On Revision:

Oh, revision. How dreadful it can be.

I don’t know about you, but I hate revision——or, at least I used to. Until recently, I would despise “revising” my work because it felt like editing something I already wanted to be done with. “Revision,” in an academic sense, usually happens by force, typically so you can achieve a better grade.

But what, really, is revision? Let’s define what it means to revise something (you know I love definitions): “to re-examine or make alterations to.”

To re-examine or make alterations to.

I love the first part of this definition: “to re-examine” because it feels much deeper and more significant than editing does. Editing is surface-level——it is grammatical or organizational. Revision, on the other hand, is deeper——it demands that the core of your piece (your primary question, your thesis, etc) be re-examined. Revision demands you take a step back from your writing, inquire deeply about why you are returning to your work, and then set out on a new path that will drive your piece forward.

When returning to your writing, I think it is helpful to consider the following questions:

  • Why am I returning to this piece? Is it to edit, or to revise?
  • If it is to edit, you might consider:
    • What are the areas that need attention?
    • Are my title and opening sentence engaging?
    • Is my argument both provocative and clear?
    • Is the flow of the piece effective?
  • If you are revising, you might consider:
    • Since last reading this piece, what has stuck with me? Do I remember feeling like something was missing?
    • Is this piece still as relevant now? Or perhaps it has lost or gained relevance? Why?
    • Are there areas I can go deeper here? How can I engage with my own story to invite empathy and reciprocity from my reader?

Allow me to let you in on my own recent experience with revision.

Dr. Essin asked me to write a final post in my semester series entitled “On Revision.” I really should’ve written this post a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t find a hearty reason why I needed to write about revision… (because, really, I was thinking about revision as editing.)

But a few days ago, devastatingly, a friend of mine from high school, Dylan, passed away. Dylan’s passing sent me back to an all-too familiar feeling I had when I was a senior in high school and another friend, Malcolm, died. For me, Malcolm’s death will always be tied to the musical Rent, which I wrote my final blog post on last semester. When this tragic similarity stirred up in me, I knew I wanted to revise my post on Rent. With a new sense of urgency to tell the redemptive story of Rent’s power to heal communities in tragedy, I got to writing.

Below is the revised version. You can read the first version of this post here. Pay special attention to the way this post engages a personal story (to encourage empathy and reciprocity from the reader) where the first version does not.


In the winter of my Senior year of high school, one of my friends tragically died of a brain aneurysm. At only fifteen, Malcolm was full of joy and life until the very moment he passed.

Throughout the entire winter semester, I was in rehearsals for a blackbox performance of Rent where I would play Mimi Marquez. On the morning of our only performance, Malcolm’s death was announced during our chapel service. I remember the deafening silence of the building ringing through my ears. I couldn’t tell if I wanted to scream, cry, run, puke, or hide so I just froze. When we all stood up to leave the chapel, it felt like the whole school let out a collective cry.

It was obvious that we could not perform Rent that night, but we were faced with the decision of whether to perform the show at all. 

That night, sitting in my room as I thought through the options, I couldn’t help but acknowledge parallels between the moment I was in and Rent’s very own premier. Months before Malcolm’s death, when we chose Rent as our show, I did some research on the creation of the musical. I learned that the night before Rent was set to premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1996, Jonathan Larson, the creator and composer of the musical died suddenly.

I took to Google to learn more about Larons’s death and discovered he also died of an aneurysm. I also discovered that the cast of Rent decided to continue on with their opening night performance the next night. I sat in this tragic similarity wondering how they did it. In an interview with Playbill, NYTW director James Nicola said, “Life was imitating art in more ways than one, and the group of angst-ridden bohemian rockers danced in celebration of Larson’s life and work.” After the first performance, it was clear that a Broadway transfer was imminent for the show. Producer Kevin McCollum said, “We had no choice… Everybody had a higher purpose, and it was to get Jonathan’s work heard and seen. And there was no looking back. … We were breathing life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say … There was no room to be afraid.”

In that moment, I knew we had to perform Rent for the school—not in spite of Malcolm’s death, but because of it. Like the original cast of Rent, we had a higher purpose, and we had the opportunity to “breath life into the voice of a young man who had much more to say.” There truly was no room to be afraid. It was a beautiful and powerful performance that led our community toward healing. In that performance, I discovered Rent’s ability to move across time and across tragedy to address timeless questions of life and death, uniting communities through the paradox of joy and sorrow along the way.

