This has been a great week.
I And You just opened at Olney Theatrea day after it became one of 6 finalists for the prestigious Steinberg/ ATCA New American Play Award. It was earlier this month announced that the play is also a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which honors women playwrights writing in the english language. I am overwhelmed and in flight with pride at both of these accolades. What a group of writers to join. Those that have won these awards and been finalists represent the best writers in the english language writing plays. It’s a dream to be in their company. Especially for this play, which is small and magical and means so much to me.
This news does bring up two things of note that, I do hope, will not sound piqued or over-proud. But here is what I thought of upon hearing this great news:
- Thank god for rolling world premieres
- Thank god that, when I do glance at reviews, I only read the good ones
The second could sound self-important or denialist. But really, it’s a protective measure that buffers my artistic intension from the elements.
Simply put, if I And You had had only it’s first production in place when it was reviewed it might have died right then and there. We had marvelously supportive responses from half the critics in the Bay (“a thought-provoking surprise!” “A magnificent coup de theatre!”), and unimpressed “meh” responses from the others, (I didn’t read the “mehs” because of the aforementioned buffering strategy). Our biggest critic was in the latter “meh” camp, and because of the prestige of his paper and the weight of his verdict, I’m sure some out of town folks would have googled my play, read that review, and dismissed the play outright. We know that happens.
This is where rolling world premieres come in and save the day.
My play was lucky. It started it’s journey as a National New Play Network rolling world premiere heading to four cities from the outset (Marin Theatre, Olney Theatre, Geva Theatre, and Phoenix Theatre). That means that no matter what critical response our play got the first time (or second or third), we have built-in support for the play’s life. It is protected from immediate judgement and allowed to grow and learn from the hard work and deep lessons learned from any production. I’ve done a lot of rewriting based on the moving production of I And You at Marin Theatre (the exciting discoveries we’ve made through the process as well as the ideas for improvement in between productions). Even when the play sings and everyone loves it you’re still learning, tweaking, bettering. (We made cuts the day before they opened at Olney). That’s what new plays need.
So what do we learn?
1) Trust the theatre company and don’t base your non-attendance on bad reviews.
If you like a theatre company, the actors, the playwright, then trust them and check out the play. You may agree with the reviewer, but you may not. Howlround posted an informal study suggesting that theatre audiences only agree with reviewers half the time. So don’t miss out. Don’t punish theatre companies for taking aesthetic or narrative or programming risks. Make up your own mind. That’s what keeps theatre urgent and exciting.
2) Rolling world premieres saves lives.
This is the most exciting trend in American theatre as far as I’m concerned. It aligns theatre companies of all sizes and budgets across the country, it shares resources, it add momentum to new work, it allows for growth and real art-making, it builds community, it sounds awesome to funders, it supports playwrights…
It’s the real deal of new play development.
3) Perhaps every review should start with “In my opinion…”.
There’s a character of a judge in lawyer TV show The Good Wife who insists that lawyers in her courtroom never make claims without saying “in my opinion.” The lawyers are annoyed by this because she will correct them every single time: “In your opinion, the defendant intended to harm the victim…”. I like this judge.
For theatre reviews some might say that “in my opinion” is assumed by the context of it being a review. It is not a fact that the play was good or bad, boring or electric, moving or aggravating. It’s an opinion. An aesthetic, emotional, personal opinion. And opinions are complex things that come from conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, taste, and history.
And if we treat reviews like gladiatorial thumbs-up and thumbs-downs, audiences might miss meaningful stories that could matter to them, and plays might be beheaded before their time.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a personal statement from each reviewer accompany their reviews? A personal declaration of what they think theatre is at its best? That would certainly add context. In my opinion.
4) Read the play, not the reviews.
I’m going to stop reading reviews of anyone’s play that I haven’t seen. It’s unfair to judge a play on it’s bad reviews. We all know it’s unfair. We all know that it sometimes feels like a roll of the die if you get a rave or a pan, or that the taste of the reviewer and the taste of the artists diverge which doesn’t mean one or the other is right or wrong. So I will read the plays and experience them in my own way.
5) Find Your People and Listen to Them
Find the people who get what you’re trying to do. Theirs are opinions that matter. My mom is one of them, so is my husband. Both of them, while nowhere near “theatre people,” always articulate the one thing that could clarify the story.
Steve Yockey is one of them, my best friend and one of the best playwrights I know. He’s a nerd for dramatic structure like I am and I trust everything he says.
Dramaturges and directors (Margot Melcon, Meredith McDonough, Marissa Wolf, Madeline Oldham) who I trust are on my list, so are actors and designers. So are a few key theatre fans who see everything. Chad Jones, a critic in the Bay, is one of them as he and I really connect to the same ideas about theatre. Those are the reviews I embrace because I want to grow the play through discussion and conversation.
