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.