Newly coming from her 2012 RBC Tarragon Emerging Playwrights’ Award win, we were eager to get back into the room with Jessica Anderson to revisit one of her earlier scripts My Purple Wig for our March 2013 Piece/Meal staged reading.
Coming into the development process, it was very clear that this was an active, energetic script so on the first day we plotted out moments of stillness. Where are there silences, pauses, and when does the chaos filter back in? We identified scenes that could be more reflective, solitary, and quiet. We also identified characters that anchor the play in stillness. Without taking away from the propulsion of the scenes—My Purple Wig has a clear thrust forward—we identified those key still moments that would help round out the script. It’s a constant buzz between the characters of fighting and bantering back and forth, so to see the counterpoint helped flesh out the world of the play; we want to see the 360 degree view of living with cancer, the solitary intimacy, the silence, in conjunction with the chaos. We found that we were attracted to those moments where the protagonist is alone and examining herself in the mirror, or the husband and wife are in a silent moment, the mother and daughter sitting in thought, etc. So much is said in this piece, so many ugly, dark comments are thrown out there, that it’s a welcome break to sit in the silence of what’s unsaid.
In the next day’s draft, Jessica let the characters sit in these moments of silence more. In the earlier drafts, every time there was an emotional climax a character would leave the room or say something that would dissipate the tension. By allowing the characters to sit in the ‘muck,’ the world of the play became more nuanced. Plotting out the moments of silence also became a method to curb overwriting in the script, since the characters wouldn’t ‘give away’ their thoughts too easily. It all added to the different shades of the play.
Hand-in-hand with the binary of activeness/stillness, we also redefined the relationship between darkness/humour. Even though the play’s subject matter of cancer is dim, Jessica has a deft hand at humour. In day two’s and three’s drafts, there were more moments of high tension that were punctuated by humour, further texturing the script. Not necessarily that every aspect needs to be balanced in a play, but finding those key moments of humour within the darkness adds surprise and mystery—it also makes the moments of darkness that much more shocking, disturbing, delightful.
Given the exhaustive yet short development process, we didn’t get a chance to play with this dichotomy as much, but we did throw our unanswered questions to the room. What are the limits of what the characters will joke about? When do you let the joke hang in the air? Where can you insert pockets of humour as a counterpoint to the tension? The three young, emerging actors cast for the workshop and reading were keen to jump in and ask poignant questions as well. We used their seemingly endless energy to the fullest and asked them to improvise dialogue for a few scenes through which Jessica was struggling. She was very open to the experimentation, and even used some of their improvised lines in the script. In this kind of developmental process, it is crucial to notice and play upon the talent and capability of your actors.
Time constraints might not always produce the best work or working conditions, but it’s the reality of the beast and it is best to go in expecting a certain amount of time pressure. By the time we got to day three we had a talented but tired writer, some overwriting, and a much-too-long script; shortly before the show opened we were cutting lines left, right, and centre. Perhaps slightly messy, but a good exercise to really get at the crux of what Jessica really wants and needs to say in this piece.
Carina Gaspar, Dramaturgical Associate