For the last few years most of my playwriting inspiration has come from historical artifacts. After writing two plays based on personal experiences, it has been great fun to look to the wily past for characters, language and structure. Imagining the awe and ache of pioneers making their way west or the desperation of a young Houdini busking to feed his family has gotten me out of my own head. More importantly, it has empowered me to reimagine the stories of our past that have been scrubbed into shape but don’t actually reflect the world I see today.
Now more than ever our past seems to be present; this is true in politics, this is true in the theater. Using artifacts to inspire plays allows me to reclaim messier stories, contradictions deeply embedded in heroic words like “freedom” and “justice”. Here are some of the ways I’ve found looking to artifacts to be useful for playwriting.
Pull everything you can find, then draw your own conclusions.
When I first started research for a play about the survivors of the Alamo, I started with artifacts: Santa Anna’s speeches, General Filisola’s war memos, drawings of old mortars for grinding corn, recipes for beef tongue. I read novels and looked at paintings from the era, pulled cartoons, photographs, and lists of names. Basically I pulled everything I could find to create a collage of textures, images, and words.
What I noticed first were contradictions. My favorite was a letter from an early German settler in Texas to his countrymen back home, bragging about the easy farming and plentiful game. Contrasted with this was an interview of his daughter who spoke of living in a hole in the ground and mostly starving during those early years. This oral interview of the daughter completely upended her father’s letters, giving me some freedom to play in the space between documented and undocumented.
While looking through the Houdini files at The Harry Ransom Center, I found a postcard Houdini had written to another magician congratulating him on good reviews. Houdini wrote “Boom you,” an onomatopoeia succinctly expressing his congrats, a text message from 1911. These two words encouraged me to play with language, to let it be strange and instinctual. For the most part, I tried to avoid books written about the era. These are useful as context, but for me, they often lead to writing uninspired “period” scenes. Artifacts gave me the permission to play, to build language more complicated and strange than our idea of old-timey, and released me, at least at first, from a fixed perspective.
Find your perspective.
History is not a fixed mark. Any story is the process of choosing what to tell and what to leave out. I find it helpful to look at all the material I can pull on the subject and then write loosely on how it resonates with me. Recognizing my voice, my politics, my angle from the beginning, helps guide the choices of what the story is.
I’m a Texan. I have a deep love of the space, the sky, the geography of Texas. I also recognize that Texas has a very troubling and contradictory past and present. When I started writing about the Alamo, I knew that I wanted to tell the story of survivors, of the women, children, and slaves who didn’t write the story of independence writ large, who didn’t draw any lines in the sand, who were struggling to build a world outside of the dueling governments of the time. Having looked at all the artifacts and understood my perspective, I could then dive into the writing. I wrote fast and loose for several months, letting scenes build out of artifacts, or me improvising a conversation around rations, or the details of a bend in the Brazos river. Slowly, very slowly, characters started to emerge; and as I found their voices, I let them lead the scenes, trusting that I knew enough of the era, to stay out of their way.
Accuracy and performance, truth versus beauty.
A mentor of mine likes to tease students with the question of truth versus beauty in art. In writing plays about the past, I am constantly balancing accuracy with the beauty of the story I’m trying to tell onstage. To this end, I send drafts to theater makers and historians alike for notes. Often, a historical correction will lead to both more accurate and theatrical choices. Occasionally, historical accuracy gets in the way of story. Evidence shows that after the battle, Santa Anna, whose letters show him to be an intense micro-manager of his troops, probably didn’t have an afternoon to spend discussing politics with his prisoners. However, the audience with El Presidente is too good an opportunity for my characters to pass up in their final moments of the story. I give them the leverage of that meeting and the clarity to ask for their version of freedom. Beauty over truth for the audience.
Writing from the past is thorny and deeply personal. Dig deep, write a lot, ask opinions, trust yourself.