An Introduction to the Process
This semester brought with it a vast series of questions, all a part of a greater exploration into the world of artistic and theatrical production, interaction, and understanding. What began as a rather elemental inquiry into these topics developed into a wonderfully layered and educational aesthetic and humanistic experience. The inciting question was, on the surface, wholly simplistic; and yet it would ultimately prove to be immensely complicated, uniquely gratifying, and perhaps unanswerable, at least in an entirely conclusive way. My question was this: How does one go about staging a play? Or, more precisely, a play which one has only just recently finished writing; one which is still young and untested on stage; one which is still not entirely clear even to you, the playwright; one which has not been proved as a valid, worthwhile piece of art just yet. How exactly is this done?
Among the questions which were spawned from this initial query were a number which concerned the play itself. First of all, when is a play complete? Is it a completed work of art simply by having been written? Does it have a life of its own or must it be realized on a stage before life has truly been breathed into it? How will this play in particular translate on a stage? Will it work? Additionally, there were questions about the process. How do you collaborate with a director like Ryan Hemphill? How do you choose your cast? How do you know if you’ve chosen correctly? What exactly is your role in the rehearsal process? In the production process? In the decision making process? Whose suggestions do you listen to and whose don’t you? Do you change the play? If so, how much change do you make? How do you know if you’ve changed too much? And so on down the line of a practically never-ending string of questions and sub-questions, all of which I tried, to the best of my ability, to answer during the course of several months. Because of, and perhaps in spite of, my pursuit of the answers to those questions, at the end of those several months I saw my work brought to life on stage.
I had called the play Artless Charlie. This was in an attempt to both depict a sort of innocence and simplicity in the plight of the play’s protagonist, and also to illustrate one of the major themes which developed in the play – the notion of one man’s loss of, and subsequent search for, meaning in his life, in the form of creative expression. The story centers around a young man and his struggles to cope with the inexplicable loss of his musical abilities. It explores his ability, or perhaps inability, to relate to the people in his life – his mother, his best friend, his girlfriend, who has begun to turn to another man, and even his deceased father. Throughout the play, we see the young man, Charlie, try to maintain order and communication in his life after his main outlet for those things, his own piano playing, has disappeared. Charlie’s descent into an alternate world of dream and self-loathing culminates in an understanding, possibly too late, that in mourning the loss of an important element in his life, he has allowed himself to neglect everything else important.
As my exploration progressed this semester, I found the themes in the play beginning to reflect themselves more and more in my own life and art. Charlie’s search for art and beauty, his distress at not being able to communicate himself effectively, his strains to keep a clear line between reality and fantasy, all seemed to become my own. Or, perhaps, vice versa. I believe there is an inherently reflexive quality in the process of staging your own work, and with a piece which focuses so heavily upon artistic expression, that reflexivity is all the more present.
The reflection of the play’s themes in my own life is apparent even now, as I try to formulate and organize my thoughts on the process I’ve gone through. In Act One Scene Five (or Act One Scene Six as it now exists), the character of Charlie talks about the sort of creative block he has been experiencing. He says that he’ll stare at the keys of his piano, vividly hearing a song in his head that he simply cannot translate out loud, no matter how hard he tries. “I can’t play it,” he says, “so I just sit there and hear it, you know? And the next thing I know, hours have passed, a whole night’s gone by, with me just sitting there, staring.” Charlie’s condition is very much a reflection of what I often encountered while trying to write this play. Additionally, I find myself now in a struggle to articulate my experiences and observations over the past several months, so that I can make it clear what steps led up to the final presentation of the work. I can see and hear the ideas clearly in my head, but so far I don’t seem to have the tools to translate them onto the page.
At another point in Artless Charlie, Grace tells Charlie that maybe he just needs a break away from his work for a while. Sometimes the thoughts get so crowded and jumbled up in your head, you’re no longer able to view them with any kind of clarity or insight. I realized this was true after I finished the first draft, and decided to take a nice hiatus from the piece, a period of incubation. In my efforts to sort out and make sense of this process, perhaps it would be best to start right there.