What Do You Think About When You Think About What To Write?

Writing a play is and is not like writing a story or a novel. You need plot, structure, premise. You need well-developed characters. But stories and novels play out in our heads. It’s a one on one conversation between writer and reader. Plays, on the other hand, are visual, aural, temporal things. Collaborative things involving a few or a lot of people. A play will (hopefully) be produced, directed and performed by other people. And, then watched by more people, all together at the same time and in the same place. (Which is an increasingly rare experience in our tech-driven world.) In that sense, it occured to me recently, a playwright is a potential job creator, for specific types of people.
That got me thinking. I’m between projects at the moment, casting around (no pun intended) for the next one. And I’m wondering: should I pick a project, at least in part, because it gives under-represented actors opportunity? How much of that, versus writing what comes, what sparks me, what lights me up? If those things happen to be separate? And, as a female playwright, am I obligated to write lots of female roles? How much can I do if the odds are stacked against me, too?


The old lament in the American Theatre, of course, is that it is by, for, and about mostly white men. Middle-aged and older white men. When I think of the towering playwrights of the twentieth century, it’s men that come immediately to mind: Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Sam Shepard. After a while, Lillian Hellman shows up. And then Lorraine Hansberry. Because I went to drama school I then remember Caryl Churchill (British) and Beth Henley. Of these, only one is a person of color. Of course, this is one white woman’s thought experiment, based on who and what I was taught and experienced growing up in the latter half of the twentieth century. But…
It feels like the way most of the world works, still, in 2019. But maybe not. According to the New York Times, “[t]he list of most produced playwrights in the 2019-20 season features 12 women and 10 men, and is as racially diverse as it’s ever been. Six of the 22 writers are playwrights of color, including Dominique Morisseau, Lynn Nottage and Quiara Alegría Hudes, not to mention August Wilson.” Which is excellent news for so many reasons, not least because I want the American Theatre to remain relevant. To remain a place that people want to come, that young people want to discover and make their own. A place where people get to see themselves, as well as getting exposed to things far outside their own knowledge and understanding of the world. To me, theatre is at its best when it has something to say, when it both entertains and enlightens.
U.S. regional theatres seem to be coming to the same idea. “In interviews with 12 incoming artistic directors around the country, a common theme emerged: Now is a moment full of great potential for change. As the nation’s demographics are shifting, can the American theatre start to look more like America? Relatedly, can it be made relevant to more Americans? Among the existential questions faced by the American theatre, this is a relatively new one. This new generation of leaders may have the answer.” (American Theatre Magazine)
It’s exciting news. But how much responsibility does each individual playwright bear to make sure that there are enough plays with diverse roles and diverse stories to go around? What do you think? Does who might say your words have a bearing on what you write? Is it right up there at the beginning, directing your search for material, or is it a happy accident when whatever sparks your interest happens to create a more diverse cast?
What do you think about when you think about what to write? Let me know in the comments below.
Photo credits: rawpixel.com, Nicole Brewer

Notes from the Writing Trenches: Dealing with Self-doubt

By Anna Marcus

As any writer can attest, one of the hallmarks of the writing process is a sneaking self-doubt that creeps up on you somewhere around the halfway mark of your manuscript. This is when you feel like everything you’ve written up to that point is complete and utter crap. I have hit this bump many times over the six years I have been working on my novel. Each time it happened, I went back and tried to fix things, but it just got worse. Soon I’d rearranged the plot, changed the point of view, and rewritten the beginning so many times, I couldn’t even remember what the original idea of my story was. Months of work would go by with nothing to show for it. The ending of my novel never seemed farther away than at page 250. I started to think that I would never finish this book.

The Law of Three

I wanted to know, why was I losing all confidence in myself so close the end of my project? This repetitive pattern was really bumming me out, but then a friend of mine told me about the early 20th century philosopher and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, and his Law of Three, which helped me reframe my views on the entire creative process and learn to embrace my doubt.

