As I mentioned in this post, one of the things I did at the Great Plains Theatre Conference was write a sonnet about each one of the PlayLab plays that I saw. (The week was divided up into 24 PlayLab readings, scheduled three at a time over 8 sessions, and 5 MainStage readings which were scheduled consecutively). I came up with this idea on Memorial Day, while watching my third reading; the words “sonnets for each show I’ve seen” are written in the upper margin of my Moleskine with a star next to them on the second page of notes I took during that reading.
The idea was that the sonnets would be read as part of the Slam on Saturday, a celebratory session of cold readings of scripts the various writers either created or had been working on during the Conference. So I had a deadline. I also gave myself a content challenge: each sonnet had to contain either an image or a line from the play I was writing about—ideally both, but at least one.
I started making notes that Monday for the shows I’d seen, and wrote a sonnet Tuesday morning during breakfast, saw another reading later Tuesday morning, saw the reading of my play Tuesday afternoon, wrote another sonnet in my hotel room, and wrote the third one Wednesday morning during breakfast, after which I saw my last PlayLab reading. By this time I had decided that, instead of reading them all myself, I would ask the authors of the various plays to read them. They all agreed; and one of them, Diana Small, called what I was doing Sonneturgy, which made me her friend for life. But that also gave me another deadline—I would have to get them to the playwrights by Friday at the latest, to give them a day to look them over before the Slam on Saturday.
Thursday I wrote a sonnet during breakfast, saw two MainStage readings, and between both talkbacks, I wrote another sonnet (eight lines in one, six in the other). Which left me only one to write. I figured I had it made, except Thursday night was free night. Which meant dinner. Which meant Irish bar. Which meant darts, and Jameson shots, and 25 people singing “American Pie” at the top of their lungs, and getting back to the hotel at 2:30, and hanging out with Ali and Simon till 3:30, with most of that hour spent in joyous, unstoppable laughter.
So there I was three and a half hours later, writing the last sonnet during breakfast, and feeling, well, let's just say that there was a time when I could stumble into bed, pass out for 180 minutes, and wake up enough in the next 30 to chase the day like a hunting dog; but I'm not 50 any more, and on that Friday morning it was going to take a lot more than hotel coffee to get my 7AM neurons firing. Lucky for me, my muse does not need my neurons, only my neurosis—I went up to my hotel room at 8:20 with nothing but a headache, one quatrain and a bunch of notes, and by 9:05, four Advil had taken care of the headache and 45 minutes of scribbling had taken care of the sonnet.
The sonnets were read at the Slam, not consecutively, but two at a time, interspersed with other skits. The best ad-lib was by Diana Small; my sonnet tried to duplicate the effect of her play, in which you don’t find out what’s really going on until the very end, by making the last line The Big Reveal. “Because it’s a spoiler,” Diana said, “I’m not going to read the line—I’m going to mouth the words.” It brought down the house. I also included a sonnet for my play, which was read by the actress playing Ophelia—her note to me after the reading was “More poetry for Ophelia, please!”, so I gave her a love sonnet to read from Ophelia to Hamlet (this one); and then I had a final sonnet for all the writers, which I read myself (this one).
Which is not the end of the story. Because I also saw the five MainStage readings, and I didn't want them to feel left out, but there just wasn’t enough time to include them as part of the Slam sonnets. So when I got back to New York, I wrote a sonnet each morning for the next five days, one for each of them.
They are all included here, along with the printed synopsis of each play. It’s not the same as seeing them, but hopefully you will get some idea of what each play is about, and what each sonnet is echoing.
TURTLES – John Greiner-Ferris
SYNOPSIS: A mother snatches her two kids. She's on the run, scraping out an existence with them in her car by the side of the road in the desert. When a man, quite literally, falls into their lives, she makes a mad dash across the back roads and byways of America. Turtles is Not-Your-Typical Family Drama. Disney it's not. Turtles is a provocative, timely, hilarious play that will challenge your notions of family, faith, and personal choice and leave you talking about it long after you leave the theater.
Where is the hope, when you wake up and say:
“Who wants to put me on his mantelpiece?—
What animal will my son be today?—
And how can we avoid the state police?”
What kind of soul are you, when all you do
Is run from jerks to even bigger jerks—
When Hay-Zeus Christ is just another screw,
And home is every place a mother shirks?
Hurting yourself to feel is not a life.
You’re broken when you hug what sinners shun,
And then some devil urge makes you his wife,And then you blame the world for all you’ve done.
You need to smash that turtle shell to free
The woman who’s her own worst enemy.
GOOD DAY – Diana Lynn Small
SYNOPSIS: Isaac, an exterminator, shows up at a San Francisco East Bay McMansion to remove a wasp nest, but Anna, the daughter of the house who's returned after a long absence, refuses to move from the front lawn irrationally arguing she's on a hunger strike. Refusing to move from the “pest area” prohibits Isaac from doing his job and forces the two into an unexpected and passive-to-aggressive confrontation. Played in real time, the two adult children strike-up a feud & friendship as they conceal & confess fears about family, spirituality, and illness. What starts as an average “good day” reveals itself to be the biggest day of their lives. The play performs west coast rhetoric, narcissism, and sunshine to uncover the sincerity behind these Californian stereotypes and defends love and longing as universal hungers, regardless of weather.
