Friday, December 18, 2009

Wherein I Admit to Reading and Using Syd Field

I'm sort of "shepherding" a writer's lab at Theatre Unleashed. Not leading -- oh no. I may be an ADA NOMINATED WRITER (cue orchestra hit) but I'm still learning. I do recognize that I may have some knowledge that others could find useful, so I try to share what I know when I can. Today I'd like to show you the section of my bookshelf devoted to books on writing.

These are the basic resources I use when I write something like my ADA NOMINATED BEST ORIGINAL SCRIPT TRACING SONNY (cue orchestra hit) as well as some of the more philosophical works that inspire my forays into dramatic literature.

I'm always on the look out for helpful texts, so if you see a gaping void that needs to be filled in the list below, please comment me. Thank you.


Professional Playscript Format Guidelines by Mollie Ann Meserve

This is the most useful book in my arsenal. "But I have FinalDraft," you say. "I don't need to know what the correct margin settings are for a playscript!" Au contraire ... I've seen enough "playscripts" presented in the screenplay format so as to completely disabuse me of the notion that automation is better than knowledge. There is a reason unique and important to theatre that dialogue runs from margin to margin and stage directions are indented -- the exact opposite of the formatting for screenplays. (Hint: In film, the rule is "show, don't tell." By comparison, there are not many helicopter tracking shots in theatre.)


Backwards and Forwards by David Ball

It's really a play analysis book, but insofar as it deals with dramatic structure on a practical level, Ball's Backwards and Forwards is a must read. (It's also fun to refer to as "Ball's Backwards and Forwards.") Ball's breakdown of Hamlet is inspired and inspiring.

I'm not saying I'm perfect. I still have my moments where I let self-indulgence stop a story dead. But this book has helped me eliminate some of those unnecessary story beats from my writing. I'm also getting pretty artful at working the better moments of self-indulgence into the "trigger" and "heap" cycle that Ball defines.

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field

Here's the thing: Three act structure works. In chatting with other writers, I have found that I am not alone in going back over something I have written and discovering that "plot point number one" and "plot point number two" fall almost precisely where Field says they should. It's uncanny. Some folks bad mouth Field and the "paradigm," as he calls it. It's too limiting, it stifles creativity, blah blah blah. The paradigm is just a tool.

It's like an architect's square. If you use it to just draw rectangles, well that's pretty uninspired and boring. But if you're a Frank Gehry, you may use the tool to facilitate all sorts of whimsical ideas and flights of fancy.

This is a screenwriting book, but dramatic structure is dramatic structure. Someone may have extrapolated this out to theatre, but I like the way Field writes.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Vogler

The Hero's Journey, the archetypes ... Vogler breaks down the work of Joseph Campbell in simple, practical terms. Like the three act paradigm Field provides, this is another worthwhile tool.

Also like the three act paradigm, it would seem to some that the hero's journey is another artificial approach that stifles creativity, blah blah blah. Again, it depends on what you bring to the table. Yes, if you apply Vogler's advice in a hackneyed way, you'll get a hackneyed script. Just as if you were to move a paintbrush in a hackneyed way, you'd be miles from VanGogh or Monet or Picasso. It's not the tool that makes the art suck. It's the artist.


Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet

This book really spans the gap between structure and philosophy. A quick read, full of practical observations and advice. For short play writers, the eponymous third section is of great use.

The section on "problem plays" is worth the price of the book alone. Also, this is the book that contributed the term "Dead Kitten Speech" to my vocabulary.

The Empty Space by Peter Brook

A book I've read and re-read more times than I recall. It's my foundational document as a theatre artist. Creating theatre, writes Brook, "is not just a question of wooing an audience. It is an even harder matter of creating works that evoke in audiences an undeniable hunger and thirst." Brook was my jumping off point for studying Brecht, Beckett, Artaud and Grotwoski. If you work in the theatre and haven't asked yourself, "Why theatre?" lately, you need to crack this one open and dig in.

True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet

I hesitate to add this to the list, as it is primarily a text for actors. I feel that it defines the relationship between actor and writer better than just about anything else I've read, and although I have issues with some of what Mamet proposes (and opines on) he's dead right about the more practical matters.

