We welcome back playwright and professor R. W. Schneider in another of his insights on life and American theatre.
“In the quiet pond of my office a mystery had opened its toothy jaws and swum forward.”
The student who stood at my office door looked like she’d pushed a shopping cart of angst up a very steep hill. I invited her in. Once seated she explained that she couldn’t possibly do the assignment I’d set for my large Intro to Theatre class: write a three page play. I tried to calm her.
“You know, it doesn’t have to be a good play. It’s just to show me that you know what a play is.”
“I can’t write anything now.”
“I’m incredibly depressed. I feel numb. I don’t want to be in school. I feel negative. I haven’t learned to control anything in the world around me. I get anxiety from driving. I get anxiety from Walmart. I get anxiety all the time. I’m absolutely insane. And the weird thing is that people actually think I have my shit together.”
I looked at her more closely. She was quite pretty and she’d dressed and groomed herself to make herself prettier still. She wore tight, white jeans and pink top that showed a bit of cleavage. She had sunglasses perched on her bleached and ratted hair. Her “look” was more glamorous and sophisticated than most of my students could muster; it was easier to imagine her serving cocktails than taking notes in a lower-division theatre class. She looked experienced and competent in a decidedly feminine way; she looked like she had her shit together.
“What happens when you try to write?”
“I stare at the page and burst into tears.”
“Maybe you’re making it harder than it needs to be. Just now you told me all your problems and the words poured out of you. Why don’t you write that?”
“That’s not a play.”
“But it could be. You can make almost anything into a play if it can be spoken or acted.”
To prove my point, I pulled my laptop off my desk and sat facing her, balancing the computer on my knee—one of the few occasions when it’s actually been a “laptop.”
“Let’s write a play together,” I said. “I’ll type whatever you say.”
My visitor looked puzzled but relieved that I was willing to help.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “If I say something, am I telling something that someone says… or am I telling a story?”
I typed this, secretly rejoicing that she’d found a murky, self-referential question to use as a first line—it would build intrigue right from the start.
“You’re telling a story,” I said. I hit “enter” (to indicate a different character speaking) and typed “You’re telling a story.”
“I don’t know what to say. I don’t have answers for your questions.”
“I didn’t ask you questions.”
I typed these lines, too, elated that there was already a bit of friction in the exchange. The dialog seemed promising. She wanted to know who the characters were. I told her she could figure that out later. For the time being I typed “LLL” in front of her lines for “LIZ” and “PPP” in front of mine for “PROFESSOR.” (Since triple letters don’t occur in English she could find and replace these with character names later.) She wanted to know what the play was called. I said we could call it “Liz’s Play” for now. She said that was a bad name.
“What do you think it should be called?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
I typed “I DON’T KNOW” at the top of the document. Then she wanted to get back to the dialog.
“It would be easier if you asked me questions,” she said.
“How do you feel?” I asked, quickly typing both lines.
“I can’t control the world around me. I get anxiety from driving. I get anxiety from Walmart. I get anxiety all the time. I’m absolutely insane. And the weird thing is that people actually think I have my shit together.”
PPP: Do they?
LLL: It’s probably ‘cause I do a real good job hiding it.
PPP: Why do you need to hide it?
LLL: Why does anybody hide their feelings? You want to blend in with everybody else.
Since the play was taking a therapeutic turn, we decided that the characters were probably Liz and her analyst rather than Liz and her professor. I kept typing “PPP” in front of my lines for consistency’s sake. My student was going much faster now; this was clearly material she knew well. I typed furiously to keep up.
LLL: I work to make people be happy. I work at it. We’re all happy together. Then, when I’m alone, it all falls apart. I don’t want to be touched. I don’t want to be affectionate… I don’t know where I got this sense of being so different.
PPP: How long do you see this continuing?
I really wanted an answer to this last question. Depression is rarely chronic; people who suffer from it need to know they’ll eventually get better.
LLL: I can’t say. The weather helps some… seventy degrees, sunny, a day at the dog park.
PPP: You have a dog?
LLL: I have two dogs. They’re the only things I enjoy.
Our joint improvisation was flying along. I used the therapist’s lines to provoke exposition.
PPP: What do you call your dogs?
LLL: Paola and Paul.
PPP: If Paola and Paul were people, what would they tell you about this period in your life?
LLL: They’re puppies. They get to live the good life. For a puppy, people are everything. For a person, a dog is only part of your life.
PPP: How old are you?
PPP: Aren’t you a puppy yourself?
This rejoinder had come to me when she first mentioned puppies. I’d asked her age to set it up.
LLL: It’s not all flowers and butterflies.
Even as I typed this line I knew it couldn’t be improved. It was a perfect come-back: concise, colorful, spoken with an edge of irony, but the pain was real. It was clear she was going through a difficult patch, but maybe writing a play would help. For the moment it was all self-dramatization, but you have to start somewhere—and I could see that the young woman who by now was splayed across my office couch had a knack for dialog.
LLL: I’m cursed with sadness. Waking up is suddenly… just another fucking day—and I can’t stand waking up like that.
PPP: Have you thought of harming yourself?
I felt I should ask this. If she were in danger, I should refer her to the campus counseling service. The question sounded lurid, but she answered without hesitation.
