Last year I had my very first (and so far only) musical produced in Boston. This year I released my very first (and so far only) console game. What do both experiences have in common? If you said, "They both left you mysteriously and deeply sad after they were over!" I say, "Congratulations! You are a very smart person or maybe you read the title of this blog post!"
I've learned a tremendous amount through both experiences, but probably the most surprising thing was the weird funk I felt at the end of them. I don't say surprising as a euphemism - it hits you with the speed and ferocity of a sumo wrestler on a bowl of chanko nabe. Even if you think you see it coming, you are not prepared. (However, I was rather quite prepared for Burning Crusade.)
So, naturally, when you feel sad to such a sudden and intense degree, you start to wonder "WHY?" The obvious candidate would seem to be the sudden lack of stimulation and immediate purpose. If you've ever done theater, you know how intense it can be. This is true even if you are the writer of the show and your only official job after rehearsals start is "occupy space in theater while stuff happens around you." A vast majority of my free time was spent focusing on the show. When it's all over, it can certainly feel like a gigantic crash.
I mean, that makes sense, right? That could explain the blues! Except that, during the whole experience, I kept thinking, "MAN it will be so NICE to finally have some time to RELAX!" The end of the show certainly provides plenty of time to relax! Why not revel in it? Why feel sad and not relieved? There have certainly been times where I worked really hard for many weeks on something and was glad to be done with it - travel and demos and conferences for my day job, just to name several hundred examples (by my last count).
So for this reason, I feel like it's not simply the sudden lack of stimulation or purpose that leaves one feeling sad. It's something else. I trace it to one particular moment. I felt it during rehearsals while I was in my day job office. I call it my "Ecclesiastes" moment.
If you're not familiar with the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most depressing book in the whole Bible - King Solomon basically lists all the pleasures available on the planet and explains why, in the end, they're all "vanity, vanity." (I like really like the book for some possibly perverse reason.)
Well, at that moment, in my office, it's like I suddenly realized that the whole musical was "vanity, vanity."
I sometimes feel like there are two Chrises in my head - we'll call them Dumb Chris and Smart Chris, because I say so, and that's how our relationship works. When I work on a creative project, Smart Chris is very conservative about things. He said, "This is just a fringe theater company in Boston. It's a very nice first step into the theater world, but the odds of it launching your writing career just aren't that high. It will probably be a whole lot more work to get your SECOND production." Dumb Chris, however, said, "Oh my gosh! YOU'RE GETTING PRODUCED! There is now a NON-ZERO CHANCE that Cameron Mackintosh or Hal Prince will walk into this theater, love your show, and give you a contract for a MILLION JILLION DOLLARS! A NON-ZERO CHANCE is practically a CERTAINTY!" Dumb Chris is dumb.
The trouble is that, for some reason, Dumb Chris has all the emotional controls in my brain. If you had asked me, I would have told you I KNEW everything Smart Chris said to be true. But I BELIEVED everything Dumb Chris was telling me. And that random moment in my office was when Smart Chris had finally had enough, shoved Dumb Chris out of the way, and grabbed the controls. "Actually, Chris," he said, "the odds are fairly high that few people are going to even notice your musical at all."
I'm not a big of Smart Chris. He makes me feel sad.
And I think THAT'S the real reason I got hit so hard with the blues after the musical was done. A little part of me - that dumb part that believed that somehow I had taken the first step towards "making it" - died. The show was over, and it would be right back to before. I had a cast album and a video, but my life would be pretty much the same. The set was gone, the magic was over, the theater would have somebody else's dream in it.
So when it came time for my next project, a video game - a light-hearted, classic-style adventure platformer for the OUYA - I thought, "My heart and soul WON'T be in this project! My expectations will be ZERO! Smart Chris will have the controls from the get-go!"
Who was I kidding?
For the record, my expectations were zero at first. But when I released the game on OUYA, I had no idea the game would immediately show up on people's screens in the "New Releases" section. I was expecting a trickle of attention at the most, and suddenly there was... SOME. "Some" was more than I had been expecting. And there were some positive reactions from some people! Some people were marking it 4 or 5 stars on the OUYA store! This was all it took for Dumb Chris to get right back in the controls. Clearly, this was the first step to becoming the next Shigeru Miyamoto.
So naturally, once the game moved off the front page of the OUYA store, things went back to normal, and the Ecclesiastes moment kicked in again.
So is there a way to beat this, other than actually be wildly successful? I don't know. I sometimes read interviews with people who I feel like have made it, and they still seem to get hit by Ecclesiastes moments. Quad-jillionaire actors in Hollywood wonder if their career is over. Big time writers worry that their moment has faded. Maybe even success can't beat it - it just delays it.
Maybe the answer is to force Smart Chris into the controls from day one and be more aggressive about keeping him there. Don't let my expectations get away from me. Don't fantasize about things that aren't likely to happen.
The trouble with this strategy is, if I REALLY had logical expectations for my creative projects, I wouldn't bother with them. The odds are too against me. Real success would require me dedicating my whole life to my creative pursuits, instead of a few nights and weekends for fun, and EVEN THEN it would be a lot of work with no guarantees whatsoever.
But I don't want to do that. I don't want to stop making things. Even in spite of the post-release blues, I HAD FUN. I enjoyed getting that email from F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company saying they were going to be producing my show, even though it was slightly, you know, not written at the time. I enjoyed rewriting Act Two at the last minute, and seeing the theater process in action, and meeting great people. I enjoyed making my game, and watching friends play test it, and clicking that "Submit" button on the OUYA website, and yes, I enjoyed believing somewhere in that stupid brain of mine that this was only the beginning. I had fun being dumb. Sometimes, I still do.
So you know what? I think the "answer" is just to take the punches of reality and keep going. The post-release blues don't last forever. I encourage you not to label them "depression" and not to hide yourself away from the world because there's no reason to prolong the feelings. Start thinking about the next awesome thing you're going to make. Hal Prince, famed Broadway director/producer, always made sure to have another project lined up to work on the day after the last play opened. Seems like a good strategy. Take the downs with the ups. Just keep moving on. Enjoy the dreaming.
I mean, after all, who knows?