The first day of Playwriting 320, I open the door to the classroom and nod hello to fourteen students with expectant faces, weird garb, new tattoos. Earlier today, I considered asking my TA to pass out my syllabi, make introductions, assign homework. I considered not leaving my sister’s hospital room where any day or week now she will surely die. But a professor herself, she insisted that everything flows from a first class. “Go. You need to be there,” she said. “Get the fuck out of my room and give them grief,” then she coughed a laugh I couldn’t echo. When the meds again pulled her under, I made sure the nurse had my cell, then I headed to campus three miles away, the mobile of glass birds for her birthday next week chirping in the back seat. I’m thinking of giving it to her later today.
We do introductions: where from, roles played, and one unusual fact. Most facts are too common except the girl with black, black hair who is a triplet. The short young man is a Bungee jumper; a student with a neat blond beard says he was almost kidnapped when he was seven, and they all murmur “wow.” I can’t stop myself from thinking my sister is being kidnapped.
I drag myself back from that precipice.
It is time to explain the exercise I always do the first day. I tell them we’re going to start a play– now. Eyes widen, eyebrows rise. Dutifully they get out notebooks, pens. Their cell phones rest in front of them, out of sight in envelopes I provide. It takes the pressure off.
“I’m going to do some improvising.” I close my eyes, tell them to close their eyes to see. “Setting: kitchen/dining area. Table with four, no, five chairs. Maybe Ikea or used furniture from the alley. The wall clock says 8:30. You decide AM or PM.” I open my eyes to watch them conjure up tables and chairs and decide the virtue of night or day.
“Now we need characters. I’m going to come up with a cast for our play. You’ll do your own next week. First character is– female, early 30s.” I refrain from saying around my age. “The script says: female enters from stage door left. She is holding a small box. She drops the box and looks–looks horrified.” Some students nod. I enjoy creating worlds that come alive for them. For any audience, which in my own modest career as a playwright is a new production every three or four years. Right now I’m stalled and I know my sister blames herself.
“Let’s add another character. Script says: ‘a young man—I’ll make him about 22– enters from door stage right. He takes off his wet t‑shirt and throws it over the back of a chair in disgust.’ One more character: ‘Script says seconds later another young man enters from door stage left. He looks surprised.’ So, we have three characters. You can open your eyes.”
They hurriedly set to taking notes.
When I ask what the emotional cues are, one student with an eyebrow piercing calls out, “Well, the woman is horrified when she drops the box. So maybe “horrified.”
“’Disgust.’ The guy throws his t‑shirt down– in disgust, a student in the Cowboys t‑shirt says. I remember he’s the bungee jumper.
“Yeah, and the second guy is ‘surprised.’” They got it. So I explain how every professional actor, first thing, crosses out the emotional cues put in the script by the playwright. ’Horrified,’ ‘disgusted’ and ‘surprised’ get blacked out. Black permanent marker. Actors only go with the dialogue, which is why dialogue has to convey everything.
Here I ask how many have seen a play? I’m pleased that most of their hands go up. Someone asks if Shakespeare-in-the-Park counts. Absolutely. How many have acted in a play. Again most hands go up, so I switch to high gear. I ask what’s off stage, what’s behind those doors, or curtains or walls? “The wings. What is in the wings?” There’s a catch in my throat that I cough to hide. More fidgeting.
“What’s in the wings?” I ask again. One student tentatively says, “costumes” and I nod. Another says, “props, like the box the woman is carrying. Maybe more kitchen chairs.” When I tell them to keep going, a student says, “Sound equipment, a fog machine.”
Everybody laughs when another student says, “Water—hopefully beer.”
When a young man in red glasses says “lights” a girl with a star tattoo on her cheek says, “No. Lights are done from the balcony, if there is one. But somewhere across from the stage.”
They wind down with “Roadies who move the furniture around.”
So I step in. “You are all wrong.” I love this moment: They shrug and look at each other, then back at me.
Now I’m standing in front of them, near the door. “Here’s the magic of theatre,” I say, looking each student in the eye. “Every character’s entrance on to the stage is really an exit from somewhere that matters to their individual story. Every entrance is an exit from somewhere else.”
A student in the front row repeats “somewhere else.” And I hope their stage is expanding with the possibilities of what is happening in the wings. I move on. “Now what I want you to do is give every character their first line, and add a clue about that “somewhere else’–begin to decide what the play is about.”
“With one line?” a student says.
It’s the first day, I remind myself. They need coaching and I need to hurry things along. “Okay, here’s the woman’s opening line. Remember she is carrying a box. What if she comes on stage and says, ‘Help. I just passed the 7/11 and some guy with a nylon stocking over his head ran out, handed me this box, and dashed away calling not to worry that he’d find me later.’” They get this story with hoots and whistles. “Give our woman some other possible lines, other scenarios,” I say.
“I’ll give it a try,” the girl with the star tattoos says. “The woman comes in and says, ‘I expected my husband’s ashes to weigh more than this.’” She lifts her hands palms up as if weighing something. That quiets them down. Me too.
Another student says, “The woman comes in and says, ‘Tomorrow’s our sister’s birthday and I splurged and spent way too much money on her present.’”
It’s a bit tame and I can’t stop my frown.
“In my fiction workshop we learned to raise the stakes,” says another student. “What about this? ‘Tomorrow’s our sister’s birthday and I spent way too much money on her present. We have to pretend she isn’t dying.”
The students gasp. “Shit,” the cowboy says. They are alarmed and gratified by what has been set in motion– somewhere else. Do they see the hospital room I see, smell the disinfectant, stand by a sister’s hospital bed?
My cell phone vibrates in my pocket. A text from the nurse to say my sister is awake. If I give her my gift early—the mobile of colorful glass song birds to sing above her bed—she’ll know why I didn’t wait a week. Can we handle this? The sterile stage she’ll never leave alive.
Hurriedly gathering up my papers, I tell them that’s all for today, I tell them set a stage and give me two characters for the next class. A great first line. They sit there, slightly stunned, then they too begin to gather up their books and backpacks, pull out phones. Next week, I’ll tell them more, how when the play says “exit” that means the character is returning to the story they came in with. How, even today, we’re each in a play of our own.
I don’t say I’ll see them in a week because my voice fails. I wave as I take my exit. A little puzzled, to a one they wave back as if they almost know I am going somewhere else.
Pamela Painter is the author of four story collections, most recently Ways to Spend the Night. She is co-author of What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers. Her stories have appeared in Harper’s, Five Points, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, and Ploughshares among others and in numerous flash fiction anthologies. She has received grants from The Massachusetts Artists Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts, has won three Pushcart Prizes and Agni Review’s The John Cheever Award for Fiction.