I write this from the road, where I’m touring the readings, workshops, short lists, cancelled productions, and award ceremonies of my unproduced play, A Map of Doubt and Rescue. I’ve been on the tour for five years. And I’m not alone out here. I see others on the circuit. We wave, we shrug, we hope. We press on.
But this isn’t a tale of woe. This isn’t a complaint. This is something else. Though not what I thought it would be. But what it has become – the new way of life in the life of a play. And I’m beginning to embrace the idea that the life of an unproduced play is still a life, albeit another kind than I envisioned or expected, but a lasting one, after all. After a successful run of my one-person play, My Left Breast, I was driven to populate my next play, Map, with a cast of 8, also playing multiple roles, which I thought was a nifty and inherently theatrical idea. I mean, I didn’t set out to do it. It was just something the play called for. What was I thinking! In all of these years, I never stopped working on it. I rewrote. Sometimes I overwrote. I wrongly wrote. I smote. But, along the way, some things were found. Map has taken me places. Places I might never have ventured. Or thought of as the destination. And these are my Field Notes.
I hold off doing the first reading as long as I can. It terrifies me. Whatever happens, it will break the spell of having just finished the next thing, the new play. But Tim Sanford, intrigued, persists and we break ground at Playwrights Horizon. Evan Yionoulis directs. The literary manager says let’s see if we can put this monster on its feet. People say it’s ambitious. Ambitious can mean you, the playwright, haven’t yet pulled off the magnificent thing you were trying to achieve. It can also mean the cast is too large, the canvas too sweeping, the narrative not linear enough. And sometimes it can mean someone actually does appreciate the scope of your effort. People say it’s confusing. People say it’s nearly a master work. Nearly. People say it takes their breath away. People say, but what’s it about in a sentence? Oskar Eustis, one of the great dramaturgs and true friend to the writer, finds the play haunting but frankly can’t offer the play to his “narrative hungry subscription audience” Still, he does offer to pay my way to come and spend a couple of days with his Trinity Rep company working on a new draft. I take him up on it.
New York Stage and Film gives Map a workshop. A producer, giddy with praise at intermission, never speaks to me again after Act Two.
Ensemble Theater of Cincinnati schedules a production. I ask Leigh Silverman to direct. We have flown twice to the theater and have reached final casting. After 9/11, the theater is in financial woes and it is cancelled. Map wins the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Two young producers want to do an Off-Broadway run in New York. I like them. They have a plan. They hope I won’t give the option to anyone else while we’re negotiating. Of course, I won’t. We are down to choosing venues. When one pulls out unceremoniously, the other has no choice but to follow. Blanka Zizka directs a reading at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. Blanka believes in the play. Her co-artistic director doesn’t. The literary manager says this play will be taught in schools someday! It is short-listed by The Hampstead in London, Philadelphia Stage Company, Cleveland Public Theater. If only there were a second space. If only we had the money. And I suppose, if only they liked my play more than the ones they ultimately chose. Map is my submission for a Guggenheim. I’m awarded a fellowship. It wins the Pinter Prize for Drama. It’s chosen for the Ojai Playwrights Conference. A dream cast headed by Judith Light. And a director, Abigail Deser, who pushes me to my limits. We work for five days. And present it, script in hand, to an audience who gasps with recognition. This time, everyone speaks to me after the second act. Map is published by Tampa Press. In beautiful hardcover. Tony Kushner and Eve Easier write generous, gorgeous cover notes. I weep to hold it in my hands and smell the paper on which it’s printed. A lackluster reading at The Magic Theater. Boston Court is bowled over. We love the play, but can we have a reading. We read it in their new state-of-the-art theater in Pasadena. A lovely actress who played a young girl in my first reading is now old enough to play a mother in this one. Still waiting to hear. I revise. An up-and-coming young company in London writes. Can we premiere it? The money doesn’t come through.
Half the Ojai cast flies to New York on their own dime for a reading at New York Theater Workshop. When the actors walk into the rehearsal room, I know the play lives in them. During a meeting with the artistic staff a few days later, I learn that there is no way they can develop or produce the play since they are overcommitted for the next three years with obligations to their own “usual suspects” which they can’t even fulfill. But, they give me notes.
I revise. An actor emails: “I don’t know what to do without the play in my head. Map has been my Bible this whole year.” I don’t know what to do without it either. So, why beat a dead horse? I’ve closed my mind, if not my heart, to it so many times. We rarely send the play out as a regular submission anymore. But people come upon it, somehow. And each discovery throws open the possibility and puts it all in process again. Producers may tell you a reading isn’t an audition for a season’s slot, but isn’t it, really? Or if not, what is it? Surely, as the model for development, it needs rethinking. It’s hard to resist a chance at a place to work. It’s difficult to turn down a reading if that’s the only route to a potential home even though your instincts say it may not be the best approach for your particular play.
I don’t know why Map still hasn’t been done. In some cases maybe I didn’t persist. I wasn’t enough of a pain in the ass. I didn’t go back to a theater as I could have with revisions. Maybe the readings, hard to pull off with so many actors in changing roles and two hours of rehearsal, highlighted the play’s problems or flaws. Maybe the play just has too many problems or flaws. I don’t know. But, by now, enough people carry it in their hearts and minds to ease my pain over the question. And then, of course – you never know.
These are terrible times. But, should we be less ambitious for our work? Or more so? I finish a new play, Sweeping the Nation. And the next tour begins. I wish for my new play all the unexpected, stunning encounters Map has known, but hope it wends its way more swiftly to its home.