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Reinventing the Wheel

It’s spring, and I’ve been thinking about “newness” and originality in terms of playwriting, and more generally, storytelling.  In a world where we are constantly bombarded by story through all kinds of mediums, how can a writer create anything original or new?

I had a playwriting student once who told me he didn’t read plays because he wanted his work to be completely original.  The more I consider this, the more convinced I am that putting one’s creative head in the sand is not going to help anybody be original.  If anything, it would have the opposite effect.  A writer who is not aware of what’s going on now or what came before is going to be much more prone to cliché–they just won’t know it.

On the other end of the spectrum, in my years of graduate school, I too was on a quest to come up with an idea truly original.  My method was to scour NPR news and podcasts, watch Ted Talks online, and find quirky news articles or nonfiction books that would surely lead to a play that nobody had ever thought of—so unusual, so quirky, so new!  I came across a book called The Wandering Womb with all of this strange and compelling information about Victorian era vibrators and doctors treating hysteria in women by bringing them to “paroxysm.”  Well, any of you subscribers to ACT know, Sarah Ruhl beat me to that punch with her brilliant and moving Vibrator Play, which is part of ACT Theatre’s 2011 Season.

I’m starting to think this whole “originality” thing is really beside the point.  Ambrose Bierce says “There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are many old things we do not know.”  We are, each of us, original without even trying.  No two people have the exact same set of experiences or have the exact same set of predilections or the exact same world view.  Maybe there are no new stories—only retellings of old ones.  And maybe, as writers, it is our duty to translate these old stories using the language of our experiences for contemporary audiences.

As I live my life moment to moment this spring, I’m already collecting new experiences that will allow me to render the next story in an original, unique way.  Maybe the way to chip away at universal truth is one salient, personal detail at a time.

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