To Write or Not to Write, That Was My Question

While I try to slowly update my website, I realized that the next round of the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries project is quickly approaching and I should share a little thing I wrote about my experience.

To Write or Not to Write, That Was My Question 

Last October, I was sitting on stage at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia as one of the inaugural winners of Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries project when I was asked a question for a marketing video.  When was your first memory of Shakespeare?  My mind went blank.  I stared into the camera and tried to come up with something clever, something profound, but nothing came out of my mouth.  I had no idea how to answer that question.  Did everyone have a memory of their first Shakespeare play?  There I was sitting in this stunning theatre with the most beautiful wood, chandeliers, and seats surrounding me and I began to feel like all of the theater makers that came before were sitting in those empty seats leaning in to hear my answer, and I had no answer, which my brain told me meant only one thing; they made a huge mistake selecting my play.  

Growing up I felt that Shakespeare was more for intellectual students and I only read him when it was assigned.  I was always impressed with colleagues and friends who had a deep admiration and love for the Bard.  My partner adapted As You Like It in 2016, which was the first time I willingly picked up a copy of Shakespeare to prepare myself for the show.  The following year a friend invited me to see the Public Works production of the same play.  I cried when I watched a diverse community of artists walk on to the stage singing Under the Greenwood Tree and rejoiced in the magic of the forest of Arden.   

A few months later I found myself at NNPN’s annual Showcase, chatting with Anne G. Morgan who had recently started working at The American Shakespeare Center after a long stint at The O’Neill.   I was curious why a lover of new plays would make such a move.  With a smile on her face, she handed me a flyer for the ambitious SNC project.  I’m not really a Shakespeare person I mentioned to Anne, who enthusiastically told me the project was looking for brand-new plays in conversation with Shakespeare not an adaptation or modern translation.

I’m always up for a challenge, and what playwright wouldn’t want a chance to win 25k and have a production if selected?  I started writing on the plane home from that conference and looked at the four titles on the flyer that my play could be in conversation with; The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV, Part 1, The Comedy of Errors, or The Winter’s Tale.  I had some familiarity with all the titles accept Merry Wives so I bought a copy and began reading.

Instantly I became furious with the beginning of the play.   The men spoke to each other about their desire to woo Anne Page because of her money and pretty virginity.  Anne didn’t have a voice, beyond inviting them in to dinner, until late in the play.  All of a sudden, I found myself in conversation with this playwright I had avoided, and couldn’t stop writing a piece that would give women center stage.  There were parameters I had to abide by, staying true to Shakespeare’s staging conditions, writing for a cast of 10-12 actors, minimal sets, universal lighting, music in real time, and two hours traffic on the stage.  These set limitations provided freedom as I wrote my first draft.

During the time I was writing my response play, #MeToo was trending on social media.  As a rape survivor, and woman walking in this world, I became fixated on the line in Merry Wives, we are the sons of women.  I kept thinking about that simple truth.  If all men come from the womb of women how can men behave in such abhorrent ways?   My work explores the ideas of isolation, desire for human connection while dealing with personal trauma, and the complexity of the masks we choose to wear.  I was amazed that a male playwright from centuries ago ignited a spark in me to explore difficult topics of our time.

With the deadline quickly approaching I gathered friends, bribed them with dinner, and heard my new play Anne Page Hates Fun for the first time, trying to ignore the amplified voice telling me not to apply because I wasn’t a Shakespeare person.   “You’ll never know you didn’t win unless you submit” my partner said, and minutes before the deadline I submitted.  Months later when I received a call that my play had won, I was speechless, grateful, scared, and honored all at once.  This was the biggest play I had ever written and had only heard it in my living room, but Anne assured me there would be a week-long development workshop where I would get to work with her, the acting company, and the newly appointed Artistic Director, Ethan McSweeny.   

As the guinea pig and guide of this new initiative, I was welcomed to Staunton with open arms and an ensemble of play lovers who asked smart questions that helped my play grow in ways I couldn’t have imagined back in my living room.  During previews, after an intense but fruitful rewriting process, a patron came up to me and said, “The connections you have made to Shakespeare are outstanding.”  A sentence I never thought I’d hear but the truth is we are all in conversation with each other.  As a writer I love creating stories with friends who become collaborators, just like Shakespeare did, and believe I had a visceral response to reading Merry Wives because a man had built a foundation of truth and connection during the time he was living; something I hope to continue to do as a writer.  It’s the players who raise the stakes of a play and bring it to the next level, and what a gift to have had that opportunity. 

Last weekend I returned to the closing of Anne Page Hates Fun and ran into ASC’s director of mission, Ralph Cohen.  It had been two months since I was inside the Blackfriars and he smiled and said, “Feels like home, doesn’t it?”, and surprisingly I had never felt more at home.  The gift of winning the competition went well beyond the monetary prize and world premiere production, it was the community of artists who in this small town in Virginia allowed me to put down my fear, lean into collaboration, and learn to love and appreciate a man I will never meet but feel somehow, I have always known. 

