Alma Sánchez-Eppler’s ‘They Extract!’

Toward a transparent creative process

Sánchez-Eppler: working in full view. (Photo via bandcamp.com)

Author’s note: Alma prefers to be referred to by using the gender-neutral pronouns "they/them/their."

Alma Sánchez-Eppler, a playwright and recent Philadelphia transplant, is embarking on an experiment to demystify the creative process.

Alma was frustrated with what they called the “black box” of the creative process, in which an artist goes in and art comes out. The art doesn’t tell the story of the creative process, of the actual work an artist puts in to make a finished product. In an effort to gain a sense of their own creative process and allow others to see beyond the finished artful product, Alma is letting transparency be their guiding principle as they work on their play, They Extract!, so that others may be able to get a glimpse of a creative process. “I’m trying to be as blatant about what it means to create as possible,” Alma said.

They Extract! is an experimental play about love as a commodity. Its characters learn to harvest love as an energy source and experience changes as a result. Alma wrote the play as a college junior two years ago, and just last year, they produced and directed a live performance of it at Wesleyan University (you can watch a video of the performance here). Not ready to part from the world of the play, Alma committed to spending more time with the script and revising it. This experimental transparent creative process, announced on October 9 via a Facebook status and a post on their website, is the means through which Alma is once again getting involved with the play.

Working in public

Alma has put the complete text of the play up on Google Docs so that viewers can watch them edit. Alma is tracking their own thoughts, questions, and tinkering of all sizes — including thematic ideas they’re wrestling with and word choices — on Twitter as well. Alma hopes to not only gain awareness of their own creative process, but also allow others to see beyond the finished product and realize there’s no magic in creating something, just work ethic, or what Alma calls sticktoitiveness.

Alma worries that the opacity of the creative process discourages potential creators from actually creating, since they might be under the impression that either you possess genius (or inspiration or magic powers), or you don’t. Have you ever read a book and thought I could never write anything as brilliant as this? Alma would tell you that you could, but it would take hard work — the the book didn’t start out brilliant; as readers, we just don’t see the evolutions of the drafts before the published draft.

“I want to share what my process is like so that other people know that it’s possible to have a process,” Alma explained, “and that it’s messy finding what it looks like, if you ever find what it looks like.” These ideas have been percolating in Alma’s brain for a while now. Several years ago, Alma had a similar project in mind to upload to their website different versions of songs they wrote and recorded as the songs were revised and polished. Alma only ended up pursuing that project halfheartedly, but They Extract! provided an opportunity to fully try again.

Inspiration, not distraction

The Internet, with its free, wide audience and its ability to connect people, inspired Alma to start this experiment. Whereas some writers must back away from the Internet as they write in order prevent distraction, Alma is leveraging the Internet as a useful tool for productivity. People on the Internet can observe Alma at work if they choose to, and Alma can use the people as a resource. Although Alma recognizes connection over the Internet is not as valuable as face-to-face connections, they look forward to hearing the reactions and getting feedback from those who might be following the Transparent Creative Process project.

Allowing strangers to be their collaborators in this way is a challenge for Alma, who usually prefers to work alone and considers their shyness to be a barrier to asking for feedback. As for people trolling the project? It’s happened once already, but Alma knew the troll and resolved the issue over email. “But no one is really watching now,” they told me, noting that the experiment won’t feel real until people know about it and begin to tune in.

Alma feels a conflicting tension between wanting people to watch their experiment and being nervous about being vulnerable. “When I first made the Google Doc live, 12 anonymous Google critters popped up and I flipped my shit!” Alma said. “I wondered if I could really do this. I might have to put a Post-It note over part of my screen so I can pretend no one is watching.”

Alma’s potential for self-consciousness here suggests that maintaining openness will be a challenge once people start looking at the play, commenting on the Google Doc, and tweeting at them. And although Alma’s passion for the play and for playwriting is propelling them along for now, an important motivating factor is having their progress in public. “No one would notice if I didn’t tweet that day, but I would notice,” they said. Without any rules as to how to go about the experiment or a deadline to finish the revision process, accountability to an anonymous, at times imagined public is helpful.

A new spin on “performance art”

Since Alma’s trials and errors, work habits, and revisions will be on public display, the performative element of the experiment becomes an issue. This experiment could be defined as performance art, which prods the audience to ask: How might a creative process be an artful product in and of itself? Does the product of art mask the vulnerability that is actually found in the creative process? What effect will this experiment have on They Extract! and other creative projects Alma undertakes?

The transparent creative process also brings into question the distinction between private and public spaces: is Alma working in public if no one is watching, or are Google Docs and Twitter, though accessible to others, inherently private to them? Does Alma completely own their work if the play is out in the open, on corporate social media platforms, with the potential for crowd-sourced feedback?

Alma will consider these questions and many more during the course of the experiment — that’s part of the fun and part of the reason they are not setting any hard expectations about what to take from the experiment. Alma has little control over how the experiment will go, anyway — will people interact with Alma through the experiment as is Alma’s hope, take a peek to merely satiate their voyeuristic tendencies, or just ignore the project?

Maybe you can help answer that question if you watch Alma’s creative process unfold.

 

Above right: Photo of a February 2014 performance of They Extract! via wesleyanargus.com.

Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.