Most writers I can think of talk about this time … the silence between words, the pause – as necessary to the creative process. Daydreaming is essential. Writers need time to stare off into space, to sit and simmer on low. I don’t have to tell you how difficult the last year of teaching has been during the pandemic. I’ve already alluded to the long hours spent staring at the computer screen. And I’ve tried hard to stay balanced, to not become a poster child for all to real dangers of burn out. Other than the relief of having pulled off the jobs, I’m not sure how well I’m doing. More low-sugar smoothies and tennis dates with family are good signs.
Since hastily finishing the first draft of a play in April, I haven’t written much beyond scribbles on paper and notes to my students. Somewhere in handwriting there are words I didn’t have the brutality to share – there are losses I understand I am supposed to “be over,” so my mourning has quieted. There’s the beginning of a piece I wrote during a mud pie creativity workshop that may not be worth pursuing. There are notes from California vacation with Mom and Stacy that should become a short story or part of a novel but … this will take time.
I’ve got plenty of unfinished projects to pull up and new ideas in my head. How are there not more adult stories about college theatre students? And there are fall classes to prepare for, a writing workshop in particular that is pulling me back to my own writing, but right now is the time to sit and breathe and restore balance. The words will wait. They are so patient. I’ll let you know when it’s time.
My reading has not suffered. Tyler Mahan Coe’s second season of Cocaine and Rhinestones came at the perfect time. The books by playwrights teach me things about myself – Quiara Alegria Hudes’ My Broken Language and Jen Silverman’s We Play Ourselves. Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters is as much about her as it is about Kerouac, obviously. SHE is a writer. Rachel Cusk’s Second Place stopped me. I need to spend more time with her and will do so this summer. A quote I scribbled across post-it notes: “Why do we live so painfully in our fictions? Why do we suffer so much from the things we ourselves have invented? …I have wanted to be free my whole life and I haven’t managed to liberate my smallest toe.” – Rachel Cusk, Second Place.
Kudos to Aimee Lou Wood (Laurie Nunn’s Sex Education, NETFLIX) for making me cry my eyes out at the end of Uncle Vanya.
SFP and Angelica Films filmed the 2020 West End revival of Chekov’s play after it was interrupted last March due to COVID. Previously aired on the BBC, the film debuted on PBS’s Great Performances last night.
Credit goes to Chekhov, of course, and to Conor McPherson’s adaptation which gave this stunning closing monologue the update it needed to penetrate the tragedy of my cynicism.
It is a piece, perhaps that cannot succeed without context, without the subtext of four acts of drama that come before it. If I had only read Chekhov’s final words, external of production, I would have likely rolled my eyes. McPherson’s translation pays homage to the pure and inspiring sentiments of Chekhov’s indefatigable Sonia while grounds her words in a way that makes them palatable. Not just palatable, but potent. I am reminded of Beckett who famously wrote (years after Chekhov): “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” (The link between these two writers is evident although comparisons are more often made between Waiting for Godot and The Three Sisters.)
I had to get McPherson’s text just so I could compare his translation with the traditional one. I post a clipping here with the traditional translation below.
Still, I doubt they are as genuinely moving without Wood’s performance and without the more than two hours of play that build a bridge between the frustration of Chekhov’s characters and our own.
VOITSKI. [To SONIA, stroking her hair] Oh, my child, I am miserable; if you only knew how miserable I am!
SONIA. What can we do? We must live our lives. [A pause] Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile–and–we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith. [SONIA kneels down before her uncle and lays her head on his hands. She speaks in a weary voice] We shall rest. [TELEGIN plays softly on the guitar] We shall rest. We shall hear the angels. We shall see heaven shining like a jewel. We shall see all evil and all our pain sink away in the great compassion that shall enfold the world. Our life will be as peaceful and tender and sweet as a caress. I have faith; I have faith. [She wipes away her tears] My poor, poor Uncle Vanya, you are crying! [Weeping] You have never known what happiness was, but wait, Uncle Vanya, wait! We shall rest. [She embraces him] We shall rest. [The WATCHMAN’S rattle is heard in the garden; TELEGIN plays softly; MME. VOITSKAYA writes something on the margin of her pamphlet; MARINA knits her stocking] We shall rest.
