5/4/16 – WRITING ACROSS GENERATIONS
Nothing is quite so thrilling as seeing your writing come alive—except perhaps bringing it to life with the help of your own offspring. In my case, the thrill came from seeing a play I had abandoned decades ago reborn when my composer son offered to write music for it. By writing across generations, we created something far better than anything I could have imagined on my own.
What my son and I created was a musical—Cupidity—that premiered last month at Yale University after a gestation period longer than most of its undergraduate creative and production team had been on earth. It is based on a story dating back to the 2nd century AD, the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which first appeared in Apuleius’s The Golden Ass. Even my version was ancient, since I had written the book for a musical based on this myth decades ago as a college student. I was never able to find a composer to work with me—until last fall, when my son Solon discovered the myth and approached me about its musical possibilities.
I had written this play about a mother and her 20-year-old son when I was a 20-year-old Yale student, and now my own son, a 20-year-old Yale student, wanted to finish it with me. How could I say no?
The first order of business was to come up with a new concept, since in 2003 another show based on the same myth had appeared off Broadway. Solon and I spent long hours looking for a setting to parallel the world of gods and goddesses. Eventually we settled on 21st century Hollywood, where online dating, internships, and talk show therapy replaced love potions, magical beasts, and oracles.
Relocating our story to another century and the rewriting of the book and songs, was only the beginning. Theatre is inherently collaborative, but bringing a new work from page to stage is collaboration on steroids. Everyone involved from writer to composer to director, producer, cast, and crew had to harness their diverse and collective energy and insights to shape a new creation—a process that differentiates theatre from most other writing.
To go through this process is painful and challenging, particularly to prose writers who generally work alone. Still, the pain was matched by the reward of seeing that final, but clearly better, product on stage, and marveling at all the tiny details that go into making any work of theatre, and the many hands and minds who contribute those details.
Work with What You Have
When I was younger I didn’t see the point in publishing a book unless Knopf came knocking or putting up a play unless Hal Prince came begging. Now I’ve seen that the years pass no matter what you do, or don’t. I’ve seen that opportunities for most writers don’t come often—and that opportunities that may seem limited or inadequate may well be the only opportunities you get.
However bleak this may sound for novelists, it’s even bleaker for playwrights, most of whom aren’t fortunate enough to have the resources to put up their plays. The process of watching a group of extremely talented undergraduates bring Cupidity to life made me realize that aspiring playwrights of any age should get over waiting for the perfect if they have the resources on hand to do something.
Time isn’t infinite, so you’re better off doing what you can with what you have—whenever or wherever you find yourself in life. The regret you’ll feel for not trying is worse than the risk of failure or embarrassment.
The carpe diem message is particularly true when you’re young, a time when many people feel that doing things too early or inadequately will set them on the wrong course. The truth is that when you’re young, opportunities are greater. Schools in particular have resources and energy to put on productions, scholarships abound for young artists, and so forth. Still, if like me you didn’t realize that when you were a student, you can always collaborate with someone who is—or, as in my case, grow a young collaborator of your own.
Until I started working with my son, and, later, the creative team, I had never realized just how much my world had slipped out of gear with younger generations. I had a different vocabulary, frame of reference, and sense of humor. I had to change words and gags and whole scenes because they weren’t understood or were heard in contexts entirely foreign to me.
I’m not just talking about adding Facebook and computer dating into the script. I had to remove transgressive jokes that my peers would have found hilarious but were deemed offensive by today’s students. I had to remove allusions to events unfamiliar to them, as well as arcane metaphors and idioms. Sometimes that meant substituting physical comedy for situational humor because there simply wasn’t enough situational common ground.
Writing Across Generations
Getting older isn’t all bad. For one thing, time is indeed the best editor. With Cupidity gestating all these years, my attachment to my creation was virtually nil. I could look at the play objectively and see what needed to be done without feeling threatened or diminished.
Having a cross-generational team also ultimately improved the play, and the production. Our audience consisted of people from 8 to 90, and having a chance to hear what worked, and didn’t, for different worlds allowed us to reach more of them.
Equally valuable was engaging with long-dead generations. In the process of writing and revising Cupidity, moving the story from Ancient Greece to 21st century Beverly Hills, I found that conventions and mores change, but many aspects of being human do not. The basic backbone of this classic myth was so rich, and so resonant, that it could take the reshaping and restructuring without losing its essence.
That discovery may have been the most wonderful one of all. It suggests there is a reason for all of us writers to consider the value we can bring in re-telling old tales for new audiences. It also suggests that there is, and will continue to be, a reason for new tellers of tales in every generation.