blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts

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Playwright’s Notes

In post-show conversations, audience members often ask for the “origin story” of a play. And I disappoint. I do not have Albee-esque tales of striking inspiration and “finishing” a play in one night. Or caped crusader literary adventures involving a lightning bolt strike of genius, or a singular traumatic childhood event that led to a superpower-wielding literary persona. If I was a character from a story then I would be the Tortoise in Aesop’s “The Tortoise and The Hare.” I’m a “slow and steady wins the race” kind of gal.

However, the origin story of The Arsonists is slightly different than my usual tortoise plodding. I wrote the play in two drafts over two three-week residencies separated by about a year. First draft 2015. Second draft 2016. World premieres 2017. It was stunning and intense and fast (for me), and I did feel like I should have a cape at times. It’s the first, and only, time that I felt like a superhero writer, and I don’t expect it to happen again. One mythical transformation from tortoise to hare is probably all that we can expect out of life—but it was a hell of a lot of fun.

The Arsonists sprang from my experience with an aging father and a health scare he had about three years ago. It got me thinking about what’s going to happen when he’s no longer with us. What about his life will we celebrate? What will we forget, or choose not to remember? But those thoughts were pushed out of my head by the necessity of making practical, in the moment, real-world healthcare decisions. Later that year, I was sitting at an outdoor cafe in Lisbon, sipping Verde wine and occasionally pausing to teach a workshop at the DISQUIET literary conference. This trip—the gentle Portuguese sun on my face, the slow rolling of waves onto an Atlantic beach—was the first time I’d had a chance to reflect on my father’s situation. I decided that too many people wait too long to tell those that they love how much they love them, and oftentimes never get to express their love fully (’cause, you know, death). So I decided to write him a love letter. One that would tell him everything I always should have said. That love letter became the first draft of a play, and that first draft became The Arsonists. Then I returned home, got busy, my father returned to health (thankfully), and I got shy about sharing it. So I put it in a drawer to decide what to do next.

A year later, I was teaching Electra at the University of Pennsylvania. Electra’s mourning over her father, and the trauma of her relationship with her mother, seemed like a perfect structural vessel in which to place a contemporary story of grief, rage, recovery, and hope. In addition, I was born and raised in rural Florida with parents who played old-time and Gospel music. The Florida Everglades are wild and visceral and rough—much like the unforgiving terrain in Argos after the Trojan War. So I revised the play with the chaos of the environment and chorus of music in mind. From that process came the second draft. And that’s pretty much most (90% at least) of the play that you will read today. It was an extraordinary moment where a tortoise became a hare, and I was able to fully share my love for my father with the world.

My father has seen the play, and his response was pretty much what I expected: “That’s a lot of pretty words.” But his long and fierce hug after the show let me know that he knew what I meant, and I am incredibly grateful that I was able to share the depth of my love with him.

So, now, don your cape and we’ll run through the flames together.  

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