On Spell: Creation and Influences
Spell started from some fragments in some notebooks and computer files. Someone was talking, and somehow I realized it was a woman named "Ann."
Ann said a few things here and there that I took down.
Someone was talking to Ann - I called him "Bill," just to give him a name at first, but I never figured that name would stick (and it didn't).
In one of the fragments, to my surprise, some witches appeared, and the word "spell" came to mind as a possible title for where this was goin g.
I finally put together one file of all the little fragments I had in different places that seemed to want to go together. It was a 4-page Word file called "SPELL" and this was what it said:
(fragments to be figured out and ordered later)
(light bulb scene)
Say we had a light bulb here . . .
Light bulb on stand shoots up out of the center of the table. ANN points her finger at it like a gun, “pulls the trigger,” and it clicks on.
. . . and it’s on. I can’t just look at that and deal with it as just a light bulb
(detailed light bulb explanation to come)
Not just light bulbs. Something that complex. Tables. This table. Who built it, where, what hands, what conditions. How did he or she feel? Did they have a cold? Who did they give that cold to, later that day after they made their piece of this thing?
I m in a diner, I go to put the sugar in my coffee from one of those sugar pourers, you know, the, the diner . . ?
(Demonstrating the “diner kind” of sugar dispenser with a pouring gesture. BILL nods.)
And who made that, that there in my hand? Not just that, that there’s a factory somewhere of people, lots of people, making these. And a place in that factory, maybe a factory of its own somewhere where they just make those little metal flaps at the top of the lid that the sugar comes through. Just that little piece of metal, and how many people did it take to make that, and who are they, and what are their lives around making these little pieces of metal. I picture them. I follow them home. I watch their TV shows . . . dinner . . . evening with the kids . . . maybe friends over . . .
It’s paralyzing. Not being able to just ignore it. Accept it. If that’s . . . You get what I mean?
Does that make things difficult?
Well, it makes it difficult to acquire money. If you know what I mean. Earn my keep.
What do you want to keep?
I hear voices . . .
Tell me about these voices.
No, I mean—
Don’t be afraid.
I’m not afraid, I just—
Stay a spell.
Stay what spell?
Spell occurs. Three witches. Silhouetted through back scrim wall.
(floor becomes ceiling – fabric – on pulleys)
(ANN gender switch, back and forth, unsure – ANDY, maybe?)
Sit a spell.
Spell it for me?
Are you good at spelling?
I thought I was an artist. I was always told I was an artist, so, hey, I’m an artist, right? Then I got to thinking I was just a craftsman. Woman. Craftswoman? Person? Crafter. Crafty? Then I decided I was somewhere in between, and what kind of place is that to be? After all.
(politeness/manners/chivalry part of monologue)
(being in the grey, between black and white, problems, advantages, disadvantages)
(things have moved on)
(bread and circuses)
(business scene with lots of machine sounds, images of money, bills, large. projected?)
(noir figures. violence. multiple beatings.)
Well, anything can happen in this place.
Do you mind?
I mind everything and nothing. All at the same time.
(drug, voices, insanity, dealing with it discussion)
Did you ever want to be normal?
Jesus, hell, no!
Well, no, maybe that’s not true. For a moment, time to time, very brief. Only when I was in discomfort and wanted comfort. Thought “normal” would have given it to me. Ease. An easement, of a kind.
Say this was—
(as a repeated opening to various scenes/thoughts)
(ANN and ANDY alternate imagining the lives of people in businesses/houses seen from a train – “Colonel F.G. Ward Pumping Station,” “Mr. Fox Tire Company,” “Sal’s Collision and Son,” “Action Box and Container;” a factory with cracked windows painted with green enamel; plains of burned-out, busted, and just plain left for dead vehicles; a back sunporch on a river, filled with stuff, over the windows and the screen door; two International Klein Blue doors stuck in the side of an old, shabby tin warehouse; a faded smiley face with “Always Happy To Serve You!” in italic on the yellowed sign of a building, no other signage visible.)
And that was a start. To continue, I decided that Ann should preferably be played by Moira Stone, so I had a voice in my head to write for specifically.
Other things began appearing in the fragments. Bombs and terrorist references started showing=2 0up. Then I realized that Ann was being questioned in a little grey room somewhere. Was it a doctor or a military interrogator questioning her?
Or maybe not, but she sees it as both.
Ann, as noted at the end of the notes above, now also had a male alter-ego, Andy. But wait, which one was the real one? Was one dreaming the other?
And maybe the interrogator was also one person split into two genders?
Possibilities continued to assert themselves.
