22 September, 2009– Breakfast with Dee Vasquez and Cal Otto to discuss our continued partnership with the annual All Pikes Peak Reads project. They tell us next year’s theme will be innovation, with a special focus on Nikola Tesla. Cal smiles at me and says, “We were thinking you could write a play about Nikola Tesla.” We are all round a table at the Garden of the Gods club; morning sun is greeting the kissing camels. Cal is smiling, Dee is smiling, Drew is grinning. Steam is rising from my oatmeal. ”Sure,” I say, “why not?” It will be many months before I realize Cal Otto got me pregnant. And then he died.
November-December, 2009– Mostly not thinking about Nikola Tesla, but am dimly aware I’ve agreed to write a play about someone I know nothing about. I learn that Nikola Tesla, the man who gave us alternating current (which is what lights up our homes), did indeed come to Colorado Springs for a series of remarkable experiments in the summer of 1899. He came here because the city gave him unlimited power, and a place to build his strange laboratory outside of town (very near what is now Memorial Park). Reports of his memorable summer spent making lightning, transmitting to space, electrifying the ground, shorting out the power station, and sending electrical waves through the earth are the stuff of legend. It’s fascinating but I still have no idea for a play.
9 January, 2010– Our London theater tour group meets with Sir Tom Stoppard for a conversation at our hotel. Naturally I ask England’s most celebrated playwright what he’s writing now. “Nothing,” he says. He’s single, grandchildren all doing well. He’s finished a television adaptation project, and now is the time for his next great play. He’s got boxes full of notes, but he’s got no new play. I ask him if this worries him. “Yes,” he says, “very much.” I’m looking on the bright side. If Tom Stoppard can have writer’s block, I can too.
23 April, 2010– Shakespeare’s birthday. Some officious staff member reminds me I am writing a play about Nikola Tesla to be produced this fall. Perhaps we should meet about it. Yes, we should. I’ve been reading about Nikola Tesla. I don’t understand a thing about electricity, physics, radio, x-rays, neon or any of the hundreds of his brilliant inventions. I’m not sure about him either. He seems like kind of a creep. But I take heart reading about the brilliant new playwright Young Jean Lee who said she began by writing the play she least wanted to write. (In her case the subject was born again religion. Her play was called Church. It’s a series of monologues by three women pastors who are cheerful and insane, and it ends with a 60 person choir singing ecstatically. It’s wonderful). I am a leading member of the Young Jean Lee playwriting school. I am writing a play about a man I think I dislike, whose work I do not understand. I feel sure I am on the right track.
1 May, 2010– A meeting with a dozen people I’ve invited to talk about our Nikola Tesla play. Most of them are oddballs, befitting our subject. I tell them I don’t want to create a bio-pic. Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, Guglielmo Marconi, and J. P. Morgan will not be sitting around talking in upholstered rooms. That’s so old school. That’s so PBS. We are not the history channel. Our subject is a man always thinking of the future. Our theater is a theater of today. The play must be set in Colorado Springs, now, which means Tesla must appear as a ghost. “We must have a play of the 21st century! Worthy of Nikola Tesla,” says my mad Bulgarian friend. Thunderous applause. We rise as one. Only later will I realize in one stroke I have cut myself off from a history play and the most obvious and sensible lifeline to a dramatic narrative. I’m excited and completely adrift.
– 7 May, 2010– One of the great pleasures of teaching at a university is that there are resources and colleagues immediately at hand. Over lunch with the UCCS physics department I am surprised to learn my colleagues do not worship at the altar of Nikola Tesla. They acknowledge his immense discovery of the polyphase induction motor (really, every motor you have in your home), but their admiration is well this side of idolatry—the idolatry you see everywhere on the Internet, and in the eyes of my romantic friends when you mention the Tesla name. Nikola Tesla’s legacy seems to be contested ground between the skeptics and the sentimentalists.
