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Even though I’ve been wanting to read If I Stay for a long time, I’ll admit that I almost didn’t buy it after seeing a blurb on the front cover that read “Will appeal to fans of Stephenie Meyer’s TWILIGHT.” And though, according to the back of the book, If I Stay has been compared to Twilight a lot, I am happy to say that I see no resemblance.
If I Stay, by Gayle Forman, is a refreshingly real book. Everything about it- the story, the main character’s voice, her musings, and the emotions she goes through- are believable and so well-written that you feel them in your gut.
The main character, Mia, is a seventeen year-old who comes from a loving family. She’s an exceptionally talented cellist, waiting for an almost certain acceptance to Juilliard, and she has a great best friend and an amazing boyfriend whose own musical talents have helped his band achieve national fame. Then, one day, that’s all taken away when Mia and her family cheerfully head off to visit some friends on a snowy morning and are hit by a truck. Her parents are killed instantly, and Mia and her seven year-old brother Teddy are rushed to the hospital where both lives hang in the balance. The story is told by a Mia living outside her unconscious body, and she observes everything that is happening to and around her as a semi-specter. In this state, she is able to watch the world around her and consider what life will be like if she decides to hang on, to regain consciousness and heal as best she can in a world with no parents and possibly no little brother and a romantic relationship that’s already on the rocks. She is in charge of the choice, and wouldn’t it be easier just to let go?
This is one of those books that had me crying on the subway and not caring because there was no way the tears would stop even if I did. Forman has a great sense of pace and reveal; the scene where the accident happens is perfectly done. Many people, and therefore many storytellers, see it as intensely tragic when a person loses someone and regrets that the last words that they exchanged were in anger. Forman takes the opposite tact- Mia and her family are incredibly happy and loving, and that makes the heartbreak all that much worse when specter-Mia observes her dead parents on the side of the road. The morning of the accident, the family is excited that a snow day has been declared for both school and work even though there’s barely a dusting on the ground. Every member of the family has a part in the funny, light banter. As they get ready to leave, Mia takes in her father’s sports coat and wingtipped shoes. “Dressed for the snow, I see,” she teases. Her father answers, “I’m like the post office. Neither sleep nor rain nor half an inch of snow will compel me to dress like a lumberjack.”
It’s moments like these that the reader remembers as they watch Mia find her parents after the accident: I see Dad first. Even from several feet away, I can make out the protrusion of the pipe in his jacket pocket. “Dad,”I call, but as I walk toward him, the pavement grows slick and there are gray chunks of what looks like cauliflower. I know what I’m seeing but it somehow does not immediately connect back to my father… Pieces of my father’s brain are on the asphalt. But his pipe is in his left breast pocket. I find Mom next. There’s almost no blood on her, but her lips are already blue and the whites of her eyes are completely red, like a ghoul from a low-budget monster movie. She seems totally unreal.
Occasionally, reading this book made me so sad that I actually felt sick. It’s one thing to read a book about a girl who wakes up after an accident to discover that she’s the only one in her family left, but to watch Mia’s family come to visit her, to observe her boyfriend too scared to look at her lying in her hospital bed, her best friend’s incredible support and bravery, and how Mia vacillates between wanting to stay and feel things, and knowing that she can’t stay because it means she will feel things… these are all things that hopefully none of us will ever have to go through ourselves.
Forman makes these moments even more poignant by lacing them with flashbacks. While the bad memories of fights with her boyfriend, confusion about moving three thousand miles away for college, and Mia’s questions of her own talents are far outweighed by the good memories of her charmed life, it’s easy to see why it might be the simpler choice for Mia to let herself die. If she had such a great life before the accident, the life afterward is going to be hell.
The flashbacks are very telling of what Mia is thinking and comparing at any given point in the book, and my favorite flashback was one that features Mia and her boyfriend Adam. At the point of the flashback, Mia and Adam’s relationship has been very reserved, and Mia shocks both Adam and herself a few pages before by requesting that they take their intimacy further. This is where most teen books would cut to some frenzied removing of clothing and awkward sex, but Forman writes a far more sensual scene. Both characters remain clothed as Adam lays his head in Mia’s lap and says, “I want you to play me like a cello.” What begins with joking tweaks of his ears as if they were string pegs soon transforms into contact as intimate as sex, which continues when they switch places with Adam “playing” Mia as his beloved guitar. Forman chooses her words carefully, and the scene is much more meaningful and powerful than an awkward sex scene would have been.
