In the process of designing and writing a personal play like Ligature Marks, I had to struggle with the idea of what a “personal” play even means to me anymore.
I started writing plays as a little kid, but it was going to undergrad that really unlocked something in me. Maybe it was a sense of being away from my family home, of striking out on my own, of having access to a student-run theater that would put up anything I wrote, that really brought out a kind of fearlessness in me, a willingness to dig deep and write plays that were essentially slabs of skinless, quivering Mac under the fresnels.
Well, okay: it was part fearlessness, maybe, but a lot of it was a compulsive drive toward exhibitionism. I, for whatever reason, needed to make brutally confessional plays available for other UNC undergrads to come and see if they happened to have the three hours and fifteen minutes available. In most cases, there was a character who was clearly a Mac stand-in, either played by me or someone who reminded me of me, and whatever the plot, his neuroses were front and center.
But – and here’s a super-important point – it wasn’t just me I was putting out there. I hungrily consumed the conversations and personalities around me, and regularly put characters in my plays based on people I knew, delivering lines that were verbatim things that friends and acquaintances said to me in real life. It got to be a running joke around me: if I was hanging out with a bunch of people at a party or wherever and someone said something striking or silly or revealing, everyone would point at me and say, “Look at Mac’s face! He’s totally gonna put that in a play!” At the end of my junior year, a guy I knew came up to me and cited a line I’d put in my play that year – a sentence he’d said to me while piss-drunk the year before – and told me that watching an actor saying it while playing a buffoonish character made him feel silly.
For whatever reason, this did not give me pause. I continued writing in this super-confessional-exhibitionist style well after moving to New York. And here’s the problem with that: New York doesn’t give a crap about you. It’s one thing, in your early twenties in a tight college setting to use a play as rickety scaffolding to explore your own feelings and sexuality and grind your axes – ‘cause that’s kind of what everyone’s doing in different ways at the onset of adulthood – but when you relocate to a much larger community where you’re nobody and a zillion plays are running every night, you better have a lot more to offer then how-you-felt-after-that-girl-totally-didn’t-understand-you-that-time.
After a couple of attempts to stretch my college writing format into my post-college life were met with earth-shattering indifference, I retrenched. Starting writing short plays, ten-, twenty-minute pieces. Started experimented with writing in the genres I grew up loving. Banned the Mac stand-in character from my dramatis personae. And in the process, rediscovered my love of pure storytelling, and made my plays a shitload more watchable. And in the process, a shift took place in my head in terms of how I think overall about playwriting. Before, I thought playwriting was primarily a form of self-expression. Now, I believe that playwriting is primarily an opportunity to entertain others.
Not that the personal has no place in my playwriting. If it’s me writing the play, that shit’s gonna be in there, like it or not. It’s just that I’ve relegated it to the realm of the accidental. In my play Advance Man, the Abbie character, a 14-year-old-boy who’s particularly good at drawing portraits, shows his sister his new drawing of a monster and explains:
This is what I wanna do from now on: other people’s monsters. I don’t wanna look that hard at myself anymore, I hate it. So I tried other people’s faces, but when I do that I see stuff that reminds me of myself, and I hate that too. But this, this is perfect. Other people’s monsters. Thisis what’s going to be my life.
When Jordana was rehearsing that bit with David Rosenblatt in rehearsal in December 2011, Sean leaned over to me and said, “Dude, that is totally you talking about yourself.” And I’m pretty sure he had me dead-to-rights, but the point is I wasn’t thinking about myself at all as I wrote those lines. I was thinking about Abbie. That, for me, is the goal.
Because there’s one big part of this I haven’t covered yet, one that hearkens back to the poor guy at UNC who told me his depiction in my play made him feel silly: see, a few years ago I met the person I want to spend the entire rest of my life with. She and I married in 2010. This brings up what is for me by far the most important issue when thinking about “personal” playwriting: my personal life is no longer mine to share. I’m not deciding for myself anymore to invade or not to invade my own privacy. My privacy is also Sandy’s privacy. And what’s between me and Sandy is astronomically too important to put in a play.
So I’ve made some rules for myself. I never base a character directly on someone I know. I blend multiple people (plus a bunch of fictional aspects out of my head) into hopefully unrecognizable cocktails. I try never to put a sentence I actually heard into a character’s mouth as dialogue. (This is tricky, ‘cause you can do this without knowing you’re doing it.) And I never include autobiographical incidents in my plays.
So what does that mean when I sit down to write a play like Ligature Marks? When I’ve made the decision that, for the first time in many, many years, I will be writing a personal play? Well, first I separate “personal” from “autobiographical.” They don’t have to mean the same thing. I don’t want you to be able to watch my play and know anything about my private life. So I kind of invented this process for myself – well, invented I’m sure is bullshit, I’m sure every single writer does this – where I take the fears, traumas, hopes, desires, and cravings that real life inspired me over a certain set of years in the past and then boil them down to their essence – the feelings themselves – and then rebuild fictional edifices on top of them using metaphors, symbols, and good old fashioned plot-structure. Ligature Marks isn’t about anything that really happened to me, or about any actual people I know, but it does concern deeply intimate stuff about me that is heavily reconfigured into new shapes and forces that trigger the same feelings without resembling their non-fictional forbears in any way.
There’s no way to sleuth your way through Ligature Marks back to Mac, and that’s the way I like it. There were some things that I wanted, very badly, to say. But I wanted to protect myself in the process. Because it’s personal.