Sunday, December 31, 2006

"Moves the Air Around It"

From John Mayer -

"This is the greatest expectation you can have when it comes to art - that you can create something that moves the air around it, something that can at least hold (if not remove) some of the weight in a person's life."

www.johnmayer.com/blog

Hear, hear!

Saturday, December 30, 2006

METATHEATRE

For lack of a better word. If there is a better word, someone please educate me!

What I mean here is a theatre experience that encompasses and includes the audience in the proceedings. A "fourth-wall" breaker.

Examples: A Company of Wayward Saints, murder mystery dinners, The Victorian Hotel [http://www.rogueartists.org/projects/victorianhotel.php], Director's Cut, etc.

"Meta" as in "transcending."

I'm thinking "metatheatre" like "metafiction" and "metaverse." An all-emcompassing experience.

So that's the term, and what it means to me.

It's a fascinating form to be a part of, let me tell you! It's immersive for the audience, and a challenge for the performer. It requires an ability to improvise, yet keep things moving in the direction of a predetermined narrative.

So how the hell do you write for it? I know how my friend Pete [www.thepete.com] wrote for it with Director's Cut. And I've read A Company of Wayward Saints a few times. both of those examples are pretty linear ... how do you write for a show that has three or four scenes going on simultaneously in different spaces?

Hrm. Not much theatre/playwriting theory in this blog entry.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Theatre of the Occult

In my online travels, I run across many a strange and exotic idea. Most of the time it's part of a greater body of research; I will be "infogorging" on a particular subject that takes a wild tangent. One such tangent led me to "Pop Occulture" the blog of occult investigator Tim Boucher.

Not too long ago Tim blogged on the subject of "The Metaphysics of Media", regarding motion pictures in particular. He states:

Applying that to the matter at hand, we could think of a movie as being a complex set of events, out of which certain events are selected to be filmed. Those events which end up on film are then collected together, edited down and arranged in a linear sequence. The result is what we call a movie or film.

The trick lies in that this movie is composed of selected and arranged events (the "Original Events" - OE), but that the showing of viewing of that movie is in itself an event as well (a "New Event" - NE). In economic terms, we might say that the more people who see this movie, the more "real" the New Event created by the movie becomes. It becomes a shared reference point for masses of people and is added to the cultural lexicon. But if no one watches the movie, it is considered a "flop."
I believe that this could be restated for live theatre.

The word "occult" comes from the Latin occultus meaning clandestine, hidden, or secret. The majority of what we actually do in theatre is hidden from the audience. The audiencprivyt privvy to the audition process, rehearsals, design work, etc. They see the resulting synergy of all those "Original Events" manifest in the moment, participating with their attention and "suspension of disbelief." In theatre, as in engineering, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As a result, theatre can be a transcendent experience. I have had glimpses of this in my short career. I think we all have.

This sort of thing isn't typically considered very seriously when staging a show. Yet I wonder what would occur if we practiced theatre with transcendence as our goal.

Would Bacchus himself show up and demand an aisle seat?

Friday, December 08, 2006

PLOTTING

"Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
-- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

"Go that way really fast. If something gets in your way, turn."
-- Advice to Lane Meyer(John Cusack)
from Charles De Mar (Curtis Armstrong)
and Monique Junet (Diane Franklin)
in the movie Better Off Dead
The problem with unlimited freedom is inertia. If you can go in any direction at any speed, off into eternity, you might as well stay still. Structure is important if only to tell you where to go and when to stop. All the detail work, the fancy character choices, the witty dialogue -- that's the freedom that exists within the carefully determined boundaries of plot. In other words, a carefully thought out and planned plot allows for creativity and imagination to flow.

There comes a point when I've been stirring around the cauldron of ideas that the play starts boiling over. I'm ready to write. At this stage in the process, It's time to plot out the play. The way I learned to do it is with the old standard "plot card" technique. Any decent book on playwriting or screenwriting will tell you all about this, but here's my take.
  • Get a bunch of lined 3 x 5 note cards
  • Write the title (working or otherwise) on a card. (If you are planning on major act divisions [acts, scenes, vignettes, etc.], make a "title" card for each major division ["Act I"])
  • Put each of your major plot points on a card (Romeo meets Juliet, Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet fakes her death, etc.)
  • Make "Introduction of [character name]" cards for each of your characters.
  • Let your imagination go wild: put scene ideas, bits and pieces of dialogue, etc. on note cards.
  • Now lay out your cards from beginning to end, roughly setting out when each event should occur. If you have cards that don't quite fit yet, set them aside.
  • Go through and create gaps in your layout where obvious gaps in continuity exist (missing transitions, needed plot points, etc.)
  • Fill in the gaps.
  • Go through and read the cards, paying close attention to flow.
  • Rearrange cards, take some out, write new ones. Tinker with it. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty!
  • Put the cards in a neat, chronological stack. Go through them one at a time and write your play!
Note - one card is roughly equivalent to 2 pages or less of script. Roughly.

This is a very structured approach to plotting, and I know first hand that sometimes it feels better to just let the words flow. Sometimes the muse won't wait for you to plot things out. Well, fine. Just write. Jump continuity, write scene fragments -- have a ball! Later on, when you're stuck and have no notion of what to do next, transfer brief descriptions of your fragments onto notecards, and plot out the rest of the play.

The word "plot" literally means "piece of ground". I like to think of the plot as the map of the play. It'll tell you how to get from point "a" to point "b" but it's still up to you to detour around a bit and see the sights. After you've bought the souvenir spoon and seen the world's largest ball of twine, the map will keep you heading towards your destination: a finished play.

Monday, December 04, 2006

DOVER KIDS

Once upon a time Pamela and I took a one-person show around to elementary schools in Arkansas. The play was "Einstein's Quest" written by academic hermit and noted playwright Allen Partridge. Al wrote the thing so it could be performed by a guy or a gal, and in the early days of doing this, we took turns performing.

"Einstein's Quest" is a high-energy, interactive play that teaches creative problem solving to children from kindergarten to eighth grade. The emphasis here is on "interactive". The second half of the show does not work unless the kids are actively communicating with the performer.

Arkansas has many small schools scattered throughout the rural areas. A performer with good scheduling skills and enough gumption can hit up to three different locations in a day. When we first started doing "EQ", we were working for Al. (He would later turn the reigns of the company over to us before falling off the face of the earth.) Our second time out on the road, things were humming along beautifully. Pamela was up first and had a great audience first thing in the morning. I went second, and knocked 'em dead. And so we arrived at our third and final venue for the day in Dover, Arkansas.

Before Pamela took the stage, the principal addressed the assembled kids. Here's what he said, from memory:

"Okay. You remember the rules? We brought these kind people here to put on a play for you. I want you to keep your mouths closed and your eyes open. Sit on your hands. If you make any noise, or have any fun whatsoever, I will have the orcs dragged you down to the dungeon and there we will break you on the wheel!"

Well, it was something like that. The kids were absolutely terrified. When he introduced Pamela, you could hear a pin drop. It was unnatural to have that many elementary kids that still and quiet. And it would've meant theatrical death for that performance of "EQ".

Pamela (and this is one of the reasons I absolutely adore her) completely crushed the iron strangle hold the principal had on the kids. She did it with the old "hello come-back" technique:

PERFORMER
Hello.

AUDIENCE (unsure, nervous)
Hello.

The Performer paces the stage, shakes her head, sighs.


PERFORMER
Hello!

AUDIENCE (warming up)
Hello!

Performer nods her head. "Not bad." She steps back, and jumps forward:

PERFORMER
HELLO!!!

AUDIENCE (fully engaged)
HELLO!!!


Usually, that's all it take s to get the audience's attention fully focused on the performance. As I recall it, it took more than three "Hellos" to get the audience warmed up. In actuality, the audience needed to feel safe. Here were kids who were no doubt whipped for coloring outside the lines. Pamela, in shouting "HELLOOOOOO!!!" at them demonstrated a boldness and power that they had probably never seen. It made them feel strong, and so they responded in kind by the end of the "hello come-back" routine: "HELLOOOOOO!!!"

Thus unbridled by the wicked tyranny of the despot principal, the children became the biggest bunch of rowdy, uncontrollable ape-children I have ever witnessed. Pamela had to contend with a ROAR of laughing, talking, shouting, singing ... children dancing around, doing jumping jacks, breakdancing ... it became mass hysteria. Pamela soldiered on, keeping the reigns loose in her hands and riding those kids over the finish line and into the most heartfelt standing ovation I daresay has ever manifested in Dover, Arkansas.

