Tonight I will finally get to see a production of my MFA thesis play, a Noh drama about Elvis Presley titled Blue Moon Over Memphis. I have waited 23 years for this day. I wrote the play at Brown University in 1993 and now, on August 6, 2016, it is being produced in Highland Lake, New York, for one performance only, by Theatre Nohgaku, an English speaking Noh troupe that is based in Tokyo.
I am thrilled that four members of our Goddard community will be there to share in the joy: Darcey Steinke and Abbie, Douglas Martin, and Jean Wertz, a former advisee.
Getting this play to production has required patience–lots of it. But there is no better form of theatre than the Noh drama to teach patience. Noh is notoriously slow; nine pages of text take about an hour and half to perform. The characters move and walk in slow motion—it can take several minutes for a Noh character to cross the stage. Time is elongated. Noh teaches patience by demanding it from the performer and the audience. It ended up teaching me patience as well.
Still, twenty-three years is a long time, by any standard, to get a play produced. However, I have learned that obstacles and delays are par for the course when it comes to getting productions. Most plays don’t take 23 years, but it’s not unusual for a play to take as many as 10 before it gets its moment on the stage. As the great Charles Ludlum once remarked, “You would think it was a crime to want to put on a play!”
The setbacks that faced Blue Moon Over Memphis were substantial and discouraging. They were more than that; they were heartbreaking. Why was it so hard to bring to the stage the play that got me my first agent, won awards and earned accolades from many luminaries in the theatre?
I don’t have the answer to this question. Nobody does. All I can say is that for reasons beyond my control, it wasn’t meant to be on the stage—until now.
What did I do in the meantime? After hitting brick wall after brick wall after brick wall, and becoming increasingly frustrated over the impossible obstacles that stood in my way, I set the play aside (OK, I threw it aside, I threw it against the wall actually, and cursed the theatre gods), sat down at my desk, and started to write something new.
Little did I know that the new work I had just begun had its own set of obstacles waiting in the wings. And when I hit those roadblocks, I threw that work against the wall too, cursed the theatre gods in sharper language than before, sat down at my desk, and started to write something new.
This process has repeated itself many times ever since. After a few rounds it finally began to dawn on me that this is just what the playwriting life is.
I am not sharing these thoughts to discourage you. Rather, I offer them as words of encouragement, because, in spite of these obstacles, and a horizon filled with endless brick walls, I have been able—somehow—to build a career. It may not be the career of my dreams, but it’s a decent one. I am living “the writing life” with all the travails and troubles and frustrations and joys (yes, joys, there are many of them) that it brings. Most importantly, I’ve spent my days on earth thus far writing 19 works—a combination of plays, musicals and operas. In the final analysis, this is what it’s all about, right? I get to do this. When I get up in the morning, I don’t put on a suit and go to an office and sit in a cubicle. I go to my desk and write a song or a scene or a libretto.
For those 19 works I’ve wrestled to the page, I have been able, in time, to get most of them on the stage. For those pieces that are still waiting in the wings, I continue to practice patience. Their day, too, will come.
Patience. It’s the key. You must have patience if you are going to survive as a writer. If you don’t have it, learn it, because without it your path will be harder.
Impatience will create more obstacles for you. Whenever I have allowed impatience to get the better of me—by sending out my work before it is ready, or ignoring submission protocols, or forcing a work into the world before its time—I’ve ended up making matters worse by slowing down the process even more.
Patience requires faith, determination, hard work and surrender.
Write your heart out and believe in what you’re doing. Send your work out when it’s ready, but not until. And keep sending it out; don’t give up! When you don’t get a response–or worse, when you get a rejection, and you will, you will get lots of them—just sit down and start something new.
And repeat again.
One day, you’ll look up, and see in front of you, a whole body of work that you have created. If you’ve done your job of sending it out in the world, that work will begin to have a life, a life of its own, determined by the world, not by you. And your patience will begin to pay off.
Until then, when you get frustrated and discouraged, (and you will,) just go to your window in the morning and watch everybody scurry down the street to catch the bus to work, and remember that you are lucky, very lucky, because today, you get to do this.
You get to write.