Writes Mamet: "The play is a fantasy, it is not a history. The playwright is not withholding information, he is supplying all the information he knows, which is to say, all the information that is germaine." (Emphasis his.) The point is, for an actor to do his or her job the playwright damn well better do his or her job, too. You can't just throw words on a page and say, "Done!" and expect the actors to save the piece. That's not playwriting, that's douchebaggery.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Not-So-Quiet Desperation:

TU's production of Jacob Smith's
"Landscaping the Den of Saints"

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation."
-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Bruce Hill, the eccentric drug addict at the heart of Jacob Smith's new play, strikes a confident fa├žade. I've lived in Hollywood long enough, I've seen this sort of thing dozens of time. It's a poker-faced magnanimity, a false-front friendliness. You assume this guy (or gal) holds all the cards, and get a certain thrill of accomplishment despite the fact that all the backhanded flattery and promises of fame and fortune amount to a handful of nothing. Maybe it's because I'm working my way through Deadwood, but it occurs to me that the "wild west" has been prone to attract con-men and charlatans since the first one of them bastards caught the twinkle of gold in his eye. It always seems to be lucre for the bastard, and iron pyrite for the rest of us† -- and I seem to have digressed before I have even started.

That's the effect Jacob Smith's play has on me. The relevance of the production makes it almost painful to take in -- I've lived this story, too. Oh, not the exact chain of events. Rather, it is the promise of something wonderful that, in a moment of euphoric abandon, sweeps one away with thoughts of "How am I going to spend all the money?" This mirage of career fulfillment evaporates, and you wonder what you can salvage from the work you did. (Kudos to Smith for salvaging something, BTW.) His characters are real -- often real in their unreality. Hey -- that's Hollywood.

Fesa Salillas is convincing as Jennifer, the actress too young and dumb to not succeed in Hollywood. Josh Green, as Bobby Beverly, serves up the quintessence of a poseur so committed to his act that he has come out the other side to some measure of authenticity. Pamela Moore brings a wry subtlety to Kaitlyn, the laissez faire restaurant manager who undoubtedly had big plans of her own before settling into the comforting routine of steady work and a steady paycheck. Erin Frisbee brings an earnest honesty to Christine, a gold-digger pursuing her life in the shadow of an increasingly inconvenient marriage of convenience. Liesl Jackson as Susan remains touchingly tethered to her boyfriend while unapologetically pursuing her goals.

The ensemble is just terrific, but they serve as narrative counterpoints and grace notes to the main event, the heart of the play, the confrontation between Jim Martyka's Jason Jones and Sean Fitzgerald's Bruce Hill. This is where the play really seems to click, in the Mamet-esque cat and mouse between desperate men. And make no mistake: They're both damned desperate. Martyka exudes a nervous confidence. His Jason is comfortable in his own skin, yet self-conscious. It's like one of those optical illusions: is it a vase or is it two faces? The experience of living on the knife's edge between success and failure is revealed through the wonderful contradiction to which Martyka commits.
Sean Fitzgerald nails the physicality of Bruce Hill, both the age of the character and the effects of varying degrees of intoxication throughout the piece. What Martyka does in the macro -- the living contradiction of confidence and self-doubt -- Fitzgerald accomplishes in the micro. His is a less overt, more brooding vacillation. He seems resigned to his inevitable end, but as Thoreau said, that resignation is just desperation under a different label. These two characters are different sides of the same coin. One may see the frustrated young man that Bruce Hill once was, or the duplicitous fool that Jason Jones could very well become. It's a riveting exchange.

"There are two standout performances in Landscaping, Mr. Martyka as Jason and Mr. Fitzgerald as Bruce, the lawyer... Their exchange is powerful, and when it finally comes to it's climax, because of the two actors, it was riveting." -

"Landscaping the Den of Saints is a rather earthy look on how getting into “show biz” can turn its ugly head. Witnessing this kind of theatre in a smaller playhouse proves to itself that big things do come in small packages!" - Accessibility Live
Landscaping the Den of Saints
Written by Jacob Smith
Directed by Jacob Smith and Erin Scott
Produced by Theatre Unleashed

Landscaping the Den of Saints explores the hysterically destructive relationship between a floundering Hollywood writer and an eccentric millionaire with a rampant desire to indulge in his many addictions. Real and audacious, this multi-leveled dark comedy digs into the artist’s desire to do (and deal with) anything to reach creative and financial success, capturing those increasingly uneasy moments that happen along the way.