And so "Dover Kids" entered the Moore lexicon. "Dover Kids" signifies a group of repressed, suppressed, and oppressed people who, upon finding a safe environment to "be themselves," go completely nuts with all the freedom. You see this a lot in acting classes. In an acting class, you can stretch out and do things that you can't do "in the industry" like wear an adult diaper on stage, or perform oral sex on your scene partner. (I wish those were made up examples. I really do.)

"Dover Kids" suffer from a lack of self-discipline in an environment with little to no rules. They wind up pissing in the pool and ruining the fun for everyone. But you can't really hold it against them. They've grown up in an environment where it wasn't safe to express themselves at all, so there's a lot of pent-up energy that has to get out.

So that's what is meant when one of us refers to "Dover Kids".

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Los Angeles actors are spoiled by film and television. Most of their auditions are for film and television so they learn to use subtlety, to speak with their "inside voices," to keep things small and realistic. When I first moved to Los Angeles, I had to get into this habit since I came from a strong theatre background. I had to pull back and make things very real and believable. Of course, I've done it so long that I used the same style for my last theatrical audition. I didn't vary my vocal volume for the size of the space and I kept things so small they might not have communicated to the back row. I'm glad I wasn't cast so I could learn that lesson.

I've seen a few plays recently and I've seen a few actors who seemed more like they were performing in film than in theatre. They gave these beautiful, low-key performances which can totally work with the right material and an intimate black box theatre. The problem was that they were in very presentational productions. They were hard for me to hear at times. They seemed like they were out of place in the world of the play. They were as quiet and subtle as I was in that audition.

So how do we fix L.A. actors for theatre? How do I get my groove back so I can nail the next theatre audition? Here's my personal strategy:

1. Read more plays.
2. Decide whether each piece is presentational, representational, or on the grayscale in between the two.
3. Assess the performance venue and/or audition space.
4. Use my Arthur Lessac training to fill the space with my voice.
5. Be as big or as small as necessary to bring the character to life within the realm of the play.
6. Accept my bouquets of flowers at the end.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Brevity of Characters

How many characters should there be in a play?

Oleanna has two players - professor and student. The play is very cat and mouse, and any additional players would distract from what's going on.

The Road to Nirvana has the two filmmakers, a superfluous wife, and Madonna. I think there's another character in there somewhere, but I can't remember who he was exactly. This play is also very cat and mouse. If you ask me, it has three too many characters.

The point is, if you're going to take up an actor's time (and in L.A., that's a big deal) at least give them something worth doing! Forgettable, thankless roles wind up being played by members of the crew, when the actors originally cast get bored and go off chasing national commercials and soap opera auditions. NO role should be forgettable and thankless. That old adadge "there are no small roles, only small actors" is complete nonsense, and we all know it. Some roles just absolutely suck, and are the result of lazy playwriting.

Look, if the character exists only to deliver a tray of cookies, cut him! Or give him a poignant and touching monologue! But don't expect an actor to jump through the hoops of the audition process and show up for every rehearsal just to perform Larry the Butler (for free.)

More about this later ...

Saturday, October 21, 2006

The "Have to Have" Rut

A kid I once knew got a job and was all jazzed up about saving his money to buy some ridiculous thing that only a kid could want. He asked me "can you take me to a store where I can buy a piggy bank?" I asked him why he wanted to spend the money he had earned on a piggy bank, rather than saving it for his dream toy. He replied "I have to have a piggy bank so I can save my money!"

I have avoided writing because I had to do research first, or I didn't have access to a computer, or the computer I had access to only had Lotus and have to have Word!

Here's where I would typically trot out a long anecdote about how J.K. Rowling writes long hand, or how difficult it was for Shakespeare to pen his five-act epics on crappy parchment with crappy quill feathers by the crappy light of a crappy candle.

Instead, let me offer a practical piece of advice for turning the "have to have" rut around, and getting something done: Assess what you do have. See what can be done with that.

The thing that always draws me back to the theatre is the "make-do" aspect of the art. I like solving problems and getting all MacGyver. It's all about getting by on what you got. In this world of plenty that we live in now, it's easy to get accustumed to always getting exactly what you want when you want it. That's cool ... but not getting what you want should never prevent an artist from creating.

Take what ever it is you're lacking and use that to your advantage. Don't have access to a computer? Pull your play in a pulp fiction/noir-ish direction, and hammer the thing out on that manual typewriter your parents keep in the garage. Maybe seeing your words spill out across a slice of onion paper coiled around the platen of a monstrous old Royal will inspire you to melodramatic heights not reached since the days of Sam Spade.

Why not write the thing in crayon on butcher paper? Who cares? Just write. If someone says "hey, why is this play in crayon on butcher paper?" Tell them "you'll have to read it to find out."

Need to do research first? Go to the library. Or here's a thought: write something that doesn't require research. Or make up the research. I'm picking away at "The Worst Play Ever Written [working title]" that makes a big point of made up research.

Don't get discouraged, just put one word after the next. That's more than most folks ever manage to do!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Non-Attachment


To my knowledge, the Buddha was not a playwright. He did, however, pass along a bit of wisdom that serves as priceless advice to even the most irreligious of us who dare create art. This bit of wisdom is at the core of Buddhist philosophy:

Attachment leads to suffering.
Practice non-attachment.
Behold a frightening picture:



This is the play that would not die. It's my award-winning play Diving In after nearly endless tinkering, attempts at expansion, adaption to the big screen, separation into a three-play cycle, etc. It became a leviathan; a monster that haunted my dreams, kept me up late at night and distracted me for days on end. How many years did I spend beating this poor play to death? I hate to think on it.

One day, sick with the grief of it, I packed the whole damn thing up in a box and put it in storage. No longer attached, I was able to refocus my creative energies elsewhere and on other projects.

There is no shortage of ideas. Just when you think they thought of it all, some jackass in the middle of nowhere surprises us all. Getting all hung up on "that one really good idea" is crazy! And believe me, I know whereof I speak. My attention became so focused on Diving In it was all I could think about. Every conversation I had, article I read, food I ate -- everything -- was related back to Diving In. Being fixated thusly, I wasn't able to fully formulate new ideas or follow new creative impulses. I was stuck! Finally I pulled myself out of it, and there was this huge rush of ideas. I finished a children's book, wrote another play, etc.

You have to know when to say when and have the courage to throw out the baby with the bath water if need be. This isn't an excuse for self-destructive behavior or nihilism. It means recognizing when you've gotten about as far as anyone could possibly expect, and shifting gears. Hiking down a different trail. Whistling a new tune.

Another story: A friend of mine in high school was really into miniature role playing games. He had hundreds of these beautifully detailed figures that he had delicately painted over hundreds of hours. One day his house caught fire and the whole collection -- all that work and investment -- went up in smoke. I felt sick for him. I saw him a few days after I had heard the news and offered my deep condolences.

He shook his head at me. "Are you kidding? I'm relieved!"

He graduated highschool, served a stint in the Army, and some years later took up his hobby again, totally out performing himself in terms of quantity and quality.

Out of the blue a few months ago, it occurred to me that the thing I liked originally about Diving In was the simplicity of the play: A sole actress sits on a window ledge, above the audience and tells them her story. At the end of the play, she jumps off of the ledge and into a blackout (and implicitly, to her death.) I dusted off what was left of the mangled, battered original draft and started putting the pieces back together. It's basically a typist's job now, transcribing the bits and pieces of the thing into a whole again. Any obsession I had about the play has faded away.

Who says you should suffer for you art?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Unpacking a Monologue

Here is a neat trick!

Every now and then actors have to go fishing for a monologue to perform, for auditions or acting class or what have you. This can lead to a funny sort of desperation. There's not a whole lot of really good monologues to be found in plays, and the ones that do exist tend to be way over done (if I ever here that stupid "to the moon and back again" speech, I'll just go nuts!) Eventually the actor starts eyeballing dialogue that is almost a monologue. The actor takes all the lines of Character #1, omits the lines of Character #2, fudges a few words to cover any awkward, jarring transitions in the resulting monologue and WHAMMO! Instant monologue.

Well, you can do the exact opposite as a playwright. Start with a good monologue and turn it into dialogue!

When I've done this, it's been for the very good reason that theatre can easily become static: talking heads, arbitrary blocking, and a whole lot of nothing going on on stage. To an audience inundated with television and film, sitting in a cold dark room listening to Joe Actor ramble on about the time he saw his dad shoot the horses (or whatever) can be interminable! Long monologues can be as difficult to perform as they are to watch.