As with most of my work for the last few years, this was becoming a piece about the United States of America, and was in some way a scream of pain about where things had gone and were going - badly - for this country that I love and feel so conflicted about. It was becoming an argument between my heart, which had begun to believe that violent revolution was the only way any positive change was going to happen here, and my head which is well aware that violent revolutions almost never work out in the long run. The argument in my ow n soul became the argument in this little chamber that is also the inside of Ann's head, with all the various voices and points of view trying to make themselves heard.
I rewatched some of my favorite movies - one of my favorite conceits, dramatically, is that the work is happening inside the head of the main character, and we are perceiving things as he/she interprets them emotionally/psychologically, not as they are "really" happening. So I watched Point Blank and Fight Club and Bad Timing and Detour and Myra Breckinridge and especially the David Lynch series of stories told inside the minds of people trying to run from the horrors of what they've done (or is being done to them) in the "real" world: Twin Peaks; Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., and INLAND EMPIRE (and one could arguably include Blue Velvet and Eraserhead in this form as well, maybe).
As mentioned last entry, I also watched Ken Russell's The Devils, whic h involves a person being interrogated for a crime that they do not consider a crime by a governmental organization, and which, as typical with Russell, goes wonderfully off the rails into stylization, almost abstraction.
The Devils, which began life as a stage play by John Whiting as well as a novel by Aldous Huxley, reminded me of another stage work transformed into film that interprets and twists some real historical facts (both, oddly enough, in France) into a new statement: The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade (aka Marat/Sade) by Peter Weiss, directed by Peter Brook. Watching this film, I felt even more of a kinship with certain aspects of what I was going for, in terms of political debate in a cell, with madness lurking.
Here is the entire film of Marat/Sade (if you really want to watch it all online, best to click on the title link I just gave and then click on "watch in high quality" as each of the ten chapters comes up):
As this was happening, I was assembling a cast that seemed right for this play (and, luckily, Moira could do it). I wound up with a fine one to start - and still, as not all of them made it to the performances themselves, due to getting jobs they couldn't refuse - a good one to finish.
I started work with the cast with just fragments like the ones above, and some music, figuring out the scenes and structure as I went. The cast members, who I was now writing the play for and around, influenced it greatly in their own persons, attitudes, backgrounds and voices. I wrote lines of dialogue and used tones of voice I wouldn't otherwise, just because I could HEAR the voices of the actual cast talking in ways I wouldn't always have going inside my head.
For example, I had wanted, just for sonic purposes, the witches to speak non-English languages. I was tired, even as someone who speaks only English fluently and French brokenly, in the tyranny of the English language all around me and in my shows, so I cast actresses who could speak other languages. Somewhat by chance, these actresses I cast were Cuban, Palestinian, and Chinese-American. Now, in a play about patriotism, nationalism, violent revolution and/or freedom fighting (depending on how you look at it), this suddenly became Something That Had To Be Dealt With - and quotes from Castro, Che, Arafat, and Mao suddenly wound up being juggled into the mix. Which was hard, and it took me a while to figure out how to do this without upending the play into endless didactic political discussions - in fact, it took almost up to the last minute, but I'm happy with where it went.
It was weird how and where ideas would come . . . I was still trying to figure out how to write the scenes between The Man - a representation of various men from Ann's past - and the three Fragments (aspects of Ann in her past personae), without much luck when I frustratedly went out to get Berit and I some dinner one night, and as I was turning my car from Avenue S right onto Ocean Parkway, the entire way to write the first Man/Fragment scene appeared in my head just during the time I had the steering wheel turned. One of the best "Eureka!" moments I've ever had as a writer, though at the same time worrying, for it seemed like the solution was to write a scene that - to people who knew Berit and I - might sound as if it were, uncomfortably, a transcribed argument between the two of us shoved into the play. It isn't, and we don't have discussions quite like this one, but you might think it's about us if you just know us a bit.
I'm not sure how strong you could say Berit's influence on this play is. One friend, after seeing it, said, "So, you wrote a play about someone who's a combination of you and Berit going insane." I was a little put off by that, even though Berit somewhat agreed with the assessment. I think it may be a bit reductive of what the show is. Still, while I did write all of it (except for the quotes), I don't think certain aspects of it could have come out of me without B's influence in my life, especially the gender/feminist sections.
At the same time, B is worried about putting the valid feminist arguments in the mouth of a violent madwoman, but then she shrugs her shoulders and sa ys that there's no way to be 100% PC on this stuff, so why try . . .
Moira Stone as Ann, Fred Backus as General Doctor Jane, and Alyssa Simon as Doctor General Jane (or is it the other way around?)
I was writing and fixing up until days before opening, but wound up with a script I'm pretty damned proud of. There are bits I'll probably go back, look at and rethink after the run, but it's my first original 2-act play, and it works pretty much as I want it to.
More notes tomorrow on influences for Everything Must Go, and maybe I'll get to Harry in Love as well . . .