Part I. The Plan.
“And would you eat worms too if I put ketchup on them?” my skeptical neighbor Judith asks.
Yesterday an email arrived from Mongolia: “Would you be interested in coming here to teach a group of non-English-speaking natives how to write short plays?” I responded quickly, reacting from my gut: Yes! It’s an adventure. A challenge. “Right. Convince yourself,” says Judith.
Husband Joe encourages me. He wants to come along. He’ll travel anywhere at the drop of a hat. He’s the only person I know who’s dying to go to Madagascar. “You’re a nut,” says Judith. “Do you know who sent the email? Are you a teacher? Do you know Mongolian? Do you even know where Mongolia is?”
I google the emailer: Naranjargal Khashkhuu. She is founder and president of a Mongolian NGO, Globe International. She travels the world advocating for media freedom, teaches television theory and practice at Mongolian universities and colleges, has 10 journalism awards and has published a book on TV journalism. “Go for it,” says Joe. “You can do it.” He thinks I can do anything. He’d be thrilled if I ever got paid more than a pittance for a play, but still he’s an endless font of encouragement. Not everyone agrees with him. Doorman Alex hears the news and looks at me strangely. A realtor neighbor asks if my apartment will be on the market as if I had a fast-acting fatal disease. Mother mentions tuberculosis, rabies and Bubonic plague.
Naraa (as she asks me to call her) heard of me and my ten-minute plays through our mutual membership in the International Centre for Women Playwrights (ICWP). She is writing a grant for the teaching project which has to be accepted by the Arts Council of Mongolia. I’m not going to hold my breath. She asks for copies of some of my short plays. I send them, then file our correspondence away, quite sure that’s the last I’ve heard from Mongolia.
We playwrights become inured to no response – hardened to rejection. Anyway, what would Naraa think of the plays I sent? LIFE 101 pits a scientist against an artist in a pre-human, evolution versus intelligent design struggle. Mongolia is Tibetan Buddhist according to Google sources. Would LIFE 101 ring any bells there? BRONCO BUSTER would be a real stretch. It’s about 19th-century American artist Frederick Remington and his determination to depict the Wild, Wild West through rose-colored glasses. SEDUCING RAMONA is about a prehistoric cave couple and the wife’s desire to follow her career despite her husband’s old-fashioned notions about a woman’s duties. At least that one should be universal. Still, I assume these submissions have entered the Bottomless Black Hole that script submissions are sucked into. Like the script that a group in Copenhagen has been having translated for over two years (without a word) or the scripts that a Dr. Sun in China had written were in the final round of choices for a publication. I haven’t heard from Dr. Sun for months despite sending photos of productions at his request. He no longer responds to my emails. The lack of response to submissions is by no means limited to producers in other countries, but the distance somehow makes the possibility of a reply seem even more unlikely. “Mongolia is pie-in-the sky. Clear it from your plate,” advises Judith, biting into a carrot stick with perfect teeth. Judith is an actor. She lives two floors above me here on the upper west side of Manhattan. What started out as a casual bumping-into-each-other at the mailboxes has turned into daily visits. She apparently finds my life fascinating.
I push thoughts of Mongolia aside and open Act I, Scene 3 of the full-length I’m working on, THE DESCENT OF INANNA. Inanna, the Queen of Heaven in ancient Sumerian folklore, descends into hell in this story. Judith points out the obvious parallel with Mongolia.
Naraa writes that not only does she want me to come and teach, she wants to have my three ten-minute plays translated into Mongolian and present them there. I write a short outline of a five-day lesson plan to teach writing ten-minute plays to submit with her grant proposal. She will get the Arts Council’s answer on June 29.
I haven’t been in a classroom as a teacher in almost 30 years, yet I’m offering to teach a subject I have never taught to people on the other side of the world who don’t speak English. I’m sure that despite my M.A. in playwriting the Arts Council of Mongolia will wisely toss my resume and outline in the trash along with Naraa’s proposal and turn their attention to something more feasible, like turning coal into gold.
MAY 18. I fly off to London to take Mom on a tour of England’s Great Gardens. Naraa’s invitation had made my heart race, but now I’ve calmed down. Mongolia is out of my mind. My eyes soak in beauty at the Chelsea Flower Show, but I surreptitiously check email when I can slip away from the tour. You never know. It doesn’t hurt to check.
JUNE 20. An email: The Board of Trustees of Antioch University has voted to close Antioch College, my alma mater. This can’t happen. Antioch has been a leader in innovative education and activism for humanitarian causes for 155 years. It’s a necessary school, especially now with the Constitution being systematically dismantled and individual rights pared away every time you blink. Antioch’s founder Horace Mann charged Antiochians to “be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.” We don’t take this charge lightly. Joe books flights to Ohio.
JUNE 21. We join over 600 Antiochians for what was to have been a small reunion on the campus in Yellow Springs, Ohio. We swing into action to keep our college open. (By October we’ve raised $18 million. The fight continues.) One week until June 29.
JUNE 24. Off to Sarah Lawrence College for a week-long playwriting intensive. The Mongolian project is like an itch that won’t go away. Five days until the 29th.
JUNE 29. No email from Naraa. I’m off to Boston for four days at a Readercon convention. This is a chance to hang out with Youngest Sister Patty who lives in far northern Vermont. Much of what I write is fantastical, so I’m not totally out of my element. A wild and wacky bunch of people, these science and fantasy writers!
I’m reading “Hearing Birds Fly” by Louisa Waugh about her year living in rural, western Mongolia. The book is like a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in the freezer that I’m probably not going to get to taste.
JULY 5. Still nothing from Naraa. Big deal. I knew it wouldn’t work out. Grandma Wood always said: “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Her words would be addressed to all of us kids sitting around the farmhouse table, but her eyes would be fixed on me. Judith concurs: “Thank your lucky stars you didn’t get involved in something you can’t handle.”
JULY 15. An email from Naraa: “Arts Council of Mongolia has approved 1,700USD for the workshop. I can offer to pay 500USD for you as training fee. I am sorry can’t offer more. Rest must be for hiring directors, actors, and mostly a translator. I am sorry I am informing you late. I came back from the States on 1 July and I had to work hard on hunger strike, which was organized by Collective Board of the National Radio and TV. It was over 10 July and Mongolia celebrated our national holiday Naadam on 11-14 July. Can you still come? Can you start travel arrangements? It would be very nice if you come before 13 September. I will be involved in 3rd International Forum of Women Filmmakers from 13-20 September in UB and traveling to Cambodia 23-30 September. In October I will travel to Uruguay and be back after 16 October. Please call my cell phone to say if you are coming.”
I’ve done a little research. $500 is a pretty penny in Mongolia. Wages for a white-collar worker might be only 100,000 tugrogs (under $100) per month. Prices are unreasonably high compared to wages. Up to 36 per cent of the population lives in poverty. The gap between rich and poor is growing ever wider due in great part to governmental corruption. In 2006, 46 per cent of Mongolia’s territory was owned by multinational enterprises. The government has sold mining rights left and right to foreign companies. Because of serious natural disasters as a result of indiscrete development in this Alaska-sized country, the land is becoming barren. Nomads have lost their animals and been forced to move to the few urban areas in droves. Unemployment is rampant. $500 sounds very generous from their point-of-view. Besides, since when have I chosen a path that would keep a mouse in cheese? Playwriting is my third career. I never made money – not as a newspaper journalist (when I was third from the bottom on the income tax schedule), not as a fine artist (even lower), not as a playwright.
I earned a degree in art education in New Jersey in the 1970s and taught very briefly (high school and college level). I have great admiration for teachers who find the time and energy to create outside of the classroom. I enjoyed teaching, but couldn’t do my own work too. I was turning frustrated and cranky. So I abandoned the classroom for the printmaking studio. My theory: every dollar a musician, dancer, artist or writer makes is equivalent to a thousand dollars in the real world. What we contribute to the soul of the community isn’t measured in dollars and cents. I often remind Son Jonathan, a drummer, of this theory, simultaneously reminding myself. Now if only the rest of the world would see it this way.
I’m unsuccessful in completing a call to Naraa. “A sign,” says Judith. The number Naraa gave me seems strange. “What do you know about Mongolian phone numbers?” Finally, Naraa gets my email saying I will come, but I’m not free until mid-October. That’s not ideal since their winter starts in October and temperatures plunge dramatically. Still – we settle on dates. I’ll teach October 22 to 26. No turning back now. Sink or swim, baby. I write to my cousin Esther in Dallas. She lived with her three young girls and husband in Shanghai for four years so she’ll be interested in this Far East adventure. She writes back: “I’m envious. You’ll have a fantastic time. Wish I was going too.” “There’s more,” says Judith, reading over my shoulder. “How to speak to them in terms they will be able to grasp and adopt will be a gigantic challenge.” Thanks, Esther. Thanks, Judith. I get it.
I invite Esther to come on the trip and she and Joe happily start researching flight options. I go to Starbucks with a legal pad, order a venti skim latte and dig in to fleshing out my lesson plan outline Naraa had attached to her grant proposal. This should take a week. Two at most. I don’t feel pressured.
I accept an invitation to write a 24-hour play for Groove Mama Ink. I’m flattered that these energetic young women have included me. I did this 24-hour thing before for them and came out of it with a fabulously weird play. I can do it again. It’s only July. I have until mid-October to wrap up the lesson plan. It’s not like anybody’s pounding on my door asking for INANNA. What I’m concerned about is jet lag. Flying to London knocks me for a loop. What will happen when I fly to the opposite side of the world?
JULY 18. Starbucks. 42nd + 11th. Noon. (Matinee at Summer Play Festival on Theatre Row.) The “barista” tells me this Starbucks was voted #1 in the city last week. I believe it. It’s my favorite except for the one in my ‘hood. It’s not just availability of tables. They get big points for a clean bathroom. Starbucks in the theater district don’t have bathrooms – some don’t have tables. Some in the West Village keep their bathrooms locked to prevent all but customers from using them. This cuts down on needles behind the toilet, but is inconvenient. I like that most of them aren’t locked. So what if street people need to use them? Bathrooms are few and far between in the city. This is an important civic function. Thank you, Starbucks.
A man sits beside me with a young Labrador. The dog laps at ice cubes in a cup, thoughtfully provided by the prize-winning barista. Nobody complains. It’s almost 100 degrees outside. New Yorkers love their dogs. He tells me he takes dogs for the weekend to “socialize” them in the city. The dogs are being raised by men in prison in upstate New York. When a dog has completed requirements to be a service dog, it is given to someone who needs it. His first weekend dog was given to a young girl with autism. He asks what I’m working on. When I tell him, he looks at me like I’m going to Mars to open a drive-through McDonalds. Even the Labrador looks askance.
Esther emails: “I saw a website that said Americans need visas for Mongolia.”
JULY 20. Narra’s email answers questions I’ve sent: “Your workshop will be held in capital city Ulaanbaatar. You can travel via Seoul, Beijing or Tokyo. There is possibility to fly via Moscow, but I do not recommend it. You don’t need a visa. American citizens can enter without a visa. I can arrange for you to stay at Tuushin Hotel.”
Participants in the 24-hour play festival meet at the Gene Frankel Theatre’s basement space in the East Village at 9 p.m. The air is filled with youth and creativity. By 10 we have our actors and director (names pulled from a hat), two sentences that must be included in the play, and a prop. I hate the first sentence, which has to open the play. It’s too long and specific. I hate the prop: a cutsie, white and silver Santa Claus Christmas tree topper. Again – too specific. My actors: two 20-something attractive women and a handsome young man. Nothing quirky. Nothing unusual. Not inspiring. Head for home on the subway, hoping inspiration will strike before 96th Street. The script is due at 8 a.m. A quick trip to Starbucks for three venti lattes and I settle in at the computer. Don’t tell me I can’t do whatever I set my mind to goddamnit. Inspiration! That stupid tree topper will be the Travelocity gnome. I finish GLOOM, DOOM AND SOUL-CRUSHING MISERY at 4:15 a.m. The initial sentence is broken up into one-word sentences spoken by a depressed Russian couple. Very Chekhov. This is why I get the big bucks.
JULY 21. Jazzed up, I can sleep only two hours. At 11 a.m. Joe accompanies me to rehearsal, holding my arm so I don’t blunder zombie-like into traffic. Later I nap for four hours, chow down on Chinese takeout, and go to the show. I’m putting one foot in front of the other, but don’t ask me my name. The actors are amazing; the show riotous. Not bad for a non-comedy writer. Why the director has the travel agent character garbed in an angel costume, complete with shedding wings, is beyond me. Maybe it’s some edgy thing I don’t get. No, I don’t need sleep that badly. (Over the next few days I add costume descriptions to the script to avoid future angels, change that awful first line, and give the protagonist’s crisis decision more punch.) I scribble a note on a lesson plan legal pad to tell the students how to actor- and director-proof their plays.
JULY 22. I’m lucid, though last night was plagued with restless cats and Joe’s ups-and-downs to the bathroom. (The world must be filled with sleep-deprived women who share beds with men over 50 and their weak bladders.) I crash early and feel sub-par for the next two days. All in all not bad, but adding jet lag to the mix would be disastrous. UB (shorthand for Ulaanbaatar) is 12 hours ahead of New York. The flight from New York to China is 15+ hours, not counting stops for transfers, delayed flights and runway sitting. Maybe Dr. Lewin will give me some uppers.
JULY 27. Starbucks. 98th + Broadway. I love this Starbucks. Developers, chain drugstores, banks and cell phone stores have pushed most of the small, independent stores out of my area. Starbucks is filling a need for a neighborhood gathering spot. When I’m working on a play and need a change of scene; when I need to get away from cats walking over the keyboard, the phone ringing, and mail that needs answering, I go to Starbucks. Here I’m surrounded by people involved in their own lives. I can be objective. There are no distractions. (Well, a few. One time a man sitting near me kept falling asleep and almost crashing out of his chair to the floor. That was a little distracting. Another time a woman chided me for talking with my hands [to someone invisible to the rest of us]. She was spooky. I had to change tables.) A large latte can be stretched to last two hours – three if the caffeine is really doing its job. Starbucks is a perfect place to fill out the Mongolia lesson plan. Now that the actual fact of doing it is staring me in the face, I have to admit that the two-page, grant-proposal outline is woefully inadequate.
Naraa’s budget is stretched thin. She can pay for someone to translate my lectures, but not to translate the students’ writing. How will I ever be able to advise them when I can’t even read what they’re writing? I decide to turn this obstacle into a positive. Not knowing what they write will remove any inclination for them to write to please me. That’s good. It is damnit.
I write the title: Ten-Minute Playwriting Intensive in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I never heard of Ulaanbaatar. I know nothing about Mongolia except the bit of googling I did a few weeks ago. It’s somewhere in Asia and they have Bactrian camels – the two-humped kind. And yogurt I think. And yaks. “Do you want to get sent to Outer Mongolia?” This was the eat-your-supper warning issued by Dad when we were small. “Remember Outer Mongolia,” he’d mutter, eyes focused on the slab of liver on my plate. Other kids had to worry about starving babies in Africa. In our house it was Outer Mongolia. Now I’m wondering where Inner Mongolia is. I manage to eke out a few pages of a lesson plan, then dash back to my apartment to google “Mongolia.” Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world.
I mention my trip to Oracles, my playwriting group. “Will you be staying in Ulaanbaatar?” asks Stuart. “That’s the capital, right?” How does he know? I keep bumping into people who know about Ulaanbaatar. My self-confidence plunges until I discover that “Ulaanbaatar” is a favorite answer in crossword puzzles. Questions rain down: Isn’t it totally freezing in Mongolia in October? How can you help students write plays when you can’t read what they write or understand what they say? Are you a teacher? Did you ever teach playwriting? Did you ever work with a translator? They’re going to learn to write plays and write them at the exact same time? They’re paying you what? Are they going to at least feed you? Do you have a contract? It’s not too late to back out. Donna, who taught high school English for years, says she doesn’t see how I can teach playwriting without referring to the classics and surely they won’t know the same classics as we do. Chris asks if the students will have any writing experience at all. Mike asks how I’ll understand the Mongolian sense of humor if students write comedies. “You’re brave,” murmurs Olga. “Very brave.” The subtext is loud and clear. It doesn’t give me confidence.