The push and pull of conversation can turn a one-sided dull-fest into dynamic, engaging story-telling. At least, that's my theory. Let me put my own neck on the chopping block, and we'll see if my theory is born out in fact. Here's a rough draft of Melanie's confession from my play Torrid Affaire:

MELANIE: Nathan and I want different things. (pause) That's bullshit. Like saying "creative differences." We spent so much time on the road, playing shitholes. Shitholes for a cut of the door and the occasional free drink. It got to the point where I had to drive the van, because Nathan and the guys were so fucked-up. I had to stay sober because no one else would. Yeah, I know. Wah. Poor Melanie. But believe me ... I was holding that band together all through Peoria, Chicago, Waukeegan, Milwaukee; up to Canada and back. I was the den mother while my boyfriend and my bandmates lived their mockery of a rock and roll lifestyle for nine months.
This goes on for a full page. Yikes!

Now here's the version in the final script, with sequitur interjections by the other characters:
MELANIE: I’m glad never got married.

MOLLY: What happened?

MELANIE: Nathan and I want different things. (pause) That’s bullshit.
Like saying “creative differences.”

MOLLY: You had a band together. You
were real good.

MELANIE: We spent so much time on the road, playing shitholes. For a cut of the door and the occasional free drink. I had to stay sober because no one else would. Yeah I know. Wah. Poor Melanie. But believe me . . . I was holding that band together all through Illinois, Wisconsin, up to Canada and back. I was the den mother while my boyfriend and my bandmates lived their mockery of a rock and roll lifestyle for nine months.

CHARLENE: Unbelievable.
(You may note that I made some other edits in Melanie's speech. There comes a point where I go through a draft of the script and start distilling things down. "Peoria, Chicago, Waukeegan, Milwaukee; up to Canada and back" becomes "Illinois, Wisconsin, up to Canada and back." This is difficult for me to do, but I'm getting better at it.)

The thing to do when unpacking a monologue is to find points where you can insert prompts from the other characters: Questions, acknowledgements, comments, whatever. They just have to be sequitur. In other words, they can't be random or distracting. They must contribute to the story continuing on. These prompts can sometimes be taken from the monologue itself.

In monologue, Sally says "Five years ago I divorced my husband and ran away with a circus midget named arthur."

The dialogue goes like this:
SALLY: Five years ago ...
BARBARA: ... You divorced Dan.
SALLY: Yeah.
BARBARA: And you ran away with ... what was that circus midget's name?
Sally: Arthur.
I know this seems pretty cheesey, but it works!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Coming Attractions

I have a few entries to wrap up and post here, all relating to my own theories on playwriting. I will deal with plotting, practical concerns, and something I like to call "dialogueing."

I discovered the word "metatheatre" today. It's funny how you can formulate your own ideas and stir them around in the ol' mental cauldron and one day you find out there are others who have been working from the same spellbook -- and these others are much further along in their workings. I Googled the term "metatheatre" after reflecting on some of my pet theories and ideas regarding interactive theatre and how the prefix "meta-" added to the word "theatre" would describe what I was envisioning. Lo and behold, there are many who have gone before.

Expect some pontificating on the subject of metatheatre in the near future.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Building a Mailing List

It's been a little while since I've updated this blog. I've been very self-involved, working on my own actor and dancer stuff.

I knew that emails and Evites weren't sufficient promotion for our events. I knew that industry postcards were a step in the right direction, but we still weren't getting the attendance we wanted. It is to that end that I set out to collect mailing addresses from all the people I did plays with over the past year. I don't recall whether or not I hit up the filmmakers and cast from short films for their addys. I figure I can build my own mailing list and postcard them so they have a physical reminder of our events instead of a notice that hovers around in cyberspace.

Here's what's funny about this project: different people have different lags in their communication. I asked for mailing addresses nearly one month ago. I got a chunk the first week and they tapered off after that. I did get another one three days ago, even though I sent out the notice a month ago. I'm sure I'll receive addresses here and there for a while. If some of these people are so busy that it takes them a month to get back to my email about a mailing addy, how long did it take them to get around to reading my show emails?

I'm not all finger-pointy here. I'm also a guilty dog. I read an email from a Las Vegas friend a little over a week ago. She said she was coming to town for some number of days and wanted to get together with friends in the area. I didn't write anything down from the email so I still haven't contacted her and I have no idea when she's leaving. That information is still in cyberspace.

I've been told by my dance teachers that I'm doing two performances in December. I'm performing belly dance with the rest of my class at a restaurant in Hollywood at the beginning of that month, and I'm pole dancing with my other classmates later in the month in West Hollywood. My plan is to shoot special postcard pics for the pole event (since I'm a better pole dancer than belly dancer) and send out a couple mailings of those before that event. I'll probably tack a blurb on the front or back of the postcard that I'm belly dancing elsewhere at another time. I'll still use the emails and Evites, but we'll see how this affects the attendance. Then I can apply it to Sonny marketing when we get there.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Stakes and Playwriting

I'm going to start out by quoting a far better playwright than I:
The "work" you do "on the script" will make no difference. That work has already been done by a person with a different job title than yours. That person is the author. The lines written for you should be said clearly so that the audience can hear and understand them. Any meaning past that supplied by the author will come from your intention toward the person to whom they are said.
-- David Mamet, True and False
(If you haven't read True and False you really owe it to yourself to do so immediately. It was published the year I graduated college, and I wish it had been published four years earlier. It would've saved me a heap of grief and student loans to boot. There's a link for the book on Amazon to the right under the heading "Required Reading.")

The playwright is god, literally and figuratively. The universe created on the printed page exists within the boundries set by the author, and contains only those things he or she puts into it. Directors can add things on and take things off, Actors can "tweak" things and alter lines. Well, guess what: The play lives on to be taken up again by other directors, other actors.

Quick: Who wrote Hamlet? Okay, who originated the role of Hamlet on stage?

Exactly.

That's the good news. Here's the bad: as Spiderman learned, with great power comes great responsibilty. Nine times out of ten, if the play is really good the performers will absolutely vibrate and glow and the audience will have an enjoyable time. If the play sucks, it will take heroic efforts on the part of actors and audience alike to make it through the damn thing. "The play's the thing" to quote the Bard out of context (just like everyone else who quotes that line).

So how do you write a really good play? I'm still working on the answer to that. There is a formula of sorts that I use that I believe shows the way to a really good play. Here it is:
Act I, get your guy up a tree; Act II, throw rocks at him; Act III, get your guy out of a tree.
-- Julius J. Epstein, playwright and screenwriter
Or as my dear, former acting teacher Lynette McNeill would paraphrase "run the lovers up a tree and throw rocks at them." The idea is to never give your characters a moments rest. Just when they think their luck is turning for the better, beat 'em around some more. In other words, UP THE STAKES.

We have this lovely thing called a "classical paradigm" first elucidated by Aristotle some twenty-three hundred years ago. Basically you have an introduction, inciting incident, building action, climax and denoument. From this we derive our "three-act structure" which any fifty cent paperback book on writing can tell you all about. Any two-bit hack with a laptop loaded up with Final Draft can follow the paradigm and tell a decent story. But we don't want to write a decent play, we want to write a really good play.

"Throw rocks at him."

Let's take a decent plot-line: An American cyclist defeats all odds to win the Tour de France. Yay. Let's throw some rocks: A promising, young triathelete and amateur cyclist is diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer. It's spread to his lungs and brain and his chances for survival are slim at best. He undergoes surgery and chemotherapy and miraculously, the cancer goes into remission. The cyclist resumes training, in spite of being abandoned by his sponsor, and goes on to win the Tour de France seven consecutive times.

Okay, it doesn't have to be a dramatic, underdog tale of Lance Armstrong proportions. It could be as simple as a psychological/semantic word game that escalates to violence (Ophelia) or a tale of two brothers who get under each others skin to wild and unpredictable extremes (True West). How about a couple of nutty Broadway producers who keep digging themselves deeper and deeper (The Producers) ?

Heaping on the troubles makes life easier for the actors. They don't have to "work" so hard, they simply have to commit every ounce of their being to the journey the playwright has mapped out. That's fun; that's playing.

"Throwing rocks" makes life easier for an audience, as well. Look, we don't go to the theatre to witness the mundane and everyday. We can get that at home for free. We go to the theatre for drama. We go to be moved, to be shook-up, to laugh, to cry, to be appalled, to be delighted . . . we go to experience a life we can't (or don't want to) experience in the real world.

"Throwing rocks" aligns with something I wrote in an earlier post about commitment. It's about raising the stakes. Do it, and we'll all vibrate and glow.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I submitted my play for the contest yesterday. Huzzah! I already got the receipt confirmation from them. They said that the contest is for performance in early 2007. Here's hoping they don't extend the deadline again so it doesn't become 2008.

