My Playwriting Process and Unprocess
I remember completing the initial draft of my first play, Nothing But The Truth, during the summer of 2013; I was convinced I’d created a masterpiece. After all, Paula Vogel had done so with How I Learned to Drive and The Baltimore Waltz, whipping them out in a matter of weeks in perfect form — she reports she never changed a word. (Her 15th play, Indecent, on the other hand, went through 40 revisions over five years. But hey, maybe the Pulitzer winner was just off her game with that one!)
Fifteen minutes into my first table read, I realized I was horribly wrong and had inadvertently written something akin to a novel. Three hours in, and I was sweating through my shirt, desperate to skip to the end.
I look back on that reading as a valuable lesson in script development and have come to learn that it takes a village — my work would not have evolved without input from directors, dramaturges, producers, actors, writers and audiences. Feedback, critique and collaboration have been essential in helping to shape the story beyond my own perspective.
Two years and 20 revisions later, I’ve “trimmed” 13,000 words, added three new scenes and expanded others; however, the structural bones of the script with the punch/counterpunch flow from therapy to deposition scene, have remained the same all along. I started the play as I begin every large project, with a single Word document containing a data dump of ideas: family stories, memories, napkin scribbles, dialogue scraps, funny things experienced on the street, therapeutic insights, quotes from New York Times’ articles and more. When that ballooned to perhaps 25 pages, I printed the file, tore out each idea and organized them into piles labeled by category: mothers, abuse, dating, therapy, favorite teacher, and so on. As the play started to take shape, I’d tape in an idea where I thought it fit and then transform it into dialogue. If it didn’t work, I untaped it and moved the puzzle pieces around.
This is the early stage of discovery, when the material is new and still finding its place. Later, I experience a kind of “quickening,” where I grow to know the story in a visceral way and it’s alive inside me. I can shift dialogue from one scene to another in my mind and see where it snaps together without my patchwork quilt.
That’s my tangible process. But then there’s the unknowable one.
MARILYN I was reading through your intake questionnaire and I see you’re looking for a therapist with maternal qualities. Can you tell me about that, Rachel? RACHEL Well, yes; ones I missed out on. MARILYN What kinds of attributes? RACHEL Someone who understands me and…notices when I enter the room. A mother figure, I guess. MARILYN (placating) So how many mothers did you interview before me? RACHEL A few. MARILYN They didn’t make the grade? RACHEL Well, there was a therapist in Brooklyn who seemed hopeful, but then she said “so, you wannatellmeaboudit.” And there was a doctor on the west side, but I rode my bike there in the rain and she was all worried I’d stain her couch. (prattling) What’s the etiquette of returning a damp pink bath towel to your shrink at the end of a session that’s wet with muddy water from your butt? I would have offered to wash it but since I never wanted to see her again it seemed like too much of a commitment so… MARILYN Sounds like maybe there’s no perfect therapist out there? (beat) Tell me three things about your mom.(Rachel is at a loss.) Maybe something you loved doing together as a kid?
“When I read a script, I notice when the hair stands up on the back of my arms and my neck and I don’t know how they did it. I have no idea how the person who wrote the script is doing what they’re doing,” Paula Vogel observes in a 2016 interview at the Minneapolis Playwrights’ Center.
I recall sitting in rehearsal for my play’s 2015 festival production at Theater for the New City, and my director said to the cast, “Look at this intricate dialogue Eve gave you: Scene A connects to scene C, which loops back to scene B while building dramatic irony …” and I thought “Wow, I wish I could take credit, but I didn’t intend to do that!”
While we certainly spent substantial time discussing scenes and poring over line edits, a lot of the creative writing just kinda sorta happened in some mystical way. That magic is both imbued with awe and laced with trepidation: After all, if I can’t know it or define it, how can I possibly repeat it?
Vogel encourages me to trust the fairy dust: “I believe we have to be subconscious as we’re writing and not look directly into the sun or we become blind,” she says. “Thinking about what we’re doing is in many ways the enemy of art.”
SHARON I want you to recount everything you told me—that you rarely leave home; how you haven’t worked or had a date in three years. Fill that record with your damages. RACHEL I still keep wondering though whether it was my fault. If I was too needy and desperate, maybe I drove her away. SHARON You were supposed to be yourself in her office. Listen to me—you did everything right. (Stan enters and activates a recorder.) STAN Good afternoon ladies; hope you had a pleasant lunch. Rachel, what was your week like after the termination of your therapy? RACHEL I cried. I slept. I remember all I ate was a peach and a bagel for three days. STAN Were you suicidal? RACHEL I thought about shooting myself in front of Marilyn. I wanted my blood on her briefcase. STAN When you left her office by ambulance on the last day of your treatment, did you feel you needed emergency psychiatric care? RACHEL No. I mean, I broke her mirror because… I felt shattered. STAN What was your experience like when you got to Bellevue?
