In Which Megan and I are Unabashedly Brilliant

There’s something charmed about this Helen of Troy collaboration between me and Megan Cohen. We get together, we write, we talk, we drink tea, we try to figure out what to do next, we bring up issues we want to address in the text, the things we want to edit or write more about, we somehow avoid falling into that pit of interminable discussion in which nothing ever gets done, we eat cake, we troubleshoot the plan, we try something, it’s brilliant (or at least interesting or useful), and suddenly the way forward is clear to us.

Every time we meet up, either in person or by video chat, we immediately reconnect with the essence of the project, the reasons why we love working together, and the joys of our complementary skills and instincts. This project is so far outside of and beyond what either of us has done before, and it’s thrilling. Every time we sit down to figure out what’s next, I go in completely blind, and in an hour or less of throwing ideas against the wall, cracking jokes, jotting down lists, making faces at each other through our computers, we’ve figured out What To Do With This Crazy Thing.

Here’s the latest update on where we are. Having written about 170 little “disco ball” moments of text for Helen, we decided it was time to try to put it into some kind of structure before we generated more text than we could figure out what to do with. Earlier this month, Megan had the genius idea to post our 170 text blurts on a (private for now) blog and tag them with themes, tones, images, recurring motifs, specific relationships, etc. Using those tags and our handy mind map, we jumped around from subject to subject choosing what the next text blurt would be in the stream-of-consciousness narrative.

For example, I declared that we should start with the “Agency” on the mind map, so we pulled up all the posts tagged with “Agency.” Megan chose one blurt to begin the monologue. Then she decreed that “Beauty” should be the next stop on the mind map, so we pulled up all the posts tagged with “Beauty” and I chose the next blurt. We continued in this way until we had stitched half of our posts into one long speech.

By then it was pretty late. We read the thing outloud for 85 minutes. I was astonished and delighted to discover that this weird first stab felt very much like a woman staying up all night, rather than A Play About A Woman Staying Up All Night. The catch: we’d casually and randomly abandoned a lot of my favorite material and not covered some very important subjects. The monologue was also, to be frank, a Whole Lot Of Talking. We decided that this had been an interesting and useful experiment that we needed to sleep on. That was Saturday.

Over the next few days, we took some time alone to re-read our frankenstein text, revisit the little blurts we hadn’t used, and think about How The Heck To Tell This Giant Story. I spent the time making lists and thinking of ways to reorganize our tagging system so that we could make sure to cover all the important/untold parts of the story. I started an Excel document so that I could sort the blurts by subject matter, relationship, chronology, mythological familiarity, and tone. I’m glad to say that I abandoned that document shortly after creating the column headings. Spreadsheets are the #1 killer of spontaneous inspiration.

I don’t know what Megan did on Sunday and Monday. I bet it was completely different. Whatever the opposite of making lists is, that’s what Megan did.

On Tuesday, we fired up the Internet to have a video chat about What The Hell To Do Next. We’ve been avoiding making a decision about the structure of the piece for some time, but now the time has come when all this text needs some kind of a container to save it from being an in comprehensible mess. From the beginning, we’ve been saying “yes, well, of course we could do this as Helen in a black box talking to herself – but that’s Idea #1.”

Idea #1 is not the Best Idea, it’s just the first idea, and therefore probably the safe idea, the uninteresting idea, the idea that we really don’t want to get stuck with. Idea #2 was that we could film it and put it on YouTube! That idea made me realize how important it is to me that the piece have some live performance element. Idea #3 was that it could be a bunch of different people playing Helen in an 8-hour overnight gallery installation, where you can walk around all those different “bedrooms” and connect with one Helen at a time, or you can watch all of them at once through a video feed that displays on several monitors in a central room in the gallery. That idea is super sexy but comes with a lot of questions about how much we want to curate the viewer’s experience and how to make sure that the most important ideas get across no matter what.

Here’s the part where we blew our own minds. We’ve been talking about having multiple, fragmented Helens so much that without saying it outright, we had both decided that this was the way to go. Figuring out exactly where to break Helen up into multiple people has been the tricky part. Should it be one Helen at the beginning of the war, one in the middle, one at the end? A triumvirate doesn’t feel fragmented enough; how can we get to five Helens? Over tea one day, we had decided that it should either be one Helen, five Helens, or one hundred Helens. Some things don’t need extensive debate; that discovery took about the amount of time it takes to pour milk in my Earl Grey.

This is where my list-making came in handy. We decided there are two potential “tracks” of fragmented Helens. We can break her down by what decision she’s wrestling with (ie, the Helen who is deciding whether to stay married to Menelaus or run off with Paris) or by what she is obsessed with (ie, the Helen who can’t stop thinking about what she could have done to stop the war). Within each track, we’ve got a list (which, okay, I might have color-coded) of 9 possible Helens.

The best moment of the night: Megan said, “What if there is a Helen who is deciding something that has nothing to do with the Trojan War? Could one of the Helens be in a good mood?” My immediate reaction was “What? We have hours and hours of razor-sharp, laser-focused, heart-wrenching, mind-blowing material that we’re trying to cram into a 2-hour piece, and you want to devote stage time to Helen deciding what to make for dinner or something?”

But collaborating means you are always inviting ideas that you maybe don’t understand immediately, that you would never have thought of on your own. That’s what hard, and that’s what’s brilliant about it. So what I actually said was more like, “Won’t that Helen be the low-stakes Helen? Will we care about her decision as much as the Helen who is deciding between suicide and survival?”

While we were both a little off-kilter trying to figure out what to do with this idea, we discovered an awesome Helen Decision Point lurking behind all the MEGADRAMA (TM). What if there’s a Helen who is deciding what to pack to take to Troy? Hairbrush, shoes, dress… newborn baby?

We’ll sleep on it some more, and I bet by the time we start up the next round of workshops again in June, the right Helens from those lists will just announce themselves to us. Then, with our 2 tracks of 5 Helens, we’ll reiterate our mind-map method to create 10 short mini-scripts to try out with actors. That should help us figure out which 5-Helen track we want to continue chugging along.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot: the magic structure realization. YES, BOTH. Live theater AND participatory Internet experience!

5 Helens on stage together for 2 hours: a tightly curated, focused, theatrical live experience. This format satisfies my need to Tell A Story and make sure we get to all the important parts. We’re thinking of this part as “Claustrophobic Helen.” At the same time, Megan will take the lead on creating an interactive internet experience in which viewers can watch moments from the stage production and record their own Helen moments to upload and add to the disco ball. This part is something like “Infinite Helen.”

Another great thing about collaboration: you can do the whole thing cheek-by-jowl, or you can divide and conquer. By each spearheading work within a structure in our respective wheelhouses, Megan and I get to create these two interconnected versions of Helen that make the project – and the artistic experience – bigger than the sum of its parts. The vastness of the end goal then pulls us out of those wheelhouses and into an undertaking that we would never have attempted on our own.

And ah! The relief of knowing what form all this text will take! Now we can really get started.