I was going to start on my second play yesterday but we only have one computer at home. Andrew's employment hunt is a little more pressing than my second play for a contest that ends in December. If we bump into each other at the home computer again, I'll grab the notecards and work out my plot.

Here's a teaser: There's a zombie attack. They chase the blood-covered survivors to a cabin. The only person they don't try to attack is the naked guy. You see where this is headed?

Zombies + naked people = w00+

Friday, August 04, 2006

I'm still waiting for Andrew to format my play so I can submit it to the contest. He's been busy the past two days writing a short film. Maybe this short film can get him some PAID writer work. I'd hate for him to sell this idea, though. It would be a lot of fun to shoot ourselves.

Maybe I'll write another play over the weekend for the contest so he can format that one as well. Might as well pile him up with work. I think this one will be about zombies and naked people - a winning combination.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

How to Pretend You're an Expert

"Write about what you know," they say. Yeah, right. If every person brave enough to lift pen to paper took that advice, we would be living in a world without The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The truth is, it is often necessary to write about stuff you know very little about. I've developed certain tricks in this direction (honed through four years of a liberal arts education) and I'd like to share them here.

"Everyone is an expert at something" some smart bald guy once said. I believe that specifics are at the core of effective characterization, and you can't get much more specific than one's personal pet hobby or interest. I also believe that people are most easily definable by their actions, and expertese in a certain field infers a wealth of action that the audience can fill in.

If a character on stage describes in detail the feeling of an AK-47 recoiling, and how it differs from the recoil of an M16 -- and that character happens to be a buttoned-down stay-at-home-mom -- I believe you have a compelling characterization on your hands. Okay, that's an extreme example, but maybe you get the idea?

Here's the bulleted list:


  • KNOW HOW TO RESEARCH
What tangents should you follow? For me, it's like pulling a loose thread on a sweater. Take some piece of data that jumps out at you and follow it down. I use Google and Wikipedia as my primary tools of reasearch. Hey, you don't really need to know how to perform brain surgery, you just have to make the audience believe that you do!

There's a great line in the Lost pilot where Jack describes a botched spinal surgery. He accidentally sliced open a sack of nerves and the nerves "spilled out like angel hair pasta". Is there any doubt that the man knows what he's talking about?

My #1 research tools are Google and Wikipedia. Thank you Al Gore for the internets!

  • KNOW THE LINGO

This actually applies to the above, but it is important enough to warrant its own place on this list. Every specialized activity, be it motocross racing or cross-stitching, has it's own vocabulary. You don't have to learn the whole language, just the most important, most frequently used terms. (How many times have you heard a doc on ER say the words "intibate" or "crash cart"?)

It is helpful to actually know what these words mean, if you're going to use them. I find that carefully study of a dictionary for these unfamiliar terms sometimes yields further tangents for research. Online, I prefer Dictionary.com and Wikipedia.

  • RELATE WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW TO WHAT YOU DO KNOW

A well used metaphor goes a long way. It covers up the fact you don't really know what you're talking about, and it can make the foreign field of study more real to the audience. "The problem with the car was the throw-out bearing. It made shifting gears feel like pulling teeth."

  • HAVE AN IGNORANT CHARACTER

This is really simple and basic. It's done all the time, and only occasionally is it done well. By having to dumb everything down for a character who doesn't understand what's being said, you can get away with presenting less actual technical jargon. The idea is to give a bit of highly technical data, and follow it up with completely pedestrian explanations.

Take Ian Malcolm describing chaos math in Jurassic Park: "It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems. Its only principle is the Butterfly Effect. A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine." Ellie makes lead paint faces. Malcolm breaks it down with a pretty steamy bit of hand holding and suggestive word play. Well, he does the best job of hitting on Ellie that anyone can expect of a mathematician. A nice subtle shift from technical mumbo-jumbo to a simple, sort of sexy, Bill Nye the Science Guy-type explanation.

  • KEEP IN MIND MOST FOLKS DON'T KNOW AS MUCH AS YOU'D THINK

Egotism prevents most folks from admitting they don't understand something. They'll go along with you (to a certain extent) on the off chance doing otherwise would make them appear foolish. You see this a lot with people in a position of power who just aren't up on the day-to-day operations of the folks lower on the totem pole. This is a basic human urge you can exploit. There's a great corollary to this:

  • FILLING IN LOGICAL BLANKS IS A NATURAL HUMAN ABILITY
But it depends entirely upon the suspension of disbelief. If you can accomplish the latter, the former takes care of itself. Plot holes? What plot holes? The only real trick is to give enough "space" around the plot hole for the audience to cover it with their own "logical" explanations.

When an audience becomes so engaged in something that they're actively using their own imaginations and faculties for logic, you wind up with an even more engaged audience. Yep, plot holes can be a good thing. This helps explain how some of the most god-awful books, movies, and t.v. shows wind up well-beloved classics. Take soap operas. I rest my case.
  • THE REST IS JUST ARTFUL DODGING AND WINDOW DRESSING
It's a fan dance. The audience knows that the character is an expert because they keep seeing flashes of it. Just like you know the girl is completely naked because those fast-moving fans keep giving you glimpses of the goodies. The thing is, the fan girl never drops the fans. Be coy. Tease the audience.

For further illustration, here's an excerpt from my play Torrid Affaire:

JONAH
You’re married? I had sex out of wedlock with a married woman? I’m an adulterer. You made me into an adulterer!

CHARLENE
It just happened so fast . . . I was caught up in the moment . . . My husband . . . You don’t understand.

JONAH
I’m not as dumb as you think. You lied to me! You led me into temptation! You cuckolded your husband, you . . . you . . . Jezebel!

CHARLENE
I am NOT a Jezebel!

JONAH
Jezebel!

CHARLENE
No! If anything, I’m a Salome. I danced for you.

JONAH
Who’d you behead? Huh? Me . . . or your husband?

CHARLENE
Wait, no . . . I meant to say I was a Bathsheeba. I always confuse the two. You know that.

JONAH
Not much better! Ha! And I suppose I killed Urias when I made love to you?!?

CHARLENE
You may be my King David, but Doobers is no Urias.

JONAH
Doobers? Doobers? Doobers is Urias. I made love to his wife. I killed Urias! I’m going to Hell, because I had carnal knowledge of you!

CHARLENE
No you’re not! It’s not your fault!

JONAH
It’s just my mortal sin!!!

I am no Bible scholar. I happen to be a preacher's kid, but he's not that good a preacher and I'm not a kid (insert rimshot). This scene brought down the house, and so perfectly defined the two characters - in particular Jonah, the seminary student. It's not a very subtle application of my advice, but I think this scene gives a pretty good idea how all those points above can be applied.

I'm doing a similar thing with Sonny, only it's not the Bible or sex toys I'm writing about, it's animation. So far so good. The animator I invited to the reading a few weeks back gave me a pass on the believability of the character who's an animator. He faulted my knowledge of lemurs, however, which just goes to show (one last point):
  • IF YOU DON'T KNOW SOMETHING FOR SURE, LOOK IT UP
No blind guesses. All it takes is one factual slip up, and you've knocked down the house of cards you've labored so long and hard to build. So be a careful researcher and don't fall into the ego trap of "I know all about this."
Well, I hope this has been somewhat enlightening. Now go and WRITE SOMETHING!

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Feeling Saucy?

Feeling saucy? Wanna enter a nudist play contest? Go here to find out more. This is the same thing I did my hour and twenty minute writing project for, and Andrew crapped something out for it in five minutes a few months back. He's less surly as a playwright than I am. Of course, he's more of a theatrical Swiss army knife.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Scrapped my first idea for a play. Wrote a completely different play based on a conversation I had with a co-worker who wants a boob job. Titled the play "The Boob Job." Wrote the whole damn thing in an hour and a half. I can't post it here since it's supposed to be unpublished to be entered in this contest and I don't want someone's cousin to cause a stink and have me disqualified because it's published on some damn random blog page.

So here's the deal. If you want to read "The Boob Job," email me and I'll shoot you a PDF. It's a one act, just two scenes.

I barely changed the names. I may write another play, barely change the names in that one.
For-Profit Theatre

Andrew Rhodes is giving an insider view of the formation and management of a theatre company in Boston, Mass. About a month ago, he blogged about Non-profit vs. Profit, and the struggle between the two has recurred a few times since. Andrew would prefer to be in charge of his company, rather than being lorded over by "know bests" who would sit on a board of directors and tell him how to do his job. I can't say I blame him.

I'm not sure why theatre "has" to be non-profit. I remember going through, looking at the whole process to establish a non-profit corporation back when the wife and I ran Children's Theatre of the Ozarks in college. In the end, we kept it as a sole-proprietorship because we just didn't want to dump the tidy little profit we were turning in favor of a shot at grant money and the "prestige" of being "non-profit".

