A Time To Work Vs. A Time Not To Work (and how to know the difference)

August 26, 2016

 

Entry Number #1 of Countdown to the Classical Theatre of Harlem Production of FIT FOR A QUEEN

 

There is something terrifying about workshopping a play with a great cast act right before you are slated to go into production. 

 

You’re not in production with a preview audience who have already bought tickets  to see the show your team hasn’t made yet. 

The adrenaline hasn’t kicked in.  

Hysteria must be kept in check (or at least somewhat properly disguised). 

You’re not allowed to let everything else in your life fall away (all the people who need you still have the right to act like they do). 

You’re not yet worried about how incoherent or pompous you might come off in preview press pieces and interviews (or bemoaning the fact that you are not – in fact – getting enough preview press pieces and interviews).

 

You’re just working.

With a group of truthtellers (also known as actors)

who are trained to make your text work and can,

until the moment they can’t,

because the text you have given them actually doesn’t work

and YOU have to figure out how to change it or cut it.

 

No problem, right?

 

But, see, here’s the thing that drives many playwrights to drink.

 

It’s easy to make everyone’s opinion more important than your own (especially when you’re working with so many artists you admire).

It’s easy to be rigid (to not have the vision to see when your vision might be off).

 

What’s not easy is to be able to trust and distrust your artistic instincts at the same time. 

 

To believe in your story while questioning if you’ve yet figured out how best to tell it. 

 

To be agile of mind, nimble of spirit, and open to answers to questions you didn’t know you should be asking.

 

Your instincts told you write that scene, that line, that joke, that character THAT way.

 

Artistic instincts are like the friend you always go to,

your best friend,

the person whose advice you depend upon.

 

Your best friend/instincts are no fool,

but they’re not always right.

 

This is a long-winded way of saying today I had a hard time trying to edit my text as I prepared for the first day of our New Dramatists workshop of FIT FOR THE QUEEN.

 

The play is about Hatshepsut, the first female pharaoh to reign in ancient Egypt.

What’s cool about her is that she didn’t say “call me queen and let me rule”

like Elizabeth I or European female monarchs.

 

This woman said, “Call me Pharaoh. I’m your king” and dressed in men’s clothing.

 

What’s uncool is hardly anyone knows her story. 

 

If she had succeeded in permanently overthrowing the patriarchal line in the most advanced civilization of the time, how might our world have been different? 

 

Maybe – for one – it would be a world where more people knew the names and stories of women like Hatshepsut. 

 

My Hatshepset is no sweetheart. The play is about how all humans behave badly when they feel their power is threatened, no matter what their gender or race.  You know, my usual fare.

 

There are scenes I knew I needed to rework.

I set up a little makeshift office in New Dramatists.

I bought coffee.

I called my circle of people who answer my calls and told them not to call me,

that I was busy writing.

But, I could not write.

 

So, I decided I wanted to go to the Met to see the Egyptian artifacts.  Because the universe is kind and I am New York this week, I actually could.  I chose to walk from Times Square to the Met – that how badly I didn’t want to return home to work.

 

Sometimes I think the only reason I write historical plays so much is that I can feel virtuous about doing research when I should be writing.

 

I convinced myself I had to look in the face of my pharaoh, Hatshepsut.

 

I need to say to her, “Hatshepsut!  Help an Arab Sister out!  Or rather – if we are being technical – help an Arab-American Sister out!  Will you guide my red pen as I edit?  Should your character behead someone in the first scene?  Or is that too much?”

 

Now, obviously, I can’t do that.

She’s been dead awhile (or so they say).

I decided to do the next best thing,

which was to check out some statues of her.

 

All the representations of Hatshepsut in the Met have a sort of smile.  Someone told me that was her thing.  Each pharaoh had a thing that gave their statues a “look.”  Hatshepsut’s look was that she was slightly smiling. 

 

I guess…

if you were a woman who figured out how to take over your country because you were the best person for the job,

but someone tried to smash and destroy every image of you that represented you as pharaoh within a few years of your death to reestablish the patriarchal lineage,

because that someone only wanted you to exist in statues that showed you as a wife or mother who was forever depicted as standing behind her father or husband,

yet someone else resurrected those broken statues and painstakingly and seamlessly reconstructed them so we could gaze at your image in fancy museums 3500 years later,

you would be smiling, too. 

 

I stood before a sphinx with Hatshepsut’s face on it.

 

I swear her smiling lips became to move and the voice of Hatshepsut came suddenly thundering out at me.  The guards in the Egyptian room at the Met rolled their eyes.  They hate it when neurotic playwrights come in and awake the dead with technical questions about their texts.   We are even worse than the young kids and not-so-young kids taking the selfies in Walk Like an Egyptian poses.

 

“Betty!” Hatshepsut’s voice cried out to me. “You need to chill.  You will have the answers to questions you don’t know you should be asking.  Just go home for now and relax until you meet your cast and watch Tamilla begin to work with them on this draft.”

 

Or not.

 

But, I did experience a little shift in my consciousness that made me feel I had heard a voice that wasn’t there.  That voice seemed to give me specific instructions that sound like suggestions.  It told me to go see another person’s play, stop worrying about my own, to wait to write until it felt right, to have faith, to know that statues can be reconstructed and stories resurrected, despite the efforts of those who did everything they could do to try to make them disappear.

 

So, that’s what I did.  When I finally sat with our brilliant team of collaborators to begin our workshop, I realized why I couldn’t write before.  I wasn’t supposed to write.  We, as a team, were going to shape this story together.

 

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