Copyright © 2019 by John L. Sowalsky. All Rights Reserved.

The Story of the Story of Passing

February 3, 2019

 

Sometime in 2010 the idea for a story about the Holocaust crossed my mind. This was unusual for a couple of reasons. First, I generally write comedy, so the idea of approaching such a somber subject seemed daunting. Second, although I was raised in a nominally Jewish family, I have spent my entire adult life distancing myself from my Jewish identity. This was not a conscious act, and was only something I recognized long after the fact, but it was nonetheless true.

Writing stories can be tricky business. A premise is not a story, nor can every premise, even a good one, be fashioned into a compelling story. The idea I had was more than just a premise, however. It encapsulated a premise (its spirit, if you will), but I could see a fair amount of its flesh and bones as well. Unfortunately there were problems with the story as it existed in my imagination. There were elements which made sense in my head, but would not transfer well to paper, let alone to the stage. In short, there were technical problems related to the plot. Assuming that these would eventually work themselves out, I gave the idea over to my subconscious to chew on. While I waited to see if it would spit anything useful out, I tracked down a few books related to the Holocaust and brushed up on some history.

And then I got swept up by my next project. And the one after that, and the one after that. I knew that my "Holocaust play" was still simmering on the back burner. Once in a while I'd look in the pot to see if it was ready yet. Give it a stir. Take a little taste. But it was never quite right. This happens sometimes: an otherwise perfectly good idea languishes forever and never sees the light of day. It has been my experience that if I try to force a piece into existence, I end up with inferior work.

Then one night in 2017, seven full years after I had my initial idea, I was sitting in bed reading when out of the blue, the solution suddenly popped into my head. All at once I could see the entire play from start to finish. My subconscious had, indeed, been at work, and it delivered the results when I least expected them, long after I had given up any real hope. At this point the play was essentially written. By this I mean, quite literally, every scene and every single line of dialogue was already set in stone in my head. All that was left was to set it down on paper.

Naturally enough, I jumped out of bed (causing great consternation to my cat), fired up my computer, and worked late into the night. Within three days I had a draft which required very few subsequent changes. The following Labor Day weekend I presented a reading of the play, now entitled Passing, at the Kennedy Center's annual Page-to-Stage Festival, on a double bill with another one-act I had written (Waiting, a companion piece to Beckett's Waiting for Godot).

Passing was very well received, and a number of people urged me to consider mounting a full production. But at a lean 35 minutes I couldn't see it standing on its own. So I tucked it away, pleased with the results, but uncertain what to do with it, and moved on to my next project, a full-length comedy entitled A Theist. I had planned to mount a full production of A Theist at the 2018 Capital Fringe Festival, but those plans were waylaid by quintuple bypass surgery in March of 2018. My plan at that point was to postpone the production of A Theist by exactly one year. In the meantime, an avalanche of changes occurred in my life, the culmination of which were triggered by the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October. It was at that point that I was consumed by an undeniable compulsion to bring Passing to the Fringe in lieu of A Theist.

I started to toy with the idea of expanding the original script. The existing four scenes admitted of no tampering. Any additions to them would be padding and would detract from their lean terseness, their concentrated density. But could I add another scene? Could I follow what I considered to be a perfect ending with an extended denouement? More to the point, could I construct a second climax as effective as the first? Was I a fool to even try?

Try I did. I rolled ideas around in my head for several weeks and then, without even a clear idea of exactly what the end product would look like, I hammered out a draft across several days. Along the way I made some superficial alterations to the original text in order to align it with my new final scene. And then I set it aside, afraid to read it back, convinced that it would be a disaster.

The first four scenes, of course, had sprung fully-formed from my head. The fifth scene I simply muddled through blindly. But sometimes -- in fact, more commonly --  that's how the process works, and it doesn't necessarily bode ill. When I finally mustered the courage to read it back I was pleasantly surprised with the results. I could see that it still required some edits and some tightening up, but I was, and still am, convinced that writing it was the right thing to do. Especially in light of what happened in Pittsburgh, the (new) final scene moves the story forward. The story which began in 1945 and continued in 1988 is now brought into the current day, which is where it desperately need to be.

I usually view my art as enriching, entertaining, even thought-provoking. But I'm always wary whenever I hear the word "important" applied to art. This is the first time in my many years as a self-producing playwright that I have felt it is important for me to bring a piece of work to the stage. Because, truly, we must all remember. We must each bring whatever we have to bear on our collective memory. It is important that we all do so.

 

 

 

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