“everything worthwhile ends. we are in the perpetual process now: creation, maturation, cessation.” — john logan, red.
“write, write, write… i cannot escape myself, though i feel that i am consuming my life.” — anton chekhov, the seagull.
“risk! risk anything!… do the hardest thing on earth for you. act for yourself. face the truth.” — katherine mansfield (journal entry, 14 october 1922)
2016 begins here: I spent my January/early February in rehearsals for my show “Anonymous,” which I both wrote and directed as a part of a one-act University play festival. Here is what I have to say about the process…
It’s been two years since I saw John Logan’s Red down at the Pearl Company, and when I began my first draft I was constantly thinking of the relationship between Rothko and Ken — the power in dualism between two actors onstage. I was adamant that my script have underlying feminist vibes, and with Chekhov’s The Seagull (and also Hedda Gabler — Ibsen, I love you!) being two of my all-time favourite plays, I made a point to work on crafting strong and/or atypical female characters. I thought of how much I loved Caryl Churchill and 19th century theatrical realism.
I wanted to write a little more on seeing my own words come to life — on the experience, the triumphs and pitfalls, and what it means to open yourself up to vulnerability. I believe as artists, and I touched upon this in my earlier post about the ingenious Marina Abramovic, it is our duty to transgress personal and social boundaries for the sake of creation. It has taken me awhile to craft this post — I intended to publish it earlier, but after the performance I found myself overwhelmed with anxiety and needed a week to compile and organize my thoughts… now, they are ready to be written and shared.
I told my high school drama teacher and long-time mentor, Mr. Iachelli (who continues to be a driving force in all that I do) that writing and directing a play was like having a child and putting it up for joint custody with a family of strangers. He appreciated the analogy. I thought I’d start with it here.
“Anonymous” came to me during rehearsals for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. I can’t remember what I was reading at that point — I think it was Vonnegut’s Mother Night, but by then my interests were with the San Francisco Renaissance and that wasn’t about to change. I kept the project a secret until it was near impossible; I even went so far as to send the script in under a pseudonym, “James/Jamie Cavanaugh,” and I have to admit that I fairly enjoyed playing God for the short while that he was alive. Every second was a big, dumb, self-deprecating thrill.
It’s not much of a secret that I write. What with my zany blog articles circulating around the web, writing and directing a play wouldn’t seem like that much of stretch to the naked eye. However, when the majority of your cyber-published content is photojournalistic and comically self-reflective (and often deprecating), you feel in a sense sheltered from your literary ambitions which often transcend WordPress… this was the kind of writing I never shared. It was something I wanted to explore, and something I can continue to develop confidently having opened myself up to this kind of experience.
Here’s my pitch: “Anonymous” is about an electric young woman (appropriately named) Imogen who, upon reconvening with an old childhood confidant overseas, discovers that her friend has been furiously writing a novel about a woman he’s fallen in love with. The writer, Gabriel, intends to submit the book for publication, partially to establish himself in the literary world but mostly so that the woman of his desires will read it. As this “love story” advances, three characters dressed entirely in black (and called “the muses”) come alive to perform monologues, each revealing more about Imogen’s life and what brought her to Gabriel’s loft.
Without giving you the full SparkNotes version, the play ends as each character’s illusions become shattered: Gabriel finishes the novel prior to realizing that the woman haunting his thoughts is nothing like he envisioned her to be, and it is revealed that Imogen has been lying about her whereabouts and living a wild life travelling the globe with stolen funds in a desperate attempt to escape modernity.
The play ends up being a question of what in the hell kind of conditioned routines we’re stuck in in this world, what control we have over our emotions, what complications exist between our desires and reality, what pitfalls prevail of being or having a muse, and what faces we share (or choose to share) with the world — are we all really “Anonymous?”
That being said, capturing all of this in a 30 minute time slot, especially in a venue traditionally associated with slapstick comedies and light-hearted political satire, was a challenge. I feared the thought I was trying to provoke would not come through, and whether it did or not in the end speaks to where I have yet to grow. I want to learn more every day.
Art as Autobiography
They tell you to write what you know, but never to give yourself away. I came into the project already knowing that I was too close to it. Not only had I chosen to write and direct, but the stories I’d used for the muse monologues (/extensions of Imogen’s thoughts and experiences) were real. It was easier this way; for someone who has spent so much time journaling and writing travelogues, it was fun to craft my experiences into works of fiction. I was proud of the monologues, but I felt that I became overly attached to the characters as a result and I fear this may have clouded my judgment in the rehearsal process. If I ever rewrite or reboot the show, I might have to kill a select few of my darlings. I would never want anything I create to turn into a vanity project — that would be my worst nightmare.
Art as a Collective
Like I said, I came into “Anonymous” knowing that I was very close to the script. I was curious in what my actors thought of it or of the characters. Rehearsals became really interesting because, through their interpretations of specific lines or bits, we began recreating the roles and the significance of certain parts I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. It was unbelievably eye-opening, despite the fact that I would come to rehearsal to get intensely psychoanalyzed everyday (remember — those are my real stories!). When your own script is out there and on the line, it’s hard to not become a totalitarian director. However, I’m glad I felt that my cast was able to fuel the interpretive process.
My lead male actor asked me how I would describe his character (Gabriel) at one the first ever rehearsals. I remember saying (half jokingly, but with serious undertones) “Easy. His favourite book is Catcher in the Rye.” (and if you’ve read Catcher in the Rye, you’ll get the joke). At the second to last rehearsal, in the middle of the scene, that same actor reached into his back pocket and started reading a copy of Catcher in the Rye and incorporating the novel into a select few of his lines. It was hilarious and perfect; that’s one of my favourite stories. The little jokes and inferences weren’t just mine anymore; they belonged to the cast. That was one of the most heartwarming moments for me.
Art as Truth
What I failed to realize at first was this: through “Anonymous,” I’d created an inescapable paradox. The story is about writing — about what kind of truths can be created or recognized through fiction, and about how we can use art as means to justify our insecurities or idealizations about the world. …Well, if art is fiction and authors are prejudiced, then what does that say about me as a first-time playwright? Who am I to write about knowledge and truth and art when I may barely know myself? Are we all really “Anonymous?” Who am I to make that claim? A blonde girl in a red dress, teasing a canary…?
“Anonymous” was the light at the end of the long wintry tunnel that was January. It kept me sane and focused during the storm, which included a course overload, a busy musical rehearsal schedule, and coming to terms with a recent metal health diagnosis… it wasn’t easy. Looking back and now understanding what Professor Bentley was talking about in that “therapeutic culture” lecture on Wordsworth, I know that giving myself so fully to the project and often being terrified of possible repercussions was worth the scare — to have others come into my world, if only for thirty minutes, was more than enough. It was therapeutic.
All of this being said — I need everybody to know that I was so insanely proud of the unbelievably talented group of people I got to work with for this project. My actors killed it up there and, now whenever I look back through the script, they’re all I can envision. Everybody was so dedicated and sweet. I couldn’t have wanted anything to go any differently. I hope they know how grateful I am and how much I appreciate their hard work.
I am always my own worst critic. I’ve returned home until winter classes resume in six days, and I feel at rest finding the steady balance between the chaos that is first year University life and the peace that comes with rejuvenating back home (Oh my God! — I feel like Jack Duluoz in Big Sur! …Sort of). I believe it is so crucially important to create your own work, not for recognition or for some kind of resume-booster, but to contribute to the local art world and — I don’t know — just be a human being. It’s good to feel like one sometimes. Whatever the future may hold for me and my ridiculous wants, “Anonymous” will stay with me forever.