There was a time in this country when all theatre was for-profit. Of course, that was back when theatre was more mainstream entertainment (before movies, radio and television.) Oh, to be back in the days of vaudeville!

I think it's possible to recreate a solid, "mainstream" theatre experience. An entertainment value on par with all the other options available (movies, television, internet, etc.) People look at me funny when I say this, but the theatre is more alive than these other mediums. Theatre has the distinct advantage of an instantaneous positive feedback loop, which is a fancy way of saying "live performers". I remember a story about the late great Jack MacGowran, Samuel Beckett's favorite actor. One night during a performance of Endgame, an audience member heckled the cast with something like "This play is so boring!" MacGowran broke character, turned out and yelled back "Yes it is, but it took me a long time to learn these lines, so please shut up and let me get through them!" When was the last time a movie heckled back?

What stumps me is that people will pay $15 for a car wash, but would rather stay home and zone out in front of the boob tube or the laptop rather than go to the theatre for $15. Which has the greater chance of being life-enriching? Okay, L.A. is just shallow enough that a good wash and wax could be a spiritually moving experience.

It's all our fault, really. I have a theory that theatre is where writers now go to send a message. It used to be if you want to send a message, use Western Union. Now its "write for the theatre". Audiences have been clubbed enough times over the head by Susie B. Theme that they eye anyone who does theatre with a mix of suspicion and fear.

Interestingly enough, there has been a sort of resurgence of burlesque shows out in L.A. Scantily clad women dancing around provocatively apparently cancels out the fear of being preached to. Well I say we need to shuffle off the overcoat of "theme" and "significance" and revel in the thong and pasties of fun and . . . well, revelry. We need to give the audience more burlesque-type experiences. We need a freewheeling, belly-laugh, open-arms theatre. We need to transcend the norm and become showmen again!

Please note, I'm not saying we should focus on slapstick or melodrama. I'm not endorsing Cheesey Theatre. I think the mentality of playing to the lowest common denominator is what started the collapse of popular theatre. I'm saying we need to get back to what makes theatre unique and powerful: Life. If we can only reintroduce a living, vibrant theatre to audiences, they'll come back for more.

Wife

Do you want to see Saw III or The Cherry Orchard tonight?


Husband

Are you kidding? I love Chekhov!


It's not just a pipe-dream. At least, I hope it's not.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Nipples McGee: The Musical

I'm a loser. I'm no further on "Nipples McGee: The Musical" than I was last week. Maybe I'll write more today. If only I could write music.

Nipples: (singing) I feel free now
Yes I do
I uncovered my hole for poo
I can show my boobies too
I am naked just like you

Dick: (speaking) Wow, that's great, Nipples. It seems that you've finally developed a healthy body image. Let's go play volleyball.

Yeah, I'm lost.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Reading Sonny

We did a live reading of Sonny yesterday. It was a small group, just four actors reading and a couple of listeners to give feedback. The feedback was consistent, person to person, and I agree with just about all of it.

Somewhere along the line, I learned a great way to handle feedback: Listen to everything each audience member has to say and nod your head politely. Keep a tally, and implement the advice that is consistently given. Discard the odd bit of advice that only comes up once or twice.

Sonny clocked in at forty-five minutes. With direction, tightening up the dialogue, the play would clock at thirty minutes. TOO SHORT! Fortunately, just about everybody in attendance yesterday agreed that the third act was far too easy, the middle needed a bit more fleshing out, and the stakes needed to be raised overall. The revisions and additions necessary to implement the advice could easily add another half-hour to the script. (I like my plays to run between and hour and an hour-and-a-half with no intermission. Intermissions make me nervious [more on that in a future post].)

It's important to get the words out of your head and into the mouths of actors. We spent a few nights on Torrid Affaire just workshopping the script. I wish I had done a reading first -- it would've saved time on down the road!

One of the readers suggested something that could turn this cute, simple little play into more of an event: Multi-media. The main characters are involved in animation, and reference it quite a bit. There is room for animated projections in the play to further illustrate certain things that come up in the dialogue. It's an intriguing idea, and I'll be taking it up further with the bloke who originated it (the very talented animator/puppeteer/actor Ron Yavnielli.)

The "gimmick" that I mentioned in an earlier post (Sonny's parents taking over for him at certain moments) was very well-received. My commitment to what could have played out as a trite device paid off! If only I had committed more to the actual plot of the play . . .

Overall, I'm very happy with how things went yesterday. There is much work to do on the script, but I'm taking a few days off from it. Time to regroup, make sure I know what the hell I'm doing, and then hop back up on the horse.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Letter "N"

Today's wit brought to you by the letter N, as in nudity, naked, nuts and nipples.

JOE: Wow, Sue. You sure do have some sizeable breasts on you. And those nipples . . . why, you should be in movies with nipples like those!

SUE: Thanks, Joe. I sure do love how you and the other men here are so accepting of my breasts and nipples. You've really helped me develop a positive body image. I now feel fully prepared to take off my bathing suit bottom.

All the men ad lib praise and admiration.

JOE: Sue, you sure are courageous. Why don't you, your breasts and your nipples join us for a game of volleyball?


What am I DOING? I have no idea. I should probably stop wasting time and just write the goram play.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

I got nothing done on my play yesterday. It's actually a pretty generous time frame. Andrew Moore wrote a 72 page play in three weeks. Mine will probably be 15 pages tops. Instead of writing on my play, I tried to work out the stiffness in my dialogue. I want something that's funny and penetrating, not something that's too forced or too lame. Maybe I should throw away what I've got and just use this:

JIM: Wow, Bill. You sure have a tiny penis and even smaller testicles. It's so nice that you can feel comfortable here on the nude beach.

BILL: Why, yes, Jim. I do feel comfortable. My penis may be smaller than yours and my testicles may be the size of a couple pieces of popcorn. It's nice to be in a place where you don't have to feel self-conscious about your rather large but ropy and gnarled penis. Why, if we weren't at such an accepting place, I think you'd be called a freak with a penis like that.

JIM: Yes, Bill. My gargantuan penis and your micro-giblets make us quite a pair. It's nice not to be introverted and self-conscious. I love the nude beach.

BILL: Yes, Jim. I do as well. It promotes a positive body image indeed. Nude recreation is the best. Let's go play volleyball!

I guess as long as I end it with volleyball they'll at least read the whole thing before throwing it in the trash. It seems that nudists love volleyball. I usually just read at the nude beach, but hey, gotta play to my audience.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Family Friendly Giblets

I worked on my play for a few minutes yesterday morning between typing up a list of the unending dissatisfaction with SBC/AT&T's complete and total attempt at screwing my company with an enormous phone bill and going to lunch with an old friend. I think I have two pages, maybe three. I think it's going to wind up being one of those "sudden fiction" type one acts. You know, the ones that are over before you even have a chance to peel open that can of biscuits to hurl onto the stage during the blackout.

So far, I've had two beautifully witty moments. I'd love to cram in more, but there's no room with all the stiff dialogue.

MARY: I sure don't mind being naked. I feel good about my body.
SUSIE: I know what you mean, Mary. Why, I think everyone should be more accepting of public nudity.
MARY: Yes, Susie. It promotes a positive, healthy body image.
SUSIE: And did you realize it takes the mystery out of the sexual goodies and giblets so young people aren't so perverse and obsessive about those areas of the body?
MARY: That's a very good point. Why, as a nudist, I'm perfectly comfortable about sexual goodies and giblets. Let's go play some volleyball!
SUSIE: Okay!

Yeah, it's not that bad. I do have to be careful so it's totally family friendly, which means I can't have a naked chick slap some guy and call him a pervert for staring at her unusually large nipples. I don't even know if you can use the word "nipples" and have it still be considered family friendly.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

After scrawling my sixteen cents with a purple pen all over Andrew's second draft of Sonny, I started writing my play. I used the index cards and jotted down my fantastic idea. 'Wow,' I thought. 'I'm well on my way to being like Andrew Moore.'

Today I started actually writing this monstrosity that I hope will bring me at least $100 in prize money for what the courts like to call damages (time and money lost pursuing this thing). Within two pages I decided one of my characters was completely unnecessary and ruthlessly cut that b*tch out of the script. I started typing it in, all the while treating it like the bastard child I feel it may just become.

As a caveat, I think it's important for actors to try their hands at other functions like directing, producing and playwriting. I'm not saying they have to do it all the time. I'm just saying it gives one a greater appreciation for the work that's done off the stage.