Three years later, I would be reminded of this unique ability as I watched Rent again and felt an eerily deep connection between the musical and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Rent opens with the title song and imagery of New Yorkers shouting on balconies, living in the tension of paradoxical celebration and mourning. In a similar way, today’s New Yorkers meet each other on balconies and fire escapes every night at 7pm to sing communal praises to the medical workers fighting COVID-19 on the front lines. With shouting, cheering, and crying, New York exhales a collective acknowledgement of the joy that exists—particularly the joyful reality of a shared experience—and a plea for better. While the connection between Rent and COVID-19 is related to New York City, it goes far beyond just geography. 

The musical begins on Christmas Eve in 1989 with a simplistic film reel shot by Mark who is played by Anthony Rapp. Mark is filming a documentary about New York City—specifically about the lives of the homeless population and those affected by HIV/AIDS. The reel shows a shot of Radio City Music Hall, moments of extreme poverty, people experiencing homelessness, etc. These shots—which you can watch below—felt all too similar to what I can picture NYC looking like right now, absent the masks. Mark sings, “How do you document real life when real life’s getting more like fiction each day. / Headlines, breadlines blow my mind, and now this deadline: ‘Eviction or pay’ Rent.” I did a double take thinking about the transcendent reality of this lyric. Not only are Americans struggling to pay rent, but breadlines have returned, except this time people have to stay in their cars.

Rent tells the story of watching an illness unfold with no ability to stop it. Its characters find solace in the community of those around them, particularly those who share the same experience as them. This community is most emphasized in the “Life Support” scenes where the characters who have AIDS meet as a support group. Some of the most beautiful moments in the film are when characters take a moment to acknowledge their illness—both Angel and Collins and Mimi and Roger share sweet sighs of relief as they recognize their shared reality.

The illness that unites this community, though, is also what ultimately shatters it (before coming back together, of course). Back in Life Support, Mimi begins to sing “Without You” as she grieves the end of her and Roger’s relationship, but we start to see the people in Life Support lose their lives and fade away. The shot fades into the Subway where Collins is holding Angel, who is dying. That image is harrowing as it once again brought my mind to the COVID era. Collins and the rest of the friends watch Angel lose her battle, unable to do anything to heal her. We see the same fate begin to unfold for Mimi, too, who takes her last breaths in the final scene of the movie. Roger holds Mimi in his arms as he sings the song he’s been writing for a year, Your Eyes, and Mimi is revived by his love. In this final moment of the movie, we feel the weight of Angel’s death and the harsh reality of life with AIDS wash over us, while simultaneously celebrating the life that we have. The cast sings “No Day But Today” as Mark plays his finished documentary in the background.

Rent doesn’t present a perfect parallel to COVID-19, I know that. But that’s the beauty of it. Rent can speak to us in its original form because the questions it asks about life transcend time. Rent can speak to me in the wake of a friend’s death, in the midst of a global pandemic, or just on a random Tuesday.

I think, now more than ever, the question of how we measure our life is incredibly important. In the middle of quarantine, maybe we did measure our life by cups of coffee… but as we continue to navigate this pandemic, I challenge you to consider what Rent’s central question—what would it look like to measure your life in love?


Thank you for tagging along with me all semester. If you ever have a moment of renewed passion to revise one of your pieces, I encourage you to do so! Most importantly, I hope you don’t let this class end today. Press on discovering, friend.

-B

On Voice:

Consider yourselves lucky. 

Dr. Essin has spared you from watching The Little Mermaid Live on Disney+. You can thank my section of this course for that. You’re welcome.

I was not so lucky. Not that the live television version was bad, necessarily, but it certainly didn’t compare to the other shows we watched. It wasn’t a total loss, though, because Disney succeeded in leaving me with a question to consider when the movie ended: What, really, is voice? 