The critics from ATCA who have given me the honor of a nomination for the Steinberg are on that list now too. I very much look forward to conversing with them in the future.
6) Life’s too short (and art’s too hard) to feel like crap.
I don’t subscribe to the philosophy of “if you believe the good reviews you have to believe the bad ones.” Nope. Untrue. You trust your instincts as an artists. If you don’t you’re rudderless. So only good news or no news, please. Playwriting can be a long, slow, fickle, barely sustainable slog. And that’s before you get a production. I say, whatever keeps you going and keeps you positive is what you should be doing. Confidence is bliss.
If you get a rave? Blast it to out the universe. Yay, theatre! Yay plays! Nice things being said about new plays! Let’s make more plays! Yeah!
If you get a pan? Don’t read it. Buy yourself a Manhattan and/or a manicure, toast your resilience, and don’t read it.
Because maybe you’ll be lucky and have someone read the play on it’s own. And maybe it will move them on it’s own steam. And maybe it will make them think and feel. And maybe they’ll tell their friends. And maybe your play will see beginning of a long and diverse life it might just deserve.
I and Thou (Ich und Du) by German philosopher Martin Buber is a philosophical and spiritual treatise published in 1923 and first translated to English in 1937.
It was mentioned to me more than once during the process of writing and developing my play I And You. I hadn’t read it before now, but when I did I saw why people kept finding connections to the under-flowing mysteries of the play and the existential forces described in his work.
The premise of Buber’s short book is two-fold; the "I-It" understanding vs the "I-Thou" understanding.
I-It is our experience of things and sensations separate or distinct from us.
But I-Thou is our experience of connection, relationship, co-living, knowing. In some ways humans can actively distance themselves from others or things by living in an I-It worldview. Or they can actively connect to people or things by thinking of people not as “people” or “him” or “that woman” but as “you” or “thou”. I-Thou is relationships, I-It is experience.
"The essential character of "I-Thou" is the abandonment of the world of sensation, the melting of the between, so that the relationship with another "I" is foremost."
One of the major themes of the book is that human life finds its meaningfulness in relationships. In Buber’s view, all of our relationships bring us ultimately into relationship with God, who is the Eternal Thou.
"The Eternal Thou" is an amazing idea isn’t it? Especially for a play that brings together two teens in desperate need of connection, validation, understanding, and a real relationship that is not online or temporary. They are thirstiest for an I-Thou relationship to give their individual young lives meaning, non-online reality, universalism, sincerity, and honesty.
As the play unfolds and we step deeper into their mystery the spiritual language Buber uses becomes even more appropriate. This all ties in beautifully with the post from earlier about a new kind of hero’s journey.
"The Thou meets me through grace-it is not found
by seeking. But my speaking of the primary word to
it is an act of my being, is indeed the act of my being.
The Thou meets me. But I step into direct relation with it.”
And this stunning passage…
The relation to the Thou is direct. No system of ideas,
no foreknowledge, and no fancy intervene between I
and Thou. The memory itself is transformed, as it
plunges out of its isolation into the unity of the whole.
No aim, no lust, and no anticipation intervene between
I and Thou. Desire itself is transformed as it plunges
out of its dream into the appearance. Every means
is an obstacle. Only when every means has collapsed
does the meeting come about.
Wow. Watch the play, then come back to that passage and tell me if it doesn’t give you chills.
I end this first pass at Buber with this simple, striking phrase.
"AIl real living is meeting."
Read the Buber’s whole essay for free here.
I And You is a coming of age story. Kind of.
But my friend, director David Prete, helped me unpack this play and came up for another way of describing “coming of age” that articulates what that phase of life is actually like for our hero, Caroline.
He describes it as Coming of Aid.
Here’s a take on what “kind” of story I And You may be: what I will now call The Coming of Aid Story. It is an early stage of the hero’s journey. This is according to the stages of the spiritual adventure as outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
According to Campbell, the first part of the spiritual journey is “The Call to Adventure.” In this stage, the hero (Caroline, in our case) receives a call through the appearance of the carrier of the power of destiny. This carrier is often represented in the mythological realm as some part of nature: the hero encounters a dark forest, a babbling brook, an animal… (in Caroline’s case, the faulty liver). During this encounter the hero is separated from the safe life they knew and lived in and thrown into a dangerous and unknown world. (In Caroline’s case, this is exacerbated by the loss of her father.) The hero, who is now in a state of anxiety, can consciously or unconsciously accept the call of the adventure or refuse the call of adventure. Our Caroline has accepted the call. I think in her case, accepting the call manifests in the way she enters into relationships: the challenges she presents to potential friends to be real, tests of authenticity she demands they pass. (Although I’m sure there’s more to it than than.) In accepting the call, she passes over the second stage of the hero’s journey, “Refusal of the Call,” into the third stage: “Supernatural Aid.”
