The devil is in the rewrites

Now and Again

Jessica Doojphibulpol/Staff

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The story of my first play was a story of blind overconfidence, and the story of my second play was a story of editing and hopeless second-guessing.

My friend Cade and I sat together in a Starbucks downtown most days for months to co-write what became my second play, “The Bimonthly Dutchess County Librarians Meeting.” I would drink an iced black tea with soy milk, and he’d have a coffee or something, I guess. The play reads like a scream at our post-graduation selves. It is really one of the most cynical pieces of writing I’ve ever produced. The climax of the piece is the main character, Jo, having a nervous breakdown while she fantasizes about her colleagues, saying she will never amount to anything because she just keeps making excuses, before she is woken up and the play abruptly ends.

Cade and I wrote the character of Jo to be a 30-something English major who wanted to be a writer but never made it. It’s honestly pretty sad to think about it in those terms — how telegraphically we wrote our worst fears onto a page and then asked everyone we knew to read them, critique them, mark them up and hand them back.

Unlike my first play, “The Bimonthly Dutchess County Librarians Meeting” went through what seemed like an endless editing process. First it was edited by us, then it was sent to my then-boyfriend; he then sent it to a friend of his (who I had never met), then we brought it to my mom (which ended badly), then to friends in our grade, then acquaintances in the drama program, and finally Ms. Bernhard, the Salinas High School theater teacher.

We got different kinds of feedback.

From the intellectual: “I just think a little more blending of the satire and the seriousness would do wonders, that is, a softer approach at the two respective styles would nullify the melodrama and the cringe.

To the unfortunate: “Bernhard might take offense at Debra being happy her brother-in-law has diabetes.

And the blunt: “It’s just … and don’t take this the wrong way, is this a first draft?”

Through it all, there was some advice we were given consistently: Cut the puns, cut the accents, and for the love of God, cut the puns.

The beauty of having a co-writer is that you two have the ability to convince yourselves that everyone around you is crazy and your art just needs the right audience.

“ ‘Marky Mark and his Funky Lunch’ is the best line in this entire play! We can’t cut it!” Cade and I would scream at each other until we had convinced ourselves once more of our ultimate artistic superiority.

Our edits from the actual woman in charge were much simpler than “nullify the melodrama” — whatever that means. She handed us back the script with only a few cuts. Every time we said the word “piss,” she scrawled “pee” as an alternative in the margin.

With our final script in hand, one that would still go through dozens more drafts before the final performance, we set out to start our rehearsals.  

Cade and I were not theater kids in high school, and in this new space, something that was before a point of pride became a point of isolation. Before our first show, in what was apparently a ritual, all of the directors, cast and crew from the whole show sat around holding hands in a circle. The directors were called upon to give inspirational speeches. When it was Cade’s turn, I felt his hand get more clammy than usual.

“Thanks everyone for all your hard work! I’m not really sure what to say except — ” In that moment, I could see the anvil coming for Cade’s head, but I didn’t have the capacity to stop it, so I just watched it slowly fall, fall, fall. “Good luck, everyone!”

The circle erupted in shouts and boos, as Cade had broken the ultimate theater superstition of saying “Good luck” before a performance. Cade turned beet red and released the hands he was holding.

“How was I supposed to know you are supposed to know you are supposed to be an asshole before every theater production?” Cade asked me later, still flustered.

Cade and I sat in the very, very back row of the theater while we watched the show. Every time we knew a joke was coming up, we covered our eyes and ears and buried our heads in each other’s shoulders, bracing for impact. We knew better than to expect laughs.

Later, at our Starbucks table, Cade and I created our own little bubble. It is hard for me now to even remember how we did it, sitting side by side looking over each other’s shoulders at every single word in our play. But where we were was an undeniably safe space. A space where we were so proud of each other and so confident in what we made and so eager to share.

“I just don’t think they really got it,” I said to Cade, sucking down my black iced tea as he nodded wearily.

Kate Tinney writes the arts & entertainment column on shifting artistic contexts and perspectives. Contact her at [email protected].