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When In Cleveland: A Playwright’s Search for “What’s Mine”

By: Arwen Mitchell

Spalding MFA Alumn in Playwriting

When one of my nieces was two, she went through her “mine” phase, which was in turn amusing and annoying.  One day I found her swaying from side to side to some music, and with a look of strong consternation, she informed me how she felt about it: “Mine.  My dance.”

I know she was going through a characteristic developmental stage, but I also couldn’t help but feel like it’s a hard one to ever leave.  Life goals seem to center around happiness and success, and if a person can find their corner to sway in, and call it – and the swaying – their own, is that much different than some other version, decades down the road?  My niece is concrete and fiery, and we are nearly nothing alike, but we somehow get along better than most.  Maybe it is because she understands an approach to life that I don’t.  Or maybe I just wish I had my own dance.

Happiness seems to be based on immediate choices, but success – that’s something trickier to obtain.  Yet, success should make a person happy, right?  A little over three years ago, I ended up moving to Cleveland from central Illinois.  I was not happy about it.  My only other visit had been in the depths of a rust-belt winter, and while I was used to the rust-belt, my own corner of it wasn’t peppered with suicide-hotline billboards and potholes the size of baby elephants.  What was this place, filled with my least-favorite kind of architecture (Tudor), and a distinctive (to quote a friend) “dude energy” vibe?  I knew one person there: Eric Schmiedl from Spalding.  In my opinion, this was all Cleveland had going for it, and Cleveland should consider itself blessed.  My mentor for my first two years of my MFA, I knew Eric to be a 100% die-hard Clevelander.  Unfortunately, none of his kind, deep commitment was rubbing off on me.

A few other people had told me Cleveland was a theatre town (notably my dear and excellent friend, Larry Brenner), and I would most likely like it.  With a spirit as furrowed as my niece’s oft-crabby brow, I rejected this, while trying to remain friendly and benign on the outside.  I was resigned to success being something about as obtainable as happiness: not on the buffet of options for myself.  But for some reason – of which I am still not clear – I started contacting people.  Nearly instantly, I was plugged into a fringe theatre company (Ohio City Theatre Project/OCTP), which led to a friendship with the new play associate at Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT).  This led to other friendships, and somehow, in the course of less than two years, I was a Nord Playwriting Fellow at CPT, a company member at OCTP, a literary-manager-turned-theatre-artist at Playwright’s Local 4181 playwright’s organization, the youth ambassador for the northeast Ohio region of the Dramatist’s Guild, a PlayLabs playwright at Great Plains Theatre Conference, teacher of playwriting at Kent State University, and achieved some other stuff, too, such as helping produce friends’ shows, and getting commissioned to write a play for Canton and Kent State Stark’s main stage season.

I had read Tina Fey’s book Bossypants a few years before, and her advice to just say yes to everything must’ve stuck.  That, or I didn’t know how to say no.  Or – something else?  It’s not like I was dropped onto Cleveland from a passing aircraft, against my will.  I had chosen to go, and it was for a good reason: because it’s where my husband wanted to be.  It didn’t feel much like a Yes, but it was.  And all of those other opportunities – some would call them “networking”, but that sounds sterile, and opportunistic; I have had bouts of ambition, but this wasn’t one of those times – I had simply shown up, and tried to help.  Or shown up, and tried to make something with what I had.  It was like the world made up a kid’s table called Cleveland, and put a bunch of Play-Dough containers on it, and stuck me in a small chair in front of it, and gave me room.  I didn’t know what else to do except open the containers, sniff the distinctly edgy-yet-awesome aroma, and start kneading the crap out of it all, mixing it together, getting it on the floor, finding a bunch of other kids at the table too, and because I have an incurably inappropriate level of amusement at nearly everything, I guess we all ended up seriously slap-happy at the possibility and particular constraints of our play table.

And there’s the small fact that I never called any of it mine.  Cleveland’s funny like that – it isn’t territorial, either, though it sure knows itself within its bounds.  Yes, it has been deprecating and apologetic at times, but usually while cheering on once-hopeless sports teams: fans for life.  I think it’s telling that the dear Mr. Schmiedl went to graduate school in Hawaii, but still made the explicit choice to return home, for home’s sake.

I’m still here.  I don’t know how long I will be, but I do know that there’s a host of clichés (and I love clichés) that can be extracted from my experience: bloom where you’re planted, fake it ‘til you make it, uh… love the one you’re with…. These, along with Tina’s advice, and an infinity of other positive bits of wisdom, won’t ever land a person in a bad place, I’m thinking.  Whether the place is literal, figurative, or both.  The only problem with this method, though, is that pesky success and happiness part.  Only fairly recently has Cleveland found itself above and beyond its burning-river, dogged-failure past, and I wonder what this will do to the general, amiably-hopeless underdog attitude of the city – its up-until-now identity.

I think, though, that it will accept its new fate, it will call its success “mine”, because it belongs to so many.  I’ve counted off my “successes” on my resume, sure, but there’s still an aching open-endedness to it, as if it’s not enough, as if it’s only as good as those who can see it for what it all means, which changes from person to person.  I’m just one of many, trying to create some stories and fun, some connection, through my main medium of playwriting.  I am not deprecating, but it is difficult to call any of this mine.

But it is. It’s also up to me, to go out into the streets and celebrate it (er, not unlike the 1.3 million people celebrating the Cavs – GO CAVS), which I can’t do alone.  I need to dance my dance, but as an adult child, I need to do what I shortly did to my niece after she claimed her dance.  I stood in front of her and danced her dance.  She yelled at me.  A lot.  Then she smiled.  We keep doing this particular dance.  I keep doing it in myself, too.  The point is that in my life, and my art (which really just have to be one and the same), I’m not truly alone, and the most generous offerings that life has, come to those who are willing to say yes, yes to others, even when it all looks like failure.  And keep on keepin’ on… dancing. (And playing at that playtable!)

It feels presumptuous to offer the same advice to other writers and artists, but I’m offering it, all the same.  And of course, I’m still learning these lessons.

But I’ll always have Cleveland to remind me.

Arwen Mitchell is a playwright, dramaturg, and teacher based in Cleveland, Ohio. She graduated from Spalding University’s Low-Residency Writing Program, earning her MFA with a focus in playwriting in May 2012. Recent productions include The Bicentennial Play, a regular-season commission from Kent State, and Snake Oil, by Cleveland’s fringe theatre Ohio City Theatre Project. She was the recipient of Cleveland Public Theatre’s 2nd Nord Playwriting Fellowship, and was a PlayLabs playwright in 2015’s Great Plains Theatre Conference. She is a member of the Dramatists Guild and is their northern Ohio region’s youth ambassador. She is also a company member in the Ohio City Theatre Project, the Teaching Artist for Cleveland’s Playwright’s Local 4181, and is a member of the International Centre for Women Playwrights and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas.


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