In the lobby at ASC viewing the poster art for the first time.

In the lobby at ASC viewing the poster art for the first time.

FIGHT WITH YOUR ART

I wrote a song and sang it in front of some Teaching Artists as part of a Professional Development workshop.  I'm not one to sing in front of people but for some reason it came from somewhere deep inside because I believe that each of us can create change.  I often think that I have to do things on a large scale but even on that day I stood up in front of my colleagues and sang I was creating some change.  Below are the lyrics.  I had been struggling a lot this last year about how to use my art.  It seemed inconsequential to be writing plays to entertain and I've seen a shift in how I approach my work.  It's necessary for me to go deeper, be braver, and really truly fight with my art.  Writing is what I know.  Empathy is how I can connect with others and love is something I strive for daily.  I'm wishing everyone and anyone who is reading this to continue to lead with love and fight with their art.  It is a way to inspire, reach, and love one another in a time where the world can sometimes feel scary.  

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ECUADOR

A LIFE OF TRAVEL

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as the waves crash against me

 

i stand on ground

 

no voice

 

no sound

 

and listen again

 

the ocean is my constant friend - amy e. witting

Meeting My Ten Year Old Self

Sometimes I get asked to babysit last minute, I've been doing this job practically since Anne M. Martin started writing The Babysitters Club, and I can hardly remember a time when I didn't babysit.  For some years in my mid-twenties I was embarrassed that I was still babysitting but I finally got honest with myself and embraced how much I actually enjoyed it.  I enjoyed it so much as a kid I even started my own babysitters club when I was thirteen or so, about five of us met at my friend Diane's house creating fliers and waiting for the phone to ring.  We would only be available from 3pm - 5pm one day a week so families had to know in advance when they needed us, but, if I'm being super honest,  I've always loved hanging out with kids and last night was no exception.  

The funny thing about being an adult babysitter in Manhattan is I never know who I'm going to encounter on the other side of the apartment door.  When I was in High School I basically had the same families and knew what we were going to do.  We would plan our Saturday nights, which usually consisted of baking something delicious, and creating our own music videos to a Beatle's song, but in the city it's a bit different.  Sometimes it's a pretty generic after school evening of helping with homework, heating up some pasta, watching a really bad Disney Channel show and saying goodnight.  Other times it's dropping someone off at swim, reading my book, and taking them home.  Maybe if they are creative we put together an Imovie like last months Edward The Forgotten Tangerine - Or on the lucky nights I show up and the kids are already asleep I just sit in a fancy living room working on my plays.  But last night on the other side of the apartment door I met my ten year old self.

Her name was Jules, name changed for confidentiality purposes, and she simply said "hey" when I walked into her apartment.  She was sitting reading a book half in that world and half in mine and had this old soul aura about her.  She was in fourth grade, about to graduate to Middle School, and the only thing she had to do last night was practice piano, grab some pizza, and finish a little homework.  "I'm protesting the Pizza shop." She said with a serious look on her face.  "But I'll go as long as you hide me.  I don't want to seem like I'm crossing a picket line for when I gather my signatures.  They changed their name and it's horrible.  You'll see."  

She told her mom she had it the schedule covered as she put two fidget spinners in a manilla envelope to mail to her Penn Pals in Columbia.  "I think they will be really surprised to get this package.  I'm so excited."  Kids don't write anymore, I thought to myself.  The majority of the children I've hung out with in the last ten years in NYC are snapchatting and social climbing and playing sports and taking fancy classes and vacationing in the Hamptons or the Maldives on Spring Break - they are not mailing a hot new toy to their Penn Pals in Columbia.  I told her about my upcoming trip to Ecuador and the theatre project I was doing.  "Cool." she said half impressed and half relating.  "Do you want to see my stamp collection?"

I looked at her and was immediately back in my childhood home where I had books of stamps, and a certificate of being a Philatelist.  I received a great Girl Scout badge for stamp collecting, travelled to Washington DC with my dad for a big stamp collecting conference, and even joined a stamp club.  Somehow I hadn't thought about that in years.  She took out her stamp book that could have easily been my ten year old self's stamp book and we went page by page through the countries, the categories, and the fun ones she just liked.  I had stepped back in time.  Maybe it was stamp collecting that fueled my desire to travel at such a young age.  All of a sudden I was seeing that the kid I thought I was, strange and weird, was actually an inspiring quirky kid who understood how to embrace life with a whole heart.  Jules was so giving of her time, of her thoughts, of her ideas and I started to understand more of who I was and still am. That foundation of childhood, those years right before you become a teenager and start dealing with socializing, are the real pure moments of self.  It was a gift to hang out with her and a mirror reflection I never thought I needed.