Questions whir in my head at night. When I don’t sleep well, the resulting brain-fog is debilitating. A recent sleep study recommended by Dr. Lewin, my internist, was a joke. After tossing and turning during a night in the sleep clinic, hooked up to 50 wires (count ‘em) in a small, windowless room with a camera aimed at me, the sleep doctor was jubilant: “You had a wonderful night’s sleep!” Yeah, right. He continued: “Don’t exercise vigorously before bedtime. Don’t drink alcohol. Go to bed at the same time every night.” Blah, blah, blah. Nothing new. Nothing I’m not doing already. I worry that I won’t be in top shape for the Mongolian class. One of my sisters used to sit under a special light to help with winter depression. It increases melatonin in your brain or something. I buy a SunStation and sit under it for half an hour every morning as I check emails. It might be making a difference, but I wouldn’t swear to it. Back to INANNA. I’ll alternate days between INANNA and the lesson plan.
I begin The Plan with what I think are the two essential rules of playwriting: (1) Show, don’t tell. (2) Don’t bore the audience. Then I begin the outline: I. Get to know the class. II. Introduction and overview of the week. III. What is a play? IV. What is a ten-minute play?
I email Naraa: “Several guidebooks I have consulted as well as the U.S. State Department website all say that we need visas for Mongolia.” She emails back: “You do not need visas.”
JULY 30. Joe is off with Son-in-Law James and Granddaughter Audrey in Kenya and Tanzania for three weeks. When I started playwriting he started going on safari in Africa to look at animals. This is his 14th safari. People think I’m nuts to stay home and work when I could go with him. The whole world thinks I’m nuts at this point.
Dayna, a fellow vegetarian, gives me information about food in Mongolia. It sounds like all they eat is meat – mutton, camel, goat, horse – and vodka, yogurt (camel milk yogurt?) and milk tea (salty). The meat is boiled and noodles, rice or groats are added to the broth. Bowels of sheep and goats are used for sausage. A traditional dish, boodog, is prepared from goat or marmot meat. They remove the bones and bowels from the skinned carcass through the neck, put red-hot stones inside and close the neck opening. Then the carcass is barbecued. Dayna hands me an economy-size jar of peanut butter wrapped in bubble wrap. My friends are looking out for me.
AUGUST 5. Starbucks. 42nd + 11th. 12:45 (Matinee: Summer Play Festival on Theatre Row; evening: Rinde Eckert’s “Horizon” at New York Theatre Workshop.) August! As long as it was July it felt like I had endless time to write The Plan. The distance between humid New York in the 90s and the start of winter in Mongolia felt like forever. A pattern is forming. Before I go to a play or reading I settle into a nearby Starbucks and work on The Plan for two to three hours. This kills several birds at once. I get the caffeine jolt that will keep me awake in the theater (Even a good play can’t always keep me awake in a warm, dark theater.). Plus I get a change of scene for renewed energy for this work that seems it will never be complete. This Starbucks, less than a block from Signature Theater on the western edge of midtown, is a great place to work. Always an available table. Space is expensive in NYC, so appropriating a table to work is worth the price of a latte. There. I’ve justified it.
The Plan Continued: V. Writing your heart story. This is a tough one. Connecting the interior or heart-level with the exterior or brain-level needed for structure, editing, rewriting and so forth – this is a bear. The eternal heart/head balance. I want the students to experience the non-intellectual, childlike impulse that forms the core and provides the motor for a good play. I have to think about how to do this. I need to find ways to help them access this impulse. I have to do it so it makes sense in Mongolian. “I see,” said the blind man, as he picked up his hammer and saw.
AUGUST 6. Loved “Horizon.” Very abstract, creative and cerebral yet emotionally gripping. I’ve begun writing a double-sided plan. The right-hand page is information I will cover, arranged sequentially. The left-hand page is for exercises. Thinking up exercises is fun. Someone once said a playwright should steal ideas wherever he can and adapt them to his own work. No problem. I’m reading books by Stuart Spencer, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Noel Greig, William Packard, Blake Snyder, Linda Seger, and the inestimable Gary Garrison, searching for fodder for my exercise mill. I’ll type the exercises up and tape them on large index cards. Then I can shuffle them around and use them at appropriate times during the classes. Hey, maybe I can skip the lectures completely and just do exercises?
So far, I have exercises that include practice making a new character from people you know well; practice layering in a character’s backstory; an exercise to see how conflict is created when obstacles block a goal; a way to see how different people express themselves with a variety of speech patterns; an exercise to see how emotion affects language.
This afternoon I’m thinking about how hard it would be for a non-English-speaking person to get around in this country. For example, I need to get to Warwick, NY, to visit Daughter Jody and young Grandson Rowan on Friday. I should get there in the morning. The express bus leaves too late. The non-express bus leaves earlier but takes longer. Jody says: Take the train through New Jersey. How to get to Hoboken? It’s been years since I lived in New Jersey and commuted to Wall Street. Besides, the PATH train in lower Manhattan was shut down after 9/11. I don’t know what changes have been made. I try to take a subway to 34th Street where there’s a PATH station, but because of a storm last night the subways aren’t running. I’m planning to go to Outer Mongolia and I can’t even get out of New York City.
Hours later the trains are running. At the 34th Street station a man tells me to buy a Single-Ride Metrocard to get through the turnstile. Senior Metrocards won’t work. Monthly Metrocards won’t work. (When I took PATH decades ago it was cash only. There were no Metrocards.) So all set. I’ll know what to do tomorrow. I try to get back uptown. Repeated recorded announcement: Trains are not leaving 34th Street. Turns out they were, just not going south. Oh well, even if you understood English the announcement was practically unintelligible.
I google Metro North. There’s a 9:30 train out of Hoboken to Harriman where Jody can pick me up. I don’t know where in the Hoboken Station the right train leaves from so I have to get there early. The subway to PATH at 7:30 should do it. If the subways don’t break down. What would have been a two-hour and a few minutes bus ride has turned into a four-hour trek. Through all of this I’m pretending I’m a Mongolian trying to navigate the system. And it’s not over yet.
AUGUST 10. I battled through driving rain and high winds, dragged a suitcase up and down subway stairs, two subway trains and a PATH train to get to Hoboken. I’m sleepy, wet and missing my legal pads. I sit on a ripped stool at a counter across from a shuttered bar, write lesson plan thoughts on an envelope (Narrative vs Dramatic. Explain.), and sip a really bad latte from a takeout place. The train has been delayed two hours.
AUGUST 12. Starbucks. 47th + 7th. 3:30. (Tonight: Chuck Mee’s “Iphigenia 2.0” at Signature.) I’m meeting playwright friend Donna at 5:30 at the Siam Grill, then to the play. I was wiped out after two nights at Jody’s. Grandson Rowan, smart as a whip, has the energy of a whirling dervish on speed. Monday I was still very low energy and today I’m not yet up to par. I’m really nervous about what the flight to Far East will do to my system if two days in the country with a seven-year-old lays me low.
Okay. These hours are to be spent formulating questions for Naraa.
AUGUST 13. Ohmygod I loved “Iphigenia 2.0.” Chuck Mee is on my top ten list. Make that top five. The mixture of song, sound, movement and passionate drama is unbelievable. He “steals” text from blogs, speeches, tv, anywhere, and is totally up front with it. There was none of this copyright nonsense in early theater. The openness is refreshing.
Joe, Esther and Esther’s husband Bob (who worked in China and has many close contacts there who will provide us with drivers and guides) are handling all the travel logistics for our three-week trip. The matter of whether or not we need visas to go from China to Mongolia is bounced back and forth. Today, an email from Esther: “I looked at the Chinese Embassy website. It says they require a completed visa application. Still don’t know about Mongolia. It’s not too late to change our plans, skip Mongolia, and spend all three weeks in China. I honestly don’t know if you realize what you’re getting yourself into with that teaching thing.”
AUGUST 14. Last night – a dream. I’m 10, taking swimming lessons in the Williams College indoor pool. The water is cold. Chlorine stings my eyes. Damn. It’s one of those reliving-a-nasty-incident dreams. Some boy dares me to go off the high dive and before I can wake up I’m climbing the ladder. Up and up. It’s a very high diving board. Nobody asks if I’d eat worms if there was ketchup on them, but they might as well have. I inch from the platform out the length of the board to the end. Far below black lane ribbons ripple slightly in turquoise water. Nobody’s in the water. They’re all watching me – bright spots of wet color far below – all eyes turned up toward me. Chubby little me, shaking like a wet hen. Filled with shame I crawl, white knuckled, the length of the board back to the platform and down the ladder.
An email from a Romanian friend: “Working with a translator is tough. If you’ve never done it before… ” From a director: “You better practice your lectures. You can say only one or two sentences at a time with a translator.” From an actor: “You can’t use colloquialisms.” From Chris, the Guyanese porter in my building: “You can’t use compound sentences.” From a woman in line at the post office: “You can’t use slang.” From Donna: “You can’t refer to plays they don’t know.” From Jody: “You can’t use words that mean something else in translation..” From Judith: “So? Do you need a visa for this trip to hell or not?”
I think about how I talk. My thoughts sail forward. What will happen when I have to pause every other sentence for an interpreter? I start listening to myself speak. In a phone conversation with Mom I use the expressions “slow as molasses,” “busy as a beaver,” and “everything’s coming up roses” within the first ten minutes. How can I wipe spontaneity out of my lectures and still generate enthusiasm?
I had written to Naraa asking for a copy of one of her own one-act plays. I need to reassure myself that her structure isn’t so entirely different from Western structure that I can’t connect with the students. What if the Mongolian point-of-view is so vastly different from Western that I would be trying to shape their writing into a mold that made no sense to them? She emails EMPTY FRIDGE, CARROTS AND TOMATOES. It’s a comedy/farce. The play has conflict, specificity, reversals, and, best of all, universality. Even many of the expressions are the same as ones we use. Huge relief.
AUGUST 20. Esther writes: “I want to bring my friends in China some American ginseng root. Can you find some good quality American ginseng in Chinatown? Go to a medicine/herb shop. Tell them you want to buy very good American ginseng to take to your friend in China, and they will help with the selection. A friend of a friend is a friend to the Chinese and the word “friend” has special meaning. If you tell them you want the best American ginseng root, they will take special care in the selection. Very good is one thing, best is top of the line and usually kept separately. Start by asking for ‘very good’ and get an idea of what you’re looking at and the pricing before you ask for the ‘best.’ The clerk will box the roots nicely if he knows it’s a gift for Chinese in China. (This will give you an opportunity to engage some Chinese in conversation. I’m sure you’re anxious to listen to Far Eastern speech rhythms in preparation for working with a Mongolian translator.)”
A phone call to Mom. She tells me that a few years ago someone discovered ginseng roots in a field near her home in Vermont. The next day the field was mobbed by Chinese with shovels. Esther’s take on this: “I bet it was a finding of wild ginseng. Wild is the best of the best and is insanely expensive. Woods grown is considered next best. Cultivated is what is widely available. By the way, Chinese like American ginseng because it has Yin properties while Asian ginseng has Yang properties. One of ginseng’s many medicinal properties is for male sexual prowess, but I think Asian ginseng is used for that. I hope you don’t have trouble finding what you’re looking for.”
The mission sounds nefarious, like a drug deal. I’m reminded of years ago when Joe and I sat on a bench outside an Amsterdam cafe for an hour trying to gather courage to go in and ask for a menu, knowing full well it would list goodies other than tea and lemon tarts. Joe, freshly back from Africa, hops a subway with me headed to Chinatown. “You do the talking,” he says.
We go into the first herbalist store we see. Behind the counter are row after row of large glass jars containing roots. Big roots, small, medium… “Very good ginseng,” says the clerk. I say we need it for a friend in China and that we want the best. “Ah!” – his eyes light up. He reaches inside the counter and brings out a shrink-wrapped box of neatly arranged roots labeled “American Ginseng.” Relieved at not having to bargain and not wanting to comparison shop, Joe quickly forks over $30 for an eight-ounce box of small roots and $40 for a box of larger roots and scoots out the door. I’d been picturing three or four roots hidden in a special safe or at least behind a black curtain or in a shadowy back room. (Maybe I was thinking of adult videotapes.) I had expected an uncomfortable discussion about the relative merits of big versus small roots, the price of the precious stuff whispered in worshipful tones, before our purchase was handed to us like precious jewels. I didn’t expect shrink-wrap.
AUGUST 23. Starbucks. 43rd + 8th. Noon. (Matinee: reading of “Memorizing Rome” by Richard Martin Hirsch.) I’m royally pissed at Starbucks when I find out their venti latte has only two shots of espresso. Since the small size has one shot and the medium has two, one would assume that the large (venti) would have three shots. Turns out it only has more milk – so more calories but no more caffeine. This isn’t posted anywhere. What a dirty trick! I stage a protest by going instead to a coffee bar on 100th Street. A latte there costs $1.00 less than Starbucks and the nice East Indian man behind the counter will add extra hot milk so it won’t be so strong.
The stools are too high. The tables too tiny. The coffee so strong even with added milk it makes me nauseous. I get over being pissed at Starbucks and start ordering triple venti skim lattes for 55 cents more. Now I just have to justify the calories. Good Lord, I don’t drink or smoke or have indiscriminate sex. Can’t I have one vice? I get a ton of work done at Starbucks.
The class will last five days and I’m still untangling Day One. One problem leads to another and another. One question explodes into ten. Esther suggests going to Shanghai for a week before Mongolia to get over jet lag. Excellent idea. I can’t even think about the China leg of the trip, though. Shanghai, Zhangjiajie, Wulingyuan Park, Nanjing, Beijing… Sounds good. Whatever you want to do. I put on blinders, eyes set on a classroom in Ulaanbaatar which I hope will have a blackboard, a translator who knows something about drama, and a very patient class.
Via email, Naraa and I disagree over the readings of the students’ plays (scheduled the evening of Day Five). She says they will be in a theater with an invited audience. I don’t think first-time playwrights should have their first plays (let alone the first drafts of their first plays) read before an audience. It’s too invasive. Like sewing a patient up before the operation is concluded. I’m a big advocate of the utilization of feedback in developing a play, but feedback from an audience shouldn’t come until the play has gone through several drafts and is in pretty good shape. Have it read for close friends, other writers or actors first and get their opinions. Feedback is tricky to give and to receive. (I wrote a thesis on feedback.) I don’t want to throw the Mongolian writers to the wolves! I just don’t think it would be beneficial for them and it might be harmful. But Naraa wrote the public reading of the students’ plays into her proposal, so it will happen. Apparently there’s never been a public play reading in Mongolia. It’s part of the attraction of the program.
I have to write a plan that will take students with zero knowledge (as far as I know) of playwriting through to completing a ten-minute play in five days. At the same time that they are writing, I have to teach them how to do it. In The Plan I keep finding things I should have said earlier and going back. The big puzzle is when to tell them what. (This is a similarly important question when writing a play.) They’ll have to start writing by Tuesday, so whatever information I give them after that should be important, of course, but not essential to their early writing. Coordinating the two seems impossible. The medical parallel pops up again. I envision a person performing an appendectomy. Clamp. Scalpel. “Not yet,” yells a surgeon. “Tie off the bleeding artery!” The student doctor has never operated before. He has never even studied medicine. He tries his best to follow instructions, but the crowd watching in the gallery groans as he mistakes a vein for an artery. You see, the neophyte and the experienced surgeon don’t speak the same language and the physician hasn’t yet gotten to the part about identifying veins and arteries.
Ten-minute plays aren’t skits or sketches. They have the same structure as “Hamlet,” or “Angels in America,” or any well-constructed play. Conciseness is key, and it is difficult. A good short play is a poem. A gem. A wonderful taste of life. My first priority has to be clarity. I’ll get rid of terms like “action.” It was years before I fully understood “action” as explained by playwriting teachers and texts. It’s unnecessarily confusing. This may be blasphemy, but I’m going to make up some of my own terms. Instead of “action” I’ll use “goal.” I’ll use “move” for what the characters do to accomplish their goals. “Move” as in what a chess player does with his pieces. I mull over these terms. I run them by some actors. I think they work, but I’m uneasy. Will the gods of playwriting strike me down with bolts of lightning? Will I be banned from the Dramatists Guild?
