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Saying Yes to Snails

Why to write when you’re tired

By Alona R. Bach

Last weekend, my younger sister and I were sitting up late having a wonderfully sisterly conversation. It was one of those conversations that could have come right out of a Jane Austen novel, if you took away a few hundred years and added several candles.

It was slightly less romantic in other ways too: Iit was past midnight, and neither of us had slept much during the week before. I was lying on the couch, eyes closed, listening to her wrap up her story with a question: “Like, you know those things that are really hard to say, but you just have to say them?”

I was so far from awake that her voice sounded like it was coming from two rooms away, muffled by a quilt, but to assure her that I was still paying attention, I sleepily slurred a reply.

“What, like snails?”

When her laughing woke me up, I rewound the conversation.

I don’t habitually talk about snails. I don’t even habitually think about snails. I have no idea why, in this moment, my subconscious was fixated on those alien-looking gastropods.

I’d broken the first rule of conversing, which is to say words that make sense.

But thank goodness.

Thank goodness for these post-midnight lapsi linguae, which occurred all too often when I stayed up late writing plays. I would be writing a serious, moving scene, and then the darnedest things would come out of my keyboard. I was bothered by the interruptions at first, and then I was not.

When I was too tired to keep my eyes open all the way, my mind made arbitrary connections freely, indiscriminately. I didn’t have the energy to tell myself that I couldn’t write something because it was too crazy, or because it was something I’d never seen before, or because it could never work on a stage. At night, when all of my brainpower was directed towards merely staying conscious, I could evade the cliches which would worm their way into my writing, insistently and inevitably, when I was awake.

And so my plays got bolder, kookier, and less safe: more like plays that I’d be interested in actually seeing.

I get most excited by plays that embrace their theatricality by showing real people doing things you’d probably never see them do in real life. I love when objects appear in surprising context; I love twists on common words and phrases; I love seeing actors doing something ridiculous, over and over.

Theater has always made room for the magical and illogical onstage. Even tightly-constructed Ancient Greek drama managed to get Medea flying in on a dragon-chariot. By the time the mid-20th century rolled around, strange goings-on onstage were doing double-duty as both spectacle and what Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky called “defamiliarization” – an artistic technique of making the familiar strange in order to break the complacency of habitual perception.

Playwright Eugene Ionesco, for example, dramatized fascism by having the entire population of a French village turn into rhinoceroses. Samuel Beckett scripted all kinds of crazy shenanigans, including two plays where people literally just walk around a square in geometric patterns.

More recently, Sarah Ruhl made Eurydice descend to the Underworld via a rainy elevator, where she then met the Lord of the Underworld who was riding a tricycle. And in Jenny Schwartz’s meditation on grief called “God’s Ear,” the Tooth Fairy and GI Joe come to life and sing songs.

Weird. But thank goodness.

We spend all of our childhood being taught acceptable social boundaries, being taught what to say when and which thing belongs where. We shift from the freedom of dolls and blocks and trucks to curated experiences in The Sims. Dress-up games mature into costume parties, which usually don’t involve any make believe.

Adult life has structure and it has rules. You can’t just run through a park pretending to be a unicorn when you’re on your way to work. When someone says “thank you,” you must reply with “you’re welcome.” There are no monsters under your bed; just go to sleep.

So we learn, as we grow up, that people cannot turn into rhinoceroses. Stones don’t talk and you shouldn’t expect to find yourself in a rainy elevator after death.

But when we see these things happening on a stage with real people – people who are standing in the same room as we are – the range of what it is acceptable to think and to believe widens. The mental boundaries between “possible” and “impossible” start to crumble.

And I want that to keep happening. I want my familiar to always feel slightly unfamiliar. I want to keep my sense of wonder; I want the absurd and the impossible; I want to banish the voice that says “no.”

So I will say yes to snails. And I will watch plays with my eyes wide open, and write them with my eyes half-closed.

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