Playwright. I always loved that word. Like shipwright or cartwright, a playwright is also a “worker or shaper”—taking a naturally growing form and crafting it into something else, something of use. Playwrights gather language and use it in a new way, shaping it into something that can aid us, carry us through loneliness, through joy, through grief.
I’ve made a living as a writer most of my life. I’ve written about many topics, but secretly, I’ve always wanted to write plays. I want to make people cry. And laugh. At the same time. But there was always a dark, nefarious character in my mind whispering from the wings of my life, “You’re not funny enough, you’re not talented enough.” I think I’m not alone in this. Don’t we all have a hidden desire—to live in Europe, to fly a plane, to throw pottery, to dance the tango—and an internal voice talking us out of it?
Like many writers I’m also a professional procrastinator, so for me, the difference between dream and action is always a deadline or a workshop. Otherwise, I’d languish in my comfy chair, watching Poldark and eating coffee Häagen-Dazs. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) Fortunately, that other voice, my inner hero, kept pushing. “You have to share that character with the world! You have to put those words to paper!”
Staging a Coup in my Life
When I hit 50, I realized that those one-acts weren’t going to write themselves, so I signed up for a 10-week playwriting workshop. Fifteen of us would learn the basics, and each of us would submit a 10-minute play. Some of us would even get the honor—or the slow drip of torture—of seeing our plays produced at the San Juan Community Theatre.
Every day at the workshop was like playing with my friends when I was a kid. There were 60-somethings, 30-somethings, and 20-somethings who came together as equals, each bringing his or her own experience and particular passions to the task.
Our theme was “It Happened in the Park,” to commemorate the centenary of the National Park Service, and San Juan Island National Historical Park in particular. Each of us approached the theme from a different perspective: Carrie Jewett’s Next Stop envisioned a hilarious encounter between two cynical young women and an alien sent to save or exploit (no spoilers!) the planet. Jan Zurcher’s THE National Park imagines a dark future where humans and nature become ones and zeroes. Diana Mancel’s Rabbits on the Rock explored the lives of three rabbits at American Camp, where they must learn rabbity ways. Mine, Shells, was based on a story of Serafina, a 600-year-old selkie, a magical seal that becomes human, lives and loves on land for seven years, then must return to the sea.
I had big goals for my play. I wanted it to be funny—no, hilarious. I wanted it to be poignant—no, a real tear-jerker. I wanted it to appeal to our love of fantasy—no, epic mythology. All in 10 minutes.
My Characters Take the Lead
A 10-minute play is only 10 pages long. Each page is about one minute of dialogue, and my first version was about twice as long as it should be. Keeping it simple was my biggest challenge. As I embraced the process of exploring my characters, how they would talk and move, the arc of the story started to come together. It got shorter, and clearer, and funnier, and more poignant as I let the characters’ movements explain much of what they were feeling.
When we turned in our plays, we had no idea what to expect—but, drum roll please, Shells was one of six selected. Next came the casting call, at the height of summer in a tourist town, with two other plays in competition for actors. At first, we had only 10 people try out for 30 characters! We announced auditions on social media. We asked our friends. We begged, we pleaded. And we did it: We cast all six plays with wonderful local actors and a few of us playwrights thrown in. I ended up not only writing a play, but directing another, and acting in a third.
In the end, our performances and plays weren’t perfect, but they were as perfect as I could possibly want. As I listened through the crack in the door as Serafina said, “We are all shells tossed on the sea of life,” and the audience laughed and maybe shed a tear or two, it felt good to be a wordwright again.
I had also been granted access to a totally new world, an amazing place to find fun, a creative outlet, and community. There truly is a place in the theater for everyone—taking tickets, painting sets, helping with marketing, acting, costumes, props.
Now I tell anyone who will listen to listen to that inner voice when it says get involved, try something you’ve always wanted to do. Get on the stage of your life, conquer the villain, and embrace your inner heroine.
Are you listening?
Shannon Borg is a wine and travel writer living in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Her books include The Green Vine: A Guide to West Coast Sustainable, Organic, and Biodynamic Wines (Mountaineers, 2011).