It’s hard to get someone who really wants to die, to like …
—May, in Leave the Balcony Open
Maya Macdonald’s play Leave the Balcony Open is a lament for those who would rather not deal, but must. The four main characters are about to graduate college, still raw from half a dozen campus deaths in one year. And so their jumble of last minute parties and jokesy imaginings of future jobs (Wet Nurse! Mitten-Knitter! The-Daughter-You-Never-Had-But-Like-To-Fantasize-About-Fucking!) is perforated by grief, the kind that threatens to rot.
Leave the Balcony Open unfolds on a rural college campus that “should look like a bomb hit it; more of a war zone than an educational institution. It has a mythical quality to it and looks nearly uninhabitable.” The students, like the place, are sheltered, isolated, and wrecked. The characters have an air of living outside their design specifications, as if the protective coating of childhood has failed under pressure.
Macdonald’s daytime-drinking, real-world-dodging, perpetually becostumed college students might grate if they didn’t hurt so bad. Every quirk of this insulated liberal arts college folds on itself, inside jokes wrapped around one another and pulled tight, as if to stop the blood.
The play precisely balances denial and revelation, ducking and dealing, admitting just enough emotion to hook us in. For example, Silent Gen’s theater project caused a tragic accident. Now she has a sign on her door reading: I WILL MAKE YOU INTO SOMETHING NEW. Students knock and Gen supplies, outfitting her peers for the final race of theme parties (Superheroes vs. Supermodels, Sink or Swim, Grown Up Time). As we begin to understand why Gen won’t talk, the stakes of her makeovers feel like survival itself.
Gen is literally silent, but everyone else is mute too, dumb on how to face the pile-up of deaths at a school with just a few hundred students. They binge drink on the would-be 21st birthdays of kids who died too young to drink when the security guard is on duty. They claim social status based on proximity to loss (one girl, I-Almost-Died-Cathy, gets first crack at the nightly scream sessions off a cliff called the End of the World). And they joke relentlessly along the lines of: “See you tomorrow.” “If I live that long.”
I first heard a partial version of Leave the Balcony Open under the title The Last Three Days in 2006, when Macdonald was a student intern at the Voice & Vision ENVISION retreat at Bard College, where I was a writer in residence. I’d assumed Macdonald was a Bard undergraduate, but then recognized the play’s central accident as a tragedy at Bennington College a few months earlier, in which a young woman rehearsing a classmate’s project fell to her death through a plate glass window. (I once lived and taught at Bennington for a semester, so I could picture the building though I didn’t know the students.) I learned Macdonald was due back at Bennington for her senior year that fall, and was writing the play in an effort not to drop out.
Last week at an early rehearsal, Macdonald recalls, “The very first draft in college was a way to go back to college, because I was very angry about what was going on, and I didn’t know how to handle the amount of tragedy and the social parameters created around that.”
Macdonald originally set the script around a student production of Antigone—an attempt, she reckons now, to bury the dead. Over five years and many rewrites, the Antigone motif dropped out. A dedication now reads:
I thought this was a play for the dead.
It turns out, it is for the living.
The choral form remains, in Facebook postings, readings of official memos, and explications of the grief codes of the young and aimless. “I want my characters to have their own chorus,” Macdonald says. “I wanted to write a story about young people that was epic. I wanted to articulate that it was not a small experience.”
The play’s director Jessica Bauman explains to a new actor that the chorus acknowledges the deaths before the individuals can. The chorus leads the way through.
I have had the good fortune of teaching Maya Macdonald in many writing workshops in the last few years, so I suspect I’ve read as many drafts of this play as anyone. Full disclosure: I am a fan. As Leave the Balcony Open has shifted away from the original events, it has become more powerful and articulate, clearer in its portraits, and broader in its sensibility. Whereas the early drafts depicted college students facing loss, now it feels like a story about moving through loss that happens to be set in a college.
It helps that Macdonald, five years after graduation, has safely passed the place where her characters are stuck. She says, “I don’t see their pain as any smaller, but it doesn’t feel like my pain anymore, it feels like a story I get to tell.”
I want to invite potential viewers to Leave the Balcony Open by placing Macdonald alongside Annie Baker, the young master of tongue-tied heartache (in rural Vermont, even). Macdonald’s characters are more playfully self-conscious, running ironic circles around themselves, trying too hard and not trying enough, like their elaborate but makeshift costumes.
It’s the effort that endears them, and makes the play so funny, sly, and sad. Macdonald says, “I want the art of my generation to acknowledge that we have considerable things to be fearful of, but I think hope is cool. That’s why in the last image everyone is looking up. Not putting a bow on it, not saying it’s solved. It’s just a tense change.”
“A tense change?” I ask.
In a late scene of the play, a grieving student speaks to Silent Gen:
What is the word for this feeling?
Is it emptiness?
(Silent Gen nods quickly, “No”)
It’s too full to be empty.
(Silent Gen agrees)
But it’s still so hollow.
(They sit and think for a word)
I guess there isn’t one. Yet.
Macdonald offers, “There aren’t words—yet. In the moment of extreme pain, there is that word ‘yet,’ there is the possibility for change.”
As these students change tense, from a broken, bucolic past to an uncertain future, they pass through a searing present. They come very alive. They feel everything. That’s the gift of the play. Like its title, from a Lorca poem, it leaves open a space not to jump, not to hang back, but to suspend and to see.