Gurtjieff’s Law of Three

Gurdjieff’s Law of Three states that every phenomenon in the universe is due to the interaction of three separate forces: Active or Affirming, Passive or Denying, and Reconciling or Neutral. Force One is the active/affirming stage, which we most often feel at the beginning of a creative project when we are excited and enthusiastic about an idea. This active force carries us along for a while, but then inevitably that force meets with resistance, which is Force Two, the passive/denying force, most often experienced by writers as crippling self-doubt. You may be wondering, how does anything get written if we are always stymied by Force Two? Well, according to Gurdjieff, when Force One and Force Two, the yin and yang so to speak, interact with each other for a while, a strange alchemical process occurs. Out of their cosmic dance, a third force comes into being, which is the reconciling/neutral force. This is the most mystical stage of the creative process, and it’s very hard to pinpoint when or how it happens. Through my own experience, I have come to believe it occurs through an act of surrender.

The Hero’s Journey

Writers and storytellers will find the Law of Three very familiar, because it closely mirrors the archetypal story structure of the Hero’s Journey. In almost every story there is a protagonist who starts out very gung ho on their mission to achieve some lofty goal (Force One), but then they get stopped by an antagonist who finds all sorts of devious ways of undermining them (Force Two). Then, just when the Hero has given up all their original ideals and stops thinking of themselves as any sort of hero at all, they figure out a new way of solving their problem, and prevail in the end, although their success may not look at all how they imagined it would at the beginning (Force Three).

I was elated when I learned about this Law of Three. Everything started to make sense to me about what I was experiencing in my creative process. Like the protagonist in my story, I had to battle my own antagonistic forces. After banging my head against the wall for a while, I finally gave up some aspect of my original idea and started to look for a third way. This happened over and over again with every chapter, every scene. The more I went through the cycle, the better I got at recognizing what stage I was in: Force One, Force Two, or finding Force Three.

The Third Way

I remember the point in writing my novel, when I let go of my grand notions of how my protagonist would solve her problem. I thought she would go on an epic road trip and find things along the way that would bring about her reconciliation with her dead mother, but instead she hurled herself off a roof, almost died, and I had to find a different way for her to make peace with her past. It was really hard, but once I accepted the new situation and embraced it, my ending came into view, and I was able finish the damn thing. Even though it had a misshapen head, was jaundiced, and colicky, I loved my novel anyway. It didn’t turn out to be the type of story I thought I was writing, but that was ok.

If you are stuck in the terrible self-doubt phase about your writing right now, take heart. This is only natural. Everything in the universe, including humanity, and all structures and processes, must go through the three forces to come into being. You can count on it, and when you feel the most in doubt, you are actually very close to reaching the reconciling energy you need to finish your project. Trust in this, and let go. A third way will come to you very soon.

My Experiences Participating in NanoWriMo

By Anna Marcus

In the fall of 2016, I was newly unemployed, mourning the loss of one of my dearest friends, and feeling quite depressed. A writer friend of mine had participated in this crazy thing called National Novel Writing Month (NanoWriMo) the year before, when people around the world write 50,000 words in thirty days over the month of November. She had produced a rough draft of a novel in that time. I was so impressed with what she had done, but I didn’t think I would ever have the time to do such a thing. Then, by the next year, my life had changed dramatically. All I had was time, and 20,000 words of a novel-in-progress that I doubted I would ever complete. I needed a big hairy audacious goal to pull myself out of my funk, and NanoWriMo gave it to me.

Counting Words Obsessively

When I signed up in late October 2016 I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. NanoWriMo isn’t just a writing challenge, it’s a bootcamp, social network, learning platform, and Fitbit for words all-in-one. Messages started to flood my inbox about webinars I could take on every aspect of the writing and planning process. Famous writers were tweeting out motivational words. Every day I clocked my new word count on my personal page on the NanoWriMo website, and they would calculate how many words a day I would need to write thereafter to reach my goal. It was like a Weightwatcher’s Weight Loss Journey graph, but in reverse.

