When I was in kindergarten, we learned about the different parts of the body. Skin, muscles, bones, organs. A long roll of butcher paper was produced, and our teacher assigned us each a partner. Giggling, we lay down as our partners traced the contours of our body with thick crayon. The purpose of the assignment was to draw a portrait of ourselves from the inside, to demonstrate that we understood what we had diligently studied all week.
My partner was a girl named Ashley, who had curly blonde hair and sometimes still sucked her thumb. I was a brown-nosed bossypants, and I wasn’t thrilled with having to work with her. I really wasn’t thrilled with having to work with anyone, ever, come to think of it. I remember sort of dictating, “If you want to color the veins and arteries in the legs, I’ll work on the brain and skull in the head, and we’ll meet in the middle.” I turned my attention to my task, ignoring her entirely for several minutes. When I looked over, I was horrified to see one leg colored entirely in purple, another in bright green stripes. Outside the lines. Outside. The. Lines.
“What are those?” I asked.
“Crazy legs!” she said.
My face squinched up. My eyes got heated. I don’t remember what I said next, but I remember it wasn’t nice. The teacher came over to intervene, and I remember the tears starting to well up in Ashley’s eyes.
“Did you understand that you were supposed to draw what we have been learning about all day? We spent all afternoon talking about veins and arteries and muscles and bones. You were supposed to draw those!”
“Yeeeeeeessssss,” Ashley wailed. “But… I just … wanted … to make purple crazy legs!” She burst into full-body sobs and had to go to the nurse’s office to calm down.
This is why group projects were never really my thing.
I mostly make my living as a costume designer, but I also spend a good deal of time in the classroom. When I teach my students about what a designer does, I always start with a discussion about what makes theatre special, what makes theatre artists unique. I always focus on collaboration. If I wanted to make works of art in isolation, I tell them, I would be a painter. I would sit in a room, and I would use my imagination to invent something new, and paint it on a canvas, and I would work on it, alone, until I was done, and then I would show it to the world.
Theatre isn’t like that, I explain. A playwright creates a world on paper. A director interprets it. Actors play their roles. The design team builds the visual and aural universe. Technicians and stage management make practical considerations possible. The producer makes a financial investment. Theatre is one large group project, and we need to all be good collaborators in order to make it work.
They usually all nod their heads, yup, I totally get it. Sometimes a more insightful child will pipe up and remind us to “play nice with others.” Everyone smiles. We know this. We got this.
Then I split them into small groups and ask them to create something together, and about half the time, all hell breaks loose. Genuine fights over scraps of aluminum foil and crayons. Pointed fingers and quivering lips, friendships temporarily ruined over scissor hogging and glitter overuse.
As the adult in the room, it’s hard to take these moments completely seriously. While moderating deeply felt injustices between the littlest ones, it’s all I can do not to say, I know you are upset right now, but you are arguing over a cardboard box covered in yarn. In ten minutes, I am going to quietly throw it in the dumpster and you are going to eat a Lunchable and drink a juice box and then you, and everyone else, are going to forget that you ever burst into tears over a monster puppet named Fred.
It’s so easy to dismiss them when they’re small.
It’s harder when you’re dealing with adults.
It’s so much harder when you’re dealing with yourself.
Every now and again, people will ask me when I’m going to write a play. It makes sense, they say. Since you’ve spent so much of your career working on plays, reading plays, interpreting plays, designing plays …. surely it makes sense that if you’re now interested in writing, that you would want to meld the two worlds together? Surely, the next step for you is to write a play?
I never quite know what to say to that. I sometimes talk about how, well, I’m not so great with plot and conflict, and I’m not so great at writing characters who aren’t me. I sometimes talk about how the economic reality of the playwright is even more grim than the life of the designer, and even more uncertain. All of that stuff is true, but today I’ve been thinking about the real reasons why I don’t think I’m interested, at least not now, in writing a play:
I am still five years old, and I am not ready to trust that girl holding the purple crayon.
I can control what I put on paper. I don’t have to send it to anyone else for approval. My words belong to me. I love it when others read what I write, and I love it when a conversation emerges from things that I write. But those words are mine, and they belong to me, and I don’t think I’m ready to let someone else figure out how to interpret them.
I’m actually not very good at sharing.
I recently had the experience of watching a production of a play I feel very strongly about. I didn’t write this play. I designed the costumes for a production in Philadelphia. Not the original production, mind you, just one production. There had been other productions in other cities before. There will be others afterwards. I don’t own this play, in any way. Those words aren’t mine. Those ideas aren’t mine. That production isn’t mine.