It’s always a good day when she can lie
Out in the sun, and to herself—and think;
And meditate; and look up at the sky.
This day’s a bag of seeds a girl can drink.
Mix one delivery boy who wants to date her,
A nest of wasps her mother wants destroyed,
The cute but slightly weird exterminator,
And merit badges girl scouts must avoid.
She swallows it all down; it burns her tongue.
She reaches out, and then she pulls away
Into her safe place—but she will get stung
Behind her shell of cleverness and play.
What else can a good daughter’s day be, when
*** ******’* **** ** ***** ** *** ***?
*Because the last line attempts to duplicate the experience of Diana’s play, which has a big reveal at the end—and because that line is a spoiler—the line has been replaced with asterisks.
TWO LIGHTS – Brett Busang
SYNOPSIS: Few relationships can be so fundamentally nurturing as a marriage, though none are as potentially disastrous.
The model wife will always hold that pose
And never shine without the painter’s light.
Although it feels all wrong without her clothes,
The angles—like the man—are always right.
The child she married makes art in the study;
The children of her art are in the closet—
A Cape Cod Stand-Off waiting to get bloody;
It just takes one sweet compliment to cause it.
When a man’s more afraid you’ll burn his writing
Than slit his throat, then kick him to the curb.
You paint the truth—that’s why you’re always fighting;
He paints the noun—go out and be a verb.
It is the curse and blessing of great art:
You need to break the shell to see its heart.
THE GRIOTS – Gwendolyn Rice
SYNOPSIS: Set in rural Georgia in the late 1930s, The Griots focuses on an elderly African American woman, Ada, who grew up in slavery, a young woman who is the descendant of the plantation owner’s family, Lizzie, and a young white man from Ohio, John, who has been sent to the South to interview ex-slaves as a part of the WPA Writers’ Project. As John gains Ada’s trust over a period of several weeks, her stories turn from quaint tales of happy field hands, to brutal accounts of violence and intolerance. And when her tales contradict Lizzie’s family legends, exposing the truth may have too great a cost.
Gunshots hang in the air like ripe peaches.
Questions pockmark the land like burnt plantations.
Old storytellers know how far their reach is
When all their answers echo expectations.
The girl who always wears her mother’s hats?
It’s not exactly like her parents lied—
Her family Bible keeps all its begats
In plain sight, where the darkest secrets hide.
Think of the stories people have to tell
To live under the shadow of the noose—
Where every single slave is treated well
And Robert E Lee is an angry goose—
And History is sweet, convenient lies
And Truth only gets told in screech owl cries.
THE MOMENT BEFORE IT ALL WENT WRONG – David Hilder
SYNOPSIS: Viveka Granič is a perfect fit for the international conceptual art scene. But when an unexpected visitor invades her own home, will art and life collide, or crash and burn? Responsibility and accountability meet desire and dread in this caustic, funny look at the meaning and costs of individuality.
Art is a bitch—she smokes; she screws; she’s Slavic.
She chose this life and damned if she will change.
Her work is always born from fucking havoc,And she’s all over casual like mange—
Until the Ghost of Baby Yet To Come
Cries out: “You’re Scrooge!—And I’m here to fulfill you!”
And now she’s dancing to a helpless drum.
(It’s what Life does to you instead of kill you.)And when her life becomes a chandelier
Of needles, and she’s her own installation—
And broken eggshells speak of hope, not fear—
She learns the harder meaning of creation:
To give the lost a voice, and fashion art
From all the sudden silence in her heart.
ANATOMY OF A HUG – Kat Ramsburg
SYNOPSIS: When Amelia’s mother receives Compassionate Release from her prison sentence, Amelia’s carefully constructed world is threatened. Decades of living vicariously through her beloved TV characters doesn’t prepare her for the actual drama of her mother’s return or the advances of a charming co-worker. The ticking clock of her mother’s illness means Amelia must decide if her fictional life is safer than the possibility her own story.
You never question someone else’s lies
Except your mother’s—that’s what makes you tough.
She thinks that Damages make Family Ties;
You think her death can’t happen fast enough.
You sit there, Lost, no Friends, and watch TV,
Knowing you’ll never be Saved By The Bell—
Until you’re taught a hug’s anatomy
By someone who can see beneath your shell
And warm your frozen heart, until you know
A hug is never something to endure
(Like a bad season of your favorite show)
But what your arms must reach for, to make sure
Your life—unlike a sitcom out of Cali—
Will never be betrayed by its finale.
THE WOLVES - Sarah DeLappe
SYNOPSIS: In perfect sync, an elite u-17 girls indoor soccer team warms up. Over the course of five games, the Wolves debate dramas big and small. Who’s the weirdo in the portapotty? Is Coach hung-over or just plain lazy? And what in the world can we do about the Khmer Rouge? But when tragedy strikes the turf, the sixteen-year-olds must navigate the type of loss that’s not on the record... The Wolves is an offbeat portrait of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for nine American girls who just want to score some goals.