17 May 2010– I still don’t have a play but at least now I have characters and a cast. Introducing the fabulous five.
1) From the beginning I had Joe Kinnett in mind as our central character, a Tesla geek living in his mom’s basement playing computer games. Joe is a bit of a geek himself, and a bit of a drop out too. He’s also the most interesting young actor I know—you’ll remember him as Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream and as Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace. He has the body of an overfed baby and the face of a Renaissance angel. He’s dark and bright, light and heavy, very smart, brilliant instincts. I’m putting him in the basement to hold our fort.
2) Michael Cobb I thought of two seconds after I told Cal Otto I’d write a Tesla play. Michael looks like Tesla, and he can play possessed like no other actor I know. He’s highly charged, meant for high frequencies, wonderfully refined, and precise. He has the line of a lightning bolt.
3) I wanted Bob Nash in this show. You haven’t seen him on our stage in nearly two decades, but if you ever saw him you’d remember him. His performance as Teach in American Buffalo was riveting. That’s a cliché of course, but in fact you hardly ever see a truly riveting performance on stage, you hardly ever see an actor who fastens your attention on him with a grip so powerful it holds you like a vise.
4) My colleague Kevin Landis told me about a woman who auditioned for him not long ago, a Russian actress, Ludmila Bokievsky. He told me she did one of the most compelling improvisations he had ever seen. He said she was out of her mind and I would like her. I met Ludmila and learned she acted in Peter Brook’s The Cherry Orchard, one of the more legendary productions of the last century. This is the equivalent of having Goose Gossage show up at your senior citizen softball team and ask if he could throw a little. I have given her the part of a woman who believes Nikola Tesla came from Venus. I believe Ludmila is from Venus too, sent in a spaceship to illuminate all humanity.
5) Margaret Kasahara is one of our town’s most gifted painters, and I learned she was long ago compelled by the stage. She is also a gifted fencer. She’s light as a ghost and looks like an asian Chesire cat. I need one of those in the basement too.
7 July, 2010– I have been reading David Mamet, writing about the importance of plot. He says good plays are really just good campfire stories. This worries me, because while I have characters and a subject I don’t have a satisfactory plot worked out yet. Last night I saw a Pulitzer Prize winning David Mamet play, and the plot is terrible—a flimsy contrivance. Then I think of Shakespeare, the worst plotter in the world (a special prize for anyone who can tell me what that quarrel was about between the parson and the doctor in The Merry Wives of Windsor). I think of Chekhov who spent most of his time trying to bury his plots, creating whole acts “dull as spiderwebs.” I think of Inception, an intricate movie that is all plot (requiring lines like “whose unconsciousness are we in now?”) and not the better for that. Who says you need a good plot? The better the play the worse the plot! I’m in good company. I’m taking heart!
10 July, 2010– Still no plot! I dispatch an urgent email to Tom Stoppard: THEATREWORKS HAS THE ANSWER TO YOUR WRITER’S BLOCK. WE HAVE A GREAT SUBJECT FOR YOU AND LOVELY ACTORS. ALL WE NEED IS A PLAY. COME IMMEDIATELY.
13 July, 2010– Thank the heavens for our designers! Mark Arnest is composing some original music, which is he tuning to earth resonances. Amazing. Betty has come up with the cut and jib of Tesla’s own immaculate tailoring. He was no scruffy slob like Thomas Edison, who rarely bothered to bathe. Among inventors and New York society Tesla was known as “our Parisian.” Most of the show’s burden falls on our lightning designer and technical director, who have to create a Tesla show on stage, full of sound and fury, full of sensation. They tell me we can light up the night at the Bon Vivant, but we have to stop short of a massive 4,000,000 volt Tesla Coil, which can be randomly hard on pacemakers.
16 July, 2010– Awaiting reply from Sir Tom Stoppard. He must be in France.
18 July, 2010– Thinking hard about plot and about ghosts, I can’t help but have Hamlet on the brain. It is the inescapable play, and also the best ghost story ever written for the stage. I find I have been rewriting Hamlet in the basement. I have a Closet Scene, a Polonius scene, a Nunnery scene. I’ve also thrown in a little King Lear. Nikola Tesla + Thunder + Lightning + Madness = King Lear. Also inescapable.
