Thursday, April 26, 2007

Burlesque


Sometimes I feel like I've been living under a rock.

Yeah, I know. It's impossible to be "up" on all forms of entertainment. Perhaps if I were "smart" I'd specialize and just become the world's biggest specialist. Unfortunately, I enjoy a glorious variety! And so it goes that I find my self constantly amazed by all the nooks and crannies artists carve out for themselves.

Take burlesque, for example. Pamela and I took in "The Super Sexy Show" last Thursday at El Cid, and we were absolutely blown away by the performance. The lovely ladies of the Hollywood Pin Up Girls gave a spirited, aerobic performance. We enjoyed it so much, we're going back next week!

Pamela, who has been going great guns in her dance classes, has been studying a bit of burlesque of late. Her interest has led her to the utterly amazing Jo "Boobs" Weldon, which in turn has opened up this huge world of burlesque.

This is fortuitous. You see, I've been working on a new play for the past six months. It started life as "The Secret Lives of Pin-Up Girls" but has kind of stewed around in me shoulder melon without making any real progress.

Taking in the artform of burlesque, studying the history of it, has opened up my play. It's set backstage at a burlesque theatre in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, 1942. It's the story of the ladies who lifted the ... spirits ... of our servicemen during the war. It will deal with such things as the Japanese American internment, the casualties of war, and the sacrifices made in "the war at home." But mostly it will be about the ladies.

For now the working title is simply "Pin-Up Girls."

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Writing like Beethoven, Writing like Mozart

[NOTE: Back before I started this blog with my lovely wife (and co-conspirator,) I posted a little think on www.thefelties.blogspot.com entitled "Writing Like Beethoven, Writing like Mozart." I'm going to repost this here, edited and slightly expanded to better elucidate my meaning.]

Here are a couple of observations on the nature of writing for performance.

MOZART:

Some years ago, I found myself taking a summer course in playwriting from noted playwright Allen Partridge. I was toiling away on what was to become Diving In. We students would turn in our pages each day, and receive his teacherly criticism the next day.

One day, Partridge handed back my pages and he had written in red ink on the top page "Too many notes, Wolfgang!" It was the only note. I queried him and he responded "Watch Amadeus." So I did. Near the beginning of the film, Emperor Joseph II give Mozart some helpful advice:
"My dear young man, don't take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect."
So I took this up with Partridge, and received the best piece of writing advice I've ever been given. Essentially, why use a paragraph when a well wrought phrase would accomplish the same thing? Economy of word leads to greater emotional impact.

The analogy is a bit off, because one should strive to write like Mozart. In Mozart's work, every note is in its proper place. There is nothing superfluous. Or as Mozart retorts to the Emporer:
"Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?"
Of course, he was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and I was just a snot-nosed young playwright. Indeed, Diving In had a few too many "notes." It's a lesson I'm still learning.

BEETHOVEN:

The way I learned it, when Beethoven went deaf, his music went nuts. Musicians complained about the difficulty of performing his music. The notes were too high, too difficult to reach; his passages were far too complex to play with human hands. And yet, the music is beautiful, challenging and nuanced.

Well, I try to write like Beethoven.

Oh, I don't get too ridiculous with the demands I put on a performer. I don't expect them to sprout wings or bleed tapioca pudding.

However, I may write a character who makes an emotional turn "on a dime." I have a certain fondness for repetition in monologues that makes them difficult to memorize. I may even force a performer to say words and relate experiences that are horrible, embarrassing, disgusting, etc. It's only because I respect actors enough to bring my "A" game as a writer.

Mamet does this. Read Oleanna sometime. It's perhaps the most infuriating piece of dramatic literature that I've ever thrown across the room (several times.) The more I read it, the more I grow to appreciate it. It's compelling, subtle, nuanced. It's also two actors with their asses glued to furniture blathering on and on in a repetitious verbal tennis match. On the surface, nothing really seems to happen. I had the good fortune to direct the final scene of the play for an acting class, and I really began to get it: The slow burn, the psychological chess match.

I do try to write like Beethoven and write like Mozart. Because if I'm not going to really put forth the effort, what's the damn point?

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Ball's Backwards and Forwards

I recently re-read David Ball's "Technical Manual for Reading Plays" (see link under "Required Reading" to the right.) Great book!

On its face, it is a book about play analysis. In truth, it's a handy guide to what makes good dramatic literature good (not to mention what makes it dramatic.) As such, it is a wonderful source of insight for dramatists, actors, designers . . . anyone who has anything to do with theatre.
"Inspiration without technique -- if it exists at all -- is merely flair."
There is no such thing as "post-production" in theatre. There's no shooting "pick-ups" or saving a play with "creative editing." As a director, once you put a group of actors in front of an audience, all bets are off. They live or die based on the choices you made in the weeks leading up to the debut.

Thus the importance of a director's analysis. On a show like Juana, a sweeping epic that deals with suppressed history and the conspiracy to depose an intelligent, powerful woman, the more I have figured out going into production the better. Ball's approach is action oriented, dealing with what happens in the play rather than what the play means. Meaning evolves from an understanding of action.
"The simultaneous communication of both understanding and emotional experience is the domain of art."
It's a very practical approach to a very practical art form. The bonus for me as a playwright is that re-reading Ball's Backwards and Forwards has helped me crystallize my thoughts on creating dramatic literature.

"If your theater has to take pains to clarify themes for you audience on the lobby walls or the program cover, then you have failed to make the play a working stage piece."
I feel better armed, going into my director's analysis. I really can't recommend this book enough!