“YOU NEED TO START LOOKING UP FLIGHTS. WE’RE ALMOST THERE.” – BILL COOKE
I’ve written a bunch of plays that have been staged over the past decade-plus. Some were well received, some were indifferently received, some were poorly received. Obviously I prefer the first kind. The only downside to “well-received” is that folks will often tell you that they’re looking forward to seeing your next play. Well that’s not really a downside unless you’re a sociopath, but this is me we’re talking about.
What I do, confronted with a nice person saying, “I liked that one, and I look forward to seeing what you write next,” is immediately begin convincing myself that the next play can’t possibly live up. I picture that nice person sitting at my next play with a friend they brought along, blushing with embarrassment it proves to be a monstrous letdown. “You have to understand,” I imagine this person saying pleadingly to their friend, “that last play was good. I don’t know what happened.” And the friend says, “Don’t worry about it, lots of playwrights only have the one good play in them.”
This is the best way to put a good play in you. -ed. note
I’ve recently been living with this precise set of neuroses, only on steroids. It’s a trap of my own making: I decided that I would write a science fiction trilogy. In one sense, they are three separate stories, each with mostly new characters, each with its own tone and structure. But in another sense, these three dramas chronicle one over-arching story of war and occupation, and all three feature two particular characters, a sister and brother named Ronnie and Abbie. So naturally, audience members who saw one or both of the previous plays want to know how the war turns out. And they want to know what will happen to Ronnie and Abbie.
Well, we’ve produced the first two. They were both pretty well received. The second one, in point of fact, may be the best received of any of my plays to date. (Not a humblebrag; I’m neurotic, not humble. Just a brag.) Obviously if I wasn’t a cretinous bed-wetter, that would make me happy. But here we are.
Because of the folks who saw the previous shows and liked them, their response isn’t just, “Liked this play, look forward to whatever you write next” -it’s: “I can’t wait to see what happens to Ronnie and Abbie. I can’t wait to see how it ends.” They aren’t looking forward to whatever I write next. They know what I’m writing next: the ending to a story they’re interested in, resolving the fates of characters they enjoy. So that takes the normal anxiety involved in following a successful act, and trains gamma rays on it until it becomes the Hulk version of that anxiety.
I’m an entertainer. I’m a people-pleaser. Being an uncompromising artist doesn’t agree with me. I want the audience to be happy. But one thing I discovered about six or so years ago is that I have no gift for pandering to others. It’s not that I don’t want to pander – believe me, I do – but I can’t correctly guess how. I can’t correctly guess in my head what a large group of people who aren’t me will like. I can only correctly guess what I like. But at the same time, I have no relish for sitting up in my room in a beret muttering, “This play will wrench the scales from the audience’s eyes and they will finally gaze into the abyss of their wretched, fraudulent lives. Their lives, I say!” So I’ve learned a middle path: I’ve learned to pander to myself. I write the play I’d like to see.
The play he’d like to see… on a cake -ed. note
There’s an interesting panicky feeling that can overtake you when you’re in the middle of watching the series finale of a TV show you like. You look at the clock, calculate the remaining time left in the episode, adjust for commercials if applicable, and realize: “Holy crap, there’s not enough time left in the show to take care of all the things I want them to take care of. In nine minutes there won’t be any more of this show ever! How can they get to everything in that time?”
It’s weird being on the other side of that. I never thought of The Honeycomb Trilogy as a storyline resembling the structure of a TV series. I didn’t think of it as an ongoing adventure, but as a strictly defined and limited story told in three stages. But over the course of writing and rewriting the three scripts, co-producing them, and working with dozens of other artists to bring them to life, I’ve gotten to care a lot more about Ronnie and Abbie than I usually do. I’ve started thinking about them like a fan does. (Q: How can you be a “Fan” of your own stuff? A: Because I’m an egomaniac.)
On Isaac’s blog I wrote an essay recently where I touched on how I have to suppress this fan instinct when I write. As a fan I love the charge of the familiar. I want characters I like from the past to make return appearances. I want characters I like to stay in the story, to not leave and not die. In a weird way, fandom is about trying to resist change and forestall the reality of death.
But as a storyteller, I know that’s not what this is about. Life constantly moves forward and changes. People get older. People move around. People take on new interests and new allegiances. Children grow up. Some couples split up. Other couples stay together, but grow older and change anyway, necessitating a constant process of rediscovering one another. Life never stops until it stops, but then it didn’t really stop because as you’re dying other people are continuing to be alive. So actually it doesn’t stop for anything. I want so bad to write into part 3 that Kip and Jimmy secretly survived and run a gator rodeo together. But of course that isn’t what happened. Kip and Jimmy are dead, and almost no one still alive remembers them.
The story has to move forward. The war ends, so there has to be rebuilding. The revolutionaries suddenly have to run the government and keep the streets clean. The scrappy war hero is now the establishment. And our brother and sister have gradually, inexorably, lost nearly all the people in the world who truly know them, and find themselves forcibly reunited as archenemies who only have each other.
In a perfect world, this is how it would all end.
You don’t beat the expectations game by ignoring the expectations. You don’t beat it at all, in fact. You engage it. You acknowledge that expectations exist, for good reason, and enter into dialogue with them. Because at a certain point, all of my neurotic belly-aching about expectations is really nothing more than me condescending to the people who come see the plays. People don’t form expectations to have them met, at least not intelligent adults with any life experience at all. People want to see how their expectations will be unmet, confounded, subverted, elided, reworked, turned inside out. That’s pretty much what a story is: a series of unmet expectations. Life keeps moving forward, keeps surprising us. It’s the trap that we’ve agreed to walk into.
Look, I’ll close with the very simple thoughts I’ve been writing around. Folks who saw the first two shows? I don’t want to let you down. Abbie and Ronnie? I don’t want to end your story wrong. I don’t want it to end at all. I don’t want things to move forward. But I don’t control any of this stuff. So: here we go. Let’s do this.