I wrote a play for a class in college. It was fun but never produced. I was able to set up the freedoms, barriers and purposes for the play on my own, calling my own shots. Since this play is for a contest, I have to follow their freedoms, barriers and purposes. Since it's a one-act contest, I have to try to cram a story with a moral to support naturist (or nudist) activities or to support and cultivate a positive body image into maybe thirty pages. Great. Here's what I'm afraid my work will be:

JOE: So, you like being naked?
SUE: Yep. I also don't like wearing any clothes.
JOE: You don't say.
SUE: Actually, I did. Why don't you take off those pants and be comfortable.
JOE: I'm nervous. With all the beef hormones and fluorescent lighting, my body isn't what people want to look at on the nude beach.
SUE: F*ck those looky loos. Look at me. I'm a member of this fast food nation and I have no problem taking off my clothes. See. My bajingo is exposed for all to see. For Jeeves's sake, this IS the nude beach.
JOE: Wow. You're right. All of a sudden, for the sake of time, I realize that I don't have to be so bodycentric at the nude beach. I'll take off my pants, then we can play volleyball!

Okay, doesn't that totally suck? That's what I'm afraid of. My play's not that bad so far, but I only have one typed page.

No wonder Andrew Moore drinks so many beers.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Surly Playwright


(I'm not really that surly, it's just the photo.)

I have accepted a challenge. To be more like Andrew Moore, I'm going to write a play in three weeks for a play contest. There's a play contest at Lake Edun, a nudist resort in Kansas. They have cash awards for first place, maybe for second and third. Andrew entered one play he cranked out really quick, then they pushed off the deadline until December 1. Since I have nothing better to do (ha!), why not write a play in three weeks to enter in this contest?

I'll post my woes (if I have them), just as Andrew Moore has done with his Sonny experiment. I start writing Friday night.

Monday, June 26, 2006

"Intimate" is the new "Small"


This is from the "LA STAGE TIMES" theatre listings, "a cooperative advertising program between the Los Angeles Times and LA Stage Alliance." When I first saw the words "Intimate Theatre" and right below that a play named "Back of the Throat"I couldn't help but think . . . well, you can probably guess what I thought. Then I got it: These are plays in under-99 houses. Intimate is the new small!

Pamela and I were thinking about joining the LA Stage Alliance, only we're not really "joiners". In order to be nominated for the Ovation awards (LA's answer to the Tonys) you have to be a member of the LA Stage Alliance. To tell the truth, I'm not too sure how big a deal winning an Ovation is to the average Los Angeles theatre-goer, let alone being eligible for a nomination.

(By the way, the cheapest ad space in the LA STAGE TIMES goes for $420. Yowza! That would've paid for a night of Torrid Affaire!)

I'll Follow the "Sonny" ...















I finished the first draft, I've finished the revisions. Now I need to make the play work.

There are two problems with the script:

First, the "gimmick" of the play is that Sonny undergoes these identity shifts at moments of confusion. Something happens, and his Dad tags Sonny out and takes over the scene. Sonny's fiance Luci does not notice the physical change, and continues the scene as if nothing happened. Sonny struggles for control and kicks his Dad out of the acting area. Another moment of confusion occurs and Sonny's Mom takes over, etc. If this remains a "gimmick" and not a driving force in the play, the whole thing is going to suck.

Just as an actor has to fully commit to her choices in order to render a successful performance, so too does a playwright have to fully commit to his choices. You can tell instantly if a choice is arbitrary and tacked on. I don't think we typically look at the actual script in this way, but it's an obvious point of analysis once you do. One of my jobs for the next draft to make sure I've fully committed to this "identity shift" choice and really go for broke with it.

Second, The play dies after the halfway point. The reason is simple: Sonny isn't fighting for anything, he's fighting against his parents. Fighting for is stronger than fighting against. (For instance: In Braveheart, William Wallace fought for Scotland, not against the English. It didn't matter who the invading force was, they were invading his homeland! Compare this to Troy, where Achilles fights against Troy. He has nothing to fight for. There's nothing at stake -- it's boring. The movie picks up after the death of his cousin -- now he has something to fight for.)

Sonny has to fight for his relationship with Luci. The play deals with how all the garbage we carry around with us (in this case, the habits and manners of our parents) can affect the choices we make. Sonny needs to fight through that garbage, not against it.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Promotion is SOOOOOOOOOOO important. We did Torrid Affaire with mostly word-of-mouth, some postcards, fliers, a handful of posters and a lot of Evites. If we want a longer run for Sonny, we have to have more (and better) promotion.

Postcards are awesome. They put all of the information directly into someone's hands: time, place, price and description. I love postcards because they're not terribly expensive. Yesterday we collected up a lot of postcards at the theatre complex where I had an audition so we can review them and find what elements work and don't work.

I'd almost like to get the promotion made up before we cast the damn show. I remember seeing the Miss Saigon documentary in design master Allen Partridge's class; they made the poster before they cast the show. I don't know that it's possible for us to do the promo first. For Torrid Affaire we used a cast photo on the postcard. We could use what we're putting on the program, but I wanted the drawings to closely resemble the cast. I guess that since it's going to look like a comic book, we could draw the program first and cast based on that. Maybe use the same design for the postcard.

Producing is strange. I feel like I just sit there revving my engine for so long, then everything has to be done at once and that 'once' is very close to the last minute.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The "Sonny" Will Come Out ... Tomorrow?

You ever have one of those moments where you find yourself in the middle of a huge, swirling mess and you think (or scream) "AAAGGGGGHHHHH! WHAT AM I DOING?!??!" That's where I am on "Sonny" right now. I finished a first draft (of sorts) and immediately wanted to just chuck the whole thing and start over. Pamela soothed my wearied mind and convinced me to put down the script and the lighter.

I've fallen into a period of ... I was going to say "writers block", but I don't believe in "writers block." Let's say I'm in a "lull of stagnant creativity that sucks at my very spiritual essence". Thankfully, I haven't set a firm date for the opening ... so at least I don't have to fret over putting a half-assed, unfinished piece of shit on its feet before a paying audience. But Pam is auditioning for other theatre now, which is her not-so-subtle way of telling me to hurry the hell up.

So here's my solution for this "lull of stagnant creativity that sucks at my very spiritual essence" (I hope): I set a date for a live reading of my next draft (July 5th) and I've invited actors to come read. Three of the four have accepted. Ha ha! Now I have to bust ass and be brilliant!

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Sonny Update

Here's a little Sonny update from my side of the fence. I read Andrew's first draft of Sonny this week. It's really good, there are just parts that need to be fleshed out. Of course, this is the first draft so that's to be expected. It's going to be a real challenge to direct (I think) because Sonny's parents "take over" his body at times and Sonny's girlfriend (me) has no idea that anything is happening. You know how you might say something that one of your parents would say that you would NEVER say but you just did? That's what's going on with Sonny.

We haven't decided on performance dates or a theatre yet. Therefore, we haven't worked out any kind of rehearsal schedule or started accepting submissions for auditions. That makes it kind of exciting. We should probably get on that soon.

Friday, June 16, 2006

More writing tips ...

"FIRST THOUGHT BEST THOUGHT" - Allen Ginsberg

Pamela and I attended a poetry workshop delivered by Allen Ginsberg shortly before his death. His very simple syllabus was a two-sided piece of paper containing a numbered list of short quotes, each one illustrating or signifying a point he expounded upon as he went. One of those quotes that has stuck with me ever since is the one above, from Ginsberg himself.

The Muse is right! Instinctively, artists know what works and what doesn't. I think that's a pretty good definition of "talent" -- the ability to listen to your instincts and act on them. If you just take the first thing that pops in your head and go from there, you'll eventually come to the end and have a completed script.

If you keep discarding those first thoughts, you'll never get anywhere. (This is also the difference between good improv and bad improv. Good improv takes the first thought and just rolls with it. Bad improv stands there hemming and hawing, never really starting.)

The idea is to just flow, and don't edit as you go along. If the first bit of dialogue you come up with concerns the quality of salmon at a particular restaurant, go with it. You may cut it out later, or it may turn out to be the single most important piece of dialogue ever written. If you get into the habit of editing yourself before you've written anything, you'll train yourself not to write. Action begets action, and object in motion tends to stay in motion, etc. So move! Write!

Once you're done, edit. Be merciless -- after the first draft is finished.

I've hemmed and hawed as a writer. I've gone off on wild snipe hunts in my mind, trying to second guess the Muse. Nine times out of ten, I come back to the first thought the Muse gave me and beg her forgiveness for ever doubting her.

(Usually, she lets me slide.)

