How Do You Write a Play that Wants to be a Party?

Brontë Sister House Party playwright, Courtney Bailey, on the process of writing a play that wants to be a party:

Learn more about Courtney and subscribe to her newsletter.

Writing this play has felt like writing my way out of the pandemic. I wanted to write a play that was joyful and weird, but that still had something to say about what happens when we feel like our lives are nothing but a purgatorial time-loop of repetition. The funny thing about this pandemic is that all the “releases” we’ve hoped for are often met with some sort of new upheaval: the slowness of vaccine accessibility, the Delta and Omicron variants, breakthrough cases, etc. and etc.

LaWanda Jackson as Kate Bush

Writing a play is different than any other medium (like an essay or short story or poem or novel). At their best, I think plays are naturally imperfect, easily changeable, and dependent upon your willingness to lean into poetic faith. When I used to teach Shakespeare, one of my favorite things to tell students was that drama was considered the lowest literary form during the Renaissance. (Continuing to think about it in this way helps me take myself less seriously when I’m writing a play, which usually makes the writing better.)

Rachel Tibbetts as Emily Brontë

The key difference with dramatic writing is poetic faith—the willing suspension of disbelief—that accompanies the writing of a play: when you write a play, you write with the understanding that the audience will accept pretty much whatever you say or create, simply because it’s a play.

In other words, you have free reign to make whatever the hell you want.

You can do just about anything in a play, and an audience will go along with you in ways that they never would in a film. You say that you’re under the earth’s surface, and so you are. You say that you’re in a house party time loop, and so you are. Etc. and etc.

People just believe you in the theatre. And, good lord, that power is intoxicating.

When you write a play, you get to experience what it’s like to speak a world into existence and basically have no one question its logic, realness, or justification for existence. People have plenty of opinions later on, but, even still, they nonetheless have an overwhelming tendency to just believe you, even if they hate the play.

Cassidy Flynn as Anne Brontë

In other words, writing a play allows you to access a wild dose of power that lets you see how you would order the world if left to your own devices. There’s this great analogy by the drama scholar Elinor Fuchs, who describes experiencing a play as “a visit to a small planet.” As small planets, plays have their own atmospheres, their own civilizations, and their own global dramas.

Her first line in the article is this: “We must make the assumption that in the world of the play there are no accidents.”

Maggie Conroy as Charlotte Brontë

There are no accidents. Everything is significant. You can half-ass your way through writing the play and it doesn’t matter because everything is significant.

If you are the playwright, to me this means that you have indomitable power. There are no accidents because what you say is holy writ. This means—and I must reiterate this point—that you can truly do whatever the hell you want. It’s your fucking planet.

This is so liberating to me. (My planet, my rules, bitches.) It makes playwriting my most favorite medium for writing because the freedom to planet-build literally has no bounds.

Maybe what I’m trying to say is that writing a play can make you feel like a planetary megalomaniac? And maybe sometimes that can be a good thing?

After all, it’s only a play.

Joel Moses as Branwell Brontë

Brontë Sister House Party, showed me some really surprising things about myself and my writing process—unlike any other play I’ve written before. I made this planet in my own image, crystalized in the thick of self-isolated pandemic days, and it feels closer to home than anything I’ve written in a long, long time.

Bess Moynihan as Cathy Earnshaw

With this play, I began with “the planetary conditions” before anything else followed like characters, relationships, conflicts, etc. I knew that I wanted to write a play about characters stuck in a house party time loop (haha, pandemic), and everything else would come after. This turned out to be the best way to make progress on Brontë Sister House Party: begin with the given circumstances and then populate the play with personalities.

What I didn’t anticipate was that I would populate this play with three different versions of my own personality, loosely tied to the three Brontë sisters themselves—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. 

I wrote this play over a long period of time: eight months, to be exact. I’ve never spent that long writing a play. Usually, I spend a few weeks in a fever dream, and on the other side of it, I have a play. But I took my time with this play, in part because I was writing it in conjunction with a fellowship that had regular meetings spread out over several months.

Writing Brontë Sister House Party has been its own fun-loving crucible, as has every play I’ve ever written.

Vicky Chen as Helen Burns

The relief of writing plays? The crucible is ephemeral, and if it runs more than two hours, then you get to cut out the boring bits.

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