Five Pages. Two Actors. Three Drinks. Twenty Minutes.

Because sometimes you have to accept that the choices you make in life have a negative impact on your blog’s Search Engine Terms . . .

Last night I was honored to be a participant in Portland Center Stage’s “Ready.Set.Write” event, the official kickoff for the annual JAW New Play Festival.  Eight playwrights (or, more accurately, seven playwrights and one writer/composer team) were given an audience prompt by well-liquored-up party guests in the PCS lobby (excellent use of free beer, guys.  For serious), about which we had what we were TOLD would be twenty-five minutes but I guess ended up being much closer to twenty to write a short play on that prompt, which would then be whisked off to a director and stage manager who were standing by to grab actors and dive in for fifteen minutes of rehearsal, after which the party guests (helpfully, all still drinking) would troop into the theatre and watch all the plays.  Before I get into the epic saga that is to come (or before you scroll down to the bottom to read the play), first I want to say THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU to Kelsey Tyler, Brandon Woolley, Sarah Mitchell and all the eleventy bajillion staff, artists and volunteers who pulled off this crazy Herculean endeavor with a lot of enjoyable chaos but seemingly no actual tension or stress.  Well-played, team.  Thanks for having me.

My fellow playwrights included some very cool people I knew by name/reputation only, and some people I know personally and love to pieces.  I was super excited to have one of my fellow Playwrights West cronies, Matthew B. Zrebski, in the posse with me, as well as Courtenay Hameister of Live Wire Radio and B. Frayn Masters of Back Fence PDX, who are just cool hilarious ladies.  I’m also a big fan of Sue Mach, a fantastic Portland playwright whose work I have long admired; Sue is brilliant, classy, elegant, and sharp, and I want to be her when I grow up, which is why it delighted me NO END when she walked over to me at the pre-show reception, as we awaited our prompts, and solemnly asked me to enter into a pact with her that whatever prompt we were given, we would both agree to work “weiner” into it somewhere.  (Sue, if you’re reading this, I will write weiner plays with you anytime.)

I was writer #4 of 8, so I got to watch a few other writers get their prompts and scurry off to work.  When I was introduced, after chugging a glass of Chardonnay and feeling no fear, I reached into the bucket of writing prompts and pulled out a slip of paper that said “Dark Matter.”  Now, having JUST written a play about astrophysics which talked about dark matter a lot, I both A) felt it might potentially be cheating and B) was genuinely unsure I had anything new – or, more importantly, funny – to say about it, so I used one of my two passes to choose another prompt, mentally telling myself that whatever this one was, I would take it.  I AM CLAIRE WILLETT AND I FEAR NO WRITING CHALLENGE FOR I AM A GRANTWRITER.  So I reached in, and drew my second – and final – prompt:

“Embarrassingly Tiny Penis.”

I considered putting it back and using my second pass, but then I thought, “I have to read this out loud to these drunk people and if I pass I’m going to look like somebody who is absolutely no fun at ALL, and if there are people in the audience who know me as a writer of densely theological explorations of 21st-century Catholicism and they watch me decline to write a five-minute play about penises, I’m going to look like the biggest goddamn buzzkill in this room.”  So I read it out loud, and announced I was taking it, and was hustled upstairs by my staff wrangler, fueled by the boozy cheers of theatre people who were excited they were going to hear at least one play about penises before the night was over.

PCS Development Director Charlie Frasier – who was once my boss, by the way – ushered me upstairs to my writing station, took my drink order (Portland Center Stage provides excellent customer service to artists, you guys), and left me to it.  The second my hands hovered over the keyboard, one of the timekeepers came by with a stopwatch and suddenly I was on the clock.  I lost about four precious minutes on an idea I ended up ultimately discarding – two strangers meet at a urinal, one checks out the other one whose penis is weird and tiny, then they end up getting set up on a blind date, and Guy A doesn’t know Guy B knows about his junk being so small and Guy B doesn’t want to awkwardly admit that he knows something about Guy A that he actually shouldn’t know yet – because there didn’t seem to be more than about a page’s worth of juice in it.  Or, more accurately, there wasn’t time to flesh it out into something interesting (by the way, just knowing that I’m writing this in-depth about something related to penises is making me see inappropriate jokes in like every sentence in this paragraph).

