Black Holes and Paradoxes

A blog post by Emerald City playwright S.P. Miskowski – Emerald City opens March 9th at West of Lenin. For more from the cast & crew visit the Emerald City Blog.

Jennifer Pratt as Scarlett. Photo by Omar Willey

Theater presents many paradoxes. One has to do with pacing. When actors speak quickly, the action seems more exciting. Yet if they speak too quickly, so that the audience has to strain or can’t understand every word, time seems to slow down. After that, the faster the actors talk the slower the show seems to the audience. This is because viewers are left outside of the story’s details and can’t catch up, so they become bored.

Another paradox has to do with specificity. The more universal you strive to make your play, the less likely it is that people will feel connected to it. Conversely, the more specific and detailed the play, the more an audience will (usually) take it to heart. People will even say that something similar happened to them once, and swear that this character or that must be based on their aunt or sister or mother. The less universal you aim to be, the more universal the work tends to be, especially if it feels real. If it has texture and nuance, no matter how outlandish the story, it seems like something that really occurred.

And another paradox has to do with autobiographical characters. You would expect a writer to understand such a character better than any other. You would think that such a figure would be more vivid, more layered and convincing.

Yet, as Maria Irene Fornes explained in one of her playwriting workshops, the autobiographical character is easy to spot once you suspect that he exists, because he is the black hole on stage. More often than not he is an empty shell moving between more interesting characters and sucking all the energy out of the play. His motives are murky at best, and when he speaks nothing is as clear as it is when other characters are speaking. Why is this? Perhaps because he is too close to his creator and is typically underwritten and over-justified. His motives and subtext are taken for granted by the writer, and are not made explicit on stage.

What to do, when you spot this character and recognize him? Well, you could kill him. You could remove him from the play and start over. Or you could–as I did, recently–examine this character’s reason for being there in the first place, and find a way to set him (or in my case, her) free.

During the talkback session at a Bakery Series reading of Emerald City someone in the audience asked if I saw myself as the woman who reluctantly returns to Seattle. In that early version of the script this character (Scarlett) was doing research for a dissertation. She had taken this journey to write about the Duwamish people. Her reasons for choosing a subject that would take her back to a city she had once loved were unclear. Her feelings about Seattle, when she arrived, were mixed.

Up to that moment I had not considered Scarlett to be autobiographical. I was writing a play with four characters, and I thought the play itself would convey my ideas. Now I took a closer look and discovered that Scarlett lacked a definite desire or specific fear. She was ambivalent, as I was. One moment she liked the city, and then she would feel the need to leave. In terms of human experience this made sense, and in a novel it could be explicated in a number of ways. But the stage is a place where actions that are not explicit and motives that are not defined (at least privately between writer, director, and actor) can kill the story.

I began to examine each character’s purpose in the story. I asked myself what purpose Scarlett needed to serve, to give the play an engine of its own. Since my love for Seattle and its eccentricities was already expressed by another character, I was overdoing the love by making Scarlett ambivalent. I was ambivalent, but the character did not have to be. In order to balance the story and create opportunities for greater conflict between characters I had to let Scarlett be herself and not me. I had to let her fly away, to her own destiny.

The first time this new Scarlett spoke a line about the city, I knew I was on the right track. She was no longer repeating things I’ve said. She was saying what a woman with her background and disappointments might say. She spoke for all of the people I knew who had achieved extraordinary things only to have them destroyed by changing circumstances. She stopped being an academic (again, the vacillation, the ambivalence) and became a journalist who (like several journalists who are friends of mine) had lost her dream job because the place where she worked went out of business. She wasn’t fired and she didn’t quit. Instead her whole world had disappeared, seemingly overnight. She had to accept freelance gigs to get by. She had to scramble to survive in an era when her talent and experience had become less valuable. She resented this deeply, as any intelligent, ambitious adult would.

This sudden upheaval of one’s whole life plan is something we hope we will not have to face, but every day people do have to face such drastic changes. How do we cope? How do we chart a course and keep hold of what we are and what we know, when all the signposts we counted on have been blown to smithereens?

These are a few of the questions asked by Emerald City. Giving Scarlett her voice, full of righteous anger, filled in a part of the play that had been missing from my too-nice autobiographical version. Set free, Scarlett could hate another character. She could be desperate and funny and heroic in her attempt at saving herself. Just as important, dramaturgically speaking, she could fight with other characters and provide a contrasting opinion of a city we tend to get misty-eyed about, sometimes when we need to be clear.

The paradox of my formerly autobiographical character is that she is superficially more like me, the more I allow her to be what I am not. All of the characters are me and they are not. They are the actors and they are not. On stage together I hope they present a recognizable story of yearning and loss that is by turns moving, crazy, and ridiculous–all of it artificially contrived, and paradoxically very much like life.