Monday, June 12, 2006

From "The Cat Who Walks Through Walls" by Robert Heinlein, perhaps my favorite writer, a conversation between newlyweds Richard and Gwen:

"Gwen, I have this one nasty habit. Makes me hard to live with. I write."

The dear girl looked puzzled. "So you've told me. But why do you call t a nasty habit?"

"Uh ... Gwen my love, I am not going to apologize for writing ... anymore than I would apologize for this missing foot ... and in truth one led to the other. When I could no longer follow the profession of arms, I had to do something to eat. I wasn't trained for anything else and back home some other kid had my paper route. But writing is a legal way of avoiding work without actually stealing and one that doesn't take any talent or training.

"But writing is antisocial. It's as solitary as masturbation. Disturb a writer when he is in the throes of creation and he is likely to turn and bite right to the bone ... and not even know that he's doing it. As writers' wives and husbands often learn to their horror.

"And -- attend me carefully, Gwen! -- there is no way that writers can be tamed and rendered civilized. Or even cured. In a household with more than one person, of which one is a writer, the only solution known to science is to provide the patient with an isolation room, where he can endure the acute stages in private, and where food can be poked in to him with a stick. Because, if you disturb the patient at such times, he may break into tears or become violent. Or he may not hear you at all ... and, if you shake him in this stage, he bites."


I read this passage shortly after finishing Torrid Affaire. True words from someone who would know.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

How to Write a Play

I'm about to reveal big secrets about how to write a play. Prepare yourself. With this information, you could create your own work and put it up at a local theatre. I'm an expert on this since I've watched Andrew write lots of plays.

1. Get a composition notebook. Fill it with great dialogue. If you can't write sequentially because you don't have some things worked out yet, just write what you know. Make notes like "fix this" or "fill this in later" so you know what you need to do when you open the notebook again. Just write it all down and edit later. Oh, and be sure you can read your notes.

2. Get index cards and keep them handy. Sometimes you'll be hit by a flash of brilliance, sometimes your wife will say something very oddly but appropriately worded, sometimes someone in the grocery line will use the exact words you were looking for. Write these things down on the index cards. Pull these cards out later when you're sitting down with your composition notebook or your computer and figure out if you can use them.

3. Write about what you know. Research what you don't. No one wants to read or see something written by someone who is clueless and/or uninformed. For Torrid Affaire, Andrew had to research how those lady parties work and what goods they have for sale. You never know when you're going to have an expert in your audience.

4. Listen to awesome inspirational music. This doesn't mean to pull out the Chant CD and write to that . . . Unless you're writing about monks or that's the only album that will help you through the patch of writing you're doing at the time. The music shouldn't be distracting but rather should assist you in the writing process. I like to pace my day with music generally speaking, and sometimes the mood of what I'm doing is suitable for some albums but not others.

5. Talk to yourself when you're working on the computer. You have to input the dialogue from your notebook some time, and you're going to have to edit. Type in everything you have newly written each time you sit down at the computer. Read the questionable things aloud so you can work through awkward wording and stiff lines. Keep a notepad handy so you can jot down things you work out that you're not ready to type, like "Jill can't be a lesbian because she talked about how in love with the mailman she was at the beginning of the play" or "Joe is unusually TALL so reference it in the script." Whatever. Who cares if you sound like an idiot while you talk to yourself. You're creating art.

6. Don't go overboard with the descriptions. As the writer, you just need to write enough to communicate your idea to the director. He'll hire his own scene designer, costume designer, sound designer, lighting designer and actors. You have to leave some room for him and all of his people to contribute to the piece and make it their own. If it's key to the script that you have beanbag chairs all over the set because you set up action that can only occur with beanbag chairs, then put beanbag chairs in your description. Describe the characters with just enough information that you know they're different people who would behave the way you wrote them. You (as the playwright) don't need to dictate that all women in the cast are above 5'7" with brown hair and all men are exactly 5'11" with tans UNLESS that's necessary for your action and storyline. A woman who is 5'6" can play the nurse if there's no line like, "Wow. You sure are an average height of 5'7" for a nurse." If you really want to write descriptions down to the stationery on the writing desk, you should be writing Victorian novels centered in the drawing room or romance novels. That's the place for that sort of thing, not the theatre.

7. Get someone you trust to read over it when you're done with the first draft. You need someone who will read it to make sure it makes sense, there aren't unintentionally contradictory character traits, spelling and punctuation are correct. This is part of what I do. I take a red pen and mark the things I don't understand, write in my questions and my editing notes. You really want to do this before you give it to anyone else to read, and you definitely want to do it before you have a table reading. Make sure it's someone you trust; don't need anyone shooting down your dreams and ragging on your art.

There you go. That's how you write a play. Now I expect all of you readers to go out there and put this information to use. I expect to hear about a rash of well-written plays popping up across the United States and beyond.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Andrew and I produced Torrid Affaire together. We got funding from our families (in lieu of Christmas presents), and we were fortunate enough to make back most of the money we spent. As an actress, my phone wasn't ringing off the hook with casting directors calling to meet with me, but I got to do a great show and the opportunities may catch up with me at a later date. The fantastic thing was that Andrew got people interested in his writing and directing. He was approached by a few people about roles in his next show (even though these people have no idea what the next show is), and he has people asking when the next show goes up because they don't want to miss it. That's pretty awesome.

Since this is the pre-production phase of Sonny, we have to find the money and the location to provide a home for this piece. We loved the theatre we used last time, but we'd like to get something that costs a little less. There are so many crap theatres where you pay a chunk of money for something that seems substandard. Our last theatre wasn't. Ideally we could find some place where they'd split the door with us. I know there's one place in town that does that but I hate the venue. We're on the mad hunt for a place to do this show (which includes casting and rehearsing) for cheap. The great thing about the last place was that we paid for the performance nights and we got rehearsal time free (depending on when the theatre was open).

We're also getting down to the wire if we want to do a few weeks run in August. July is out of the question at this point. The play isn't finished and we haven't secured the venue. We still need to do casting. Any old dumbass will not do for the title role. While we could run foolishly ahead, this isn't a suicide mission. We want to do a press screening and then open for maybe three or four weeks. That takes planning.

I hope I don't go insane this time.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Cinematic vs. Theatrical

So I'm in full-on playwright mode. My next play is "Sonny" and it's about girl and a boy ... and the boy's parents. I'm playing around with what tools theatre offers in terms of narrative. What makes theatre a "purple cow"? In other words, how do we create Immediate Theatre?

In college, I flirted briefly with the wonders of "cinematic" staging: Plays, mostly musicals, that attempt to produce the illusion of cinematic space and time through the heavy usage of mechanical lighting (Vari-lights and the like) and automated scene changes. Although stunning and effective when done right (I'll never forget seeing that helicopter land, pick up a wailing Chris, and take off leaving dozens of Vietnamese clawing at chainlink) before long it bothered me that such an ephemeral and vibrant artform as theatre was losing itself in the attempt to match what movies do better.

When you're talking about a simple stage play, attempting cinematic realism is terribly additive to the experience, and ultimately detracts from the play itself. (Shakespeare made do with much less than even dimmer packs and flying drapes! And some in his audience would stand through five acts absolutely chockablock with prose and verse! Of course, his theatre served ale ...)

Sonny will be much more "theatrical" than Torrid Affaire. It's a challenge to write, and it will be a challenge to produce. But hey, what's the point in doing it if it's easy, right?

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Be Completely Honest

So I was whining about what to do with all these actor friends when we put up a show without upsetting or offending anyone. I thought, "Surely they realize that there's just not enough room in a small, personally funded show for everyone we've ever come into contact with. How could they not realize that?" And then I found out that while some dear friends realize it, others get upset that you called someone else instead of them, even if the role was for a man and you didn't ask a woman to play that part.

Here's my solution: Be completely honest. Okay, maybe not completely. Mostly honest. I think we're going to post for casting for Sonny on the casting websites. We'll probably send out an email to all of our actor friends and acquaintances announcing the show and the roles, but I think it will say, "We're only auditioning people who would best fit these roles at this time. If you submit and we don't call you in, it isn't because we think you're untalented; it's just that we don't have enough time to audition everyone we know when we're looking for very specific qualities in the actors that fill these roles. We may have general auditions for our upcoming productions later, so don't get your panties in a knot." If there are personal acquaintances that we REALLY want to see for certain roles, I think those people will get a "Hey, we don't know exactly what we're looking for but I'd love it if you'd audition for us."

I know some people are going to get their panties in a knot no matter what we do, but this should handle the borderline panty-knotters. Casting is a tough process. You have to have the supporting cast complement the leads. Can't hire a seven-foot tall black man (no matter how much we like him or how good an actor he is) to play my father since I'm pale as milk toast. Ain't gonna happen. There are scheduling things to consider, availability, work ethic, how one relates to other people, chemistry, blah blah blah. So I think my statement just might work.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

GO SEE THIS SHOW!

