The Making of “Bloodletting in Minor Scales”
Plays Inverse is a Pittsburgh-based press that publishes plays in book form. Go back and say the name again. See? That’s exactly what the publisher, Tyler Crumrine, is doing.
The interior of the second release, Bloodletting in Minor Scales by Justin Limoli, is beautifully designed, resembling a collection of poetry as much as a play. The text is all over the place: “Stage Fright” and “Mental Ward” are listed as characters, as is “Justin”—a “ghostly figure that haunts the ongoing existence of the play.” Godot appears impatiently and Mental Ward tells him, “Not yet.”
Bloodletting is obsessed with its writing, and the beginning of the play, the point at which it starts, is referenced continuously. A mother has failed at suicide. Justin, the son, is compelled by a character named “Blood” to narrate. The play is frantic, hyper and also aptly quiet at times. If Beckett is cartesian, Justin Limoli is REALLY cartesian. I’d love to see this work performed, to see how “Blood” takes form, say, or “You.” But I’d need the text to refer to before and after—which, of course, is the genius of Plays Inverse.
Below, the author, publisher, and designer tell the origin story for the book.
TYLER CRUMRINE: The first thing that hooked me about Bloodletting in Minor Scales was the character list. It didn’t just describe the characters; it created an entire mythos for them. And the first character on the list was ‘Character List,’ described as “constantly gorging on minor characters, wreathed and spoon-fed.” Family lines were being drawn, but between characterizations of Narrative, Stage Fright, and Poetry as well as Mom, Dad, and Grandma. Justin was stripping the play down to its parts, and animating those parts for very specific purposes. I was enthralled, and curious to see what they’d do.
And what they did was punch me in the gut. Justin captures mourning in this beautiful, ugly, heart-wrenching way—complicated by that fact that his Mother’s suicide attempt (the opening scene) fails. That he’s mourning the living but can’t help it. That he can’t move on. And so he begins interrogating Suicide, Dialogue, Stage Theories… anything he can get his hand on… all with the play pressuring him to find an ENDING. However many reads later, it’s still hitting me. Including lines that somehow, miraculously, manage to be funny.
The hard part was getting Justin to let go. He kept wanting to change things, and having experienced some really unreceptive workshops, I think it took him a while to believe I was really on his side. That sometimes when I said no to edits, it was because I really liked a part and thought it worked well, not because I was tired of editing. Still, I felt bad reining him in sometimes when I knew how desperately he wanted to get it right. To get it all out.
In the end I had to sit him down and remind him there’d be other poems, other plays. That he didn’t need to say everything in this first one. But did need to trust me that this was a damn good start. We’d come a long way by then, and that he really did trust me by that point meant worlds—personally and as an editor. It also meant the difference between an anxious sending off to printers and an ecstatic one… both of us excited to finally release it into the world.
DAVE WATT: After a few initial emails between Tyler, Justin, and myself, we were able to agree on some specific images from the text—cleavers, figures, stages, masks—and on a general direction and mood that reflected the visceral style of the work itself. I then created a first round of rough sketches conveying various ideas and layouts. For me, this part in the process is similar to a frenzied carnival basketball game—I take as many shots as possible in an allotted time and hope for the best.
After the first round, I received notes on which elements to hone in on and which parts didn’t exactly work. We settled on 4 sketches to further flesh out. These second round sketches were still quite loose, but from there we were able to decide on a final direction: the faceless mother, with a few tweaks.
Once it was time, I did one more sketch of what would be the actual cover art before laying down some paint. This part of the process is much slower & more contemplative, but also my favorite. Lines become shapes, colors are considered and re-considered, layer by layer of paint & charcoal are added until the image is complete. The finished piece is then scanned and cleaned up in Photoshop.
After that it was just a matter of laying out the title and choosing a font for the text. In the end, I went with Futura Medium—I thought it had a bit of a playwright feel—which we wound up using for the blurbs and spine as well.
JUSTIN LIMOLI: My second year of grad school I came into my thesis workshop with the idea of writing a poem/play about something that had recently happened. It was a particularly traumatic event, and I thought characters and stage directions would give me the removal I needed to actually orchestrate my words around it. I also thought it would be good for me … writing through something. During my first semester, I had workshops tell me the form didn’t work, but I was determined to stick with it. It was rough, but I relied a lot on my thesis advisor, trusting her with it, knowing that she believed in the form too.
Then a friend, Joshua Young (another PI author), caught wind of what I was doing and we started talking. He told me about Tyler and Plays Inverse. He told me to send him my manuscript. He said he believed in it. So I worked on it, graduated from the poetry program, and once I felt it was done, submitted to Tyler. He accepted the book (!) but then I started to doubt myself. The content was mostly there, but I needed it to sing. I insisted that its sonnets become dirges. I was losing it, getting lost in the music and the violence, and at the time I really struggled with coming back. I got defensive, egotistical, and tone-deaf. I’ll admit I wasn’t very trusting initially. I didn’t trust the form entirely, or myself, or the language. But Tyler kept me grounded. He reminded me there he was, investing in this work with me, trying to make Bloodletting as affecting as possible. He brought self-restraint, which I really took to heart.
But I wasn’t reaching an end. It was an examination of this one event, over and over and over, obsessing, being told to let go, not letting go, everything falling away while holding it. I was finding myself, while not knowing where I was. And it wasn’t going well initially. So I stopped saying out loud what I wanted from it. I stopped deflecting from what happened. I admitted that it wasn’t something I could write about and fully reach closure. That in one moment, everything failed, and that while I didn’t really want to tell anyone about all this; maybe I could show them.