Thirty-One (22 of 31)

On Thursday afternoon, I finished a chapter I’d been working on for over a month. Really, it’s amazing how a couple of hours of writing brightens my mood considerably. If I can get that couple of hours in, I spend the rest of the day in a good mood, with all the energy in the world to get my other tasks done. So, I wrote in the morning for a little bit, did four hours of work work, and then got back to the writing in the afternoon. And that’s how, by the end of the day, I had a fully realized chapter that Stephanie, upon hearing me read from it, pronounced one of her favorites so far.

All of which is a nice lead-in to the fourth of the five über entries to be presented as part of this month’s Thirty-One series. At the end of last Thursday’s entry I called 1997 “the darkest year of my life,” but even dark years have their rays of light. After losing my band, and my virginity, and losing my mind over a series of girls I had no business being interested in, I found my way back to the one constant in my life: my writing. It was in the autumn of 1997 that I began work on a play that would eventually form the basis for the novel I am working on right now.

A Lick and a Promise - The E! True Hollywood Story

Each Spring since I’d arrived at Bradford College, I had taken part in the annual Student Theatre Festival, an event featuring plays directed and occasionally written by students. During my freshman year, I put on a staged reading of a play I’d written in high school, Right, Wrong, and Everything In Between. In sophomore year I got more ambitious and directed a production of Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. But when junior year came around I wasn’t sure what production I might propose to mount. It was during my stint as an employee of the computer lab that the opening line to what would become, A Lick and a Promise came to me, as if from a dream. The line was, “I can’t believe you slept with someone else.”

It was a humble enough beginning, to be sure, and more likely than not it was headed for the graveyard of the clichéd and predictable, but I kept at it, and soon something unexpected happened:

It began as a simple argument between boyfriend and girlfriend about her sleeping with someone else and suddenly, about a page into it, I discovered that she slept with another girl, not another guy…

...Veronica Silver was a girl who couldn’t choose. She had a girlfriend, the love of her life, but she was afraid to come out to her parents because of how they’d taken her brother’s coming out. Instead of being honest about herself, she chose to hide behind the lie that she was happy in a heterosexual relationship. Lick would tell the story of the night her subterfuge blew up in her face.

[Excerpted from Writing “Lick”]

For a guy who had always liked to plan his stories well in advance of the writing of them, who had always been of the opinion (and still is of the opinion) that a great deal of drafting can be done in the head, this story’s genesis was a strange, strange thing. I only ever worked on it when I was at the lab, even though I had a computer in my room now, and I never really thought too much about what was going to happen next until I was sitting there at the terminal, blinking cursor egging me on.

Over the next few weeks, with advice from both Nathan, who worked in the labs with me, and David, who was my creative writing teacher at the time, I continued on with the script. There were over-the-top confrontation scenes between Veronica and Tim (the jaded fiancé), between Veronica and Tracy (the lesbian lover) and between Veronica and the decidedly non-Chinese Chinese food delivery boy, Andy. Everyone slept with everyone else, except for Veronica, who didn’t get laid at all, but after all that farce, after all the off-stage moaning and groaning, there was as sad an ending as I could have possibly conceived. It was a uniquely ChrisClark piece, absolutely hilarious throughout the bulk of the work and then jarringly depressing at the end. I couldn’t have planned it any better.

But I was cutting it close if I wanted to submit the script to be considered for inclusion in the upcoming Theatre Festival. In the end, I did make the deadline but the theatre professors involved in making the selection limited me to a “workshop” production, which, in this case, essentially meant that my show was to play the part of opening act to the other piece selected, that we would have to deal with whatever they did with the stage, and that our selection of props and set dressings would be limited to whatever we could find hanging around the theatre. I tried not to let that bother me, because I knew the material was strong, and so, we moved on.

Soon enough, we were having auditions.

Evil Deb (who was directing the play Drought by Bradford senior Pat Vogelpohl alongside my show) and I ran a dual audition to get the entire community to turn out. We placed copies of our scripts in the library for people to read up on, but most people didn’t read mine. Most just read Pat’s. He was the playwright on campus, after all.

At auditions we saw a number of talented individuals but Deb had the people she liked and I had the people I liked and I don’t recall there being much of a fight over who got who…

...For the Veronica, the lead, I cast Robyn, who was tall, pretty, and really captured the domineering, manipulative character I’d imagined. Physically, she was imposing. She was the tallest of the entire cast and that sent a real visual message. Acting-wise, she sometimes went over the top, but this was a farce and I didn’t really mind.

For Veronica’s girlfriend Tracy, I cast Amanda. Amanda was a rising-star in the music theater program but she hadn’t done much else. I thought she could really make her mark with this part. It allowed her to show a good range of acting chops and I was out to help others get their start as much as I was out to help me get mine.

For the part of Tim, the kind of gullible fiancee that’s getting stepped all over, I cast DaPonte, a freshman at the time. He gave a good audition and put out of my mind the horrible play he’d acted in previously, Searching, which Rob would later deny he ever acted in.

And, for the part of Andy the non-Chinese Chinese food delivery boy who used to be a transvestite, I cast good ole Larsen. He had done mostly smaller parts in a couple of main stage shows and a couple of musicals. I thought this would be his chance to really shine. He didn’t look like what I’d imagined when I was writing it but that was the beauty of it. He was an unlikely gay man. It would work, I told myself.

