A Lesson from a Pulitzer Finalist Playwright

 

As these words tumbled so humbly from the mouth of a Pulitzer Prize finalist playwright, I leaned back in my chair. Sat up a bit taller.

Seriously? HE thinks he’s fucked something up every time he’s about to launch something?

That’s weird. So do I.

This is what happens when you pull your head out of your ass for a minute and step inside someone else’s ass. Wait. That didn’t come out the way I thought it…oh, nevermind.

Earlier this week, I talked about why your life is fucked up. Today, I’m talking about fucking things up and a lesson I had recently on the subject.

As many of you know (and for those who don’t), I moved from Denver to Chicago last year to return to performing after a nine-year hiatus. I’ve fallen in love with my new city — the one that has a theatre scene on par with New York and a network TV pilot scene that just passed New York’s. Chicago is a wonderful place to be. Well, the Goodman Theatre is here in Chicago and has earned several regional Tony Awards over the years. In fact, it’s one of the places where an actor steps inside the doors and thinks, “I hope to earn a place on these stages one day.”

That hope and many others is why I’m spending 300 hours bleeding, sweating, and crying in a professional acting conservatory this year. Five days a week, three hours a day, twenty weeks, for a total of 300 hours, I’m working. I’m a work in progress. I’m in a process with 10 other people and lemme tell ya — it’s intense. And behind it all, I’m running a business and trying to have some semblance of a social life and after a trip in an ambulance last week, I’m no longer enjoying anything in my diet. YAY LIFE.

And for all of those reasons, I was giddy with excitement when The Goodman emailed me and said — hey, we’d love to have you join us for a behind-the-scenes look at one of our upcoming productions.

A) Let’s talk about the part where I shit my pants. Out of excitement. It’s not something I do on a regular basis.

B) Let’s talk about what it’s like to leave your process behind for a moment and step inside someone else’s.

Why Your Process Needs to Sit the Fuck Down for a Hot Minute

We all have our ways. They’re precious, aren’t they? They get us through our days — those processes. They’re how we do what we do for whomever needs it done, including ourselves. They’re the reason we can conjugate words like ass cactus and still seem to get our tax guy everything he needs so we meet an April 15th deadline.

But there comes a time where your process (and mine) needs to sit the fuck down for a hot minute. There’s incredible value to be found in stepping inside someone else’s process.

As I was led up the stairs at The Goodman towards the backstage and rehearsal area, all I could think was, “Jesus, this is magic. Just act cool. Holy shit. One day, you’ll get to (maybe) walk this walk unescorted because you’re going to YOUR rehearsal and you’re working on a production here and ohhhhhhhhhh, a water fountain.”

I was overcaffeinated.

We were escorted into the rehearsal room, shown our seats, and for the next 30 minutes, we got to see creation in action. Actors going through scenes, collaborating with the director and playwright, trying things.

Trying things.

When rehearsal was over, there was a 20 minute or so Q&A with the playwright, cast, and director and at the end of an hour-ish in this behind-the-scenes wonderland, I was…happy. Invigorated. Inspired.

Here’s why.

Because we forget that we — our ways and our ways of thinking — are not the end-all, be-all. Oh, darlin’. I would like for this ot be true but in my most sugary of all native southerner tongues I do tell you that you and I and our individual nuanced and programmed ways are not the end-all, be-all. When you humble yourself by leaving your process behind and stepping inside someone else’s, you get to discover things you’d forgotten. Little things that lay around like dust bunnies in the corners of your mind because you were so goddamned focused on THE BIG THING. Taking a moment to watch the wonder of other minds in creative action is enough to re-invigorate even the most exhausted of creative souls.

Because we realize the value in fucking around with something. Whenever we see a keynote speech or play or movie or TV show, we forget that we’re seeing a rehearsed and orchesrated final product. To get to those end products, there’s a whole lot of fucking around. While backstage at The Goodman, I saw a director (the effervescent K.J. Sanchez) delighted with her cast’s wilds swings (and occasional misses). I saw the cast work through the same scene for the entire 30 minutes and it was different at the end than when it began (and for the better). I saw a group of people all working towards a common goal — this finished play — and having a fucking blast doing the work. There’s a metric ass ton of pressure on performers like myself to “be perfect” when there’s no such thing as perfection. We’re human and we fuck up and we fuck around. Our pursuit of life, the arts, and business would be far more successful if we learned the value of taking off the censor button and just seeing what happened if we did…that thing.

