Friday, June 22, 2012

What We Might Want Is Not Enough

by Gordon Dahlquist                                                                               
Playwright, Tea Party

My play Tea Party is a pretty straight-forward story of insurrection, civil unrest, sectarian violence, divided government, and foreign interference – which just happens to be set in Colorado.  I like plays that ask questions more than plays that provide answers (I guess I feel that if you’re that confident about answers, you ought to be doing something other than writing a play), and so the work I’ll be doing is aimed at making the questions in the play seem grounded and necessary, and as inevitable as possible.

The thing about writing for the theatre – which I think playwrights both cherish and resent – is that it is a social art form.  As precise and complete as a playwright can make a play, the thing doesn’t find its final form without the intervention of others – actors, designers, directors, musicians, the list can stretch on.  Some playwrights love this (and indeed, since most playwrights, like most writers, are essentially introverts, it’s definitely nice to have an excuse to work with other people, especially on something as interesting as one’s own play).  Personally, as much as I might prefer to define my work as tightly as a painter or a novelist, I know those are different forms with different rules.  The truth is, I can write and revise (and revise, and revise) a play to the point where it’s literally impossible to imagine changing a single word … and yet – and this never stops being humbling – all it takes for that assurance to disappear is to hear the play aloud with the merest, nominal audience – even two people is enough.  Suddenly, once you’re hearing the words through someone else’s ears, everything feels different.  Flaws appear, alternatives suggest themselves, a locked-down world is cracked open and another round of work, always necessary, is possible.

The great thing about a festival like BAPF is how this natural process is both adrenalized and intensely supported.  In under three weeks a play goes through half a dozen of these crack-it-open experiences: a retreat where I’m reading the play aloud to the other creative teams (excruciating precisely because it will lay the play bare); a first reading with actors where new voices will begin to impose themselves onto the voices I’ve carried – taking them absolutely for granted – in my own head for months; actual rehearsal, where each moment of the play is examined by everyone involved – a conversation to which it’s my job to listen; a first staged reading with an audience (where even in the best of circumstances we’ll be surprised – and gratified – to see what else we need to do); more rehearsal, by which time we’ll all be old pros (even if what we’re ‘pro’ at is wrestling with the impossible task of making an unstaged play seem real); and at last the final reading, which will crack everything open one last time and set me the task of going on.  Each of these steps offers insights that are utterly unavailable to a playwright working alone, and each step offers different insights from the one before – because the whole creative team is learning more about what they’re doing as they go.  The value to a playwright – to the play – is really incalculable.

For Tea Party, despite the political questions the play raises, the reaction I’m hoping to get from the audience is more than anything a continuation of that same conversation I’ve had with the actors, the director, the dramaturg, the designers.  We don’t always have to agree, but it seems like a good idea to keep talking.

Gordon Dahlquist’s novel The Chemickal Marriage will appear in the UK in July 2012, and his young adult novel The Different Girl will be published by Dutton/Penguin in Spring 2013.

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