ghost malls / what's next
When I was very young, malls were magical places. Sleek and shiny, they were where the cool people, the rich people, the city people congregated. Going to a mall was a Day Trip, a tiny vacation from a tiny town with one Wal-Mart, one H-E-B and not much else.
A false promise of the way things could be.
In college, the Golden Triangle Mall became my favorite. The anchor stores you can find in almost every Southern mall (Dillard’s, JCPenney) sat at the end of large, empty walkways. There was a tiny dental practice. A photo booth. And a movie theater where you could pay three bucks to watch movies caught in that limbo between multiplexes and DVD racks.
The Golden Triangle Mall was a ghost mall by the time I moved to town. I loved it for that; this failed monument to capitalism. I didn’t go there to buy things. Mostly, I went there to be alone. To get away from other decaying promises. And to watch movies.
I took pictures alone in the photo booth in the Golden Triangle Mall. I still have a set, and the person in them is so unrecognizable, they might as well have been created by an AI generator.
I spun a complete 360 in my car on ice in front of the Golden Triangle Mall. I laughed, fear still coursing through me, realizing I was alive and that I wanted to be alive. I laughed, fear still coursing through me, at the thought of dying there and becoming the ghost of the ghost mall.
I read the first draft of someone else’s play in the Golden Triangle Mall. I started writing the first draft of my first play.
Every play is a ghost before it’s performed. These odd, undead things that need an audience to live but still exist in our file folders, on our desktops, in a cloud.
Playwrights I’ve considered successful complain about their lack of productions and I feel hopeless at the unsustainability of creating work in our country and in our industry. To create new work with no promise of its fulfillment is as mournful as it is joyful. Writing a play requires navigating the tension between the thin hope it might be produced and the tough recognition that it might never be. You need the first to start at all. You need the second to prepare you for everything that comes after.
Why do we keep doing it? How?
This is how I am:
I am incapable of writing and incapable of not writing.
I am unqualified, undisciplined, and obsessed.
I’m not even talking about money and survival right now. Or creating in the midst of a continued pandemic as more and more theatres abandon any pretext of caring about the availability of their art to people who are homebound or otherwise unable to make it into their physical venues. I know they see us as expendable. How do I bring myself to write plays for these arbiters? What are the metrics of my worth to them?
“The new worlds we build, and the ways that we build them, must be resistant to commodification. They must be resistant to being co-opted by forces in the world we don’t want to support.”
In 2020, I wrote and performed my piece It’s For You. After I self-produced It’s For You, it was picked up for a subsequent run by 4615 Theatre Company in 2021. Over the phone, one–on-one, I co-created 38 poems with 38 people, some of whom I knew and some of whom I had no connection to. They allowed me to know them all a little better, and I met that generosity of time and vulnerability with my own. We wrote silly poems, and self-serious poems, and poems about continuing on even when you feel hopeless.
When I first talked about the “success” of It’s For You, I talked about making my money back and more. About selling out every ticket. Debriefing with friends, family, and fellow practitioners, I used numbers as proof of my creative importance.
But I didn’t create It’s For You to meet those metrics. I kept performances limited in acknowledgement of my body’s capabilities and needs. I created clear ways for both my audience members and me to communicate when we didn’t want to discuss something. For my self-produced run, every ticket was pay-what-you-want, and I offered both voice and text options – all in the hopes more people could easily participate. I believe it is because of these choices that I had meaningful, enlightening, painful, hilarious, and thoughtful conversations, each a salve for my loneliness.
As the ghosts of those phone calls sit with me, success is redefined. I don’t daydream about the money, the tickets, the subsequent run. I daydream about the people.
Are you there? Are you still lonely? I read the poem you recommended. I haven’t watched the movies you suggested yet. What are you singing these days? I hope your new job is going well. I guess it’s not even new anymore.
I want to make more work that isn’t beholden to the whims of producing companies and their restrictions or standards. I want to create work difficult to measure by our current standards of value - disinterested in and resistant to commodification. I want to create work that is valued for the way it brings us together, for the way it elicits connection even in isolation.
I think I’m writing this to feel accountable to a thought that’s been churning for awhile: it is time for me to stop writing for theatres and start writing for people. For the people who are or might become my people. Instead of writing one stage play a year and submitting it endlessly to the same development opportunities, I plan to create one self-produced, distanced or digital performance a year.
How to do that and survive? How to pay bills while creating art that’s meaningful? If you know good god please reply to this email. But the current plan isn’t working either, and it’s never made me feel the way those phone calls did.
My partner says art is communication across time and space. But a live performance doesn’t live in perpetuity. We recognize and accept the end. Recordings can’t recreate the experience. The moment passed. What we made in time and space together (whether in person or at a distance) lives only in memory. A co-created ghost. I hope you’ll join me for whatever comes next.
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