Checking In From the Playwright's Retreat at Ucross
Heidi Schreck was an actor alumna at the 2008 Theatre Lab and is currently in residence at the Sundance Institute Playwright's Retreat at Ucross Foundation, Wyoming. The retreat is an 18-day writing colony where five playwrights and two theatre composers convene each year to put pen to paper.
For months, Ucross was my Moscow. I knew I would get there one day and then everything would be okay. The play I had been eking out for nearly a year would come to life in the Wyoming high plains. And because I am an actor as well as a playwright, I would finally escape the main obstacle to my writing —auditioning. Stupid auditioning was taking up all my time and psychic energy, and finally in Wyoming I would be free. I would do yoga, I would stare out my window at a herd of antelope, I would dress like Isak Dinesen, I would stop drinking, but most of all I would not audition and I would finish The Best Play Ever Written.
The first day, I couldn’t wait for dinner. In fact, I mostly just sat around, waiting for dinner once I realized I was stuck in the middle of The Worst Play Ever Written. Thank god for dinner. The food was delicious and healthy. I ate the finest herby carrots I’ve ever had. I also learned from my six charming companions that many of them too were creating The Worst Thing Ever Created. Everyone was so funny and smart, and I felt like I was getting so much done just by hanging out with them. I drank a whole bunch of wine and went to bed happy.
Day Two I woke up panicked. I began a furious email exchange with my acting agents. Might there be any roles for which they needed me to audition? I had a camera, and at least one other playwright was also an actor. Maybe I could convince him to read with me? I missed auditioning. As if it were an old boyfriend I had broken up with too hastily, all I could think about was auditioning. I loved him. I needed him. I even missed the way he sometimes made me prepare 18 pages of sides and then informed me that he actually just wanted to hear the first sentence, right up until the verb. I would audition for anything. What about musicals? I can’t sing, but you never know! By the early afternoon, my agents had stopped responding, and I finally had to admit I was procrastinating. And lonely.
I read some Andrew Sullivan. Then I read Salon, Yahoo News, and my Astrodienst horoscope. I called my awesome husband and whined to him for half an hour. I called my mom. I called my dad. I called my brother, but he didn’t answer. I worried about money. After therapy (expensive) at 2 p.m. via phone, I read the beginning of one of my favorite plays by David Adjmi, The Evildoers, and part of a new play by Annie Baker. I read the Varya/Lopakhin scene from The Cherry Orchard. I went on Facebook and followed the remarkable feats of Mike Daisey, who is somehow managing to actually make theater a tool for social change. All of this reading made me feel at once inspired and also confused about the purpose of my own work, so I took a nap on the sofa in my studio.
When I woke up, I looked out the window at a herd of white-tailed deer and then I opened the guestbook on my desk and found an entry from the poet Jean Valentine, whom I love, and then another from Young Jean Lee. Young Jean, in addition to being a person I like, represents something I admire. When I think of her the words freedom, naked (I know), defiance, and light come to mind. In my experience with her work, she faces the unknown with both ferocity and humility. Reading her entry, in which she described also napping on this very couch, made me feel calm, and I opened my MacBook (refurbished and donated to me by Mike Daisey, before his trip to Shenzhen) and pulled up my play.
I started working. And I’ve been working ever since, though some days are easier than others. Some days are still hard. But ever since reading the guest book, my writing studio feels less lonely, more exciting. I didn’t really miss auditioning, I just missed being in a room with people during the day. I’m a needy, pathetic little creature who craves company. And now I feel like I have it. Much as the ghost of Buck lives in “Buck’s Cabin,” where we play ping-pong and pool and never watch TV alone because it is too scary, I think the ghosts of the living are here too. The kind of non-dead ghosts the 19th century spiritualists referred to as the “Double” – the spectral part of a living person that can just hop around freaking out its friends and colleagues, or in this case inspiring them. There’s a lot of good companionship here, not just at dinner, and not just in the flesh. At least that’s what I’ve decided.
Here’s a poem by Jean Valentine:
Dear girls and boys,
would you go with me and tell me
back to the beginning
--so we can understand!
the journey of our lives
where we met with cruelty
but kindness, too,
and nosed up out
of the cold dark water,
and walked on our fins...