Huffpost Arts
Tim Van Dyck Headshot

Writing Is Not Sexy... and Other Observations on Co-writing a Play

Posted: Updated:

I'd always thought writing had a romance to it. When I was younger, I mean. The Beats in a smoke filled bar filled with jazz; Thoreau and his escapes to Walden Pond; Neil LaBute hammering on his typewriter and cursing (I can only assume). Having written for the better part of a decade I can say now without equivocation: Writing is not sexy.

There are three distinct moments when writing a play I am most filled with nausea.

The first stomach knot: having my work read for the first time by new people. In the back of most people's minds who do an artistic endeavor is the lingering doubt that we aren't really any good at it (or, really, anything at all). Or even if we were once good at it maybe we aren't anymore. Every time someone new reads something I've written, the same doubt plops itself down next to me like a barefoot hippie with a djembe: every page turn another hollow rhythm to attack the senses.

But the first read went well.

Weeks turned into months. More was written; more workshop. Nadia and I discussed moments we needed in the play. We'd assign then go write. Then we read. Then we'd write more.

Sometimes we realized we had a ten-page scene that accomplished nothing. Other times a two page scene would be so dense it appeared to be unspeakable by Earthlings. At one point the play exceeded 200 pages. My personal working title for the script at that point was: "We Hate the Audience."

But smart actors who ask smart questions are a huge help. As is a director who does not mind if you throw as much spaghetti at the wall as possible before you take off the bits that don't work.

Fun side note: Everything you've heard about collaborative writing is true. You see, essentially the birthplace of all writing is arrogance. A person thinks they have something to say that others should hear. When I write alone the end result will be my voice. Not so in collaborative writing. There were parts of the play I wanted cut that remain. Lines I wanted to keep now gone. Likewise for parts my co-writer wanted cut or kept. But there emerged a growing number of scenes on which we both agreed. And a rather lengthier list of scenes written we would both agree: eh, maybe not so much.

For example, early in the process I wrote a scene: it didn't work. As soon as the actors started reading it I knew. But there was one idea in it close to being a thing. It was about compromise. A character spoke about how the near implausible convenience in which we live enables us to get what we want at all times -- whether its food, or entertainment, or furniture -- we no longer have to compromise on a day-to-day basis and as a result settling for anything less than your heart's desire has grown repugnant. I thought this was important to include in the play despite the fact that the scene it was in was really an unholy mess. However, a place to fit the sentiment wasn't apparent at first. (Note: This is not a surprise. I'm an idiot for much of the day: the type who can't see the forest because he's looking at his shoes.) But eventually it distilled into its opposite: a character that refuses to compromise; a character who expects instant gratification. It's a more active way of the same idea that doesn't happen without the workshop process.

Over time we unearthed a third voice: not quite mine, not quite hers. In the long run it has best suited the play more than were it written completely by either one of us alone. The better part is we did it without ever resorting to violence. Though on more than one occasion she no doubt noticed my hands reaching for her throat, a blank stare, a wistful grin spread across my face. I also seem to remember a rather curious person (appearance remarkably similar to Nadia) crouched behind the garbage cans outside my building, crowbar in one hand, a thesaurus in the other.

The second stomach knot was this week: the first read through of the full text with cast, design team, and producers. This is a more specific level of inward disdain. The realization that if the play stinks there is an entire room full of people whose time and money is about to be wasted. This reading too went extremely well. Or so I've been told. I blacked out in the corner curled in a fetal position. (Note: An imaginary hippie with a djembe can still sit next to you even if you're wedged in a corner. Don't be fooled.)

I won't know how the third stomach knot moment will go for a few weeks: Opening Night. I'm fairly certain I will need to be sedated. Until then there will no doubt be a tweak or twenty. The show will change as actors give voice to the words on the page. It's one of the best things about writing stories others perform. I get to watch others make something I've written better. Make it new even to me. It's the thrill of watching a story unfold live. I remember the first time I walked in on my parents in mid-argument. The conversation stopped. But I could feel the tension. That's what good theater is like. You're in the room. When it works you don't just watch it you can feel it. Movies and TV are like albums. A play is like a concert.

(Note: If you come see the show and there's an odd man pacing the lobby muttering about drum circles it's not a crazy person.)