[Excerpted from Auditions for “Lick” and “Drought”]

The auditions were done in November and by the time we broke for the holidays we had posted cast lists and begun to distribute scripts. The two-night run would happen in February, on Valentine’s Day weekend, and we wouldn’t have long to rehearse, which is why I’d asked everyone to begin memorizing their lines over the break.

We didn’t have long to rehearse for A Lick And A Promise but that made the rehearsals that much more fun. They were intense and fast-paced and filled with a kind of cast bonding that I’d not experienced before then. Perhaps because there were only four people in the cast or perhaps because I wrote such a great script, everyone seemed to click while working on the material.

The only trouble we ever ran into is one night late in the rehearsal process while we were running lines up on the main stage in Denworth Hall. Jimmy was acting as sort of a stage-manager for me but he hadn’t been at rehearsal yet. Larsen had basically gotten the character of the gay Chinese food delivery boy Andy down pat. Jimmy came in with best intentions and gave Chris some advice on how to be more authentically gay.

This caused some friction.

A couple of days later Larsen asked me about what had happened that night and whether he should play it the way he and I had been working on it or the way Jimmy had been suggesting. I forget what I said, but we did eventually work it out.

Other than that one incident though, things went relatively well. Robyn, Amanda, Larsen, and DaPonte seemed meant to act together. As I heard about problems with intracast relationships on the play that would share the bill with us at the Student Theater Festival, I felt lucky to have landed the people I landed.

The only downside of them working so well together was that they got off on tangents like nobody’s business. As a second-time director I was a bit better at reeling them in than I had been with Zoo Story the year before, but there were four actors this time, not just two.

[Excerpted from “Lick” Rehearsals]

It really was a fun rehearsal process and I think the only real trouble, aside from Larsen’s confusion about how to play “Andy” in the early going, was what we were going to do with the huge hole that Deb had cut in the rear wall of the stage for her show. There was no window there in my play, and we didn’t think it was possible that there would be a painting or something else big enough to cover the hole, but we were saved by painter extraordinaire Jesse Marsh, who provided an abstract canvas just big enough to cover the hole. It looked ridiculous, to a certain extent, but the play was ridiculous, so I choose to believe that it just added to the atmosphere.

Also adding to that atmosphere was a certain cast member’s willingness to totally humiliate both her writer-director and the good friend of his who was to have been the butt of a joke under a pseudonym:

At some point during rehearsal, I began explaining the story behind a particular joke that everyone was wondering about. Amanda’s character Tracy, a lesbian, is describing the last time she saw a penis before the wild incidents that take place during the play. She says, “The last time I saw a dick was Billy Mills… Mom nearly forced me to go on that date, just to see if I really was only into girls.”

It was a joke about my friend KenMills, who had dated a girl a few years before who came out of the closet shortly after dating him. He always seemed pretty sensitive about it, so naturally, I thought it was the perfect material for my show.

When she heard the story, Amanda promised she would say Kenny Mills instead of Billy Mills during the show. I begged her not to, as I knew Ken would be coming to see the show, but she would have none of it.

[Excerpted from “Lick” Dress]

The show went up on Friday, February 13, 1998, but any bad luck that might have been coming our way thanks to the date seemed to stay away — the show went off without a hitch.

The theater filled with Bradford folk and with some of my off-campus friends, JonMartin, KenMills, and Adam among them. It occurred to me as Ken walked in that he might kill me if Amanda changed the speech to refer to “Kenny” instead of “Billy” Mills, as she had threatened to do once she discovered Ken would be in the audience.

The show was phenomenal. The audience loved my crazy little sex farce. It struck a chord with them. Prok came up to me after the show to tell me how authentic my dialogue sounded, how well I wrote lesbians and gay men. Pat Vogelpohl, whose play Drought was sharing the bill, commented on the strength of the show. He was the playwright on campus and to be complimented by him was something else.

Ken did not kill me by the way, but if you listen real close to the tape of the show you can hear Jon and Adam turn to Ken after the laughter caused by the Billy Mills joke subsided and say to him, “Dude, you suck.” Amanda, as promised, had changed the name to Kenny Mills and I’d almost had a heart attack.

[Excerpted from A Lick and a Promise]

I like to think that A Lick and a Promise was my own personal coming out party, not in the same sense that it was the story of Veronica’s coming out, but in the sense that people around campus were finally exposed to my artistic efforts on a large scale. It was the reputation I gained from Lick‘s surprising success that enabled me to put together an equally stellar cast the next year for my senior project production, The People vs. Jesus Christ, and it was the reception that Lick received that finally gave this struggling writer a bit of the confidence he needed to continue onward and upward.

In the years immediately following college, I would write a third play to complete the trilogy begun by Lick and Christ, and it would be the core themes of these three plays that I would come back to in 2004, when, in the second semester of my MFA program at Lesley University, I was finally ready to begin work on a novel. That silly, throwaway line I typed in the Bradford College computer lab over eight years ago spawned a story infinitely more complex than I ever could have imagined, but, when I’m feeling lost, and I don’t know quite where my story is going, all I have to think back to is the central message of that silly little sex farce and things become instantly clear. For Veronica, the message was, “if you can’t be honest with yourself, you’ll never be happy,” and, no matter how many drafts I go through, that’s still the foundation upon which I’m building this thing on. And that’s a great, great thing.