NOTES from the INCUBATOR (Simpatico): Entry Two: Getting So Frustrated

Incubator artist R. Eric Thomas.
Incubator artist R. Eric Thomas.

Article courtesy of Simpatico Theatre Project, and their blog What’s in the Wings. See the original article, the second in a series of pieces written by artists participating in their SoLow Incubator, here. 

My mother tells a story about a time when I was young—3 years old or 4—and I was trying desperately to get the swing I was seated on moving. My little legs kicked and kicked but I stayed motionless. After a minute or two, an adult came over and gave me a push and that’s all it took. I caught the momentum and I was swinging! As she tells it, I turned to the little boy on the swing next to mine and exclaimed in a giddy, high-pitched voice “I was getting so frustrated! Were you getting frustrated, too, Brooksie? I was getting so frustrated!”

I love how she tells that story. I love the little kid voice she takes on when delivering my line. I love the tiny crevices of humor the story holds—the image of my little feet kicking furiously, the joy of finally getting somewhere, the surprise of a 3-year-old using the word “frustrated.” I think of that story often while working VOCAB, a piece that sometimes seems as resistant as that swing set. I’ll fumble my way through constructing some text for an hour, shove my computer off my lap and announce to my empty bedroom “I was getting so frustrated!”

The lovely thing about this Incubator program is that I have 6 other artists to whom I can turn and ask, “Were you getting frustrated, too?!”

VOCAB is harder for me to create than my previous solo shows have been. I’m pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I spend most of my waking hours talking about Scandal and Beyonce and this show is not about either of them. It’s a show about black masculinity and hip-hop. I’m not even allowing myself to talk about Missy Elliot and Eve. It’s all Grandmaster Flash and Kanye West all the time. I don’t even know who Grandmaster Flash is. That might be something I just made up!

I could talk extemporaneously for an hour about Olivia Pope’s psychological issues or give a track-by-track analysis of the feminist notions on Bey’s latest album (I’m available for parties and Bar Mitzvahs; please contact my agent for booking information). But this subject is tougher. It’s harder for me to get inside of; it’s harder for me to find words for. And I guess that’s why I’m making a show about it. I see masculinity and blackness as a puzzle that I as an artist and as a black male need to solve to gain a better understanding of the world in which I live.

But I’ve been getting so frustrated!

I guess I’m coming around to the idea that art isn’t created in a vacuum. It’s a team effort. I accept this begrudgingly because I don’t really care for other people. They have opinions and I can’t be bothered. In the past, I’ve had very successful collaborations with directors, other artists, and dramaturgs, but in those cases I’ve showed up with a completed script in hand. And by “in hand,” I usually mean, in my head . . . somewhere . . . kind of. I just walk into the rehearsal room, throw my huge sunglasses on the table, guzzle my venti non-fat mocha and sigh luxuriously. “Here’s the script!” I declare as I return a text from Marilu Henner. “It’s perfect. (It’s awful.) I love it! (I hate it!) Tell me how to fix it. (Nothing but empty compliments or I’ll cut your knees off!)” And, at that point, I usually burst into a couple of verses of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and then take a nap in the corner.

And, I’ll tell you, this has worked out beautifully. Everything is different with VOCAB. The script is not done, after months of effort. It comes to me sometimes one line a day. I was at a dinner party last night and, out of nowhere, two words came to me. TWO WORDS. 3-seconds of a 70-minute show. Meanwhile Mike Daisey is off somewhere writing a new two-hour show every night for a month like the Artist’s Way is some kind of marathon. Thankfully, every month the 6 other Incubator Artists—Asaki, Chris, Eric, Meredith, Lena, and Sarah—and I gather in a room with Jarrod, our ever-patient producer, and other members of the Simpatico team. And we have to show something.

Without fail I am blown away by what the others bring to the table. Everyone has such distinctive voices, such complex structures, such captivating inquiries. I am always humbled to sit there with them. The questions that Sarah asks in her piece keep me up at night. The way Chris weaves together words and ideas and narrative strands nothing short of virtuosic. Asaki has an ability to frame her life experiences that is immediately accessible and yet captivatingly remote. Eric, Lena and Meredith are pretty much geniuses and it makes me furious. Every piece is like nothing I’ve ever heard. And, let me say, after each artist sits down I think to myself Now that’s the kind of brilliance you should be writing, Margaret. (I call myself Margaret when I’m in the mood to chastise.) Why didn’t you think to create an intricate three-character show about Casablanca? Why haven’t you even seen Casablanca? Is it too late to change your show to an in-depth analysis of You’ve Got Mail?

When I get up in front of the other Incubator Artists, I am battling against every insecurity I’ve ever had as a writer, as a performer and as a highly attractive person. And that’s not something I like to do without a stack of waffles at the ready. But I do it. Because I have to. Because Jarrod and my dramaturg, Rebecca, routinely ignore my panicked e-mails threatening to quit. And when I get up in front of the other Incubator Artists, I’m presenting ideas that aren’t as polished as I want them to be yet. I am presenting passages of text that are still closer to theory than they are to drama. I’m looking for help finding the crevices of humor; I’m looking for another person on another swing who’s still trying to figure out how to make it move.

And they never disappoint. Every meeting has been unfailing positive and terrifically helpful. It’s amazing to watch other people go through their processes. It’s instructive, also. I notice the way that the other artists incorporate criticism or ask questions of the group and I steal their methods for myself. So much of writing is done alone at a Starbucks or in an empty bedroom or on the back of a receipt from Trader Joe’s. It’s been revelatory to watch a part of that process happen in public, even as I do it myself.

I go home after each meeting jazzed and ready to work. And then I find a prodigious amount of stuff to keep from doing that work. It’s really remarkable, actually. I have balanced my checkbook, I’ve found my checkbook; I’ve lost my checkbook; I did my taxes; I ripped my taxes up in fury; I watched 4 and a half seasons of The Good Wife, all of House of Cards, a French series called Les Revenants and a educational science show called The Big Bang Theory; I have searched for that Malaysian plane (sad news: it’s most definitely not anywhere on Passyunk Avenue); I have become really interested in the music of Jason Derulo. The other day I suddenly stopped writing so that I could brush my teeth. At 10 pm.

But, despite all the procrastination, the show is coming together. Word by word, line by line, every day.

I can’t say that after this process is over I won’t go right back to making shows about pop culture divas and romantic comedies. It’s my gift. It’s what the world needs. But this process has been a push that has given me new momentum and enabled me to tackle subjects and ways of making art that I haven’t been able to approach before. Yes, I’ve been frustrated but the effort is producing results. I keep showing up. I keep kicking. VOCAB is showing March 31, 2014

See the first entry in Simpatico’s NOTES from the INCUBATOR here.

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