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What I Needed Someone to Tell Me about Playwriting (in the age of 45)

Stages of Resistance
Headshot of Zakkiyah Alexander

This piece is part of a blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich, called "Stages of Resistance." The series welcomes reflections on themes related to making work for live performance in political and aesthetic resistance to forms and systems that oppress human rights and censor or severely limit freedom of expression. We are in increasingly hostile, volatile times around the world, and this salon hopes to serve as a space for considered, thoughtful, polemical articulations of practice and theory on the subject of resistance, the multiple meanings of political art, and the ways in which progressive, wholistic cultural change may be instigated through artworks. Stay tuned for more!

So, the world is going mad, how can I possibly be a playwright? How can I spend time writing theater when there are so many practical things I could do…like run for political office, or march, or – join the military. I should be a civil servant, or at least civil disobedience, or…what?

There must be some better way to contribute positively to society that doesn’t come in script form. But, seriously, what do you do when you realize we are living in a political hell and you have devoted your life, er, your career to theater? Um…

Do not panic. Or, at least panic about the big things, like healthcare. Like the environment. Like calling a Congressman. Sure, there is lots to panic about, and you should be practical in your panic if it’s possible. Also, feel free to go numb. Try sticking your head in the sand. And, crying. Tears make sense, there’s a lot that we’ve lost. Okay, feel better? No. Well then, back to writing…

Here’s the thing: theater has the ability to start a conversation. It has the ability to start a riot. It can make people lose their shit or consider an entirely different perspective. But, first we need to write those plays and carry on in the face of adversary. But, then there’s the writer’s block. How can we choose what to write when there’s so much to write about? How can you even figure out the necessary stories you believe need to be told, when there is so much that needs to be said? How can we sort through twitter and the think pieces to come close to something theatrical that can still be consumed and possibly enjoyed on the stage? How can we write when we’re so bummed out and stretched so thin?

The truth is it’s hard. But, if you’re reading this, you’re already a writer, and that’s already hard. Now is the time to get focused. Seriously. You are headed towards something bigger than your normal 90 pager. Block out the white noise we’re constantly living in. Zoom in on the issues that make you itchy. Find the characters, find the relationships, find the humor. Do research if you have to. If possible lose yourself in research, in imagery, in music. Root down. This will be difficult, but this isn’t any ordinary play. This is about writing when you might want to be marching. The thing is, we fight in different ways. We’re writing the stories that will implicate and illuminate things in fifteen, twenty, even one hundred years. We are the living historians, we speak truth from character, we locate the humanity where there seemingly isn’t any. Figure out the questions you want to raise and the best way to illuminate them. How can we (the audience) see the world the way you do? Who are the people best suited to tell your story? Begin to make those people specific, make them real. Find metaphor, find poetry, find the tangible things that can bring your questions, your anger, your frustrations to light.

Okay, you’re still stuck. It seems too big of a notion. Too unproduceable (the biggest new play ‘cock’ blocker). It’s too unwieldy, too problematic. Your instinct is to turn the ship around and maybe bust out an older script from better days. But, do not run away. And you might want to run far away. You will want to question yourself, your work, your privilege, your point of access. Do all of those things, but stay with the script.

What’s next? Write the play. Write the problematic, story oriented script that may not be produced (while you’re alive). The play that may not make your agent happy. The imperfect, crazy play that deals with where we are and how we got here. Work on the second or third draft. Fall in love with the play, the play that needs to be told, the play that only you are the right person to draft. And, why? Because, that’s the work. And, the work isn’t easily produced by Lincoln Center. The work isn’t a slam dunk that will make many white cis-male artistic directors comfortable, because that’s not your job. You write because you have a point of view. You write because you have something to say. You write because it’s what you do, and what you’ll come back to time and time again. You write because you’re a playwright and you picked this life, and you have something to say. So, say it. Loudly. Because, that’s why you’re here.

Remember that writing a play is a revolutionary action. It’s an act of protest/defiance, or can be. And, playwrights, we need your voice now more than ever.