From a Stack of Paper to a Possibility: On Playwriting
By Laura Town
[Photo: Playwright Laura Town with cast members, instructor Andrew Black, and Director Deborah Asante.]
I did not know what to expect from a writing class. Even though I had been a liberal arts major in college, had written a novel, and write non-fiction daily for clients, I had never taken a class. In fact, I prided myself on not needing a writing class. After all I’m a decent writer. Why pay to take a class?
But this time I was stuck. I found a story I wanted to tell. And I had even written the screenplay version, but I needed to hear it, needed to see it, needed to know other people’s reactions. After searching in vain for a course on screenplays, I found a playwriting class taught by Andy Black, signed up, and held my breath.
The story I’m working on is the story of the Crispus Attucks 1955 basketball season. The all-African-American school was the first to win the championship of an integrated sport. Those of you from Indiana know the hoopla and prestige of the high school basketball tourney. In the 1950s, high school basketball was even bigger. The winning team received a key to the city from the Mayor, and a parade, and housewives baked the team pies. But the Crispus Attucks team, led by future Olympian and NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, never received a parade, or a key, or pies. Mayor Alex Clark had decided that the team’s supporters would likely riot and damage the city. In one interview about the parade, he asked what would happen if during the parade “a white girl kissed a black boy?” The rejection from the city, not only in the denial of the parade but also in other ways, was painful for Oscar Robertson and his teammates all their lives.
I wanted to be sure to tell the story with sensitivity and honesty, and to try to remember what it felt like to be sixteen and have a dream, and then what it feels like to be denied that dream unfairly. The countless hours of research and writing started to seem well spent the first day we had actors come to class. Once I could hear the dialogue read, along with everyone’s suggestions, it helped turn the screenplay from a stack of paper to a possibility. And then one of the actors, suggested I turn it into a play. After all, this was a playwriting class. And plays are easier to get produced than movies. A play I could share with the community, and maybe schools would be interested in it.
With this suggestion and with teacher Andy Black’s encouragement and excellent suggestions, I narrowed the cast, the speaking roles, and the scope of the screenplay so it could be staged. And every week I brought in more pages for actors to read, knowing we could never get through it all.
While I was writing the play, I was also interviewing the players and the family members of the characters I was constructing which continued to shape the work. With connections that Andy has, the Pacers heard about the project and they have gotten involved. The Pacers generously held a staged reading for the living players and other basketball greats who were alive in that era, and we received very helpful feedback. We’re hopeful the play will be staged in Indianapolis sometime this year or early in 2020.
The class I took with the Indiana Writer’s Center not only encouraged me, and helped shape the work, but it also introduced me to a wider artistic community than I had before. It’s very easy for writers to sit at their desk and not venture out, but it’s vital and rewarding to connect with others who are passionate about creating art. Hearing from other playwrights and hearing the work read aloud by actors has been immeasurably helpful and I’m grateful to the Indiana Writer’s Center and Andy Black for those opportunities.