Natalie Symons2018-05-04T11:27:36+00:00

I Write to Feel Right

I Write to Feel Right

I’ve been an actor most of my life. It wasn’t until later in life that I started writing fiction and plays. Whether I’m on stage telling someone else’s story or at my desk writing my own, I’m happiest when I’m story-telling. Or rather, I feel most myself when I’m part of a made-up story.

Odd right?

Because that’s when I’m furthest from myself – living in, sometimes lost in the make believe worlds of my characters. Maybe it’s my escape. Or my coping mechanism. Or my attempt to heal and forgive and be at peace in a world that often makes me sad.

I don’t work as an actress much anymore. Partly, because someone has to grant me permission to act. In other words someone has to cast me. And life is short, I don’t have time to wait around to do what I love – tell stories.  But I can always write!

So I do. I write often. And when I haven’t written for a full 24 hours I start to get anxious, antsy, something doesn’t feel right. So I write fiction. I write to get my head straight. I write to make sense of the world – the real world. I write to drown out the noise.

I write to feel right.


Leap of Faith

Leap of Faith

About a year and half ago I was having coffee with Daniel Kelly, the director of my new play that was set to world-premiere at Urbanite in Sarasota. We started talking about the commitment that new work takes from actors and designers vs. the commitment of doing tried and true plays. There is an enormous leap of faith that is required to invest in new work.  That is not to say that this doesn’t happen when working on already-produced plays. But new work requires belief in the unknown.

Let’s look for a moment at a play that has had one or more productions – which are what make up the seasons of most theatres. That play has a track record, a reference point. To use the analogy of an explorer – think of plays that have had one or more productions as terrain that has been explored and therefore it is safe, or rather safer territory.

However, new plays are essentially new frontiers of uncharted, unexplored, undeveloped land.

Given the amount of money and resources that a theatre must invest in a production it’s easy to see why artistic directors are cautious about committing to new work. There is a financial risk for putting a new play in a season.

But beyond this there is the time and energy investment that goes into developing new work. Unless the play has had extensive workshop development, the first production is where the playwright works out the kinks and figures out the timing. Films are polished and shaped in the editing room. Plays are polished and shaped in the first production.

Next week I start developing my newest play at American Stage. So to all of my collaborators past and near future: thank you for your fearless commitment to new work. Thank you for your leap of faith.


The Agony of the Untold Story

The Agony of the Untold Story

Maya Angelou said: “There is no greater agony than bearing the untold story inside you.”

For me, the reason I write is because of that agony that Maya Angelou spoke of.  That torment of “bearing the untold story” is so undeniable that I have no choice but to write. Otherwise I’d give up.

I can’t tell you the amount of times that those voices get in my writer head telling me: “This is terrible.” “I’m no good.” “No one will like this.” “I’m unworthy.” “Don’t quit your day job.” “This is a waste of time.”

And then there’s all the times that I’ve felt the sting of being told been told NO. The times my stories have been rejected. That is the reality for a writer. And if I lived in that reality I would have given up on writing years ago.

I believe that in order to continue to write there is probably something fueling most writers that squelches the thoughts of “this is terrible writing, I’m no good, who am I fooling.”  There must be something greater than us, that is undeniable. That is as Maya Angelou said “agonizing.”


Don’t say it.

Don’t say it.

Something I struggle with when crafting a play is what’s not said. I’m not talking about the themes and ideas underpinning the play, but rather what don’t the characters say – that is often just as important to the story as what is actually spoken in the dialogue.

Novelists have the luxury of getting into the heads of their characters (this is the big reason why I love writing the narrative of a novel). As a playwright we tell our audience everything about the character through what the character says– and what other characters say about them.

But just as in life, the silences in the theatre also inform us. This is obviously the job of actors and directors, but still it’s the playwright’s job to infuse the script with what’s not said.

It’s what’s not said that often takes me the longest to tackle when writing drafts of a script. I’ve sometimes made the mistake of saying too much and not trusting the audience to get it on their own. The result is something heavy handed or too on-the-nose. And I’ve also sometimes not said enough, thinking the audience will get it and then they don’t get it.

