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From Bill – The Most Important Thing in the Room

August 20, 2014


So, a question. You see the photo above – Thermos, food, computer, boxes of various levels to stand on or put stuff on, paper and chairs, etc. If you were writing a play, what do you think is the most useful thing in the room, the most important?

Touchstone Associate and Moravian College professor Christopher Shorr and I are charged with writing the new play for the Journey from the East project, part II. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong, but it’s work! It’s a battle against the empty page, and in the photo you can see how we’ve gathered our “weapons”. Let’s take a look, and you tell me what you think:

1) A wall you can hang stuff on to make notes. See all the scribbles? Those are basic values we want to show up in the play, dualities between East and West, characters and transformations they might go through, and then simple action, plot, scenario. The play is being informed by an interesting “coincidence” –  the original Journey to the West was published about 1599, the same year that scholars think Shakespeare’s Hamlet was produced. Some scholars believe that a few years after these performances, elements of Hamlet found their way into the episodic tale of the Monkey King, in a few chapters that were inserted into the Journey to the West novel. From these chapters, we are fashioning a new theatrical extravaganza that brings East and West together in the same way, some believe, 400 years ago, Hamlet and The Monkey King crossed paths.

2) A computer. It’s remarkable how we ever got by without internet search only a decade or so ago. And these days, all the writing is in the cloud, so designers, director, and interested parties can see it come to life and comment in real time. Collaboration is becoming ever more possible and desirable.

3) Food. I’m a eat-while-I-work kinda guy. I don’t really stop for meals. And never underestimate the power of a large bag of fresh cherries to keep the ideas rolling on.

4) Chairs to rest our butts. Writing sessions usually go four hours, and we have to pace ourselves.

5) A large room, so we can get up and wander around, act things out. It’s so wonderful watching Christopher pretend to be the Monkey King, or Pigsy, or The President (Roy). A lot of writing is not just putting down lines, dialogue – it’s imagining the physicality of a piece and how that informs the writing. Sequences might be in a dream, and then we’d be writing non-verbal action. Do we imagine it with mask or puppets? What’s the rhythm of this or that moment? All this is acted out in space. And all this is proposed to our director and team of designers, composers, for them to then adjust as they see fit. Still, we have to see/feel how it’d work.

6) A large stick. Always useful to lean on, wave around when your idea isn’t really very strong (but it feels stronger if you’re pointing a big stick) or when your partner is insisting on having his own way. And…

7) A great partner, the terrific collaborator, Christopher Shorr. Generally speaking I don’t find co-writing to be much fun, not if the stakes are high – too many communication issues, struggles over the feel of a scene or a vision for where the play is going. I need to be left alone to allow ideas to make it to their feet before sharing with someone else; but the work with Christopher (so far, I must quickly add) has been such a delight. Christopher is a terrific and patient listener. He’s also damn smart, and that makes for a great partner. A lot of the work in this play is just the exhausting effort of holding all the relevant pieces together in your head while you figure out what to do next – which ain’t easy. Chinese characters that have alternate dream versions of themselves and alternate Western versions of themselves. Two plot lines that are running simultaneously. Stylistic sophistications that require understanding Western naturalism vs. Asian folk styles and how those might tastefully come together or play off of each other.

When working on my own, I often hit “quiet spots” where I don’t know what to do next, but virtually never when working with Christopher. I might run through a riff of actions, ideas, and as soon as I pause for a breath, he takes the ball and runs with it down the field. Often we’re looking at three or more different possible solutions to a particular problem. And then, we have to decide which route we’ll take. In that, Christopher’s great about pointing out what he feels are weak spots in ideas I’ve proposed without making me feel like an idiot, and he’s great at taking my clumsy, insensitive criticism without being offended. That’s a great partner. But what touches me the most is when he’s gone down a route towards a lovely idea he’s enamored of, and I have little more than an intimation of wanting to do something else; he pulls back and listens, even gets enthusiastic, until my (and I hesitate to use the word “my”) idea is fully expressed and we can properly compare ideas. That’s a great partner.

So, what do you think?

Right. Absolutely. The most important thing in the room: a great partner. Mr. Christopher Shorr.

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