Mirror, Mirror …
Looking at one’s reflection is known to help tap into the unconscious, and mirrors happen to play a prominent role in my play similar to the “looking-glass shame” that Virginia Woolf speaks of; she was molested when she was six in front of one. “I’m so awful I can’t even look at myself in the mirror,” my character Rachel laments before revealing that was sexually abused as a child. When the relationship with her therapist Marilyn implodes, Rachel smashes a mirror in the doctor’s office because she “felt shattered.”
How I Learned to Drive similarly portrays a girl’s incest. Vogel is cryptic about claiming that experience. On one hand she’s adamant that “everything that comes out of us is autobiographical.” Yet when people ask her for the thousandth time, “Okay, so did you sleep with your uncle?” she caustically laughs it off, saying she wishes she had a dollar each inquiry. Her response is ambiguous, towing the line I hope to create with my character as a woman who shifts from victim to survivor to warrior.
“All great art comes from a sense of outrage,” Glenn Close once said, and the same sentiment drives me to write about childhood traumas that are salacious and shocking — even shameful. The undercurrent of Nothing But the Truth addresses the real-life ramifications and complexities of sexual abuse, and I strive to bring those tragedies to life by depicting the unspeakable —sometimes with subtlety, often with mockery, and always in full color. It’s a netherworld of nullibiety, however, and one that Georgia Lavey wrote about so eloquently in this magazine. Abused women belong to a group that is powerful only in numbers, unified by an emotional state of non-existence and no matter how fiercely depicted, they belong to a group they never would have chosen to join.
The word “trauma” in Japanese combines the two symbols for “outside” and “injury.” Trauma is a visible wound, one that’s increasingly being made public and transforming into an identity as women lug their mattress around campus, write impact statements that go viral and join Lady Gaga onstage at the 2016 Oscars. As Rachel ambivalently realizes: “It’s what makes me special.”
After my June reading at the T. Schreiber Theatre, a woman wrote to me saying that by the time she got to the subway she was sobbing. However, she wanted to thank me because she gained significant insight into her own life through my characters.
“There are people who when they read my first play, said, ‘You’re sick; you’re a sick woman,’” Paula Vogel says with a touch of pride. Her response: “Congratulations, you just pushed someone’s button.” Whether my audience is gasping or guffawing, I want these truths to grab them by the throat.
MARILYN (A weighted silence) You seem pretty down…what’s going on? RACHEL My sister is having another child. MARILYN And that feels like…? RACHEL Like finding out I have cancer. MARILYN Sounds to me like it’s about loss. RACHEL What do you mean? MARILYN Well, cancer is the loss of your health, the loss of your world as you know it. RACHEL At least people with cancer have a disease with a name and a treatment. Where are the pink ribbons for women who think dying is preferable to hugging a child? MARILYN Why don’t you try hugging your niece and see how it feels? RACHEL Why don’t I try cutting off my arm? (A weighted silence) MARILYN There are lots of people who don’t like kids− RACHEL God! You don’t get it!! It’s not about not liking kids… MARILYN Then what is it? Help me understand.
Follow the Joy
“I think we have a responsibility to point out when joy is on someone’s face … please follow the joy,” Vogel implores. I’ve found it in writing a play. When I laugh out loud at a line I wrote and chuckle at it again for the fiftieth time; when I’m typing at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night; when working on revisions feels like sitting down to a nourishing meal — that’s where I belong.
Nothing But The Truth was developed with The Barrow Group, Theater for the New City, Dixon Place and Playhouse on Park and named a semifinalist for seven playwriting competitions including Theater Resources Unlimited’s TRU Voices series and Geva Theatre’s Festival of New Theater. Eve’s essays have been featured in The New York Times and her memoir Letters From My Sister: On Life, Love and Hair Removal, was released by Skyhorse Publishing. Eve is also a monologist and has performed at The Players Club, The Bryant Park Reading Room and the Museum of Jewish Heritage. She is currently a freelance editor and provides corporate proofreading training with her business Proof Right.
Featured image courtesy of Bridget.