Guest Post by Jason Lasky
I’m both for and against the idea of writing about what I know.
I’m for it because it’s a safe place to start, and I’m against it because it’s limiting and detrimental to living a more creative life.
While I was working towards my (eventually-abandoned) MFA at the Actors Studio Drama School, it was suggested that I choose a memory, an event, or an occasion as the foundation for building a world with specific details- seasons, temperatures, time periods, locations- that would be populated by people whose routined lives I was going to complicate. These could be combinations of people I knew well (me included), who I would then morph into creatures that would be at once recognizable and relatable to an audience, yet unrecognizable to those I used as models.
At one point, though, I started thinking how instead of relating to my characters, I could not relate to them, and that’s when I touched upon the idea of abandoning what I knew and searching for (or researching for) what I didn’t know. I discovered so much more about writing a character by giving them physical, mental and spiritual qualities that I knew nothing next to nothing about (at first).
My published play, Mend the Envelope, features a man who is an internationally award-winning architect and hot air ballooning expert with a C4 spinal injury who turns to God because of the loss of his son. He started as me. I made choices about this man’s past, and those choices required a tremendous amount of research in order to understand his psychological state before even a single word was spoken when the lights came up. The same can be said about his wife.
I can say that the time I put in to learning about my fictitious characters made me have a new appreciation and understanding for people in the various worlds they inhabit, and I believe this also helped lead to the play’s successful runs in New York and its future productions in Russia and China.
That being said, I’m trying something different now.
I’ve moved about the world the last several years, experienced a nice slice of life, and encountered a bevy of colorful characters along the way who have shared with me their own slices of experience. Take, for instance, a pale-skinned girl with red-dyed curly pig-tails and glasses who I met during a Q&A in Murmansk, Russia in January thanks to funding provided by Theatre Communications Groupí¢â‚¬â„¢s Global Connections: On the Road grant.í‚ Smiling and laughing, she told me and a group of other strangers a story about feeding squirrels during a frigid winter when she was a kid by walking through a forested area with nuts in her pockets.
The specificity and energy with which she spoke burned several images into my brain, so much so that a scene in my new play 40 Days of Night is constructed based on her memories. These pages flowed in a very organic and authentic way.
I think it’s okay if people write about what they know, but ití¢â‚¬â„¢s very possible that their biases and their agendas may ultimately end up impeding the development of their imagination.í‚ Listening to other peopleí¢â‚¬â„¢s experiences and making myself as permeable as possible is a fantastic way to access the magic of creativity because it forces me to work harder.
Through my experience of listening and filling in the imaginary gaps, a great deal of specificity that I couple with the authentic telling of a story allows me to create my version of reality that contains all the specifics and is equally authentic in its own right.í‚ This way of working also contributes to a greater accessibility to deeper meanings, for I see that feeding the squirrels speaks to the larger ideas of childlike naivetíƒ©, to the innocence of youth and the enjoyment of simple times, which is a universally understood idea that Ií¢â‚¬â„¢m trying to capture through this action.
This appeal to the universality of the human experience is something that all good plays try to accomplish, and through this approach of looking to the strangerí¢â‚¬â„¢s story as a guide to specificity and authenticity I am finding there are more magical possibilities available for constructing my own realities.
In essence, while I would certainly not shun the idea of writing about what I know, I feel that both conducting research into uncharted territories and that simple act of listening to a stranger can create ample fodder for the writing of a character and a scene that bears truth, specificity, and universality.
If you want more playwriting advice, tips, and hacks, make sure to check out the comprehensive PSH Playwriting Course.
Jason Lasky is an American playwright and actor.í‚ He is the co-founder of 5th Wall Theater, Shanghaií¢â‚¬â„¢s critically-acclaimed independent theater, and Lasky Productions, a performance company dedicated to international collaborations.í‚ His play Rendezvous: A Tragicomedy, co-authored with his wife Svetlana and presented in collaboration with Shanghai LGBT, was the first English language play addressing transgendered identity in mainland China.í‚ He is also the founder and live composer of the Shanghai Soundpainting Ensemble.í‚ His theater work has been publicized internationally, most recently in ITI-info magazine.í‚ For more information about his work, please visit www.jasonlasky.com.
The opinions contained herein are solely those of Jason Lasky, and not necessarily those of Play Submissions Helper.