Note: This is the fifth article of a series in which Buzz theater columnist and critic Laura Foti Cohen explores the creation of her Zoom-based play Neighborhood Newsy. (You can read Part 1 here and link to subsequent stories from there.) She’s documenting its development process for The Buzz.
Writing a play means inhabiting its characters, making their decisions, reacting to each other. The 19 characters in Neighborhood Newsy come and go from the Zoom grid, always bringing their unique traits, motivations and voices.
Writing Episode 3 of Neighborhood Newsy, with its focus on the homeless, took me twice as long as writing the two preceding episodes combined. For one thing, all the characters needed to weigh in on the subject with a suitable (or in some cases highly unsuitable) opinion. For another, the first two episodes had a workshop-inspired head start. For number 3, I was on my own, And unfortunately for me, it was time to go deep.
The characters, having been introduced, must now develop their arcs. We know who they are in a superficial way: retired teacher, arch spa owner, single-minded realtor, suffer-no-fools martial arts maven. Now it’s time for them to reveal themselves more fully.
Homelessness, like Covid-19, has no upside, except as a subject for writers, researchers and advocates who aim to understand and elucidate, solve and educate. Since a play is not a public policy report, any potential insights must come through dialogue and stage directions. Characters describe the impact of the crisis from their own perspective. The selfish ones propose solutions that solve their own problems rather than meeting the needs of the unhoused. The more evolved despair or offer help.
Oh yeah, and Neighborhood Newsy is a comedy.
I gathered my notes from heinous NextDoor posts and got to work. There were a few simple punch lines, but for the most part characters had complex views. So I let them talk. The goal was to present real opinions while sneaking in some data, and finding humanity in the horrors of homelessness.
Writing a first draft is easier than the rewriting that follows: more raw material means more choices. It’s like hemming a pair of pants: wouldn’t you rather find you have to go shorter than longer?
I’m starting to enjoy having characters come and go from the Zoom screen, always keeping the nine-person grid. Does this one leave in a huff or get booted for an insult? Why was that one late? Does this one really add anything? (I cut one character after writing Episode 3 and changed one character’s gender.)
Not only did writing Episode 3 take twice as long, its page count is also twice as long. The first two episodes are 24 pages combined. Episode 3 is 21 pages. But not for long.
David St. James, like me a member of Neo Ensemble Theatre, wrote a monologue about his father to perform in (shameless plug alert) this weekend’s Father’s Day-inspired Dad! show. The piece was 12 pages but the show’s producers told him it needed to be cut in half. I enjoyed the original, longer version a couple of months ago, but when I now hear the short version, it’s all in there. Anecdotes were lost, memories shortened—yet the truth remained the truth. In cutting, he polished. This is my goal.
You can read Part 6 of this series here.