To some degree, I think I’ve always been a writer, but I didn’t always consider myself one. I remember being in the sixth grade and writing a poem for class and thinking it was terrible. My mom found that poem during quarantine and I was genuinely surprised when I realized it was pretty good. In high school, I always had good grades in writing courses. I learned how to write a stellar analytical essay and that’s definitely important, but it was the blog-style writing I did on the side that I loved. Freshman year at Vanderbilt, I started writing a blog called The Girl Next Dore (yes, I think I’m very funny), but eventually I got too busy and put my blog on the back burner. By the time I enrolled in Dr. Essin’s class last semester, I felt like I’d lost my voice. (And just to really bring home The Little Mermaid parallels, let’s remember that Ariel, too, loses her voice for a time. Also, I feel like Meghan Markle stole my thunder with this parallel on Oprah last night. Whatever, it’s fine.)

What this class allowed me to do was forget the “rules” of academic writing and view writing as exploration. The thing about authorial voice——or writing that is very “voicey” or “bloggy”——is that it isn’t simply writing the way you would speak. It may feel more similar to that than your analytical papers would, but it’s not a transcription of your natural speech. Developing your voice takes an acute knowledge of your own personality as well as an understanding of what you want your reader to gain from your work.

For me, I want my reader to feel like they know me and trust me——that I am their friend; I want them to get a glimpse into my real life and journey; and I want the questions I ask or the themes I present to challenge them. Since last semester, I’ve sent my posts for this class to a trusted friend, and I always hope for the same response: “this is very Brooke.” 

As your first blog post approaches, I’m going to leave you with a few takeaways to consider:

  1. To gain confidence in your voice, start by writing about something you’re already confident in. Confidence begets confidence. (Think back to your post on Authorship and Authority. What did you write about? How did your voice shine through?)
  2. Let go of the words and allow yourself to discover. You are allowed to take the reader on a journey of discovery with you. (You can read my post on Miss Saigon which models this.)
  3. Think about your opening statement. How can you grab the reader’s attention? How does the first sentence reflect your voice and style?
    • I am big on short and punchy first lines. “Consider yourselves lucky.” Or in my Miss Saigon post, “When it comes to theatre, I am not very empathetic. You probably aren’t either.”
  4. If it matters to you, it matters to someone else, too. Pick a topic you care about. Don’t force something because you think it is “right.” Enjoy yourself!
  5. Remember to gain the trust of your reader. Confidence + Humility + Demand = Trust. (I acknowledge there is a significant lack of nuance in that formula, but you get my drift.)

Finally, it is okay if this blog is out of your comfort zone——it should be. Good luck, friends!

-B

PS: Comment on this post if you have any questions about your upcoming blog piece due! I will try to answer them or point you to a post from last semester.

On Trust:

Trust. Assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something.

Hi, y’all! I’m Brooke! I’m originally from Delaware, but I went to high school in New Jersey. I’m a junior here at Vanderbilt double majoring in Theatre and English with a minor in American Studies. On campus I’m involved in both student-run and departmental theatre, as well as a sorority!

This is the standard introduction of any Vandy student (especially Vandy Guides, ily but just saying). But isn’t it kind of boring? And what does it really tell you about me as an author?

If you read the title of this piece (always read titles, people) and my first sentence, you know that this post is going to be about trust. Based on what you know about me so far, do you trust me? I wouldn’t.

What if instead I said:

Hey friend! My name’s Brooke! I’m a junior at Vandy working with Dr. Essin on some projects related to THTR 3333, but don’t worry, I really am here as a friend. There are some things that all of my real-life friends know about me, so I want you to know them too!

  • I can eat a GoGo-Squeeze in under 3 seconds.
  • My parents are divorced but they’re still best friends.
  • My entire inner-monologue is narrated in the voice of Alexis Rose from Schitt’s Creek.
  • If my personality could be described in a color it would be hot pink.
  • I have a private Snapchat story called Cry Cry Birdie.
  • I learned to drive when I was twenty.
  • I have an incredibly chaotic energy but, remarkably, people who don’t really know me think I’m very put together.
  • I can’t ride a bike.
  • I think about food 80% of the day.

I know we haven’t met, but at least now you know that I’m more than just a screen name. Hopefully I’ve developed for you a rough “character sketch” of who I am. Besides all of those things, though, I want you to know that I have at least two things in common with you: I also go to Vanderbilt, and I also took this class with Dr. Essin. Around this time last semester, I was reading one of Dr. Essin’s infamous Read and Consider pages and I had the realization that I could approach this class in one of two ways:

  • I could engage in a less than half-hearted way, writing surface-level discussion posts and not really watching the musicals.
  • Or I could invest in this class, really consider the questions Dr. Essin and my classmates posed, and answer them in a way that not only challenged my reader but myself.

