Write What You Don’t Know

by Danny Mitarotondo

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Write What You Don’t Know

(Pictured: Director Leslie Ishii and playwright Danny Mitarotondo at a rehearsal of Mitarotondo’s Phaeda Wins Award. This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion posts on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)

Diversity and Inclusion Program ArcThe Role of Allies

I was always told to “write what I know.” But after writing my family play, my mid-20’s angst play, and my mommy dearest play, I struggled to find inspiration. My conversations with the world were little more than circular.

I noticed that there was a stark difference between my characters and the world around me: my characters were impressions of the past or present; the individuals in the world around me were authentic and personalized. Be it through Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or Vine, our world is now built on the personalized, individualized voice fighting for attention. I wanted that fight in my plays. I wanted specificity, not impression.

Together with my longtime collaborator/director Shannon Fillion, we are using these trends in social media to change the DNA of our storytelling. These explorations have led us to work in a form called the Score.

I interview an actor I want to work with; not for what he/she says, but how he/she says it. I study that actor’s vocal rhythm and breath pattern. I then write a specific character for that actor, who speaks with the same rhythm and breath pattern of that actor. I write a play with personalized characters – each created from specific actors – but chart their text horizontally in measures, like sheet music. This allows me to play with an actor’s personalized rhythm in concert with the other personalized rhythms in an ensemble. Much of my play-text looks like hashtags, with words grouped together to produce a visceral effect in each actor according to each actor’s natural speaking pattern.

The Score’s horizontal format shakes up an actor’s usual way of seeing and hearing. Its punctuation-less, hashtag use of words allows for individualized vocal freedom. Actors are not “playing themselves,” nor are they playing characters; like an online profile, it is something in between.

“Writing what I know” has proven itself to be what it is: myopic. Rather than teaching the world my experience, I now strive to be a student of the world, listening to actors whose voices expand my range of expression. I sign agreements with actors when I study their voices prohibiting me from using what they say in my plays. This forces me to synergize their voices with hidden parts of my experience. With actors, I am finding my most personal stories.

This line of work is also helping me write for those demographics that are frighteningly underrepresented. The most underrepresented are still people of color.

I never thought I had the right to write for people of color – because I’m a white man. I have since realized that to only write for white people because “what I know” is white is a large part of why there are so few people of color front-and-center in our business. Diversity and inclusion starts with playwrights. Diversity and inclusion starts with playwrights writing what they don’t know.

My play Phaeda Wins Award is a talkback between a white artistic director and an Asian American director that slowly progresses into serious discourse about race and money. Through an interview with Cindy Cheung (who plays Phaeda), I was able to find an honest progression of events in this story, told in her unique voice. Writing in the Score’s horizontal structure and using my hashtag word-groupings, I was able to paint, in detail, an emotional experience for her that did not betray her voice, her identity as an Asian American woman, nor ignore that I am a white man writing. I could not have created this play without studying Cindy’s voice or writing in the Score form; without beginning my process by saying, “I don’t know.”

I passionately believe that for theatre to align with the times, playwrights must acknowledge that the world speaks in personalized, individualized tongues. We can use all the technological innovation we want, but if the practice of writing doesn’t run parallel to the authenticity-seeking drive of our sister mediums, the conversations in theatre will always be little more than exclusive.

Write for the limitless voices around you. Not yourself. Write what you don’t know. Chances are, by doing so, you will write “your most personal play” – because empathizing, truly empathizing, with someone you don’t know, is the first step to learning about yourself. To empathize is not to generalize, homogenize, or hypothesize; that is to sympathize. To empathize means to get into the muck, to wrestle, to help. For the playwright, that means studying another’s voice as if it is just as interesting as your own.

Danny MitarotondoDanny Mitarotondo’s plays have been developed at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and New York Theatre Workshop. His plays have been produced in Los Angeles, New York, Durango, Colorado, and Sibiu, Romania. Danny is an Associate Teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework®, a graduate of the Atlantic Acting School, New York University’s Gallatin School, Columbia University’s School of the Arts with an MFA in Playwriting, and was a Visiting Assistant Professor of Playwriting and Modern Theatre History at Fort Lewis College. For more information on the Score, please visit: www.thescoretechnique.com

  • WonderZimms

    I love writing for specific actors. It challenges me to not think of characters as a subset of what I know, and forces me to write to the person. The results are often very satisfying, and expand the “what I know” sphere. Kudos for this article!