How I got into a fancy playwriting program despite having panic attacks during the interviews
My biggest lessons in anxiety were learned while I was a playwriting student at The National Theatre School (NTS) in Montreal.
I constantly felt that I had to prove I was a great writer which led to immense panic.
When I think of my experience in Montreal, I feel embarrassed. I was often out of control, sick and in pain, completely lost. I eventually gave myself an attitude check and renovated my perspective completely. It was a long process.
Now that I’m writing about anxiety, I’ve become aware of these stories and I’m going to try to tell them in order for the sake of demonstrating how I learned to calm down.
The story of NTS can’t begin without mention of my extremely anxious interview process for another conservatory, The Soulpepper Academy.
Recalling this period clarifies one of my most redundant fears:
I am afraid that I am not smart enough to be a writer.
I still have this insecurity. I don’t really know how insecurities die. I don’t expect them to die. I don’t even mind having them. Without anxious insecurities I may never have developed such a skilled imagination.
Without anxiety, I may never have become a writer. But, anxiety is give and take. I had to learn not to give every ounce of my focus to anxiety.
Summer of 2012.
I am just out of university, working full time and trying to be a playwright without really a clue how anyone becomes a playwright.
A former acting teacher of mine recommends that I apply to NTS for their playwriting program.
I have never heard of NTS. I research and learn that they accept two people a year. I can’t believe it. It’s like learning a perfect apartment is just out of price range. I am astounded. Two people? Yeah right.
I have so far mounted a total of two plays as well as a theatre festival of other people’s work.
I am eager to do more.
I write constantly, amounting dozens of scripts. I am obsessed with my future as a playwright, imagining every show in its full capacity on stage and knowing, each time I approach a new show, feeling profoundly certain of the exact reaction I will get from my audience.
I have an undying, passionate vision. Somehow.
I quit my full time job (including the three hours of commuting daily) and I get a job at Whole Foods which is still 40 hours a week but it’s down the street for me so right after work I can go back to writing.
On days off, I am sitting in cafes, submitting my work absolutely everywhere. My NTS application is on my desk. She’s dead.
I haven’t finished the application.
I keep thinking that my application won’t matter. To anyone.
I submit, instead, to other small things, publications, ten-minute play festivals.
I stumble upon The Soulpepper Academy’s call for applications.
Technically, Soulpepper is even more exclusive than NTS because they only accept two playwrights every two years
(Or is it three years? I don’t know but it isn’t every year like NTS)
And they pay you to be there.
It should be a more intimidating application but it isn’t.
First of all, Soulpepper is a younger school. Their notoriety is local and they are mostly known for producing classic twentieth century work. It isn’t immediately clear to me (it still remains unclear) what a playwright can even learn from Soulpepper. I don’t immediately feel that every young playwright in the country will be applying to Soulpepper.
Second, the application is easy. It can be achieved in a matter of hours, write a letter, send a portion of a play. They don’t even want entire plays, I can just send them a portion of the thing I feel is most representative of me as a writer right now.
NTS wants me to print, post and mail them two entire plays. I only have two entire plays! And I don’t think either of them can compete nationally, for any reason. There is plenty of space during the process of applying to NTS to re-consider my application, which is what I am constantly doing: Re-considering and deciding probably not oh wait I should oh wait no oh wait maybe, oh LOOK I have to go to work…
The last thing that makes the Soulpepper application easy is that I have already applied to NTS.
Someone, somewhere is already reading my two shitty plays and they probably won’t contact me for any reason but watch what happens when I send 15 pages of my newest play Teach Me, perverse and weird and funny, to a cool young theatre school that might actually know that I can do this.
I apply for Soulpepper impulsively.
And then I panic.
Sitting in a Kensington Market espresso bar, watching my screen.
“Thank You For Submitting Your Application,” it says.
I keep waiting for it to flash, “Now, Who The Fuck Do You Think You Are?”
Months go by and I don’t hear from either school. I forget about these applications.
I sink into a depression as all the submissions work I am doing is getting me absolutely nowhere. For two months, not even a year into my writing “career”, for the first time I start to wonder if I should give up. (Update: It’s been eight years and I quit writing every week. “Never Give Up?” Yeah right.)
December comes and I am shaken out of my depression by a strange evening out where I get really drunk, lose my virginity to a stranger and suddenly realize that life is a funny joke. They call this kind of evening a “turning point”.
I am on vacation with my family in Puerto Rico and I get an email from the Head of New Play Development at Soulpepper (which I didn’t even know was a thing), Guillermo Verdecchia.
Guillermo is writing to tell me that he has read my Soulpepper application and he’d like to meet with me. He asks me to answer some lofty question about the value of theatre and he signs his name.
I have never heard of Guillermo Verdecchia.
I stare at his name.
I cannot believe it. It’s the feeling you get when the doctor calls with tests results and describes what could have gone wrong and then tells you you’re fine. I should be happy but I’m so confused and used to being in pain, I just sit still until my body does something new.
I google Guillermo. I learn very little about him but that’s mostly because I’m too shocked to read anything. He’s from Argentina, he’s written a number of plays.
“Mom, I applied to this school at Soulpepper and they just wrote me an email telling me I have an interview.”
Typical mom excitement, “OH. MY. GOD.”
“Guillermo Verdecchia wrote me the email!”
“WOW RACHEL WOW,” she probably doesn’t know who he is either. “So what did you say?”
“I have to write a thing, I have to answer a question.”
“You better write it, girl.”
Oh no. I forget how to write.
It takes me a week to write a paragraph-long answer.
I keep accidentally dipping into a poetic-academic-trying-too-hard type of voice. I cannot stop trying too hard.
