This story begins on a sunny fall Tuesday during my junior year at Whitman College – specifically, September 11th, 2001. (I know, you guys. Stick with me.)
Like most people, I remember the details of that day incredibly clearly. Half-awake, and wearing one of my tawdry polyester Mrs. Robinson nightgowns, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom I shared with my housemate Evan when he banged on the door and yelled something about the World Trade Towers, which I barely understood, and I did not come out to the living room to ask him because of the tawdriness of the aforementioned nightgown. I didn’t actually get what had happened until later. My morning class, Oceanography 101, was canceled; we all just sat in the auditorium in Olin Hall and watched the news on the giant projector screen. People were walking around in a daze, they were talking about Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden, and all I kept thinking was, “I’m supposed to understand what’s happening here but I don’t.” It didn’t feel real.
My afternoon class that day was Playwriting, with a visiting professor from New Jersey named Chuck Evered. Nobody could figure out whether or not class was canceled – some professors were canceling and some weren’t – so we all just decided to go anyway. Chuck was several minutes late to class but the second he walked in we figured out why. I had forgotten until that moment that he was a naval reserve officer. He had cut his hair and was wearing his uniform, because his unit had been deployed to Ground Zero and he was leaving that afternoon. He couldn’t even stay until the end of class. Suddenly, then it was real, because a person I knew and cared about was going there and could get hurt. He told us he didn’t know how long he was going to be there. Somebody asked him, “What do you want us to do while you’re gone?” And he just said, “Write about it.”
Write about what? Everybody hated this assignment. It was too fresh and painful for some people, too distant and alien for others. We all agreed that none of us had any business trying to craft a story out of something this huge and significant. We had no right. We had nothing to say. We had nothing to contribute to the national dialogue. We were playwriting students. This was beyond us. People were angry – so, quite frankly, their plays weren’t very good.
I was crazy about Chuck Evered and I didn’t want to let him down, but I also knew that I was not capable of completing the assignment he had given without writing something that was terrible. So I tried something different. Over the next couple weeks while Chuck was gone, I sketched out a short play, in seven brief scenes, about a young Catholic schoolgirl in the Bronx named Francesca, whose best friend Dominic had been killed in the Trade Tower attacks. It was only given the briefest of mentions, because the bulk of the story was really about Francesca’s grief; she had visions of Dominic’s ghost while sitting in chapel, and the parish priest believed she was experiencing the divine while her mother was afraid she was having a nervous breakdown. My play was by far the longest, and by far the least connected to the actual events of 9/11, but I thought parts of it worked pretty well, and Chuck liked it a lot. When he came back from New York and read it, he told me, “You need to keep working on this. This is a real play.” So I dived in, and for the rest of the semester this was my project. Chuck was, and still is, one of my greatest mentors as a writer, and if this play ever goes anywhere it’s due in large part to the way he pushed me to keep going on it. Even though there were times when the response from other students sometimes made me feel like there was no place in the theatre world for the kind of stories I wanted to tell – stories about faith and ordinary families and people just muddling through and trying to do the best they can – Chuck believed in me from the get-go. And he was a real writer, so that meant a lot. I haven’t seen him in years and we rarely talk, but he’s still my guy and I’m a writer today because of him.
As soon as it was no longer a class assignment, but a real play I was writing, I scrapped the 9/11 connection, and changed the story so Dominic was killed in a car accident. It gave me more room to breathe. I also felt, as I fleshed out the characters, that the story was too constricted, and also too sad; I wanted to open it up a little bit more. So I interspersed the scenes of Fran and her family with the story of Saint Francis and Saint Clare in 12th-century Assisi, Italy, to parallel the relationship between Fran and Dominic. The play was called Requiem: God Breathing, and when I finished it that semester it was about 40 pages long – very short for a full-length play, but long for a one act. I submitted it to the Whitman College One Act Festival anyway, and held my breath. I found out later that, although everyone knew it was too long, mine was the only play the entire faculty panel agreed on, and even though it came in 3rd at the festival itself (it was crippled by the cuts we had to make), it was the panel’s favorite by a long shot. My cast and my director were terrific, but I was studying abroad in Ireland when the play was produced so I never saw it myself and wasn’t there to make script cuts. In retrospect this may have been a good thing, since in the back of my mind I never viewed the cuts as permanent. Everyone who read it the way I wrote it understood the story and liked it. People who saw it cut down to 25 minutes had a harder time. I did a staged reading of the full version when I came back from Ireland the next year and I heard from a number of people that the play improved vastly when they heard the whole uncut version.