Considering I’m back again, still posting on The Writing Stage, I’m sure you can guess which path I chose.

So why am I back? Good question. I’m back because I think (and Dr. Essin did, too, hehe) you can benefit from some unsolicited, friendly ~advice~ from me. I use the term advice loosely because by no means do I have all of the answers; I’m here to discover with you.

As I thought about this post, I developed a working thesis of how to gain trust as an author. 

Confidence + Humility + Demand = Trust

If we want the reader to believe in us, we need to have confidence in our voice. But if confidence is all we have, our reader may stop at thinking “oh this is well written.” Beyond confidence, we need to humble ourselves——if we write with a sense of superiority, we may alienate our reader. Finally, and most importantly, I believe trust requires demand——both of ourselves and of our audience. We might be a likeable reader if we only have the components of confidence + humility, but to be truly trustworthy I believe we have to move beyond the words on the page. What is our writing demanding of ourselves? Growth, change, empathy? What is our writing demanding of the reader?

Let’s put this formula to the test with this very post. At what point in this post did you decide to trust me? Or have you?

I would suspect you might not fully trust me yet. I’ve shown you my confidence in my own voice——I am unapologetically informal in my blog-style writing because I really do treat my readers like friends. I humbled myself to let you in on some of my quirks and personality traits, even some that were weird or deep. And I also told you I do not have all the answers and used “we” to include myself in the learning process.

But there’s still one component left. Demand.

Just as I had the choice to invest in this course, you do too. If you commit to this class, you will not leave unchanged. I’m serious. I really am. I wouldn’t be writing this to you if I didn’t know that this class offers a space to develop all of the components of trust I’ve mentioned.

So, friend, do you trust me? Will you invest in this class, and more importantly, in yourself, your cultural journey, and the world around you?

I hope so.

-B

Writing about performance…

Titles must be underlined or italicized.  This includes the titles of plays (Medea), musicals (Medea!), primary source texts (The Poetics).  Song, poems, scenes, or other components of larger texts are placed within quotation marks (“Maria” from West Side Story).

Performance critiques use proper nouns to cite relevant material. “Kelli O’Hara won a Tony Award for her performance of Anna Leonowens in the Lincoln Center Theater‘s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s The King and I (2015).

Also cite source material. “Based on Margaret Landon‘s popular novel Anna and the King of Siam (1944), the musical premiered…”

Use dates to distinguish original Broadway productions from revivals or film adaptations. “Adapted for the Broadway stage in 2000, the musical White Christmas first appeared on film in 1954.” Dates can also appear in parentheses. “Theatre scholars define Oklahoma! (1943) as the first integrated musical.”

If you don’t know this information, may I introduce Google…

Avoid passive verbs, especially when they allow the author to fall short of providing relevant information. Change “Anna was portrayed as an angelic savior in hoop skirts” to “O’Hara portrayed Anna as an angelic savior in hoop skirts.” Even better, to include more specificity: ” “O’Hara portrayed Anna as an angelic savior in hoop skirts, swishing through the court and capturing hearts in dresses designed by Catherine Zuber.”

(Essentially, know the major players and use their names to attribute artistic choices.)

Use terminology correctly:

Reference “actors” and “performers” as distinct from fictional “characters.”

Reference a “production” as distinct from a “performance,” the first being the cumulative work of artists who have produced something for the stage and the second being a time-bound event, the occasion of artists presenting their production.

Distinguish a “play” from a “musical.” Both are dramatic texts. Drama is a genre of literature.

Distinguish scenery (stuff on stage) from scenic design (artistic concept developed for production) from stagecraft (the construction of and manipulation of scenery).

Distinguish costumes (stuff worn by actors) from costume design (the artistry) from costume craft (the construction and manipulation of stage clothing, wigs, makeup, etc.)

Distinguish lighting (illumination) from lighting design (the artistry) from light cues (moments of distinct lighting created for a scene).

Distinguish sound (incidental noise or music) from sound design (the artistry of noise and amplification) from composition (the writing of music) from sound cues (moments of noise or musical created for a scene).

Distinguish a cast album (recorded by stage performers) from a soundtrack (recorded for a film).