Photo by Brian Thorstenson
[ID: Taken looking down, a person wears a pair of blue Converse high-tops and light blue pants. In the upper-right corner, there are two brown leaves that have fallen off nearby trees onto the concrete of the Millbrae Caltrain station.]
I had been sitting with a question. What is a play? For a little over ten years writing plays was my main creative expression. I didn’t want to write another play. I wanted to start blank. Start with not knowing.
Every character wants something. It’s what I tell my beginning playwriting students. That’s the character’s action. Replace action with need. Replace with desire, with longing. Dante called action ‘a movement of the spirit.’ What was going to move my spirit? I didn’t know.
So I sat. I waited.
A set of stage directions:
A day? Two days?
A week? or three?
Yes. Try a year.
The phone rings.
Or maybe an email?
The first invitation. It was Erin Mei-Ling Stuart. ‘I’m working on a new project. Would you consider writing for it? Could we meet for coffee to discuss?’ Yes! An easy yes. An immediate yes. A movement of the spirit.
We met at a high table in the Church Street Café. I had worked with Erin when she was dancing with Stephen Pelton Dance Theater. I had seen the work of her own company EmSpace. I was a fan. Still am. Only more so. Erin had the characters, the structure, and the music for a new piece called Whether to Weather. She had, what a playwright would call, ‘the given circumstances.’ Two gay couples. One a whirlwind romance, the other a long term relationship, unraveling. The whirlwind would be danced, the unraveling would be text and movement.
So I began again. So we began.
A first meeting, around Erin’s kitchen table, with Wiley Namen Straser and Soren Santos, the performers who would be unraveling. To hear some words out loud. To see what stuck. To put some language in motion. I had taken a different approach from my normal process: start with some characters, a setting, and write the play chronologically from beginning to end.
The first section was ‘Drought’ and I brought in five separate ‘Scenes from a Drought.’ One about their neighbors’ lush yard, another with silly word play. ‘The brick doesn’t go back into the bucket because the bucket goes into the bathtubshower.’ One about the focal rock in a rock garden. I thought of them as language phrases, the same way I had seen dancers make phrases when generating material. Phrases to be used, or discarded. Rearranged or recomposed. It was a liberating way to begin, the freedom of non-attachment. We read the scenes. We talked. Erin suggested some edits (she is to this day one of the best editors of my work), then she said ‘What if we put three of them together as the first scene?’ What? Ok. Ah, yes, yes that really works. Who knew? And so I continued. So we continued.
I brought in language phrases, Wiley and Soren read them, Erin said yes, no, maybe. I’d return to my desk to rewrite/reshape after hearing them in rehearsal, after seeing the language moving. Erin thought of Whether to Weather as a play; I thought of it as dance theater. We navigated the space between. I brought in: ‘Raise my rain hand, swoon sun side’ and Wiley rose and swooned. I brought in an exit that was an ellipsis:
The horizon line of possibility, he says. He says: It’s gone.
S reaches back, but doesn’t find W.
The first time we tried it in rehearsal I turned to Erin: ‘That was pretty good, huh’ ‘Yeah, but he can play the ellipsis harder.’ She was right. Wiley could. And did. I brought in:
He was an open mouth target, a… he was … he… our … mine. He said: Lawn gone.
I watched Erin and Soren tackle each ellipsis, comma, semi-colon, period. In performance you could feel Soren find his way through those sentences. Punctuation is a detail, like the tilt of the head, or an arm circle, a hip ajar. This in between space we were navigating, between a play and a dance, heightened and highlighted the language and the punctuation. Working with Erin on Whether to Weather was the first time I experienced an intersection between my plays and my poems. Between my words and punctuation and how they made bodies move.
‘A play is a poem standing up.’
Frederico Garcia Lorca
A second invitation. From Rowena Richie. ‘Wanna devise a new piece with me, Christy Funsch, and Chris Black?’ An easy yes, immediate. As with Erin, three artists who I had known for a long time, had worked with before, or had seen their work. I was a fan. Still am. Only more so. We met off and on over the course of two years. Sometimes in a living room, sometimes in a studio. Once in the ‘community room’ of The Sports Basement, which wasn’t more than a sorta small balcony. We started with a quote from V (formerly Eve Ensler) from an episode of Krista Tippet’s On Being podcast.
‘I think I’m gonna go back to capitalism because I think what is engineered is longing. It is engineered longing and desire in us for what can be in the future, you know.’
V (formerly Eve Ensler)
Longing. Desire. Action. We all brought in text, we all created movement (more than slightly terrifying for me being in the room with Chris, Rowena, and Christy!) We strung material together, tried it out, then met in a circle. No one ever said, as I do with my students, circle up, we just naturally put ourselves in that configuration.
‘Joining together in this way is a symbol of unity, for a circle has no beginning or end; all the points are equally significant.’
Anna Halprin from Planetary Dance.
We’d review the string. Yes, No, Maybe. A problem? challenge? bumpy spot? would appear. We circled. Christy would offer the start of an answer, I’d add another thought, then Chris, then Rowena, not always in that order, but always a turn around the circle. By the time the turn was completed (a pirouette?) we had figured out the next step forward, answered the question, or discovered a new question. We found a title: Dearly Gathered. Through the multi-year process Rowena kept us on track by keeping the piece ‘open’ as long as possible. Our final rehearsal was on a Wednesday, two days before our Friday and Saturday performances. Rowena came with a new order. We circled. We talked through the new order. We said yes. We could do this because of the amount of time we’d spent together. We could do this because we trusted each other. We could do this because of the extent of the ‘open.’ There’s an idea you will find in many playwriting books: as soon as you put the first line down on the page, the play in your head, some idealized version of the play, starts to disappear. Partly true but, as with many ‘how-to’ ideas, this one has always struck me as restrictive as opposed to expansive. What if, instead, each new line, each new beat, kept opening the play? Now, with all of my work, I attempt to stay open as long as possible.
