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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Sunday, October 7, 2007

Holy Origin Stories, Batman!

In recent comments, Ian and Melissa have made me realize that there's something missing from all this discussion about theatricality and form. The "why."

I'd like to hear about why you do theater, all you occasional contributors. And when I say "why," I don't mean the intellectual or theoretical why. I'd like to hear how you came to find your way to this particular form. I'd like to hear about why in an age of digital cameras and YouTube, you haven't gone to other forms.

I'd love to hear what I'm thinking of as "narrative why." Think of origin stories for your favorites super-heroes (Hat tip to Isaac for making me think about graphic novels and theater). Think of the stories of those transcendent moments of theater. Think of those stories of how you are too poor to buy a digital camera. They don't have to be positive - really. Sometimes I think I'm in theater because I don't know how to do anything else. Some sort of un-planned obsolescence.

What? You occasional contributors might ask. I thought your mission was exploring the intellectual framework for theater?! Well, yeah, it is. But I know I have a habit of justifying a visceral connection with a whole heaping framework of theorizing. So it occurs to me it might help us understand the theoretical claims of folks on this blog if we knew a little bit more about where we're all coming from.

I'm not going first. If you need inspiration, check out this story from Isaac.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Does Stage Have A Purpose?

Judging by the posts yesterday, am I to believe that theatre isn't really necessary- in the sense that there is nothing you can do on a stage that you cannot do anywhere else? Because the obvious "live-ness" can be duplicated around the campfire or at a bar. So is everyone in agreement that the purpose of theatre is in question here?

David seemed to think it was about preference- people just like theatre as a medium- so that's why it exists (drastic paraphrase of David's posts- but I think the essence of them. And I'm sure he'll correct me if I'm wrong :))

This is interesting. It seems to me there's a bit of a consensus here. So are most folks saying that there is no inherent theatricality to theatre that makes it impossible to duplicate in another medium?

(Notice I keep coming back to theatricality- c'mon guys- someone define it already!!)

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Monday, October 1, 2007

Stage, Screen, TV, or Campfire??

Whew!! That "Narrative vs Theatrical" thread was really going on, wasn't it? Well, in an effort to not have to scroll down so much- I'm continuing it as a new thread...

David wrote:

Take the Anne Frank story, for example. The particulars of the story are fairly straightforward and commonly known. The elements of that story, as they have been translated by later writers, remain the same... yet the Anne Frank story has successfully made its way into print, onto the stage and on film. The successes of these various versions of her story have not depended on the story itself, but on whether or not the writer, director or adaptor took full advantage of the medium through which they chose to tell that story.

I agree with this Anne Frank analogy, David. And it kind of proves my point. Anne Frank was adapted for every medium. As a book, it had liberties with detail, etc. As a play, it was made theatrical in some way and adapted for the stage. Same with film.

So my question still is this: Why was "A Steady Rain" a play? Why was it important for that story to be told on a stage? I think this question is intrinsically tied back to the original, "What is theatricality?" question.

(Folks who have not seen "A Steady Rain" don't worry, because I'm still posing the general question- What makes a play worthy of the stage? Why does a piece of work HAVE to be presented on the stage versus another medium??)

As a film, "A Steady Rain" WOULD be filmed in a Spaulding Gray type of way- the play would essentially be taped. Around a campfire, it would be presented the same way as was presented on the stage at Chicago Dramatists. At a bar, the same thing.

My point being, "A Steady Rain" could be presented in many locations and mediums and not really change it's form. So what made it theatrical? Why did it HAVE to be presented on a stage, besides the fact that Keith wrote it in a playscript format...?

And if a narrative is NOT theatrical, should it be presented on a stage...?

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

Storyshowing? Storytelling?

Devilvet has posted a question that is of some relevance to the discussion of A Steady Rain and theatricality going on in early posts. Check it out here.

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How Determined Are You?

A couple of weeks ago I set a mission for myself. My goal is to create neutral and graduated language to describe how a particular play functions.

I've been a bit overwhelmed by my new job, but Christopher De Paola's invigoration of this forum has me back on track.

So here's my first new term: determined.

We often talk about character motivation. And if a character's action doesn't make sense it is usually described as lacking motivation. But talking about motivation and the lack thereof assumes that a character's actions need some sort of minimal amount of motivation.