The major event of this stage is when the hero encounters a “protective figure” (enter Anthony) who has some aid to give the hero. At first this figure is often scary and the hero does not know if the figure is there to harm or help them. Once a rapport is established the protective figure gives the hero the Supernatural Aid. The hero will use this aid at some crucial point of their journey to help them pass a future trial. The Aid often takes the form of a weapon or a piece of wisdom, or both. I think the entirety of I And You takes place in this Supernatural Aid stage. I say this, because I believe the major event of the play occurs when Anthony gives Caroline the Aid of Whitman’s poem. He has supplied her mind and body with all she needs to continue her journey.
I love this and think David is really on to something here. Anthony is a conduit for Caroline’s salvation, which sounds quite grand. But he offers her wisdom and healing and comfort in small and big ways.
Caroline changes Anthony too of course. They give each other aid and understanding and profound surprises that change and help them both.
I like that these ordinary kids are on the same journey as heros. They are heros. All of us are in our own rooms and inside our own relationships.
Even when people give us small gifts or memories or favors, they can stay with us forever and change our lives. And it’s usually not until we are in crisis, and recall these moments and wisdom, that we realize the aid we have been given and the strength we have in reserve.
There was an interesting phenomenon we discovered through talk backs after I AND YOU at Marin Theatre. Most of the responses (self-selected as they are by the act of staying for a talk back) were highly invested and positive. Teens and their parents and grandparents would stay to comment on the surprises in the play, the themes of unity and growth, the inclusion of Whitman’s poetry, and the polished production.
But we got haters too. And their issue was almost always pointed squarely at our main character, Caroline, a 17 year-old snarky, brassy girl with the world’s axe to grind. We’ve heard the words “unlikeable” “bratty” “unpleasant” “horrible” thrown at the character. This is even after people have witnessed her legitimate reasons for frustration: a potential death sentence if she doesn’t get a liver transplant soon enough, the abandonment of her friends now that she can’t go to school, and the dissolution of her parents marriage.
I found this harsh reaction to Caroline fascinating (and I’ll be honest, upsetting), and wrote about her “unlikeablity” (and the inherent unlikeablity of Hamlet and Mother Courage as well) here. But before we start this play’s second production at Olney Theatre, the question of Caroline crops up again.
What is it about a hard-shelled teenage girl that attracts a certain adult ire? Would it be the same ire if it was a young man? Would it be more acceptable is she were older, say in college or her late 20s? We never got any unfavorable reactions to Caroline from teens.
Why does a story about an unapologetic girl make grown adults (men and women) so angry?
I think there are a few issues at play here, the ones I won’t mention relate to the aesthetic of the play itself. Sure the play, the dialogue, the production might not have been your taste. Nothing I can do about that. But what I focused on was the vitriol I’ve seen a few people throw at Caroline. What is this?
(Jessica Lynn Carrol and Devion MacArthur in I And You at Marin Theatre Co.)
1) Young Girls Are Supposed to Be Perfect. When they aren’t, we want to punish them.
"This is for your own good," we might say. "Be a good girl." Girls are not supposed to be unpleasant even if they feel unsafe, nonplussed, or justifiably mad. Even if they have a right to be upset (say, in the privacy of their own room or when dealing with great physical and emotional stress) we don’t encourage or allow that cathartic release. We call it ugly. And ugliness is, much of society tells us, the worst thing a young girl could be.
But the quest for teen girl perfection is causing everything from depression, to eating disorders, over-sexualization, drug use. Even for seemingly “normal” young women.
From a 15 year old girl in England interviewed in the article, “The ticking teenage timebomb: Pressures to be thin, become sexually active and excel academically push 15-year-old girls towards emotional apocalypse” from The Daily Mail in the Uk.
"I’m a very happy person, but every other night I cry myself to sleep and don’t know why or what I’m crying about. I know it’s not a big issue and I know it’ll never be solved.
I don’t want anyone to pity me. I just blame hormones and stress. I mentioned it to Mum the other day and she was horrified and said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I thought everybody did it.”
2) Poor First Impressions and the Lack of Forgiveness for Girls.
Part of the “perfect girl” mythology is a lack of room for growth and understanding. We don’t forgive young women for their behavior like we forgive boys. Girls retain harsh monikers like “slut,” “ditz,” “bitch”, where boys can laugh off similar names thrown at them like “dick” and “asshole.” Boys, as they say, will be boys. But girls should know better.
When we meet Caroline she is caught off guard, suspicious, frustrated. She does not make a good first impression. She is not welcoming or easy to understand. But through the course of the play she reveals the kind, earnest girl underneath all that armor. She reveals the sensitive, hopeful self that she has been forced to hide away. Most audiences forgave her early spikiness, but I was fascinated by those who did not.
