I am a fan of Mac Rogers. I met him in New York City, while we both working at The Manhattan Theatre Source. He’s a smart, kind, self-depreciating guy (as you’ll read) who is IMMENSELY talented. He’s a really good writer. One of my favorite plays is his adaptation of Karl Capek’s R.U.R. (another favorite play) called Universal Robots. He’s one of the few playwrights that I know who actively writes science fiction for the stage. And the work is emotional, full, and very moving. His current play is called Blast Radius. If you are in New York City, or in that area, run, don’t walk. Better yet, get bitten by a radioactive bird, grow wings and fly. You should also follow Mac on twitter (@macwrites) and visit his website: www.macrogers.org.
The Fundamental Contradiction
by Mac Rogers
I am a lazy, ambitious man.
What I really like to do is watch something on Netflix Instant while eating some Indian food and drinking a beer. That’s what I’d basically like to do all the time. Well, I’d throw in some hanging our with my wife and joking around with my friends somewhere in there. I’d ideally like to sleep thirteen hours a day. I’d like to teleport between Brooklyn and Belize at will, and at both of those places what I’d like to do is sit around. I just love sitting around and goofing off SO MUCH. I could be such a happy person if I just got some secure, low-key job and spent my nights and weekends watching Netflix.
The above paragraph describes 70% of who I am as a person: just a sponge organism soaking in food, beer, and entertainment. The problem is the other 30%. The other 30% is an extremely ambitious theater artist. Like, it’s sickening how ambitious I am. It’s to the point where I’m not willing to put most of it down in this blog. The plays I have in my head that I want to get to at some point contain sequences of such ludicrous excess they would make TREE OF LIFE look like FOLLOW THAT BIRD. I want nothing less than to sigle-handedly establish genre entertainment (which I’m defining as science fiction, horror, and fantasy) as a viable, thriving onstage entertainment culture. (I mean, obviously we all have to get in line behind Qui Nguyen as far as that goes, but it doesn’t stop me from *wanting it.*)
So what happens when you’re divided in this way is that the more driven minority percentage becomes dominant while the lazy majority becomes recessive – but crucially, the lazy majority doesn’t go away. As a result, the ambitious 30% has to drag the lazy 70% everywhere it goes in order to get anything done. And the lazy 70% of Mac isn’t making it easy. Lazy 70 is slouching, grumping, complaining, sneaking off to check Facebook (and yes, Netflix), and going deadweight to make it that much harder for Ambitious 30 to carry him.
Which brings me to The Honeycomb Trilogy.
I am in the middle of producing my most ambitious project yet, a trilogy of science fiction plays about an alien takeover of the Earth. Ambitious 30 came up with this idea over the course of 2009 and 2010. Ambitious 30 wanted to firmly establish sci-fi as part of the theater tradition, and what’s more traditional to the American theater than the living room play? People enter and exit, family members kid each other and scream at each other and embrace and reveal secrets and drink and metaphors for our society are served up, and all on one agreeable unit set. Ambitious 30 thought: What if that tradition could admit something outlandish? Not Pinter/Albee outlandish, but externally outlandish, extraterrestrial, an occupying force? Could we bring the war into the home? Could a domestic drama gradually morph into a global epic without ever leaving the living room?
So that was the plan. A three-part alien occupation story, but about one family, and all to take place on the same set. When I presented this idea to my Gideon Productions co-producers Sandy Yaklin and Sean and Jordana Williams (we were more recently joined by Shaun Bennet Wilson as an Associate Producer) they amazingly didn’t immediately form a splinter company to inquire after the rights to CLOSER. They wanted to go for it.
So then I freaking had to write it.
I realized my mistake almost immediately. When I was pitching my colleagues I was filled with excitement about the idea; Ambitious 30 was in control. But as soon as my colleagues gave the green light, Lazy 70 realized what an awful error I’d made. I would now have to write three pays, all epics, all with nine or more characters, covering an extraordinary amount of plot and thematic ground – and even if I finished, it might not be any good! Epic doesn’t equal good, epic can be shit just like anything else! I didn’t want to do this at all! How did I get myself into this mess?
How do you keep yourself writing a difficult play? Every playwright has their own answer, their own form of discipline. The smart ones just put one foot in front of the other, write three pages a day, and before too long there’s a draft. That is an admirable, conscientious, and healthy way to go through life. I have NEVER done that.
(Jordana Williams, you should stop reading here.) If it takes me four months to write a play (and this is evenings and weekends, I’ve always had a day job), then about 2.5 months of that is made up of me watching BETTER OFF TED on Netflix Instant. The problem is, I always have great scenes in my head. The inside of my mind is run by Ambitious 30. But to get these scenes on paper, Ambitious 30 has to deploy the big fat lazy fingers of Lazy 70 to actually type the keys. And the lines never make it on to the computer screen with the eloquence and grace they have inside my head. It’s like they get dragged to Earth and bump every branch on the way down. They come out looking awful. And it makes me feel like this time, THIS TIME, I will finally fail, and everyone will see how foolish they were to put their trust in me.
So I could feel like THAT, on the one hand, or on the other hand – did you know that EVERY SINGLE EPISODE of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT is on Netflix Instant?
So well over half of my writing time goes to procrastinating. Another half a month goes to false starts and blind alleys, where I spend an obscene amount of time avoiding the obvious conclusion, which is that I’m going to half to dump the last fifteen pages and start the whole section over again. So on a good process – on a GOOD writing process, for me – I actually fruitfully write one-fourth of the time I spend attempting to write. And with the Honeycomb Trilogy the enormity of it made it hard to focus on one scene at a time. I had a hard time putting out of my head the overall object being attempted. It scared the crap out of me, and when something scares the crap out of me, I force myself to think about it ALL THE TIME.
It’s actually amazing that I’m able to be in public at all, as nutso as I am in private.
The two things that got me through writing The Honeycomb Trilogy were the same two things that get me through most plays: shame and self-producing.
I would never get anything done if shame didn’t override all my other motivations. For whatever reason, the thought of letting my colleagues down supersedes even my very deeply ingrained laziness. Now to be sure, the laziness means I turn in everything late. I mean EVERYTHING. I’ve never finished a play anywhere CLOSE to on time. I just sit in my chair petrified as the deadline drifts by. But I do finish them. The shame won’t let me quit, despite the fact that that’s what I want to do every time: quit.
I am also a self-producer. I have served as a co-producer on early every one of my plays to be performed. That’s beginning to change more recently, but I still co-produce most of them, most often with Gideon Productions. And what that means is that we’re often in motion on the practical details of a production as I am writing or rewriting the script. Which means that actors are being cast, designers are being engaged, and – horror of financial horrors – PERFORMANCE SPACE IS BEING RENTED. Many more artists and much more money is being brought into play. Which means if I do what I really want to do – quit writing the play – I’ll be shamed in front of SO MANY MORE PEOPLE.
So I guess it’s all shame. I shouldn’t have suggested a two-prong motivation. There’s only one prong. The prong of shame.
I don’t mean to suggest playwriting’s a joyless process for me. There are nights where it’s great. But most of the exhilaration comes later, in rehearsal and performance, watching other artists collaborate to bring it to life. That’s when I begin to allow myself to feel happy about what I’ve done. But I find writing all by myself very difficult, and all the more difficult when Ambitious 30 saddles Lazy 70 with a huge-ass project like The Honeycomb Trilogy. It takes the superseding force, Shame 100, to stick the landing.
Right now the second part of The Honeycomb Trilogy, BLAST RADIUS, is entering into its final weekend of performances. Folks really like it, and it has been very well-reviewed (http://www.gideonth.com/