Before we talk about motivation, I think it would be helpful to talk about how "tightly determined" a script is. A "tightly determined" script is structured so that there are multiple triggers for character action in the play. A "loosely determined" script is less concerned with providing triggers for character action.

Here's an example I hope might raise an eyebrow or two: Othello is a loosely determined script. Iago's actions are clear - but they are unmotivated. We don't know why he does what he does. If that play were in a workshop today, there would be a few people who would harp on Iago's lack of motivation. Luckily for Shakespeare, he's dead and we've canonized him to the point where we give him the benefit of the doubt. Bill Shakespeare MFA 2007 wouldn't be so lucky.

My point is that focusing on character motivation as an absolute concept doesn't necessarily help the playwright. Far better to talk about the tightness of determinism in the world of the play BEFORE wading into motivation.

So: two questions. 1) What do you think of the term? Any comments, additions or clarifications? 2) What are the benefits of a loosely determined script? Does a world with loose determination mean that there is more room for something else in the text?

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Narrative Vs Theatrical?

Thank you Christopher for the resurrection of NTFD.

I didn't want to hi-jack the working class theater thread, so you should still comment on that one - the thoughts are flying fast and furious. But one thing was lurking around some of the commentary, and I wanted to bring it out.

The point was made by Greg that we need to present something different in the theatrical experience than the audience member can get on television or film. And here I may be reading something that Greg didn't intend - but I saw an implication that narrative was somehow an inferior form. I've gotten into this discussion before, so maybe I'm projecting. But every time someone dismisses narrative as if it is only for the unsophisticated, I get a little irked.

Why this opposition between the theatrical and narrative? Must narrative be wed to realism and television? Isn't telling a damn good story in a theatrical way still possible? Still desirable?

And in a related comment - if we want new audiences for theater, I think we're going to have to bridge the gap. Give people something to hold onto. I'll admit that Funnyhouse of A Negro is a stellar piece of theatrical craftsmanship unlike anything you see on television. But I'm not going to take my father to go see it. He likes a good story - and will spend some of his money earned driving a fork-lift to do so.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Resurrecting Working Class Theatre

I wanted to continue the thread on working class theatre because 1) I can, and 2) because it is my ultimate goal as a playwright to create engaging working class stories for the stage. I don't feel there are enough working class stories being told. And I don't believe there are enough blue collar representations on stage. I also believe that, economics aside (because blue collar or working class does not automatically mean you cannot afford a theatre ticket), I truly believe we can't get working class folks into the theatre because we are not telling their stories. I hold these tenants to be true. But then I read Erik's comments on "King Lear"...

I have to say, Erik, my foundation was rocked a bit when I read your comment on "Lear" because I was like, "Yeah, of course an electrician can relate to a father dividing his kingdom between his daughters." I completely agreed with you. Really.

But then I calmed down a bit and came to my senses. Just kidding- kind of... (Let's not forget, Shakespeare was a master of depicting all classes of society in his work- something severely lacking these days.)

I began to think about Shakespeare and the "universality" that is always applied to his work, and how this differs from something more contemporary. I think Shakespeare can be considered fantasy (Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Titus, etc- these stories have all transcended reality and exist as fantasy). And I think we relate to fantasy in a different way. Fantasy is so far removed from us that it is not a representation of our reality- therefore we have license, or are given "the room" to bridge the gap between this fantasy and our own lives and relate the story to ourselves or our own situation. (i.e. king divides kingdom amongst daughters/father decides which of his 3 sons to leave his Buick to.) This "bridging", I believe, is what gives theatre its distinction as a medium.

In more contemporary work, realism is what writers tend to strive towards- therefore narrowing the ability of an audience member to "bridge" or relate to the story. If the play is about an upper class white artist, a white intellectual who can afford to stay home while pondering existence, and a white chef all living in a SoHo apartment trying to deal with their irritating gay neighbor (NYC trendy humor abounding)- it's kind of hard for anyone outside of that environment to relate.

And yes, you will have your "Raisin in the Sun" moments (don't forget, that's a piece of working class theatre). But overall, if we are trying to be realistic (i.e. realism) as a medium (which 95% of theatre is) then we must start depicting working class folks on stage and telling their stories, otherwise they will never set foot inside of a theatre. Or maybe we should strive to be more Shakespearean in our contemporary storytelling...?

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Neutral and Graduated Language

I've been inspired this week to assign myself a new mission. Perhaps you will be moved to join me in this mission.

