Laura and I meet in front of the cheese case at the market; we hug, she smiles, she holds the smile for effect.
The huntress casts her net, asking: “How about writing a play for us?”
I respond immediately: “Will you pay me?”
Laura pauses, clears her throat, and in a hushed tone says: “Of course.” She strokes a wedge of Manchego as she speaks.
I respond immediately: “OK.”
Caught off guard by the prospect of obtaining some cash, I fail to inquire about the amount of money I will receive or, for that matter, about any pertinent details.
Because, suddenly, I am a playwrite. Or is that a playright? Or, maybe, a playwright? Destitute and desperate, we prisoners locked in the theater dungeon are set atilt by the prospect of gain.
After I return home, I realize I need to ask Laura a few questions, and check Google for the correct spelling of my new title.
Laura and her husband, Tim, are the “us” mentioned at the store. They own and manage one of the finest regional theaters in the American Southwest. Each is an accomplished director and performer, and their company presents a variety of productions during two major seasons. Summer fare consists of musical theater, the winter and spring offerings include dramatic and comedic works. The shows feature stage veterans, as well as young professionals from New York, Chicago, and similar thespian grow domes, eager to make their marks before they settle into careers as baristas or Uber drivers.
It’s clear I am not being asked to write a musical.
That is the only thing that is clear.
I call Laura and schedule a meeting during the third week in November. She arrives; I indulge several cocktails, and pursue the aforementioned pertinent details.
Question 1: How many dollars?
Laura’s answer: There’s an industry-standard, per-performance fee paid to writers, and you’ll get a small percentage of the gate.
I neglect to ask about the amount of the fee, what the percentage might be, or how many gates might open. (Refer to cash-induced confusion, noted earlier.)
Question 2: What kind of play?
Laura’s answer: Every year, we present a play reading, featuring a couple of veteran actors, and a few local folks who want to try their hands on stage. Your play will be this season’s offering. Other than that, you figure it out.
I neglect to ask if the local cast members can read. While many people in our celebrity-obsessed culture crave stardom, few on the quest are truly literate.
Question 3: What theme?
Laura’s answer: You figure it out.
Question 4: When do you need it?
Laura’s answer: The sooner, the better.
Question 5: When will it be produced?
Laura’s answer: February.
Sounds good to me, I say. You got a deal! I struggle to my feet, spilling gin on my pajama pants.
Laura smiles, and holds the smile for effect. She leaves.
I come to my senses a few moments later, and crap my pajama pants.
What have I done?
Moreover, a play designed to be read, rather than fully staged?
This calls for a well-designed game plan. Fortunately, well-designed game plans are my forte.
Task No. 1: Determine what kind of work this will be; develop a basic theme, plot, and characters.
Strategy No. 1: Increase intoxicant intake, power up the idea factory.
Result No. 1: A package rolls off the assembly line the next day, and I call Laura. I tell her: I’m pretty sure what I write will insult most of your regular patrons and major contributors, and it will be far too long and disorganized for your purposes. It is going to require a hell of a manicure at your end of the deal.
That’s fine, she says. Get it to me ASAP. I’m about to give birth to a baby, so I gotta go. (It’s a boy. Being actors, she and Tim name the kid Lachlan. No worry, however: the lad should be large enough to defend himself on the playground.)
Task No. 2: Refine basic theme, plot, and characters.
Strategy No. 2: Increase intoxicant intake, wait for something to happen.
Result No. 2: Nothing happens, refinement-wise, but I decide to turn on the computer.
Task No. 3: Begin writing.
Strategy No. 3: Amp up intoxicant intake, type the first word of the first sentence.
Result No. 3: “The.”
I’m off to the races.
I go online to research the playwright’s (playright’s, playwrite’s) craft, and I discover an obscure website based in Cyprus that features “amateur British lesbians with bouffants.” I am utterly captivated by the hairstyles, and by the revelation that there are amateur, and therefore professional, lesbians. It takes me two days to complete the sentence.
Before I do, I receive a call from the theater’s advertising designer that interrupts my meditation on the finer aspects of a faded empire. She wants to know the title of the play, and needs some ideas concerning the poster and playbill design.
I haven’t finished the first sentence; I’m watching Beth and Angie sip Cosmos, chat amiably, and caress one another’s forearms … and someone needs a fucking title?
I tell the designer I will call back the next day with the info. I boost my intoxicant intake, and put the brain kettle on high heat.
I’m deliciously whacked, but I don’t come up with a title. I decide to address the problem with a time-honored, pseudo-Freudian, abstract expressionist maneuver: the title will be whatever comes out of my mouth when I call the designer. A gesture from the deep, if you will (nod to DeKooning, Pollock, et al) — whatever bubbles up from the subconscious mind. I’ll lube the bubbler with a hefty dose of Tanqueray and a couple hits of Bruce Banner #3. That should do the trick.
The next day, the title pours forth. I gush in the manner of someone who’s been administered an enema and has located the nearest toilet bowl at the last possible second. I hurriedly announce the title as Welcome to Siberia, Now Go Home.
Well, OK, says the designer. I suppose you know what you’re doing.