Here’s the fun and crazy and terrifying and ultimately liberating thing about writing a play in twenty minutes.  There is no time to analyze.  You go with the first non-terrible idea that comes into your head and you just ride that train to the end of the line until they come around to give you your 2-minute warning, and then you wrap that shit up.  You don’t go back and finesse the opening or rewrite the punchline to give it more zing.  You go with what’s on the page.  You trust your instincts.  You don’t even have time to italicize because that means taking your fingers off the keyboard, so you use all caps instead.  You don’t get to go back and make the formatting pretty.  You just vomit words onto the page as fast as humanly possible.  Then they call time, you email the script to the script coordinator, and then we’re off to the races because here’s what happens next.  First, a giant ceremonial gong is rung.  This is not a metaphor.  There was a real gong.  It was UNQUESTIONABLY the best part of the whole night.  Every time a script went to print, they rung it, and everyone downstairs at the party cheered.  Once your script was printed, a copy would be rushed to Kelsey Tyler, who would cast it from the posse of actors standing around in the center of the rehearsal room, and a second copy would be hustled over to your director/stage manager team, who were standing by to receive it.  Then there were fifteen insane chaotic minutes of rehearsal.  I lucked out with a fantastic director, Megan Kate Ward, who somehow managed in the tiny tiny window of time given to us to actually give the piece real shape and make strong artistic choices.  Amy Newman and Beth Thompson were hilarious and delightful and brought the play to life (spot-on casting, Kelsey), and our stage manager Beatrice kept everything humming.  It was a manic whirlwind.  Then we were done, Megan and Beatrice had to move on to their second project, and I went out to the party to drink some more before watching the show.

The team in rehearsal – director Megan Kate Ward and actors Amy Newman (left) and Beth Thompson (right)

When everyone was finished and the whole crowd trooped inside to watch the plays, I found myself inordinately impressed by the fact that there was an honest-to-God playbill.  The graphic designer was standing by with the whole thing fully formatted sans titles and casting, ready to rush it to print and then to an all-hands-on-deck folding extravaganza to get the playbills into the ushers’ hands as soon as the door opened.  This is how you know you can’t turn off your admin brain even when you’re being an artist – of all the miracles of grace under pressure that happened last night, the playbill was HANDS-DOWN the most impressive.

The discrepancy between how all the writers described our work to each other when we met up in the lobby with beers in our hands and panicked faces, and the actual work onstage, was hilarious.  If you went purely by how we all described the experience, you would have thought you were about to watch eight half-finished trainwrecks with no cogent endings.  When, in fact, EVERYTHING WAS GOOD.  Some felt more finished than others, some were more funny and some were more serious/weird, but everything was enjoyable, everything felt exactly the right amount of polished given the comfortably low expectations of the audience, and there was not one stinker in the lot.  Real highlights to me included Sara Jean Accuardi’s sweet pregnant couple, where the deadbeat boyfriend is trying to win back the girlfriend’s affection by drunkenly assembling a giant build-your-own playground in the middle of the night (AUDIENCE PROMPT: “Fighting Over a Seesaw”) and Courtenay Hameister’s bickering couple locked in a trunk and arguing about Edward Cullen, with the boyfriend sensibly pointing out that “Nothing that sparkles is scary.  Except Cher” (AUDIENCE PROMPT: “Vampires”).  My two acting MVPs for the night would probably be Jennifer Rowe and Chris Harder, towards whom I am admittedly biased because I’ve worked with them both before and adore them, but they also threw themselves fearlessly into some really big physical moments that were just full-on delightful (Chris portraying an asshole cat, complete with back arching, clawing, hissing, and voice dripping with disdain, and Jennifer bursting into an irritable tap-dance routine that started as a mild shuffle and escalated into full-body flailing).  We would all have been biased in favor of the song under any circumstances, because every single one of us was just in awe of the sheer balls it requires to take that on, but fortunately, it was legitimately fantastic, featuring Danielle Purdy, who has a lovely voice, portraying a woman trying to flirt while in the pool and periodically choking on mouthfuls of water (AUDIENCE PROMPT: “Water Aerobics Conversation”).  I feel like I got the worst slot in the lineup by having to follow it.  It was seriously great.  Mad props to all involved.

For the benefit of anyone who missed last night’s shenanigans, I’ve included the script below, because my desire to amuse you outweighs my concern about how deeply messed-up my blog search engine stats are liable to become from this day forward.  I’m sorry you missed getting to watch Amy Newman and Beth Thompson do this, because they were hilarious, but I hope it’s still funny in your head.  For fairness, I have made no modifications to this script between hitting “Send” last night in the PCS offices and pasting it in here, with the exception of two minor formatting tweaks – there was no time last night to italicize anything, so I used all caps for emphasis when needed because I could do that without pausing in my furious typing rhythm, plus I fixed one actual typo, because it drove my obsessive grantwriter brain bonkers not to.  But in terms of the actual content, yes, this is the play I wrote last night in twenty minutes, with nothing but “Embarrassingly Small Penis” and a two-character limit to go on.

You’re welcome, America.

DREAM ANALYSIS

By Claire Willett

CHARACTERS:
KATIE, an attorney
PHOENIX, a Tibetan healing practicioner of dubious efficacy

(Lights up on a couch where KATIE and PHOENIX are drinking tea.)

PHOENIX
Are you all right?  Your energy is really off today.  Usually it’s a calming teal, but today it’s all mustard-colored and jagged, and I’m very concerned.

KATIE
I’m fine.

