In Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 Margy, the costumer for a local community theater had her hands full placating fussy actors in the cast. The current production is a confusing satire called Bronx Zoo, something along the lines of Orwell’s Animal Farm. In a conversation with her friend Inez, Margy is reminded that she used to want to be a playwright, too. Inez encourages Margy to try her hand at her own script.
“It’s a Local Production”
It’s one thing to say you’re going to write a play. It’s another to come up with a good idea for one.
They always say: write what you know. But what did I know? Yes, I could sew, thanks to my mom’s tutoring. And, I had a decent-enough college education. But what did I study? Accounting. I was embarrassed to admit it. That had led me to my day job; I was a CPA for a tax firm. Nightmare-busy around tax time, quiet the rest of the year. I had started college with the idea of becoming a writer, but my parents had convinced me otherwise. “Being an accountant gives you a steady job,” they’d assured me. I’d believed them.
But there, on the bus on the way home from Inez’s place, I remembered my brother. Emmanuel (“Manny”) was an artist. He did performances – e.g., street busking – down at the Pike Place Market for summer tourists. He would position his dog Gracie – an Australian shepherd mix from the Humane Society – next to his guitar case and belt out James Taylor songs all afternoon. He made good-enough money at it, he told me. He’d dropped out of college in his second semester and he’d never looked back.
What was wrong with me? I wondered. Why was I the goody-goody, who held down a stable job – a stable but boring job – and pieced together costumes for 15th Ave Arts Theater in my spare time?
And then I got it. My idea.
Why not write a play ABOUT a play?
Shakespeare had done it – twice. Once in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and again in Hamlet. I could draw on the characters from our own production – shy Giraffe, fierce Coyote, vain Crow. Yeah.
It was intriguing to consider staging a play that is itself a play. Very “meta,” as Seetha might say. I would be following in the footsteps of the Best and the Greatest. Anton Checkov’s The Seagull, about a rejected play. And there was Six Characters in Search of An Author, in which a set of wandering characters take over a production from the director. I remembered it because we’d read it for extra credit in Mr. Ketterer’s class. – Who was the author? Rats! I had no idea. But I’d Google the play after I got home.
It was just as I got off the bus and was walking up to my apartment that I remembered Our Town. Thornton Wilder’s play about a small town – Grover’s Corner? – a play set in the actual theater in which it would be performed. Yet – as I let myself into the apartment with a key, draping Coyote’s costume carefully over the back of a kitchen chair so it wouldn’t get mussed – Our Town was too well-known to do something like a knock-off of it. The idea was good – setting the play in a theater, using direct address to the audience – but it needed a fresh take.
I plugged in the electric kettle and scooped some Darjeeling tea leaves into a teapot. I had my characters – giraffe, coyote, crow – but the setting was a puzzle. Animal Farm. Bronx Zoo. These had already been done. I needed something like those, but not the same.
And then it came to me. It popped into my head. Creativity is like that, I suppose. I’m not sure, but anyway, there it was. Right inside my brain.
Muskox would be the main character. A creature both motherly and mean-looking. Giraffe, Crow, and Coyote would be there. Along with one or two others . . . Zebra, wild and unreliable, Gazelle, a fretty always-hungry worrier, and finally, Lion – but not in person – off-stage, its presence only hinted at through dialog among the other characters.
If “Mr. Broody-Face” (the playwright for Bronx Zoo) could do it, so could I. Over hot tea, I opened up my laptop and started formatting a file for dialog.
(to be continued!)
What is your favorite Shakespeare play – do you have one? I like All’s Well That Ends Well, but The Tempest is also quite compelling. Othello as well. I confess that I’m a little lost in many of his plays – the language sometimes confuses me. Sometimes a theater company will take a Shakespeare play and set it in a different time; at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival I have seen The Merchant of Venice set in modern-day Italy, for instance. That was a memorable production because, with contemporary costuming and set I understood much better what class or level of society each character was in, which somehow made it easier to follow the dialog.
Speaking of plays within plays, have you seen the Will Farrell-Emma Thompson movie “Stranger Than Fiction”? That movie so captures my imagination. Will Farrell is a character in Emma Thompson’s book, but she doesn’t know it until he tracks her down and asks her not to kill him off (in the book). Every time I watch that I am intrigued by the premise and how the filmmaker persuades the audience that it’s real. If you have not seen it, you might give it a try!