For instance in The Buffalo Kings there is a closeted gay character that comes to Christmas dinner. I wanted the audience to know he was gay without ever saying it. Director Eric Davis and actor Chris Crawford, who played Pete, helped me with this in rehearsal. Chris was beautifully nuanced in the play but my writing in that moment was just a little bit off. As it happened some audiences got it and some missed it. But damn it, I wanted them all to get it! So in the post-production draft of the script I added a line that acknowledges that Pete is gay.

In writing my new piece, I tried different variations of scenes to say things without actually saying it. I won’t know until I hear it in readings if it works. But I sure do love trying to solve the puzzle of what to say and what not say every time I sit down to write a play. 


Does It Linger?

Does It Linger?

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Chautauqua Theatre Company’s production of George Brant’s new play Into The Breeches. It’s a female-driven backstage comedy, so my guess is it will get a lot of mileage regionally, as comedies – especially the ones with women in the driver’s seat – are a rarity in the theatre.

In the play, which is about the production of a play, one character asks another if the play “lingers”. I love this. You see for me, if I’m not thinking about the play the next day, or more specifically the characters in the play, then it probably wasn’t very good. And if the play is really good then I’m thinking about the characters a week later, two months later.

I know I touched on this in an earlier post, but if it doesn’t “linger” then it wasn’t an effective play. Playwright Taylor Mac says: “All plays are flawed except the extremely boring ones.” For me, flaws don’t matter – it’s if it lingers, if it’s still with me days, weeks, even years later – that’s what matters.

And if I ask myself this one question: I wonder what happens next to those characters? If I ask myself that question, then the playwright did her job. For that is the mark of good story telling.


“Oh my God! I wrote a hit play!”

Oh my God! I wrote a hit play!

…yells Max Fischer in the movie Rushmore. 

It’s my favorite of Wes Anderson’s films (and I love them all). And that particular scene is a classic. Anyway my point is: I wrote a play, I wrote four plays! And none of them are hits.

Lark Eden has had multiple productions but the other two were one-hit wonders, or rather one-production wonders. The Buffalo Kings was pretty successful when freeFall produced it, but after it closed I never did much – or anything for that matter – to get the script out there in the world. Naming True, both the writing of and the world premier of, was a learning experience. I’ll just say this: two-handers (two character plays) are a master-class in playwriting – or any narrative writing for that matter.

Now, as of a week ago, I have a draft of my newest play, titled The People Downstairs. It’s a father-daughter drama that also takes place in my hometown of Buffalo. American Stage is partnering with me in the 2018/19 season to develop it. I look forward to the collaborative process. Collaboration is a delicate art form, as it takes a thick skin and sensitive insight to work with other artists to breathe life into your story.

I’m aware that these posts have had rather little to do with my process as a playwright. I don’t have much to say about it I’m afraid. I just write. I write plays.

And someday just maybe I’ll write a hit play.


Writers write… And read.

Writers Write.

You can’t be a writer unless you write. Sounds pretty obvious I know, but writing is a skill – it takes practice. It’s no different than learning to play the piano or learning to figure skate. I think one of the biggest myths about writing is that you need to feel “inspired” to do it. There have been more times than I’d like to admit that I’ve felt anything but “inspired” to write – when there were at least twenty-six other things I need to get done or would rather be doing – when the thought of writing even five words felt daunting. But once I forced myself to sit down at my desk, open the laptop and dig into the script or the manuscript it has, in most instances, led to productive writing. A novelist I know calls it butt in seat. So to all of you uninspired writers out there: put your butt in that seat and write!

Writers Read.

You can’t write unless you read. Or rather, you can’t write well unless you read. There are no exceptions to this rule. Writers read. This is how we find inspiration, how we learn craft, how we learn to navigate the terrain of story telling and how to paint pictures with language. So my advice, for what it’s worth, is read. Read anything that interests you. Don’t worry about the genre or the literary merit, just read!


Can you write comedy without offending someone?

Can you write comedy without offending someone?