On the latest episode of People Taking Shots at Scranton, we find one of the city’s own golden boys – playwright Stephen Karam – dragging Scranton down while praising Terrence McNally in a The Dramatist tribute issue to the legendary playwright (Jan/Feb 2021).
Maybe my next play needs to be a hot and steamy romance? Set in Scranton, of course.
For as much of a trial as it was, working at Staples during grad school gave me time away from the computer screen. Now I have three part-time jobs that all require me to use my computer. There is no work I can do for those jobs that doesn’t require the computer.
I’ve learned that for as much as I should be working 12 hours a day seven days a week to stay on top of all my current obligations, I can’t do it. Even if I wanted to … my eyes will just stop focusing. I need to take breaks away from the screen. I graded papers from 9 am to 9 pm yesterday with only minor breaks to eat etc.
I have not turned my computer on yet today. I worked in the garden. At least what I hope I will be able to call a garden. I’ll be working (mostly) remotely this summer at only one of the part-time jobs while school is out. I wasted last summer. I got outside everyday but couldn’t function beyond trying to walk off depression brought on by heartache and the insane uncertainty of 2020.
I made a video today for my sister so she could see what I did and tell me what to fix before it’s too late. She’s the gardener. I have no idea what I’m doing. Just trying to stay sane, I guess.
I had no idea Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies contained a whole multi-chapter section titled “Scranton Memoirs” when I downloaded the audio book for only $3.95 as Audible’s Daily Deal one day back in February. I vaguely remembered seeing press coverage when the novel was released in September 2020, and I was aware of Akhtar as the playwright who wrote the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Displaced (which I have yet to read and had little hopes of seeing on stage in Scranton, PA). For a long time now, Akhtar has been one of many names on a mental list of writers whose work I should get to know better.
In Homeland Elegies, the protagonist’s parallel play does not win the Pulitzer until after the Scranton-seeded epiphany that leads to his success as a writer. A note on the genre of this book for those who have not yet encountered it: Homeland Elegies is an intentionally confusing, fictional memoir. That is, while it is written as the memoir of a protagonist named after the book’s author, Ayad Akhtar, much of the book has been imagined to suit the author’s storytelling devices. Elements of Akhtar’s own experience have been extracted for the writing of this prose, but the book is not a “true story.”
What is obvious to a Scrantonian like myself upon reading Chapter Four, “God’s Country,” is that Akhtar must have driven through Scranton and probably in the back of a cab driven by a local, just as he describes in the book. His detailed account of the drive from North Scranton to a downtown hotel (we’ll guess The Hilton, because he did not bother to describe the historic beauty of the Radisson Lackawanna Station Hotel) is too sharp to be gleaned from internet searches and map views.
I was hoping for some kind of twist, that unlike so many other depictions of Scranton we’ve seen over the years, would reveal how there is more to this place than meets the drive-by eye. Unfortunately, the impoverished, decaying sections of town left a greater impression on the writer than the beauty of our historic architecture. Maybe it was easier to leave the beauty out, easier to describe only the facets of the city which served the purpose of making us a sad metaphor. Of what use would it be to Akhtar to acknowledge Scranton’s complexity.
We’ve gotten used to visitors making a fuss about our shabby bits. On some level, Scranton has become loved for our willingness to serve as a scapegoat and punching bag by creators who imagine themselves (and their desired readers) as more sophisticated, cultured, and enlightened than this notoriously “hardscrabble” city will ever be. We are their low bar. An easy target. They can safely imagine that they are better than us. We are the battered woman who continues to love her abusive husband for the flowers he brings her after he bloodies her eye. You can count on Scranton. We aren’t going anywhere.
Akhtar’s car did, in real life fact, break down in Scranton. He spent 24 hours here, he told Reza Aslan in in a conversation about the book produced by The L.A. Times. for the virtual 25th Annual Festival of Books. He later explains that his protagonist’s relationship with the city, as depicted in the novel, was the product of three to four years of experience and reflection.
The author’s vision of Scranton is only a metaphor, a name likely to trigger recognition in his reader’s mind, but the result is another blow to the city’s reputation. I did not read all the reviews of Akhtar’s book, but at least one critic summed up the city for the protagonist’s “racist encounter” here.