Finding a Community of Writers

I joined The Southern Dutchess County of New York local chapter of NanoWriMo on Facebook, which actually covers a much larger region encompassing Dutchess, Orange, and Sullivan counties. Every week the group held live write-in events around the area, and I joined some of these, crowding myself and my laptop around tables pushed together in the back of a chain restaurant with a bunch of fellow Wrimos. One of the exercises we did was writing sprints. The coordinator (or Municipal Liaison in Nano-speak) would call out a word count goal like 350 words in ten minutes, and she would start a timer. All you would hear was the clacking of fingers on keyboards (and the occasional scratching of a pen in a notebook) as we raced to the finish line.

The great thing about those speed exercises was that they pushed me out of my critical headspace. I didn’t have time to think, “Is this good?,” I just had to write. And I have to say, I wrote some of the best passages of my novel during that month. When the goal was just to pile up the words, I was forced to do more free-writing, which pushed me to take more risks with my story. I’ll never forget one afternoon when I stopped a writing sprint and I realized I had literally just made my protagonist jump off a roof. I laughed at myself and almost deleted the scene, but I needed the words so I kept it in. That crazy derailment shook my plot up and helped me find a more authentic path to my heroine’s final resolution at the end of the book.

Reaching the Finish Line

By November 30, 2016 I had written 60,000 words, and while my novel was not finished (not yet), I had successfully beat my depression and I was a more confident writer. In fact, I participated in NanoWriMo again in 2017, for the express purpose of getting to the end of my novel, and I did that by November 30th of that year, rounding off at 108,000 words.

I didn’t do NanoWriMo the classic way, starting from scratch and writing 50,000 words in one month. I had a novel already in-progress, I just needed a kick in the pants to complete it. Now that I’ve done that, and I am nearing the end of my two-year revision process, I am so grateful for my NanoWriMo experiences. Writing a first draft of a novel should be fast and messy. There is no sense in making it polished, when you’re just going to have to rewrite it many times anyway. NanoWriMo, while a bit gimmicky and silly, was exactly what I needed to get out of my own way, and learn how to write fast.

Writing a novel is a marathon, but it’s absolutely doable if you break it up into small pieces and have a supportive team to cheer you on. If you have always wanted to write a novel or a memoir, this is a great time to do it. I challenge you to join NanoWriMo this November, throw yourself into the process, and when you reach 50,000 words you can get one of these nifty certificates too (and a great sense of accomplishment).

I want to give a shout out to the wonderful, tireless Municipal Liaisons who volunteer their time to run the Southern Dutchess County chapter of NanoWriMo: Rebecca Ramaglia, Tracy Elizabeth, and Rachel Coleman. Thank you for organizing our regional community of writers in addition to writing your own 50,000 words every year. Remember, pantsers are awesome but planners rule!

Art is Patriotism: a Discussion with Playwright Mona Z. Smith

by Jody Strimling-Muchow

She’s talking and laughing with the girl behind the counter when I walk into the coffee shop. Traffic has threatened to make me late, and I’m feeling a little frazzled, but she turns to me with a smile that is so sunny that any anxiety evaporates on contact. Mona Z. Smith is a delight to be around.

We take our coffee to a corner table and start chatting like old friends, almost before I can get my phone set up to record. Mona was a journalist before becoming a playwright, an old hat at interviews (admittedly a part of the above-mentioned anxiety), so we start with how that came to be.

MZS Headshot 2017 B&W 2

MZS: I grew up in a town of 62 people. One main street, with no stop lights or stop signs. But there was a weekly newspaper. I was the manager for the baseball team, mostly because, in a town that small, you’re related to almost everyone, and I wanted to get out and meet other people. The editor of the paper didn’t want to go to all the games all over, so he said “Hey, you keep the stats anyway, do you want to start writing stories, I’ll pay you ten bucks a story.” Which was huge money back then!

