Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Use that Cover for Context

Scott raised an interesting question last week with his post about stage directions. At risk of stirring up those now quiet waters, I offer a broader suggestion: prepare the reader for the conventions of your script.

The generally accepted convention of stage directions for plays is that they describe what can be seen by an audience on stage. Whether or not that is "right," that's the trend. When a writer bucks a trend, he or she runs the risk of appearing that they don't know their craft.

In many plays I receive, the title page or the cover letter explains some of the text conventions: "\" for overlapping dialog, special formatting for projected text, italics for text translated into another language. The list goes on.

In the same spirit, a playwright might choose to include a note that said something to the effect of "This script employs literary stage directions which are intended to create an image for the reader. They are not intended to be instructions for directors or actors."

This sort of context helps not only with text conventions, but with the intentions of the script. I've read plays that are either spot on subtle satires, or pale imitations of classic work. A note about the author's intentions in that cover letter would help me figure out which. I've read scripts that are the result of some experimental process - but without any context for what that process is. As a result, I'm unable to properly read the text.

When reading 10 to 15 scripts a week, I simply don't have the time to fully explore a script as one would in preparation for production. So any help the author can give in familiarizing me quickly with his or her conventions and intentions will help me read the script in the appropriate context.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Stage Directions, a can of worms

Stage Directions cross to pantry, pick up flashlight, consider how batteries work...

I've been criticized a couple times in the past few months for the amount of stage directions I use. Personally, I don't feel like I use all that many. My plays have a lot of white space, typically. But this happened recently: a theatre in Detroit actually passed one of my scripts up the chain for further development, but then ultimately it got rejected because one reader said that I was trying too hard to tell the director how to direct and the actor how to feel. They called the stage directions "oppressive." Which made me feel like my script was not rejected on basis of its quality, but on some arbitrary argument of principle about what the province of the playwright is and isn't.

I like stage directions. I don't just like stage directions, I like impossible stage directions. My friend Jayita will literally write as a stage direction in a play, right in the middle of a scene with two friends talking in America about eating a hamburger, something like:

(A bomb goes off in Japan, but they only feel it in their pinky toes).

While this is an extreme example, I like the color that stage directions can bring to the reading of a script. I hate the stage directions of Eugene O'Neill, who will spend an entire paragraph describing what's on a table to the tiniest detail; but I love a good stage direction that describes a complicated emotional moment, or even better, an abstract concept.

I like to write something like:

(John stares ahead. His eyes unfocus, everything in front of him blurs together like the letters of a word you've stared at for ten minutes.)

Will that translate to the audience? Maybe not. But I don't think it necessarily needs to, and it's a direct communication with the reader...something that seems to be taboo in playwriting that I don't understand.

I don't like writing whimsically, so I don't try to make my characters describe emotions through poetics or departures from the scene. I like non-verbal communication and utterances, awkward tension, gutteral noises, and stutters. As a writer, sometimes the best way to describe a series of non-verbal moments or a period of silence, is to literally write the intention. The concept of the moment. The give and take.

I also think that stage direction can provide some exposition for directors and actors to consider, without dragging out exposition through forced expository dialogue, which personally I can spot like a blood stain on a doily.

Is the implication somehow that because we've chosen to write plays instead of prose, that we forfeit introspection?

Even as I say this, however, I have a tremendous respect for and faith in directors and actors. Without fail, they find things buried in text and bring them to light, and I'm consistently amazed by that. But it seems like writers are in a tricky spot. If you write no stage directions at all, the play may lose the intended shape, or certain ideas may lose emphasis; worse, a playwright could be called lazy or that they're relying too heavily on the actors to find the scene. If you write too many stage directions, you are controlling and arrogant, and how dare you have an opinion about your own work.

Obviously, if someone picks up “The Cherry Orchard,” they aren’t going to follow every last stage direction. I don’t expect my plays to be hammered out word for word either. Productions are intended to reshape plays, interpret them, and bring a new perspective to them, but that doesn’t mean the playwright should leave a blank slate in my opinion. Stage directions are, I believe, meant to inform, not dictate, the action. To that end I think they can be as specific or abstract as a playwright wants.