The most standout aspect of the book is Mia’s voice. While YA authors have certainly gotten better at writing teenagers when the authors themselves are much older, there’s still the occasionally author that annoys me by watching teen sitcoms from decades past and thinking that weaving the kids’ syntax into their work will make them “hip.” Instead, it usually alienates actual teen readers and has caused me to close a book or two for good. Forman doesn’t fall into this trap. Mia’s voice is believable and completely her own. She speaks well, but still swears casually and throws in the occasional “like.” There are other characters whose voices are not quite as clear, but Forman has Mia down pat.
Mia’s reasonings of why she should live or die are very moving. Many times, her considerations are not for herself but for her family and friends. She thinks of how miserable her grandparents will be if she dies too, having just lost their son and daughter-in-law, but when she thinks of her best friend Kim, Mia thinks that maybe Kim will be strong enough to move on: Losing me will hurt; it will be the kind of pain that won’t feel real at first, and when it does, it will take her breath away. And the rest of her senior year will probably suck, what with her getting all that cloying your-best-friend’s-dead sympathy that will drive her so crazy […] But she’ll deal. She’ll move on. She’ll leave Oregon. She’ll go to college. She’ll make new friends. She’ll fall in love. She’ll become a photographer […] And I bet she’ll be a stronger person because of what she’s lost today. I have a feeling that once you live through something like this, you become a little bit invincible.
The one and only thing that bothered me about the book was that the present-day situation of Mia’s life hanging in the balance as she made her decision was supposed to be a twenty-four hour period. However, the book is long and with all of the flashbacks, it felt like Mia’s decision lasted a week at the least. Her experience being only a day didn’t ruin the story in any way, but each time I returned to a present day chapter and was given the time, I had to make a note that it was still the same day, even if it felt like two had gone by.
If I Stay is an incredibly moving and smart book. It’s tough to read, but that speaks for its merit and accuracy. I was pleased to discover that there is a sequel called Where She Went, and you bet I’m going to be buying that as soon as I am not so poor.
[The social worker] tells my grandparents that I am in “grave” condition. I’m not entirely sure what that means- grave. On TV, patients are always critical, or stable. Grave sounds bad. Grave is where you go when things don’t work out.
I don’t want to be in this suspended state where I can see what’s happening, where I’m aware of what I’m feeling without being able to actually feel it. I cannot scream until my throat hurts or break a window with my fist until my hand bleeds, or pull my hair out in clumps until the pain in my scalp overcomes the one in my heart.
I remember watching it all and getting that tickling in my chest and thinking to myself: This is what happiness feels like.
If you asked Stuart or me to name a few things I like in a story/play/movie, etc., you might be surprised that one of the first things we both list is “creepy.” I seriously like creepy stuff. When something I read makes me skin crawl in a good way, I read it over and over and over.
The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh, is that kind of play. Dark, skin-crawley goodness that keeps making you go, “What? Wait, WHAT?!” and reading back over passages to make sure you read it correctly. Oh, you did. It’s that creepy. The back cover of my copy compares McDonagh’s writing to that of Kafka, the Brothers Grimm, and Stoppard (who, if you’ll remember, we reviewed on this very blog.)
The play is about a writer, Katurian, who has been brought into a police station for interrogation. Katurian is a composer of short stories, and very disturbing ones at that, and someone has been bringing those stories to life in vivid, gruesome detail. The police believe it is Katurian himself- after all, someone who writes such sick stories must have that sickness living inside him. They’re determined to get a confession out of him before they execute him in a few hours (because no matter what he says, they know he’s guilty), and they’ve got his mentally-challenged brother going through the same treatment in the room next door.
The Pillowman is one of those plays where you think, “Something’s got to give. Things can’t possibly, actually keep going the horrible way that they’re going.” But they can, and McDonagh makes sure they keep going there. He’s a brave writer, one that is focused on telling the story that matters instead of pleasing an audience. Of course, that makes it sound like the play is unsatisfactory. It’s not. What it is, is real. For Katurian, his fate is sealed no matter what he says to the policemen. He will not be saved, and with every page, things get steadily worse for him.