"I like you, you know most my friends are like adults.  Honey is my best friend and I think she's eighty"  - She wasn't kidding about Honey being her best friend.  When we left to get Pizza we ran into Honey who couldn't have been more excited to see Jules.  And as we walked in her neighborhood most adults we ran into were excited to see her.  "See.  I'm well loved." She said in a frank manner of understanding and not in a egotistical way.  I was well loved too as a child, still am, but had trouble believing it always when I was a kid.  People talk about walking to the beat of your own drum and it's amazing how at ten you can do that without even thinking but once you start to hit High School, for me at least, I began to question my unique self.  Something that I would go back and forth questioning for years.  When we returned from pizza, where I successfully hid her and noticed how awful the new name was, she said she was going to dance for me.  Randomly a song came on and she began to make up a dance, one that was so familiar to me, a dance I had done often in my childhood.  She understood empathy, and not every child has a real grasp on that, something I knew well and didn't know how to express when I was a kid. There's a lot more I could write about regarding my time with Jules but simply I'm grateful that I continue to keep my heart open so I know when I'm being given a gift of seeing a little bit of my true self in a ten year old girl I had never met before.

To DEFRIEND OR NOT TO DEFRIEND.....

We live in a culture where our avatars never get to a final place to rest in peace. Friends of mine who have long since passed away, some tragically, some naturally, some too soon, some living a long fruitful life, now live forever as a friend of mine on Facebook.  The banner above their smiling picture simply states "Remembering (Insert Name), but how can we let someone go if they are always lingering a click away?  What happens when we have defriended our long departed friend and so desperately wish we hadn't?  What is this virtual world we live in?  I have struggled with having one foot out of social media and one foot in.  My boyfriend, brothers, and parents are not on Facebook and seem to be living a blissful existence.  I'm not someone who posts things regularly or engages in online debates with people I hardly remember, but I work in an industry that uses social media to promote, engage, and create an audience.   The start of this blog, after many many years of not blogging, has me really questioning what roll I want to play in this virtual reality.  Do I want to end up one day as just a memory page?  

The reason I even came across pictures of these friends is because I use it as a tool to cast projects, or connect people in my industry with each other.  Recently I had been scrolling through my Facebook friends to cast a reading of a play I've been working on, and I came across a friend I had forgotten was no longer living.  How can that be?  He looked the same as the days when he was living and maybe I would have reached out to say hi.  I paused because I remembered years ago, when my x-boyfriend died tragically, it was too horrific to see his name coming up so I defriended him.  At that moment, before Facebook really decided how to memorialize the dead, I had to defriend him in order to move forward with my grief but I went through a period of desperately trying to find a way back to those photos I knew by heart.  I couldn't go back once I defriended him and I mourned that page.  I wasn't necessarily mourning him, but the fact that our mutual friends were still connected to him and could make believe that he was alive.  What was I missing out on? Did it mean something that I was no longer connected to his ghost?  What is our relationship now to each other?  I think this platform that so many of us use was meant to bring humanity closer together but are we creating a template for living instead, and a certain sense of immortality?

I think if my grandmother, who was the first person close to me who had died, was living as a memorial page on Facebook I wouldn't have the opportunity to really remember her the way I wanted to remember her.  She died too soon, she died unexpectedly, and what I have from her are letters with her handwriting that are addressed to Amy Doll.  I keep them in a box on a shelf that I don't often take out, but know are there.  When I do look at them I analyze those swirly letters, a shaky hand from a woman who had struggled from birth.  My grandmother didn't have an easy life but she lived her life out-loud and in color.  Something that a computer screen could never capture.  There is a feeling to the texture of her paper, and an understanding from the cards she choose to send me, and the words she managed to fit in limited space.  I can have those memories, and they can be my own, without having to share them with the world.

I'm a letter writer, I like to send cards, and I want to truly connect with people in this world.  Connection is hard when we live with so much fear of judgment, but I vow to continue to share my life in real time.  To create a space for people who care to know me to know me.   Perhaps this blog is my way of sharing and working through some of the larger questions I have right now about how we come together and connect.

I'm still not ready to defriend those that have passed away but maybe I can also remember them more, think of them more, and carry their spirits with me.  Living is messy and without pages highlighting the smiles and good times I can remember and love the mess.  If we were all just pictures on a page how could we ever truly be there for each other?  The irony of all this is most people who are reading this blog have found it by clicking on my Facebook page.  What a wonderful weird wacky world we are living in.  More soon!

 

Lots of love,

Amy

 

 

Penn Station

I never thought we were going to die. Get trampled on maybe, injured perhaps, but the thought of death never came into my head, which is what I would call progress.  My parents had just entered Penn Station after being stuck on a NJ Transit train just outside the tunnel entering Manhattan for close to two hours.  My dad always takes an early train so they would still make it in plenty time for an 8 pm curtain to a show that my work had given me comps to.  The theatre is a common language my parents and I enjoy and I thought it would be nice to invite them in to meet up for dinner and a show. 

