A good friend of mine, and playwright, Matthew Paul Olmos, is working towards the presentation of a new play of his, “the nature of captivity”. It has been workshopped and developed as part of the prestigious Resident Artist Program at Mabou Mines and I have been lucky enough to watch this script transform over the last several years from being almost unbearably bad to becoming one of his most solid, informed, challenging, and well crafted pieces of writing.
What then to ascribe to ascribe this transformation? Part of it is due to, no doubt, the fantastic actors, directors, and designers who he has had working on it and forcing it and him to grow the script, story, and writing to fulfill itself. Part of it, though, is also due to the enormous effort that has gone on under the skin of the play; Matthew’s fundamental rebuilding of the framework, his execution of the second act, and his writing, rewriting and rewriting again has lifted the script into a new and exciting place.
Something I’m beginning to learn the long way is to not only embrace questioning, but be willing to make changes afterwards.
It is very easy, sometimes, to come up with a pretty good first or second draft of a play; you have many moments that work, there is an overall arc to the piece. All in all you think to yourself, “this is decent.” And in many ways you are happy with it. And in your own arrogant way, you think to yourself, “It’s already better than half the shit out there.”
And hopefully, if you are doing your job, you’ll work through the script with a director, actors, etc., and listen to them when they ask you questions, challenge what you’ve written, and communicate to you what they are getting from the piece. You’ll create an environment that aims not only to give you feedback, but asks every person in the room to ask really deep questions about what it is you’re doing with this play and what it means in the world around us.
And then there’s the playwright back in their bedroom, or barstool, with all these notes. And you begin to read over your script again, and some of the changes you have been thinking over…they just seem so big. And you become afraid to mess with the parts of the script that already work. So you begin to just only tinker. Or clean up certain scenes. You begin to question how well a reading went, and theorize that is why certain parts didn’t work. Perhaps you’ve already rented a space, or scheduled a public reading, and you think to yourself that with this one talented actress or this one skilled actor, the script will fly regardless.
I find that, often, writers are too afraid to turn everything they’ve written onto its head and address the true problems inside it. We don’t want to damage the sections of the piece that already work. So we try this patch’job, or pretend the missing pieces will not be missed. Or we think that the story we are telling doesn’t need to go any further. That this one aspect of whatever topic we’re writing about is enough. We let certain blames fall onto the characters onstage, as opposed to digging deeper and presenting a play that discusses why those characters are flawed to begin with. We let our script run along the surface because we are too scared and too lazy to try to write something much more complex and difficult.
It is our job both as writers and as people to always question, but not to stop there. Rather to dig into ourselves for answers, and when we find them, to have the courage to completely disassemble something we’ve worked so hard on. To not settle for something good, but try for something that scares the shit out of you instead.
What he’s talking about is essentially the much discussed screw-tightening vs. redesign of a site that we all know from the startup world to be so deadly to ideas, innovations, and iterations of product. Read more about it from Chris Dixon here and Charlie O’Donnell here. We spend our efforts messing with the small stuff because it’s too scary to get in there and do the work, the real work, that needs to be done. We settle for something good and let the things that scare the shit out of us escape.
It is an entirely human inclination, no? It makes sense that we shy away from that nagging voice in the back of our head that there’s a better way to write the second act and instead focus on optimizing a scene in the first act that gets some good laughs. Maybe it is because we have so much at stake. In our art, in our companies, and in our lives and loves, hitting the next, biggest known, hardest challenge is a task of incredible difficulty but which, or so we are told, promises untold rewards and success. I’m not sure where I come down on hitting the global maximum in the meta projects of our lives, but it certainly makes sense in the process of art and business. Chris Dixon and Charlie O’Donnell probably don’t know the MPO, and their lives probably couldn’t be farther apart, but here they are, attacking the same issues and hopefully inspiring both themselves and others to make the scary decisions and push towards that next level.
Performances of “the nature of captivity” are March 3 through 7 and are free. All you have to do is RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info, check out Mabou Mines and Matthew Paul Olmos’ website. I’m going on Thursday, maybe I’ll see you there.