bundle of exquisite short plays and monologues to peer-review. At this point, I was back on land and excited to see what the other hot messes were.
I read some gems, but I also noticed two things about the less gemmy.
First, time. In the less gemmy, there was a lot of talk of the past. So much talk of the past that I found myself waiting for the play to start six pages in. Yes, I understand that exposition is a bitch. When I have ten minutes, I don’t have time for secrets. I don’t have time to be coy. I need to get to the point and beyond it.
There is also a big difference between saying, I was mean to I am mean. There’s more energy in present tense. It leads to a future which is uncertain. If something is in past tense, it only leads to now, and I’m looking at now right now.
Second, mess. Where is the mess? Mess doesn’t have to visual. It could be psychological or emotional. A character could be a mess. A situation in its awkwardness or strangeness could be a mess.
I have learned that actual mess is difficult for short play festivals because transitions between plays happen quickly. At the first Onstage Festival back in 2011, I watched the stage crew towel down the stage because I had water splash in my play. The towels got a round of applause.
So, given the theme Hot Mess, how do you create mess? When I write plays, I don’t have to be nice or neat. I can make a mess and not worry about cleaning it up. When I write plays, I can let the steamroller go and unpack the heart with words.
To quote Ms Imbrie in The Philadelphia Story: it’s all right Tracy, we go haywire at times and if we don’t, maybe we ought to.