The term isn’t mine, but the problem is one that lots of writers fall into. The Donut Problem describes what happens when your main character is nowhere near as interesting or as active as all the characters that surround her.
About a year ago now, I wrote an article on my blog called Race and the New Generation of Musical Theatre Writers. In the article, I called out to my white colleagues to ‘stretch’ their worldview to a point where they were able to see that our communities are not just populated by white people; to step outside of our unconscious biases and take an active part in truly ‘holding up the mirror.’
There are people in your phone and they have something they’d like to sing to you.
That’s right – all those emojis you use to embellish or simplify your texts are people, too, and now there’s a brand new musical in the works about them. Yes, even the pile of poo.
Thankfully, their songs have music and lyrics by Keith Harrison and a book by Keith and Laura Harrison. (Yes, they’re married. And yes they’re adorable.)
A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of hosting an event called Musi-CAL. Presented by the Festival of New American Musicals, Musi-CAL is a bimonthly concert series featuring material from new and in-progress musicals written by Southern Californian composers, lyricists, and bookwriters.
The final presentation was Keith and Laura’s show, Emojiland. I can’t even describe the energy that filled the room with each song they presented. Everyone in attendance was blown away by the quality and production-value of their work. It was simply stellar.
I had originally heard of Michael when I saw a song from his largely autobiographical musical A Strange Loop performed as part of William Finn’sRidiculously Talented Composers and Lyricists You’ve Probably Never Heard of But Should cabaret at 54 Below. (Well – truth be told I think I originally originally heard of him when the pop-star Michael Jackson died, and he was forced to distinguish himself on Facebook as Michael “Living” Jackson, but that’s neither here nor there.)
I then got to meet him as we were both participants of the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at the Goodspeed Musical Theatre this past January. There I got to see more of his work on the show come to life.
Rajiv Joseph is one of my favorite contemporary playwrights. I remember seeing his play A Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo in Los Angeles and being blown away. It was political, yet personal. Surreal, yet plainspoken. It captured a place and a wonderment that I seek to find in my own writing.
The first, and most obvious, is the frequently useless critiques that writer’s groups provide. Between batches of patting one another on the back, there’s a tacet “I’m smarter than you” subtext that pervades their friendly notes.
And then there’s the endless harping on “Why.” Yes – we must understand the motivations of a character. But sometimes the motivations of a character are implicit in the actions themselves. We relate to their actions and thus we understand “why.” We do not need to be told, and not everything needs to be explained away.
But I think I’m most fascinated, on my subsequent reads of this article, at the (perhaps-not-so) subtle sexism. The labeling of “chick lit;” the constant comparisons to “superior” works by men (Chaucer, Shakespeare); the sexualization of Kitty; the criticizing of having too many women in the piece; and the suggestion that the active protagonists should be three men who discuss war, while Mrs. Bennet “lies unconscious in the background, holding a ribbon.”
It’s a difficult thing to balance two “careers” at once. For me, acting has always taken precedence because it’s my “bread-and-butter,” which I say while making a very ironic face.
But I love writing with the same passion as I love acting, so I can’t just do one and not the other. It just means I’ve had to accept that sometimes the writing is just gonna take longer. A looooot longer.
But this week I was able to finish the first draft of my musical Joe Shmoe Saves the World. Which thrills me to itty bitty little pieces.
Granted – it’s incomplete. That’s right. It’s an incomplete first draft. But it’s cohesive! And now that the first draft is written it means that the rewriting can begin. And so the cycle never ends.
Here’s a paragraph I’m particularly proud of. This comes from my own personal inspiration for writing this piece:
As dramatic and historic a time as the Civil War was, attempting to dramatize the “struggle” of Abraham Lincoln is damned near impossible.
If you saw the recent Spielberg movie, you know that Daniel Day Lewis’s portrayal of the 16th President is sweet, subtle, and extremely endearing – all attributes that Lincoln was noted to have. But the truth is, even 3-D glasses wouldn’t give this Lincoln any dimension.