AUGUST 25. My journey into Mongolia feels half like a backwards “On the Verge” and half like a stint in the Peace Corps. Thankfully I have Joe, Esther and Naraa managing the logistics. The Plan is taking much longer than I expected. INANNA has been pushed to the back burner. I’m taking her trip for her – strapping on every tool at my disposal for the trek into the unknown.
From Esther: “I think there will be a degree of English literacy in your class, if not fluency. Certainly they will all be more familiar with written and spoken English than you are with Mongolian. English is the second most frequently spoken second language there behind Russian. I’m sure the group will be among the better educated Mongolians.” I hope she’s right. I snatch at every positive crumb thrown my way.
I’m going to assume they don’t know the classic plays Westerners are familiar with. Naraa’s comments haven’t given me any clues about this. I need to have a play that I can refer to as an example throughout the lectures. A sort of throughline. I hit on using a dramatization of “Little Red Riding Hood.” I’m sure there are plays with this story, but I don’t know any. I’ll write my own. It’s perfect for my purposes. Clear goals, a distinct protagonist and antagonist, moves, goals and so forth. I’m dramatizing it in my head. As I work on The Plan, I realize ways to change the folktale to make it more dramatic. It’s a coming-of-age story. In my play, Little Red will be very dependent on her mother, very shy and wimpy at the start. By the end she will have the guts and maturity to kill the Wolf to save Grandma. (Having Little Red kill the Wolf instead of some miscellaneous woodchopper that she calls to for help – this is a great example of a crisis decision made by the main character.) And I’m mad for the multi-symbolism of the red hood!
The Plan Continued: VI. Characters. VII. Obstacles. VIII. Stakes. New exercises: creating conflict through opposing moves; becoming attuned to the rhythm of dialogue; practice getting to the point without extra words; practice brainstorming methods to achieve a goal; examining motives behind the methods.
AUGUST 27. Who will the students be? Knowing their level of education, theatrical sophistication, writing experience – all this would help. Naraa writes that the students won’t speak English at all and there will be 10 to 15 of them. I had told her that I’d rather they had no writing experience since it’s difficult to overcome narrative writing habits and switch gears to dramatic writing. She assumes they will write with partners, which takes me aback for a minute. Then I remember Vitaly Komar, the dissident Russian artist with an apartment across the hall from mine when I lived down in the NYU area. He and his partner, Alexander Melamid, worked together for over four decades. Their paintings, sculptures and constructions are created collaboratively. Komar explained, when I visited his studio, that in communist Russia this is the way it’s done. I must be a good capitalist artist. I could never have partnered for my visual art work. It’s inconceivable. Once I wrote a short, commedia dell’arte play with a writer friend. Somewhere around page six I accused him of having a “Mad Magazine” mentality. He countered that I had no sense of humor whatsoever. I tell Naraa that no, as a rule we don’t write cooperatively in the United States. I definitely don’t want the students to pair up.
Mongolia is now in a period of transition from communism to one of the world’s youngest democracies. The difference in psychological approaches to creativity between communist and capitalist societies is significant, but they’ve been non-communist for 17 years now. I continue writing The Plan, retitling the class: Playwriting Intensive – Writing an American Ten-Minute Play. That’s what I know. I can’t teach anything else. I hope it’s what the students want.
Today I finish submissions through September, fit into size 8 jeans and have two new projects underway with directors, so life is good. Jennifer Loryn is coming over Thursday to read my short stories with an eye toward turning them into a one-woman show. I’m nervous about the time commitment this would call for. I certainly have no time now. It’s a tempting project, but I’m just starting Day Two of The Plan. I tell her I’ll work on this the minute I get back from Mongolia.
Nicole Greevy wants to reprise LISTEN! THE RIVER which she performed at Emerging Artists last season. She is planning to submit it to the Six Figures festival. I give her my blessing. Director Bryan Kenneth plans to submit BLOOD SISTERS to Six Figures. He submitted it previously to the D.U.M.B.O. festival in Brooklyn (that happens in a few weeks). Bryan has been working with “an army of actors” to “open the script up.” All with my go-ahead. The actors will be a sort of Greek chorus, echoing and underlining the words of the three nuns and portraying what in my script is the voiceover of a judge. “Sounds confusing,” says Judith, sipping a Chardonnay.
Rehearsal of BLOOD SISTERS last night was thrilling. This is exactly what I’ve been dying to have a director do with one of my plays – take it further, insert choreographed movement and sound. I loved watching Bryan work. He’s like a conductor with an orchestra. He’s very positive. His energy rebounds off the walls. He actually told his cast: “No scriptwork needs to be done. Not a word has to change.” I might adopt him.
AUGUST 28. Sister Ruby is all excited: “Rent ‘Ghengis Blues’! Hear Tuvan throat singing! Roll in the Gobi!” Ruby is an artist. I tell her I want to have the class clear their minds and write from their hearts before being immersed in theory. This is right up her alley. She gives me some physical warm-up-space-out exercises. Judith says they’ll never understand what the heck I’m talking about. “Heart story? What kind of mumbo-jumbo is that?” I have to stop discussing The Plan with Judith.
Yoga Instructor Maji lights up with an inner joy that’s practically blinding when I tell her my plans. Spiritual people aren’t concerned with the difficulties. They’re on a higher plane. The women (and a few men) on the ICWP listserve email encouragement and kudos. Maureen from Ohio says: “You’re my hero!” I’m too busy getting prepared to worry about letting people down.
AUGUST 29. Starbucks. 35th + 8th. 4 p.m. (Reverie playwrights meet nearby at 7.) This Starbucks is always overcrowded and has only two tables. I hunker down at the counter overlooking the busy intersection. Outside: 95 degrees. Windows, cars – even a garbage truck drips with humidity. A dog tied to a fire hydrant barks ceaselessly. A crowd waits for the light to change, holding arms out at angles to avoid sticky sides. Asian faces – black, white, Hispanic… A 20-something man in a suit stops to jot an appointment in his book. A Sabrettes man does a fast business in bottles of cold water and Snapple while talking on his cell phone. A mother pushes a stroller, plugging in ear buds as if trying to plug out the burning pavement. An ambulance passes, lights flashing. A cab almost hits another cab. Summer in New York. How different it will be looking out a window in UB. Will people stop and smile?
A young and very beautiful black actress strikes up a conversation. She spotted my Signature Theatre bag and figured out that I was a playwright. She’s friends with one of the founders of the Classic Theatre of Harlem. Networking. I’ll have no network threads woven together in Mongolia. Not speaking the language, I’ll be flying without a net. Or swimming into one. Language is our mainstay. Our connection. How will I ever do this? I begin concocting a multi-level exercise that will develop many needed skills. It involves eavesdropping.
The actress flashes a smile and exits with a mocha cappuccino and my card. Her brilliant smile lingers behind. I open my yellow lesson plan pad and write: A smile, a gesture, a non-verbal moment can be as eloquent as dialogue and even more meaningful. I write a list of non-verbal moments: a sound moment, a visual moment, all sorts of moments: kinesthetic, spatial, textural… I write: Go through your script and see where you can substitute a gesture or action for a line. I’m up to Dialogue in The Plan. (I think dialogue is the easy part of writing a play. If the structure and characters are in place, dialogue will follow naturally.)
Naraa writes: “We have found out that must get the visa. We were told there is a Mongolian Consulate in New York. Can you approach them to get the tourist visa?” This same day, an email from Esther: “I just called the Mongolian Embassy in DC. They told me we do not need a visa. The only question I was asked was if I’m a U.S. citizen. When I said yes, I was told again that I need no visa. My best guess is that Naraa was talking about you coming for the workshop and someone in some (semi) official capacity insisted you need it. That person is wrong.”
AUGUST 30. Since I can’t ask the students about their individual plays because I won’t know what the heck they have written, I decide that they will have to ask questions of themselves. I compile a list of questions: What does the protagonist want? Is this clear on the first page? Is what the antagonist wants in direct opposition? Etc. Etc. I’ll ask Naraa to have this translated and duplicated for the class.
Naraa and I agree that Friday should be devoted to casting and rehearsals. I’ll ask to have the plays handed in late Thursday, but descriptions of the required characters and brief synopses a day earlier so directors can get a head start. It will be a logistical nightmare, especially if there are more than 10 students. She says: “As concerns the organization of the readings, I am arranging it with our drama theatre that they can provide the place for directors and actors and read the plays together with the writers. I think the readings will take place around 5 or 6 p.m. if it is not too late for you.” I send her a possible schedule but leave finalizing up to her. I’ll want to address the audience about feedback, but otherwise I’ll sit back. I don’t see how I can possibly be the discussion moderator after the readings. Translating what I say at that point would be too tedious for the audience. I’m going to have to trust that what’s said is helpful to the writers. This will be a good lesson for me in letting go.
From Esther: “I’d like to know where you get Mongolian money. I understand there’s one ATM in downtown UB. Would prefer to rely on that one ATM, but is that reasonable?” Joe replies: “The question is, should I try to buy some Mongolian money in the US or wait until we get there?” Nara writes: You should not buy any money in the US. I am not sure you would find Mongolian currency (togrog) anyway.” Esther again: “Details, details. But I’d rather deal with touring details than ponder how to relate Western drama to the Asian mentality. On the one hand it’s absolutely fascinating, on the other it’s completely mind-boggling. It would be challenging enough to teach a workshop, but to do so to such a fantastically different culture!” People keep hammering at the same message. I can’t let it sink in.
Visit with Jen Loryn is long and substantial. Donna sits in and gives feedback. (Lesson plan note: One or two savvy, non-competitive friends who want you to succeed can give you all the feedback you need.) Jen will be sounding out developmental theaters. She will find producers. Yay. I want nothing to do with that end of the business. I produced a gigantic show when I lived in New Jersey in the ’80s. It burned me out on producing for life. I will need to look at the stories in the one-woman show, CHOICE OF PASTRY, immediately when I get back from Mongolia. I put this project in my “important attention – November” file so I can dismiss it from my brain for now.
SEPTEMBER 1. Starbucks. 98th + Broadway. 3:30. In my office I sat at the computer and stared at what I have transferred from legal pads. It lay there inert. My brain wouldn’t get out of first gear. I was distracted. Plants need watering. Cats’ claws need clipping. “Ding!” from the computer announces more opps. arriving, demanding attention. I had to get out of here.
I start refining the lectures, breaking them down within the days. I’ll emphasize visuals all the way through. Visuals need to work with the spoken word, not be secondary. Figures in space. Time overlapping and layered. Colors. If past is yellow and future is red, then is the present orange? If past is cold and future is hot, what is the visual for the warm present? We have no control over the past, but lots of control over the present, which will greatly determine the future. How can we see this on stage? What happens when you mix the visuals up?
Pieces of advice (given by Chris Ceraso at Playwrights Horizons Theatre School, William Packard and Richard Longchamps at H.B. Studio, Milan Stitt in his masters classes) land on the pages of The Plan. Things I’ve learned the hard way by seeing my own work and listening to feedback. Words from actors: “I can’t play a negative action.” Comments from directors to make the conflict stronger, to cut out unnecessary characters. The past 15 years of writing is coming into focus on the pages of my lesson plan. Distilling and clarifying – that’s the trick. An introductory playwriting class typically lasts one semester. I will have four days (the fifth being given over to rehearsals). Can it be done?
Tonight Judith treats me to a cashmere seminar. “Mongolia is THE place to buy it, okay?” Okay – expect cashmere for Christmas. “Better than the headhunter item you got in Borneo. Way better than the kangaroo scrotum purse from Australia.” She proceeds to school me in different grades of cashmere. I’ve never even owned a cashmere sweater. I plan on giving cashmere scarves, gloves, whatever looks good to my whole family for Christmas. All this advice will come in handy. I’m not much of a shopper and Joe is worse. I tend to believe what merchants tell me about their goods and Joe doesn’t believe anyone about anything. Our one big overseas purchase was two rugs in Morocco that it turns out we could have bought for not much more money (and fewer bugs and a hell of a lot less hassle) about two miles from home.
Judith stays to watch “The Cave of the Yellow Dog” (ordered from Netflix). “The children are using dried dung for play blocks,” she points out unnecessarily. “They’re drinking yogurt made with unpasturized milk. They’re eating nothing but meat and fat and you’re a vegetarian.” Then we watch “Ghengis Blues.” “They don’t have sit-down toilets. It’s 30 degrees below zero!” She leaves to get her beauty sleep and I watch “The Story of the Weeping Camel” in peace.
There is plenty of speaking in the “Yellow Dog” movie (not much in “Weeping Camel” – it doesn’t need it – it’s gorgeous!). Still, I can’t grab hold of a cadence in the Mongolian speech. Maybe it’s because the words don’t seem to match the English subtitles, not even names or words that should be direct translations. What does come through loud and clear is love of family, respect for nature, closeness to nature and realistic/practical treatment of animals. Nature is their greatest friend and also their greatest enemy. I yearn to see the barren deserts and mountains. The landscapes in “The Weeping Camel” gave me chills. I must see some of it, visit a ger. We’ll arrive on a Saturday night, which means I’ll have Sunday to explore. Can it be arranged?
SEPTEMBER 2. Article in the UB Post by Ch. Sumlyabazar: “Where Have All the Tourists Gone? While the streets bustle, the guesthouses lie empty. Many a tale I’ve heard of tour companies despairing the lack of foreigners. Sandwiched between the 800th anniversary of the foundation of Chingis Khaan’s Great Mongolian State and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, for this year the tourist cupboard is bare. This year, like the fish up against the unsuccessful angler, the tourists aren’t biting. At the airport and train station, competing guides outnumber incoming foreigners as much as three to one. This leads to much undignified argument, squabbling over which tourist is whose. The commonest words are “This tourist is mine!” Thankfully, for once, not many travelers speak Mongolian. Such tensions degenerate occasionally into fist fights on the concourse. So what will Mongolians, accustomed to summer supplements to shore themselves up, do? Turn to ninja work? Try construction work? Or remain unemployed and cut down on their meals? Whatever happens, the Mongolian economy will take a hit and not solely because the tourists aren’t coming but because the Mongolians don’t have money to spend.”
The Bradt Travel Guide has a decent map of Mongolia – an irregular football in a landlocked area with Russian to the north. The Gobi and Alti Mountains lie along the southern border, separating the country from Inner Mongolia in China. Bradt’s makes Ulaanbaatar sound ugly but modern. The Tuushin Hotel, according to its website, is quite Western. Everything I read, including blogs, says that Mongolia is behind in understanding what “service” means, but has the necessary facilities. I’m expecting things like a bathroom but no toilet paper, a bed but no linens.
So many do’s and don’ts. Esther’s daughter Julia sends me a list from when she went to Mongolia in 2003 with Habitat for Humanity. Don’t say “goodbye.” That’s like saying “You’ll be dead soon so I might as well say ‘goodbye’ now.” Instead, say “Have a good journey.” Don’t use your left hand to accept or pass food. Don’t sleep with your feet facing a fire. Don’t step on the threshold of a ger or temple (Mongolians call the distinctive round, transportable building a “ger” not a “yurt”). Sit down in a ger so you don’t make the hosts uncomfortable. Always walk clockwise inside a ger. Don’t point at things with your feet. (“This is big all over Asia,” says Esther.) Don’t offer anything to a Mongolian with two hands (in China, offering with two hands is a sign of respect). “Those are rules the rural people have,” says Mom. “You’ll only be in the capital. You’ll be teaching every day. You have no time for roaming about in the desert.”
Naraa writes: “I think students should start writing their plays before you come.” I write back: No. Please, no. Absolutely no!
Esther suggests I schmooze with some Mongolians in New York – get used to the rhythm of their speech so I can adjust mine for the translator. I walk to a Tibetan clothing boutique I’ve visited twice before to drool over fur-trimmed hats. I don’t know any Mongolian stores so a Tibetan accent will have to do. Mongolian hats are the same, the saleswoman assures me, taking a glossy dark band of fur with a crown of red tapestry from a shelf. I’m against wearing fur, but damn the hat is beautiful. I listen hard to the patterns of her speech. She says she’ll give me a discount. Only $950. Suddenly my thrift-store skirt screams “cheap.” I leave before not buying becomes embarrassing. Her accent was more Brooklyn than any kind of Far East anyway.
