Why I am a playwright


I fell on my head as a small child.

The story, as its told to me since I was too small to remember (and also eventually unconscious), is this: When I was around three years old, I was given a small, green, plastic, airplane-shaped, infant-sized, rolling toy: the type of toy you place a toddler inside and let him happily shuttle back and forth a few feet on the floor. I’ve seen my nieces and nephews amuse themselves for many hours in these cheap plastic things.

I, however, thought that since it was an airplane, with wings and all, I could fly in it. One night, I was plunked down inside it in my parent’s bedroom, upstairs, while they dressed for dinner. From the door of their bedroom to the top of the stairs was approximately 15 feet – just the running start I needed. Apparently, before anyone had time to think that a little kid would do that, I had flung myself and my little plastic plane into space – or, to be more precise, flung myself and my little plastic plane over the edge of the stairs and against the ten steps it took me to bounce my way to a stop.

I encourage you to see this story both literally and metaphorically. Literally, I bumped my head. Who knows what kind of damage was done, what more financially stable career I may have found, if only my internal gyroscope weren’t so rattled. Metaphorically, obviously, even at a young age, I wanted to soar, I was hoping for it, even expecting it, no matter how cheap and green and impractical the equipment available was. And I went smashing down, yes, but at least I got a good story out of it.

Here’s another testament to personal mental damage and metaphor that I also think substitutes for a direct answer: When I was eight years, maybe younger, I was able to ride a bicycle but not permitted to cross a street. This had the perverse effect of inspiring me to find more and more dangerous trails through the homes, backyards, and sidewalks on the one block I was allowed to range around. One day, I was testing how fast, how often, and how tight I could make a circle around the small circumference of our house. Faster and faster and faster I went, cutting those corners tighter and tighter. Faster and faster. Tighter and tighter, until on one turn I missed knocking my head against the brick of the house only by launching myself off the bicycle at the last minute and winding up instead with my head in the chain link fence that separated our yard from our neighbors’ yard.

First, I cried. Then I became absolutely fascinated by the blood gushing down from my skull onto my forehead. On the ride to the hospital, I think I grew frighteningly calm as I kept moving the towel away from my head, so I could dip my fingers in the blood and look at it.

Everything is complicated

Read into that what you will. . . And know that here too are demonstrated additional reasons why I’m a playwright. I simply can't stop speaking in stories, in metaphors, in analogies and demonstrations – and in stories. I think the world is a complicated place, and I can’t figure out what I want to say about it precisely, or I can’t believe that what I want to say about it can be summarized by a straightforward thesis statement. I can write thesis statements, I just don’t know that they convey any real truth about life as it is lived by the majority of people on the planet –so, still, somehow, I hold out this irrational hope that the action of a story, the way it works out, the spin on it, the details of it, all of that in its totality, will uncover some kind of spiritual invisible ink and illuminate a mysterious, accurate, and significant message to the people who wander by.

And theater, playwrighting, constructing stories for the stage, is the most complicated and compelling art form of all the art forms, and therefore the one most capable of exploring the complicated lives we live. My friends in the visual arts, and those who do films, and everyone else – the musicians, the potters, the book binders, even the dancers – can get as mad at me as they like. (Anyway, I have head injuries. I plead that I’m not responsible for what I say.) It doesn’t even seem to be a question to me, however, that the theater arts, when done right, simply swallow all those other art forms.

The set is, or at least it should be, visual art. The actors should have such control over both their voice and body that its like music and dance roiled together. The scripts should be written to support this. There should be music. There should be singing. There should be stunning visual metaphors and exciting storytelling action. At times it should feel like slam poetry and slam dancing rolled into one big meaningful wonderful flying thing, and at other times it should be the sound of the sun rising combined with the smell of a breeze. There can be this, and there should be this, and when there is this, then I don’t really understand why anyone wouldn’t want to make theater. A painting is nice. But a painting that is part of an entirely new world painted around you – what’s better? Music is great. Music is wonderful. Music inspires me – then add that music in service to a grand story? Tell me what could be better. Really.

I admit that we don’t often achieve this exceptional level of craft and transcendence. I wish more visual artists designed the sets for theater. I wish more visual artists came to see theater. I wish more musicians were involved in theater. There should be a band in every show!

I wish, I wish, I wish. . .

Most of all, most likely, I’m a playwright for the same reason other artist friends of mine work in other mediums – because we each have this personal, obsessive sense of what we wish the medium were and what we want to make it.

After all the grand pronouncements, strange stories and slightly odd excuses about head injuries, I suppose that ultimately I do what I do because some early-on thing in my childhood – whether it was a plastic green plane or reading Edward Albee’s Zoo Story at a particularly formative moment – instilled me with an vivid vision about what that art form should be.

I’m a playwright because I see in my head better plays than I see in the theaters around me, and I feel compelled to get them out of my head, wounded and bleeding as it may be, and try to put them on stage.

When I put it that way . . . The head injury explanation makes more and more sense, doesn’t it?


Now playing

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Hennepin Avenue Nightmares

See it this week at Phoenix Theatre in Minneapolis. Presented by Ghoulish Delights and Paradox Productions.

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Catherine Hansen

Catherine Hansen

Catherine Hansen Co-produces, Writes, Directs Hennepin Avenue Nightmares playing at Phoenix Theatre this month.

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