Tales from an Accidental Playwright
Around two years ago when I was going through the devastating loss of my first pregnancy, I started writing a play. I didn’t mean to write a play, it just sort of happened. It was the day after the procedure, which also happened to be Thanksgiving and my husband and I had a really bad fight after he made a joyful toast to “Thanksgiving” instead of acknowledging the loss of our child. I was livid. I went into the other room to cry (or sob really loudly, actually) and waited for him to follow. He didn’t. And then in my head, I saw this scene play out on a stage- a sort of split screen of two people who were both going through this horrible tragedy and how they were dealing with it in their own separate ways. The thought was enough for me to temporarily dry my tears and start typing out what would become the end of the first act of my play. It’s still one of my favorite scenes.
Over the course of the next several months, I wrote more scenes — the first act reliving (with some exaggerations and clarity points here and there) what we had just gone through. I pulled from journal entries and memories. It became a way to process in the best way I knew how: through writing. The characters were always called “Her” and “Him” to give it a sort of anonymous feel. The events could be happening to anyone; it just so happened that they did happen to us. The second act became a sort of wish list of things that I hoped would transpire. Oddly enough, several of them did after the play had been written. Life is funny like that. By the time I was close to finishing the first draft, almost four months had past. I wrote the very last scene at the same time my dad called to tell me my grandfather had passed away. I didn’t answer at first because I was in a good writing flow and didn’t want to interrupt it. The curtain was closing on one loss, just to have a new one take its’ place. Again, life is funny like that.
For a little while, I didn’t do anything with the play except send it to my husband. It was his story as much as mine, at least the first half was. When he didn’t read it right away, I decided to send it to some close friends to read. Maybe they’d finally be able to understand what I had gone through. Maybe I was just looking for some reassurance that I could still write since the year prior my productivity was low. And then something strange happened: for the first time in my “writing career” no one had notes for me. It was simply referred to as a beautiful piece of writing and perhaps the best work I’d ever done. Whoa. The best praise and biggest injection of encouragement came from my friend Chase, who after reading it came over with a bottle of wine and cheese to congratulate me and tell me it was one of the best plays he’s ever read and I needed to share it with the world. Chase is an extremely positive and supportive person, but he also has major theater experience so I took that to heart. And, this happened to take place on Mother’s Day— a day that was particularly rough for me and his support just sweetened the whole day. Life is funny like that (sensing a theme here?)
So, I heeded his advice. I submitted the play to a contest whose deadline was approaching. A contest I would later learn was the contest for new work (a little contest called the National Playwright Conference where people like August Wilson, Adam Rapp, John Patrick Shanley, and Wendy Wasserstein all got their starts… no big deal). I almost forgot about submitting— soon after I did was when I got pregnant with my son— and then a few months later I got an email saying I was a semi-finalist. Again, that whoa feeling took hold. Maybe this was something special, after all. And during that time, I shared the play with more people, including theater people. I got advice. I got great feedback (“how brave,” “we need work like this out there,” “keep sharing it,”). I revised it a bit, and then my son was born and I let myself focus on him for awhile.
But, I kept thinking about the play. Soon after I returned to work, my friend and mentor put me in touch with a few playwrights and theater directors, and their advice was the same: submit to local theaters and/or have a reading. I knew nothing about having a reading. I’d never even been to a theater reading before, but it seemed like an attainable goal and the right next step for the project. I once again turned to my friend Chase for support and guidance. He did both with the utmost gusto. Within weeks of me figuring out when would be the best time to do it (on a weekend, preferably a Sunday afternoon so it wouldn’t interfere with work, and right before the holidays so work wouldn’t be as chaotic, but not too late into December so it would interfere with the holidays) — we set a plan into motion. Chase recommended a theater space and they had availability for the day I was looking for. Then, Chase put together an amazing cast of talented actors who were all willing to be a part of it. I was on the fence about reading “Her,” and after careful consideration, ended up asking my good friend and past collaborator to do it (one of the best decisions I made).
We had a prep meeting with my husband and brother-in-law about the technical aspects — I knew readings were pretty informal but I wanted it to have some production value, after all I had a talented cinematographer (husband) and sound designer (bro-in-law) at my disposal. The theater ended up providing their own lighting person, so husband was absolved from being technically involved, but my brother-in-law put together music and sound cues that ended up being such a lovely touch that when I first heard them I legitimately cried tears of happiness.
Rehearsals were both overwhelming and amazing at the same time. It’s very anxiety-inducing to ask a group of strangers (aside from a few) to devote both time and effort into something of your own making without very much reward in return. Simply put: I couldn’t believe anyone would actually want to do that. But, I was blown away by our cast’s talent and support. During that first rehearsal, nearly every single person told me their own stories and how they could relate to the material. I was overwhelmed and in awe. And also completely reassured. We had two more rehearsals — one with just the two leads and I, which became one of those experiences that reminded me of the reason I wanted to become a writer in the first place — and the other a tech rehearsal where we did the reading in the space and saw all the elements come together. And then it was time for the actual reading.
It was just under two months from the time I said, “let’s do it” to the day of the reading. The fact that I was able to put it all together in that time while working 60 hours a week, and raising a baby, and still having a semblance of a life and sleep schedule is an accomplishment that hasn’t fully sunk in yet (also a testament to all the help I got!) And it was almost exactly two years from when I first starting writing the play. The timing couldn’t have been any more perfect. Life again proved just how funny it could be.
I don’t have enough words to express my gratitude at how well the reading went. I was worried no one would show up, and we had a packed house. I was worried people would walk out or be bored, and people came up to me at intermission telling me how blown away they were. Two weeks later, I’m still getting texts and emails from people about it. I was worried no one would clap, and we received a standing ovation. It was truly an amazing experience; cathartic in every sense of the word. In some ways, maybe that’s all I was ever looking for. A way to replace that pain with something else. “Take your broken heart and make it into art” as the wise Carrie Fisher once said. And that’s exactly what I did. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the play now— there’s interest in producing and staging it, which would be wonderful. But to be honest, I never knew what would happen when I started writing it years ago. Some times the best things in life occur by accident, without any expectation at all.