I’m going to shelve the speech-rhythm thing. I think it will resolve itself. I don’t have a strong U.S. regional accent, I enunciate clearly and project well. Between the blackboard and my naturally dramatic delivery I think I’ll be understood by the translator – if not sometimes by the students. I read a fascinating article about how Westerners read emotion in the mouth area while Asians look directly into the eyes.
New exercises: training to really see and address what is in the text; understanding how location affects the characters; accessing the imagination; discovering character through the five senses.
SEPTEMBER 2. Starbucks. 10th + 42nd. Noon. (Matinee: “100 Saints You Should Know” at Playwrights Horizons. In a photo the playwright, Kate Fodor, looks about 12 years old.)
Still sending out submissions. It’s been forever since I’ve worked on a play. If my writing gets bottled up for too long I turn surly. I barely finish with November deadline submissions when The Loop and Insight for Playwrights arrive with more October deadlines. I hardly know what month I’m in!
Judith stops by. “So what’s the story with the visas?” Take a pill, Judith!
DO THE LESSON PLAN! IX. Basic Structure. (major dramatic question, arc, crisis decision, resolution…) X. Conflict. XI. Journey.
I’m tearing pictures out of magazines to use as stimuli, visual triggers for inspiration for the students. No communication hurdle with pictures. Wish I’d saved all the strange and dramatic postcards for plays that I get. As I choose pictures I put myself in the place of a Mongolian. What would this picture say to him or her? More or less than it says to me? This will also emphasize incorporating visuals into the scripts. The best pictures depict ambiguous situations. They could write about what happened just before the moment in the picture, or what happens after as well as what is happening now. They could write about a character in the picture, all the characters, or someone watching or affected by what’s happening. I add a manila envelope stuffed with pictures to the growing stack to be packed in a carry-on. (Which also includes a bag of dice and a bag of miscellaneous things like a catnip mouse, toothbrush, earring, and bar of hotel soap. These exercises are inventive!)
SEPTEMBER 3. Starbucks. 6th + Waverly. 4:30. (Evening:”Walmartopia” at Minetta Lane thanks to my union buddy Steve.) This morning I type up the first two days of The Plan, which I’ve been writing long hand. Then I visit the eye doctor for a checkup. Now my eyes are copper discs. Even though they were dilated a couple of hours ago, I still look like Cheech or Chong after a bender. There are coronas around lights. Hard to read. Almost impossible to write. I eke out two exercises: practice looking at how a character acts when s/he’s alone; practicing visualization.
From me to Naraa: “September already! Time is flying. Joe still hasn’t gotten anyone to answer the phone at the Mongolian Consulate in NYC to get a definite answer about whether or not we need visas.” Answering email from Naraa: “I have clarified visa issue. If you travel as tourist, you do not need visa. You would need hotel address if customs officer asks. That is all. It is very simple. Please do not worry.”
I get two photos taken in a local copy shop in case they’re needed for a visa. I’m stepping away from that whole controversy.
Then she writes: “Because of insufficient money, I will serve as your translator.” Now I’m worried. This adds another layer of difficulty to what is already a communication hurdle. It’s a plus that she knows dramatic terminology, but I hope her English grammar is good enough to keep up with my lectures. Does this mean I will have to speak even more slowly and clearly?
She continues: “I hope some of class will speak English but probably not. They will be able to write in class. There will be paper. They won’t have access to computers in class. They can work on computers other times. I can translate and duplicate information sheets you will send to me.” I had asked if the students would be able to write outside of the class or if that would be asking too much. She answers: “They are trying to learn so they should be committed.”
SEPTEMBER 4. “Walmartopia” was just the sort of show I needed. A refreshing break! I email the ICWP playwrights for ideas for writing exercises. As always, they are generous. Maureen from Ohio suggests passing out fortune cookies and having the students write monologues about the fortunes inside. Judith is convinced cookies wouldn’t survive the trip intact. “Buy them in China,” she advises. I tell her that fortune cookies are an American invention. She chews on a stick of celery, pondering this revelation. I’m about to make a fortune-cookie foray when Joe points out that customs officials might not be amused at secret messages inside of cookies. Scrap that exercise.
I cull exercises from playwriting books, adapt them for my purpose, make up more out of whole cloth. So far I have 20 exercises. They should work well if communication is good enough. If I run out of things to say I can always fill in with exercises. I do seven of the exercises myself and get so inspired I have to stop before I get sidetracked from completing The Plan.
On the Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree postings online: “I’m flying straight into UB from the US and don’t need a visa, but I do have an invitation letter from the person I’ll be visiting. I have a China visa. Is this enough?” The answer: “There should be no reason they would not allow you into the country, barring being rude to an official in customs immigration, having illegal stuff in your luggage, or fortune cookies. If you’re a US passport holder you don’t need an invitation letter. Don’t even hand it to them. Don’t hand them an onward ticket or anything. Just hand them your passport and say thank you when they hand it back.” Invitation letter? (Okay – I inserted the “fortune cookie” part myself.)
SEPTEMBER 7. A visit to Dr. Lewin for typhoid and meningitis vaccines. Hepatitis B is prevalent in Mongolia, but it’s spread through blood, contaminated needles and sexual contact so I’m not at risk. Tuberculosis is common, as it is in China, but prolonged contact is usually required for infection. Esther already said we wouldn’t take public mass transit because of TB. “Stay away from stray animals,” the Doc warns sternly. “You won’t get out of the country quickly enough for treatment and there isn’t adequate treatment there if you contract rabies.” Check. No petting stray dogs. I know from my readings that they eat marmots in Mongolia and that marmots carry fleas and fleas carry Bubonic plague. I’m definitely not planning on eating marmot, but still want to be reassured. Dr. Lewin brushes my concern aside: “There’s plague in the U.S. Don’t worry about that. You have enough other things to worry about.” Thanks for the vote of confidence, Doc.
She writes a prescription for Cipro for viral infections, another for Ambien to help me sleep on the plane (bless her!), and tells me to come back in a few weeks for a flu shot. I’m familiar with all the warnings on the “Special Instructions for Travelers” sheet she hands me. Bottled water only, no ice cubes, no raw food rinsed in water (If you can’t peel it or boil it, don’t eat it.). I’ve been to Mexico many times and never been sick because I’m very careful.
The handout also says: “Over the past few years there has been a significant rise in crime in Mongolia, particularly in Ulaanbaatar. It is no longer advisable to walk alone through the city after dark. The most common crimes against foreigners are pick-pocketing and bag-snatching. U.S. citizens should not confront thieves as they and their accomplices may then become violent.” Joe and I visited St. Petersburg soon after the fall of communism in Russia. We saw barren stores, depressed people, and children hungry for fruit. We experienced the Russian taxicab mafia in its nascence. Mongolia sounds like it might be a victim of some of the same problems. The handout continues: “Foreigners have also been robbed by thieves claiming to be police officers, especially in the area of Sukhbaatar Square. U.S. citizens are advised to avoid occasional protests and street demonstrations that can turn unruly.” On the Tuushin Hotel website: “The hotel is situated in downtown Ulaanbaatar, very close to Shukbaatar Square.” Great. But it says there’s high speed internet and a kettle for boiling water. The pictures make it look very Holiday Inn. I can’t worry about all this.
The handout concludes: “A valid passport and entry/exit visa are required.” Groan.
SEPTEMBER 10. Starbucks. Astor Place. 1 p.m. (Matinee: Suzan-Lori Parks’ “365 Plays in 365 Days” at the Public.) I’m not crazy about this Starbucks. Messy. Slow. Dirty tables. The NYU crowd is loud. The line for the bathroom is 20 deep. Still, I’m making lesson plan progress. New exercises: increasing attention to senses other than sight; discovering how a character will act differently alone and in front of different characters.
SEPTEMBER 11. Starbucks. 98th + Broadway. 2:30. Pouring rain. A hard day for NYC. This is the first time since the terrorist attacks that the 9/11 anniversary falls on a Tuesday – the day it happened. On that day the sky was pure blue.
Zeroing in on The Plan. Throw out Roman numeral headings because I keep shifting things around and it’s ridiculous to keep re-doing the numbers. Trying to decide what they need to know first, what information they absolutely must have before they begin to write. Complicated and difficult to focus with my attention pulled here and there: submissions, plays going up, Mom being indecisive about moving to Sister Ruby’s. Mom is 87 and Dad’s death three years ago, and my younger sister’s a few years before that, have taken their toll. I’d relax if she lived in a little house attached to Ruby’s in the western Massachusetts countryside instead of alone in Bennington. Yesterday she was all set to tell Ruby that construction could begin, then today she has changed her mind. Family phone calls back and forth. Options weighed. Difficult decisions.
We leave for China and Mongolia one month from yesterday.
SEPTEMBER 12. Starbucks. 49th + 8th. 5:30. (Evening: Theresa Rebeck’s “Mauritius” at the Biltmore.) Autumn is here. It’s blessedly cool. Free ticket to the “Mauritius” final dress thanks to Beth, an Antioch undergraduate I made friends with when I ran work projects there in the ’90s. She’s the head stage manager at the Biltmore now.
I’m getting sick of The Plan. It’s going slower and slower. I’m very uninspired. Disrupted today by talking with Mom and Ruby about Mom’s big decision. And real estate stuff. Joe and I are trying to consolidate and the housing market is dead.
Everybody talks about how polluted China and Mongolia are because of auto exhaust and factories and homes burning bituminous coal. Esther had to use inhalers when she lived in China. Apparently the Chinese (men in particular) spit on the sidewalk all the time because their throats get clogged with the bad air. Besides Chinese-generated crud, Esther remembers yellow dust from the Gobi filling the Shanghai sky. She’s sure air quality in Mongolia will be unbearable.
I have subscribed to the UB Post online, hoping to see articles about theater. There has been nothing. Most news is along the lines of today’s headlines: Mongolian Wrestler Awarded Horses and Sheep to Mark Victory.
SEPTEMBER 14. Starbucks. 98th + Broadway. 9 a.m. Who is sitting at the next table but Doug, a friend and playwright I haven’t seen for years. We are so delighted to see each other we talk for an hour. I steel myself for the usual lecture about how crazy I am and Doug doesn’t disappoint me. As he leaves another old friend comes through the door and repeats the “you’re crazy” litany practically word-for-word. After she leaves, I dig in until 12:30, reworking the outline, trying to teach what is essential for them to know before they begin writing. I get through Day Two and start in on Three: Mistakes to Avoid (gathered from Roger Gross’ comments on submissions for the Kernodle competition).
SEPTEMBER 15. Cafe at 100th + Broadway. 2 p.m. Like an alcoholic who changes bars, I’m guilty for getting lattes every day so I try the place up the block again. Day Three: character revealed through action; character revealed through speech specificity of characters; where does sympathy come from… I keep slipping off the high stool and I can’t block out two guys arguing loudly about baseball.
Esther says it’s customary in China and so probably in Mongolia to give small gifts as tokens of appreciation (remember the ginseng odyssey). I buy playwriting books by David Mamet and William Packard for Naraa. Joe and I go on a search for tokens for the translator and class. Everything is made in China! I end up raiding my potential-gifts-for-future-birthdays chest at home and come up with embroidered handkerchiefs we got in Venice, some cute ceramic butter knives with snowman handles, a pack of playing cards I got in London with pictures of flowers from Shakespearean plays, and several small, handmade-paper blank notebooks. Esther says: “Everything should be wrapped in fancy tissue and tied with a pretty ribbon. They love fancy wrapping. Red and gold are symbolic power colors in Asia. Green is also good. Stay away from white. White is for funerals. I was never able to find tissue paper in Shanghai. Chinese wrapping paper is heavy and thick. Ribbon might not be easily found either.” So I scour stores for paper and ribbon, finally finding some gorgeous red tissue paper with imbedded gold leaves at an art store in New Jersey. I add all this to the precariously high To Be Packed pile in the corner of my bedroom.
SEPTEMBER 16. Cuppa Cuppa. 4th + 2nd. 4:30. (Evening: Ivo van Hove’s adaptation of “The Misanthrope” at New York Theatre Workshop.) I check out Radio Shack to see what they have for a small recording device to tape the workshop – something newer than my clunky, old tape recorder. Having recordings would take the load off of remembering special moments that happen during the classes. I’ve stopped telling people about my plans because I don’t want to hear any form of the “you’re nuts” speech again, but I have to tell the Radio Shack clerk my needs. Carlos frowns, scratches his head, and allows as how a week’s worth of tapes will take up half a suitcase (you crazy lady).
Suddenly an onslaught of play work. Production of a one-act coming up September 28-30. Work on two other future full-lengths suddenly necessary. I have to finish sending out submissions for November deadlines. I need to clone myself! Hopefully The Plan will be done by the middle of next week so I can pack! BLOOD SISTERS opens tomorrow night, but I can’t make it until Saturday. I’m excited to see what Bryan has done with it. My first street theater piece.
Last night I dreamed I was trying to climb a steep, narrow, endless flight of stairs, but falling backwards. I haven’t had that dream since a final exam in French, many years ago. It’s a horrible dream.
Yesterday I emailed three pages to Naraa which I have written for her to translate so I can hand them out to the class: Tool Kit for Basic Playwriting which contains essential elements, definitions, and structural organization of a ten-minute play; a Sample Format Page (they have no required format in Mongolia), and a list of questions to ask themselves about their plays (since I can’t read them). I’m afraid I’ll find that I left things out or made mistakes in the pages after she’s translated them. This sorting out of theory and putting it down in black and white has taken over my life.
SEPTEMBER 27. Saw Chuck Mee in the NYTW lobby last night. I had to tell him how much I loved “Iphigenia 2.0.” He focused on me and nothing but me as we spoke. I’d forgotten how unusual that is. We networkers tend to keep our antennae alert to all and every around us. Impolite, I know. It becomes second-nature. I vow to retrench and focus like the charming Mr. Mee. It can only help me communicate in Mongolia.
Down to the wire. I’ve finished – or at least filled – Day Three (exposition, empathy, rhythm, theatricality, visuals, location…) and most of Day Four (how to listen to your play, giving and receiving feedback, working with a director, rehearsals, actor-proofing the play, trusting your instincts, rewriting…) This outline reminds me of the kind Eugene O’Neill wrote when creating a play. His outline would eventually become so elaborate, by the time he got around to writing the script the play was pretty much complete. The Plan is less of an outline, more of a textbook!
Questions and doubts. Doubts and questions. In a play a piece of information must be in the right place in the script for the audience to “get” it. How can I say the important things at the right time in these lectures? It seems like almost everything I am saying is important. One point builds upon a previous point. Like a play. How can I possibly tell how long any part of this will take to say with a translator? What if the class has questions? I hope they do, but how can I predict where and how long that will take? One minute I think I have a month’s worth of information, the next minute I’m afraid I can’t fill four days. Judith continues to think I’m looney. I’m starting to think she’s right. I have to read through it all as if I was delivering the lectures, pausing for an interpreter, listening for too much repetition (combining beats), and editing. Just like writing a play, which I haven’t done for months now! I’ve inserted a lot of class writing time and exercises. Maybe I’ll do the exercises with them. Or maybe, while they’re doing exercises I’ll write my adaptation of “Little Red Riding Hood” which I’ve been developing ad hoc as I go along, altering it to come up with examples. “Little Red” is getting darker and darker, quite intriguing! I catch myself writing dialogue for Little Red and the Wolf and force myself to turn off the computer, go into the living room and start reading The Plan out loud.
Esther writes: “Concerning that lesson plan you’re working on – you should probably count on losing a significant amount of time, possibly 1/3 or more, to clarifying translation issues. There are bound to be many and I’ve never found Asians to have the quickest grasp of our logic. I’m not saying they are slow-minded, not at all, it’s just that our way of thinking is as foreign to them as theirs is to us. I think you’ll be lucky to fit in all that you want to fit in! I am going to have to sit in on some of that workshop, if you don’t mind. Not as any sort of critic, but just to observe the dynamics. I think you can count on the fact that the students will be unfailingly polite even while they don’t comprehend in the slightest what you’re attempting to convey. I’m guessing that the Chinese habit of assuring you that they know precisely what you’re asking/telling them when they really haven’t a clue will hold true in Mongolia as well. You can ask them repeatedly if they understand, they will assure you they do, then they will either do nothing or do something completely different because they really didn’t grasp the initial concept. Above all else, maintain your sense of humor. It’s an imperative in Asia. If you don’t find the confusion amusing, then it will frustrate you to no end.”