I’m not going to talk about all my anti-racist friends or pretend there aren’t racists in Scranton. Of course there are. Is there a racist-free place on this planet? Is America more racist than other countries or did the U.S.A. just sell itself as “the land of the free” for so long that people actually believed in American exceptionalism.
“Have we really been a different country than we thought we were all along?” Akhtar asked Reza Aslan.
Even a good number of Scrantonians understand that the American Dream was a marketing ploy. A great manipulation of social structure. As the grossly ballooning economic inequality in America has exposed itself as the inevitable collapse of the Capitalist lie – it has become clear that the Dream was really a Delusion.
Could this be why Scranton has been repeatedly exploited as a a setting? Here is where people can feel the real. We provide a handle to hold on the slippery truth. Our streets may be a little gritty, but they convey some like-it-or-not authenticity. Scranton wears reality on its sleeve. In most of the depictions penned by visitors, the city is dimwittedly honest. It’s nothing we are given credit or praised for. It is assumed to be an accident.
The same mechanic who doesn’t know enough to make himself more presentable, is smart enough to operate – in the protagonist Akhtar’s mind – an elaborate and ongoing scam involving police buy-in and a suggestively-dressed, suspiciously flirtatious Latina secretary who unconvincingly plays along with her boss’s schemes.
By presentable, I mean the posters on the wall of his office, and mainly the pre- #metoo exposed-vagina pornography Akhtar describes in uncomfortable detail.
Do I need to tell you there is more to Scranton than dumb ugly naivety for which we are depicted?
We are more than a sitcom punchline, a laughing stock of a back drop where no one would choose to live on purpose.
We are not only a post-industrial rust belt remnant crumbling in the shadow of wealthier times.
We are more than an exit off I-81.
We are more than the handful of racists that famous people who do not live here insist on ridiculing and punishing in their art.
We, too, make art, in hopes of showing the world the city’s softer and more cultured side, but we are not famous enough for you to bother with it.
In Homeland Elegies, the protagonist’s Scranton-seeded epiphany to “stop pretending he is American” (he was born in Staten Island and raised in Wisconsin) leads to the writing successes that allow him to pay of his debt and meet monthly expenses. (Akhtar is a year older than me. Despite decades of hard work, I have not been able to pay off my debts and I continue to struggle to meet monthly expenses. But duh … if I wanted to succeed, I shouldn’t have chosen to live in Biden’s hardscrabble hometown. This is a place you have to leave to become someone important. It is not a place you move to unless you want to waste away in obscurity.)
Akhtar elaborates that his Scranton epiphany was “to accept a certain failure” that he’s not going to be able to be the person he wanted to be. The fact that the narrator cannot make the world see him as he wants to be seen is what leads him to create the work that makes him a successful American writer.
The failure, he says in interview with Reza Aslan, is a failure to feel like he belongs. Akhtar attributes this to his foreign-sounding name, his immigrant parents, and brown skin. This is why he feels like an outsider.
Note also that Akhtar has described his own growing in the suburbs of Milwaukee as “wonderful.”
“The kids were great; the parents were welcoming. We played baseball and had crushes on girls. There were some cultural issues navigating that, but I never felt myself to be coming from the outside,” he told The New Yorker in Sept. 2020. The sense of conflict, he said, came from the other Pakistanis he knew. His earlier novel American Dervish does not shy away from showing the darkness of that immigrant culture.
All this leaves me to wonder what’s my excuse? I, too, have wondered what it means to be an American. And I’m surely not the only pale-skinned American of European descent to feel like she doesn’t belong. The only place I ever felt I belonged was in the imaginary realms of books and the theater, until four years ago when I started teaching college courses. I had always loved school, where as an awkward bookworm I flourished, except for the politics of popularity at which failed miserably. As a college professor, I finally felt like I was allowed to be all of myself, at work, without censure.
Born on an air force base in California, my younger sister and I moved often after Mom and Dad divorced when I was only 3. I was always the new kid. The trauma of that displacement is why I tell people I moved my children to Scranton when they were still toddlers. I thought growing up in one place, knowing without question where they are from, would give my daughters something I must have longed for more than the financial and critical success Akhtar has achieved and I have not. Scranton is where my ancestors from rural Eastern Europe settled when they moved here in hopes of a better life in the early 20th century. This is as far back as our roots in America reach.
