Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Wrong Field

When I studied at Boston University, I decided around my freshman year that I wanted to go into playwriting. Not as a career necessarily, it was just my idiom of choice. I liked writing them and thought I was decent enough at it to not torture any reader or audience member.

At BU, there was this annual…well, they called it a “festival,” but that’s not the right word. Festival implies lots of people and some sort of grand party atmosphere…let’s just say, “thing” called the Play Ground (the Boston University Playwright’s Festival). Students could write and stage plays in a very small, experimental environment, usually in a large rehearsal or art studio in front of the public. There was no acceptance or rejection process with the Play Ground; if you sent in your script on time, you were in. I participated twice: once, during my sophomore year, with my first play, simply called “The Show.” People seemed to like it. It was a bad play, but what do you want from me? It was my first, and I wrote it when I was 17.

I wrote a few plays afterwards; some I never finished, some I did, some were awful.

In between my sophomore and junior year, I wrote “Monkeys,” Nosedive Productions’s debut play. I basically consider it my “first” play, even though I had written scripts before. It was, for me, the first play that felt like me, like my writing voice, not a knock-off of other movies or books. For good or for bad, it was the start of me writing in my own voice. It has also been, to date, the play that was the most fun and easy to write.

I was really proud of it. Still am, actually.

My junior year, the Play Ground had set things up a little differently. This time around, professors from the School For the Arts would read the submitted scripts and give written evaluations. Their evaluations still had no bearing on whether or not you got in; again, if you sent in the materials on time, you were in.

So, one fine day, I went to the SFA to see if the evaluations of the plays had come in, and they had. I was really enthusiastic; I wanted to get some feedback and constructive criticism on my play, and was looking forward to analysis by professionals in the field. One professor (someone I had never met) had evaluation forms available on a bulletin board. They provided a space for comments, and a scoring system at the bottom (1 – 10, 10 being highest) for characters, dialogue, setting, drama, theme and overall value. I found the one for “Monkeys,” and my eyes went straight to the scoring at the bottom.

All zeros.

Underneath the scores was a note, which read, “Why would ANYBODY want to watch this?”

His comments above were all letting me know that the script was uniformly awful. I had written about something completely uninteresting, and had written it poorly.

I leafed through the other plays’ evaluations, and the average scores were in the 7-8 range. The low ones were in the 4-6 range. No one else got straight zeros. Or even 1’s or 2’s, for that matter.

Feeling awesome, I went to the part of the bulletin board where another professor (also someone I had never met) had typed up a two-page document giving a 3-4 paragraph critique of every script.

Every script except mine.

His comments for “Monkeys” were only two sentences: “I don’t have anything to say about ‘Monkeys.’ Didn’t interest me.”

I was in no position at this time to have any defiant “me-against-the-world, they’re-all-just-idiots” attitude. I had failed, and failed huge.


As I had left the building, I saw on another bulletin board an announcement about the winner of the 1998 annual Boston Playwright something-or-other award (I don’t remember what the award was), and the winning script was written by a young Indian man about an Indian-American man’s struggle with his Indian immigrant parents and trying to be as American as possible while struggling with his ethnic heritage.

That was almost it for me. I really believed at that point that I was in the wrong field, an untalented idiot barking up the wrong tree.

I don’t remember the name of that winning script, but I was fairly certain that “Monkeys” bore no resemblance to it. Not that I thought the style and subject of this award-winning play was good or bad, but just that it was a concept I could never in a million years write or want of write. This is what was considered good drama, and it was nothing (I mean, NOTHING) like what I was writing. And what I was writing was not only not getting awards, it wasn’t even being considered passable as theatre.

I still remember that day. It sucked. It really, really sucked. I really believed I was a misguided failure, trying to work in a field and idiom I was completely unsuited for.


I showed “Monkeys” to a few of my friends afterwards, and the overall reaction was—although not as harsh as the professors—not overwhelming. With one exception (my friend Nate, upon reading it, looked at me, gave me a decisive “thumb’s down” gesture and raspberry noise), the general consensus was, “Huh. Well…uh…don’t have much to say about it. I think you can do better, dude.”

I really don’t know why I decided to keep going. I guess it was in part because a.) I felt so good about my script that I wanted to see it to the end (don’t ask me why; I still thought my play was good), and b.) There was one person whose opinion I respected who had a very positive and insightful reaction to it. In other words, he didn’t just go, “It was good!” he explained his take on the play (a take that wasn’t explicitly buttressed by the lines).

Plus, I guess I’ve always had enough of a “spite-and-revenge-as-motivation” personality to make me want to keep going.

So, I staged “Monkeys” at the 1998 Play Ground. And…it worked. I know, I was amazed myself. People showed up. People laughed. Audiences got into it and were actually eager to talk to me afterwards.

That whole experience helped shape my attitudes toward theatre and my own writing. It coalesced my contempt for Theatre People (no, no, Dish People; you’re cool, sort of) and forced me to evaluate my work for myself. Basically when you decide to go into something and you’re immediately met with negative reinforcement, if you keep going, every other obstacle seems, well…tit.


On our last show, “Mayonnaise Sandwiches,” we didn’t get much in-depth feedback from audiences the opening weekend (barring the noncommittal and pleasant, “Good job!”), except for one acquaintance, who emailed me this four-page letter explaining why the play was a failure and it wasn’t drama, and wondering why I thought anyone would want to watch this.

Shortly thereafter, I leafed through a recent copy of Pete’s “American Theatre” magazine and came across an article about the Hottest of Hot New Plays and Playwrights, an Arab-American playwright writing about Arab-Americans’ struggles with their Arab immigrant parents and trying to be as American as possible while struggling with their ethnic heritage.

Yes, on one hand, my mind did regress to that reptilian-stem part of my brain (as most people who relive childhood traumas do), but on the other, I had at least started to hone my, “me-against-the-world, they’re-all-just-idiots” attitude and thought, “Wait. We’re still on this shit?”

It is interesting enough that, like “Monkeys,” “Mayonnaise Sandwiches” ultimately had a positive turnout (good audience numbers, generally well received), and we even got a freakin’ award for our troubles.

You never really can tell. For now, I guess I’ll write a few more plays until I get that official Green or Red Light that let’s me know if I should drop playwriting and go into automotive mechanics.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I still don’t know if I’m in the right field.

And I guess this may be why I’m so wary of audience feedback.

Should Have Been a Plumber,

James “Monkey Wrench” Comtois

June 16, 2004


Post a Comment

<< Home

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.