Nothing against Esther, but I don’t want anybody who isn’t in the class to be in the room. I want to create a close, trusting, non-competitive, creative atmosphere and anything from outside will disturb that. I’m not sure of much in this whole project, but of that I am sure.
SEPTEMBER 28. Starbucks. 2nd + 32nd. 5 p.m. (Meeting of Playformers later.) Despite a triple venti latte, I doze off during the reading. I’m blowing up like a balloon from so many lattes, and the caffeine isn’t giving me enough of a kick. What am I doing checking out another playwriting group? My hands are full with Oracles. Look in the mirror. Tell yourself there are only 24 hours in a day. Tell yourself you need to cool it or you’ll get sick before the trip even starts.
Last night I dreamed I was standing behind a lectern in a cavernous lecture room, talking to hundreds of stone-faced students. One by one, as I droned on, they filed out silently until the room was empty.
Yesterday I attempted to determine how much time The Plan would take by reading it out loud, including pauses for a translator. I now know two things: (1) I haven’t the foggiest how long it will take. (2) I still have to fill one more day to be safe.
SEPTEMBER 30. From southtravels.com: “Weather and Climate in Mongolia. The best time to visit is May-September. Don’t even think about going in winter as it’s bitterly cold.” I’m not a fan of cold. As a teenager, watching outdoor hockey in the Berkshires, I got frostbite on two toes. Those toes ache mightily when temperatures drop. Esther, the southerner, has to do a lot of clothes shopping for the trip. (After research she decided to buy a Lands End coat that’s recommended for frigid temperatures. I ordered the same coat since the down parka I bought for the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Alaska a few years ago has lost most of its feathers.) Any way you look at it this is a horrendous packing job. I buy a pair of woolen slacks and a wool blazer. I have to look grownup for the class. Wool makes me itch so I usually don’t wear it, but how else to combat the Mongolian winter? Somewhere I read that interiors are overheated there, but I can’t depend on that being true. I picture a classroom with frost inside the window panes. Have to pack for temperatures ranging from 85F (possible in Shanghai) to below 0 (possible in UB). I put necessities I don’t want to forget to pack in the corner pile as they occur to me: silk long johns, wool knee socks, turtleneck jerseys. Packing shoes and boots is always a problem. They take up so much room. But for this trip I can’t scrimp. Joe is comfortable in anything at any temperature. He’ll wear sneakers in rain, sleet or snow and it won’t faze him. I need warm boots for Mongolia, comfortable walking shoes for the Great Wall (after Mongolia – the Beijing leg of the trip) and hiking in the Chinese park, decent-looking footwear for classes. Good God. I haven’t even switched summer clothes for winter in my closet yet.
Phone call from Christopher Roberts, artistic director of Stepping Stone Theatre in Brooklyn telling me that my full-length, HUMANS REMAIN, is one of two finalists for an award and production. There will be a public reading on January 14. I’m ecstatic until he tells me that first I have to meet with their board and make the revisions that they want. I revised this play after a reading as a finalist at Reverie last year and don’t want to touch it before I hear it again. But I’m not going to argue. I’ll call you the day I get back from Mongolia I tell him, and hang up before he can offer a comment on Mongolia.
OCTOBER 1. Just printed out The Plan – 32 single-spaced pages plus 20 pages of exercises (29 of them). Surely it’s enough material. Probably way too much. I don’t know! The classes will run from 10 to 6. That’s 32 hours minus an hour for lunch each day. I have to finalize The $#@!% Plan. Can’t today. Just can’t. Still have to do 28 submissions. I’ll give myself until October 3rd to put a period on it. Haven’t even started packing. Need more time!” Esther writes: “Packing stresses me out terribly. I’d be twice as stressed if I had to look professional to teach for a week like you.” Judith and Esther may be twins separated at birth.
We leave a week from tomorrow.
OCTOBER 3. Worked 13 straight hours yesterday and THE PLAN IS FINISHED!
OCTOBER 8. The Lands End coat comes in the mail. Many pockets, very light weight. I can smush it down to nothing in one of those plastic bags you squeeze the air out of. Bring on the Mongolian snows! Email to Naraa: “I’m packed and ready to go. We leave for our week in Shanghai before dawn on October 10. We’ll meet you at the airport in UB around 7:30 p.m. on October 20 (Air China CA955). I expect we’ll be easy to pick out of the crowd. See you soon!”
OCTOBER 9. From Naraa: “I am in Montevideo. Very busy time. Very long trans-Atlantic trip. I will meet you at airport. I will have a sign with your name. I am tall, grey hair and glasses. You do not need an invitation letter or visa.”
In my office, the To Be Filed stack is three feet high. The November – Important! file is bursting. The light is off. The door is shut. The Plan is snuggled in my carry-on bag. I’m ready.
PART II. Sinking or Swimming.
OCTOBER 10. On the early morning flight to Chicago it hits me: Possibly the reason I had such a difficult time writing the lesson plan was, in addition to the obvious obstacles, the fact that somewhere along the line during the past years of intense playwriting my brain had made the switch from narrative writing to dramatic. Something to ponder as I curl up and try to sleep on the flight from Chicago to Beijing. The seat next to mine is empty since Esther’s flight from Dallas to Chicago was cancelled. She is on a flight from San Francisco. Hopefully we’ll meet up at the Holiday Inn in Shanghai within the next 24 hours. I’m so grateful for the extra space to stretch out I don’t complain about not getting vegetarian meals on the flight.
A dream: I’m lying under a vehicle with Mom. We scooch along on our backs, pushing it up a hill. We pass large rocks and groves of bamboo. Hills and dappled sunlight are reflected in pools of wide, shallow water. A countryside of light greens and silver greys. Under the vehicle it’s sweaty and dark, but we’re making progress. The dream fades, replaced with a sudden realization: I didn’t include the necessity of making the major dramatic question clear near the very start of a ten-minute play in my Tool Kit handout that Naraa is translating for the class. Something else nags in the back of my head. Though I manage to get almost five hours of sleep and my head feels clear, I can’t put my finger on what it is.
Most of the people who found out about my Mongolian expedition said: “That will be great material for a play!” I nodded politely, but I don’t think so. Not if I can help it. The essence of drama is conflict, and conflict is not on my list of hopes for Mongolia. “Change your watch to China-time,” advises Joe. It’s 7:30 p.m. in New York and 7:30 a.m. in China. I stare at my non-digital watch and try to adjust mentally.
OCTOBER 11-18. SHANGHAI, NANJING, XIANZAJIE. No time to think about Mongolia during our whirlwind days in China, nor during our nights sleeping on rock-hard Chinese beds. Massages ($12/hour) help keep us ambulatory. I’m amazed that I have no jet lag. Not a shadow. Flying west must be the key.
Chinese have a reputation for being pushy. I can see why. They have to push and shove to get anywhere through the swarms of people. People! I have never seen so many people! Hundreds and hundreds of tall, bleak, cement apartment buildings and more going up. Cranes everywhere. New skyscraper business buildings with incredible architecture. The traffic is bad, yes, but at night, many buildings are lit in imaginative ways, turning this city that is four times the size of New York into a land of magic. Taxis are cheap and the drivers know how to get around, but getting anywhere takes forever because of the non-stop traffic jam. Laundry hanging out windows. Smoking – smoking everywhere. Grey skies from pollution. Few Western sit-down toilets. Mostly hold-your-nose, bring-your-own-tissue-and-squat stalls. (Chinese must have great leg muscles.) Workers trimming grass, picking up trash, sweeping roads with stick brooms, cleaning bricks from demolition to be used again. No unemployment in a communist state. History like Americans just don’t have, like the Ming Tombs which were constructed starting in 1381. Walls, walls, the Chinese love walls. Pagodas with tiny figures on the points of the roofs, led by a monk on a rooster. Austere buildings from the Mao era mixed with pre-Mao and always, everywhere, apartment buildings and cranes. Ubiquitous ugly rock formations put together by humans – which the Chinese love. Not a dog, cat or bird in sight outside of a cage. “The Chinese eat everything,” Esther informs us. The Shanghai Zoo has a “pet” section. Behind the bars, Poodles, Golden Retrievers, a Great Dane… dozens of breeds. None would pass muster at Westminster. Something is “off” about all of them: the eyes too small, the shoulders too broad, or the ears too long. The massive basset hounds are almost as big as a dwarf Rotweiller next door. The smaller cages are decorated to look like living rooms with a sofa, coffee table and painting on the back wall. The dogs aren’t fooled. They gaze at us with sad eyes. We don’t have the heart to go in a building that probably houses domestic cats.
We feast on “real” Chinese food. There is no comparison to the poor imitations in America. Sweet slices of lotus filled with sticky rice, to-die-for tofu, tiny river shrimp in vinegar, heaps of bok choy with garlic, real szechuan peppers sizzle on our tongues. Meals are a time for relaxing and talking. Chopsticks force the Americans to slow down. One of our Chinese hosts jokes that we have to fill up so we don’t starve to death in Mongolia. I communicate pretty well with gestures, smiles and pidgen English. The people are warm and friendly.
OCTOBER 19. Starbucks. Shanghai. 2:30 p.m. Tomorrow we fly to Mongolia. I retreat to one of only two Starbucks I’ve spotted in Shanghai. Luckily, it’s right across the street (seven lanes of traffic) from our hotel. I take The Plan and my camera. (I’ll snap a shot of their bathroom. Hopefully it has a Western-style toilet, but if not it will make an interesting addition to the China/Mongolia photo album.)
It looks like the entire population of Westerners in Shanghai is in Starbucks. (Around the corner, about 200 bicycles and mopeds are parked outside McDonalds.) No bathroom, but that’s a minor consideration at the moment. Quiet talk, heads bent over laptops and newspapers, the aroma of coffee… aaaahh! I settle in with a ceramic mug of latte (telling myself I don’t miss the cardboard cups of NYC) and start going over The Plan. The thought that something in The Plan needs to be changed hasn’t gone away. Starbucks doesn’t fail me. I realize right away what’s wrong. The students need to write their Heart Stories before I begin lecturing. Don’t clutter their brains before clearing them. I want them to write without thinking, write what they need to write, something that moves them, excites them, makes their hearts pound because they care about it. I will tell them that no one will see the story so they shouldn’t censor themselves. They shouldn’t think or plan. They should just write. Pour their hearts out and don’t stop writing for an hour. The Heart Stories won’t be in any kind of play structure. They may or may not contain material that will be used for the students’ ten-minute plays. I want them to get in touch with their passions so when they get to the business of actually writing their plays the facts in my lectures won’t flatten their stories. This is one of the most difficult balances to maintain in writing a play I have found, this balance of left and right brain. I want to be sure the students feel what the flow of writing without thinking is like before their minds begin to fill with facts, before they start filling their pads with notes.
I have identified the Heart Story as necessary, yet at the same time it is the single part of the lessons about which I am the most insecure. I never had a teacher approach playwriting this way with me. The approach isn’t in in any book I’ve read. The students may not “get” it. They may stare at me with open mouths. I have to prep them for this through a translator, which is sure to flatten out the passion I need to engender. I shake Judith’s voice from my head and drawn a big black arrow around “What Is a Play?” and “What Is a Ten-Minute Play?” and move them to later in the day. Lacking a laptop, I write the first part of Day One out in longhand. The Heart Story will be right up front after “Introductions” and “Summary of the Week.” Instinctively I know this is right, just as I know that telling the students something about myself after I’ve had each of them tell the class about themselves at the top of Day One is right. I hope we can sit at a big table or at least in a circle. I’m nervous as hell.
OCTOBER 20. Saturday. The Air China flight from Shanghai to Beijing leaves an hour late. There is zero leg room. The salt-and-grease-infused something mysterious that they serve for breakfast is inedible. We run to fill out forms, collect our bags and transfer them to the flight from Beijing to UB. (The final, final word: We did not need visas.) Once on board, we are again served salty-greasy mystery thing. Seats are crammed together. When the man in front of me puts his seat back I can count the hairs in his ears. Cross Air China off the list for the future. During the two-hour flight I castigate myself for not reading up on Mongolian history and learning about Tibetan Buddhism. Remembering that the average life span in Mongolia is 63 or 64 (depending on the source), I hope that I’ll be respected and revered — excused for lapses in knowledge and faux pas.
There’s Naraa at the Chingis Khaan airport. She hugs me, gives me a two-cheek kiss: “Welcome to Ulaanbaatar,” she says, rolling the “R” and putting a slight accent on “baa” in a way that never trips easily off my tongue. Naraa quickly corrals two taxis (the three of us have too much luggage for one). She wears only jeans and an open, light jacket. “We’re having a warm spell,” she says, dragging on a cigarette and hefting my suitcase filled with woolens and long johns into a cab for the short ride to the Tuushin Hotel. Esther comments: “My asthma index tells me it’s worse than China.” The city is larger than I’d imagined. Naraa’s English is quite good. She says there will be one person in the class of ten who can speak some English. Many of them are journalists. One teaches drama at a university. Gulp. She will be my translator in the mornings, but realizing how tiring this is she has hired a professional translator for the afternoons. She is suffering from jet lag, having returned from Uruguay five days ago. Several times she repeats: “I get tired.” She does look exhausted.
I ask what playwrights the class will be familiar with. “They will be familiar with all the classics,” she says. “Ibsen, Chekhov, definitely Shakespeare.” I remember asking in one of my many emails, but since I didn’t get an answer I had assumed… I assumed wrong. “You can compare and reference any of the classics in your lectures,” Naraa assures me. Black mark #1 for the unprepared American.
The hotel is fine. A big room – hot as a furnace. Radiators pump away to counter the Mongolian winter (which seems to be delayed – Al Gore could tell us why). The bed is hard, but not as hard as in China. There are none of the hotel goodies we’re used to like Kleenex, a coffee maker and extra pillows, and the little plastic shampoo bottles have obviously been refilled, but it’s better than I had expected. The room is quiet as a tomb which is worth quite a few gold stars. We crack the windows open to get some relief from the radiators’ dry heat, but have to close them quickly because of the outside air. It’s smoke from burning coal. The smell and black air permeate the curtains, the rug, the sheets. I refuse to let it dampen my spirits. We turn on a portable fan (which automatically shuts off in one hour). I fall asleep quickly despite the overbearing heat and dream about sharing my airplane seat with a pungent camel with hairy ears.
OCTOBER 21. Sunday. In the morning it’s frigid outside. Esther complains that the faux leather sofa in her room smells like man sweat and the sheets are dirty. The wiring is a fire waiting to happen. The tv, minibar (containing water, Coke and candy bars), lamp and a fan are all plugged loosely into the same ancient power strip. She remarks that the Mongolian women in the breakfast room at the hotel won’t return her smiles “like the Chinese do.” She was frustrated last night because the hair dryer and kettle to heat water which she’d requested didn’t come for an hour. She doesn’t like the breakfast food, which Joe and I find more than adequate. In fact, I’m delighted that there’s cereal, made-to-order omelets, toast and some fruit. I was all set to breakfast on the dried apples and granola bars we brought. (No peanut butter. Airport security would disapprove.) Esther’s expectations of Mongolia are surprisingly high. I am perfectly happy.
Naraa arrives at ten. We discuss the class as she and Esther smoke. I ask about Naraa’s background. She worked as an engineer for two years before her career branched into media. She is obviously delighted that I have come. She wants me to take Thursday off so the students can use that day to finish and type up their scripts. On one hand I’m relieved, but on the other I can’t imagine cramming the essentials of The Plan into three days!
Naraa has arranged for a driver and one of the young men who works for her NGO to take us around Ulaanbaatar today. I’m disappointed that there is no time to arrange a tour in the countryside. Togu arrives, a 23-year-old who speaks perfect, non-accented English. It turns out that he went to high school in Queens, NY, and then to university in Japan. He’s not a professional guide, but quite happy to show us around instead of being shut in an office. I vow to soak in as much of Mongolia as I can before the challenge begins tomorrow.