Oct. 24-Nov. 22
Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.
Sundays, 7 p.m.

*Meet and greet with artists after each show
**Tales of an Unsettled City…Exodus will Follow Friday night performances
***Special 24-hour theatre event The Artist’s Nightmare will follow the Oct. 24 performance next door at The Sherry

The Avery Schreiber Theatre
11050 Magnolia Blvd.
North Hollywood, CA 91601

General Admission: $20
*$25 for both Landscaping the Den of Saints and Tales of an Unsettled City: Exodus on Friday nights
**Sunday night performances are “pay-what-you-can”

For further information, please call: (818) 849-4039
Or check out our website at:

† "seems to be" is an operable term. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I'm still a firm believer in "The Ant and the Grasshopper."

Monday, August 10, 2009

Burying the Infinite: TU's production of 4.48 Psychosis

[Disclosure: I am president of Theatre Unleashed, Inc., the company that produced this show.]
"Man's unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite."
- Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus
Theatre Unleashed's production of 4.48 Psychosis, directed by Phillip Kelly, is revelatory. It reminded me of reading Thomas Carlyle's masterpiece, Sartor Resartus for the first time: Humanity at its rawest ebb; pain and anger made tangible.

Kelly's staging is simply incredible. He has created a cavernous fun-house, a music box smashed to bits and pasted back together, a stream of consciousness that manages to engage rather than simply wash over the audience. He accomplishes on stage and in real time what cinema can only hope to accomplish through mechanical trickery.

Supple and eloquent performances from Fesa Silillas and Kimberly Niccole enthrall. This piece demands a sustained energy from the performers, an emotional and physical stamina that never lags throughout the play's tidy, seventy-five minute run. Silillas and Niccole are unflinching and fully engaged in their bifurcated role. Their separate energies create a fearful and wonderful synergy. (And there's your free Bible reference for the day.*)

Matt Ryan reflects the lone outside voice, and is in some small way a proxy for us in the audience. His helpless frustration at times mirrors our own. This ballast keeps the play from sinking into an irredeemable puddle of despair. He anchors the piece, giving a much needed counterpoint to the dwindling sprial that plays out before us. This provides us the only context for the events to which we bear witness.

Kelly Musson, through her dance, provides what may be described as a descant. In choral music, a descant is a counter melody, in a higher pitch than the main melody. Her work sets off and comments upon the performances of the actors, yet remains its own voice in the arrangement. Likewise, the cello work of Peter Walden provides another face to the fractured prism of our protagonist's descent.

The production design never overstates itself and integrates seamlessly with the intent of the director and work of the actors. Yelena Babinskaya's set design makes tremendous use of the Sherry's deep, shoebox-like playing space.

My only complaint is reserved for the playwright herself. Granted, this was her last work before committing suicide, but whereas Carlyle passes from the Everlasting No through the Center of Indifference and on to the Everlasting Yea, Sarah Kane takes us from bad to worse. Aside from the fleeting scenes with the psychiatrist, we have no context for what transpires. It is on the strength of the actresses alone that we have any sympathy whatsoever for the subject of the play ("protagonist" seems a woefully inadequate handle.) I can see how this play could become a drudgery, an exercise in scenery chewing and audience bludgeoning, if handled by less skilled hands.

Fortunately for all of us, this production has been handled by a director with keen aesthetic judgment and an ensemble that fully commits to every inch of the abyss.

[* Psalms 139:14 "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well." Artists have godlike creative powers when they are on their game, which this ensemble most assuredly is.]

Saturday, April 25, 2009

A Turned Table

I rarely direct. I'm usually on the actor side of things. Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to direct Andrew's latest play, Tracing Sonny, for Theatre Unleashed. As tends to happen with his work, I've known about the project from the start (2006) and have watched it grow into a full-length script that is at the last stages of workshopping, hitting the stage the first weekend of June.