She then asks what images will be appropriate for the poster and playbill.
I search for the bowl. Once seated, nothing stirs, nothing emerges other than a vague scheme involving bouffant hairdos. I strain, mightily. Nothing. I feel like Elvis, suddenly absent my industrial-grade stool softeners, a crushing pain in my chest robbing me of breath, worn copy of Field and Stream clutched in a trembling hand, three squares of Charmin Extra Strong fluttering from the fingers of my other hand, my bloated frame crashing to an expanse of cold Saltillo tile. The king is dead. There’ll be no concert today.
Do what you want, I say.
Well, OK, she replies, I suppose you know what you’re doing.
Yes, I tell myself as I hang up the phone, I know what I’m doing! I’m going back to Beth and Angie, and the computer with one word on the screen. That’s what I’m doing!
I have nothing to worry about, I’m a professional writer; I’ve been one for nearly half of a century. I created two obscure, failed literary journals; I was Alvin “Call me Al” DeTerio, Merle Box, Carla Fursburg, and Renata Santini — the entire writing staff for a 1970s’ cult-favorite, 24-page satire of an “adult entertainment” tabloid.
(Fascinating aside: during that time, I set a world record for consumption of biphetamine sulfate, aka Black Beauties — 10 mgs Levo Amphetamine and 10mgs Dextroamphetamine in a hardened matrix — the professional writer’s preferred stimulant. Back then, I was certain I received a trophy for my effort. Following several recent searches of boxes in the garage, I’m not so sure.)
I went on to labor as a newspaper reporter, columnist, and editor in a legitimate news organization, thus burnishing my reputation. I maintain a poorly designed website featuring drivel I concoct in my basement. I am a professional writer, damn it, and now I’m a playright. Or playwrite. Or playwright.
I make a note to remind myself to make a note reminding me to Google the correct spelling of my new occupation.
After my pep talk, I finish the first sentence. “The stage is dark, the lights come up.”
I am momentarily confident. Then, a rapid descent to despair: the sentence seems a good start, but Whither thou goest? (Or something equally theatrical and overblown.)
My response: I knowest not.
I partake of a blast or three of Frosty Kush for inspiration; wolf down a high CBD edible to promote sound sleep (a must during any creative venture), and prevent leg cramps brought on by hours seated in front of a computer screen that displays either a single sentence, or two slightly over-the-hill, working class English women with stiff hair and cheap sandals, as they lounge on a rump-sprung couch, sipping Cosmos, and stroking one another’s forearms.
I consume a 3:1 G-and-T to dampen my distress. Then, I drink another.
Then, I lose consciousness.
I dream, productively, my subconscious back in gear. The dream features my high school girlfriend, who doesn’t resemble my high school girlfriend; a soundtrack that includes The Order of the Pharaonic Jesters by Sun Ra and his Arkestra, and a medley of Four Seasons hits; a sausage and pepper sandwich from a North Denver Italian market that closed its doors in 1978; and my childhood pet — a Boston terrier that, in the dream, looks like a standard Schnauzer, and speaks German. I am naked but for one Spiderman sock, and I’m hairless. The Schnauzer whispers in my ear as I gnaw alternately on my girlfriend and the sandwich: Du bist ein volltrottel.
At last, a breakthrough!
This will be a comedy, I tell myself the next day; you’re a volltrottel, the dog said so. A volltrottel has but two choices: comedy, or the presidency of the United States. So be funny, Karl, be funny.
Another self reminds me: There’s light comedy, romantic comedy, and farce. Then, there’s nasty, sophomoric stuff — you know, the kind of humor you enjoy. So, be nasty, Karl, be nasty.
It’s clear: my comedy will be a mean-spirited missile, aimed at people I dislike. I have opted for a generous target, since I dislike nearly everyone. I appreciate, at most, thirty people who are now alive, perhaps another thirty who are dead. The rest, I don’t particularly care for, and they likely don’t care for me.
But, I now have an advantage: not one of these geeks is a playright. Or playwrite. Or playwright. (Reminder: Check Google for correct spelling.) They do not get to skewer me in front of an audience, as I do them.
So, if they don’t detest me now, they will — once they see the play.
I ask myself: In what fertile field shall my key notions sprout and grow?
I tell myself: I’m a fourth-generation Coloradan, so the object of my aggression could be anyone who moved to Colorado in, say, the last hundred years.
It’s not long before I realize this task is best left to the Utes, so I narrow the field: my targets will be the goofs who’ve invaded my home turf of Siberia With a View since 1986 — the year I moved here. My hypocrisy is blatant, but I don’t fret: I possess a superb tincture whipped up by my pal, Joe, to which I turn any time my damaged moral sensibilities break to the light. The elixir erases all but the most foul of my thoughts and deeds.
No doubt some of the folks I’ll skewer are kind, generous people; a few might qualify for sainthood. Most, however, are despicable, self-important assholes who press unwanted plans to improve their new home, prompting the continued destruction of a once idyllic, albeit backward oasis.
I abhor these goofs; they will be the focus of my waggish ire.
In short, the theme of my play: Go away, I don’t like you.