We all agree that Coach is such a stooge.
When we attack, we do it without fear.
We’ll slaughter you just like the Khmer Rouge.
We don’t do genocide till senior year.
We trade our colds and track our monthly flow.
We know a girl who lives inside a yurt.
We all grow up too fast and pass too slow.
The news tells us this world’s a field of hurt.
When one of us is crushed beneath Life’s wheel,
We will remember her and then forget her,
And drop the ball while voicing how we feel.
It won’t get easier—we’ll just get better.
The team’s a fire, and we will be its embers.
The pack survives the loss of all its members.
AKUMA-SHIN – Henley Smith
SYNOPSIS: In 1956, an enormous monster destroys Tokyo. A broadcasting crew, a famous Japanese author and an American Air Force general face the initial attack. Many years later, the event still sends ripples through the psyches of two nations that must cope with legacies of loss, fear and hatred.
What is a monster? Some huge beast with scales,
Or someone on a talk show who denies it?
The legal power, or the ones it jails?
The deadly payload, or the plane that flies it?
What predator would be our chief pursuer
If we could see into Life’s deepest delves?
We all believe that evil has a doer
Except for any evil in ourselves.
Out of the deep, a creature roars like thunder.
The faithful meet his stare and call him God;
The unbelievers scoff and squabble under
A moon on which no human foot has trod;
And we ignore what we already know
Until it rises up to lay us low.
THIS FLAT EARTH – Lindsey Ferrentino
SYNOPSIS: A school shooting has occurred in twelve year old Julie's hometown... and she just doesn't feel sad. Determined not to return to school, Julie begins an unlikely friendship with an elderly cellist who lives upstairs. A play about class, understanding loss, and coming of an age into a confusing adult world.
It’s always a great view when you look down—
The clean ones know exactly where the mess is.
They write the dictionary of my town
So “keeping safe” means “changing street addresses.”
You think I’m stupid? I know that’s a lie.
You call that safe? Don’t treat me like I’m seven!
Don’t ask me if I’m sad!—Just tell me why
Till I wear answers like a dress from heaven.
My cello is the grave of what it plays—
The dying fall of Life’s connect-the-dots
Where just one day makes all my other days
An echo chamber full of rifle shots.
What are we blind to that the future sees
In bloodstained eyes of dead-kid-families?
WASHINGTON PLACE – David Hopes
SYNOPSIS: This is a true story. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company burned on March 25, 1911, with the loss of 146 lives, mostly women, and mostly though the gross and callous negligence of the factory management. The names I have chosen were the names of actual victims, and the ages their actual ages, though the characterization is purely speculative and has nothing to do with how they may actually have lived their lives. Avi is not listed among the victims, because he survived. Most of the workers at the Triangle factory were non-English speakers. The play calls upon the imagination to suppose that conversation among the Jewish girls is in Yiddish, and conversation including both the Jewish girls and the Italian girls is foreign speakers communicating in English. The girls talk while they work the big industrial sewing machines. I guess that’ll have to be pantomime, or else very quiet machines. There are photos of the workrooms, but the lay-out is not very conducive to theater sightlines, so a creative reinterpretation is probably necessary.
“Oh you beautiful doll!” he sings to me,
And I pretend that I don’t understand.
I speak Italian very patiently;
My sister translates, then he takes my hand.
Meanwhile the socialist talks of a strike
And someone’s thread gets balled up in a tangle
And one girl’s pregnant with some little tyke—
It’s just another day at the Triangle.
When Yetta cries out: “God made floors to keep
Us in our place—we must rise up and fight!”
I picture floors, and boys who like to sweep.
When Gussie feels a sharp electric bite,
I dream of phantom hugs, while someone tall
Belts out: “Oh! Oh! Oh you beautiful
SUNDOGS – Howard Emanuel
SYNOPSIS: In a haunting yet humorous meditation on hope, belief, and love, Sundogs tells the story of Joseph Garnier, a US Army vet who awakens hearing the pounding of drums. It is the first day of deer hunting season in his small western Pennsylvanian trailer community -- the day before his unit's deployment to Kuwait, after having served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Joe -- desperate to cling to something constant in a life of transient fears -- believes The Drums are the key to resurrecting the lost meaning in his life, but not even he is prepared for what will perish and what will remain as the sun sets, long held secrets are revealed, and The Drums continue their crushing crescendo.
Your kinfolk ears hear ancient drums, which play
To call you forth to fight the final battle
Against the spirit-sucking day-to-day—
Against false hope and its self-serving prattle.
But you cannot beat Death at his own game.
You kill? He wins. You have to fight to save—
And when that fight wounds you with loss and shame,
That’s victory on this side of the grave.
Why does the real world make us feel like frauds?
Why does belief take more than one can give?
We once stole fire from the fucking gods
And now we warm ourselves with lies to live—
And hunt for some great truth to stop the screams
That haunt the broken rainbow of our dreams.
Sonnets copyright 2015 Matthew J Wells