From there I went to the University of Nebraska, which has a fabulous journalism program. I had some great mentors there and ended up, right after graduation, at the Miami Herald. My first ever plane ride was out to Miami. My first story was the execution of a teenager whose body was found floating in a canal – it was the cocaine wars. This was the early 1980’s. It was not at all like Miami Vice. It was ugly and not safe, and I was one of six police reporters, by far the most junior, so I was working the late-night shifts. So it was pretty grueling training, especially for someone who was from a town of sixty-two people. But I was in my twenties, young, stupid and brave. After almost four years I decided I needed to take a break. I just got tired of writing about all the horrible things that human beings are capable of doing. So I told my boss I wanted to take a sabbatical. We arranged for me to be gone for three months and I went to Paris for four years. Never went back to the Herald. And that’s where I discovered the theatre.

GLB: Why Paris?

MZS: There were various issues involved, including a guy. I think we were both running away from various things at the time, looking for a cool-off period. He was there to write the great American novel. I thought I would just be stringing for various newspapers while I was there, but I met these actors, and they really changed my perspective. I saw everything I possibly could while I was there. Art and architecture and theatre. I soaked it up like a dried out old sponge. I had never been exposed to these things in my tiny town. It was a shining moment to see all of the good things that human beings are capable of creating. And I thought that I couldn’t go back to writing about all the horrible things. Not that theatre doesn’t take that up, but there’s just something so positive about the act of creation, even when you’re dealing with some of the darker forces in human nature. It just felt like where I needed and wanted to be.

After four years, we found ourselves expecting a baby, and so we moved back to the States. So suddenly I was a new mom, which is certainly an act of creativity too, and managing to write and get ready to apply to Columbia Graduate School of the Arts. My daughter was ten months old when I started that three-year program to retrain myself as a playwright.

Pretty quickly, I realized that that was not a great pathway to making money. Things between me and my baby’s father weren’t going well, and I was looking at being a single mom with a career in the arts. So I went to the head of my department and told him that I needed some kind of work study, so that I would have the skills to get a job when I graduated. I ended up working at Second City for two years, and then in my third year Andrei Serban invited me to come work on a production of Tales of Hoffman at the Vienna Opera House. That experience helped me figure out how to be a practicing artist, have a career, be a single parent and somehow make it work. I leveraged that experience in non-profit administration to have a series of jobs for about twenty years and continued to write books and plays on the side. It’s not easy, especially as a woman. We tend to end up having to manage not only children but extended family, juggling all of those plates. But I managed to get a new play up every four to five years. Which seems like forever, especially when I watched younger, unencumbered, unattached writers who seemed to put out a new play every year. And I was jealous sometimes. But my daughter needed to come first.

I’m someone, I still have one foot in that 1960’s traditional world that I grew up in, and then the world that I’m also trying to inhabit, that says “it’s perfectly fine for you to be a playwright, pursue a career, be a creative. There’s a quote by Mary Oliver that I really love:

My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.

GLB: Your work is really about big things. There’s a lot of research that goes into it. What draws you to that?

MZS: I think that’s informed by my initial career as a journalist. Even though it’s important to me to not write about the horrible things that people can do, I’m very aware that from the moment I started writing plays I was writing about the human condition, and often our failings, specifically where our American democracy falls short of its ideals. That goes back to early inspirations. I wouldn’t have been a journalist if I hadn’t lived through Watergate. Woodward and Bernstein were superheroes to me. I feel that one of the roles of an artist is to be the Greek chorus, to call attention, and say, in a beautiful, compelling way, “we need to examine this. We need to look at our mistakes.” We should come out of the theatre feeling changed, and emboldened to make courageous choices and to ask others to live up to the ideals we all share as citizens of a democracy. That’s patriotism to me.

Canada LeeSometimes I’m writing outside of culture. For instance, I wrote a book about Canada Lee, a Black actor and activist who was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and whose death was attributed to that blacklisting. And I wrote a play about Japanese American soldiers during World War Two, and the racism they faced. But I have chosen to do that on occasions where I felt like the story really deserved wider attention and just wasn’t getting it.

GLB: What are you working on now?

