Playtime

I read with interest Gina Gionfriddo’s article in last Sunday’s New York Times about her new play’s “inadvertent homage” to Wendy Wasserstein’s Heidi Chronicles.  Gionfriddo’s play Rapture, Blister, Burn—which opened this week at Playwrights Horizons, the same theater where Heidi had its premiere in 1988—features a 40-something female academic with a successful writing career and second thoughts about her personal life.

I saw Heidi Chronicles in New York when I was in my late twenties and, like many women, felt it could have been written just for me.  Like Gina Gionfriddo, I too share Wasserstein’s “certain temperament…that makes you feel gray next to the bouncy people at the your gym.”  That’s part of why, growing up in sunny California, I became convinced that I’d been born on the wrong coast.  Moody, melancholic, and introspective,  I preferred books like Jane Eyre to (god forbid) volleyball on the beach.  After college, I moved back east as soon as I could.

But I digress.  Sort of.  I didn’t start this post to write about identifying with Heidi Holland—an identification that Gionfriddo, in her piece last week, suggests comes more from shared gender as well as the aforementioned shared temperament than from age or era.  Yes, it’d be nice to live in New York so I could rush out to see Gionfriddo’s play on its own merits, and I’ll cross my fingers that Rapture, Blister, Burn comes to the Bay Area (hello, Berkeley Rep?), but what grabbed me in Gionfriddo’s article was how refreshed I felt after reading it.  It got me thinking about plays again.

Years ago–fifth grade, actually–I wrote a few plays.  Later, in junior high and then in high school, I moved onto narrative prose (of the detail-heavy overly descriptive kind) and poetry (of the Plath-inspired, clove-cigarette-saturated variety).  But when I was ten, I wrote plays called A Christmas Play and A Play About Friendship.  Sentimental as the titles sound, both had a dark side.  Friendship, for example, portrayed a betrayal—no doubt influenced by my humiliation when Jenny Waters announced my crush on David Kennedy during a game of hopscotch, a moment that helped form me into the writer (and woman) I became.  I found, if not revenge, then catharsis in gathering a small group of friends at recess, assigning roles, passing around a script, and acting out what I’d written.

Gionfriddo’s piece last Sunday caught my eye as I flipped through the Arts & Leisure section in part because of the photo.  Her baby on her shoulder, what looks like Central Park (that is, trees) in the background, her expression wry and tired and intelligent, she looks refreshingly real–smart, a little tired, with a wry sense of humor.  I liked what she wrote–not just about Heidi and her own play, but the  syntax and music of her sentences, the voice.  I want to hear that voice spoken on stage, read it on the page.

A page or two later, I came across Christopher Isherwood’s article about “some of the finest new playwriting” happening now.  With words like “illuminate,” “lyrical,” “pinpoint accuracy,” “symphonic,” “delicacy,” “inspired and unexpected,” and, yes, “very funny,” Isherwood describes the subtle dramatic power of recent plays by Amy Herzog and Stephen Karam.  I’m working on a novel right now, attempting to calibrate a believable and unexpected narrative arc, so when I read how “Ms Herzog turns [the moment of revelation] on its head” in a scene “so beautifully executed and so unpredictable, that it makes the moment of connection more moving than it might be if it were handled more conventionally,” I lifted my hand and ripped the page down the fold.  Another clip for the files.

Or better yet, for the already cluttered desk, where I’ll see it both pieces more often and be reminded, as a fiction writer and creative-writing instructor, to look to other forms for communion, for emotional authenticity, for a tonic.  I’ll read more plays, see more plays.  And, maybe, one day, write one again.

What genres have you left behind, only to return to?  What other modes have inspired you?  What has made you look anew at elements of storytelling?

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4 Responses to Playtime

  1. Once, when I was teaching, the book that the class and I were reading had a chapter in it that the kids just loved. We talked about it for days, noting our favorite parts, why it was sad and funny and shocking all at once. There was one line in the section that each student wanted to say over and over again. Nothing naughty, just full of expression and the kids all wanted to try it out for themselves. So we wrote a play of that chapter. We split up into groups of 5 and each group had a different way of telling the story. I learned how important it is to use different genres to understand the story – whether it’s the one I’m telling or the one I’m reading.

    PS – I left a comment on your post on “Good Letters.” Not that you have to respond to it, just wanted to let you know I LOVE your writing. 🙂

  2. I so wish I’d had you as my teacher when I was growing up, Callie. (What was the line?) Thanks for writing, and for the comment on Good Letters. I love your writing too!

  3. Lindsey, please let us know if/when Rapture, Blister, Burn comes to the Bay Area. I’d love to see it! As for genres left behind, I wrote poetry as a kid – bad poetry. And although I have no interest in writing poetry again, I miss reading it. I keep wanting to buy some poetry books, but I don’t because I don’t even have time to read all the novels I buy. And there are so many classics I want to return to, too. Sometimes I just want to take a year away from everything to read. Maybe when I’m retired.

    • Ah, yes, I’ll bet that a lot of us start with (bad) poetry. I have 2 (slim) volumes of poetry by the bed right now, Wendell Berry & Kay Ryan. Actually they’ve been there for more than a year, and I dip in from time to time. I usually reach for the New Yorker (or, if I’m really zonked, the Garnet Hill catalogue…) I’m curious to read the work of the new US Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey.

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