Even if my daughters go on to shun Scranton like so many of its natives have done (no one likes to dump on this place more than the people who have left it for greener grass) being from here won’t hurt them. It’s the sticking around they need to worry about.
Later in Homeland Elegies, we hear how wealthy Pakistani-American hedge fund founder Riaz Rind, who takes Akhtar under his wing, coincidentally grew up near Scranton. In Chapter 6, Rind describes his father’s failed attempt to start a mosque in Wilkes-Barre in 1979. Neighboring businesses tried to shut it down, but failed. The mosque opened to hate crimes and vandalism. The police failed to act on those threats and the sheriff harassed the Muslim worshippers. Later in Scranton, in 1983, they couldn’t even get a permit to open a mosque.
In the book’s present, Riaz Rind spends a small fortune every week to have a city florist deliver thistle plants like those that grew rampantly for free in his NEPA back yard.
Rind convinces Akhtar to invest the $300K left to him by his mother into 125,000 shares of stock in a rental properties company that is about to go public.
Akhtar’s stock doubles in value overnight but encouraged by Rind to hold out, he waits until the price reaches close to nine times his investment. He is a millionaire when the Securities and Exchange Commission knocks on the door of his one-bedroom Harlem apartment to investigate. Law suits had been filed, Akhtar learns. The municipalities that blocked Muslims from building mosques in their communities were targeted and intentionally scammed by Rind company. This is some fancy using-capitalism-against-America kind of vengeance. The corrupt council members of those towns didn’t understand the securities they were purchasing with city money, yet didn’t hesitate to indulge in the perks and bribes extended to them.
Other municipalities are mentioned but Scranton is the only one you are likely to remember.
Common Play Factory is looking for one or two short short scripts (read time 30 min. or less) to complete a program tentatively to be held virtually in late spring. (Please don’t make us read another one of Alicia’s plays! LOL)
Scripts should be unproduced; previous readings are okay. We are interested in experimental work. Send a .pdf of the script with character requirements and playwright contact information before April 5 to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scripts that are not a good fit for this Spring 2021 program may be considered for future production. Preference will be given to playwrights from Northeast Pennsylvania, but we are open to scripts, primarily in English, from anywhere in the world. Actors have not yet been cast for this production so if you are interested in reading, please contact us as the same email address.
Fun fact: In recent Shakespearean research, we learned that Elbow’s reference to brothels as “common houses” may be inspired by a Church of England sermon from 1563 that warned parishioners to avoid the “degradation” of such establishments. (Go, Kenji. “On the Origin of the ‘Common Houses’ as Brothels in Measure for Measure.” Notes and Queries 55.2 (2008): 191-4.ProQuest. Web. 10 Aug. 2015.)
While we don’t think our programs are degrading, we’re not sure the Elizabethean church would approve either.
It wasn’t until after chatting with Miranda on the phone from L.A. for a good while Tuesday night that I realized the a connection between her studies and mine.
Her paper about three female artists grouped with the surrealists that didn’t necessarily want to be labeled… To have been a teenager when women got the vote in America and England, in a decade when women attempted to live independently when they hadn’t insisted before … on pursuing their own dreams, on not getting married, etc. How slow change is to come even as we are watching it unfold. How our art is the only place where we have real freedom. And how even then our vision is limited by our ability, our skills to express it.
I had just ordered a 1982 play by Sheila Yeger titled “Self-Portrait” about the artist Gwen John, after reading about it in Stephen Jeffreys’ book Playwrighting: Structure, Character, How and What to Write. I often bookmark intriguing scripts when I hear about them but I rarely order them immediately. This one is relatively rare. It will cost you $40 or so used from an American bookseller. So I ordered it at a fraction of that price directly from the publisher in England.
I’ve only had a chance to glimpse through the pages … a good enough excuse to stop working for the day and take the script upstairs to bed.
The more time I spend alone, the more I long for theatre. The more virtual readings I sign up for online and the more inclined I am to finish my writing projects and think about applying for full-time professor positions or that dream ph. D. Moving will be difficult but it’s not impossible anymore. My studies are saving me right now. They will not leave me; I can only let myself down if I too tired or defeated. I worry about not having the ambition to get my creative work out there in front of people but I feel certain I am supposed to continue in academia. The work is the only thing that makes sense to me right now. It’s what is keeping me going. One way or another I need to figure out how to make it sustainable. -ag