“Oppressive” is a pretty harsh word for having an opinion about when one’s own character looks out the window. Or the moment they forget what their son’s face looks like for that matter. Maybe that’s the same moment. It probably is.

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Thursday, April 3, 2008


So I've been having discussions with several writers lately about the process of self-adaptation. That is to say, taking a short story you've written and writing it into a play. Or taking a play and turning it into a screenplay, or a novel. I went to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for my MFA, and this is a persistent question at that school: how is a work served or disserved by experimenting with different forms within the same story or concept? SAIC's MFA is an interdisciplinary writing program, so people are often doing this at that school, writing something one way, then exploding and diversifying it into all different forms.

While I was there, I focused on plays, but now I'm becoming more and more interested in adaptations of my own work, while I'm still close to it. For part of my thesis project I adapted a short story of mine into a play, and found that suddenly the story worked in a completely new way.

Now, I'm interested in going the other direction, turning one play of mine into a screenplay and another into a novel. In talking with other writers, some people I've found are of the mind that there are countless ways to tell a single story, and so its good practice for any writer, playwright or no, to self-adapt from form to form (like a person changing their perspective over time). Others, I've found, are of the mind that retrofitting a play into prose or broadening a taut stage piece into a sprawling filmscript is just beating a dead horse.

Strangely, novels are turned into films and plays all the time, but the stigma attached to novelized versions of films is that they are a lowest of the low forms of literature. And no one seems to retrofit plays into long fiction, period.

Obviously there are pros and cons and we could argue that all week, but I'm interested specifically to know who else is doing this right now, or who has done it before (self-adaptation) and what the results were.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

No such thing as zero budget

First off, thanks to Scott Barsotti for breathing some life into this lapsed blog.

A couple of days ago I got an email about Collaboraction's Studio Series project. That series has a lofty goal: creating art not tied to commercial considerations. One line in the call for particpants stuck out to me, however:

"This is a quarterly, process driven-program that lives and breathes in our studio, performs for one weekend, and operates with a $0 budget." (emphasis mine)

Now, I'm not criticising Collaboraction. They've been completely upfront about the goals, process and compensation. If you don't want to play by those rules, you just don't audition.

But it did get me thinking about the cost of making theater. And while that phrase "$0 budget" is true in the sense that there's no money exchanging hands, its not true in the sense that there is no cost.

Even if something is donated, is has a value that one could account for in a budget. Even if people are not paid, their time and energy certainly has a value.

So it strikes me that there are two kinds of budgets possible for any given production - one in which you account for cash flow. And another in which you attempt to account for donated time, materials, and space. Would publishing such "total picture" budgets help people quanitify the true cost of making a piece of theater?

Volunteer time and unpaid/underpaid time are a kind of hidden cost of making theater. And anytime there is a hidden cost, it seems to me that someone in the process has a vested interest in keep that cost hidden. Who benefits from the uncounted costs of production? Is this a product of a broken production model, or is it the neccesary cost of making an art in a form that resists commodification?

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Take Back Genre

I've been working the past couple days with an interesting fellow named Charley Sherman, who's been around the Chicago scene for a long time and spent 8 years in London as well, before returning to the states 5 years ago. He worked a bunch with Steve Pickering as a director and adapter with Organic Theatre and Next, and now runs a company called Wild Claw with a show opening next week at the Athenaeum. We've been talking a lot about horror in specific, something that is very interesting to me lately. It seems that in the glory days of horror (film particularly), atmosphere was much more important than effects. It didn't matter if you saw the violence, saw the apparition, saw anything at all, as long as the suspense was palpable and the story probed some facet of human fear. Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Exorcist, Halloween, all classic horror films with very little blood on screen, everything is implied. Your imagination fills the gaps.

I think the scariest stories are not about death and dying, or being harmed by someone, but about one's own weaknesses being exposed in the presence of danger. The fear of being lost, or abandoned, or failing miserably (certainly death and harm can be a consequence of these things and often is, especially in horror). Fear drives people to cowardice as well as heroism, to light as well as to dark. These are not things that rely on effects and sensation, but on storytelling. Atmosphere is what sets up horror, so why is it (as an example of genre) virtually absent from stage?