Three of Katurian’s stories were chosen by the murderer for recreation: a young boy whose toes are sliced off, a little girl who chokes on her own blood after swallowing pieces of apple filled with razor blades, and a second young girl who is determined to be like Jesus to the point where her sadistic foster parents nail her to a cross. Even with the creations coming from his mind, Katurian seems a fairly balanced person, despite his shocking childhood. It is revealed a little ways into the play that he and his brother were part of an experiment at the hands of their parents: Katurian was pampered, loved, and given every opportunity while his brother was locked into a single room and tortured daily, to the point where he suffered severe brain damage.
The fascinating thing about The Pillowman is the main question it asks: is Katurian guilty? While the reader/audience knows that he did not kill those children, the murderer took inspiration from Katurian’s stories. Had the stories not existed, perhaps the murderer would not have had the need to reenact them and the entire play would not have happened. However, this same question is asked in the story of the title name. The Pillowman is another story of Katurians, in which a man made entirely of pillows takes it upon himself to go to young children and inform them of the terrible things they’re going to experience later in life. He then assists in their suicide, should they choose to end their lives. He doesn’t enjoy the job, but his reasoning is that he would rather spare a child a lifetime of unhappiness for a single moment of discomfort or fear. It’s a haunting question, but The Pillowman forces you to look it straight in the face as the play goes on.
After reading The Pillowman, I’m desperate to see it onstage. It’s quite wordy, with huge, multi-page monologues of storytelling, and I want to see if that works onstage. In the right hands, it could be captivating. In the wrong ones, or perhaps as a fault of the playwright, it could be terribly boring. There are also parts of the stories and Katurian’s life that are acted out and I would love to see them, too. Variety called it “McDonagh’s least forgiving, bravest play,” and add to that the dash of creepy that pervades the play, and I’m there.
TUPOLSKI: Your surname is Katurian, yes?
TUPOLSKI: See, we’ve got your first name as Katurian.
KATURIAN: My first name is Katurian.
TUPOLSKI: Your name is Katurian Katurian?
KATURIAN: My parents were funny people.
TUPOLSKI: Hm. Middle initial?
KATURIAN: Are you trying to say I shouldn’t write stories with child-killings in them because in the real world, there are child-killings?
TUPOLSKI: We like executing writers. Dimwits we can execute any day. And we do. But, you execute a writer, it sends out a signal, y’know? (Pause) I don’t know what signal it sends out, that’s not really my area, but it sends out a signal.
KATURIAN: They moved house soon after that and though the nightmare sounds had ended, his stories stayed strange and twisted but good, and he was able to thank his parents for the weirdness they’d put him through.
KATURIAN: Did you sign anything?
MICHAL: Huh? You know I can’t sign nothing.
KATURIAN: Then maybe we can still get out of this.
MICHAL: Get out of what?
KATURIAN: Get out of being executed for killing three children, Michal.
MICHAL: Oh, get out of being executed for killing three children. That’d be good.
Rachel’s started a personal blog about her first steps into the real world. You should read it! Read it here!
This play by Steve Waters is another play I wanted to see while in London and sadly didn’t get to. It premiered at the Bush Theatre, a tiny 34-seat space that premieres some of the UK’s top playwrights, as well as supporting new material.
Little Platoons is, above all, about the English school system. It’s almost impossible to explain the way schools work over there briefly, and not all of it is important, so here are the basics*:
-In England, public schools and private schools are the opposite of what they are in America, e.g. an English private school is one that is free and open to the public, and a public school is paid for and the students often board at their place of academia.
-At the age of eleven, students take an exam that will determine whether they will attend grammar school. The internet defines English grammar schools as “one of the remaining fully selective state-funded schools.” The school a child gets into is important- not necessarily a status symbol, but it does mean that if a child is unhappy in the grammar into which s/he was accepted, there are a lot of hoops to jump through to go to a new school.
-Another option for children is an independent school, which is just what it sounds like. Like America’s charter schools, these institutions do not have to follow the National Curriculum, and teachers do not need to have official teaching qualifications.
