Thursday, February 17, 2011

Your Run of the Mill 15-minute Blog

Okay...the timer is set for fifteen minutes...I can do anything for fifteen minutes...I can even clean out the trunk of my car for fifteen minutes...I can even sit and write a blog posting.

I'm five for five and I'm happy! I imagine most people reading this post will know the PlayGround format. 36 playwrights get a topic and have a crazy-ridiculous short amount of time to write a ten-page play. We're given topics that supposedly inspire us, but it's more like they conspire to constrict us, to send us in some fury only to be shot down by the limits of our time and abilities.

But in the end, I guess it's fair to say the topics do inspire. Actually, the environment inspires: the company of 36 brilliant playwrights, an amazing opportunity to have our work performed by super-talented actors, the chance to have our work directed by sharp-minded Bay Area directors, and the honor of having our work viewed in one of the premier theatres (the Berkeley Rep) on the West Coast. How can we be anything other than inspired...and intimidated, but mostly inspired?

But the point is, as I wrote earlier, I'm five for five. Five months, five topics, five stressful weekends, five nervous "do I send it" moments, and five submissions. My goal was to submit each and every month and that's what I've done so far. Three of the five submissions, I felt really good about. Two of the five, I've tried to erase from my memory. But boy have I grown.

This month the task otherwise known as "the topic" was "Numbers." I sat at the MSRI practically giggling because I knew that my being there alone was going to give me cool points during my time with my father-in-law over the weekend. (He is always sharing his latest musing about math and computers and how they both weave into and comment on our lives, and when I told him of the topic he shared that he has a book reviewed by Steven Strogatz, a mathematician sometimes featured on WNYC's Radio Lab.)

Soon my childish giggles gave way to childlike wonder. Our presenters weren't only sharing with us some nice concepts to spark our interests and give us a foundation on which to begin a play. They were sharing their passions, and by sharing their passions I was able to once again see and feel and hear my grade school self, a person for whom curiosity trumped certainty and numbers were a play thing just as prized as my Raggedy Ann and Andy alarm clock or my Nurf football.

That night, still in awe of Prof. Barry Mazur's ideas about how a simple word could help a mathematician overcome a profound obstacle and Manjul Bhargava's introduction to the Golden Ratio, I went home in search of the mystical or to be more exact I went home in search of my copy of In Search of the Miraculous and Bertrand Russell's Mysticism and Logic, and for good measure the Bhagavad Gita. I also picked up a copy of Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet because I knew there was a hint of love in all that was stirring. I packed my bags and readied myself for my trip the next day to New York where my wife was to show her graduate collection at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.

Only the awe that was stirred in me at MSRI could keep me from being consumed in the craze and awesomeness that I experienced while first anticipating my wife's night on the runway and next witnessing the reactions to the collection. No matter how far I fell into the going ons about town, I was never without a foot in the Kingdom of Numbers where eventually I fell in love with a character.

I fell so in love with this character that I went off and wrote what was more than thirty minutes of material. Somehow I managed to take a slice out of it all and tweak that up so that the six-page monologue had something that resembled an arc and something that I felt was an engaging story.

How successful I was...I don't know. And to be honest, from what I learned through the process of writing this one particular piece, I was more happy with my gesture with this play than with any literary gesture I've made before. It's not that I feel I wrote a great play or anything close to that; it's not even that I took a great risk with my treatment of the subject. What makes me so happy about this submission is that I gave myself to a play like I had never given myself to any writing project before, that I accepted my shortcomings without accepting anything less than my best effort, and that after I pressed and delivered my manuscript for review and "judgement," I knew that I had made it five out of five. Five months of writing assignments and five submissions from this green playwright.

Submitting each month was something I felt I wanted to do and something I told myself I had to do, but I have to admit that I wasn't sure if it was something I could actually do. Our first prompt was "It Gets Better" as our collective response for the It Gets Better Project. Only now do I realize how fitting of a start that was for me in my first year with PlayGround. It has gotten better. I don't pout for as long as I used to when I see that I'm not selected, or roll my eyes at the impossibility of my being able to write anything meaningful to "that topic," or doubt myself or hate myself for having exposed to others that I'm not quite as good at playwriting as I hope to one day be.

I'm going to watch our It Gets Better Video over and over for a few minutes. Maybe now would be a good time to sign off.

Obviously, the alarm on my timer went off a long, long time ago. That damn trick works all the time!
(image taken from Professor's Mazur's Homepage)


  1. Good for you, Cleavon! No matter what, when the six months are out, you will have six new plays; that ain't half bad. We're all in this thing to hone our craft--to get better. One of the great things about PlayGround is that it sets ridiculous restrictions that can accidentally set you free. Within the limits of one topic and ten pages and four days, we playwrights are then given permission to run amok--to push boundaries, play with form, tackle tough topics, and experiment and expand our craft in a safe place. So here's to getting better!

  2. This is a GREAT post. I can only say, don't give up. I don't even know how I stumbled into playground, but six (or seven?) years later, I now have a BODY OF WORK. It's amazing going back, reviewing my stuff. You will be amazed, too. You will find that the stuff you loved fades - and you will find that the stuff you love makes you love it more. And, then you will do more with it.

    And, yeah - committing to all topics is the only way to go.

    The disappointment sucks - but, you got no choice to keep going. Because yes - it does get better.

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