I was thirty years old and living in LA. I was part of a theater company where we could propose a show we’d like to make happen. I had been acting for half my life but I had always played roles I had been handed. I felt ready to make something for myself. To say my own words.
Around that time, I had worn a robe and crown to a benefit for that same theater company and someone remarked that I looked like The Statue of Liberty. Ha! I got the idea to make a play about The Statue of Liberty, starring me, as the Statue.
I asked my friend Bridget to direct. She was primarily a playwright so, with her direction, she was also giving me a master class in writing. I remember I would come to rehearsal and start telling her all the things I wanted the play to do, to contain and convey and Bridget would always reply, very positively, “Great! Go home and write that.”
I was always slightly irritated because I wanted to talk about those things—but talking is different than writing. In talking, words float up and away, lost to the wind. Writing makes our words real, powerful. If words can become solid, it is by writing them down.
Liberty!—the show—had many iterations: workshop productions, a new play festival, a full production at Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica. Fred Cassidy played music for the show and Julie Rowland was the Stage Manager.
Over the course of developing the script, two primary characters emerged: The Statue of Liberty, who was on the run, lost in America, in search of freedom; and a boy, named Freedom, who dreamed of becoming The Statue of Liberty when he grew up. The play became a bawdy, raucous, theatrical investigation into the ideals of Liberty, and the reality of freedom. With patriotic songs!
It’s funny, when you announce that you’re into something, people start sending you things. I know people who may have said at some point, “Oh, I like frogs,” and then for the rest of their life, they receive frogs for their birthday. Or Christmas. Or, because I just saw this and thought of you.
I got bombarded with Statues of Liberty—magnets, nightlights, miniatures—you name it, I received it. I liked these gifts—and during that period in my life, I learned a ton about the Statue. What was harder to study, and what has continued to this day to be central to my life’s work, is how to know Freedom. What are Freedom’s souvenirs? I’m sure they differ for each of us. Mine might be a photo of me in drag or the tunic I wore in my wedding to Bobby.
As Americans, we like to think we have a corner on the Freedom market and it is fundamental to our country’s nature. Movement, expansion, leaving one place to arrive at another, sometimes with no idea what that other place will be.
During my many road trips around the country, I’ve stayed in so many motels run by foreign-born people: motels in the flat stretches Oklahoma or in the wilds of Western Pennsylvania—and as they check me in,, I can smell the food of their country coming from the kitchen of their private quarters, and I always think, how in hell did you end up here? And is this freedom for you?
How in hell did we end up here?
I sometimes compare my life to that of the villager I would have been in some random ancient time and place, how I would live, what I would do for work—I like to imagine myself as the shaman, he who brings visions and tells stories to the villagers wearing ceremonial robes and headdress, but I might just as easily be the janitor or the guy who cleans up after meals.
About ten years ago, I spent a week at a monastery in upstate, NY. I was feeling sort of overwhelmed and strung out and the idea of simplicity and quiet appealed to me. My favorite part of the experience was the bell that would ring at 5am, inviting us to rise in silence and make our way to the temple where we would meditate for an hour. I’m no monastic, I’d be like Maria in the Sound of Music: a problem. But I felt deeply grateful for those mornings.
One detail about my time at the monastery, at meal time, the monks always go to go to the buffet line first, only after they had all gone could the nuns go up—even in a society dedicated to the pursuit of freedom, they were trapped by rules from the past.
In my writing workshops, I encourage folks to make as many decisions as they can, not to keep them all but to burn through them—to arrive at a more distilled place, clearer about what they’re making, what they want to say.
Also in those workshops, people will say, “I want the play I’m writing to have a musical number!” Or,”I really want my book to convey a feeling of mystery.” Or, “I want my story to be really funny.” And I say what Bridget said to me so many times, years ago—“Great! Go home and write that.”
Art making--plays, songs, poems, stories, collage, books—whatever freedom I have gained has come from the act of creating. So here we are, all of us, at home—and I mean this metaphorically, but for those of you who write, by all means: let’s start writing.