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writing characters other than myself

My first fictional-character play, The Pretty One, hasn’t gotten many reviews because I haven’t shown it in many places, but the ones that it received were pretty fucking glowing AND audience response has been good. Both kinds of audiences mentioned that they found the characters to be authentic and relatable. They also frequently noted how restrained the characters were—one reviewer said, in our face-to-face chat after the show, that “they were almost British-like in their reserve”—and how they weren’t really expecting that from me.

This makes me laugh, right before I stop laughing and go huh, because to be honest, I wasn’t really expecting that kind of writing from me either.

Thanks to the previous successes or at least notoriety for my autobiographical shows, and maybe also Sidewalk Smut, and perhaps how I am in social media and just, you know, walking around on the street with cowboy boots and big tits and a big voice and unblushingly saying the rather rude names of my shows while promoting them to strangers… thanks to all of that, I have developed a reputation, for just being blunt and open and saying everything as it is.

I have to say, my education and work experience in human-interest and arts journalism brought me that far. Give me the facts: where, when, why. I had pursued a particular type of food writing, too, in which I rummaged through my life in food to write a column a week about, say, cookbook collecting or homemade jam or holiday foods. I was used to plumbing my own depths, such as they are, and excavating some pretty raw material for public display and consumption. Dig, write, polish, repeat. It was not a major leap from that to one-woman plays based on my sex life.

But when I turned my hand to writing fictional characters and their stories, instead of transcribing myself to the page and stage, I had to stop and re-think just about everything I knew about creating and performing solo theatre.

The thing is, right, I had never really learned how to find a back story. Journalism was facts, either someone else’s or my own. I just had to pull them out and write them down in a meaningful way. And as for performing the role of Me in my first three three shows, I had instant, instinctual access to all the shadow and motivation and emotion that I ever needed. People praise that as authentic and open and raw, and I guess, yes, in comparison to much of what is out there, but in my insecure performer’s heart, I was always a little, like, well, okay, but how much talent does it take just to tell it as it is?

I know, I know. Articulating our insides does take work, and wordsmithing is a talent, whatever the content, and being present with the audience, even through the tough stuff, is hard. But I wasn’t creating that inside-the-character from scratch.

And then, with The Pretty One, suddenly I was. Six separate times, creating a character from the ground up. I had to sit and sit with those people in my head, waiting for the stories to become clear, writing things down, reading them out loud and both the character and I saying, no, actually, not that, that is not actually true. That would never be true.

These people I made, they are not me with my loud mouth and stubborn nature and fuck-you attitude, all of which was born from my own history. They had their own histories and personalities, and like most people in the world, they maybe aren’t that open to people they don’t know; even to their dearest loved ones they might not tell everything. Most people hesitate when they are telling truths. They stumble and go down wrong paths, in their minds, with their words. And they probably don’t use exposition when a simple eye-roll or grimace or loud laugh can fill in where their words leave off. For sure, these characters of mine are more reserved than I am about sex stuff.

Even after writing nerdfucker, which is just one fictional character for the entire play, I still can’t believe how challenging it is to not just insert myself into everything this person says or does. But that is essentially what I’ve had to learn to do: hold my own self back and leave enough quiet, still space for the character to come in, find their own boundaries, and say what they need to say.

(Yes, I know this is all still me. Shhh. Don’t tell them that. I don’t want them to get scared away. The process is working pretty well so far.)

*****

Theatre is just one of the ways that I delve into the hard stuff: sex, love, relationships, self. If you like what I do and want to help make it possible to keep doing it, considering becoming a patron of mine on Patreon!