When the Block Becomes a Break, and the Break Becomes an End

A playwright’s journal of The Sea Concerto by August Schulenburg. Living Tickets for the play are here.

“Here’s what I’m looking for: the exact moment when the man who could make this music—
(She presses stop.)
Becomes the man who turns music off when he walks into a room.”

The Sea Concerto is about many things: the mystery of families, the greed of the Reagan era, the unreliability of memory, mixed race identity, the ritual of theatre, the poison of the unspoken lie, and yeah, the sea.

But it is also about the loss of voice, and the legacy of the loss of voice. Artists may feel this loss most keenly, but all of us can lose it, and when we do, the longer we wait to reclaim it, the harder it becomes.

What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” -Audre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Action 

There are many tyrannies in The Sea Concerto, and because the characters are wealthy, they have vested interest in maintaining those tyrannies, even at the greater cost of their souls. There are the familiar tyrannies of white supremacy, patriarchy, heteronormativity, and capitalism that work like gravity on the characters, rarely acknowledged yet fundamentally warping their realities.

Then there are the more intimate tyrannies of family: the child rejected and the child preferred; the jealousies too dangerous to say out loud; the expectations of legacies; the misdirected passions; all the little betrayals of our promises to care for each other.

Finally, and most significantly for this post, there is the personal tyrant that lives in every artist, determined to stop our work.

I daydreamed on the train today
That Mercena was grown and she saw me
Surrounded by all these plays I’ve made
Like an old man surrounded by miniature trains
On handmade tracks pulling through miniature towns
To painted stations. He points things out, the old man,
All the careful details of these little worlds
And then falls silent. Because what else can he say?
The little trains tug on to make their tiny music.

I wrote that unnamed poem on December 18, 2014, after the birth of my daughter Mercena. The Sea Concerto was written in the months before. The anxiety of becoming and then being a parent who is also an artist (but not a good one, says the tyrant voice) is at the heart of both play and poem, and in the years since, my life. I have only written two plays since she was born, and none since her first year.

What silence is this?

What tyrannies have I swallowed and attempted to make my own?

I wrote The Sea Concerto as a child; now as we stage the play, I experience it as a parent. In the play, Lynnie, a poet, returns home to understand why her father, a noted jazz musician, stopped playing. She returns for him but also for herself, as she finds herself unable to write. What silences has she inherited from him? What tyrannies? Did he sicken and die of them? Will she?

When I wrote the play, I did so through through Lynnie’s eyes. Now, I hear it through her father’s ears. Eric’s decision to give up his music, to focus on being present and making money for his family, and what is gained and lost in that choice; in hearing the play now, these questions resonate as much for me now as Lynnie’s.

Because at a certain point, a creative block becomes a break, and then, sometimes before you know it, the break becomes an end.

We didn’t expect to produce The Sea Concerto. We came to it late in our planning process, after the play we’d expected to do fell through. But, just as Lynnie receives an unexpected letter calling her home at the moment when her voice seemed lost forever, so too this production comes to me now, an unexpected return to playwriting after years of silence.

In our design meetings, we’ve talked about the props of the play–relics of Lynnie’s memory–being snatched from the air or washed up by the ocean or dug up from the sand. (This is also a play of the elements, and what happens to people who spend most of their time on the edge of the ocean and sky.) I said then it was a play about digging up buried things, but as our process has progressed, we’ve realized it’s also a play of things washing up. Waves can wash up things that seemed lost forever and leave them at your feet, made strange with their sea change but still, for better or worse, yours.

There are tyrannies that we swallow and attempt to make our own. We will sicken and what is best in us will die from them. But sometimes, there are also graces that wash up unexpectedly and remind us who we really are.

Maybe that’s another thing this play is about. Please come see it and tell me what you think.


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