It’s a beautiful day. The edge has come off the cold and it’s sunny. Togu says the air quality gets much worse when the temperature drops and the coal furnaces are really fired up. We check out the State Department Store for cashmere and hats. There is nothing even vaguely resembling the hats I admired at home. The New York saleswoman was pulling the wool over my eyes. Joe and Esther find that UB’s one reported ATM doesn’t accept their credit cards. It takes some doing to find a machine that does. Cashmere is plentiful, but not inexpensive. Togu explains that the high price of petrol has caused this. The small shops have better prices, but small selections and very few sizes. Naraa had recommended the factory store. (Joe and Esther go there during the week, but find that the prices are the same as at the State Store. They also discover that most of the national parks have shut down for the winter. They’ll have more than enough time to kill. Joe may be reduced to going to museums, not his favorite pastime.)
Lunch at a small restaurant is good. Soup and a plate of cracker-meal encrusted meats, vegetables and tofu. A decent latte. Esther actually likes the mutton. We walk to a Buddhist temple. The air is dusty. The streets are dusty, sidewalks perilous with gaping holes, piles of debris and missing pavement and manhole covers. The buildings are from the communist era – blocks of unornamented cement. Small plots of land that could be parks are filled with rubble and weeds. A number of large government buildings and banks (including the Parliament Building, graced with an enormous statue of Chingis Khaan and four of his warriors on horseback) surround Sukhbaatar Square, but there are no plantings or benches. Perhaps in the summer it isn’t so dreary. It seems everyone gathers near the central statue of Red Hero Sukhbaatar to meet up with friends and check out the opposite sex. Citizens in traditional long, belted coats mix with young people in jeans and sneakers. The small children are adorable, each cuter than the next. I would love to take photos of the people, but don’t want to be rude. Near the temple, boys sell food for a flock of pigeons. Two children pet a sick bird. Men sell paintings of rural Mongolian life on leather. And cigarettes. Cigarettes are as popular as they were in China. Brilliant blue cloths are tied around a small, dead tree. I ask Togu the significance. He shakes his head. I assume it’s a Buddhist practice. He doesn’t know. He has no religion. (Statistics say that 40 per cent of the population have no religion, not surprising after so many years under communism.) The temple is too mobbed with Asian sightseers to go inside. It’s a pickpocket’s Costa del Sol.
We bid Togu goodby and head back to the hotel. Along the sidewalks women bundled in scarves and long coats sit at portable tables with an array of candy bars, cigarettes and satellite telephones for rent by the minute. There are many sidewalk vendors selling candy. Everywhere: dust. The overall effect is depressing. There is much poverty. Despite the surrounding mountains, Ulaanbaatar is not a pretty place.
A scattering of eight- to ten-year-old boys boys demand tugrogs outside the State Store. One is obnoxiously insistent to Esther. She tells him “no” and walks away. He darts forward and hits her on the head. Shocked into being uncustomarily bold, Joe takes a swing at the boy – not close enough to touch him, but getting his message across. Joe and Esther quickly walk away. The boy, egged on by his followers, starts after them. I lock eyes with the boy, walk directly toward him, shaking an index finger, scolding: “Stop being a bad boy!” Although I’m sure he doesn’t understand English, he stops in his tracks. I have to reverse the feeling been creeping over me – that of a fish out of water.
Back at the hotel, I request an iron and a pot to boil water for tea. I have to tackle The Plan again, tighten it up, mark what is essential and what can be skipped. I winnow the 29 exercises down to 10 of the best that will reinforce the most important principles. I slant these exercises so that they can be applied specifically to the scripts they will be working on, not just to plays in general.
We hail a taxi to a restaurant recommended by Naraa for supper and discover that if you stick your hand out just about any car will stop, taxi or not. You negotiate a price and voila! you have a ride. It seems to cost $1 to go anywhere in the city. I’m again relieved to find that I don’t have to eat meat. Nomads Restaurant has a good potato/cheese/peppers dish. Joe’s inexpensive chicken soup appetizer comes with two fat chicken thighs. Esther’s Chingis beer is so strong we expect she’ll sleep better tonight. We get another pseudo-taxi back to the hotel. The sidewalks are too perilous and crowded to negotiate at night. Crossing streets is dangerous. The traffic is unbelievable. People must be spending every tugrog they can scrape together on buying cars. (Interesting – steering wheels are on either the left or right – all mixed together.)
I had read, in the handout Dr. Lewin gave me, that: “Driving in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar can be extremely difficult due to poorly maintained streets, malfunctioning traffic lights, inadequate street lighting, and a shortage of traffic signs. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of vehicles on the road in recent years, but the knowledge and skills of the driving population has not kept pace with the influx of automobiles. There are few paved roads outside of the capital.” All true.
I shower the dust out of my hair. A metal plate covering wires falls off the wall at the end of the tub. A piece of the sink falls on the floor, unprovoked by me. The shower curtain rod collapses. The hotel room is self-destructing before my eyes, but nothing distracts me from worrying about tomorrow. The room must be 95 degrees. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the walls start to melt. It’s stiffling – but worse with the windows open. I advise Joe to join me in taking Echanaeca and Emergen-C to ward off virus bugs. They thrive in hot, dry places. This must be their heaven. I kick the blankets and top sheet off the bed and fall to sleep dreaming I’m in a desert with no oasis in sight and my lesson plan is lost.
OCTOBER 22. Monday. 9:30 a.m. Naraa picks me up to take me to the theater. The classroom is on the third floor of a grand old 1941 building – the Academic State Theatre of Mongolia. “Academic” has nothing to do with a school, she explains. The 1941 building is a lovely salmon color with stately white columns, marble floors and wide marble staircases. The auditorium, with about 400 velvet seats, is beautiful. The building is in need of refurbishing, but it’s not neglected. The aqua-walled classroom is hot as Hades. Naraa asks if I’m warm enough. I don’t ask her to open the window because everyone else seems comfortable. A few students are there already, a handsome young man and a pretty, high-cheekboned young woman. We push three long tables tables together and put chairs around. Perfect room for 10 students, Naraa, myself and a translator (who will come in the afternoon). Naraa will translate this morning. By 10:30 all the students have filtered in. Naraa isn’t happy at their lateness and reads them the riot act. We start on time from now on.
A dignified woman dressed in a long, blue, belted deel (the traditional, three-quarter-length gown worn in winter by both men and women) enters. Her dark hair falls about her perfectly made-up face. This is Namsrai Suvd, president of the International Theatre Institute, artistic director of the State Theatre and a Mongolian State prize winning actress. She gives a speech: “The script is the flour to make the bread. Our theater is hungry for new scripts. Professional directors are paying attention to this training you are giving. We have only one class in playwriting at the university. I see you sitting here and I hope it will grow into a really big apple and the people will eat the fruit for many years to come. It is a great honor to have you here to teach us.” I hope she feels the same way at the end of the week!
I lay Monday’s pages of The Plan and my pile of file cards with the exercises at a place at one end of the table and take my seat. “Sainbainuu. Good morning.” (The Mongolian language sounds like none other. I quickly accepted that the rolling “R,” gutteral pronunciations and altogether unfamiliar sounds were beyond learning in a quick study. There are back-of-the-mouth vowels, front-of-the-mouth vowels and neutral vowels. Spelling and pronunciation aren’t consistent. Except for sainbainuu, bayartai (goodby – which I though you weren’t supposed to say, but which everyone is saying), and bayarlaa (thank you), I decide not to add language-learning to my concerns.)
One by one, the students tell me who they are and what their writing experience is. Luckily each has a nickname for me to use. Batjargal (Batjaa), a young woman, is a very soft spoken journalist with a pony tail. Agiimaa (Agii), also young, appears to be pregnant. The young man, R. Javhlantogs (Javhaa), is a radio and tv producer. He recently won an award for an environmental feature. He is the only student who admits to speaking any English at all. Naidandorj (Naidaa), a deep-voiced man in his 50s, is a professional actor and a director who trained in Minsk. His speciality is morality plays. He will direct the reading of my short play BRONCO BUSTER. His narrow eyes gaze at me skeptically. He is possible trouble. Mendsaihan (Mendee), in her 20s, has been literary manager at the State Theatre for three years. She writes short novels and has had plays produced. Naraa says she is a very good writer. Odgerel (Odko), sitting at the far end of the table, is just completing journalism school. Every time our eyes meet she beams with the most beautiful smile. D. Narantuya (another Naraa), in her 30s, writes for television. She is working on a documentary about pollution in Mongolia, she says, but nobody else is interested in the subject. Nasaa, she of the high cheekbones, also in her 20s, works for Globe International and also claims journalism as her profession. Zoljagal (Zoloo), in her 20s, is a chemist – very attractive and well-dressed. She also writes television shows. She has had 50 of these produced. She also writes stories for a children’s newspaper. She is particularly interested in the history of drama. Above her perfectly made-up eyes and lips, Zoloo has a permanent frown. One gentleman, Chinzorig, hasn’t arrived yet. He’s coming from a distant village.
Well darn. They’re all practiced narrative writers. It would have been easier to teach dramatic writing if I didn’t have to undo their narrative habits. I’m somewhat cowed by having such a high degree of accomplishment sitting around the table smiling at me. (Except for Naidaa. He is scowling. And Zoloo is frowning.) But each student looks directly in my eyes while speaking. The class feels good. I’m pretty sure I won’t remember their names, but I try during the day to touch base personally with each one. I totally ignore warnings about Asians telling you what you want to hear. How can I be honest with them if I don’t trust what they tell me?
When I taught high school I disliked the platform I had to place myself upon by keeping my personal identity secret from the students. The students were open about their lives and problems with me, but I was supposed to remain distant from them. So I am pleased to be making my own rules in this class. After the students tell me about themselves, I tell them briefly about myself. Then it’s time for the Heart Story. I swallow hard. This subjective exercise is the most difficult of all, and it has to be first. It doesn’t feel right to do the physical warm-up, so I skip that and go right for the meat of the matter. I talk about the importance of finding and keeping the connection to your heart when writing a play. Do they get it? Naraa translates for me. Odko smiles. I continue. Write what you need to write, what you have always wanted to write. Forget about structure. The rest of the week will be about using your brain. Use your heart for this story. “Can it be about a secret?” Mendee asks. Absolutely. No one else will ever see it. It may or may not be part of the play you will write. That doesn’t matter. I spread out the pictures I’ve brought for inspiration and they look through them with interest. Most don’t seem to need the pictures (though Naidaa chooses the strange photograph of a man holding a rope that is tied to a woman, wrapped head to toe in white cloth. They are standing in a desert.) I continue: This exercise is to let you get in touch with what it feels like to write without your head. It is feeling, not thinking. If you are blank for a minute, don’t stop writing. Write: “I am feeling… I am feeling…” until it starts to flow again. Write truthfully, not superficially. Dig deep. What do you feel and believe? It is this truth that is uniquely yours. It is what will make your play different from all others, what gives it value. Listen to the impulse that makes you want to write. I quote Chekhov: “What matters is to allow what you write to come straight from the heart.”
I give them six possible ways to come up with a story for this exercise, but tell them to use their own method if they have a way that works better. I get them primed. In my lap my fingers are crossed. Please let them not think I’m a crazy lady. Please let them get this. The rest of the week is built on this. Their plays need this. My plan is for them to start writing immediately, but Naraa says it’s break time. Shit. She and some others go out for a cigarette break. A woman who has been sitting off in the corner makes tea and puts out cookies. Students sip and munch, chatter and laugh. The spell is broken. This whole thing is a wash.
I travel down four flights of stairs to the basement searching for the bathroom (men and women sharing, no toilet paper, unworking locks on the stalls), then back up. The ten-minute break becomes 15 minutes. The Heart Story mood is evaporating. The class gradually finds their way back to their seats. Everyone that is except Naidaa. He stands in a corner talking loudly with some man I never saw before. “Be quiet!” I want to shout. But suddenly, everyone is writing industriously. I join them. Lord knows my brain needs a break! They write with concentration for an hour. When I ask them to wrap it up, Mendee and Naraa (the young woman) have tears in their eyes.
Onward through The Plan, dropping parts that seem extraneous, ad libbing points that will be discussed in depth on future days when they come up. They ask questions, interrupting me with raised hands as I had asked. I think I answer all the questions satisfactorily. Naraa seems to be translating well, though I can only say one or two short sentences before she needs to repeat them. It’s exhausting, but miraculously I’m on schedule.
I didn’t know what to expect for lunch so I brought a bottle of water, dried apples and a power bar. But there’s a cafeteria in the building. We all sit together and are served warm plum juice, Russian salad (potatoes, peppers, carrots, mayonnaise), and then plates heaped with slabs of meat, potatoes, vegetables and rice. I’m too keyed up to eat. The students and Naraa clean their plates. I can’t imagine where the slender young women put all that heavy food.
I head for the male/female bathroom after lunch. There, out in the open for all to see, is a man at a urinal. I U-turn and make tracks. American teacher walks in on man peeing. Cute.
After lunch, a real translator. D. Ayush is an attractive young woman, very well-educated and world-travelled. She is a delight! She absorbs a long paragraph at a time, repeats it verbatim (I have no doubt). If someone comes in five minutes later, she can repeat the paragraph again without me saying a word. I’m astounded and amazed. (I have noticed that it takes at least three times longer to say something in Mongolian than in English. The simplest sentence takes forever to repeat. It isn’t an easy translation. Their sentence structure is the opposite of ours. My admiration for Ayush is considerable.) Naraa stays to listen to my lecture, which I thought would make me nervous, but it’s really reassuring.
The class asks me to repeat the highlights of my outline from the morning, in outline form. I don’t know if they felt the morning’s translation wasn’t exact, or if they just want to be sure their notes are accurate. Then I try an exercise: Mix and Match Character – to get practice developing characters. It involves writing a list of 15 people you know well and a specific outstanding characteristic for each. Then make up a new character using at the characteristics of at least five of these people. Silence. No one makes a move toward their pens and papers. Ayush tells me that they aren’t used to this sort of thing. They are used to being told exactly what to do, to classes where they regurgitate information. Suddenly, they’re writing intensely, even Naidaa. I can see they’re having difficulty, but they don’t quit. When their lists are complete I tell them to write a description of the new character they just made up. They love it. They don’t want to stop writing, so I elaborate on the exercise, adding a second character and a situation where the two characters meet and clash and, of course, speak and act according to the unique qualities that the writers have given them. They want more exercises. Naidaa seems especially pleased. The classroom vibrates with excitement.
They ask me to repeat the list of types of plays to be sure they have it right. They like lists. They are fascinated with this topic. There is much discussion and comment. A sense of excitement fills the room. It’s working!
I end the day by giving them the Eavesdropping Exercise. In this they will have to listen to a conversation between two strangers, remember what is said and write it down. They should remember non-verbal things like coughs, pauses and sighs too. This dialogue should be at least four lines. Tomorrow morning I’ll ask them to repeat what they heard. I had expected some objections to the sneakiness needed for eavesdropping, but not one hand is raised.
I absolutely have to go to the bathroom, so during the afternoon break I head downstairs. When I get to the hall leading to the bathroom, I start singing – loudly. If some guy is peeing in there, fair warning. I check all the stalls and find one that has a door that locks. And a toilet with a real seat. Now I just have to remember to bring Kleenex. (Naraa’s theory of communist toilets: They don’t care about human rights. That’s why toilet facilities are rare and not good.)
At six o’clock the class is over for the day. I feel like I’ve been run over by a steamroller. Exhausted – and jubilant.
OCTOBER 23. Tuesday. Joe and Esther both wake up sick – thank you, Tuushin Hotel and your manic radiators. I’d pay big bucks for a humidifier. Please let me stay well at least through Friday! (I haven’t stopped taking Echinacea and Emergen-C every day since a week before we left on the trip. Fingers crossed.)
Naraa sounded out the class after I left yesterday to see how they liked it. She wants me to know that everyone is very, very happy. They are delighted to be given permission to write what they want. They are thrilled with the simplicity of what I’m presenting. They love the class.
The pony-tailed girl seemed to be painfully shy yesterday, and not really understanding what was going on. I think it was over her head. I’m not surprised that she doesn’t show up again. I am surprised that the pregnant young woman isn’t here. She was very involved yesterday. She never does come again. I’m feeling darn good about the class, however. Too good to blame myself. The man from the distant village makes it in this morning.