Horror, when done well, is full of subtext, truly a writer's canvas and an actor's medium. So why does film dominate the genre (and most sub-genres) while most stage horror is campy parody or tongue-in-cheek midnight riffs? Not just horror though, why is their such a lack of good, well-crafted genre stories onstage?

Or am I just missing it?

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Honest Endings

I just finished re-reading a play that raises a craft question for me. How do we create honest endings for situations that in reality are on-going?

Say you write a play that deals with a family's struggle raising an autistic child. Well, the autism isn't going to disappear - the issues the family faces are life-long. So how do you create an ending - a sense of closure that clearly tells you the piece is over, without creating an accidental feeling that the struggles themselves are over?

I'm looking for actual examples here. What are some plays that you've written or read that dealt with ongoing struggles and how did they end? More to the point - how did you create a satisfactory ending rather than just stopping the piece. I mean, when the lights come up, the audience goes home, but that doesn't mean there was a satisfactory ending. Just an efficient stop.

A random thought on theory: people often place theory and practice in opposition. More than one writer on this blog has said in effect: "This is fun, but I've got to go make theater now." Theory is not just abstract thought, although we often treat it that way. To create a theory is to observe phenomena and then attempt to explain the reasons why the phenomena occurs. In an incredible simplification: Darwin observed the diveristy and similarity of species. And observed and observed. And evolutionary theory was created to explain that diversity and similiarity. To come up with the reason why.

And so, when I ask for concrete examples, that's the step I'm trying to take. Instead of pontificating (which is not theorizing), I'm asking us to make observations and try to relate those observations together.

So - like I said. Endings that honor the ongoing nature of a particular struggle. Who's got one?

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Monday, October 15, 2007

The Hiccup of Length

Why can't I write an epic?

This is my first post. It happens to be the 54th post to NTFD, which is not a number that has significance to me, and I'm glad of that, because it really allays the pressure I would undoubtedly feel if this were the 16th post, or the 29th or something.

I am currently acting in/directing an episode of a trilogy of full-length plays called "The Madelyn Trilogy" which are being mounted by Curious Theatre Branch as part of the Rhino Fest. Beau O'Reilly wrote them, and each play comes in at 2.5-3 hours running time, totaling 8 solid hours of drama. The plays happen to be quite good, but the quality of the plays is not the issue. The hot button of this project, of course, is its length. 8 hours of theatre. Fringe theatre. No bangs and whistles, just solid writing, terrific acting, and an engaging, original story.

Recently, I was approached after a performance by a castmate's cousin, who was a complete jerk and "not someone who goes to theatre except to see his cousin perform" (so why am I talking to him about his opinions regarding theatre in the first place?) and he asked me, with a question that could not be more leaning or loaded: "Don't you think a writer asking an audience to watch an 8 hour play is self-indulgent?"

Ok ok, now of course, this guy is a jerk and made several comments during this encounter that made me want to shake my fists and growl. But this is the one that sticks with me, because it touched on something I've been obsessing about lately (perhaps because I've been doing an 8 hour trilogy since january): length. And specifically why it is so dwelt-upon in theatre by audiences and critics alike?

His question was best answered with another question: "Why is it more self-indulgent than a novelist asking you to spend 40 hours reading a single story they wrote? Or a writer creating the bible for a TV show that will take 6 seasons to complete?" The response, of course, is that "That's different."

Indeed, Beau's experiment is rooted in this. Shakespeare could get away with writing plays of length. So could Arthur Miller, Eugene O'Neill...Tom Stoppard and Tony Kushner are still getting away with it. I say "getting away with it" ironically, because writing a long play (even 8 hours long) is not an artistic crime, and shouldn't be considered one. John Barton's "Tantalus" which premiered in Denver several years ago was a 12-play cycle about the Trojan War that took 2 full days to perform once.

I've read Tantalus. It's...ok. But again, quality is not the concern of this, the 54th post on NTFD, but this question of length.

Why is theatre held to such strict standards of length? It seems that most people have this idea of what a play is and what theatre is supposed to be and supposed to do, what the rules are, what the context is, and how they're going to receive it, and how long they need to invest. We're willing to watch the entire Godfather Trilogy in one Saturday, but the idea of partaking in 8 hours of a play in three sittings over the course of a weekend (or even a 9-week run) makes people bristle.