Sherlock Holmes and the Saline Solution

Pamela and I attended a preview performance of this wonderful, rollicking blast of a show! The cast is thick as thieves and twice as charasmatic. The "prologue" is the best theatre I've seen in years. I need to write up a full review of this show, but in the meantime go and see it for yourself.

Sound and Fury is one of those groups I alluded to in my last post: Artists who make truly "popular" theatre.

Here is artistic director and troupe member Richard Maritzer's invitation:

We're relying on word-of-mouth almost completely for audiences to see our show, so if you like us, or saw the show and liked it, please forward this to the people you know, so that we can continue to do shows here in our hometown, instead of just going to other places in the world. We like L.A.... Help L.A. like us!

Sound & Fury's comedy farce:"SHERLOCK HOLMES& the Saline Solution" Now thru June 17, 2006
At Café-Club Fais Do-Do
5257 W. Adams Blvd.
L.A. 90016
(Just west of La Brea Ave,and just a block southof the 10 Freeway.)
Tix $15/$12 Students w ID

Online ticketing available at
http://sherlock.soundandfury.org

"The group performs with wit & panache!" -- L.A. Weekly.

Monday, May 15, 2006

On Maple Syrup and Vital Traditions

Pamela's last post brought to mind something I read in Spike Lee's Gotta Have It, the journal and production notes for Lee's breakthrough film She's Gotta Have It. Here's Spike Lee:

"The majority of people can't spend forty dollars for a play, even the small plays. The Negro Ensemble Company is twenty-five dollars. That's five movies right there. The theater's not really acccessible and the shit that's accessible no one wants to see. The walk-on-the-stage-and-act-like-a-tree-shit. That's what white people call art."

This book was published back in 1987, when movies cost $5. And to their credit, the NEC is very accessible nowadays at $15 a ticket (what we charged for Torrid Affaire). However, I think it sums up the general attitude toward theatre rather succinctly. "I'd rather see a bad movie than a good play" as they say.

There is some truth to this cliche (otherwise it wouldn't have become a cliche), and Spike is absolutely right, overall. Tickets for the recently concluded run of Oscar Wilde's Salome, starring Al Pacino ran from $68 - $93! Yikes! I can rent Pacino AND Keanu Reeves for a couple of bucks down at Blockbuster! I can see Al on the big screen later this year in 88 Minutes for around $10 - $14 depending on what theater I hit. And I can bring a tub of popcorn and a ginormous soda into the theater with me.

On the other side of the theatrical equation, there's . . . well, I'm not sure. Living in Los Angeles is like being daily washed over by a tsunami of promotion and marketing, and it's sometimes hard to pick out smaller groups of artists struggling to make themselves heard among the din of "Industry" brouhaha and "Paid Escort" advertisements. I am fairly certain, given the size of this fair megaoplis that somewhere someone is in a green room preparing themselves to wadle onstage in a tree costume in an economically priced production of Rock Maple, a Dramedy.

Speaking of rock maples, read this:

"In order to be vital, tradtions have to be a part of what people do, not what they used to do." (from Thomas Chittendan's Town: A Story of Williston, Vermont by Willard Sterne Randall and Nancy Nahra.)

I found this quote on a calandar at my "day job", accompanying a picture of a rugged Vermonter tending the stove in a sugarhouse. The tradition of making maple syrup out of rock maple sap originates with the Native Americans; it's a very simple process that hasn't changed much over the years. You put the sap in a pot and boil it down to it's essence. Sort of like what a director does with an actor.

The point is, it is our job to make our tradition vital. It's more than just a matter of ticket prices or famous headliners. It's about finding what makes the theatre unique, and creating an experience for audiences that they cannot find anywhere else, an experience that can, as the great Peter Brook put it in his book The Empty Space, "evoke in audiences an undeniable hunger and thirst." "Necessary theatre-going" he called it, "The Immediate Theatre."

I'm not sure how to go about doing that. People are pretty damn cynical nowadays. In fact, cynicism is up there with know-it-all-ism and road-rage as national pastimes. I know I engage in all three - sometimes simultaneously! I can imagine a truly "popular" theatre (and I mean "popular" in its sweatiest, noisiest sense), and I know there are examples of such a beast far and wide, and brilliant artists making it happen. I seek them out where I can find them, and throw as much support to them as I can. I watch, I study, I learn. And when I mount a play, hopefully I bring my audiences closer to that hunger, closer to that thirst.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go make some pancakes.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

I'm in a made-for-TV movie that's running tonight, so I promoted it to a bunch of friends and acquaintances. I got a lot of emails back from people wishing me well and saying they'd watch, but one email really got me thinking.

An acquaintance of mine is in a play in Long Beach. Her director was wondering why there weren't many African-Americans in the audience when the majority of the cast was African-American. This gal asked me to promote the play to the people I know so that they might get more African-Americans in the audience.

I noticed when we produced Torrid Affaire in January that it was tough to get people to the theatre in Los Angeles. I'd seen it before when I did six or seven nights of Diary of a Catholic School Dropout last fall. I think we had a couple dead (eight or ten audience members) nights. For Torrid Affaire, we made the conscious decision to have two nights so we could fill the house and leave people wanting more. We had half a house the first night and a full house the second. Our promotion was word of mouth, Evites, posters, fliers and postcards (500 to casting directors). That's it. We didn't have a website, our posters & fliers were black & white. We didn't spend a ton of money, and I don't know that we would've had more attendees if we had more performances.

And what about these blokes who spend more? This show in Long Beach is promoted on a website as part of a season. How much did they spend to promote? How many people are actually showing up? How many nights is it running -- too many or too few? Per this gal's email, they're not getting the turnout from one particular racial group that they expected. We attended a preview of Sherlock Holmes and the Saline Solution by this hilarious comedy troupe that we found out about at a Renaissance faire (not from the $400 ad they ran in L.A. Weekly). The preview was full, but Andrew suggested that they may not be getting the audience they deserve (based on a recent email he received).

So what's the deal? What does one have to do to get people off the couch and into the theatre?

Friday, May 12, 2006

Friendship & Theatre

Most of the friends I've made in Los Angeles over the past year are actors. Some are more like acquaintances than friends (since they don't know my middle name and I don't know theirs), but I'm still on friendly terms with a lot of actors. When we did Torrid Affaire earlier this year, we used friends.

Let me explain. I met a bunch of great girls last summer when I returned to the theatre, and I didn't want to let our chemistry go to waste. I asked Andrew to direct us in [unnamed & overproduced play that has great roles for women that we didn't get the rights to]. He agreed and cast the show with the best character fits from my cast and a couple other friends. We informed each of them of our intentions, and all my castmates who were invited jumped on board. We did a first reading and found out two weeks later we didn't get the rights. So what to do? Andrew wrote Torrid Affaire with these ladies in mind, writing to the strengths of these actresses. One of our friends and one of my castmates had to drop out of the show due to time conflicts, so we auditioned and recast the roles and we auditioned and cast the male lead from another show we did. It was a great show and we had a lot of fun, and we pulled it off with people we knew. It helps to make friends around here, and it's even better if you make the friendships without thinking about what the other people can do for you.

After the show was over, we discovered we upset some other friends for not inviting them to audition for the show. Now, as I mentioned before, these roles were written with specific people in mind. The two roles we auditioned for weren't the right casting for every friend we had. We had limited time so we invited in the friends we knew would fit in with the current cast and had some of the best natural attributes to serve those specific roles. We didn't set out to piss anyone off, but we managed to.

I did a show last fall that a friend was producing. There was a role (small according to the breakdown, but a role nonetheless) that was suitable for me, so I auditioned. Several days after the audition I found out I was cast. Cool. I didn't expect to be cast just because she was my friend.

I had an audition earlier this year for a play that another friend was producing. There were three roles I could fit, so I submitted and the friend auditioned me. I never got a call or email that said I was cast, so I'm guessing that since the show was planned for March they didn't want to use me for this piece. Cool. I didn't expect to be cast just because she was my friend.

Andrew's writing another play. Yes, I'm cast. Yes, he's writing for me. He also has three other personalities that he's writing for, but we're auditioning for all three of those roles. He's been approached by a few people since Torrid Affaire asking to audition for his next play. So here's the conundrum: Should we audition people who are absolutely not right for the roles just to keep friends from being offended? (The roles are for a son, a mom and a dad, and the son has to be shorter than the dad but look good next to me.) What's the appropriate thing? What's the proper code of conduct?