I’ve been working seriously as a playwright for a little over a decade, and yet last week managed to provide me an entirely new experience as a theatre maker. I’ve written some pretty weird things over the last eleven years, but the weirdness always emerged from the traditional process – playwright sits alone in a room for months wrestling with words on a page, then bursts out of said room with a draft of a script and a desperate need for companionship, so she gives the script to actors, who are much more fun to hang out with than a blinking cursor on a blank computer screen, and those actors do all sorts of emotionally vulnerable things to bring the script to life. I know a lot of folks who have done, or even specialize, in devised work where the director, playwright, and actors all start in the same room together from the get-go, but had never been involved in a process like that myself. So I was both excited and slightly terrified when The New Colony in Chicago selected my idea for a punk rock musical about early 1800s intellectual and activist Margaret Fuller for one of their workshops this year.
One of the first things I noticed when I walked into the rehearsal room two Sundays ago was how much I tend to rely on my writing to make first impressions for me. Usually, going into a rehearsal process, the actors who have been cast have already been sent the script and have read at least some of it before meeting me. I hadn’t realized how much I counted on that to legitimize me as a “professional playwright” and someone worth collaborating with until I started shaking hands with actors who had no reason beyond a four page outline with character descriptions they’d been given to trust I knew what I was doing. Even worse, it turned out that some of what I’d written in that outline was actually inaccurate to the historical record. Even so, the amazing actors we’d gathered dug deeply into their characters despite my initially shoddy research, and unearthed some amazing, incredibly contemporary human moments from the this group of women mostly relegated to footnotes in history.
Ultimately, the New Colony’s method of having actors bring in their take on a character for the playwright and director to listen and respond to before writing a word of actual script is as perfect a match of process to material as I can imagine. The play (at this point at least) hinges on Margaret Fuller’s famous Boston Conversations of 1839 – 1844, one of the first intellectual discussion groups specifically for women in the country. Often during those sessions, a particular word or concept would come up as a sticking point and Margaret would task all the women present with writing a short essay defining or elaborating on that concept to present to the others at the next session. So the thought that we’re building this story through a method very similar to the one used in the meetings this story is about is very meaningful to me. And the material I’ve already gathered from these incredible folks on this journey with me has got my brain absolutely spinning with ideas and germinating songs. Can’t wait to keep going with this crew, and to see what we actually end up making together.