Ever since then, every 3 years or so I would pick the script back up again, fiddle with it, change some things, and mess around, then toss it aside again in favor of a new project. But in the back of my mind it was always there; I would hear a song and think, “Oh, this would be perfect in Requiem,” or I would have an idea for some great camera shot and decide I should turn the whole thing into a screenplay. But it never went anywhere, so I just had about 400 different drafts and versions of the same six-character play.
Then, a month or so ago, while waiting for Gilberto to finish the play he was in so we could get back to work on Script #1, I decided I needed a writing project to play around with in the interim so I could try and force myself to be more disciplined with my writing. Because it seemed easier than starting something new from scratch, I went back to Requiem again, although by now it had long been re-titled to Where There Is Darkness, Light – a line from the famous Prayer of Saint Francis. I brought in the weakest, roughest, earliest, most full-of-terrible-lines draft I could find to my playwriting group and let them go to town on it, and came home with pages and pages of notes and a stack of feedback forms from the writers in my group. After lots of coffee, lots of Beatles music, lots of late nights in front of the computer, and lots of prayer, I finally decided to do something terrifying and risky and potentially insane – turn it into two plays.
This is not going to sound nearly as freaky to you as it feels to me. I have lived with this script for 9 years as a story where two plot lines intersect and inform each other, where one depends on the other one. It feels a little bit like separating Siamese twins at this point. Whole huge chunks of story are going to have to be carefully unstitched and rebuilt. But I think it’s the only way for it to work without being fifteen hours long. I want to fully develop Francesca’s story, and make her a real teenager with a real life; I work with teenagers now, so I know more about them than I did when I was 19. I really want to flesh out the story of a grieving 13-year-old girl and the way love and faith and family intersect in her life, her relationship with her atheist mother, her mother’s relationship with the parish priest and their slowly developing friendship/trust for each other, and the reality of what it’s like to be a young person in the Catholic Church today. There’s a full-length play in that, for sure.
But I also want to go to town on Saint Francis and Saint Clare a little more. I feel like their lives are fascinating. Did you know he was essentially the male Paris Hilton of his day? He was a rich man’s son, a lazy boozehound manwhore troublemaker who ran with a crowd of drunk asshole rich boys, until God appeared to him while he was a prisoner of war and he began the long slow process of conversion. And did you know Saint Clare was a rich nobleman’s daughter who ran away from home to join Francis? She was the most beautiful girl in Assisi but she made Francis cut off her hair when she joined the order so she would no longer be vain about her good looks. Oh, also, she outlived Francis by like 30 years and went head-to-head with like 5 different Popes in her lifetime to convince them that women were as capable of living in poverty as men were (at the time, male monastic orders often wandered around barefoot and poor like Francis’ brothers, but nuns lived in swanky posh convents doing lady work like embroidery and illuminating manuscripts because living simply was too hard on their fragile lady physiques and delicate lady sensibilities. Saint Clare of Assisi, former hot rich girl, is almost single-handedly responsible for reforming women’s monastic orders. They’re fascinating people, and their relationship is fascinating – were they friends? Was it a partnership? Were they like brother and sister? Were they in love with each other but sworn to celibacy? Was it some other kind of love there isn’t really a name for? You see my dilemma. There’s a full-length play in this story too.
So here are the options I’m contemplating, which you will see fleshed out here on this blog:
OPTION A: two completely separate plays
OPTION B: two separate, linked plays that are intended to run in rep
OPTION C: one long, two-part play
OPTION D: I throw myself down a well
We’ll see what happens.