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On Collaboration and Theatre Making

With William Burke and Jackie Sibblies Drury

The new Writer/Director Lab Co-Chairs discuss the creative process, failure, dream projects… and nerd out over what they’d do at Soho Rep. with 1 million dollars!

JACKIE: William Burke. I’m curious about how you’ve used workshop-type groups in the past as you’ve gotten started on new plays — do you like to bring in a lot of little things quickly, or do you like to take more time and bring in a whole big draft of a thing? How do you like to use a writer’s group when you’re starting out on a play?

WILLIAM: I have a writing group from grad school called WOOK TAUT MAJESTY. We bring in 7-10 pages that can be anything. Sometimes we’ll read a whole play. There is not pressure for the pages to be anything. We have dinner or snacks. Sometimes we do little performances with strict rules such as no props, only voices in the back rooms of bars. When I start to count, I have had full three plays that have gestated out of that. And I like that because it’s under the umbrella of a group so you can really look at it with a casual yet discerning eye.  We’ve been meeting for over 4 years and each one of us has had theatre moments of success and personal victory along with change and heartbreak. We can take comfort in the fact that our humanity and advocacy for each other has squeezed out any feelings of insecurity or petty competition that bubble up when people do these things. For me, it’s not just about developing the plays, it’s about being involved the art and the humans that get linked together in such intrinsic ways that you can’t always tell where the rope starts. So maybe I’m talking about the play. Maybe I’m talking about myself. Maybe I’m talking about the world. Maybe I’m writing the play the minute I hug one of my writing peers. I don’t have to know until I get the words out.

OK!

Have you ever had a moment when you realized the you thing you had discarded was actually the real piece of writing that you had to work on?  OR! How do your perceived failures become your artistic fuel?

JACKIE:Too many examples I think — I’m failing constantly.  And I discard basically everything I write. Like every draft of every play at every stage of every project is always two documents: the draft itself and another document where I dump all the things that I’ve cut from it that I can’t quite bear to throw fully away.  The “cuts” document is always longer than the “draft” document.  And I inevitably go back to one of those “cuts” documents and find something, some weird hideous little nugget, and am in a different frame of mind, and see that it might not completely not work, and so I play with it for a little while … that happens sometimes.  There is a lot of interplay between the text and the trash can for me. Throwing things away and failing are so central to writing for me, because, I’m constantly failing. Falling flat on my face.  Just straight tripping.  It is the only way forward.  Purpose doesn’t work for me.  Just failing, slipping, lurching — it produces kinesthetic energy maybe — a fuel-like thing for the work.

And just to be clear, when I say I’m failing constantly, perhaps what I mean is that I think failure is the constant; I have less critical days and more critical days, so the failure doesn’t change, but my response to it, my ability to be in the room with it, that changes.

WILLIAM: It’s important to not fully define the word fail as a general writing guideline and let the individual piece you’re working on dictate the nature of our blind flailing around.  I’m glad you have multiple documents as well.  Usually, I have 2 or 3 or 4 documents for the play I’m working on and an extra for a “procrastination play” in case I get too down on what I’m doing in the first place.  I truly believe that once you have the overarching idea then everything is useful even if it’s in the “Dump documents”.  You can tell when a writer is pushing back against the ideas and materials as the energy and that tension really can be the driving force behind the play.  I LOVE the concept of Kinetic Fuel for writing plays and embracing movement before we know exactly where we’re moving to.

JACKIE: I love what you said earlier about doing little performances with strict rules — do you feel like this helps your writing feel alive, or live?  Do you think about if your writing feels written?  Or about words or wordiness in your plays?  Poetry or poeticalness?  How are you thinking about putting words in people’s mouths and intentions in people’s bodies for performances with other people in the room?

WILLIAM: Since I come from a self-producing background I’ve come to embrace and depend on limitations since I’m putting things up in spaces other people might find less traditional.  My writing depends on pushing against voluntary and involuntary rules and limitations.  Limitations of space and budget and the general squeezing and pressing of life that happens when you are an artist in this country.  It’s exciting to overcome and transcend the rules and still maintain the original ideals that instigated the piece in the first place. I don’t know if I think of it in terms of “written” or “poetical” but I do try to instill different degrees of density in order to challenge the actor.  One of my recent plays has a 5-page sentence that is meant to bring a certain amount of exertion out of the performer.   I think it’s interesting if we can watch the actor reach for something and then let audience determine whether they reach it and let that be part of the fabric of the performance.

JACKIE: I love that idea of exertion and reaching in performance — it’s sort of my favorite thing to watch.  I like seeing cool effortless people on the street, or in pictures on the internet of celebrities (what.  I do.), but in live performance I want to see the effort, the sweat, the straining, the failure nipping at the heels …

WILLIAM: Has there been a type of collaboration that you crave but haven’t achieved yet?  What’s the reason and do think you’ll ever do it?

JACKIE: I’m getting closer and closer to one day wanting to work with a pop-music person on a Broadway-style musical. (This may never happen because I don’t think that pop-music people like to be called pop-music people, and I don’t think that Broadway-style is actually supposed to be a style…) I realized recently that I will never again have a theatrical experience as personally meaningful to me as I did seeing Rent in when I was 13.  There was something concert-like, or church-like — going to a show I’d never seen before when I already knew all the words to all the songs.  So weird.  So amazing.  The sense of familiarity and intimacy combined with the big splashy spectacle of actually being there — you’re with all these people and lights and sounds and vibrancy, but you’re also inside your own mind in your room, or your shower, or wherever you’ve sung the words to yourself before.  It’s pretty cool, and it would be kind of amazing to aim for making something like that, but I’m not there yet, since I’ve been pretty into intimacy and making things for small audiences where the audience feels themselves in the room … and a big splashy musical is literally the opposite.

What you would do in the theater at Soho Rep. if someone gave you 2 months and one million dollars?

WILLIAM: I have such a long relationship with Soho Rep. that I feel like I’d have to encapsulate and transcend every crazy thing that’s been in there before and I’ve spent a lot time just looking at the walls listening to other people’s words.  BUT I’ve always wanted to do some sort of Yeats/Neruda marriage/deconstruction under and inside an aquarium with homemade instruments.  Like a submerged drowning of words.  With lots of coral and possible fish.  But also, solitude and bleak moments of consolation.  That’d probably suck the budget right up. Paging Mimi Lien.

What’s the thing in your apartment, bag, fridge or day to day life you keep meaning to put to use but can’t seem to find the brain space or time?

JACKIE: I have a pager just so I can hold it up and say “paging Mimi Lien.”

That’s not true.

But I might get one so I can.

I have an electric keyboard that is currently sitting sideways in a coat closet.  It was given to me by someone who teaches at Fordham, where I also sometimes teach. For my birthday last year, my husband got me piano lessons with my friend Dawn who is one of the most talented people I have ever met, and I liked the gift so much I cried and made them both very uncomfortable.  Despite a free keyboard, free lessons with a person I freely admire, and a desperate wish to be able to noodle around on a piano, I still have not played anything on this keyboard besides the right hand of “Jamaica Farewell”, which I learned on the day that I received the keyboard, almost 1.5 years ago.

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