Category Archives: writing characters

Instant Play Mix

Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times this morning that one of America’s first priorities this year should be seriously addressing mental illness because it affects everybody to some extent, and we won’t talk about it openly. A noble premise, certainly.

But, when he’s talking about how it touches all of us, he offers this paragraph:

“A parent with depression. A lover who is bipolar. A child with an eating disorder. A brother who returned from war with P.T.S.D. A sister who is suicidal.”

And, honestly, no disrespect intended, I thought: there it is–the modern American play. Just add a catalyst. They buy a dog–a comedy. They lose their house–a drama. Or, on the Pattersonian stage, they develop shape-shifting abilities. Which is why my plays get called weird.


The Actors in My Head

I’m occasionally asked what else I do in theatre—as if writing and producing plays isn’t enough. More specifically, people want to know if I act. No. I do not. And there should be many, many people grateful for this decision. I have directed and did okay, but I’d much rather leave that work to people who are trained, capable, and actually enjoy having everyone entrust their artistic integrity in their care. But I do not, should not, could not act. Not with a cat, in a hat, or in a black box.

There are, however, a whole troupe of actors living in my head, and they come out regularly (and under scale) when I write. That is, when I’m writing a play, I not only see a stage in my head, but I see actors playing the parts, and I feel like I’m all those actors playing those parts, and, when it’s going very well, the difference between actor and character and myself disappears; so that I’m actually the people in the play experiencing the events in the play as though they’re real. This is called putting your borderline personality disorder to work.

But it can whack you once in awhile. In my play “Waiting on Sean Flynn,” there’s a harrowing scene that still freaks me out when I read it or see it performed where one character nearly gets shot in the head and then reacts afterwards with stunningly savage violence. I remember writing it in a very nice coffeehouse with tasteful art on the walls and windows looking out on a perfect summer’s evening, with all the pretty, happy people walking by, flirting and showing their very attractive flesh. And there I was hunched over a notebook, probably with my eyes locked in a thousand-yard stare, hunkered down on a hot LZ (landing zone) and jamming a .45 into the mouth of a Vietnamese soldier who’d just been holding the same gun to my head seconds before. No wonder I’ll occasionally look up from writing to see someone watching me fearfully; without knowing it, I’ve been glowering at them like Billy Bob Thornton in “Slingblade.” “I’ll have another espresso, uh-huh.”

After writing that scene, I was sweating and feeling like I couldn’t get my breath. My cashier seemed to be yards away as I paid my bill and speaking from some place that muffled her voice. I walked the streets of Northwest Portland with this sense that all these people, laughing and having fun and trying to remember if they had tucked condoms in their purse or wallet, had absolutely no idea what had just happened, that I’d just nearly been killed, just nearly killed someone, and that maybe I wasn’t entirely—heh heh—in my right mind. I spent the next couple hours sitting alone on my front porch and listening to The Doors.

“Waiting on Sean Flynn” had a reading in L.A. earlier this year, and I heard back from the director that one actor said he’d “give his right nut” to play that role. Oh, dear actors: be careful what you wish for.