I recently finished a project focused on Anne Washburn, specifically her play Mr. Burns. The quick and dirty origin story of that play goes something like this:
Anne had this idea, or question, in her head: what happens to a pop culture narrative when civilization crumbles?
She decided to write a play about it. She decided to focus on the narrative of The Simpsons.
Days, months, years go by, as with most new plays. Then, an opportunity presented itself. A disused bank vault turned rehearsal space. A group of actors from theatre company The Civilians. The beginning of a process, the birth of a new play.
The actors gathered and attempted to recount – entirely from memory – an episode of The Simpsons. That dialogue comprises a good chunk of the first act. The play unfolds from there.
That’s a fucking RAD way of making a play!!!!!!! I guess I didn’t fully drop in before this project that I could do that, too. I can ask a group of peers and collaborators to come together, make up some stuff, and turn that into a play. I knew that was a possibility in the context of devising, of course. But I guess I didn’t realize that you can create collectively and pull it all together and call it a play that you’ve written!
Not that she doesn’t give credit, she does.
Credit is very important.
One of my favorite books is called Steal Like An Artist, by Austin Kleon. He writes the following:
The thesis is, basically, that there is nothing new under the sun. Therefore, an artists job is to steal – generously, honestly, and with commitment – from everything else in the world, compile it in some way, and put their own stamp on it.
That’s precisely what Washburn did from the collective birth of the play in that bank vault through the final word of the published script.
Theatre doesn’t exist without collectives, without ensembles, without each other. I love playwriting, but the part that drives me nuts is the solitude, the loneliness. I’m incredibly outgoing and need the energy of others in order to thrive, and the stereotype of the Lonely, Introverted Playwright makes me feel like I’m not supposed to be a playwright, like there are a certain set of qualities I’m supposed to have that I just don’t that somehow make me less than.
I’m a loud, group-thinking, communally-generative playwright who thrives with other artists in the room. I can write my own plays with others. I can be both outgoing and a playwright.
And you might be thinking that’s obvious. And it probably is. But it’s revolutionary for me, and this new discovery I hope will power the further creation and exploration of my plays.
After all, if Anne Washburn can do it, so can I.