It's no big secret that I love actors. I've learned so much from sitting in auditions as a reader, choreographer and producer. Something I've noticed as a director is that the audition is all business. The actors come in with perfectly polished monologues. Of course, they've spent lots of time with those monologues and should know every nuance from performing it so much. The audition is all about the game face. The actors keep their game faces on as they do their monologues and fumble through the cold readings, all very business-like. With all this business going on, it's a challenge to see the vulnerable artist and weigh how your creativity as the director will blend with theirs. But they tend to be pretty damn good at the audition.

Then you get into rehearsals. That's where you get to see the vulnerable artist. The actors don't have the same familiarity with the material that they have with their monologues. They make weak choices, wrong choices or no choices at all. They stumble through the words and do their best to connect the director's arbitrary blocking notes with the script. I'm not complaining; this is part of the process and I recognize this as both an actor and a director. The important thing is to give the actors the opportunity to find their way with the material so it's as familiar as those audition monologues. I know I have to give them the chance to get good, just like I want directors (and choreographers) to give me the chance to get good.

So if you find yourself in the position of director, choreographer, producer or supervisor, give the folks on your team a chance to get good. You brought them on for a reason, and chances are that they won't disappoint if you do your part to set them in the right direction and give them the space to make mistakes.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Why Bother With One Acts?

In my limited experience, the words "One Acts" on a postcard or marquee is a death knell. My theory, at least in regards to Los Angeles, is that and evening of One Acts = "Actor Showcase", that dreaded beast that virtually guarantees an evening of egos on parade and what my old acting prof called "emotional masturbation".

Yet I believe that the production of short plays is vital to the health of a company, and in particular a Theatre Tribe. The trouble is, an evening of one acts is rarely done correctly or for the right reasons.

I haven't had a successful model to point to and say "like that" in order to better illustrate my vision for short plays. Now I do.

John Kricfalusi is a curmudgeonly cuss who certainly has some opinions. You probably know him best as the creator of Red & Stimpy, the wildly anarchistic "children's" cartoon. He's also a bit of a historian of animation, and blogs frequently at Recently he began a series of posts on the subject of the whys and wherefores of cartoon shorts:
Shorts Program Goals Headings


To Discover Talent

To Find A Director with Experience as Well as Raw Talent

To Surround the Director with like minded supporting talent

TO DEVELOP AN EFFICIENT PRODUCTION SYSTEM that allows the talent to flourish


To Give Cartoonists Real Experience

To Bring Back Apprentice System and develop the talent
I'm not going to quote the whole thing here, because I want you to visit his blog and get the straight dope from the master himself.

Obviously, there's not a 1:1 comparison to be made between animation and live theatre. But I believe what John K is outlining may serve as a jumping off point to define a useful purpose for the production of short plays.

So what do YOU think? Should a theatre company do an evening of one acts simply because they're cheap to produce, or should we strive to use the short form as a laboratory? To throw stuff out there and see what sticks? And to what extent should we demand the audience contribute to the process (comment cards, Q&A sessions, etc.)?

My Postcard Theories

[NOTE: I originally posted this on the Theatre Tribe group. That group seems to be on the verge of deletion, so I thought I would move it over here.]

I'm not sure if this holds true for the rest of the world, but in Los Angeles the first line of marketing is the postcard.

Postcards are ubiquitous in Los Angeles. They advertise plays, acting schools, nightclubs, taxi services, raves, escorts ... if it can be bought, sold, consumed or otherwise experienced, chances are there's a postcard advertising it. The upside of this is the ease and affordability of having mass quantities of high-quality postcards printed. The downside is the sheer volume of postcard static.

