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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Little of This and a Little of That: Writing Collaboratively about Jackson Heights

Patricia Becker and Arlene Chico-Lugo in You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase. Photo by Joel Webber.

Alum Les Hunter shares what it was like to collaborate with a team of writers to create a trilogy of plays about his Queens, New York neighborhood. This is an amazing example not just of teamwork among artists, but of the myriad ways a specific setting can reveal itself through character and story. A more than two-year venture, the final play in the trilogy hit New York stages earlier this year.

Collaborative writing was something to which, before working on the Jackson Heights Trilogy, I never gave much thought. As a playwright, I thought of a play as something that I wrote, and, in development, maybe things would change a little based on actor feedback, or maybe a dramaturg or director would suggest a few changes.  But I never realized the challenges and rewards presented in the process of truly open collaborative writing until I experienced them while working on this project.

A little over two years ago I sat down with Theatre 167’s Ari Laura Kreith to interview her for an article in American Theatre Magazine about the unexpectedly lively theater scene in Queens, New York, a scene that particularly dramatizes its local surroundings as the subject material for new plays. Ari was working on a new project that she described as a celebration of the multitude of voices in our neighborhood, Jackson Heights, Queens. The ‘nabe is inviting to the dramatist, who is interested in differing ways of seeing and talking about the world: Jackson Heights is often described as the most diverse neighborhood in the very diverse city of New York, and is sometimes called one of the most diverse areas in the country.

Little did I know at the time of that interview that Ari would invite me to participate as a writer in what would become the Jackson Heights Trilogy, a series of three dramatic pieces, 167 Tongues, You Are Now the Owner of this Suitcase, and Jackson Heights, 3AM. Developed and performed over two years involving three theater companies, eighteen playwrights, and literally hundreds of actors, all under Ari’s direction, the Trilogy is completely centered around the idea of developing stories taken from the streets of Jackson Heights, from its electronics stores, bodegas, and sweet-shops, to its courtyards and densely-layered apartments.  

Les Hunter
I wrote for all three of the pieces, and each was an increasing-intimate lesson in collaborative writing. Developing the first piece, 167 Tongues, Ari invited ten playwrights in an early workshop to draw a large map of the neighborhood, into which we wrote character descriptions of the people who inhabit those spaces. We were then invited to go home and write short scenes about the different characters that fit those descriptions. Once we had a collection of scenes, we worked with Angie Balsamo, our dramaturg, to look for ways to start bringing our narratives together to create through-lines. Though we listened to each other’s work and attempted to collapse characters and tie-in story lines, many of the scenes remained somewhat independent, giving 167 Tongues the feeling of worlds that rub up against and influence each other, but are still separate. This is much like the experience of living in Jackson Heights itself, where people from all over the world live together, but still separate.

The second piece in the Trilogy, You Are Now the Owner of This Suitcase, again used a collaborative model to bring the writing of eight different playwrights together, a few of whom were returners from the first piece. The writing process for this piece is described more in-depth in an article in The Brooklyn Rail. For this piece, which was conceived of as a family-friendly theater event, writers fanned out across the neighborhood and asked locals for fairy tales and stories that they remembered hearing as children. Because of the diversity of the neighborhood, we were given stories from all over the world. Stories from Ireland, Thailand, Mexico, The United States, Hungary, and Persia were then adapted to take place in Jackson Heights. Again we re-wrote pieces to collapse characters and condense stories. This piece, more than the other two, had a central story line with two main characters, and most of that story line was developed by Joy Tomasko, one of the writers, who referred to herself at one point as, “the driver.”

The third and final piece, Jackson Heights 3AM, detailed the sordid side of the neighborhood: its nightlife, with its brothels, strip clubs, and drag shows. To begin writing about this show, the seven playwrights, Ari, and a few actors spent a night out in Jackson Heights, stumbling into bars and all-night massage parlors, talking to cops and dancers, researching characters and places. The writing process for Jackson Heights 3AM was the most collaborative of the three. We allowed scenes we wrote to be re-written and re-arranged by each other. More than in any other piece, I had to learn to let go here, which for a playwright can be difficult. This was all before the actors worked their magic on it, again changing material to find new and exciting meanings.

Collaborative writing can be difficult. Different writers have different views of how a character might act in a situation, and those differences have to be discussed and solved. Another issue I found, especially in the last piece where writers truly wrote some of the scenes as a group, was that you would write a scene that you thought worked, only to have the scene rewritten by another writer in a way that you thought was less effective. The good news for me was that I found I was often wrong in my initial reaction, and that the changes by another writer only improved the piece. There were other learning experiences as well. Other writers would take a character and put them in a situation that allowed them to most brilliantly be themselves to great theatrical effect. The process, though difficult, was very much a learning experience for me, and, even though the Trilogy is over, I hope to continue working in more collaborative situations.

-- Les Hunter

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