Daily Dojo

The Last Gasp

I finished a new play a few weeks ago.

By finished I mean that I reached THE END. A play is never really finished or done; it’s just to the point where you are ready for folks to read it, hear it and hopefully even produce it. Then more writing work ensues, but of a different type. Even then a play still is never really finished. And never will be finished. Ever.

Plays are living organisms, I believe, and never die like people do. Some are just forgotten. But none of them are ever finished.

But for argument’s sake, let’s say “finished” means that the bulk of the heavy lifting is done. You’ve written quite a lot of pages. There are scenes, there is a beginning and middle and end and it hopefully makes sense of some sort.

So I finished a play just a few weeks ago. A full-length play, I’ve been working on it for quite awhile and finally reached THE END and, unless someone decides they want to do it (hence bringing me into the next writing phase), my work on it is done. And you know what?

It’s the last play I will ever write.

That’s right, I said it.

I said it all through the writing of that particular play, a twisty yarn that caused me no end of frustration until I got it to the point where I was satisfied. I personally believe it’s wrong to leave things unfinished just because they happen to be hard, so I vowed to finish that bastard of a play, no matter how bad it may turn out to be. It may suck, it may stink to high heaven but it will be a DONE play that sucks and stinks to high heaven, by gum. I finished it and now it will be whatever it will be.

But during the writing of that bastard of a play I said again and again, “This is the last play I will ever write!”

Why, you may ask, would a fella with a website named “Playwright Joshua James” wish to never write a play ever again? Isn’t that your damned job, writing plays? Why would you do that?

There could be a lot of reasons.

It could be the state of theatre in New York City (The Wedding Singer recently opened on Broadway and just the thought of that spectacle is enough to give any reasonable person of taste the dry heaves).

It could be how badly playwrights are treated compared to writers in other areas of entertainment (think how much writers of film and television are paid and compare that to the average pay of playwrights and remember, Jonathan Larson didn’t really get paid for RENT until AFTER HE DIED, the actors, the musicians, the stage-managers, all those folks got paid a living wage through the rehearsal / workshop period, Jonathan got his check after everyone else and after it was too late).

It could have something to do with the fact that it’s a whole lot easier to get someone to read a screenplay or a novel than it is to get him or her to read a play.

It could be all those things.

But it’s not.

I still love theatre and what can be accomplished with it, The Wedding Singer be damned, and I’m not giving up on theatre, not yet.

So why make this the very last play I’ve ever written?

For me, the idea behind that inspiration goes back to two people. Bruce Lee and Jerzy Grotowski

Before I was a playwright, I was an actor. Before I was an actor, I was a martial artist. So let’s start with that.

Many folks know Bruce Lee as an actor from kung fu movies, but not many know that he also authored many books on the philosophy of the arts.

One thing Lee maintained, which I will summarize in my own words as best I can, is that when a punch is done correctly, it’s no longer a punch.

Got that? Let’s try again.

When a punch is performed with ART, it’s not a punch. It’s LIKE a punch.

In other words, it has the form of a punch, but the content is no longer the same.

It’s like a punch in shape but not a punch in quantity and quality.

Now as a youngster beating on punching bags, that was a heady concept to grasp. I don’t think I got it in the beginning. In fact, I know I didn’t. Shoot, I just wanted to learn how to fight so I wouldn’t get beat up every day at school. But I hated not getting something, especially something to do with a system (the martial arts) that I loved, so I never stopped thinking about it.

Years later, when I got to graduate school, I was fortunate enough to train in Grotowski methods with a very good teacher, Eric Forsythe.

That training, coupled with a Viewpoints drive-by via an Anne Bogart weeklong seminar (and Anne referred to Jerzy as that great God Grotowski) very happily changed my life. I had a breakthrough.

And I got what Bruce Lee was talking about.

I’m not going to parse Grotowski with you here; I’m not going to get theoretical with you on it. I’m not a professor, that’s not my game. I’m a blue-collar word carpenter with dirt under my nails and I’ll do my best to explain it in my own monkey words. What follows is what it meant to me, no more and no less.

Imagine a man doing headstands.

Standing on his head. Make me that guy. I’m on my head, feet in the air, like some tubby yoga freak.

What does the sight of a man standing on his head in a room mean to you?

Not much, right?

Just a guy on his head. Maybe a little comical but ultimately I’m just on my head. My legs thrash around and eventually I lose my balance and land on my fat ass. You may get a chuckle, depending on how I land, but that’s it.

Now imagine this.

Imagine I’m standing on my head ON THE EDGE OF A CLIFF.

Same headstand, but on one side of it is a shear drop of hundreds of feet with sharp rocks below.

If I fall, I die.