So the trick is to cut through that static, and create within the potential audience member a desire to go to the theatre. And we all know how difficult that can be, even when you’re not in direct competition with clubs and escorts.A couple of years ago I began collecting postcards, specifically those advertising theatrical events. I looked for consistent features across the array of postcards in my collection in an attempt to determine what works and what doesn’t. This wasn’t a very scientific survey, but I believe my conclusions are valid enough to share:

  • Resolution is vitally important. If the postcard is all aliased or fuzzy, it looks cheap and unprofessional.
  • There must be some sort of graphic representation of the show. Text-only postcards do not have the impact that a picture has. You would think this is obvious! Just as you find in really bad PowerPoint presentations, some people just like to throw a bunch of words at their audience.
  • This representation should communicate the mood/spirit/theme/approach of the show in a compelling and interesting way.
  • It is preferable for this representation to give the viewer a human connection. I'm partial to a photograph of the cast that invites the viewer into the scene.
  • If you have a choice between a list of actors or a synopsis of the play, CHOOSE THE SYNOPSIS OF THE PLAY. This goes double for new works. Unless you have a marketable asset in the play (Val Kilmer is Moses!) a list of actors will not bring people to the show. No one will care who is in the show until they've seen the show. At that point, they'll have the actors' bio in the program and their 8 x 10's in the lobby to gaze upon.

Above is the postcard front for "Pin-Up Girls," shot by local burlesque photographer Chris Beyond. I selected the location for this shoot and did the set dressing. I placed the actresses, and "directed" them off camera as Mr. Beyond snapped away. There are a number of dirty tricks in this picture:

  • The mirrors in the background add cavernous depth to an otherwise claustrophobic scene. This taken together with the soft lighting creates a womb-like (read: "inviting") environment.
  • The three figures on the right are focused on a postcard. The figure on the left is lost in thought. There's a huge mystery in this scene.
  • We're peering over the shoulder of the actress holding the postcard as she's turned away. We only see the back of the far right actress' head. This contributes to the mystery.
  • The entire scene is vignetted, meaning there is a dark border around the central image. This contributes to the womb-like environment, and hopefully casts an "old-timey" feel over the picture.
  • As mysterious as the picture is, there are patches of color, feathers, and fur in the shot. It is a play about burlesque, after all!
This picture turned out perfectly considering how deliberately set up it is. But I should point out that of all the photos Mr. Beyond shot for this postcard, only two accomplished what I hoped for (through no fault of the photographer, I should add).

And here's the back. I have had audience members come up to me and thank me for putting a synopsis of the show on the postcard! The decision to forgo actors names on the postcard has been firm company policy for Theatre Unleashed since the getgo.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

"I feel ... I am ... I think ..."

Dr. Farmer, God bless him, just could not convince me that "To Be" verbs were universally weak choices. He is right, but it's the sort of lesson you kind of have to learn on your own, on stage, failing miserably. Playing a state of mind is death on stage. Acting is action, not "feeling," which is certainly not to say you should wring all the emotion out of your performance. I think Mamet is correct on this score when he says (with italics for emphasis, no less!) "Everything you ever feel onstage will be engendered by the scene." This is a quote from True and False, Mamet's exceptional book on the subject of acting.

But this is not an essay on acting. No siree, Bob. It's a brief word or two on the subject of weak playwriting.

I'm still learning. The day I stop learning is the day I hang up my spurs and start making doll house furniture. Because really, what's the point? If you know all there is to know in a certain field, why stick with it? Where's the challenge? So I approach each writing task as a chance to learn something new about how to create dramatic literature.

A lesson recently learned is a corollary to the lesson I refused to learn under Dr. Farmer's tutelage. And here it is:

Statements of personal emotional state are bad writing.

There very well may be exceptions to this rule. Mercutio's pithy "I'm hurt" springs to mind. So maybe I should hone this phrase a bit. At any rate, here is an example of what I'm talking about:

So you're leaving.

Yes. I just feel suffocated by you.

You feel suffocated by me?

Yes. I need room! Room to breath!


I can sleep on the couch ..?

This is just an example, and not a very good one at that. But I am loath to bring in examples of other people's work, and the bit of writing I did on Tracing Sonny that inspired this blog entry is a plot spoiler. So just bear with me.

Here's an edit:

So. You're leaving.

Will you please just give me some room?

I want to hear you say the words.

I can't breath! Give me some room!


Do you want the bigger closet?

