Collaboration is brilliant. And necessary. Even on a solo show. Maybe especially on a solo show.
Yesterday, four intelligent and generous artists listened to me read the new script of The Helen Project for one hour and 22 minutes (yikes/oops/thank you) and then shared their thoughts, questions, dramaturgical insights, and encouragement. I went home excited and knackered, brain buzzing with new ideas (and new ways to make the old ideas work better), heart full of gratitude for the support of other artists to make this show the best it can be.
Massive thanks to Susie Italiano, Yaiza Varona, Sandi Ballardo, and Jessica Beck.
Oh, I have so much more work to do. I mean, I knew that going in – I had already made a list of things I wanted to tackle in the next draft. I did not for one minute expect everyone to say, ‘Yes, great, let’s put this on stage as it is, you can stop writing.’ I am especially grateful to Susie for saying, ‘First of all, this is an excellent first draft. Well done.’ before we collectively pulled it apart so I can put it back together as a new version. Susie’s so brilliant at putting things in perspective, and reminding me to stop and celebrate the milestone we’ve just reached before I say ‘Okay, what’s next?” and jump into more hard work. (Two years ago Susie changed my life by agreeing to start a theatre company with me. I still can’t believe my luck.)
She’s right: it’s good to remember that this piece has come a long way, over a very long period of time. I started writing about Helen of Troy back in 2010, with San Francisco playwright Megan Cohen. We developed a mountain of text for five actors all playing Helen, which was performed in San Francisco in 2013 and again in London in 2014. I first tried it out as a short solo piece in 2015 and then in 2017, I finally cracked the spiral storytelling structure that allowed me to finish a first full draft last month.
So you can see why it might be helpful to have some fresh eyes on this project. People who will tell me, ‘Look, you obviously know this myth backwards and forwards and inside out – but when I hear that list of ancient Greek names, it means nothing to me, and I lose my place in the story.’ I’ve taken out some of the names and replaced them with epithets: The Powerful One. The Legendary Archer. The Shepherd Prince. Now I just need to figure out how to make that motif not feel like a riddle for people who know the myths and want to figure out who’s who. It’s such an interesting challenge to write a version of a classic story that doesn’t assume the audience knows the classics, but that also subverts what people think they know about the classics.
It’s also very helpful to hear new collaborators tell me what works – the things that are clear and effective. It helps me to understand what not to mess with as I get started on the next draft. And what to put back in… I’d cut out a massive chunk of text that I thought would only be interesting to me, but it turns out that it is actually interesting and probably crucial to the progression of the last section of the show.
(Great. Now I have to put that back in and cut 30 minutes.)
I’m excited to get working on a new draft, and to hear what everyone thinks at the next read-through. And I can’t wait to announce performance dates for the first full-length solo Helen… soon!