After working solo on this play intermittently for several years, Watchlist, formerly titled Scars Over Berlin, is finally being produced in 2019. Watchlist is starting its developmental process tonight with the first of a series of table reads with actors so I may get a sense of where the play currently sits and what still needs work. After some initial edits, Watchlist heads to a quick workshop process in the spring, followed by a full production in summer 2019. I am looking forward to working with some of the actors who performed Park Place this summer and fall, and owe a great debt of gratitude to all the actors participating in this unglamorous but crucial step in the playwriting process.
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Scars Over Berlin
I did the thing. Under pressure of a deadline for a playwriting fellowship application, I finished my play. After four years of on-again-off-again writing and research, in the course of a week I watched a documentary, read several hundred pages of books about Ed Snowden, American surveillance, and constitutional law, and I wrote an additional forty pages of my script. My little play that I was once able to edit into a thirty-minute one-act became a full-length work. I dove in way over my head with my research and shut myself in my room for hours on end, writing and rewriting. (Check out a new excerpt, available here!)
Thanks to all the work I had put in over the last six months, I was able to generate a lot of material very quickly to meet the deadline I found out about at the last minute. And I figure, even if I don't get into the program, at least the deadline got me to finish the work. I finished editing one last scene and submitted the play on a sunny Sunday afternoon, my first day off in a couple weeks.
And then, I wasn't sure what to do. For my entire life since I graduated college, that play has crept around in the back of my mind, scratching at the back of my neck, reminding me it was unfinished and that I should stop rewatching Parks and Rec and get to writing. Most of that time my excuse was how much I was working, or other projects I was a part of, or more recently, the research I still needed to do in order to do the story justice. But now that the play was finished, I didn't have anything I needed to do. It's almost like not having homework for the first time, ever.
Of course I'm immediately throwing myself into other work - I'm in a show that's going up in early July, I'm working on assembling a team for a staged reading of the play, and a friend and I are hoping to collaborate on a new work about the Israel-Palestine conflict (because I'm a masochist who wants to be mired in complex research forever, apparently). Still, it's a bit of a strange feeling, now, to have my paper baby out there. The creation process was so long and involved that letting it go is challenging. I'm excited for the next steps, but sharing the work is also terrifying.
I have a good feeling about this year, though. I turned twenty-six a couple weeks ago, and it's almost as if since my birthday, things have just started falling into place. I finished the play, I got the acting gig, I have some cool auditions coming up, and I'm leaping into situations I might not be quite prepared for, just for the sake of adventure. I'm going to play guitar at an audition, folks, which I would never have imagined doing six months ago. If that audition works out, it could be the start of my career as a professional musician, which would be hilarious and amazing (and essentially what I want more than anything right now). I just want to have fun and be happy and make art that matters, and at the moment I feel like I'm on track to do all those things.
I have a summer ahead of me where, for the first time, I have time to actually enjoy the city. I may have finished the play, but I haven't left the arena. I'm still here. Still ready. Still fighting.
As I've mentioned before, this play I'm writing was born four years ago now, in the unexpected nursery of a producing class. When it began, Cold War Berlin was the backdrop because I was fascinated by the place, but the subject of the play had far more to do with communication and technology and the immediacy of modern society. One character served the particular purpose of allowing me to voice a lot of hurt and anger I was feeling or had felt in the past towards failed partners and relationships and goals. It was therapeutic to get those words out through the voice of someone else, even if that someone else was a paper version of me. But over the years, especially after my second visit to Berlin, a lot of that dialogue fell away in the wake of a new, bigger story about the real history of East Germany and the realities of that life. And the more I learned about that era, while the world continued to unfold in the present around me, the more I felt tied to that history as well as its many parallels to our present here in America.
I found the quote at the top of this post in a book called Dilemma Over Germany, a book that was written in the 1950s, after the start of the Cold War but before the Berlin Wall existed. I no longer remember why it was referenced in the book, but I found it perfectly described my relationship to this play, this idea. I am utterly possessed by the shadow of East Germany, a country that only existed for forty-four years. I am baffled by what happened there and what it must be like now for people who grew up in a country that no longer exists.
When last in Berlin, I went on a walking tour that focused specifically on the Cold War/occupation era. At the end, I mentioned my play to my tour guide as a preface to a couple of questions about everyday life in Red Berlin, and it was then that he recommended I read the book that has become an invaluable help in this process, Stasiland by Anna Funder. In discussing the Stasi he also mentioned the documentary Citizenfour, which I still hadn't watched at the time. Little did I know Lewis was planting a whole new tree in the idea forest of my play.
Believe what you want about Edward Snowden and his behavior regarding the government leaks and his "running away," as some people see it. I am just starting my in-depth research into that aspect of my new obsession with surveillance states, but Citizenfour opened my naïver-than-I-thought eyes to a whole lot of government activity that sounded eerily familiar given my ever-growing knowledge of East Germany. Add the current parallels being drawn between Trump and Hitler (Trump was still an impossible joke of a candidate when I watched the documentary in November), and my head is spinning.
I never imagined when I made up an idea for a show four years ago that it would become my life's blood. I feel terrible for any friends who have asked an innocent question about my work and been met with a tirade about fascism and surveillance and conspiracy in response. Some of them have probably made the mistake enough times to be used to it by now. But what Heine said was absolutely right. I didn't choose this idea. This idea chose me, and will not let me go. It has thrown me into a fight with the questions of what government should be, how society should function, and what people should do when one, the other, or both break down. Those are huge ideas. It's the sort of thing the founding fathers talked about when the wrote the Constitution. In my mind, the play is expanding to the proportions of a Tony Kushner epic. It's nowhere near that length right now, but until a few weeks ago I thought it was a one-act. Turns out, the play says that's not the case. Enter Ed Snowden and a book subtitled "Exposing the Politics and Media Behind the NSA Scandal," and a whole new round of research begins.
The arena is open. I've been in it for years, even when I didn't know it. But now the armor is on and I'm ready. Playwright, whistle-blower, gladiator, whatever you call it. Let's go.