Austin Archer’s play JUMP is the current recipient of the Plan-B Theatre grant from The David Ross Fetzer Foundation for Emerging Artists and is the third subscription offering of our 2017/18 Season (our 27th! – click here for tickets and subscription info – performances April 5-15). Most recently, Austin contributed “Swipe Right” and “Swipe Left” to Plan-B’s (IN)DIVISIBLE and directed IN THE HEIGHTS for Good Company Theatre. His play THICK METAL BALL was produced at Weber State University. As an actor, he has appeared onstage at GCT, Utah Rep, SLAC and PTC.
I’ve been writing songs for over a decade (music catalog here). It started slowly when I was in high school. I’d finish a song every few months or so, and I was never pleased with the result. I wanted to be a great songwriter like Bob Dylan or Elliot Smith. I believed that if I kept it up I’d eventually get better at it. And while that was true, I thought I’d get better after ten or twenty songs. In reality, I don’t think I started to get decent until I’d written maybe 100. By then I was in college and finishing a new song about every other week. I’d adjusted my methods, I’d grown as a guitarist and lyricist, but I still wasn’t where I wanted to be. As time passed my obsession grew deeper. I’d write song after song, most of them only lasting in my mind for a few days. Many would never even be committed to paper, let alone memory. I’d developed a particular vision for what I was looking for, and I knew it when I had it. So when it was right, the song got recorded on a tape recorder, written down, practiced, and refined. When it was wrong it was simply released into the ether from whence it came without a second thought. I had no patience for the bad songs. In my mind, I had to push through the bad ones in order to get to the decent ones, and I had to slog through the decent ones if I ever wanted to find the elusive great ones.
If you’re still reading this I’m sure you’re wondering when I’m going to find my way out of this overly long metaphor and get to the point.
Here’s my point.
JUMP was only the fifth full-length play I’d ever written when I submitted it to Plan-B through The Davey Foundation. I have enough taste to know that it wasn’t at the level I would’ve liked, but there was a deadline, and I had an idea that I liked so I submitted the equivalent of a song that probably never would have seen the light of day. But here’s what writing plays has taught me about songwriting: first drafts can be improved upon! In songwriting it’s easy to spend a day on a song, realize it’s not going anywhere, and toss it. It’s easy to be impatient. But if you spend several weeks, months, or possibly even years on a play or a book only to find out that it isn’t up to snuff, it’s a lot harder to just put it in the trash.
So I’ve been looking at JUMP like a very long, narrative song. One that starts with a compelling idea: a melody that has legs. In this case the idea was simple: what would happen if I dramatized the conversation between a first-time skydiver and his instructor as they realized the chute had malfunctioned and they’d both be dead in a matter of minutes? If a three-second car wreck can feel like ten minutes of slow motion, playing out in agonizing detail, then surely a three-minute free-fall could fill the space of a 75-minute play (and who wouldn’t want to see a live skydive staged, am I right?). What I found: not only was it hard to fill the space of a full narrative with a single moment, it was also possibly ill-advised. My first draft lacked individual characters and story and that’s because my focus was more on the idea than the actual play. In my mind nothing in the play was really happening, it was all part of some pre-death fever dream so who cared if the characters were two-dimensional? It was all about the concept. The style. The challenge. And while I’m still interested in that initial question of whether or not a person’s thoughts during a free-fall to certain death could fill an evening on stage, that’s not the play I wound up writing. I realized that even if I could script those thoughts, they might not be all that dramatically interesting: they might just be random and freeform and chaotic. I have nothing against chaos in art. I think it can be quite beautiful. But JUMP initially unveiled itself to me as a narrative surrounding four characters. I had to figure out what that narrative was outside of the central incident of the failed skydive. And I honestly had very few ideas.
Luckily, what I did have was time and a group of more experienced playwrights to sound the play in front of. The Lab at Plan-B is such an enormously valuable resource for writers trying to troubleshoot a script. It’s basically the musician’s equivalent of being able to test and workshop each new song in front of Neil Young, Paul Simon, Mariah Carey and Stephen Sondheim (Didn’t know that Mariah wrote all her own songs? Well, now you do. You’re welcome.). It’s amazing. With their insight, I was able to begin the process of fleshing out the characters. I began to work through each character, one at a time, to turn them into people with individual circumstances, arcs, and behaviors. Remarkably the story followed right in suit: turns out character and story are kind of joined at the hip. When one suffers, the other suffers, when one improves, the other goes right along with it.
I’m still fine tuning. Still trimming, adding bits and pieces. I’m still allowing the play to continue to reveal itself, note by note, stanza by stanza. But it’s there now. It’s something I can step away from and set free. It’s a song I’d put on an album.