PHOENIX
Mustard auras mean you have a spiritual crisis you’re not acknowledging.  Let’s talk about it.  Share your feelings.  I could burn some sage if it would make you feel better?

KATIE
That’s extremely unlikely.

PHOENIX
This is a safe space.

KATIE
I’m fine.  It’s nothing.

PHOENIX
Katie.  Be real with me.  Be present.  Inhabit this moment.

KATIE
Fine.  I’m just – I haven’t been sleeping very well, I guess.  I mean it’s fine.  It’s no big deal.  It’s just been a couple of really bad nights.  But I’m fine.

PHOENIX
You should share what’s on your mind.  I’m really, really good with dreams.  Like you have no idea.  My next door neighbor was having these recurring dreams about being chased by a lawnmower and I was the only one who figured out that it meant she should leave her husband.

KATIE
Wait, that’s why Maggie left her husband?

PHOENIX
I know.  Sometimes it’s like this stuff doesn’t even come from me, you know?  It’s like . . . I’m just channeling it.  Like this is why I was put on this earth.  It’s a really special feeling.

KATIE
I mean, I feel like that’s kind of fucked up  –

PHOENIX
Trust me.  It was totally for real.

KATIE
Um.  I mean . . . Okay.  Fine.  So, I’ve been having these dreams.  Where everything’s totally normal – like, it all looks just like my real life – I’m still a partner at Addison Bowles, I still live in my same house, I look basically the same, I have the same batshit insane mother – except for one small thing.  I mean, it’s kind of a big thing.

PHOENIX
You’re a guy.

KATIE
YES!  How did you know?

PHOENIX
It’s incredibly common.  You’re still the same you, in your same life, except that you’re a male version of yourself.  It’s a fascinating exercise in the exploration of how we’re all so irrevocably formed and shaped by the patriarchy.  Like, what could Katie achieve if she wasn’t held back by the forces of –

KATIE
Anyway.

PHOENIX
Sorry.  So, in your dreams, how does it feel to be a man?

KATIE
I mean, it doesn’t feel anything.  It’s a dream.  So it feels real.  Like if you asked me right now how it feels to be a girl, what would I say?  I don’t think about it.  It’s just who I am.  So in the dreams I don’t think about it.  Except –

PHOENIX
Except what?

KATIE
No, it’s weird.

PHOENIX
Go ahead.

KATIE
I don’t want to say.

PHOENIX
Katie, if you can’t be honest with your best friend, where can you be?

KATIE
You’re not actually my best friend.  I kind of don’t remember why I invited you over, actually.

PHOENIX
Because clearly your subconscious was calling out to me, and right here, in this moment, I was the friend you needed.  So I could help you unpack this emotional baggage and see what’s inside.  This is very exciting.

KATIE
FINE.  Okay?  Fine.  It’s my dick.

PHOENIX
What?

KATIE
My dick.  Dream-Katie’s dick is like ridiculous.

PHOENIX
In a good way or a bad way?

KATIE
It’s tiny.  It’s fucking tiny, man.

PHOENIX
(Closing her eyes, nodding meditatively) I see.

KATIE
Like not like normal-tiny, like you’d be in the bed with the guy and it would be a little bit anti-climatic when he takes his pants off, like a “womp womp, oh well,” kind of thing.  Like freakishly small.

PHOENIX
Interesting.

KATIE
Like, it’s like a ‘Lil Smokies situation down there.  Like ridiculous.

PHOENIX
Okay.

KATIE
Which is bullshit.

PHOENIX
Why is it bullshit?

KATIE
Because like what does that say about me that my dick is so small?  Like is my subconscious telling me I have like a fucking Napoleon complex or something?

PHOENIX
Katie, I think the important thing to examine here has less to do with the specifics of the anatomy of the body your dream-self gives to you, and more to do with why you find it so upsetting.

KATIE
Because it’s like humiliating.

PHOENIX
Why?

KATIE
Dude-Katie should have an amazing penis.  Like porn-star quality.  I just . . . I feel like I’ve always thought if I was a guy, I’d be like, really fucking impressive.  Look at my boobs.  My boobs are impressive.

PHOENIX
They are impressive.

KATIE
Right?  So I feel like this should be the equivalent.

PHOENIX
Let’s process what this means.  I think the implications are pretty clear.

KATIE
Uh, I don’t think they’re clear at all, and I’m pissed, and it sucks, and I want the dreams to stop.

PHOENIX
They’ll stop when you take the action they’re clearly telling you to take.

KATIE
Which is?

PHOENIX
Obviously what the dreams are telling you . . .

KATIE
Yes?

PHOENIX
. . . Is that we should make out.  (She lunges for KATIE, who pulls away)

KATIE
Um.

PHOENIX
Don’t run away from the universe’s clear signs, Katie.

KATIE
Um, yeah.  Pass.

PHOENIX
(Muttering angrily) Whatever.  It worked on Maggie.

KATIE
Get the hell out of my house.

(BLACKOUT)

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