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


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?