But…. man, this particular play. I feel ownership of it in a way that feels visceral and real, even though I have no right whatsoever to that feeling. When people ask me what my favorite show to design has been, I usually name this play– not because it was a complex design. It wasn’t. It was relatively simple. But it was my favorite show to design because I thought this play was challenging, and important, and funny, and heartbreaking. It was my favorite show to design because I felt so strongly that each person in the room, from the actors to the director to the design team to the producers, trusted one another and believed in the project. It was my favorite show to design because I was working to tell a story that raised some Big Questions: how perspective can become muddied with privilege. The intersection of race and racism. The inherent potential and inherent danger of youthful naïveté.
It was my favorite play to design because it left me speechless after the first time I saw it. It was my favorite play to design because it never stopped making my stomach hurt. It was my favorite play to design because it wasn’t pretty. It was my favorite play to design because it wasn’t easy.
I traveled to another city with some friends the other night, friends who had been in the production I designed, and we talked about how surreal it might feel to watch other actors and designers tackle something that still felt personal and private to our own experience. We sat and we watched another company of actors say the words we all knew by heart, watched these actors in a room that looked so different from ours, in a version of the play that looked nothing like our own.
And I know I have no right to this feeling, but let me tell you:
I was angry.
I was angry because some big choices this company made were different from the expressly stated wishes of the playwright. I was angry because those choices made the play into something else entirely.
I was angry because I didn’t think those choices should have been allowed to happen.
I was angry because the people in the audience watched this production and took away an understanding of the playwright’s intentions that felt so radically different from our own interpretation.
I was angry because I wanted to get up and scream Stop this. You don’t understand. This isn’t what this is about. You missed the point entirely. I was angry because I couldn’t.
I was angry because I had no right to do that. I was angry because, for all I know, I’m the one who has it wrong.
I was angry because it dawned on me for the first time that once a play has been published, those words really don’t belong to the playwright anymore.
I was angry because it made me realize just how little I had to do with the life of this play. I was angry because it made me realize that this creation that meant so much to me actually has nothing to do with me. I was angry because it’s really none of my damn business what someone else does with someone else’s words.
In so many ways, it’s incredibly unfair for me to write this. This production hasn’t opened yet. This company still has rehearsal time left to make big changes, and perhaps they will. I understand that I saw a preview, not a finished product, and it’s unfair for me to react so strongly. It’s incredibly unfair for me to assume the playwright feels the same way.
And so here’s the thing. If I feel so strongly about a work that isn’t even my own, I can only imagine what the people involved in this production feel. I’m sure they feel a similar sense of ownership. I’m sure they feel as if those words belong to them, just as much as we believed those words belonged to us, just as much as the playwright feels those words belong to her (because, frankly, they do).
I’m sure the people involved with that production, if they were to read this, might think, wow, what a sour bitch who couldn’t let go. They might even be right.
Maybe I am just a sour bitch who can’t let go.
Perspective is a funny, funny thing.
A play will be performed in a major American city, and I believe that this production does not accurately represent the playwright’s original intention. Is that the end of the world? Probably not. It’s happened before. It will certainly happen again. I spent the morning reading through articles written on various sides of the argument, articulating in greater detail the nuances of the lines between playwright and director, between creative freedom and vandalism. It’s a thorny issue. It will continue to be thorny. I think the fact that those lines are blurred is actually mostly good. I think that negotiation is necessary.
Art is, by nature, subjective. And we need that. We need people to create new interpretations, who re-imagine and who reinvent. I’m usually the first one to push for gender-bent Shakespeare, for classical plays done in contemporary settings, for making work that is accessible.
But it becomes the difference between making a detailed diagram of the human body and making a person with crazy legs. In retrospect, those purple crazy legs were probably beautiful, and I’m sorry I was mean to that little girl for creating something that she loved. Both of our works were beautiful. Both of our works had a place in the world. But you can’t look at crazy legs and tell me they’re an accurate description of the human body.
And you just don’t get to change the parts of the play that you don’t like.
And I wish I were able to let this go. I wish I hadn’t woken up this morning still angry. I wish I had been able to step back, take a breath, and say “You know, there are still horrible things happening in the world. War and famine and death and illness. You invent make-believe for a living. On the whole, this doesn’t really matter. Go make some coffee and take a deep breath and let it go, Katherine. Just let it go.”
It’s easy to say. It’s really, really hard to do.
And I don’t know where to place my anger, other than here in this essay. I don’t know if there’s a useful outlet for my anger.
I don’t even know if I’m right.
I just know how I feel. And I know that I need to let this one go. This simply isn’t my battle.
But it’s made me think about my own responsibilities as a writer. It’s made me think about my own responsibilities as someone who interprets other writers’ work. It’s given me a window into how hard it must be to sit in a rehearsal room watching other people say lines that you have written, to have them not match up with what was playing in your head as you wrote them, to have to take that deep breath, and to let it go.
It’s made me a lot more respectful of playwrights.
And it’s made me realize that I’m really not ready to be one.