Today I start off having each student read the dialogue he overheard. I expect that some will be embarrassed to do this, but not at all. The camraderie in the group is exceptional. The exercise goes fabulously. Without shyness, each reads a conversation he overheard between two strangers, then the others guess who the speakers were and what the situation was. Much discussion and laughter. I don’t ask Naraa to translate for me because I don’t want to break in. There is no need. The discussion leads, in each case, to an easy segue to a discussion of dialogue, obstacles, conflict, stakes, how character affects speech, or other area of dramatic writing that I plan to talk about. It flows easily. I lay The Plan aside – to be consulted as needed.
I expected only three or four lines of dialogue for this exercise, but everyone brings in at least a page. Except for Naidaa. His dialogue, delivered in a stentorian voice, is only three lines and it is wonderful. Strong and evocative. He shoots a sly smile at me. I think he’s a convert. For tomorrow I ask them to eavesdrop on two people they know well.
They’ve been thinking about what their plays will be about. Now I ask each to compose a summary sentence. We go around the table, struggling to simplify their ideas into one sentence that contains the protagonist, his goal and the main obstacle. One by one, at first hesitantly, then enthusiastically, the class volunteers to share their ideas and summary sentences. Before long, Javhaa winnows his sentence down to: This play is about a horse that wants to fly, however he doesn’t have wings. Naidaa’s story is full of sex, passion and personal violence. He balks at reducing it to a summary sentence but finally does: This play is about Chingis Khaan who loves his best friend’s wife, however he must choose between her and leading his country. Three of the women have plays about difficulties surrounding out-of-wedlock births. Zoloo has a difficult time. Her play is very complex. She can’t simplify it. Her frown is fierce. Distant Village Man gives a long recitation of a play that sounds like he has already written it. It has no antagonist and two protagonists. I say he needs to decide three things: who wants what and why he can’t get it. He refuses. He will not change his play. He will not write a summary sentence. Trouble is a’ brewin. I ask everyone to bring a final summary sentence tomorrow. This isn’t easy, I know, but it will keep their writing focused. It will also be one of the few handles I’ll have on what they’re actually writing.
The eavesdropping exercise and summary sentences took two hours. I’ve had to drop most of the exercises for lack of time. I’ll use only what will directly help build their specific plays.
After a break, Naidaa and two others read my BRONCO BUSTER out loud to help the students identify the essential parts of a play. Lots of smiles but no laughs. Do they get it or are they just listening very hard – or doesn’t it translate sensibly? They have only 33 letters in their Cyrillic alphabet, but boy do they stretch it out. My ten-page play takes half an hour to read. The plays they write will have to be really tight!
Their favorite part of the lesson is the structure of a ten-minute play. They’re happy to hear specifics since they’ll start writing their plays this afternoon. The major dramatic question must be clear on the first or second page. Pens take furious notes. I introduce my dramatization of “Little Red Riding Hood” to use for examples. It doesn’t go over as well as I’d hoped. Whenever I use a classical play to illustrate a point, everyone is enthusiastic. Naturally I can come up with examples here and there, but without boning up I don’t feel confident about a lot of classics, particularly Shakespeare. The big questions are no problem, and certain plays, like “Romeo and Juliet,” “Richard III,” and “MacBeth” I know well, but the ins and outs of many Shakespearean plots leave me feeling insecure about using them for definitive examples. My own analyses of them were many years ago. I blank on “Othello.” Luckily, Naraa jumps in. I hope I don’t look as stupid as I feel. American playwright revealed as an ignoramus. And it’s only Tuesday.
My new and simple terms, “moves” and “goals,” are well-understood. Purists who insist on “action” – too bad. I try “Little Red Riding Hood” again for a discussion of “moves” and “goals.” It might not be a Shakesperean history play, but it gets my message across.
They absolutely love the list I give them of types of conflict. I never saw people so enamored of lists! They ask me to repeat anything they miss or that isn’t clear. We are discussing fairly high-level concepts at this point – conscious and unconscious goals, goals in the play as contrasted with goals in life, the difference between arguing and real conflict, the necessity for conflict to grow during the play. I sense some unease. Mendee volunteers that they have been taught to steer clear of death and violence in their plays. This is a whopper! (In retrospect, I wish we had had a discussion about this. At the time it seemed too difficult. I was still getting used to the translator. I believe what she meant to say is that death and violence are not used lightly.)
Lunch is again a salad followed by plates heaped with meat and starches. I sip my salty milk tea and hope no one is offended that I can’t make a dent in the food. Ayush sits by me at lunch so I can take part in the lively discussion. I discover that there are no poets who write in Mongolian who also write plays – unlike in Western countries. I wonder if it’s the Mongolian language that gets in the way.
In the afternoon I begin talking about Aristotle’s “Poetics” and all hell breaks loose. Naidaa is on his feet, shouting in Mongolian. He pounds his fist on the table. What the… ? For five minutes words fly across the table from every direction. The loudest voices are Naraa and Naidaa, but the rest of the class is involved too. Finally, Naraa explains to me. It turns out that the Communists denied Aristotle entirely, threw him out the window and wrote their own book on dramatic theory. The word “plot” is not to be used. (Can that be ironic?) The word “event” is iffy. We have a long and animated discussion about what exactly they’ve been taught. The older people are, the less experience they have with non-communist thought. This class, mostly in their 20s and 30s, has had communist-taught teachers even though that system has been gone for 17 years. So although the population is predominantly young (2/3 are under age 30), they are all still educated in the communist regurgitate-what-I-tell-you system.
Communist dramatic theory is weighted down with terms, very complicated and dense. By contrast, what I’m teaching is simple, workable, clear and straight-forward. It’s like hitting them with a bomb – but a good bomb. They are shaking themselves off and taking it all in as quickly as they can, but it must be initially confusing. It’s as if they have to empty their brains out and begin filling them with my words. They have to trust me. Naidaa is older than the others and more deeply schooled in communist theory. I’m not sure he can do it. I’m not sure he wants to make the switch. It would take months for me to grasp where they’re coming from. What do I know? Maybe the communist theory makes sense. I leave the discussion with a quote from Jose Rivera: “(When writing your play) strive to create your own realism. If theatre is a handicraft in which you make one of a kind pieces, then you’re in complete control of your fictive universe. What are its physical laws? What’s gravity like? What does time do? What are the rules of cause and effect? How do your characters behave in this altered universe? You are in control.” I skip discussion of plot points and events and move on to an exercise about obstacles. Exercises always cheer Naidaa up.
The translator and I work in a rhythm that leaves no line distinguishing where I stop and she starts. Questions, answers and discussion are brought into our rhythm like water poured on a wave. By the end of today I’m winging it, following curves of the discussion as it naturally touches on all the points I included in The Plan. I’m in a purposeful freefall and it’s exhilarating!
During the afternoon break Distant Village Man takes me aside to say he likes what he learned today. He is going to write a new play. He will bring in a summary sentence tomorrow. (I saw him for such a short time I never got his name.)
Before I leave so they can write, I urge them to trust their instincts. Don’t write what someone else thinks you should write. As soon as people find out you’re writing plays, they’ll have ideas for you. Say, “Thank you, but I have many ideas. If you want a play made out of your idea, then you have to write it.” I tell them that I find it’s better for me not to talk a lot about a play when I’m in the midst of writing it. That drains the energy out of the play and saps excitement out of me that should be going into the writing. Finally I tell them: No matter what I say or others say, it’s your play. If you feel like something works, then keep it. They applaud.
Naidaa asks if he can have a copy of all of my exercises, not just the ones we’re doing. I promise to email the exercises to Naraa for translation. I think I have a fan.
OCTOBER 24. Wednesday. Joe coughed all night last night.
Before the class arrives, Naraa tells me that Naidaa is very excited about the class. He loves the simplicity. He told her he feels like a weight has been lifted off of his shoulders. When he comes in I flash a brilliant smile. Ever the charmer, he bows and gives me presents: a CD and a DVD of shows that he has directed (in Mongolian of course).
Distant Village Man isn’t here again. There’s some crisis going on back home and he keeps being called back. After today he will have missed too much to continue. It’s too bad.
Again we go over the eavesdropping exercise first and again it is very successful. (I don’t ask to have the dialogues translated because that would interrupt the rhythm of the speech.) Much discussion. Much guessing about what prompted the dialogues and who the people are from how they sound and their attitudes. I find a good chunk of theory to interject, or an experience of my own to relate that expands on each person’s eavesdropped dialogue. I don’t remember ever seeing a group that is so open emotionally. An ideal writing group – open, sharing, trusting each other, hard-working and intelligent. I’ve hit the jackpot!
The summary sentence requirement has forced the students to think hard about their plays. Without a good summary sentence, and without sticking to it, their plays will collapse. Young Naraa has brought in an entirely new play about a woman in labor who needs to get to the hospital but her husband is too drunk to drive. Much cleaner structure than her previous play. Nasaa has also changed her play for the better. (There are four plays about babies, a subject that naturally concerns these young women.) They are all testing their original stories to see if they will work withing the confines of a ten-minute play. Good! Odko is writing a comedy (the only comedy in the group) about a woman who has told her husband he will die in ten minutes to get him to see a doctor about his failing health. She needs to think about the essential story more. We will talk later. She asks me what makes a play funny and I find myself commenting on a subject that I hadn’t covered in The Plan – yet I’m fully prepared. These moments are like little rewards for me. Zoloo still doesn’t have a summary sentence. She is frowning so deeply her eyebrows meet over her nose. Her play is about a husband and wife. They want a baby but she is afraid to be pregnant. Then she does get pregnant either from an affair or a rape, Zoloo hasn’t decided. Then the husband, who was going to leave her, does an about-face. The rest is a jumble. Later in the day we talk about it for a long time. Naraa tries to form the story for Zoloo with a feminist ending where the wife chooses to leave the husband. I don’t want anybody writing Zoloo’s play for her. I suggest that she doesn’t need to know the ending yet, not to worry about that. Zoloo’s frown unsnarls for a few seconds, but she’s still distraught.
Later, leaving with the translator, she confides that she can see Zoloo is from a very traditional family and the idea of leaving the husband is not where she would go. We decide that her complication of an affair or rape (which I suggested was too much for a ten-minute play) is to give the wife a strong reason to leave the husband – much against the traditional heart.
This time at lunch I wave away the heaping plates. Russian salad and warm fruit juice are plenty. There seem to be two beans floating in the juice, but nothing surprises me by now. I’m almost disappointed when they turn out to be nothing more than two water-logged grapes. After watching Naidaa dunk his liverwurst in the milk tea yesterday I was ready for anything.
After lunch they beg for an exercise. This one is about subtext and how it influences what is spoken. I ask them to think of a particularly emotional moment in their lives – happy, angry, sad… Describe it in detail without telling how they feel. They ask good probing questions to be sure they understand. I ask them to write for ten minutes. First there is the usual five to ten minutes of talking, walking around, going out for a smoke – then they settle down and write like fury. They don’t stop, even with drums pounding and actors shouting downstairs in rehearsal for tonight’s scheduled performance in the theater. Naidaa leaves the room, comes back ten minutes later, sits, thinks, doesn’t write. It makes me nervous. Then suddenly he starts writing like his life depends on it. The downstairs noise doesn’t seem to bother anyone. I wonder if they aren’t used to everyone being quiet so others can work. Some kind of communist collaboration hangover? Are their libraries quiet? Finally, after 30 minutes, I call a halt. We talk about how emotions colored what they wrote. The exercise is a success.
Naraa has translated and duplicated copies of my Tool Kit for Basic Playwriting and the list of questions for the students to ask themselves about their plays. (“Is it clear who the protagonist is early on? etc.) Mendee asks if the Tool Kit works for absurdist plays. Yes, but the antagonist, stakes and journey may be more internal than in realistic, linear plays.
Naraa has had trouble translating my Sample Format. I’m not surprised since saying even the simplest thing in English takes forever in Mongolian. Instead, I explain: required width of margins, centering character names, etc. etc. I want them to do this so when their English is good enough they can submit plays to theaters in Western countries. In English, it’s necessary to have the right format so the length of scripts can be gauged. I have to assume the same holds true for scripts written in Cyrillic.
In a final exercise I ask them to put an antagonist in a chair in a room and have a protagonist enter and try to get the chair, but the antagonist won’t give it up. They should use the protagonist and antagonist who are in the play they are writing. They should see how many different ways the protagonist tries to get the chair, make the scene escalate, give it an arc. Again, furious writing. Giggles from time to time. Mendee gets to laughing so hard at what she’s writing she has to go out and write in the hall. Nasaa is having a ball with hers. So is Javhaa. Naidaa scowls, thinks, then finally writes like a tornado. They don’t want to stop. They’d love a week of exercises. I plan to have one or two read what they wrote, but everyone wants to read. Great fun. Good work. I tell Zoloo that hers could be a ten-minute play. I can’t read her expression.
Now it’s getting late and I still have a lot to cover. Much of it includes lists, which they adore. Especially popular is the long list of “unspoken dialogue,” like a kinesthetic moment, an inner moment, a sound moment… They write, question, discuss. I give examples I never thought of when writing The Plan. I wish we had more days! They have to finish their plays and have them typed up by the end of the day tomorrow. As I’m leaving I ask if everyone is confident about their work and sure they can finish on time. It’s a unanimous and enthusiastic “Yes!”
Zoloo follows me out and asks if we can talk. Thank goodness Ayush, the translator, hasn’t left. I’m praying Zoloo has her play figured out. She asks if she really can use the chair exercise. Definitely! Just heighten the stakes and shape it a little. It’s as if the sun has come out on her face. The week hasn’t been easy for her, but she never gave up. She is happy. I am happy. It’s 5:45 and I’m not exhausted. But the class is all staying late to work on their plays and it’s best to leave them alone.
Joe, Esther, Ayush and I have supper at a good restaurant next door to the theater. Esther has three glasses of wine, hoping to sleep off what has become a very nasty cold. Joe goes to bed early too, feeling equally lousy. I get to work wrapping presents I brought for the class. For the women I wrap a snowman butter knife in an Italian embroidered handkerchief. For Naidaa: a terrycloth bag (with a reindeer) with a pocket for soap for use in the bathtub (in retrospect this was a weird choice). For Javhaa, the bamboo-leaf notebook. For Ayush, the cards with pictures of Shakespeare’s flowers. For Naraa, two books on playwriting. The presents look very pretty, wrapped with the brightly-colored tissue paper and gold ribbons I brought from home. I attach cards I had made and wrote a note to each.
Joe lays in bed twisting and turning, snorting and sniffling, barking like a seal. Before going to bed I soak the towels and bathmat in water and drape them over the radiators to get at least a little humidity in the desert-air room. Esther has been running hot water in her shower for 15 minutes before going to bed each night. I’m tempted, but can’t bring myself to waste that much water. I can practically see the cold germs doing a happy dance on the beds.
OCTOBER 25. Thursday. A miserable night. The germs swoop in for the kill. We both cough all night. By morning I can’t breathe through my nose and my throat’s raw. Esther has some decongestent meds, but not a lot. I’ll save some in case my ears are still clogged on Saturday when we fly to Beijing. We go to a pharmacy just off the Square where Esther mimes a sore throat and I cough. The pharmacist lady catches on immediately, takes out a box of cough drops, opens it, and offers one. The same procedure for antihistamines. You can buy one, two or however many you want of anything in the pharmacy. I guess people don’t generally buy a whole box at a time.
Since the students will use the day to finish their plays and type them up, I’m off until 4:30. Feels strange not to be with them. I hope they’re okay. Naraa is product-oriented so I’m sure she’s happy to get process-oriented me out of the picture for the day. I just hope she doesn’t end up writing someone’s play for them!
Joe, Esther and I leave with a driver and Togu for a morning and afternoon of touring the countryside not far from UB. Just outside the city: smoke stacks belch who knows what pollution into the blue sky and miles of suburban homes – mostly ramshackle, wooden houses interspersed with gers and a few newer buildings. Not a cheery sight. The mountains are old and rounded in the near distance, peaky and snow-covered farther away. Incredible vistas. Herds of cattle, a lone cow wandering here and there. Plenty of dogs. Sheep and goats grazing together. A man on horseback in native garb herds his ponies. Six horses lined alternately head-to-tail in an open wagon. Small groupings of gers backed by mountains. Dry river beds. Solitary gers.
