Have you ever watched a writer write in a cafe? Or wondered what is the mysterious writers process many writers refer to? Or what goes into the writing of script for a theatre play? Across Chicago in cafe’s everywhere you’ll often find writers nestled in between chairs and tables quietly taping away. But what you rarely see is the work as they are creating it. You have to wait months to see a writers work rehearsed, on a stage or in a book after many hours, days, months spent crafting their ideas, the stories narrative, embedded in dialogue and scene.
Well today I stumbled upon a very interesting project going on in real-time in a store front window at 72 East Randolph Street in downtown Chicago. It is called the Storefront Playwright Project. As I walked past a storefront converted into a gallery space by the League of Chicago Theatres, I noticed a young man sitting in the window feverishly typing. His gazed was fixed on the screen of the toshiba laptop in front of him. To his left was a large screen facing out into the street, a word document was open and his words were appearing in dark black ink as he typed. Words that had connected to his soul embedded in story, travelled from his brain to his fingertips and then to the white background of the virtual paper I was stood in front of. Trevor Dawkins a young playwright formerly from New York was sat typing the dialogue for a new play he was writing. Mesmerized I stood and read his words as they scrolled down the page with each silent tap my eyes could see. Nervously he looked up and half-smiled at me. Am I distracting him from his work, I thought? Should I walk on? How strange it must feel to be sat in a storefront window with anyone and everyone who walks past looking at you, reading your words.
For many writers, writing is a private, personal and sometimes a painful process. A process we don’t often talk about, we just accept it is part of the writers way of working — in silence, alone, deep in thought and image. From my own experience it is also a difficult practice to enact when you are being watched, it is like the feeling when someone reads the newspaper in your hands or the text message you are typing on your phone over your shoulder. It just feels odd. In theatre a playwright is usually a writer of script, not an actor in story for a reason (but not always as Trevor will later tell me he is also a performer in The Neo-Futurists latest production). But, with all the nervous eccentricities of observing life, a writer documents, creates and energizes story through an artistic organization of ideas, narrative and dialogue, with dialogue most dominant in the writing of performance. Words that you don’t often get true to the story you have playing in your imagination the first time they tumble and assemble themselves on a page. What Trevor is doing is sharing his raw voice in real-time. A sharing that conflicts with the social norms of sharing a playwrights emerging work outside the safety of socialized industry boundaries — with the public.
As I reflect on the practices and ways of working for many writers (playwrights included), and the very notion of when, where and how a writer shares their work (often in private or during small group workshops), I start to think this localized example is not that much unlike what we do when we tweet, blog or share our thoughts on Facebook as digital writers. We too are writing in our raw voice in real-time and often to an imagined audience. In contrast, this project potentially brings the writer face to face with their audience at the moment of creation, not later in the creative process as mediated by a stage and the collaborative interpretation of directors and actors of the playwrights written word.
Some differences however do exist in how we perform as digital writers on stage. Firstly those that practice digital writing frequently often relish (or are not bothered) by the fact their ideas are public at the point of creation — that is often the purpose and the attraction for participation (for some but not all digital writers). Secondly, digital writers are only crafting 140 characters or a short sequence of narrative in our raw voice and often in response to prompts from others or inspired by events experienced (like me walking past the storefront window at 3pm this afternoon). We are not writing an entire play or creative work from imagination. A work that will then be produced and performed on stage. Our digital writing has a shelf-life as it swims upstream. A creative production forged from reaction and experience.
Inspired by Trevor and the Storefront Playwright Project he is part of, I go into the store to say hi, to hear more about the play he is working on and offer thanks for him sharing a small moment in his writing process with me. “It was difficult at first but you get used to it.” He offers, then he tells me about the play he is working on in the screen and another he is currently performing in (Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind — 30 plays in 60 minutes). I learn more through this conversation about his work then I ever would have going to see one of his productions or reading a critics review of this emerging playwright or his peers. “There is a group of us involved. We share the time here writing.” He continues. For the next week and a half (until December 22nd) over 20 playwrights from across Chicago will participate, sitting in this very window one playwright at a time between 10am-2pm and 2pm-6pm, writing their next great Chicago play in raw voice in real-time to an audience — the walking public.
I wonder if the feeling of being watched is changing what he creates and for how long he could do this for before feeling overwhelmed by being watched. A feeling perhaps not too dissimilar from the feeling created sitting in the imagined window digital writers sit in every day and long into the night before we become sensitized to the sharing of our raw force in real-time with our audience — an imagined public.
If you have a moment, and are near 72 East Randolph Street between now and the 22nd of December, drop by, say hello and learn the stories of the people who brings us some of the best plays in Chicago. You can also follow the project twitter hashtag on #playwrightinawindow or #likehowtheyroll on Facebook.