New York City.
When I take stock of all the places I’ve traveled to this past year and the reasons that brought me there, I am endlessly thankful that it’s because of my playwriting. But then I get weird and lofty and start thinking a lot about TIME, PLACE and SETTING.
I start thinking about this notion of “home”.
I start thinking about my writing and how the physical environment, the place, is at once vital to the story, but also almost totally removed from my immediate experience.
I start thinking about why?
One of the major elements of a play is setting, or where the play is taking place. This element is essential in establishing the why, who, what, when, and where. A play about an indigenous African culture and the colonization of their tribe and home is going to be a drastically different play than one that features the concerns of an Upper-Class, White family living amidst family lies and love in a privileged neighborhood in Cape Cod. All because of place. Because of home.
Time: The snowfalls of July-August.
- The Dog(run) Diaries
I was raised in a small town in Ohio. It was genre-abiding Midwestern living with slow-stride warm summers and lake-effect cold winters. But when my father passed away, we moved north to Cleveland and it was here, in this new cultural mecca, that I began write plays seriously. It was the early 2000’s, my family had just experienced a supreme loss, September 11th had devastated the country, the Second Bush was in office (also devastating to the country), my family ate macaroni and cheese and hot dogs a few nights a week because we were dirt poor, and my mind was turning towards college. To embody these elements, things that felt so unreal to me at the time, I chose to theatricalize my fear, my understanding of loss, my confusion, through a massive blizzard that inexplicably occurs during the summers months, a time that is usually associated with the warmth, growth, relaxation, and comfort of the Midwestern sun. I was establishing time and place that was at once familiar and personal but distant and theatrical. My play, The Dog(run) Diaries, is made-up of people and situations that are heavily inspired by my experiences of growing up in the Midwest. Yet, as the above setting/time show, I chose not to set it specifically in Cleveland. Instead, I place my characters in a middle class neighborhood during a summer blizzard. Again, though informed by my past life, my “homeland”, my experiences, there’s nothing that’s specifically Ohio. Not specifically Cleveland. Not specifically 2012.
It may have been any –or all of these things that propelled me into writing plays, but this wasn’t something I was conscious of at the time. And to this day, though Cleveland itself inspired me in some intense ways, none of my plays take place in that crazy-beautiful, economically struggling, artistically blessed city whose river caught on fire.
Crying for Lions
My new play, Crying for Lions, was written during my time with Tennessee Repertory Theatre in Nashville, TN under their Ingram New Works Lab. The play utilizes a heavily invasive natural landscape to externalize the character’s fears, desires, and insecurities. Their house, secluded in a dense forest, becomes overrun with weeds, trees, and plants. A large, stalking Mountain Lion stealthily appears/disappears and has desires to feast upon their new baby. By experiencing the drive to Nashville as a beautiful scenic route, full of highways lined with tall rock formations, beautiful varieties of trees and animals, and on nice days, endless sun bouncing off every possible surface, I began thinking about the ways natural environments, especially isolated ones, can influence human behavior. But Crying for Lions doesn’t specifically take place in Tennessee. And it doesn’t specifically take place in 2012. It takes place Now. Whenever that may be, in a secluded cabin east of the Rocky Mountains.
All of my plays continue in this way. They feature variations of the people I’ve met in my life inhabiting variations of places I’ve been to. Why the ambiguity of time and place? Is there some sort of disconnect within me that will not allow me to write a play that is specifically set in the now and in the city I was raised in? I’m not attempting to be elusive or exceptionally original in these declarations of time and place, but when I begin to write a play, some things tend to figure themselves out. People and places emerge out of the ether and sometimes it feels wrong to shake that up. I trust my instincts. And so far, I’ve not felt the need to craft a play that takes place in Cleveland, 2012. But why?
I look at so many of my incredibly talented playwright peers and I see a trend in writing that exists in ways opposite than what I’ve just described. So many incredible writers list the settings of their plays IN their home cities, during the years they were growing up. Or list setting as their home state, influenced by their very specific experience.
I think this is awesome.
I admire these writers so much; writers who come from a place and a time and want to write about it.
Their work pops.
Their work drives.
Their work seems to soar.
So much poetry is contained in time, setting, and place and when writers access this poetry in a way that presents something compelling and theatrical AND indicative of their personal experience with place and home, something special happens. My favorite recent example comes from fellow 2012 Emerging Writer’s Group member A-Lan Holt’s stunning, shocking, play 8BALL. She has the beginning pages of the script tell us this about the setting and time:
Where do we come from?
How has that informed us as writers, as artists, as people?
As I continue to grow and develop as a writer, influenced by incredible friends and artists that come into my life and profoundly touch me in ways, I am striving to answer these questions. And further, to integrate them into my writing.
Do our voices, our plays, lack a certain dynamic edge if we’re not writing specifically of our time and of our setting?
Andrew’s play, CRYING FOR LIONS, is currently being developed by Tennessee Repertory Theatre’s Ingram’s New Works Lab under the mentorship of Steven Dietz and will have staged readings on June 1st and June 3rd. For more info: http://www.tennesseerep.org/
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.