In the play, Rachel, a school administrator, is trying to get her eleven year old son Sam into grammar school. She herself teaches at an institution that she claims is “a miracle,” but her ex-husband Martin argues that Sam will be excluded there due to being white and middle-class, as most of Rachel’s students are from different countries. Rachel and Martin are recently separated, and Martin proposes that Sam come with him and his girlfriend to the small town of Bichester and attend the local grammar there. Initially, Rachel resists the idea, but when it becomes plain that there are no other options for her son, she gives in.
This incident is the catalyst for Rachel approaching a group of strangers who have been posting flyers around London about a new “free” school in Shepherd’s Bush (an area of London), parent-run, open to all. She sees it as an opportunity for Sam, but her conversation with the school’s creators, Nick, Lara, and Pav, doesn’t go as planned. When they find out Rachel is an educator, they quickly become defensive and she returns the gesture, until finally she breaks down in tears and tells them that she is desperate for a place to send her son. They ask her why she can’t take him at her own school, and when she grudgingly lists her school’s shortcomings, they ask her on a whim to be their head teacher.
Though Rachel does not say yes to this offer right away, the new school trio take her “maybe” as such, running off to get their school approved. This in itself is a large and arduous process, and is personified in Little Platoons by a young professional named Polly. Polly is the play’s version of The Man, despite being young and pretty, and though she understands how hard the new school group is working, she refuses to bend the rules for them.
The main issue that the group finds is that however adamant they are about being like Rachel’s old school, they can’t really help it. Once their school is approved, their music-centered curriculum proves surprisingly popular: they can accept a hundred students and get eight hundred applications. In order to be fair, they have to fall into the trap of usual grammar school selectivity, choosing a fraction of the applicants and rejecting all the others. And the creation of the school is not the only stress- Rachel and her new collaborators also deal with relationship and family problems, racial issues, and trying to stay true to themselves throughout all of it.
The thing I most enjoyed about reading this play was the way it was written. The dialogue is extremely realistic: “[Youth] is such a subjective thing, isn’t it? Yes, yes you are, yes you really are, I am the horse’s mouth. Sit, sit down, sit down. As I say, I have the free school, er, brief, and wow- we are so delighted, excited, that so many of you, an all over the country, too, so many fabulous applications, and you guys are way ahead of the game, I mean terrifically well done, really impressive good stuff. Okay.” Each person has their own way of speaking, and they’re all very, very British. Even having lived there for a short time, there were some references that I didn’t understand, and I feel that the script might alienate unfamiliar readers with mentions of Primark, TK Maxx, Tesco, The X Factor, A-levels, and GCSEs.
Occasionally while reading this, I felt that the arguments got too long. There are also four teenagers from Rachel’s old school that are onstage for ten minutes, and while I appreciated hearing their style of speaking, I didn’t understand what more they brought to the play.
Little Platoons is a play I’d very much like to see. It’s well-written and interesting and it gets to the hearts of the characters, as all good plays do.
*Apologies to any British citizen who is looking at my explanations and seeing all the errors; this was the best I could do.
MARTIN: So. Here’s the situation. They can fit him in next term.
RACHEL: Oh. Great. What luck.
MARTIN: Of course, term doesn’t start til mid-September-
RACHEL: Well, that’s public schools. Work-shy masters with scholarly hobbies. Mid you, they must be itching to get back into full-time pederasty.
MARTIN: You know this, this is… below you.
RACHEL: Oh, there is no ‘below me,’ Martin. Believe me, I’ve checked. By the way, is that as stud in your ear?
NICK: One day soon, Michael, every child in this country will once again know who Miss Havisham is, how to locate Belgium on a map, and the historical impact of Bismarck.
Last night, over two years of work was presented to an audience. After five hours of rehearsal over two days, my thesis play was performed. It was truly incredible.
Despite being a writer, I am lost for words. It was just unbelievable. I was ridiculously nervous. The reading took place in the fancy dining room in the castle on campus. I chose a seat in the most private corner I could find, but couldn’t sit down. All day, I was exhausted and running around gathering refreshments, creating playlists (that I later forgot at home), orchestrating the dropping off of music stands, and folding programs. Everyone kept saying, “Are you excited?!” and I would mumble, “Uh, yeah, sure,” eyes still fixed on my task.
