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 ...


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.