Who are you talking to?

Bilal, as many of you may know, is a master of many forms of the written word. A longtime member (and current co-Artistic Director) of the quicksilver Neo-Futurists, he has written over 100 plays and performance pieces. But he’s also written everything from short fiction to poetic meditations on the birth of his first child - and if that isn’t enough range for you: in a former life, he was even pressed into service to edit a book about Britney Spears, and lived to tell the tale.

Of course, Bilal’s ability to write and communicate in a variety of different styles and voices is exactly why he’s so invaluable to our diverse pantheon of clients. But what many people don’t realize is that the writing isn’t the real skill: what and how you write is wholly determined by who you are writing for. Awareness of your audience – who they are, what they worry about, what they get excited about – is the trickiest but most crucial part of the process. Think about it this way: when you go to your doctor, you don’t expect her to present a 45 minute summary of the literature on acute pyrexia, you want her to tell you how to get rid of your fever. (And vice versa – if your doctor was speaking at a medical conference, “Take two and call me in the morning” likely wouldn’t cut it.)

Last week, Bilal got an opportunity to come face to face with his audience in a unique way. He was invited to take part in the Storefront Playwright Project, which takes brave writers out of their Fortresses of Solitude and puts their craft – literally – on display. For several hours last Thursday morning, Bilal took a shift in the window of a lobby in the Chicago Loop, writing his play The Sovereign Statement while the world could look in on his process. Because it’s rare for a writer to have an audience while they write, I thought I’d ask Bilal how he thinks about the people he writes for, and how this little experiment might affect his work.

When you write for the stage, how much does the audience enter in to your mind?

Significantly–part of my goal with the writing process is to create something that I would want to see. Of course, sometimes part of what I’m doing is trying to give the audience something they didn’t know they need. I’d like to do things that can both challenge and comfort an audience within the exact same experience.

Are there particular characteristics of “your ideal audience?”

My ideal audience is a combination of intelligent and curious, somebody who can understand when I’m trying to go for something loftier but who doesn’t feel that they need to tell everybody that they “got it.” I’m not looking to cater to pretentiousness…I prefer audiences who feel exhilaration when they’ve engaged their brains but who then want to share and enrich people who didn’t get all of it (and I’m not interested in alienating people who didn’t get the higher shadings).

How much of the specific audience experience – before, during and after – are you aware of when writing?

I would say that I think about these things academically but that they don’t necessarily inform the writing itself. I recognize that I can’t fully control the response of an audience member at any of these stages. If I’m not writing the show I want to see then I get stuck very frequently.

How do you get a feel or a sense of ‘what they don’t know they need’? Basically, how do you know when you’ve done what you wanted to do? 

I think of this as providing the audience with thoughts or feelings they may not have considered [before]. The greatest moment for me in my work isn’t when an audience member applauds–it’s when I hear them say “Huh.” Or “Hm.” It’s the sound of somebody’s entire worldview changing, ever so slightly.

Does the act of actually writing in front an audience (while you were in the window) change the way you write for an audience?

When I was really head-down in the writing I barely noticed if anybody was witnessing. But when I’d step back, sometimes I worried what was onscreen at that moment–like when your mother walks in while you’re watching an otherwise slow-moving, serious dramatic film…but happens to arrive right at the the one steamy sex scene.

Any particularly revelatory moments?

So, the setup was that I was behind the window that had the day’s posted ticket deals on it. It occurred to me midway through the day that I functioned as advertising for the theatre industry as a whole. “See! Work goes into the thing you will enjoy. Buy a ticket!”

Bilal’s new play, The Sovereign Statement, will be produced by the Neo-Futurists this Fall (with sound design by Marshall Creative’s own Nick Keenan). Check out the Neos’ website (one of the latest GroundPlan projects, by the way) for updates and information as they are announced.

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