C. Denby Swanson

Finding Yes

This article is a way for me to think about what kind of world I want to create. And I mean that not only in terms of theatrical world, the world of one play or another, but also in terms of the social world, the daily world that I want to perform in and make with other people. And that world is constructed around the idea of saying YES.

In the earlier days of my playwriting career, the most consistent advice I heard was: “You won’t get anywhere in this industry without a 90 minute one-act comedy.” I was writing epic plays at the time, three hour behemoths. Plays with puppets and vaginal puppet theaters and human characters who transformed into animals. Plays about multiple generations and historical detail. Plays with large casts and live music. “Who the fuck is ever going to produce that?” is what one advisor yelled at me. “I would rather watch a bad Hamlet.”

I stopped writing for several years.

Theater is 99.99999% rejection. We all understand why. There are limitations of time, space, and funding. Established theaters might produce just five plays a season. How many playwrights exist? Thousands. The math is very bad.

So my decision to stop writing wasn’t about rejection. Gatekeepers say no. Grantmakers say no. Collaborators say no. This happens all the time. It’s not usually personal. I understood even then the need for persistence, perseverance, marketing, outreach, building relationships. I even understood the need to write a 90 minute one-act comedy.

My decision to stop writing was about doubt. When doubt got into my brain, it was like mold in a basement. It sent out colonizing spores. Doubt became an occupier of my imagination: Am I writing what I thought I was writing? For a while I could not find my own YES. What I heard instead was:

The world of your play is just too big.
The world of your play is just too talky.
The world of your play needs to be clearer.
The world of this play is so…. Cerebral.
And impossible.
How will anyone ever know what to do with what you write?

Finding YES is personal. It’s not about easy answers.
Do you understand my play? Y/N.
It’s about the permission you give yourself to be fully yourself on the page and your commitment to holding yourself to your own standard. Do you know who you are? Do you know what you want? Those are not easy questions to ask or answer.

Finding YES is also communal. It’s about identifying and holding on to the people who want you to write your fullest self. I’m not talking about sycophants. I’m not talking about being indulged. I’m talking about people who genuinely affirm the intentions you have for the work. Does your community want you to write? Do they want you to write like yourself?

This is why I believe that the way we write is also the way we live.

We do not know what the future holds—but, in fact, we never did. The uncertainty is in our face. We must look at it head on. That is a YES. That’s the kind of YES I want to invoke here: We know the world has to change. Can you envision one that is more brave and more generous?

This is the time for direct engagement, the time for theater as an act of togetherness.

This is the time to write your epic shit.
This is the time to write the idea that made you afraid.
This is the time to write the idea that made you say, “No one will ever do this play.”
This is the time to write the impossible. We are living in an impossible time.
This is the time to write the idea that you are sure you can not, or should not, or have been told is beyond your skill, beyond your imagination, too risky, too challenging, too expensive, too brainy, too gay, too much about race, too working class, too distracting, too much. YOUR WORK IS NOT TOO MUCH.
This is the time to write the play that someone told you that you must not write, or aren’t good enough to write, or aren’t famous enough to write, or that will make your family mad.
This is especially the time to write the play that will make your family mad.
We are all mad all the time now. WRITE YOUR MADNESS.
This is the time to reframe story, structure, character, plot, dialogue, and conflict.
What are those things anymore, anyway?
This is the time to write the play that doesn’t have “clarity.” Clarity is a dead end.
This is the time to write the idea that challenges what you think ideas are.
This is the time to give yourself permission.

Yes, you must give it to yourself. There’s no one else.

If you have been waiting for permission from someone else, who? A literary manager? An artistic director? A grantmaker? An agent? Your first creative writing teacher? Your dad? Who is that voice in your head telling you to hold back?

What can our theaters be going forward? Where can they be? Where can our imaginations take us, not only in story but also in physical space? Don’t you want to figure that out?

YES. LET’S FIGURE IT OUT.

We need to connect. We need rituals of togetherness. You have permission to create them, and to bring people into the circle, people you missed before including your own full self. We need to witness the performance of hope, transformation, challenge, discovery, love, intensity, inclusion, and radical hospitality. What story do you have in you that can take us to those places? Do not accommodate your doubts or the doubts of someone else. Do not back away.

We need a new vision for the future. What we had assumed would happen will not. This is not the universe saying No. It is the universe asking us to try again. Say you will. Say yes.

About the author
C. Denby Swanson

C. Denby Swanson is a writer, bookkeeper, and adoptive mom in Austin, Texas. She is a former Jerome Fellow, McKnight Fellow in Playwriting, William Inge Playwright in Residence, and NEA/TCG Playwright in Residence. Her 90 minute one-act comedy, THE NORWEGIANS, was premiered by The Drilling Company and published by Dramatists Play Service. Her EST/Sloan commission, NUTSHELL, was recently featured in the Alley Theatre’s All New Festival. Her work is also published by Smith & Kraus, Heineman, and Playscripts.