So yes, this is a lame example. Hopefully it makes the point. Two hours of people walking around on stage talking about how they feel is at best self-indulgent. The same people speaking words that grow out of that emotional state is compelling. It forwards the action of the scene and engages the audience in the moment.

I reckon it's a lot easier to play, as well.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

A Secretary of the Arts?

[NOTE: I posted the following at my general subject blog on the 25th of January. I've edited it slightly for this blog.]
I know that quite a few of my fellows and friends in the theatre community are quite excited about the prospect of the President appointing a Secretary of the Arts. There is a petition online for people to sign with the hope that enough people can persuade the President to create a cabinet-level post for a Secretary of Art. However, it's a prospect that is far from certain; President Obama has far more important matters to attend to.

I haven't felt the need to speak out on this subject myself. I should probably keep my fool mouth shut on the matter. As this touches on an area near and dear to me, I feel that I must throw my two cents out there.

I do not think President Obama should appoint a Secretary of the Arts.
Art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.
-- JFK (emphasis added)
I place a high value on art. It borders on religious expression for me, as many of my past collaborators may attest. I don't expect art to change the world, but I have known it to change the lives of individuals, if only for the moment. I know that in my own life, the right song at the right moment has roused me from the depths of depression. Whenever I feel washed-out emotionally and physically a trip to the Getty Museum recharges my batteries.

I found the above quote from President Kennedy in the body of a speech entitled "The Separation of Art and State." This speech was delivered by David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute to the Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts in 1995. It sums up my feelings on the matter of a "Secretary of the Arts" with near perfection. Actually, the title sums it up nicely.

Imagine for a moment that someone were proposing a Secretary of the News Media or Secretary of Peaceable Assemblage. It's a no-brainer, right? Freedom of expression, as well as the freedom of the press and the right to peaceably assemble is guaranteed by the first amendment. Why would we want to petition for bureaucratic centralization of the Arts? There is a quote from the above mentioned speech that speaks to this very issue. It's kind of long, but worth the read:
The latest newsletter from People for the American Way identifies a lot of threats to free expression. Some involve an actual assault on private actions--such as censorship of the Internet, a ban on flag-burning, a denial of tax exemption to groups that support ideas some congressman doesn't like--and fortunately the First Amendment will protect us from most of these. But most of them involve restrictions on the way government funds can be used. Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger, now a member of the Clinton White House, warned recently that such rules are "especially alarming in light of the growing role of government as subsidizer, landlord, employer and patron of the arts."
Keep in mind that this speech is concerned primarily with the National Endowment for the Arts, and was delivered during the Clinton presidency -- a very arts-friendly administration! Multiply this scenario by an executive department on par with the Department of the Treasury, the Justice Department, the Department of Labor, the Department of Commerce ... are you beginning to see the problem?

Bureaucracies must create work for themselves to justify their very existence. This means regulation. Don't get me wrong, some regulations are good. Protect the little guy against entrenched power -- please! I'm that little guy. But I also believe, "That government is best which governs least." In short, if they don't regulate it, they can't take it away. Fewer cages means more freedom, plain and simple.

"But this is the Obama administration," you may say. "President Obama would never allow something so diabolical as regulation of the arts to occur!" True, but Obama will only serve at most eight years in office. Are you willing to run the risk that the next president won't regulate the arts? What if the country swings hard-right and elects a Pat Buchanan? What if it swings hard-left and elects a Tipper Gore?

So that's worse case scenario: a government agency which regulates art. It's not the likeliest scenario. But how likely was it that torture would become a sanctioned approach to interrogation?

It is not lost on me that the appointment of a Secretary of the Arts would be a largely symbolic gesture. Why in God's name should we pay $193,400 a year for the highly symbolic job of Secretary of Art? And that's just the salary for a cabinet-level position. It does not include the expenses of such an office, including the staff and overheard. It would certainly cost more than the budget of the NEA, which will top out at just over $144 million this year. The Department of Education is the smallest cabinet-level department, and it has an annual budget of nearly $69 billion. You can figure a Department of the Arts would have a budget somewhere between those two numbers, which would be a lot to pay for symbolism.

This is a matter of politics, and I understand how passionately people may feel about this. I am open to differences of opinion, and would be happy to hear other points of view.