A Twist of Water

The Task

Posted by caitlinmparrish on December 14, 2010

Last year I started writing a play. It was (and is) about the history of Chicago, although the main narrative concerns a single family in the almost present day dealing with the sudden death of a parent. Life altering, but it happens everyday. Erica Weiss and I holed up in New York during the summer of ’09 after the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas conference in Washington DC to bang out a draft of the thing. At the time it was called Cast Stones and it was…not right yet. For a week we wrote between eight and ten hours a day, watched old musicals, and pounded our heads over the first draft.

Caitlin: (in tears) NOTHING WILL EVER BE GOOD.

Erica: It’s a first draft.

Caitlin: I’M SUPPOSED TO BE WRITING A COMEDY! MY MOM WANTS A COMEDY!

Erica: Your mom would like any kind of play as long as it’s good.

Caitlin: IT’S NOT GOOD!

Erica: Not yet.

Caitlin: GGGAAAAAAUUUUGHHH!

And so on. Eventually we emerged, after five days, with almost eighty pages of WRONG. But, as I’ve often said to other playwrights when I’ve had to luxury of being past the tear-filled first effort, “It is fine and good and necessary to write something you don’t want, because only then do you know what you do want.”

Over the next few months there was a second draft. Still not right, per se, but the basic family narrative had emerged. Here are the characters we want, here is their bare-bones conflict. Everyone must go deeper, and become more articulate, but toddling steps have emerged.

And then another draft. And another. We received a workshop at Red Tape Theatre, and a reading at Victory Gardens Theatre, both of which (thanks to brilliant cast members and other contributors) proved invaluable in pushing the play forward into that oh, so wonderful state of “quality writing”. Anyone who says playwriting is a solo endeavor can take it up with me. You’re either hopelessly misguided, or lying to yourself, and only your work will suffer from you being a creative isolationist.

And so now. There’s an actual play, the RIGHT play, telling a story about a family that echoes the larger story of how the city by the lake came into itself. But still. There is work to be done. There will be more revisions, with Erica’s help, but now also with the help of Dramaturg Aaron Carter and the gorgeous cast.

The title  A Twist of Water comes from a Carl Sandburg poem (Sandburg, Chicago’s first poet Laureate, runs throughout the play with a melancholy little thread). It references the Chicago river, which serves as a larger metaphor for the city’s path over the last few centuries, and for the central question facing my father protagonist and daughter antagonist: Is it possible to change our course through sheer force of will? The line as a whole, from “River Moons”, reads:

“The river–I remember this like a picture–the river was the upper twist of a written question mark. I know it takes many many years to write a river, a twist of water asking a question.”

Why write this particular piece in the first place? Why was this play, about a gay history teacher and his 17 year-old daughter recovering from the death of a partner/husband, the one that Erica and I felt needed to be written? And why does it need to take place in Chicago?

Because of Plato. “The City is what it is because our citizens are what they are.”

Chicago was my home for eight years. I hope that it will be my home again someday. I adore it. It has made me infinitely more resourceful and resilient than I was before. It deals in extremes, the winter, especially, but also in its history of segregation, its gangster violence, its dedication to lost causes, its people’s well-earned pride that they come from a place that offers no easy solutions and have still managed to thrive. Through sheer will.

Through the will that declares a home will be made no matter what the obstacles. And in this day and age, the citizens who have to fight most publicly, and without respite, for the right to be called a family are the gay citizens of America. I haven’t seen the play or film or television show that lends dignity to a the personal tragedy of a gay man without invoking AIDS or assassination. That those stories are being told more frequently than they used to be? Great. That Sean Penn is getting an Oscar for playing Harvey Milk? Great. Dustin Lance Black getting one? Even better. But with the exception of a few whispers here and there in mainstream media (Six Feet Under, Modern Family), the stories being told about fully developed characters who simply happen to be gay, without the story focusing on that, are lacking. Being gay is so often the event or fact that must be dealt with to create a narrative. Surely there are more stories than that.

I wanted to write Chicago a love letter that said, “Thank you for being the city who hosted Barack Obama’s victory less than a century after the worst race riots the nation has seen. Thank you for being the worst winter and best summer. Thank you for embracing a paradoxical existence and never, ever letting the title of “second city” diminish your certainty that Chicago is first in its citizens’ hearts.”

Because when you write about what a specific city makes possible, you are only ever writing about what a small group of people have done to change the world through their local actions.

I’m trying to write why Chicago is the bravest place to raise a child, and my reason is Chicago’s children.

And soon it’ll be on its feet, for all Chicago’s kids to come see. Happy 2011.

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