Plays are meant to be staged, but what happens when you turn them into a book? I started this discussion on Facebook, but thought I’d post an excerpt here so you can see what I’m talking about. This excerpt from my play Mother Load is done in standard play format–is it readable?
Characters would be described briefly at the very start of the play—from that point on, you’d have to remember who’s who:
List of Characters
Cleo: black woman playwright about to turn 60; she is gregarious, magnetic, acerbic, politically engaged; she has won every imaginable award for her plays; mother of Liv; diagnosed with stage-3 uterine cancer
Olivia: black woman filmmaker in her mid-thirties; estranged from her mother, she has come to the party in order to gloat over the success of her first film, which was a modest success, and to tell her mother that she is pregnant
Each scene would start with set description and stage directions:
[The dining room of Cleo’s cottage; the room is dim, smoky, candles are melted almost to the nubs. It is not a large or formal space; a long wooden table, draped in batik cloth, is surrounded by old, mismatched chairs. Seated in those chairs are the invited guests, who are laughing and feeling expansive now that the birthday feast is over. Liv stands in a corner, turning the camera on its tripod as each guest makes a toast or tribute to Cleo. Cleo sits in the center of the table, as Christ did at the Last Supper. She laughs, smiles, nods appreciatively as her friends and lovers pay tribute. The table is strewn with plates, bowls, wine glasses, and leftovers. When there is a lull in the conversation, Liv clears her throat to get the guests’ attention.]
Some of the plays are ten pages long, some are eighty pages. Think you could last? This is from the middle of the scene—guests are gone, and it’s just Liv and her mother:
OLIVIA: There’s nothing in the past you wish you could change?
CLEO: I don’t have time to imagine the impossible. I can’t undo what’s been done. I finished every project I began. That’s what I set out to do. That’s what I’ve done. This body may fail me, but my body of work will survive. [Pause.] What would you have me change?
OLIVIA: [Hesitates, suddenly overcome. In a whisper.] I wish…I wish we could have been friends.
CLEO: Mothers and daughters can never be friends.
OLIVIA: Why not?
CLEO: They’re too much alike.
OLIVIA: We’re not alike.
CLEO: [Cleo laughs out loud, then quiets and observes her daughter.] They’re not equal, then.
OLIVIA: Growing up, I felt like your enemy.
CLEO: [Grows somber.] I didn’t mean for you to feel that way. I always hoped Skye would be able to give you…whatever I couldn’t.
OLIVIA: Skye was great. But she wasn’t mine.
CLEO: You never met my mother.
CLEO: She was a hard woman to love.
OLIVIA: So why name me after her?
CLEO: Every time I tried to get close to her, my mother spat me out like I was a bad taste at the back of her mouth. I married Frank just to please her, but it wasn’t enough. I decided to cut all ties with her just a month before she died. When you were born, I named you Olivia so I’d have a chance to call her name again.
OLIVIA: Didn’t you want to be better than her?
CLEO: I like to think I was. You used to look at me like I was God.
OLIVIA: I was afraid of you. Afraid I’d do something so bad you’d send me away for good. You never cried when I went to stay with Dad.
CLEO: Why should I cry? I knew you’d be coming back in six months’ time.
OLIVIA: Back then I thought…you were happy to get rid of me.
CLEO: [Pause.] Maybe I was. Raising a child—even with help—it’s hard on the nerves. You try to anticipate every need, but you always fall short. Sometimes you have more to give, but you hold back—you hoard your time, your energy, your sympathy. You’ll even let it rot just so you don’t have to give it away. [Pause.] That sounds awful, doesn’t it?
OLIVIA: Maybe you shouldn’t have had any kids.
CLEO: Making a baby was the ultimate creative endeavor. I was so proud of myself when you were born! But as you grew, you became so…willful. You were the one project I couldn’t truly complete. I couldn’t make revisions—I couldn’t tear up what I had and start over. I discovered you weren’t really mine after all. But I was naïve then. I thought a child would be utterly devoted to me…forever.
OLIVIA: That’s what you wanted from me—devotion?
CLEO: Motherhood is a betrayal. It’s an illusion—a fantasy. We all go into it blind, and then the veil is torn…and we find ourselves at odds with our own image.
OLIVIA: You see yourself when you look at me?
CLEO: I do, but I don’t. I do, but the mirror lies. You’re a reflection that refuses to follow my commands. A shadow I can’t step away from…