Last week I sent a draft of my new play to a friend, a fellow theatre artist. I told him that I’ve never censored myself as much as I did while writing this play because I was afraid that I’d offend audiences.

This is never a good thing for any writer to be ‘afraid’ of anything – or to suppress their voice. To be frank, I’ve never been in this territory before. I’ve always written freely and openly without much worry or even care about how an audience or reader would respond to the play.

But how do we write comedy without offending someone in this politically divided country where there is so much outrage? Where awareness and sensitivity regarding sex, race, gender and religion are so heightened that our defenses are up and our skins have never been thinner.

Are the bumbling antics of Michael Scott from The Office still funny in the wake of the #MeToo movement? Is the bigoted curmudgeon Archie Bunker from All In The Family still funny today?

There is no doubt that these characters would be written differently if they were written today – but would they be written with as much honesty? My guess is no.

In the theatre much of the writing has become so careful, so politically correct that I’ve become a bit bored by it – or rather unsurprised by it. In order for writing to be alive I think it should be messy, a little reckless and maybe even off-putting at times.

To worry about offending audiences is a truth killer. We can’t tell stories in the theatre if we write casts of characters that only say what people deem kind and sensitive.

My friend’s advice to me: stop censoring yourself and tell the story you want to tell. If the jokes offend people – good! That means it’s funny.


Comedy and Tragedy – Is There a Difference?

Comedy and Tragedy – Is There a Difference?

My plays, I believe, straddle comedy and pathos. I genuinely feel that life is sad and mostly disappointing. My worldview is, and has been, for as long as I can remember, on the dark side. Even as a kid I was contemplating the meaning of life and giving eulogies at the funerals I had for the dead butterflies I found in the yard. While as an adult I’ve usually held onto hope as a matter of survival, I’m most certainly not optimistic about life – be it my own personal happiness, mankind, the environment, or the world at large.

I know that sounds grim. But before you dismiss me as a bitter curmudgeon – or jump to the conclusion that I should cheer up and look at the bright side – let me tell you that I have a great sense of humor. Truly. I love to laugh. I laugh often and I laugh hard. I quite adamantly believe that in order to survive we must laugh. Or drink heavily – that works too. But laughing is better for you. Unless we know how to laugh at ourselves and our human predicament then, at least for me, it’s hard to make it through this life without sticking my head in an oven.

Life is absurd. There is no arguing otherwise. Even the most optimistic, well adjust among us knows that life is ludicrous and illogical.

There is a moment in my play The Buffalo Kings where a man with Alzheimer’s mistakes cat food for cereal. The moment comes in the midst of some onstage mayhem where, night after night, freeFall audiences were laughing. When, in the confusion, Harold takes a hand full of cat food and consumes it, the laughing crescendoed – until the audience realized it wasn’t funny. It was tragic. Or was it both?

Which brings me to this: when tragic situations bestride comedy there comes the inevitable audience member who is offended.

Tune in next week when I’ll ask the question how do we write comedy in this hyper politically-correct climate. Until then I wish this blogging format allowed for me to hear some of your thoughts on the often blurry line between comedy and tragedy.



Walk Away

Walk Away

I haven’t posted in a few weeks. I’ve been holed up with my new script. But last night after nearly a year, I have my first truly readable draft. It’s always a good feeling to have that readable draft (which is not the first draft – at least not for me). Feeling both full and empty – energized and exhausted, I sent it out to three readers, closed the laptop and had a glass of wine!

While this particular play is far from complete (it’s only just the beginning – it will go into development at American Stage in the fall) I’m purposely taking time away from the piece in order to have a clear perspective when I come back to it. In an ideal world I’d take months away – years! Of course writing by these rules isn’t the best laid plan if you have a deadline. But I believe that creating distance between the writer and the writing informs the finished work. In fact it’s been essential for me as a playwright and novelist. The reason is simple – I forget what I wrote.

We’ve all heard writers talk about when they get too close to their work, so when it comes time to put on their editor’s hat they can’t see the piece with any kind of objectivity. But if we step back – way back – it can feel like someone else wrote it. When I take time away I have the chance to be surprised by the story when I come back to refine, revise and polish the play.

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