20 July, 2010– Surely playwriting is the most difficult thing in the world. Anyone with stamina can write a novel—you can go anywhere, do anything. Anyone can write a poem—everyone has. But a play! Writing in all dialogue form, everything unfolding on a platform. So intricate, so naked, so confined. It can’t be done. Anyone who says I’ll write a play and put it on is utterly presumptuous. A complete idiot.
22 July, 2010– Still no reply from Tom Stoppard. Strange.
24 July, 2010– I make a flying run to Milwaukee to see a show called Tesla Lives at the lakeshore science center. Lots of lightning, two Tesla coils, and fluorescent tubes that light when held in the presentor’s hands. Great stuff. A little noisy. Outside the science center the Tesla Motor Company is showing off their new Tesla car, which is the coolest thing I have ever seen. Zippy little thing, absolutely quiet, and going from zero to 60 faster than a Porsche. I want one. It will help me get out of town fast.
July 26, 2010– My plot is looming. We have a bunch of scenes but I’m not sure how they go together. That’s OK, this happens in Hamlet too. At the beginning of that play a man sees a ghost; at the end he dies. A lot happens in between, but I offer another special prize to anyone who can tell me the exact order of all the significant events in Hamlet. It can’t be done by anyone not preparing for their Ph.D. oral examinations in Elizabethan Drama. It can’t be done by half of them either.
3 August, 2010– First reading of the first forty pages of script, eagerly awaited by the cast. A complete disaster. One of the dullest, most inert play readings I have ever heard. A long silence follows the last line. I am the first to speak: “I hated that,” I say, not putting too fine a point on it. What follows is one of the most intense and productive ensemble discussions I’ve ever participated in. Everyone has something to say, and what they say is wonderful. I feel blasted but quickened, as if hit by lightning.
4 August, 2010– After last night, it seemed a good idea to produce a real outline of our play’s action. Amazing to think of this. So I did. Not a bad practice—I think I will recommend it if I ever teach playwriting.
16 August, 2010– A month before opening and we are working much more intensely now. Oscillating at a higher frequency, as Telsa might have said. Our working method: I propose some dialogue, the actors read it, and then improvise the scene well beyond what I have written—and always with more interesting results, and much better dialogue than what I began with. I am writing something every day, rehearsing what we’ve fashioned and then refashioning it after I’ve learned more about it. Tesla thought that one day we would be able to project what we saw, so that everyone could literally see exactly what we were thinking. Another of his wild ideas—which is realized all the time in the theater.
27 August, 2010– Roy Ballard installs the basic set platform, an odd sort of parallelogram with a big hole in it. Our play is about a young man digging a hole in his basement. Now we have a basement, and we have a hole. We’re good to go.
29 August, 2010– First stumble through of the last scenes of the play. I’m holding my breath. Joe looks at home in his hole. Ludmila is the best and worst mom in the world. Margaret might be a yurei, a Japanese ghost. Bob is trying to help, not with much success. And Michael is wearing a black frock coat, black and white shoes. I look up from my script and suddenly see a very elegant man looking far out into space on a Colorado summer night in 1899. I am seeing the ghost of Nikola Tesla.
31 August, 2010– Tonight we have the first work through on stage of the entire script—I just wrote a draft of the ending yesterday. Why hasn’t Tom emailed me? Internet down, probably. We may have to push on without him since we open in about two weeks. What will our play be like? I still don’t know. I expect we will find out together. I can say this: It will be lively. It might be a little strange. Very likely it will be far greater than Hamlet and King Lear, with better lightning. Or possibly not. Down in the basement we’re working on a magnifying transmitter. It may not work perfectly, but we will crank it up. Then, like Tesla’s Colorado Springs Laboratory, it will go away and leave not a trace behind. Would it not have been a fine thing on a July night in 1899 to look east of town and see streamers of lightning 130 feet long zapping out from the copper ball Tesla raised on a pole high over his makeshift barn? Would it not have been astonishing to see the land around glow with a blue light? Hie thee to our basement and watch us dig ourselves a hole. Watch us transmit. Watch us oscillate. Behold, here cometh the ghost of Nikola Tesla. Tom Stoppard, eat your heart out!