Galileo’s Finger, and Other Plays

You want a play featuring an excerpt of Oedipus Rex as written by David Mamet?

Mamet and Sophocles, together on the same stage! Sort of...

Got it.

What is the mystery of Galileo's finger?

Or maybe one about Galileo’s finger? Two plays with kiss in the title? Various slightly warped Christmas plays?

Got it, got ‘em, and got ‘em.

I have been somewhat prolific of late, writing the plays others tell me to. Well, that’s not quite right. No one puts a gun to my head. But as part of the ever-expanding trend of theaters doing an evening of one-act plays, many of the troupes are requesting plays on very specific themes or in specific settings.

Over the past few years, I’ve written plays set in a funeral home, an attic, a coffee shop, and on a brown couch. There have been plays about addiction, Valentine’s Day, anything relating to Rochester, New York, or foster homes (though not in the same play, thankfully), shoes, and the various senses. During December alone, if I choose, I can write about the 1920s, eating, a Shakespearean sonnet, any activity on the Staten Island ferry, and peace. And coming up in March, one of my favorites: A theater wants plays that have something to do with J. Edgar Hoover (the not-so-subtle suggestion is that characters in drag would be great, but aren’t required).

I understand, I guess, why theaters go this route. They like to see how different playwrights will treat the same theme. And when the theme is tied to local geography/history or a holiday, it gives the company a built-in marketing hook. But at times, when I see a call for scripts and there is a detailed suggestion about what I should be writing about, I balk a bit.

Thalia, my muse honey, was it something I said?

We playwrights are the creators, damnit. Let us go where the muse takes us. On the other hand…sometimes she’s a cold, distant bitch who won’t return our calls or even open our emails. In those bleak moments, having the prod of a chosen theme is a plus. And if nothing else, taking on the varied themes, no matter how foreign (what do I know from Rochester?) is the chance to learn something new or take a “here goes nothing” approach to experiments in form. The plays become exercises that keep me writing, not a small feat when tackling a full-length my play, my ultimate goal as a playwright, seems so daunting. Still. More than two years after I finished my last one, the ill-fated and almost-litigated solo show (the lawyers should be almost done with that agreement…).

What’s funny to me is how often I write one of these thematic shorts for one theater or competition and it’s rejected, but I can get it into a festival that doesn’t set the theme, or else rework it a bit to fit somebody else’s requirements. The attic play has been produced several times; ditto the addiction play, which explores our inability to let go of stuff, the commodities that sometimes define our existence. The requirement to write about anything relating to Galileo led to a work ripped from the headlines, as they say: two fingers and a tooth stolen from the scientist’s dead body more than 250 years ago were recently recovered. Oh, what fun you can have with grave robbing and the confrontation between the secular and the religious! (No word yet, though if that one has been selected.)

Of course, some of the themes are so obscure, if my plays don’t make the cut the first time, they never see the light of day. Case in point: an updating of the proto-Surrealist classic Ubu Roi, set during the 2008 presidential campaign. But even though it didn’t get chosen, it was such fun to portray Bush II as the dim, profane Dub-U Roy. The Oedipus-cum-Mamet snippet was for a Mamet festival in Chicago. Although rejected there, I was able to send it to a NY company seeing theatrical “smash-ups.” They told me they want to stage it – yea! But that was more than a year ago. Still waiting… (I offer it here for the curious).

I’ve learned I have to pick and choose when a spate of contests come out, all with different themes. Writing something about food for the December contest seems doable; the Shakespearean sonnet less so (unless I can combine them, which I’ve been known to do before). There’s one on the sense of touch and another on “perfect10n” (that’s how they spell it), both due January 1. Perhaps another twofer is in the offing. Or I can recycle something old. But the real goal for the now not-too-distant New Year – choose one of the many ideas I’ve been kicking around for a full-length and start writing it. Just to see if I still know how to do it. I’ll keep you posted.


~ by mburgan on November 29, 2009.

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