Now when you watch me stand on my head on the edge of a cliff, what does it mean to you?

Means more, right? Why?

Because my life hangs in the balance. Because if I fall, it won’t be simply comical. It’ll be tragic. It’ll be bloody. It’ll be all those things our imagination can conjure up when on the edge of nothingness.

Now the form and shape of the respective headstands may be the same, but one is more than the other, right? And do you know why?

Because when life hangs in the balance, everything you are is put into that one single act.

Now the trick, according to Grotowski, is to do the headstand in your living room AS IF you were on the cliff.

Make it the last headstand you may ever do.

That’s what Lee meant when he said a punch is no longer a punch when it’s done correctly, it’s only LIKE a punch.
Because when you punch like it’s the LAST punch you will ever do, when you punch because your life depends upon it, it’s no longer just a punch anymore.

It only LOOKS LIKE a punch.

But it’s got everything you were, everything you are and everything you will ever be contained therein.

Every action a writer, actor or director takes should be filled with the same kind of on-the-edge-of-a-cliff emotional content.
Then a play is no longer a play. It’s just LIKE a play. The rest of it is the final chapter of your life.

So these days, when I write a play, I curse and kick and scream and vow, “This is the last play I will ever write!”

And it could be the truth.

Because I could, like anyone here in the Dojo, die at any moment.

Something heavy, like a Plasma TV, could fall on me.

I could get sideswiped by a delivery truck tomorrow.

I could be walking a dog, step on a metal grate in the sidewalk and be electrocuted courtesy of Con Edison.

I could die of an allergic brain reaction because of aspirin, like Lee did.

I could get “mugged” and shot, like several rap stars have been.

Cancer. Diabetes. Alzheimers. Tornados. Hurricanes. Bird Flu. Dirty Bomb. Any of those could do it.

I could die of a heart attack during sexual intercourse, like Genghis Khan. I’d prefer that method, if I have a choice in the matter.

Of course, it may be that I won’t die tomorrow or the next day or the day after. It may take years, decades even.

One can only hope.

But I don’t know when, not for sure.

Neither do any of you.

When we write, act, direct and punch, when we only but breathe, we’re all really just doing headstands on a cliff’s edge. Only we can’t see what’s on the other side.

Let’s assume it’s a steep drop and plan our headstands accordingly.

Because it could all fall away tomorrow.

This column could be my very last creation of verbal cotton I share with anyone ever again.

This could be it.

The Last Gasp.

Which would be too bad, because right after I finished that last play, I had an idea for ANOTHER play, an idea that excited me. No really, it could be totally cool, the unformed play idea I have in my head.

I can only hope I’ll finish it in time.

Because that one probably WILL be the last play I ever write.

9 Responses to “ The Last Gasp”

  1. David Anaxagoras Says:

    Excellent post! And timely, for me. I’ve been trying to trick myself to the edge of the cliff for a while. I may almost be there. You’ve given form to my thoughts.

  2. Brian Says:

    OK, so I’m at the edge of this cliff… Now what am I supposed to do? A handstand? Um… Not easy to type whlle im… Aaaaaaaaa.

  3. Joshua James Says:

    And while the headstand wasn’t so impressive, the fall and scream were quite admirable.
    Had the form and shape of a normal fall from a cliff, but incredible emotional content. Well played, sir.

  4. MattJ Says:

    Josh this is an amazing post.

    What you speak of is certainly what I constantly try to create in my directing. That sense of urgency, the life or death, the heightening of experience, the STAKES.

    I have been talking to a lot of young playwrights lately and have asked them what their overall view of what va play should be is. More than one (including the playwright whose play I was directing at the time) said they wanted a play with STAKES. They want to pack a gigantic emotional punch in a small amount of time. It reminds me a lot of Sturm und drang (sp?) and the values they held close to their heart.

    But anyway, yeah. That’s why I go to/make theatre. And when that’s not happening, I’m off in LaLa land wishing I spent my $50 on something else.

  5. Joshua James Says:

    I agree with you, but again, it’s not so much the stakes within the play itself (though those are important) as it is the stakes within one’s life - in other words, if this were the last thing you were to ever write, how would you approach it? How closely would you look to your craft, what would go into it?

    A knock-knock joke could work, but if it’s the last knock-knock joke you’re ever going to tell, you’re going to put a lot more care into it and make it the best damn knock-knock joke anyone’s ever heard.

    For me, it comes down to really giving a shit in terms of blood, sweat and tears of the craft. It should be worthy of doing in the lingering moments of life, right?

  6. Dorothy Says:

    Nicely done Josh.

  7. Lucas Says:

    Very well done sir.

  8. zhaohuicta Says:


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