Playwriting Lesson: Be Careful What You Write

Oct 16, 2015

If the various kinds of writers in the world all have one thing in common, it’s the hope their words have an effect on people. But Lake Effect essayist Alvaro Saar Rios offers a cautionary tale:

Earlier this year, I wrote a "recycling" musical about a pair of Milwaukee teens who learn how to repurpose trash into musical instruments.

This past summer, the musical was being workshopped. For those not in theatre world, this is a point where the producing organization brings in actors, a director and sometimes other design people in an attempt to see what works and what needs more development.

I took my son to a few rehearsals thinking he would enjoy the music as well as the instruments. And he did. He had a great time watching music being made with repurposed PVC pipes, an air vent, old flip flops, cardboard boxes and even a broken vacuum cleaner.

One evening, we had just returned from watching a rehearsal and it was time to make dinner which in truth was just me heating up leftovers from last night's dinner.

Tonight, we were having fried rice. After emptying the container of leftovers, I threw it in the trash.

Then I hear, "Dad, can we make that into a musical instrument?"

"You mean the fried rice container I just put in the trash?"

"Yeah. Like they do in your show. Can we turn that into something?"

He gives me a smile. And not just any smile. That smile. The one that makes every parent powerless. At that moment, I realize he took a lot more from the musical than just the nice songs and funny looking instruments.

"Sure, let me get the container out of the trash and we can make it into something."

I stick my hand in the trash can and get the container. I knock off the little pieces of rice stuck to it and just stare at it. What am I going to do with this?

I get the idea to close up the container and bang on it with chopsticks.

"Check this out. I made a drum."

I pass it to him and he bangs on it a bit. Then he says, "Is there anything else in there that we can make instruments out of?"

"I don't think so."

"You didn't even look."

I want to say, "Can we just eat," but I think about what he's asking me to do. It's not like he wants me to buy him an expensive Lego or play a violent video game. He just wants me to look in the trashcan for other things that can be repurposed just like he saw in the musical. My musical.

I take off the lid and look inside.

I see used paper towels. Plastic packaging. Cucumber shavings. An old pear that I forgot to eat a couple of weeks ago. A pair of army socks I finally thew away.

I put the lid back on and say, "I can't make instruments out of this."

"Can you try?"

I consider using a tactic I've used in the past which entails me saying, "Let's wait until mommy gets home. I bet she can do it." But I didn't. Instead, I walk over to the small recycling bin we keep in our kitchen and pull out a few plastics. "I bet we can make instruments out of this stuff. But let's eat dinner first."

"OK, dad."

After dinner, we made our own instruments and hold a jam session just like in my musical.

I wish I could say this was the only time I had this conversation with my son but it's not. From time to time, when I toss something away, I'll hear him say, "Dad, can we turn that into a musical instrument?" And each time it happens, I think. This is my fault. He didn't get this idea from TV or from his friends. This was all my doing and I gotta live with it.

Lake Effect essayist Alvaro Saar Rios teaches playwriting at UW-Milwaukee.  He’s also the co-founder of a national touring performance troupe, The Royal Mexican Players, and is the author of various plays.

To learn more about the Kohl’s Wild Theater play Saar Rios wrote, “Trash or Tunes,” click here.