You Can't Copyright An Idea
There are four plays about the Voyager mission.
The first one is mine, but it clearly wasn’t the first one. Because to be first implies that I completed a draft before anyone else. In November 2016, full of pain and only just finally being able to crawl out of bed — I was freelance, or “freelance,” and in more pain than I had the right to be in — I reconnected with Maureen Monterubio. She wanted to submit something to the Samuel French Off-Off-Broadway Short Play Festival, something with a bite of hope, something to get us moving and creating. Halcyon, my election play, was still months away from being written. Once we came up with the idea for Voyagers, we abandoned the whole Sam French thing. Even if we got in, they’d own most of the rights. And anyway, this play was too big for 10 minutes. It was a 90 minute play, we thought. Tidy and hopeful and without an intermission.
Nearly three years later, Voyagers is the most ambitious piece of theatre I’ve ever worked on. It’s seven characters (which is small for me, actually) whose ages span 15 to 80+ years old. It’s an all female and non-binary cast, three of whom are playing fully three-dimensional non-human characters. There are five original songs. It runs three hours long! It’s about meaningful communication across great distances. It’s deeply female. It’s everything I ever wanted to see on stage, which is why I threw my entire life into it. That is the first play about the Voyager mission.
The second play about the Voyager mission was produced by Playwrights Realm in 2018.
It’s called Hello, From the Children of Planet Earth and I didn’t read it because I was an insecure monster and I didn’t see it because I don’t live in New York. So instead I read every review and spiraled down because I know how talented Don Nguyen is and I know that I’m not the only person who’s allowed to personify a spacecraft and I know I know I know. I spent way too much time texting Maureen about my insecurities — insecurities that we shared. Because like die hard fans, we got the reference in the title right away. And like impossible dreamers, we worried that there was only room for one. And even though this play had nothing to do with our own — other than the seed of an idea, other than the mythical Voyager 1, a character Nguyen calls “The Farthest Explorer in the Universe.”
This play was first workshopped in 2016, the same year I started digging at the material. We were both looking for a little hope.
The third play about the Voyager mission is currently being produced at New Jersey Rep.
I woke up with an ear infection and then saw the marketing material for Voyager One flash across my phone. I was scrambling to get myself dressed enough for urgent care. I made a sound that expressed emotional and physical pain and my husband grabbed the phone from my hand. “What am I looking at?” he asked. “An algorithm biting me in the ass,” I wanted to say. Instead, I asked him to read the synopsis, but the image alone told me what I needed to know. This was a Golden Record play, sci-fi. This was a play with a title that shared nearly all of the same letters as my own.
I texted Maureen and my dream dramaturg slash best friend Sara. “Let me freak out for a minute about this,” I said. The subtext: reassure me that this isn’t the play we’re all working on. Let me know that all isn’t lost. Maureen texted me back almost immediately. “I’m not worried.” Look how much we’ve grown.
An incredible actor friend is starring in the show right now. We lost touch after I moved to Seattle, but we’re linked by this dream source material. I crossed New Jersey Rep off an imaginary list of theatres we’re shopping Voyagers around to. We can’t win them all. We can’t be everywhere at once.
The fourth play about the Voyager mission sits in that same unproduced space.
My friend Liz Maestri discovered that one of her friends was moving to Seattle. Y’all should be friends, she wrote. So of course, I did some googling. I found her website. And then I scrolled. “1977. Voyagers 1 & 2…” Again, I thrust my phone into my husband’s hand. “Keep reading,” I said. “I want to be friends with this woman. Keep reading.” Liz Baker’s play Something Massive Looms Overhead — a play I’m dying to read — is nothing like my own. It has more in common with the discarded first version of Voyagers, a version I let go of in order to make room for the story I wanted to tell. And even then, it’s completely different.
My desire to be friends, coupled with the knowledge that I’m not the only one, that I’ll never be the only one, prompted me to use her play as an icebreaker. “Looks like we’re both super into Voyager,” I said, inviting her to the workshop of my play. What I wanted to say: “Looks like we’re going to have so much to talk about, more to talk about than we could ever know. Looks like we’re going to work inside, listening to the Golden Record and forging a new friendship over clacking computer keys, rain, and tea. Looks like we’re going to be trading book recommendations forever. Looks like we were meant to find each other.”
I’m FaceTiming with her next week, an echo of my collaboration style and my characters’ distance bridging. She moves to Seattle in August, but it feels weird to wait. Communicating over great distances. That’s what Voyager would have wanted.