I draw on an abundance of material, since I live in a community dominated by recent refugees; a town in which the phrase, “This is the most wonderful place in the world” (beautiful place, gorgeous place, spectacular place, incredible place, etc.) is heard several times each day. If the idiots who voice this crap relocate tomorrow, their new roost becomes the most wonderful place in the world, simply because they are there. Their critical toolbox holds nothing but a mirror in which they regard their own image.
The community crawls with the worst of this species: upper middle class, white retirees. The swarm has replaced the oldtimers, spawning in its wake a bulging population of service economy workers, many of whom are garishly tattooed meth addicts, absent high school diplomas, living with pit bulls in rusted campers and storage units.
My targets — retired Baby Boomers and their ilk — are unexplainably blessed with a measure of wealth, but have neither enough money to purchase a jet, nor anywhere near the dollars needed to live in Aspen or Vail. So, they perch here, where there are mirrors everywhere. The place is wonderful. The community is stuffed to the brim with lieutenant colonels who act as if they were generals, mid-level managers who claim that they ran the corporation. Posturing and pretense are the sole materials of their art.
No doubt most of these people bathe regularly, take unduly good care of their pets, occasionally manipulate one another’s genitals and/or play golf, host cocktail parties with trendy appetizers, make enough charitable contributions to allow them to pretend to be human, and are pleasant with their grandchildren, so long as the tots remain quiet.
These geeks know everything.
Just ask. Actually, there’s no need to ask. They’ll tell you without benefit of an invitation.
They are deserving targets. In the mockery furnace, comedy will be forged.
I again amp up the intoxicants, and begin to spit humor venom, in dialogue form, to be read by two actors, and a brace of Realtors and shop owners. I expect to suffer in the process. Such is the playright’s (playwright’s, playwrite’s) lot.
I do, indeed, suffer.
(For anyone thinking at this point that it’s a swell idea to write a play with a deadline a month or so in the future, here is my take on the situation: you can perish suddenly, briefly aware of your impending demise, or you can die slowly, in pain. If you are dumb enough to agree to write a play in a month’s time, kill yourself before you begin. Avoid the agony.)
I complete my first version of a one-act play in ten days, fueled by the promise of monetary reward, as well as by enormous amounts of gin, and now legal vegetation and its derivatives. I can no longer gobble Black Beauties, fearing a stroke or cardiac arrest, but if I could, I would abstain: the DEA keeps a tight rein on the hardened matrix these days, and I have no desire to discover a crew of these cretins at my door.
I give the script a timed reading. The play runs approximately five hours.
A bit long.
Back to work.
Ten days and six rewrites later, I give copies of version seven to my actress daughter, Ivy, and my actress wife, Kathy. They read, and offer non-verbal critiques. Ivy makes a cutting motion across her throat and collapses to the floor. Kathy pretends to projectile vomit, and leap from an aircraft, sans parachute.
Back to work.
I hack away, and divide the beast into two acts.
Another reading: version eight, with Kathy, Ivy, and an actor friend, Andy.
Kathy and Ivy seem to have more important things to do. Halfway through the reading, Ivy turns on her phone, texts friends, and checks Facebook. Between lines, Kathy hums Sondheim show tunes as she thumbs through the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. Andy stares out the living room windows, watching a gang of jays destroy Kathy’s hanging flower baskets. Andy is about to travel to Ireland, where he will spend his time in pubs, consuming major-league amounts of the swill brewed there, and singing inane Gaelic ditties with the other drunks. He is wistful and preoccupied during the reading, his attention fixed on Eire, and Guinness.
The reading takes three hours.
Back to work.
Little by little, I trim away the material I most like, so the play now centers very little on me and my genius, and more on what occurs during a Chamber of Commerce event held to welcome new arrivals to Siberia With a View — The Most Wonderful Place in the World. The disaster is conducted by a bi-polar Chamber director, and a degenerate and demented resident of an assisted living facility. The script retains a healthy measure of vitriol, directed at Baby Boomer retirees.
My intoxicant bill swells like a cow carcass on a mid-summer afternoon in southern Arizona.
On I plod, rewrite follows rewrite, the finish line remaining distant. I picture myself a dull-witted monk, locked in a monastery cell, copying an addled abbot’s commentaries on Tertullian, praying the Norsemen arrive soon.
At last, I complete my twelfth revision. I read the script, chuckle four times in the process, and send it to Laura.
Two days later, her response: Way too long, and there are cuts and revisions I need to make, if you give the go-ahead.
You got it, Doc; right this way to the operating room. Slash the patient, give it CPR, strangle it, mangle it, massage it, make it whimper, make it quiver. Do what you have to do in order to save it.
Oh, Laura, remember: you promised me money.
Cut the check, when the time is right. Mail it to me.
Due to a full social calendar, I’ll be unable to attend any of the performances, but I’ll watch for smoke from my deck.
Google informs me the correct term is “playwright,” as in dramatist, dramaturge, scriptwriter, scenarist and, quite possibly, tragedian, depending on how the damned play is received.
Make the check out to Karl Isberg, Playwright.
Beth…Angie… save a space on the couch. I’m on my way.