After working solo on this play intermittently for about years, Watchlist, formerly titled Scars Over Berlin, is finally being produced in 2019. With many thanks to Hiraeth Theatre Company, 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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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.
This post was inspired by a long series of nights spent dreaming I was in Israel and waking up to find that's not the case. It's tough to spend a long and beautiful time in one place and wake up to a different reality.
Artists are storytellers, we are dreamers. By nature we see things for more than they are, deeper than their surface value. We spend time thinking, wondering, pondering, creating alternate realities. By vocation we live alternate realities all the time. I mean that in the sense of imagining ways things could be, but also nobody read me a story as a kid (nor did I read one as a teenager or young adult) about a person who grew up, went to school, and then spent years working multiple jobs at once to be able to spend a little time on the side pursuing her dream. This life I lead, while not unheard of, is far from common or traditional. But the unpredictability, the flexibility, the constant variables that make up the schedule of a freelancer, paints the world with a different brush. The brush of a dreamer.
Dreamers see possibilities where others don't. They imagine things never created before and, if they're a magic combination of hardworking and lucky, they make those imaginings a reality. Right now, as American politics faces options it never believed possible before, dreamers all over the country are forging new realities for our nation. That's happening through a lot of hard work, and a lot of determination in the face of being told our ideals are impossible.
Some may equate dreamers with optimists, but that's not me. I think of myself as a realist in many ways, making the practical decisions that must be made to make impractical decisions possible. When I was in high school, I made the extremely impractical decision of applying to only one college, a college that happened to be the number one "dream school" in the country. I had no backups. I had a fake list of four other schools I could list off when people asked me where I was applying, so that they wouldn't look at me like I was crazy, but to this day I couldn't really tell you anything about the drama programs at Brown, Carnegie-Mellon, Columba, and Northwestern that you don't already know. I did zero research. I focused 100% on making my NYU dream a reality. I did all the practical work, got all the good grades, did all the extra-curriculars and volunteer work needed to make my impractical decision a practical result.
As graduation loomed ever closer, I realized a dream was coming to an end. Don't get me wrong, theatre school was hard, it is still the hardest thing I have ever done, and I was grateful in many ways to have survived it and to see the light at the end of the windowless theatre tunnel. But the end of that tunnel was also the end of my known future. From age fourteen I had seen myself going to NYU and living in New York, and that's what I did. Yet with that cap and gown staring me in the face, I was completely unsure what to do next. I had been very good at achieving my dreams to that point. But I didn't know what the next dream was.
Most days I still don't know what the new dream is, and I graduated almost four years ago now. I dream of creating new theatre, and telling stories, and changing the world through art. I dream of creating political pieces that start a movement. But I also dream of moving to Berlin, or to Tel Aviv, of becoming a citizen of the world, a nomad whose home is nowhere and everywhere.
The danger of being a dreamer is that there is a great risk of disappointment. Far too often, reality does not line up with the possibilities we see. Every audition that doesn't yield a role or each play submission that is rejected is a small (or not-so-small) heartbreak. Being a dreamer is full of extreme highs and consequently extreme lows. Dreamers can imagine incredible successes, bright, perfect outcomes - and when life falls short of what our minds create, it can be a devastating letdown. Some days, it can be easy to shake off a loss, but other days, the death of what could have been roots itself in our hearts and makes everything a bit darker.
I was hoping as I wrote this piece it would come to some sort of inspiring conclusion. But the fact of the matter is I'm at a loss. Sometimes things are just hard. They warn you, when you're a kid, that theatre is a hard business, not for the faint of heart. That if you can think of anything else you'd like to do, do that, because it will surely be easier. And by easier what they mean is that it won't break your heart so much when it's hard. Unfortunately, I have yet to find anything practical that I love as much as theatre or rock music. I'm doomed to be a dreamer forever. And I guess that means a lot more heartbreaks along the way. Good thing my phoenix heart is strong. (There it is. There's the inspiring ending I was trying to find.)