LLL: I used to…
PPP: Not anymore?
LLL: For me to hurt myself I’d have to lose everything: my family; my dogs; my money. I’d have to be homeless.
PPP: Homeless people don’t harm themselves—except by being homeless.
As I typed the line it seemed brutal, not something a therapist ought to say.
LLL: I’m so spoiled that I’d probably just die.
PPP: So you’re special even in that?
LLL: What do you mean?
PPP: So exquisitely fragile! You perish from homelessness! What’s mere deprivation for others is death to you.
Why was the therapist becoming so snide? What happened to his compassion? We were nearing the bottom of the second page. The therapist was pushing the session towards some kind of crisis. Or was I doing it? Over the years that I’d taught the course I’d read hundreds of three-page plays; the good ones all managed a strong finish. The author put “a button” on it—what used to be called “a curtain line.” Some effect was achieved, an argument closed, a point made. I was beginning to feel conflicted in my triple role as character, scribe and (let’s not forget) Liz’s professor. In this last role, I should probably encourage her to share more of her feelings and find out if she was seeing a real-life therapist—although it seemed clear that she was; she played her role too well not to have rehearsed it in real life.
LLL: My boyfriend doesn’t understand. He says he does everything for me and I never show gratitude. He says I should just snap out of it.
PPP: I’d like to have a word with your boyfriend.
She clearly wasn’t getting support at home. I thought of recommending a website that would help her boyfriend understand that depression is an illness, not a character trait. Finally, if she’s too sick to do the course work, I should offer her an incomplete. As a scribe, however, all of these courses of action were repugnant to me. None of them led to a dramatically-satisfying ending to the play I was typing. She’d need a good ending if she wanted her group to choose her play for production at the end of the term. Still keeping my oar in as “the therapist,” I began to think of possible endings.
Ending # 1: I could try and kiss her. Part of me wanted to kiss her. Like the heroine of a Woody Allen film, her despair and self-absorption had only made her more attractive. The “therapist” turns out to be a lecherous jerk who exploits her.
Ending # 2: she could make a play for the “therapist.” This would be harder to bring off, her list of symptoms would have to be re-configured as a come-on.
Ending # 3: the therapist could insult her and belittle her and kick her out of the office. So he’s a very bad therapist. But even a jerk needs motivation. Is he jealous of her puppies?
Ending # 4: the therapist’s phone could ring with news of some other patient more deserving of his attention. He could bundle Liz out of his office over her strident objections. How could this happen? I had no way of making my office phone ring and I didn’t dare mime it.
Liz was still talking about her boyfriend, but I’d stopped paying attention. I felt trapped by our improvised play which now required bad behavior. To make this an acceptable work of drama one of us would have to do something unwise, unkind or unprofessional—probably all three. I stopped typing.
How did we get to this point? How did theatre become so heavily invested in bad choices and bad outcomes? Why couldn’t I imagine our play ending on a moment of joy or shared insight? Noh plays often end in an act of commemoration or pious observance. Greek tragedies end on a lyrical note; the chorus makes sure of that. Why can’t our plays do that? Why do they only hang out with supermarket tabloids?
I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t pass the buck to my student; she could talk about her problems but would need time to put them into any kind of dramatic shape. I had to break character.
“This is really promising. The dialog is good, but it needs an ending.”
“An ending to the play?”
“That’s right. Something that makes it finished.”
“Can’t I just put ‘to be continued’?”
“No. The audience needs to feel it’s getting a complete story.”
“I don’t know what the complete story is.”
“Neither do I, but you’ve got a dynamite start here and it only took a few minutes. I’ll send it to you as a file. You can finish it at home.”
“Okay, I guess…”
I un-laped the laptop. “What’s your Email, Liz?”
“What did you call me?”
“I’m not ‘Liz.’”
Suddenly our positions were reversed: I felt a little wave of panic.
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m not Liz.”
“I got an Email from somebody named Liz that she was coming to see me.”
“It wasn’t me.”
In the quiet pond of my office a mystery had opened its toothy jaws and swum forward. Without being in the least violent, the moment was eerie and poignant: unknowingness reverberated between us like the dying note of a temple gong. Could this be an ending? Not in American theatre! American endings either kill the characters or wrap them like parcels so UPS can deliver them to the stage door. Nearly all the student plays I’d read agreed on this: the ending is always an answer, not a question. It might be a pistol shot, but never the sound of a temple gong.
The moment vanished as suddenly as it came. “Liz” gave me her real name and Email. (She’d come without an appointment.) She thanked me for my help. As the door closed behind her, I sensed that neither of us had much enlightened the other. She had only a vague notion of what a play was; I had only a slender idea of her troubles.
A week later she turned in her play. The patient was still called “Liz.” She’d kept most of my lines but added a good title: “Therapy You’ll Never Need.” The best she could manage for an ending was to have Liz’s boyfriend burst into the analyst’s office and shoot himself. I didn’t think it made any sense, but her group liked it and chose it for production—a new low point in American theatre. So in addition to being an uncredited collaborator, I’d became a character in a play I didn’t like and put my professional ethics at risk in the process.
The only bright spot was the thing I should have focused on from the first: I’d helped her get through the assignment.