NEW FIRE LOGO 600x375_3MZS: My current project is actually the first full-length play I wrote in graduate school, Fire in a Dark House. But I picked it up again because it’s about anti-immigrant fervor during World War One. It looks at the impact of that on two families in a small town on the Great Plains. It’s based partly on research I’ve done into my own family history, one side of which is German American. It looks at the effects of propaganda and media in terms of shaping that anti-immigrant sentiment, so it’s really a timely piece. I actually did my first television pitch for this project, with my long-time collaborator and writing partner on this project, Traci Mariano, to a room full of people my daughter’s age. I was so nervous, but I did it, because I never want to stop learning!

Mona and Traci

GLB: So you start with a big idea, like the Japanese American battalion, for instance. And obviously in the case of your current project you had a personal connection, but when you don’t, how do you break it down and make it personal, make it theatre?

MZS: I do a lot of interviews and listen to a lot of oral histories, so that I can hear people talking about their stories in their own language. And then I read and research and try to immerse myself until I land on a story, a voice, a circumstance, a plot point. Something I know I can build around. Something that feels close to me, that I can live with for a while. Because if it doesn’t really touch you, then how are you going to live with it for, in my case, the four or five years it takes to get a project done, working nights and weekends and when my kids are in bed. Which is when it gets done.

Fire in a Dark House will be read on October 26th, at 7:30 p.m. at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theatre in Peekskill (more information in the link).

Opportunities in Our Own Backyard

by Jody Strimling-Muchow

I love living in the Hudson Valley. It’s beautiful. It’s full of inspiration. The people are interesting and the food is fantastic. So why, when I think about submitting my work, do I not think of starting at home? Well, for one thing…maybe it’s the only thing: ignorance. I don’t know what’s up here, what’s available to me as a playwright. And maybe it’s a little about insecurity, too. Maybe it’s easier to picture rejection from some faraway theatre that I’ll probably never see anyway, than from somewhere in my own backyard. And then there’s our proximity to the epicenter of American Theatre, New York City. Everything must funnel to and from there, right?

HVPT Lobby

It turns out that that’s a common misperception. And Dominic D’Andrea is trying to do something about that. He’s the new (and first) Hudson Valley Regional Ambassador for the Dramatists Guild (DG). He has the job only because he asked the question: who represents the Hudson Valley? “You, if you want it,” was the answer. Now he’s on a mission.

D’Andrea gathered Hudson Valley playwrights, actors and dramaturgs (both DG members and non-members) in July for a four-hour convening, “…the DG’s very first endeavor to bring together the vast community of playwrights living and working in the entire Hudson Valley area, from Yonkers to the Capital Region.” On the hottest Sunday of the summer, about 40 of us gathered at the Paramount Hudson Valley Theatre in Peekskill. (Fortunately, their air conditioning was working, mostly.)

Black-Box-Theater-1-768x512After a friendly meet and greet, we got to work in a fun, innovative and ultimately very productive way. Dividing ourselves into groups based on which meal is our favorite (breakfast, obviously), we began to learn to work together. Coming up with reasons why we liked that meal the best (coffee!), then coming to a consensus on three things we all agreed made our meal awesome, within each group. These organic groupings kept going, forming and re-forming like a giant theatrical amoeba, until we were discussing what it means to be an artist in 2019, and a Hudson Valley artist, specifically. That’s where the feeling of lack of opportunity started to come up. And was countered by people who were excited about the chances to work here. That’s one of the wonderful things that started to happen, as we pooled our knowledge and experiences.

From there we got down to specifics: why some of us felt a lack of opportunity up here, where the obstacles are, who the gatekeepers to access are, what ishere, just waiting for us, and, most importantly, where we might go from here. We made a map of theaters and groups from Yonkers to Albany (I put Get Lit Beacon up there!) There is a surprising amount, especially in Poughkeepsie. Who knew?

Lark Playwright pic

I left the meeting feeling inspired. I met new writers. I learned a lot about what exists in my own back yard. And I’m excited that there is new energy being poured into my beloved Hudson Valley. There is opportunity here, and there will be even more. And we can all be a part of it. The plan is for more of these convenings. I’ll spread the word when the next one is scheduled. You should come.

Photo Credits: Paramount Hudson Valley Theatre, The Arts Center of the Capital RegionThe Lark.