The Roads You Didn't Take

Evernote got hacked last week.

To explain: Evernote is an app that lets you capture text and pictures from the internet, organise them into ‘notebooks’ and save these to the cloud. I use it because, like many of us, I always have ideas for productions floating around in my head, gathering mass as I read the news each day.

Following the hacking, all Evernote users had to change their passwords. This meant that upon logging into the site, I was faced with the whole unwieldy cache of notes, rather than just clicking on the ‘add’ icon in my browser as I usually do. There were 120 notes to sift through, and it felt good and bad to remember why a project caught fire or stalled: good to have outgrown a project, but bad to be reminded of a project that had outfoxed you, or when someone beat you to the same idea.

I had that beaten-to-it feeling last year, when I heard about a new musical touring the US, set around the pioneering sitcom I Love Lucy. Six years ago, I’d talked to composers about an opera based on the relationship between I Love Lucy stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who were married in real life, and the gulf between that relationship and the American Dream as it was developing each week on the new and exciting world of TV. In real life, Ball and Arnaz were battling the prejudice that attended Arnaz’s Cuban ancestry during the anti-Communist fervour of America in the ’50s. My idea was for a show that alternated scenes set backstage with painstaking recreations of the episodes, with each ‘world’ affecting the other. The current show, I Love Lucy: Live, is more of a confection, an exercise in nostalgia, and I like to believe that my show would’ve been more interesting – but so what? I didn’t write it, and now the moment has passed.

I dragged those notes to the trash and clicked ‘delete’.

An hour later, I found another dead project, one that still hurts.

It would have been a solo show based loosely on the story of an American journalist, Josh Wolf, who in 2006 was jailed for refusing to surrender to the FBI video footage he’d shot the previous summer during anti-capitalist protests in San Francisco. Long story short: Wolf claimed that he was a journalist and couldn’t betray his sources; the authorities argued that he was merely a blogger and a shit-stirrer, not the sort of person who should be protected by journalism laws. Wolf spent 226 days in prison while the US judicial system debated citizen journalism, then a new and complex area of law. During his incarceration Wolf managed to keep up with his blog, and as the case progressed, his articles became increasingly kooky. There seemed huge scope here for a piece about unreliable narrators, and about the complexity of being right for the wrong reasons.

The issues still excite me, but I couldn’t make the pieces fit. On reflection, I was scared of making a show about protest in which the protagonist is so compromised. Without other characters to balance the story, I feared that my sole contribution to an important debate could be hijacked by those on the political right. The alternative would be a piece of theatre so loaded with qualifications and apologies that it would start to disintegrate.

It was too hard, at least for me, so I stopped. And as I dragged that file to the trash folder, I felt relieved that I won’t have to birth that problem child. Even if I could overcome those concerns, the news cycle has moved on in the years since: it would feel like a period piece.

Unlike a paper notebook, a digital archive never runs out of pages – it’s like having an infinitely large rug that you can keep sweeping rubbish under. The danger is that, if you don’t clean up every now and then, those scraps will become counterproductive, no longer loading your imagination but weighing you down.

The internet performance artist Ze Frank posits a dangerous drug called ‘brain crack‘:

“If you don’t want to run out of ideas, the best thing to do is not execute them. You can tell yourself that you don’t have the time or resources to do them right, then they stay around in your head like brain crack. No matter how bad things get, at least you’ve got those good ideas that you’ll get to later. Some people get addicted to that brain crack and the longer they wait the more they convince themselves of how perfectly that idea should be executed. And they imagine it on a beautiful platter with glitter and rose petals, and everyone’s clapping for them… But the bummer is: most ideas kinda suck when you do them. And no matter how much you plan, you still have to do something for the first time. And you’re almost guaranteed the first time you do something, it’ll blow. But somebody who does something bad three times still has three times the experience of that other person, who’s still dreaming of all the applause.”

I wonder if we should go back to placing human skulls on our desks, Elizabethan-style, as a reminder of our mortality. We have only so much time to make a mark, and we shouldn’t spend that time trying to fix ideas that we know, deep down, aren’t working. Ask: why haven’t I moved this project forward? Why didn’t I make that phone call? Why haven’t I brought together those production sketches into something bigger? Why is that script still a fragment? And be honest: when do we need more information to decide, and when are we just procrastinating?

It’s almost spring.

So get cleaning.