I miss my second class of the day to attend the second rehearsal. The director was stopping scenes here and there to give some instruction, and for the most part, we were completely on the same page with what each scene and character needed. Also, the actors were fantastic. They ranged in age from eighteen to twenty-eight, and they were all wonderful at all of their parts (each actor played at least two characters, and in some cases, three.) They all had different voices and accents for whomever they were playing at the moment, and even sitting in a small conference room, they were performing as though for a crowd. It was great, and it was amazing to have people treating my work like it was a real play. All of the people involved were volunteers, but that didn’t mean they were any less enthusiastic and I just watched in gratitude as they read my words with their incredible skill.
At eight, we headed over to the dining room to set up. My parents were there already with some extra refreshments, as well as thank-you trinkets for my cast and director. People started coming in and I started getting nervous. I only knew some of them; others were the parents or friends or significant others of my cast.
At 8:35, my thesis professor came to the front of the room and introduced the piece (I had asked not to.) And then it began. From the start, the actors were even more amazing than they were in rehearsals. It was so exciting.
The best part were the reactions. People laughed at the parts I had meant to be funny (and some that I suppose were, too) and when it got intense, I could feel people listening. I’ve never had that reaction to my writing, and it was amazing.
Because I’ve heard these words so often, either in my head or read by the actors, I was really paranoid that the play was boring. I was so convinced of this that when intermission was announced at the end of Act I, I was on the verge of tears. But then people started coming up to me and telling me how much they liked it so far. I felt much better as the second act commenced and the audience was responding again. I took a lot of notes- things that worked, things that didn’t, things that could be cut, etc.
When the reading ended, both the cast and I got a big round of applause. Then came the actual worst part for me: since all of these people had come for me, I needed to thank all of them. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to everyone. Those I did get to were quite enthusiastic, though. My friend Lindsay came all the way from my hometown, nearly two hours away, to see the show, and when I went to see her, she exclaimed, “It was so funny!”
I’ve gotten this comment more than once on the script, but it always startles me. While I enjoy writing comedies, and I did write certain scenes to be funny, I never considered my play- in which, at one point, my main character is sent to an insane asylum and is threatened with lobotomy- to be a comedy. But I think what this reading in particular taught me is that both comedy and intense drama can exist in the same work. Funnily enough, I have observed this in other plays, but somehow never considered it for mine. However, I don’t have a problem with it being comedic so long as the drama can exist, as well. I just want people to enjoy my work.
Now, a day after its performance, I’ve gotten great feedback. A few of my classmates have commented on mentioning their wish to do the play at our university, which would be great; my school has done quite a few new pieces since 2007, and having been in one just last semester, I know that these pieces are treated with extreme respect and care. One of my professors- the one who actually gave me the assignment that birthed this project and who is a playwright herself- said that she would give me her feedback if I wanted it. I did, because she is brilliant, and she gave me some awesome comments, both complimentary and constructive.
And here’s another amazing part: as I said good-bye to my director, he hugged me, then smiled and said, “We’re not done.”
I hope not 🙂
On Friday, my first full-length play got its first public reading, and it was one of the most nerve-wracking, coolest experiences of my life.
I’d been nervous about this reading for a long time. Just the thought of it gave me butterflies in my stomach. A week ago, I was on my last day of spring break, sweating to make my self-set deadline of getting the script out to the cast by morning. I finally sent it out at 1:30 and practically collapsed from relief.
But that was just step one. Starting on Wednesday, I ran three separate rehearsals with various members of my cast of thirteen. Also on Wednesday, just after I had finished the a private rehearsal, I got an e-mail from another cast member, telling me she was at home sick and had to drop out of the show. Thankfully, it was easy to re-cast.
Thursday were the big rehearsals. They were the first time I’d heard my play read out loud in over a year, and I was ridiculously nervous. During the first rehearsal, I couldn’t hold anything; pencils and highlighters kept slipping out of my hands and I couldn’t think straight. The nerves ebbed as I listened to some of my actors read the pages. I was really happy with my choices, though one of them, I was thrilled about: my leading actress. I chose her because even though I’d never seen her act, as a freshman, she has a reputation as a great performer. Also, her voice is what I hear in my head when Mary, my main character, speaks. I was not disappointed; she was absolutely perfect for Mary in every way. She was thankfully able to come to both big rehearsals and read with the other actors, all of whom were willing to ask questions and take direction. I was really happy with the cast I’d assembled. Most of them were my friends, actors all, and it was really awesome to hear voices I knew read words I wrote. My friend and roommate played Peter, a role she’s always wanted to play, and it was so fun to see her come alive in the role. It was also amazing to have those words be taken seriously. People weren’t reading them like they were their friends’ words for a project; they read them like they were cast in this show and were at a rehearsal.