 

When I discovered they were late I told them I would meet them at Penn and it would be okay with me if they just wanted to do dinner.  I walked through Penn Station from the 8th avenue Amtrak station to the 7th avenue NJ Transit side where I always meet my parents.  The station was packed with people due to all of the delayed trains and Easter weekend.  I walked to the 31st street exit because that's where the elevators were and my mom would have her walker with her.  I saw them standing and smiled because they looked adorable dressed up for our Friday night date.  Since they were stuck on a train for so long they wanted to use the bathroom and my mom asked me to stand with her walker as she used the restroom.  This was our normal routine when I met them in the station.

 

So they both went to the bathroom and I sat on her walker when all of a sudden a stampede of people came running in my direction.  At first I thought, wow they really want to get home for Easter, and then it felt different.  This wasn’t the normal Penn Station commuter rush for a seat, this was pure chaos.  Someone yelled "There's an active shooter" and something clicked in my brain.  They were all running from fear and fighting for hope.  Hope for their lives.  I heard little popping sounds, which I would later discover were the sounds of people dropping their suitcases and personal belongings to get out.  My immediate thought was "my parents!" 

 

I abandoned my mother’s walker and ran, along with about 50 other people, into the women's restroom where my mom was on line and I pushed her inside and told her to stay put.  A woman and her child who didn't understand English started crying and asking what was wrong.  I said they were yelling "active shooter but I didn't know anything else". My mother looked at me in a way I have never seen before and she said "where’s your father?"  Yes, we would have to get to him so we could all remain together.  When we exited the bathroom he was coming out of the men's room oblivious.  He had heard the stampede but thought also it was just folks running to the train.  "They are saying there is a shooter in Penn".  After those words came out of my mouth and my father looked at me confused I wondered - who was the they and how did anyone know? 

 

I paused for a second and looked around and saw families huddled in corners, children crying, tourists not knowing where the exits were, luggage abandoned and what I imagined the aftermath of all those times seeing about a shooting in a mall or classroom would look like.  People left their lives to fight for their life.  At this point I had my two parents and strangers in tears coming up to me to ask what was going on.  I remained calmed but could feel my heart pounding.  Someone then started screaming fire and so I looked at my parents and calmly said "we are going to exit at 31st street and walk east until we know we are out of harm’s way.  We will walk slowly and keep going."  They nodded but my mother was concerned about the woman and her child in the bathroom who didn't understand English.  As my parents slowly walked toward the exit I went back in the bathroom to look for them but they were gone, or hiding, I will never know. 

 

When I reached my parents at the escalators to 31st street they weren't working and people were now running again without knowing why they were running or where they were running to.  We waited for the elevator hearts pounding but somehow remaining focused on our plan to walk east.  When we got above ground it looked like what I would imagine a scene of an active shooter to look like.  Police cars everywhere, ambulances and fire trucks.  People on their phones in hysterics.  People running East away from the scene, people running in the street, looks of confusion, and a palpable feeling of terror.  My parents and I crossed over 7th Avenue to slowly walk to Herald Square but my mom had yet to use the bathroom and being stuck on a train for two hours I could understand her need to stop.

 

We ducked into the back door of a hotel where we saw a policeman who told us what actually had happened.  An unwell man had become out of control and Amtrak police tasered him.  He even pointed to his own taser which looked like a gun and he admitted it can sound like gun fire.  Another woman who had ducked into the hotel said she was standing close to where it happened and it sounded like gun fire.  We stood feeling grateful we knew what had actually happened but how did that escalate into the mass fear it created?  Hundreds of strangers running away from nothing.  

 

It made me start to think about the world we are now living in and the fear that is living inside each of us and what is it that we are really afraid of?  Each other?  Is that what it comes down to? Anyone could have a gun.  Anyone could use it at any moment on anyone and there isn't a profile of a shooter.  It could be anyone.   People got hurt in the stampede, my mother keeps telling me that when I ran into the bathroom my face, including my lips were white as paper, and it’s taken me a day of hibernating in my apartment in quiet to recover.  I have never felt such fear in my life because my brain had understood immediately, from the images we see so easily on our devices, what it would look like if I was in the middle of a terrorist attack.  I have wondered many times over these recent years what I would do if I was in a situation with a gunman.  I have written an entire play about the after effects of a violent gun shooting, and there I was in the middle of a false alarm wondering how have we gotten to this place? We might not know the fear that is living inside all of us until we are faced with a stampede of strangers all running away from an imaginary bullet, but it is there, and I’m afraid if we keep living the way we are this fear is not going anywhere, and we will keep dropping our lives for the possibility of calamity.