The Pain of Joy

“…None of the characters in this play are based on anyone in this room – the characters in this play are based on everyone in this room,” started my first not-so-staged reading of the first play that I wrote (and finished) in Berlin.

I finished Joie on September 13, just two days after I started it, and two months later I had a cast of ten reading the play before an audience in a quaint,  Jewish owned, English bookstore in _______ Prenzlauer Berg on a breezy but not too cold or quiet Tuesday evening.

Joie was one of the least planned plays in my writing repertoire, and more than any other one of my plays was a complete departure from my usual pigeonhole but at the same time a complete compilation of my varying styles.

I am no stranger to long bouts of playwriting as I am prone to suffering from the opposite of writer’s block: instead of not being able to write, I have too many things to write, so therefore I don’t write at all (it has its own logic). This time, having suffered through the atrocity that many writers are fortunate enough to succumb to but not always lucky to take advantage of, I had several plays and projects that I started but never finished. Why not put them all together in one piece, rather than abort them suddenly or birth them prematurely?

If school has taught me anything (besides how to beat the system), it is that I must really learn how to throw out the rule book but only after having read it and memorized it thoroughly. This may be the inspiration of a certain Spanish turned French painter I know, well not know or knew, but we all know.

My plays have been critiqued in several regards for not conforming to those orthodox techniques of theater while not straying far enough towards the annals of the avant garde, and though I grimace at the thought of seeing some of my stillborn wonders being flushed down the proverbial toilet due to the demands of commercial (read: Capitalistic) success, I’ve never really given in to what has been asked of me. I will not mold my structure or my intention unless it is a mild edit or two, in the hopes that the production value is worth the expense.

So then came Joie, that in a way was something completely new and different for me in its execution and a triumphant return to my unbridled and unabashed writing talent. I cut out the chore of mapping out my play, from rising action to denouement etcetera, there was no outline, there was no question to be asked or answered, I did not worry about the number of characters or the possible production costs involved with the set, scenery and lighting – I just started writing.

I stopped thinking about what people were going to think – the audience, the producers, the actors, or even myself. I took away all the confines of adhering to what “should” be and I just became myself, again, but in a new different way, my two middle fingers striking the keys more diligently than the others.

I made a test tube baby out of these other embryos: a play about two writers fighting over the prize of being published, a play about a gaggle of gay men who hire an escort that dies at a sex party, a play about the thin walls of hastily constructed Berlin apartments.

The underlying theme of Joie is entirely based on good vs. evil – but with it came a lot of other issues, one of which is exposing the evil things that gay men do to each other to get ahead in life and in certain social circles, and also in love and romance.

I came up with the theme of Berlin being this rabbit hole like experience, and the correlation to some of the characters in The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland was a natural further progression in the theme because I wanted to talk a lot about these glossy, picturesque worlds that can turn into something otherworldly horrible in a way…and the layers kept getting thicker and thicker.

On September 11, 2012 I was exhausted from spending an entire month in another acting job where I was playing a stereotype and I was exhausted from the dark side of Berlin and I was exhausted from having so much to say (too much really) and nowhere to really say it. I had spent just over a year speaking for all of these other artists, with a pocket full of half-finished poetic dramas with copious amounts of pointless yet pithy dialog – so I sat down and did what I do best – I just started writing.

It hurt, putting this all together – this reading – and I loved every minute of it.

When you are starving artistically, you will stop at nothing to show your hunger in whatever capacity you can, and when I sat down in front of my old MacBook Pro with the European PC keyboard that is programmed as an American one (damn Y’s and Z’s), I forced myself into nonexistence until it was finished.

I went back home – just writing dialog with only a vague sketch of the characters, but as each popped up into the script, it was a welcome treat as if they were introducing themselves to me but at the same time they were long time friends that maybe I had forgotten about or rather they were those aforementioned fetuses that were somehow being given a second chance.

When it was finished (though no art is ever finished), I took a big sigh of relief, not because I could stop pissing in the wine bottles I was drinking out of, or because I could go for a bike ride, or because I could eat a decent meal again; because I had done it. I had finished my apotheosis.

A play about a mad French Madam of an all gay male brothel in Berlin. That wasn’t the part that shocked me.

I was most surprised by my discovery of this supernatural writing that I have touched upon before, but was an homage of sentiment from my early years as a young eager learner, fascinated by the big crazy books of Stephen King, the first idol I ever had.

The scary bits seemed relevant to the story and while my attempt to write a murder mystery did not seem prudent, and my attempt to write a psychological thriller was a botched attempt at best, all the nerdy antics of Joie fit perfectly in a way.

I knew I would need a reading for it. I was struggling with how I felt about all of the things that have troubled me in the past as far as my audiences have concerned – much of which include quips about my pointless dialog and lack of plot development and expository shit. Also, I needed to adjust my filters for the burgeoning English-speaking population in Berlin and Europe.

I am not a pioneer of theater because what I write isn’t really theater. It is a bridge between a few genres, but I have never doubted my dialog, I know that I am an expert at it because never in life do I hear people speaking for over two minutes at a time about themselves without a single person interrupting them, never in my life do I hear complete sentences over and over again without someone asking someone to repeat what they said, and never in my life do people wait for their turn to say something in order to say it. So maybe these devices aren’t theater, and maybe they are not intrinsically part of the vocabulary of trained actors, dramturg, directors and producers, but for me – it is a device that I use because it is inherent in me.

The reading went perfect.

The biggest struggle was finding people to do it for free – but I was more than fortunate enough to find people that did more than exactly what I needed them do to without a lot of time or rehearsal, and absolutely no compensation.

Some of the people who read for the reading were friends, actors and other artists that I worked with before or met through other circles. Two of the roles were read by good friends of mine, and two of the roles were read by complete strangers who got the script about two hours before the show.

I had an audition where I found two of the actors and I worked with a few of them at my home/office in Kreuzberg where I went over the motivation of the characters and had little quasi rehearsals.

My home office during a production.

All that shit that drives me crazy about managing expectations and nurturing “unique personalities”  reminded me of why I do all of this in the first place. The love of the job is what I endure and the price that I pay is extremely emotionally and physically expensive, but more than anything, I love the people that bring my work to life, like Picasso’s syphilis whore models – oh wait, ridiculously bad analogy, but you know what I mean, right? I’m horrible.  Ha.

Anyway, long story less long, most of the audience was split between “not understanding” and/or “not loving” the first act as much as they loved the second act and vice versa*. Initially I thought that I would have to change and nix much of the witty banter in the first act and rearrange some of the “secrets” that are revealed in the second act, but good for me, the reading threw that all out of the water, so I am back to another stage in the evolution of this work, and because so much of it is a visual piece, I want to make sure that the dialog is solid before I carry on.

I came back to the same issues of not enough expository writing – really developing the characters, but I thought to myself, I am not a journalist or a biographer, although much of Joie deals with caricature of people who exist in their own worlds – a world that they create for everyone else to see, and who ever wants everyone to see everything?

Another thing I have to focus on with editing is making sure that the cultural clash does not cause too many problems. Many of these issues were brought up with the cast and have already been amended, things like semantics.

I am currently un-obsessing over this piece while letting people take their time filling in the survey that I sent out afterwards. I love that play, and I can’t wait to see it on stage, and I hope I can give it the love and attention it deserves, no matter if anyone thinks I’ve produced a crooked, unruly, illegitimate child. I’m already pregnant again anyway.

© Melissa Pond

*note: Many many many good things were said about the play but per usual I am unable to focus on them as much as the bad things.

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