David Auburn’s Proof was the first play to show me plays could be great not through spectacle, but through simple premises and an intense focus on common human dilemmas: our duties as family members versus our individual desires, the desire for brilliance/creativity versus the desire to be sane/normal, our desire to remain children versus our desire to take charge as adults. The History Boys by Alan Bennett introduced me to the jarring postmodernist techniques of irregular narrative chronology, bare sets, and limited physical movement. Rick Elice’s Peter and the Starcatcher showed me that the big ideas of postmodernism haven’t destroyed the beauty in contemporary theater, and that fantastic scenes can be created without fancy sets or special effects. (A little imagination goes a long way!) Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) showed me that a talented playwright can create an entertaining play that offers social commentary without being preachy or didactic. (This eye-opening realization embarrassed me into discarding an entire notebook of drafts: my own horribly heavy-handed attempts at feminist one-act theater.) Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s next to normal also offered social commentary on a serious topic, but through dark humor and song.
There are many more plays I could list—even the plays I dislike have taught me and offered me ideas or techniques to steal—but those five stand out as works that showed me how wide the range is for an aspiring playwright who wants to explore important ideas. Seeing and trying to write about those plays (sometimes for class, sometimes for my theater blog) also coincided with a time in my life in which I began reading more academic writing on theater. This time, the last year and a half, has been the time when I’ve done the least creating and the most learning, and the process has culminated in an IB Extended Essay, the first research project that felt as creative as the process of creating a play, story, or poem. I’ve focused on learning postmodern and feminist theory. I’ve actually learned to enjoy academic writing (the driest form of nonfiction known to humankind!) and have spent much of the last six month examining, reexamining, and re-re examining the plays of the amazing, prolific Megan Terry. Her plays are revolutionary, transformational, and impossible to describe with simple generalizations. So I won’t try. Instead I’ll say this: If you, my reader, have any interest in theater, please read and someday attempt to witness at least these three amazing Terry plays: Calm Down Mother, Approaching Simone, and Babes in the Bighouse.