What is a play? What is this play? Circle up and change the string.
The third invitation. From Eric Garcia. ‘Detour is doing a site-specific piece in the Mission called Fugue. Come join us as one of the writers?’ Yes. Easy. Immediate. I was a fan. Still am. Even more so. I would be writing for four ‘guides’ who would be taking small groups of the audience on a walking tour through the Mission. Eric sent the routes for each of my guides. I walked the routes by myself, or with a couple of friends, looking for landmarks, for stopping spots. Looking for moments where my own memories collided with the route. Early in the devising process I walked the routes with Eric and my group of guides. Scott pointed out the back of a building where he used to live. Erin told me a story about a date at Radio Habana. Melissa brought her father’s camera. I added those moments into their monologues. I walked the routes during rehearsals. Arletta and I stopped on a small stoop and made revisions on the spot. In December I bundled up and joined each of the guides and walked the routes during performances. Fugue became a mediation of walking.
Walking. I love walking. Walking San Francisco is one of my favorite activities. I haven’t owned a car in over 30 years. I sold it because I felt disconnected to the city. I need to keep my feet on the ground. To wander, to be a flaneur, to understand what’s happening on this block or that street. And I walk when I’m stuck with a writing problem. Around the block, up to the Castro and back, to visit a friend. The problem almost always gets solved on one of these walks. The walking also prompts new work, a poem, a monologue, a new scene. Walking as a two-way street. Fugue gave me another chance to write walking, and write walking with a group who freely shared their stories. Language phrases, staying open, layering in other voices, walking writing.
The fourth invitation. From a group of five playwrights. ‘We’re going to produce one play by each member. Join us?’ Yes. Maybe not an emphatic yes, not because of the other playwrights – I was a fan. Still am. Even more so. – but from my own trepidation. Do I want to write another play?
I decided to revisit a piece, Wakefield, that I’d originally made with the wonderful folx at Central Works. I worked through the play chronologically but this time I tried to keep the piece open. I looked at scenes as phrases.. I investigated layering through sound, music, light, and movement. I always put my plays ‘up on the wall.’ A page for each scene with a scene title. When they are up on the wall I can ‘walk’ through the play, I can rearrange scenes, I can make notes. During the rewrite I found new material: ‘One Minute of 20 Sounds’, ‘A First Burst of Red’, ‘Twenty Years: A Science Vaudeville. ’
When I got to the final scene I wrote:
Twenty moves from the play.
Maybe they’re in chronological order.
Maybe they aren’t.
That is this: Let’s try this whole night again.
That is also this: What’s another version of tonight that we can make.
Whatever the order is, it ends with Henry in the doorway, in the same position he was at the beginning and Sophia standing.
This was a complete surprise. I know it came from my work with choreographers. It’s my favorite moment from my plays.
Wakefield is a ‘two-hander’, shorthand for a play with two characters. I played the title character and my friend Anne Darragh played his wife Sophia. I decided to follow the Sunday Matinees with a ‘wrecking,’ a process originated by Susan Rethorst. Dance Wrecking entails inviting colleagues to view your in-progress work, then granting them freedom to “wreck” it – rearrange, reorder and/or recast the piece from their own artistic perspective, and then show the resulting new piece. I had seen several wreckings. I wondered how it might work with a play. I asked Rowena and Chris to be the ‘wreckers.’ They took vastly different approaches, Rowena exploding moments, Chris having us do the whole play with only Sophia’s lines. I don’t think of Wakefield as a complete play unless I include the wrecked versions. The play itself worked with theme and variation, with repeat and revise. The two wrecked versions became a natural extension of the play’s structure while adding another layer of meaning.
The fifth invitation. Last year. Again from Eric and Detour. A new site-specific project, We Build Houses Here, join us as the writer? Easy immediate yes. In August we began workshops for a spring opening at the Oasis nightclub. Another adventure. What new idea will be added to the list, to the wall, this time?
I’ve hesitated attaching a label to the artists I’ve mentioned. They’re all hyphenated. They call themselves by many names: deviser, dancer, choreographer, theatre maker, dance film maker, drag queen, actor, mover. They’ve all provided a space where I can be a writer of many names: generator, transcriber, collider, collator, poet, playwright. They’ve taught me to navigate the spaces between, spaces where I now mostly reside, that feel like home.
While I was writing this I came across some scribbled notes stuck in a file folder. At the top of a yellow legal pad: Essay – working with dancers/choreographers. It was notes from a conversation I had with Erin. They’re mostly illegible, quick scribbles, or cryptic phrases like ‘place in the funnel.’ But one section struck me, one section where my cryptic scribbles made me remember our conversation. I was asking Erin what she thought about when she was constructing movement. What were the questions? The parameters? Was it about narrative? Was it about character? ‘Sometimes it’s just the pleasure zone, a movement that gives me pleasure, that hits a kind of beauty spot.’ How glorious is that? A reminder that one part of art making is creating these moments of pleasure, these beauty spots. A movement of the spirit. Yes indeed.
This article appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of In Dance.