Because we forget what it means to lead. We’ve all had asshole bosses and we instinctually recognize the difference between bossing and leading. The truth? Some folks are just better leaders than others. While backstage at The Goodman, I saw a talented director lead. Actors were given specific direction, yet in a way that allowed each actor to make it his or her own. I heard praise. I heard laughter. I felt that everyone in the room, whether they were working at that moment or not, was present. When’s the last time you were in a room where everyone fucking showed up? Great directors and leaders collaborate. We forget what that’s like sometimes until we see it happening before our very eyes. At that moment, all we can think is, “I can do better and I want to work with people who are in pursuit of better together.”

upstairs concierge kristoffer diaz

Because we forget that no one is “more important.” The lead actress in “The Upstairs Concierge” is a comedic dynamo named Tawny Newsome. She’s commanded the Main Stage at The Second City for the past couple of years and is truly a treat to watch in action. Hell, this play was written as a vehicle for her by the playwright. But, dear sweet Jesus painted on velvet — during the rehearsal, there was no hint that she was the “lead” or “star” or any sort of pretentious bullshit like that. It’s comedy, which is all about timing (seriously). And more importantly, it’s an ensemble production, not a solo show. How much better would our performances, businesses, and frankly, lives be if we stepped alongside those who allow us to do what we love instead of feeling as if we have to be two steps ahead all the damn time? No one is more important. A show can’t go up without the whole cast and crew. Your life and business have a cast and crew of their own. Check in with that shit. Often.

All of this — it’s why playwright Kristoffer Diaz’s feeling about fucking things up hit me so hard. Here’s a man who’s had one of his plays recognized by the everloving Pulitzer Prize folks and he has a new play going up at one of the top regional theatres in the United States and he’s talking about how he has this moment of doubt where he feels ever so certain that he’s fucked something up?

Yes, he is. And it’s human and beautiful and hilarious and humbling and made me feel like less of a fuckup for feeling every now and then, after I’ve poured my heart and soul into something, that I’ve fucked something up, too.

Because I have. We do. We fuck things up. Yet we also fuck around. And how much more wonderful would this life and creative process be if we fucked around a bit more often? Took ourselves a bit less seriously. PLAYED. Discovered instead of thinking we knew all of the answers.

Which is hard. Because I know I feel like a sham when people pay me to know the answers and sometimes, I don’t.

But stepping outside of your process and into someone else’s for just a moment can remind you of things you’d set aside. Feelings you’d lost because you were so busy. Things you can improve (because there is always room for that).

And most importantly, perhaps, we can be reminded that if we’re not having fun doing what we supposedly love…then there’s no reason to keep doing it. My trip to The Goodman showed me some generous artists, willing to share their process with complete strangers (which is scary as fuck), and having fun doing so even though they had no idea how it all might go.

We should all be so fortunate to witness and be a part of such.

If you’re in Chicago, The Upstairs Concierge opens this week on March 28 and runs through April 26. Step inside Ella’s world, played by the humbly incomparable Tawnie Newsome, and laugh with a cast of A- (and B- and C-) list misfits as they navigate (hilariously) our fame-obsessed society. You can score ridiculously discounted tickets on Goldstar or through The Goodman box office. And if you’re not in Chicago or not even a fan of the theatre, that’s cool too. Find a way to sit your process the fuck down for a hot minute and watch someone you admire in action. Soon.

PS: Follow Kristoffer Diaz on Twitter. His bio alone makes it worth it.

PPS: Here are some photos from my evening at The Goodman. Check out the sheer joy present in this room filled with fucking up, fucking around, and all of it…done together.

 

 

1 reply
  1. Lewis LaLanne aka Nerd #2
    Lewis LaLanne aka Nerd #2 says:

    Reading this reminded me of two of my favorite sayings which go, “The more personal you think something is, the more universal it is.” and “The name of the game is progress, not perfection.” 

    Loved what you observed there about the whole premise of “Leading you, me, and we.” 

    It’s going to be really cool to watch how this work you’re dedicating yourself to evolves everything you do in life. I’m glad I’ve got great tickets to the Napoletano show with your site. I’ve been watching for years now and I’m looking forward to the next act.

    Reply

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