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.