Today’s Guest Post is by Playwright Chelsea Sutton – Thanks Chelsea!
The Power of Titles
I know everyone has their own special kind of percolation process when starting a new play – some people work from photos, some from news stories, some from music. Some seem to only write about nightmares they had when they were seven years old (you know who you are). I want to write about mine for a moment, not because I think it will be particularly interesting to you, but because it’s been particularly relevant in the last year of my playwriting “career.”
I’ve got to start with a title.
I hardly ever start a play/novel/story/etc without knowing its name. Some titles I carry around with me for years without attaching a story to it. In my most extreme example of this, I’ve had a title of a sci-fi novel in my pocket since seventh grade…though the story itself (which I’m planning to write, you know, soon-ish/before the next millennium) has evolved quite a bit in the last sixteen years. As one would hope.
Sometimes a title will come to me in the middle of writing something, which is great…fine…awesome…sure, I’ll take it. But if I make it to End of Play without knowing the title…it’s pretty much guaranteed that the project sucks and I’ll have to start all over.
Apparently this is a little weird. Judge as you will.
Titles help me give an identity to a play or story. It gives me something to scribble over and over again in my notebook, like a teenage girl with a crush, until the project starts feeling real and unique and begins to craft its own identity.
If I ever became a mother, I’m pretty sure I’d have to choose a name early on, so I’d have time to scribble the name over and over again until the little parasite inside me started to seem like an actual human being. I couldn’t be one of those people who just popped the kid out and waited for divine inspiration to name it. If I did that, I’d probably end up calling my daughter Herman or something, and she’d be decidedly screwed up because of it, let me tell you.
Here’s why I’m bringing up the title thing.
I’m developing a new play called The Sudden Urge to Jump.
I got involved in the Skylight Theatre Company’s PlayLab last year, only its second year in existence, in which we had to start a brand new play. Brand new. Had to. So I was looking for an idea.
There happens to be a video store not far from my apartment, small, independently-owned, nowhere near the glossy corporate image of a Blockbuster. One day, I noticed an etching of a cross on one of the windows and realized the building must have housed a church of some sort at one point in its history. This got me thinking about the relationship of this dying technology and business model with religion, and specifically the way we relate to stories, religious or otherwise, to find meaning. There’s not much difference between a church and a video store, once you break down the fundamentals. So I wanted to write about that. I also set myself a challenge in the PlayLab to write a love story.
And then I remembered this title I had that just seemed like it needed to be used soon or it might expire or something. So, I forced these three things together and I wrote The Sudden Urge to Jump.
I had the first reading of the new draft this past Sunday, October 27 as part of LABWORKS Festival at Skylight (well I had another reading back in May, but that version of the play was REALLY bad, so we’ll not discuss it). I had the benefit of a supportive cast and director who really made it a great little reading, and the talkback was quite lively (to my surprise), so I guess I’ll be doing a bunch of rewriting before the second reading on November 17. It’s donation only – so check out the Skylight website if you want to come on by. (They’re also looking to add a few more playwrights to next year’s group, so there’s still time to submit your stuff. Maybe we can be besties!)
I just starting writing a play called Falling Slanted, Sad & Crazy in The Vagrancy Writers Group.
I only have about 25 pages, so there’s not much to say about it. I WILL say, however, that I probably spent more time working out the title than anything else about it. I had a beginning image. I had characters and their names. I even had a location. But no title. And I was starting to feel the anxiety of this nameless thing lurking around in my notebook, and I knew if I didn’t name it right NOW it would get away from me somehow. So I did the thing I do when a title just doesn’t come right to me: I read poetry.
Specifically, I broke out an anthology of Frank O’Hara poetry. There were several poems that felt relevant, but one specifically stuck out to me: Song of Ending:
where are you, and why?
sometimes I see you in the earth
sometimes in the sky. Berdie,
a history of childhood where
we thought that birds never died,
just grew more numerous and some
day would fill the sky.
They don’t, and falling they
don’t cover the earth like leaves
the fragile saffron wings
of death. They disappear with one
last cry, not echoing, and then
the emptiness is full of light.
Berdie, not to be sad and crazy,
all birds hide what they have lost.
I totally named a character “Berdie” (her full name is Bernarda, I think). So anyway. Falling Slanted, Sad & Crazy seemed like a good place to start. It’s not as serious as it sounds. At least not yet. But once I had the name, my anxiety up and disappeared itself.
On a side note, The Vagrancy Theatre Company is kind of amazing. If you haven’t checked out their productions or Tactical Reads, do it. Do it now.
This summer I finished a draft of a play I was calling H.A.P. and totally screwed it up.
The play I wrote last year in The Vagrancy’s Writers Group got so off course it’s almost unbelievable. I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted it to be, so while I gave it a title, it’s not a very good one, and I was always struggling to make it mean something. Which means I was always struggling to make the play mean something too or be something it wasn’t. This resulted in the weird, deformed sorry-excuse-for-a-play that was read (unfortunately) in public this summer. Sorry to everyone who sat through it (and kudos to the actors and director for making it seem so much better than it actually was). So I’ll go back to it and tear it apart and rewrite it – and give it a proper name. Eventually. Maybe around the same time I write that sci-fi novel of mine.
The name of a character took over the title of a play before I even wrote a word. Twice.
I have two very new plays in the works, The Many Deaths of Kassie McGreevy, which I’m writing in the Eclectic Voices Writers Group at The Eclectic Company Theatre.
Another side note: The Eclectic was my first artistic home when coming out here to LA, and I started the writers group because I was desperate for a community. A good five or so years later we’re more focused than ever, planning a series of readings next August of all the work we’re doing this year, and we have an online literary journal that’s doing quite well.
In the case of Kassie, she told me the title of her play before I even knew what I was writing. Same thing happened when I was working out something for the Clubbed Thumb Biennial Commission (did you submit this year?) – a woman named Judy Presley told me what was up, and so I wrote the first ten pages of Judy Presley on a Binge. If neither one of these plays goes anywhere, I’ll blame Kassie and Judy directly.
All this stuff extends further into my fiction writing “career” but this is a playwriting blog so I won’t bore you further with it.
In any case, you can’t underestimate the power of a name. (I’m pretty sure this is a huge rule in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series…anyone? Hello? Nerds? Am I alone?) Once you name a play, that baby comes to life and you have great power over it…and if you don’t follow through…well…with great power comes great disasters, if you don’t watch yourself.
So if you see me around, feel free to mention any of my babies here, and if I’ve abandoned them, I’ll hang my head in shame, drown my sorrows in cheese, and then get back to work.
Guest Bloggers : Who better to talk about new plays than the artists themselves! During workshops, GreenReads, and Playreadings rehearsals we’ll be asking playwrights / actors / directors to share their experiences by being Guest Bloggers. Contact us if you are interested in Guest Blogging.
*Posts by Laura Steinroeder
Seedlings Social Media Manager