As I type I doubt every word, I trip over every instinct.
What do I really think is the value of theatre? What kind of question is that? Theatre is everything! It’s the epitome of expressive emotion. It is empathetic perfection. It is…garbage.I am garbage. Die. Dead. Stupid.
I am terrified of failing to impress someone who I didn’t even really bother Googling properly.
I send in my answer as late as possible. I never read it again. I can’t. (I still have trouble reading old applications).
The interview is three weeks later.
I am nervous every moment of every day.
During those weeks, I spend my time performing my version of “practicing for the interview” where I pace around my apartment and imagine myself in a room with someone important who, I can’t help but depict as a woman who looks just like me, and I talk to myself about my work.
I describe how I like to write from impulse and not worry about where it is going, how I write entire plays via impulse and I don’t craft them until the sculpture of the piece starts emerging on it’s own, “oh there’s the head, there’s the neck, the shoulders.”
I tell myself the truth and myself tells me that I am brilliant.
In my dreams, I am very impressive.
I had no idea at the time that, if I am writing a play, the expectation is that, during the entirety of the play’s development, I am supposed to be well aware of “the point”. I still don’t understand that expectation.
My imagination has always been my remedy for anxious thinking.
It’s not a productive way to be.
Out of fear comes wild fantasies which do not help me focus on preparing for anything.
Time becomes the end of January. I show up to the interview, sweating.
The gigantic doors open up to a gigantic room where people are eating and chatting which is my least favourite kind of room since both eating and chatting are two things that make me very nervous.
A long winding staircase descends from an exposed second floor in a grandiose effort that has me twitching while I realize that the person I am meeting will be dawning on me from the heavens. I stand by the stairwell.
From a completely different corridor, pushing two back-kitchen-like doors out of the way is a short-ish man dressed in Steve Jobs minimalist dark colours. He is holding a piece of paper, looking cool and unsweaty and offering me his handshake.
“Rachel? Hi. Guillermo.”**
I shake his hand, embarrassed, standing in my winter coat with a hot feeling in my head and hair sticking to the back of my neck.
He pushes a button that opens the doors again and leads me to a small room with a table a few chairs.
He sits and tells me, “Daniel Brooks was here earlier but he had to go.”
I think, oh wow, one interviewer had no interest in me but what I say is, “OH OK NO PROBLEM HA HA”
Brooks is a well known Canadian Theatre Director.
He co-write a play with Guillermo called The Noam Chomsky Lectures.
I read the play. It scared the shit out of me and gave me the distinct impression that, whoever I am going to be meeting in the interview, would be no one like myself. I forget about that instinct until Guillermo mentions Brooks.
I feel my sticky butt in the seat of my jeans.
I get that dorky feeling, that walking-down-the-halls of high school, staring at the ground and wondering if I can will myself invisible kind of feeling.
It helps very little that Guillermo’s vibe is one part sexy, one part sophisticated and one part totally unimpressed.
I feel certain that I cannot win his favour, like I’m facing a panel of old white men at The Supreme Court, except in this scenario I am seated closely to a good looking, young Argentinian man who is really into Noam Chomsky.
He shuffles some papers.
“So I read what you sent here.”
I realize he is holding my play and I feel infinitely more nervous, stomach dropping, mouth drying up, my brain drives itself through a sudden car wash and all I can hear is steam, water and suds.
That’s all I say.
“Is this the beginning or? I couldn’t tell.”
I wrote on the top of the excerpt that it was the beginning.
“It’s the beginning.”
“Ok, well tell me about it a little.”
“It’s about these two friends and they are in detention and they see their teacher masturbating in his car so they take a video and then blackmail him into teaching them sexual favours.”
I just wait. I want to say more but none of it makes sense. All my sentences are labelled STUPID before I can get them anywhere near my mouth.
He says, “I thought it was an answer to Mamet. But, I guess maybe I was wrong.”
Oh no, I don’t know if I can talk about Mamet. I should have read Oleanna before coming here. I should have known. My head does a quick-but-maybe-slow-as-hell review of everything I know about Mamet while we sit there in silence but all I can come up with is.
He might have asked me more questions but I blank out, totally have no idea what is happening in this room. I just watch him shuffle the papers of my excerpt, asking me questions, as if he can’t fathom how I even came to write such a stupid piece of trash.
He then picks up a second document, “You said in the answer you wrote to my question that,” he reads from my answer. I shrink in my chair, my head pounding, I can’t even hear what he is saying and then he asks, “do you really think that’s true?”
I ASK: “What?”
“That when we watch theatre we feel connected, really connected to the people on stage. People say that all the time but do you really think that’s true.”
Oh. I guess I wrote the same answer as every other applicant. I have really disappoint him. I shouldn’t even be here. I wish I was pregnant so I could falsely go into labour or diabetic so I could fake a comma or just dead. Did he have to invite a certain amount of female applicants? Did he choose who to interview randomly? Did he interview everyone? Why am I here?
“Yes.” That’s my answer. I say more things but I begin with “yes”. I speak until I feel like I have said enough words.
He tells me about the school and asks if I have any questions. I shake my head. I feel my failure dampening my shirt, sweater, hair.
He walks me back to the large room where comrades enjoy bread and chit chat.
I walk for an hour until I am home.
A week later I am asked to interview again.
*My impression of Guillermo in this interview did give me great anxiety but, since my failure to be admitted to the school, he has been supportive and kind to me. I admire Guillermo’s intelligence and a couple years ago, I enjoyed his piece Flashing Lights mostly because he was in it.
**Dialogue is not verbatim, it’s just the impression I remember