Back to basics

Yesterday in one fell swoop I wrote a little sketch — a bit over seven pages — for my 11-year-old daughter Billie, who is taking acting classes at the Lee Strasberg Institute. It’s the first dramatic writing I’ve finished in the past six or seven years. As I wrote earlier, Billie’s stage debut, even in the context of an acting class open rehearsal, engendered some melancholy in the Old Man, but apparently produced a few sparks out of the ashes of my previous ambition. Last night we sat around the living room and read it out loud — a coffee-table read, I suppose — and it met with approval from the cast, all Hunkas.

In part it must have been the challenge of writing for my own 11-year-old daughter that fanned that spark into a tiny flame. The challenges were profoundly unlike writing for adult performers, who have a much broader range of experience and training to draw from. Concision is key, of course: attention must be held, and the attention span of an 11-year-old is already paltry to begin with. It’s good if there are a few jokes in there too; the characters and situation must be immediately identifiable and relevant to their experience.

But primarily I found that, in writing for her, I couldn’t go too far above her head, at the same time acknowledging that 11-year-olds are surprisingly aware and mature, so I couldn’t write down to her either. This is especially the case after the past few years, when pre-teens have had to navigate a particularly treacherous landscape, ridden with frightening pandemics and what appears to be the collapse of American democracy, which undermines everything they might learn in the classroom (and pedagogy is always a few years behind the curve). Socialization, for this reason, has been an ongoing struggle for them, and the struggle doesn’t end there. Two days ago David Leonhardt assembled a depressing list in the New York Times of the pressures facing children these days, and I’m sure most parents and educators would concur and agree, even if this kind of reporting rarely makes it into the newspapers.

Theater and drama may prove to be a saving grace in this case, because theater — in-person, simple, text-based theater — may provide at least one avenue to understanding this world and permit a means of living in it. My play had nothing to do with coronavirus or politics; it was really just a little anecdote, based on my observation of Billie and her friends. (And writing a play like this tested my powers of observation and empathy too.) But if we can still negotiate our relationships on the stage, person-to-person even if we still can’t see the lower halves of our faces through our masks, perhaps we can make up for some of that lost socialization. Somehow writing plays for people this age gets you back to basics. Which is where we all seem to be nowadays.

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