Then I read this from “I Do Not Want My Daughter to Be ‘Nice’”, by Catherine Newman of The New York Times.
My 10-year-old daughter, Birdy, is not nice, not exactly. She is deeply kind, profoundly compassionate and, probably, the most ethical person I know — but she will not smile at you unless either she is genuinely glad to see you or you’re telling her a joke that has something scatological for a punch line.
This makes her different from me. Sure, I spent the first half of the ’90s wearing a thrifted suede jacket that I had accessorized with a neon-green sticker across the back, expressing a somewhat negative attitude regarding the patriarchy (let’s just say it’s unprintable here). But even then, I smiled at everyone. Because I wanted everyone to like me. Everyone!
She is a beautiful kid, but she is also sure and determined in a way that is not exactly pretty. Which is fine, because God help me if that girl ends up smiling through her entire life as if she is waitressing or pole-dancing or apologizing for some vague but enormous infraction, like the very fact of her own existence.
I picture her at the prom in stripy cotton pajamas, eating potato chips with both hands. I picture her slapping a patriarch-damning sticker on her jacket. I picture her running the country, saving the world, being exactly the kind of good bad girl that she knows herself to be. And I think: You go. I think: Fly! I think: Take me with you.
Yes. Take us with you. Take us where women and girls can be present and emotionally true. Caroline is not nice at the beginning of the play because she is scared, nor is she nice at the end because she doesn’t have to pretend to be nice. By the end, she is just honest. And honesty gives her vulnerability which gives her back her sincere and soulful self.
If there’s no place for a character to travel in a play, it’s not a very good play. We can’t start Caroline as completely sincere and self-aware. She’s got to get there through the journey of the play, and she does.
If all the female characters need to be nice and kind and “likeable” then no wonder we continue to have a lack of compelling, complex women’s roles.
3) Ephebiphobia: The Fear of Youth
This may be more of it than I had previously thought. And I wrote a bit about it here. We are not used to teen protagonists in American Theatre. Twenty-Somethings, yes. Teen supportive characters yes. But not a lot of teen leads.
This article says it better than I can:
You may not know the word, but you’ve probably had the feeling. “Ephebiphobia”, or “fear of youth”, is one of the most enduring phenomena in our society – and it’s more prevalent than ever. But this fear and suspicion are counterproductive. "The Fear of Young People Damages Us All" - The Telegraph, 2009.
I am thrilled to see I AND YOU take off in another city with a whole new team to interpret these people, their struggles, and their salvation. I will be watching out for this community’s response to my dear, prickly, cranky, totally valid, young female firebrand Caroline.
Often you see plays about “strong women” surrounded by men. Hedda Gabler, Lady Macbeth, Antigone, not to mention the grand tradition of female super heroes with tight suits and no female friends. Even though these are tremendous roles for women to play, they are played in a man’s world where our heroine is alone.
The thrill of SILENT SKY is that we are telling the story of a strong woman in a strong women’s world. Not only is Henrietta (our hero) ambitious, funny, romantic, nerdy, and sharp; all three other women in the play are the same. The gender balance is reverse in our play as the only male role, the affable and adorable Peter Shaw, is quite alone in the self-described “women’s world up here.” He is the one to seem out of place and alone, unsure of his footing in the office of all women.
The great thing about this is that it’s based in history. The “ladies of the logbook” were a real cohort of women recruited my Edward Pickering at the Harvard Observatory to “count stars.” This group of creative, curious, dedicated women pushed astronomy forward, and they did it in a room of their own. Many of the women who worked in that office along with Henrietta accomplished great feats of intellectual and creative strength. I suspect that more than a little of this accomplishment was at each other’s encouragement.
(the real computers of Harvard Observatory, circa 1890)
As Virginia Woolf said of creative women, 'a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.' I think we could agree that substituting “do science” or “be political” or “write plays” would amount to the same requirements. And while Henrietta and her colleagues earned a pittance, they did have that special room that was all their own. Out of that room came Annie Cannon who gave us the spectral classification we still use, and Williamina Fleming who catalogued myriad stars and nebulae, Henrietta and her period-luminosity relation, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin who described the chemical make-up of our sun.
Most of our story takes place in the women’s world of that office. The parts that don’t are in another kind of woman’s world, the home. Henrietta’s sister, Margaret, helps her sister succeed through support, care, understanding and a bit of tough love.
All of this is to say that women, like men, are not strong on their own. There are fewer lone wolves out there than we like to think. And the one’s of us that succeed do so with help and encouragement from a community. In Henrietta’s case a community of brilliant, compassionate, funny women with a few rooms of their own to show off the worlds that they can discover if allowed a bit of space and time to do so.