At a small natural history museum, a wolf-like white dog with yellow eyes takes a liking to Esther. He wants to play. A man drags the dog away. Inside the museum I see my only Mongolian wildlife – a marmot, stuffed and hanging on a wall. I never do see a camel or yak.
Once we’re at a higher altitude, the air turns sharp and clear (thank heaven). We visit what was a monastery for 700 Buddhist monks before the Communists murdered them in 1930. The view is stunning. I build a small stack of stones beside a blue-cloth wrapped stone figure. A token to the past and a prayer for the future. My camera battery stops working at this, the most beautiful place I’ll visit in Mongolia. I take that as a sign that the sacred spot is meant to live in my memory.
On the way back to U.B. we stop at a setup for tourists – a phalanx of gers on wheeled platforms. Togu says the gers were used as headquarters, pulled from battlefield to battlefield during wartime by herds of cows. (I’m not so sure about the “herds of cows” part. Togu isn’t totally up on his country’s history.) For 1,000 togrogs ($1.00) I get to go into one ger, but it’s prepared for tourists with ceremonial thrones and wildcat, wolf and fox furs. What I’d really like to go into is a private, nomadic home.
4:30. The classroom is a hive of activity. Students bent over laptops. Everyone working hard. Everyone smiling. They greet me enthusiastically. The table is a jumble of notes, food wrappers, water bottles, and papers. I give out the little presents. Each is unwrapped very carefully, examined, and wrapped up again with care. I can’t tell if they really like the gifts. They seem more puzzled than anything. But they are pleasantly surprised and they love the wrapping paper and ribbon. Naraa asks where I got it. “Paper like this is very expensive here,” she remarks.
I want to talk to the students about how their scripts are progressing, but not interrupt them longer than necessary. Naraa takes me aside and tells me that she will be writing a style manual for screenwriting and playwriting. She asks if she can quote from my lesson plan and include BRONCO BUSTER. I say fine, but my thoughts are on the students. I want to tell Javhaa that if he’ll translate his play into English I’ll send it to some children’s theaters in the U.S. I start chattering away in English to him, and he starts chattering away in Mongolian to me. Suddenly we both burst out laughing, realizing that neither understands a word the other is saying. Or do we? It felt as communicative as any normal conversation until we realized what we were doing. Strange, but again – not at all.
I’m dying to hear all of the plays in English, but there isn’t time. Naidaa is the most vocal. Ayush reads his play in English for me. It’s excellent. Every single necessary element is there and, most importantly, the structure enhances the emotional content rather than straight-jacketing it. The play is powerful and poetic. I wouldn’t change a word. Zoloo asks Ayush to translate her chair play for me. It works well. During the week Naraa wrote a play too. She is anxious to translate it to me. She begins explaining the background of the play. I know it will take an hour for her to translate her script, so I politely but firmly insist on talking to the class about feedback – how it will happen, what they should listen for tomorrow night, how to approach rewrites. I ask each to formulate one question about his or her script to ask the audience.
I wish I could hear all the plays, but it’s 6 p.m. and they haven’t finished typing. I leave the roomful of writers working away. No one is confused or at loose ends. Everyone is excited.
Joe, Esther and I are guests at the evening show in the theater. The best seats. A packed house. Despite my stuffy nose and sore throat (and of course not a word in English) it’s enjoyable. The play is a compilation of a number of folk legends. Costumes are elaborate, production values on a par with off-off-Broadway, light effects heavy-handed. (I would have skipped the lip-synched musical numbers, but that’s me.) The audience isn’t very vocal. I think it’s a cultural thing. Note for tomorrow’s readings: Don’t expect much audience reaction. In the lobby, some of my students who saw the show want me to hear their analysis of it. They say that who the protagonist was wasn’t clear until far too late in the play and the major dramatic question was all over the place. A+ all around. (In retrospect, I wonder how the heck we had this discussion without a translator.)
Headed for the Tuushin, Joe, Esther and I make quite a trio, crossing through the almost dark of Sukhbaatar Square coughing, sneezing and nose-blowing. Small crowds there are catching up on news, smoking. Always they smoke. Everyone smokes. Brands of cigarettes are listed in restaurant menus even! Many smoke slim cigarettes, hoping to cut down on the nicotine I assume. That can’t help much when you’re a chain smoker.
OCTOBER 26. Friday. Performance day. A better night’s sleep than Wednesday, but our colds still rage.
The writers will be busy all day with their directors and casts, rehearsing for tonight. I would be in the way. Joe, Esther and I fill the morning and early afternoon with shopping for cashmere and other gifts for Christmas. Back to the State Department Store. I spot an incredible long red cashmere dress on a manikin, ask the salesgirl if there is one in a small size (for Daughter Jody). She instantly strips the dress off, leaving the manikin naked. The dress is perfect. We buy a sweater for Son Jonathan, and Joe buys two sweaters for me ($150 for both). These items are all high quality cashmere and would be over our budget in the U.S. Still – nothing was inexpensive. I hope some of the profit goes into the pockets of people who need it. We lunch at a Turkish-Greek restaurant so hot I’m temped to strip like the manikin. A bowl of soup is all I want. The cold has laid me low, but I’m relaxed about tonight. I know the plays will be good. Back at the hotel I write out feedback notes on a legal pad so Naraa can give them to the audience after the readings.
I wish my detractors back home could see the crowd filing into the State Theatre at 4 p.m. (The time was changed from the evening to earlier because of the 8 p.m. show in the space. Okay by me. I intend to head to bed the minute the readings are over. This cold is bad news!) Namsrai Suvd, the stately head of the theater is there, as is the man who is the theater’s director. Suvd and Naraa welcome the audience and the readings begin. I had entirely forgotten that my plays were included until the actor and actress playing Hugo and Ramona in SEDUCING RAMONA tumble on stage, fighting tooth and nail, spitting my dialogue in Mongolian. I can follow it for the most part, but can’t figure out why Hugo has Ramona down on the floor, sitting on top of her, pulling her hair. The action escalates. Suddenly, from the back of the auditorium, a man begins shouting. I shrink in my seat, sure that something in the script has offended him. The diatribe continues for a good five minutes. Then he sits and the actors finish the script. Later I find out that the man was the director. He was telling the actors that they were doing a horrible job and to speed it up so the agony they were putting him through would be over quickly. This Mongolian moment (or five minutes) was taken, I assume, from the Russian book of drama direction.
What in English is a ten-minute play lasted, not counting the director’s rant, at least 25 minutes. I wish they would skip my other two plays. I don’t want the audience to get worn out and leave before the students’ plays. But the show must go on. LIFE 101 and BRONCO BUSTER together last almost an hour. The audience laughs at one bit in BRONCO, but otherwise they’re smiling and silently attentive. I’m glad I went to the show last night and learned not to expect more reaction. American audiences are the most demonstrative I’ve experienced anywhere.
Plentiful applause, then the students’ plays begin. I know enough about the scripts to follow most of them. The acting is excellent. Again, the lack of reaction from the audience, but nobody leaves. At 7 p.m. we have to clear out of the theater for that evening’s show. The intrepid audience doesn’t disperse. They follow us, traipsing up to the top-floor classroom for the final four plays. There, in the stuffy, 90-degree room about 20 people stand behind another 30 seated for an additional hour of readings. At the end of the last play, the audience explodes into applause. Joe and Esther, who haven’t understood one word all evening and have been attentive for four hours, say that they weren’t bored. (Esther reports that about a third of the audience left after my plays. I’ll never know what they thought. I can’t imagine.)
There is no thought of having feedback. We’re all exhausted. The evening feels complete. Feedback is simply skipped, no discussion. The students are positively beaming. I am moved almost to tears at seeing their happiness. I’m called up front where the students give me hugs, present me with a bouquet of lilies and a large, framed painting of two horses. It will always remind me of Javhaa’s story, and of this remarkable group of people. Naraa speaks. Suvd speaks. (I can’t believe she’s still here.) I can’t stop smiling. I give a short speech about how I hope these new playwrights will continue writing plays. The students applaud and cheer. The audience doesn’t leave. Joy fills the room.
At a restaurant, we sit at a long table – the students, us three Americans, the State Theatre director and Suvd. Fruit, wine, flowers, a gorgeous hors d’ouvre at each place in the shape of a fish (cold rice and cream over mashed sardines, decorated with veggie slices). Later, the usual huge plate of meat and fixins. I sit at an end of the table with five young women and discover that Odko can speak a bit of English. She translates what I say to the others. Many more speeches – mostly thanking me. I give a pep talk, encouraging the writers to organize festivals of short plays. I encourage them to meet regularly to give each other feedback and support. The future of Mongolian playwriting is sitting at that table. I encourage Suvd and Naraa to find a way to have a modern playwriting text translated into Mongolian.
They ask which of my three plays I liked the best. Joe and I both answer BRONCO BUSTER because we loved the actor who played the drunken cowboy. Naidaa, who directed that play, says that the actors liked the script because it could be related to Mongolian cowboy life. Everyone urges me to come back. I want to stay and see their rewrites. I don’t want to spend another night gasping for air at the Tuushin Hotel, but even more I don’t want to leave. Translate your play and send it to me, Javhaa. I want to find out if the little horse gets to fly. I don’t want to leave Odko with the twinkling eyes. I don’t want to leave any of the writers. I want to stay, go over rewrites with them, launch them into their next plays. I don’t want to leave Naidaa, standing now on the opposite side of the banquet table as I put on my coat. “Robin!” I turn. He is hugging himself, eyes sending a message. I blow him a kiss. He catches it midair and pops it into his mouth. Even the waiter laughs. I button my coat and head for the door. A chorus: “We love you, Robin.” My work here is unfinished. I’m leaving before the plays are polished. Leaving Mongolia without a new book on dramatic structure in their language. Leaving without a neat ending, with questions unanswered, with a longing to continue. My writer’s instinct tells me that I’m leaving the scene exactly when I should.
OCTOBER 27. Saturday. Suvd has invited all three of us to lunch at the Ulaanbaatar Hotel. We run our hands along the shiny banisters, admire the clean carpets and sparkling windows. One would think we’d been banished to the Tuushin for months! Suvd welcomes us with her customary gentility, but without the native dress she wears for public occasions. Elegant in tight black jeans and a black jersey, she could easily pass for a New Yorker. A leisurely three-hour lunch in a private room with Suvd and her two grandsons and son, who has just returned to Mongolia after receiving an M.A. in business administration at James Madison University in Washington, D.C. Conversation is non-stop. Suvd’s son is a mix of intelligence, modern information and old-fashioned ways of thinking. He wants to take part in the Government, to raise his country up from poverty. He believes that spiritual poverty is to blame for much of what is wrong. Communism destroyed religion here and nothing has taken its place, according to him. The information given out to the world is that literacy is 100 per cent and the country is Tibetan Buddhist. Not so, he says. The young people have no religion, they have no morality. He wants to import a religion and spread it around. Which religion, I ask? Christianity is the one he has selected, much to my surprise. He is also a believer in the theory that the Chinese are trying to take over the world by infiltrating everywhere. He thinks global warming will cause Japan to disappear into the ocean and the whole country will be relocated to the Gobi. Like Mongolia, he is in transition. Like most Mongolians we met, he intensely dislikes the Chinese, preferring to turn toward Russia as a model.
Finally we have to leave to catch our flight to Beijing. Suvd embraces me. “Come back,” she says.
Part III. Back in the U.S. OF A.
After a week in Beijing, when I get back to New York, majorly jet lagged (flying east) but glad to be home, there’s an email that Naraa sent to the ICWP listserve: Dear Sisters and Misters. I have not been in the list for a long time. Now I have got something to tell you. Robin Rice Lichtig from New York has conducted the workshop on the playwriting fundamentals and how to write ten-minute plays for the Mongolian writers in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. It was very intensive and exciting work. The workshop participants have written the ten-minute plays. I have also done one. In the evening of October 26 we organized the first ever staged reading that involves the students plays and Robin’s three plays: Bronco Buster, Seducing Ramona and Life 101, which has been translated into Mongolian. The project was financially supported by the Arts Council of Mongolia and run by Globe International. I would like to express my deepest thanks to Robin. We highly appreciate her dedication to give as much as possible to our playwrights for so short time and her generous contribution to make the events happen. We also send our biggest gratitude to her husband Joe, who has donated 350,000 Mongolian togrogs to Globe International to continue our works.
NOVEMBER 5. Starbucks. 98th + Broadway. 2 p.m. I just put a contract in the mail to Smith & Kraus on the way to my neighborhood Starbucks. (They’re going to publish GLOOM, DOOM AND SOUL-CRUSHING MISERY in “The Best Ten-Minute Plays of 2008.”) Now to finalize my Mongolia journal. One sip of my first welcome-back latte and I spill the entire thing all over the table, floor and two chairs. Emma mops up. Dominic brings me another latte, gratis. I’m home!
* * *
MY MONGOLIAN HEART STORY
Warts and all, not edited, written as the students were writing their heart stories at the beginning of the first day of class.
Outside, dust swirls. Broken streets. A woman sits on a stool at a small table with rickety legs. She wears a grey hat. A grey scarf wraps over the hat, under her chin and around her neck – over her nose. Shielding her nose from the dust. And the coal-smoke air. Above – brilliant blue sky. Below – dust. Not desert sand but throat-clogging dust. Her deel is maybe green under a layer of dust. The long sleeves cover her hands. The coat is cinched at the waist with a belt, brushing the ragged pavement tiles. Tiles so choppy I think of walking at night and falling.
On her table is a telephone black with fingerprints. She charges for its use. She and many like her dotted along the cracked pavements of Ulaanbaatar. Packs of cigarettes and five candy bars for sale are arranged on the table in parallel rows, but the telephone is the main attraction. A boy in a long red jacket and brown rubber boots tugs at her sleeve. She puts an arm around him, continuing to negotiate a price with a customer. The boy is insistent. He needs something. Is he cold? No, it’s strangely warm for October. I want the woman and boy to smile at me and say they like me even with my President Bush and my Lands End coat and new boots. What does the boy want? What does his mother want? She speaks.
Mother: I’m working.
Boy: Mama, a wolf.
Mother: Go sell your papers.
Boy: A wolf behind the fence.
Mother: Stop now.
Boy: He is big. With yellow eyes.
Mother: I have no time for this, Javhaa!
Boy: He can’t get out.
Mother: Good. Go. A customer is here.
Mother: Do you want supper? Do you want nothing but bread again? Listen to your mother.
Go sell your papers. Come back in one hour.
The boy leaves. A fence.
Wolf: Get me out of here.
Boy: I am climbing over the fence. We will talk.
You will not hurt me?
Boy: You have big teeth and fierce eyes.
Wolf: I will tell you a secret. I am afraid of people.
Wolf: You know this?
Boy: People will kill you.
Wolf: Can you help me escape?
Boy: I better get my father.
The boy leaves. He doesn’t want to, but the wolf’s eyes are very bright. He doesn’t know eyes like that. He doesn’t feel at ease. The wolf is a stranger. Javhaa feels everyone is a stranger. His mother really. Yes. His father, so big and loud. His grandmother who fusses and cleans. His baby sister – a baby is a stranger to even other babies. Budhal next door will play, but runs away whenever he wants. Who can see my heart? I have trouble seeing it myself. Someday it will stop and I will be gone and so what?
But there is this wolf who wants out from behind the fence. What should I do with him and his shiny eyes? His fur is stiff at the base by his dusty skin, soft at the tips. His nose is wet. His tongue. His eyelashes with sun lacing through. The fringe of fur around his ears. His heart thumping fast. He is afraid to come out, but he must. Fences aren’t good. I want to run away with him. Maybe he will attack and bite me. Maybe he will let me put my arms around his neck for one minute, then rip at my throat. But still I will have felt his heart pressed to my heart. I will have covered his thick paw with my hand. I’ll scratch between his ears. He will close his eyes, moan a soft moan and lean into me. I will slowly stroke his side – his ribs. Dust motes in the sun. Dust everywhere and a big beating heart in the desert. Beating, breathing, beating, warm.
I don’t need my mama and her telephone. I don’t need my big father or baby sister or Grandma. We will talk about mutton instead of bread for supper and where to set up Mama’s table tomorrow. We’ll talk and eat and sleep and I’ll feel my wolf close. This is enough.