Backstory: Brushstroke

No surprise here, I'm sure, if you've read even part of the play: Brushstroke is about my concern (not fear) that at some point I will have written everything I'm meant to write. And although I wrote it in part about myself, each time I have been in the audience for this show and had someone introduced to me, I have been told that it strikes a universal nerve with artists.

After I finished writing One Before Forty I went into something of a fallow stretch. I'd cranked out two full-length pieces in about two years, much to my own surprise, and now no new full-length ideas were coming to me. No ideas at all, really. Bob's Date had been proven, Dinner for Several was headed for production, I'd shown myself to be a fairly capable playwright--and suddenly I was listening for the sound of the pebble hitting the bottom of an apparently not-too-deep but very dry creative well.

Out of this came the idea for Brushstroke--the concept of an artist who is afraid to finish a piece of work because it might be the last one in him. That was the initial direction, anyway, and if I'd stayed that course entirely the play would have been flat. At that point Gavin coudl have just slapped Timothy and told him to stop being a whiny bitch. Instead, I found the point in Timothy where his problem transcends that and becomes more metaphysical--the fear that he has somehow transubstantiated himself into his work, into this final painting, and that he'll have given himself over to Art.

I think there is no greater fear for any artist than to wake up one morning with absolutely nothing left to say. I get that, but it's usually also tied to the fear that what I'm saying doesn't make any kind of difference.

Brushstroke was my first entry into the Boston Theatre Marathon. It was an odd sensation. Being selected for the Marathon means that you're letting your script be tossed up in the air for fifty local theatres to grab at. And you're in the mix with people like Israel Horovitz who get their annual invite. And because of the extremely democratic way the selection system is set up, you've got an equal chance of ending up produced by the New Repertory Theatre or Portland Stage Company as you do Bob's Backyard Playhouse. (Okay, I made that name up, but you get the point.) Truth be told, there's no bad draw in the Marathon. First time out I was picked up by a very small company called TYG Productions, headed by Vincent Ernest Siders. I remember driving to Vince's apartment for a read-through. Gavin was played by Jeff Gill, whom I actually knew through a friend of Stacey's. This will sound bad to my community theater friends, but working with Vince was the first time I was truly grilled by an actor about a role. And honestly I'm not sure how I did with the answers. I'd like to say I was erudite and gave deep insights into Timothy. I probably just shrugged and agreed a lot.

One funny memory: Hanging between two rooms in Vince's place was a large piece of canvas, paint-spattered and funky. And I thought, wow...he's bothered to go and make the painting and it's exactly the sort of thing I had in my head! Turns out, was just a room divider for Vince. Had nothing to do with Brushstroke.

Two stories from the premiere: I'm up in the audience, waiting for the show to come on. I'm nervous as hell, of course--for New England playwrights this is the show, y'know? So on come Vince and Jeff and the piece starts...and I'm getting laughs. And my head is spinning. Laughs? I wrote a frigging drama! But the laughs keep coming--right up until Vince hits the "what if it's not supposed to be blue" speech--and suddenly the quiet comes over the audience, and they get it. And from there, we have them hooked. I talked to Vince after the event, and he admitted that even he was thrown at the sound of laughter.

The other story stems from the "blue" speech. At the end of this speech, Timothy is supposed to throw down his brush and storm away. So Vince dutifully slams down the brush--and it ricochets off the stage and out about three rows into the audience. Which wouldn't have been a problem had he not needed the brush to get through the play. But there comes a point where Timothy says "the moment I pick up that brush..." And without breaking stride for even a heartbeat, Vince looks out to where the brush landed, kicks down the fourth wall, and says to someone down front, "Can you pick that up for me?" And the crowd burst into appreciative applause.

Brushstroke became my first piece to appear in print by a major publisher and it got there on someone else's recommendation. I was thrilled and surprised to get an e-mail one day from Kate Snodgrass, the coordinator of the Marathon, telling me that Smith & Kraus had contacted her looking for 10-minute plays for an upcoming anthology. She had decided to contact a small number of playwrights who'd been in that year's Marathon to tell them to send the work. She wanted me to send Brushstroke. I did, and now it's in print. In fact, as of this writing, all three of the shows that have made Marathon appearances have subsequently found homes in S&K anthologies.

All because I was concerned--not afraid--that I was done.

Little factoids:

This one will surely get me in trouble, but it must be said: I'm still waiting to see a decent version of this done with two women. I've seen two, and they both lacked something. It seemed like the women who've played the Timothy role couldn't truly connect to the frustration and anger he goes through. In the first female version I saw, Timothy's "what if it's not blue" speech, which is supposed to build to an almost dangerous rage, came off so sing-songy that the audience was laughing. And I felt like stopping the show right there. So I put it to the female artists out there: Make me believe it. I so desperately want to be wrong in saying that a female version of this will never spark properly.

After one performance of this show I was told about an artist whose story matched Timothy's perfectly--a Czech painter, if I recall properly, who became so obsessed with the idea that he had nothing left after his most recent painting that he stopped entirely--and never went back to it.

This show was filmed as part of a potential reality TV pilot about 10-minute plays. It didn't make the edited version mainly because the actor playing the main character--the magnificently talented Vincent Ernest Siders, who originated the role--is so tall that every time he stood up, his head went out of shot.