During those rehearsals, and especially the second one, I discovered that while I don’t like directing, I was perfectly comfortable giving my actors notes on how to tweak their performance, or how to keep it exactly how they had done it. Also, amusingly, I found out that I apparently have parts of scenes memorized, because I kept mouthing the words.
The next day was the actual reading. I didn’t know who would be in the audience. My thesis class was required to be there for the first hour, but much of my class was in the reading. I had visions of the three classmates not in the reading, my two professors, and the director in the audience. To my surprise, the audience was sizeable for my apathetic university. The actor playing Hook brought three friends, none of whom I knew, and a bunch of people from the department came, too.
I sat in a desk against the far wall while the reading went on and, as my advisor had suggested, did not have the script in front of me, only a notebook in which to jot things down. This forced me to focus on actually hearing what was being said, not what was written on the page. The cool thing about hearing your words read by actors who know what they’re doing is that you can see how those words will be interpreted should it ever be done again. You see where you might need to put a stage direction in or where the language is stilted. And best of all, when you have an audience, you get to hear their reactions. I was amazed at what I heard. Earlier this year, I talked to my academic advisor (who’s also the head of the theatre department) about this play very briefly. He didn’t say much about it, but labeled it a “historical feminist comedy.” I was surprised to hear this, since I look at the play as a drama, but on Friday, I found out that the play is a lot funnier than I ever thought. Mary is pretty snarky throughout the play, and a lot of people liked that, as well as the slightly awkward proposal scene, and the ever-loving Lost Boy Tootles, among other things. But my favorite reaction of the entire reading was when a teenage Captain Hook kisses Mary and someone in the audience gasped.
After the reading, we had a talkback. For those not ensconced in the world of theatre as I am, a talkback is what happens after the performance of a play when the audience can ask questions of the actors, the director, or, in this case, the playwright. The actors sat with the rest of the audience while my advisor and I sat in front of everyone. Afterward, my roommate said, “When you two were sitting up there, I just thought, ‘He’s like a proud papa bird showing you off, like, “Look what she’s done!”‘ You’re like his protegee.” I would give a few million dollars to be considered my advisor’s protegee, since he’s amazingly awesome. During the reading’s intermission, we were talking about the plans for the talkback with my thesis professor and my advisor said, “We’re not going to let you ask questions of them because if you ask for negativity, you’ll get it. I’m not going to let anyone tear down your play!” His reasoning for this was not necessarily to protect my feelings, but that many of the people in the audience, even if they were actors, don’t know the process of writing a play, so their suggestions might be negative and also, not helpful to a playwright. “They’re not going to write your play for you,” he said.
With that guidance, it was a pretty useful talkback. Any criticism had to be phrased as a question, and those are going to be helpful in examining some things in the play. Overall, though, people really liked the play, and I’m really excited to look at it again with their comments in mind. There’s definitely a lot of work to be done, most of which won’t even be done before the next reading, but I’m excited to get back to work.
When the talkback ended, my thesis professor, my advisor, and my director were all waiting with their pads of paper, but while I love all of them, I was so exhausted that I didn’t want to discuss anything in depth. Apparently, stressing yourself out is pretty draining; I was about to fall over. Thankfully, all three of them said they needed to think things over and would e-mail me. I told my director that there were a few actors from this reading that I would really like in the public reading, but didn’t say who. To my delight, when he e-mailed me later with a proposed cast list, most of the people I loved from my reading were on his list- including my wonderful Mary and my roommate (though sadly, not in the role of Peter, since the director thinks it’s important that Peter be played by a guy. However, he liked her so much that he wanted to cast her somehow.)
As I walked one cast member back to his car, he said to me, “Thank you for letting me be a part of this. This is a real play.” So many of the other cast members were equally as gracious, sending me thank-you texts, even though it was them who had done me the favor.
So now I have two weeks to revise before I give the cast the script. I’ll conference with my professor and advisor this week and probably be completely overwhelmed by everything they tell me. But I’m really happy to have taken this step and that it was a success!