The War of Art
Rhea MacCallum and Vincent Terrell Durham are accustomed to writing a play in four-and-a-half days. They learned to while part of PlayGround-LA, one of the Southland’s most dynamic playwriting incubators (and sister program to the Bay Area-based PlayGround-SF). The cornerstone of PlayGround-LA is its Monday Night PlayGround staged reading series, featuring original ten-minute plays by local writers, inspired by monthly prompts. The season culminates with a Best of PlayGround-LA gala, presenting the year’s outstanding plays. (The 2017 gala celebrated MacCallum’s Exceeding the Purchasable Calories and Durham’s Shooting at the Universe, among others.)
Josh Gershick: In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes: “There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t, and the secret is this: It’s not the writing part that’s hard. What’s hard is sitting down to write.”
Rhea MacCullum: Absolutely! Every time I get that writing prompt, my first reaction is fear, dread, panic and worry. I think, “I’m NOT going to be able to come up with anything! [Laughs] Why did I do this?” The actual writing of it is usually a few hours. But it’s those couple days before that are sheer panic and dread.
Vincent Terrell Durham: For me, the sitting down isn’t the hardest part anymore. It’s finding the time to sit down. Trying to juggle that nine-to-five job and then coming home exhausted. There’s a book by Walter E. Mosley, This is the Year You Write Your Novel. In it, Mosley says that you need to have a time that you write, so that your brain is ready to write. About six months ago, I put that into practice; now I know that Saturdays and Sundays are my days to write. My body is just ready to go and write. So I’ve tricked myself, or trained myself. But whenever PlayGround-LA sends out that prompt, it’s total panic.
JG: The first thing you say to yourself is, “WTF!”
RM: Yes! The prompt can be as small as “Write a cautionary tale.” Then you roll with it! [Laughs] And you start with whatever comes to your mind. I don’t think that anyone would watch our two plays side-by-side and say, “Oh, the theme was ‘A Cautionary Tale.’”
JG: How do you get yourself out of that “OMG!”
VTD: I actually embraced that whole process, of “Oh my God!” I let myself feel all of that. Because that’s what I feel every time, and then, sooner or later, the play starts to come out. I just go about my business, with that prompt in the back of my mind. It’s just churning there. Then, when I sit down to write, something comes out. I don’t know how; I wish I could explain it. But it does.
RM: Initially, I know what the prompt is, and I think, “Okay, what am I going to do with this?” I might do mundane chores: That’s usually when my best ideas come, when I’m doing something like weeding in the garden. [Laughs] Meanwhile, I’m percolating. With Calories, I had a general concept of the woman in the grocery store who can’t buy what she wants to buy. I didn’t know how it was going to end. And it wasn’t until I had to sit down and actually start writing something that it was like, “Oh! Okay, I see where this is going.” [Laughs] Sometimes, you have to start writing to know where you’re going. You listen to your characters, and find out what they need to say.
VTD: I LOVE that! [Laughs]. I so agree! I don’t know where the story’s going, or where stories come from, but once I have two characters talking together, they tell me where they want to go. And I love that I’m not crazy: You’ve confirmed that, Rhea! Thank you!
JG: You trust your characters.
VTD: I do.
RM: They’re probably going to go in a more interesting direction than I am.
JG: How do you distinguish between your will and the character’s will?
VTD: Gosh, I think it comes from the gut. [Laughs] I certainly know when I’m talking and these characters have stopped talking.
RH: For me, the faster I’m writing, the more my characters are doing the talking and thinking for me. When I have to pause in the actual writing process, that’s where I come in.
JG: Is there time in four-and-a-half days to put aside your work, let it simmer? Or are you ripping and running at deadline?
VTD: I usually finish in three days. I couldn’t go right up to the deadline because I don’t like any stress whatsoever. I’m the oldest child in my family, so I make sure I’m prepared. [Laughs]
RM: Oh, I’m much more of the up-to-the deadline sort. [Laughs]
JG: I’ve heard it said that if you don’t keep regular office hours, the Muse doesn’t know where to find you.
VTD: I love that!
JG: The Muse finds Vincent on Saturdays and Sundays. Do you have set hours, Rhea?
RM: Um… Well, I guess the fact that I’m having to think about it, tells us “No.” [Laughs] I try to work my writing in every day, but it’s a little more flexible than a specific time.
JG: Do you have favorite forms of procrastination?
RM: Facebook scrolling is a great way to waste time – and a great way to annoy yourself or get inspired, depending on whose post you’re seeing. [Laughs]
VTD: [Laughs] Absolutely. Whenever I have Final Draft open, Facebook is in the background. I go back and forth. It’s dangerous! And the other thing is television: I LOVE television: Game of Thrones! And I love old shows. If The Jeffersons are on, forget about it: I’m not writing. If I was a real man about it, I would cancel my cable subscription.
RM: I have to admit that I’m a Real Housewives fan. I’ve seen every episode: It’s my guilty pleasure and really embarrassing. It’s entertaining, for all the wrong reasons. [Laughs]
JG: I think of Playground-LA as a writer’s boot camp. What did it teach you?
VTD: PlayGround-LA taught me to be a playwright. As much as I pushed back on those prompts and panicked and hated them, they taught me how to write something I never thought I wanted to write about. And it taught me how to write quickly, which has come in handy. I recently did a six-minute piece for ABC Showcase, and they wanted a revised script in thirteen hours. If PlayGround-LA hadn’t been in my life, I would never have been able to pump that out.
RM: Yes, that’s why I did it: It scared me. And because it scared me and made me nervous, I was like, “Well, then, maybe I need to try it!” I thought, “What’s the worst thing that’s can happen? I’m going to write some bad material. Is that really the worst thing in the world?” And now I know that, yes, I can write fast, if I need to, and according to external forces. It’s good to flex and build that muscle.
JG: What would you say to your fellows considering the PlayGround-LA challenge?
RM: Jump in! Everyone was a joy to work with. And it was all about furthering my work and my vision as a playwright.
VTD: Yes! PlayGround-LA is just the nicest family, and the best tool that I’ve come across in LA!
Applications for the annual PlayGround-LA Writers Pool are accepted in the spring through May 31. (PlayGround-LA.org)