Does it have nothing to do with the work itself and have everything to do with the form and venue? If you go to a play, yes, you are expected to be a willing captive, the actors can see you and hear you, the rest of audience is aware of you, you must sit quietly, politely, and watch. Is this what creates the standard of expected length? If this is true, then what makes theatre immediate, crucial, and unique is also what provides the excuse for it to be so harshly regarded (and often neglected) by the average consumer. When you see a play, you are (ideally) part of a cycle of energy that radiates from the performers out into the audience, through the audience, and back to the performers. When you see a play, the experience cannot be replicated, because next time around, the performance will not be the same, the specific combination of people in the seats will not be the same, and so forth. This is not true of films, in which the experience stays purely within the audience, and rarely extends beyond the individual. Even if you could give to the screen, it couldn’t give back. The channel is one-way and static. Theatre is about community in a world that for all its connectivity is becoming more and more singular, and one of the few artforms that creates a direct and live two-way channel, because it has to.

As an experiment in length and depth, the Madelyn Trilogy is admittedly extreme. 8 hours is a long time to receive, share, give back, and receive again. But is that the only reason why we won't tolerate long plays? It can't be, because theatre didn't always follow this tendency of 10-minute plays and hour-long one-acts. Not only did writers used to write long plays, but producers produced them and people came to see them. It was an event. The play has shrunk over time. Shakespeare's 5 acts became Chekhov's 4 became Miller's 3 became the modern moment's 2. But wait! Even 2 act plays are frowned at more and more.

The dangerous thing to me about this trend is the way it affects the way we write. Writers are writing short plays because that's what can be produced. There are countless one-act festivals and short-play marathons across the country where writers can get their work done, as long as it's under 10 pages long. Even if that 4 act Faust comedy you're sitting on is the best play anyone's written in 20 years, good luck getting it put on. It's certainly affected me: 12 of my plays have been produced, but only 4 of them 'full-length,' and only 2 of those require an intermission.

How does this length issue affect you? Why does it exist, and why now more than 40 years ago? I don't want to blame TV and the internet because that would be easy, but is that the most logical answer? Is it that people don't want to take part in the creation of the event, they merely want it to happen to them? But then why go to a Cubs game instead of watching it at home?

Chris Piatt wrote in his review of Tracy Letts' epic "August Osage County" something to the effect of most American playwrights are writing plays that are nothing more than tumbleweeds rolling across a desolate landscape, and that to make a mark in this day and age and add to the canon, you gotta show up wearing some serious shit-kickers, I believe was the term. But that seems to imply any of several things, none of which are true:

1) Most playwrights don't have the guts to write something epic.
2) All good plays, or even great plays, get produced.
3) All playwrights have the option to get something like Osage County produced at a venue like Steppenwolf, but choose rather to dabble in unimportant trifles, or don’t have the ability to write it in the first place.

The only difference between Tracy Letts’ epic and the epic that all playwrights have sitting on their floor collecting dust is that his got done, for whatever combination of reasons, many being obvious, and one certainly being that the play was good. But his isn’t the only one. It’s not fair to take a struggling playwright to Osage County, then smack them on the chest, point at the stage and say “Why can’t you do that?” It seems pretty transparent to me, actually, why most of us can’t do that, and it has nothing to do with writing.

The climate has created the condition, not the other way around. It isn’t fair that writers are expected to adhere to certain constraints or—god forbid—rules, but then we’re criticized when the scene doesn’t produce anything that sticks or demands attention. Everyone cries for the next Great American Drama, and then moan about having to spend more than an hour in the theatre, once in a while deciding “this one gets a pass” because of where and who and because they had enough money to build a staircase onstage. I would argue that The Madelyn Trilogy is a much more important work due to its context and the gesture it makes, going further despite the norm and not allowing budgetary or technical limitations to dictate the writer’s process.

We’d all love to write something huge, or we at least should have the option to. But we don’t. Tony Kushner does. Tom Stoppard does. Saying Tracy Letts is more important or has more to say than another playwright because of Osage County's epicness is like saying an NFL receiver is elite simply because he catches a lot of passes. But he doesn’t control if it’s thrown to him, does he? All he can do is get open.

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