Artists are in the business of exposing themselves—their hopes, fears and joys—but Write Out Front (through Aug 31) takes the idea to a literal extreme. The brainchild of playwright Micheline Auger (whose comedy Donkey Punch recently opened), WOF invites more than 125 playwrights to sit in the storefront at the Drama Book Shop and—what else?—write, in plain view of passersby. Each writer signs up for a two-hour time slot and agrees to work on something. A screen shot of the laptop is projected onto a 42-inch monitor visible to the street. Yes, it’s nerve-wracking. Yes, it’s embarrassing. But hey: You get work done.
How would I know? I’m not just editor of Time Out New York’s theater section, I’m also (God help me) an early-career playwright and librettist. My first full-length play, Otherland, will be read at Symphony Space in December, and my first full-length opera, The Scarlet Ibis, will be performed at HERE in January. There are other projects on the boil here and there. (As I like to explain: I’m not a failed artist; I’m a failing artist.) When Auger invited me to do WOF, I was terrified but tempted. Like most writers, I value my privacy and need seclusion to focus. Also like most writers (just speaking for myself) it’s easy to feel like a fraud. You sit there impotent, foolishly waiting for words; the angel of despair flutters in your periphery and you wonder why bother. If anybody saw me, you think, staring off into space, fidgeting or making stupid faces, muttering to myself, they’d think I was insane. Well, you have to suck it up when you do WOF: Cuz it’s showtime!
Once you’ve settled in behind glass and you’re mistyping on an unfamiliar keyboard, there comes the impulse to self-censor, when you consider that your lines—in all their slimy, embryonic, malformed newness—can be scanned and dismissed by any sidewalk critic. I felt guilty rattling off obscenities in my scene: (“chickenfucker,” ass-clown” etc.) or sexual innuendoes (“flipping the baked bean”). Profanity means you lack ideas, right? Unless you can wield f-bombs with the surgical precision of early Mamet, you shouldn’t try it, right? Oh, wait: Will someone find this character offensive? Sexist? Why didn’t I take high-school Spanish, dammit?! I fought the impulse to metaphorically ball up the whole page and toss it in the garbage.
People stopped to smile at me or squint at the monitor before moving on. One old friend who works in the area (we played Large Male Dwarves in Richard Foreman’s Pearls for Pigs) stopped to chat for a minute. For the most part, no one tried to distract me or tell me my review of Bullets Over Broadway was far too generous. I was being hard enough on myself. Since I often alternate hats—critic and artist—I had considered inviting a colleague to read my output at the end and render judgment, but one’s inner critic is sufficient.
At the end of my two hours, I had four pages: a working title, sketched characters, possibly amusing dialogue and vague ideas where it might go. The overall shape of the piece was hazy, which is worrying, but you can’t figure everything out in advance. It was maybe half of a ten-minute play, which seemed the right size. And quite theatrical, if I do say so myself. I left Micheline and the Drama Book Shop with a gratifying sense of elation and exhaustion, soon to be replaced by doubts and second-guessing. It’s all part of the process. So. What’s the new play about? Come on. Ideas are gold. Until the work is ready, it stays hidden behind closed doors.
Other WOF writers include Stephen Adley Guirgis, Halley Feiffer, Roland Tec, Crystal Skillman, Cecilia Copeland, Saviana Stanescu, Diana Oh, Gyda Arber, Jessica Dickey and many more. The list is here. Write Out Front runs Mon–Sun, 11am–7pm (8pm Thurs) and Sun 12–6pm. Stop by and make a writer feel a little less lonely.