June 9, 2009

Breakthrough (aka All About My Grandmother)

One of the struggles I've had with my play so far is making Orixa interesting. In a movement-based piece, you can't rely on witticisms and other verbal tricks. It's hard to convey quirkiness in a play filled with spirits, demons, ghosts, and other beings.

At first, I was kicking and screaming against the idea that my character had to want something, had to be a personality at all.

But as I was working on the play, I had a revelation. It started as I was sitting in the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble reading Jeffrey Sweet's The Dramatist's Toolkit. In it, he cautioned against making characters too autobiographical. "Change it up!" he says, in so many words. "A different age, different gender, different social class - find at least one way to make the character not like you!"

I resisted the notion at first, for several reasons. First of all, as each play is my own creation, there's nothing in it that's truly outside of me. And even when you do reach a point beyond yourself, you're still the starting point. Second of all, the idea sort of struck me as coming from a privileged perspective. It's easy enough to apply when you're dealing with a demographic that dominates today's theater landscape - but when it comes to authors whose voices are typically marginalized, it's a little bit harder to justify taking that advice full-stop.

But my resistance faltered as I was eating breakfast today and I suddenly - like out of the blue - thought about my grandmother. And I had so many questions! What was Grandma like? Not the Grandma I grew up with, but the one who raised my mother, aunt, and uncles? How did she see and interact with the world? These questions hounded me so much that I called Mom on her job to ask them.

The conversation was revealing in itself, but now I've solved my main problem with this play: I didn't know anything about my main character. As a result, everything seemed generic and nebulous. While what I had was imaginative and potentially very interesting, there was no visceral, emotional connection to it because it wasn't rooted in something concrete for me. So everything I wrote felt bland, trite, and meaningless.

All the feelings surrounding my relationship with Grandma - the joy of recognition, the sorrow at parting, the regret for things unsaid, the yearning to reestablish a connection, the love that needs no words, the humbling respect for a remarkable human being - suddenly surged and bubbled up to the surface, and it's so overwhelming I'm almost crying.

I now know who Orixa is. And her name is/was - Linda Ray Thacker.

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