I want to develop new vocabulary for talking about plays. This vocabulary should be neutral and graduated.

The terminology we use to discuss plays is wedded to a particular aesthetic agenda. When we talk about character motivation or plot points that pre-supposes that those things necessarily belong in a play. Similarly when Dr. Paul Castagno uses terms like multivocality and dialogism to describe plays, that terminology arises from the language based approach. I'd like to coin new terminology that is not paired with a particular vision of structure, but rather can be used to describe the structure the play itself is generating.

I've been struggling with a word that can capture this concept. Part of what weds terminology to an aesthetic is that the terminology is used to describe the presence or absence of a particular element. If terminology uses concepts that can be scaled, perhaps we can talk about the amount of an element. Rather than saying a particular play doesn't have a clear through line (a lack with an implied solution) we can talk about the "velocity" of the central action (a graduated or scalable term without an implied solution).

OK, but why?
I believe that finding a way to describe how a work functions is a necessary step BEFORE development (or judgment) can begin. We tend to skip the part where we engage the work on its own terms and jump straight to applying our own agenda to it. That short cut is facilitated by the language we use.

I've been juggling two metaphors in my head. One was provided to me by Reggie Lawrence of MPAACT theater. He suggested that play structure is a balloon, and that different genres are developed by squeezing one part of the structure and emphasizing another part. The basic elements are all there in every play: the differences are generated by what proportion you choose to mix them in. It was this observation that gave rise to the idea of "graduated" language.

The other metaphor that comes to mind is the language of wine. Now, I'm not much of a wine expert, so I'm sure I have a romanticized view. But from my layman's perspective, it seems as if there is a huge vocabulary that exists just to describe what the experience of the wine is. There's the bouquet, and some wines have legs, and there are fruit overtones and almond finishes and the list goes on. All that just to describe what the experience is. Not to mention the whole idea of pairings. And so it seems to me that if we could talk in some similar way about what a play is, we might better be equipped to help it get better. Nobody is going to insist that every wine should start with a hint of chocolate. And yet we do insist that every play start with an inciting incident.

But You're A Huge Believer in Story Structure
Its true. And I probably will continue to be. I've improved my own writing by embracing standard story-telling structure. But I fear that what has helped me now limits me. That what has improved my work now blinds me to more possibilities. The language we use defines our perceptual world - and I'm on a mission to open up my perception.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Multiple Versions? No.

Script Submission Tip:

If you've submitted a script to a theater, and haven't heard from them, don't send the latest version of that same script. Far better to submit a new script, and mention that you have a new draft of the previous script to send if they are interested.

If the readers aren't intrigued by your earlier draft, chances are they're not going to suddenly be swayed by the latest draft. If you're sending multiple versions, you're also sending the message that you don't know when a script is ready to be seen.

Of course, if the theater actually requests your latest draft, by all means send it. But don't confuse the invitation to "send us new work in the future" with a request for another draft. When those response letters say send us something new, they mean a completely different concept. They've seen something interesting in what you've sent the first time, and they want to see if you've got more than one script in you.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Working Class Theater

I was prepping for the African American Theater lit class I'm teaching at Roosevelt, and came across an observation about "serious black drama." The historian I'm reading related a story of a failed drama production at the Apollo in the early 50's. The failure lead the then-owner of the Apollo to declare that blacks had no interest in serious drama. The historian went on to ask why should they? In downtown theater black audience were only shown images of themselves as servants or buffoons.

This observation resonated with some other things that have been on my mind lately. A few weeks ago I was sent an email that exhorted the recipients to write to the Governor because Illinois Arts Council funding was being cut. There was a lot of rhetoric about the importance of the arts.

Here in Chicago we're facing service cuts and fare hikes for our mass-transit system. The City claims its because state government failed to come through with needed funding. So I'm wondering, where are the impassioned emails from theater folk demanding we write our governor to restore our transit service?

I often wonder why more working class folk don't attend theater. And my first answer is why should they? We haven't been doing so good representing them on stage lately.

My second answer is why should they? We'll send impassioned emails about the arts but can't bother to get worked up about basic services or fiscal responsibility?

I find the disconnect particularly confusing because so many of us in theater are working class or come from working class backgrounds. Did we set aside those concerns when we took up the mantle of "artist?"

To take this back to playwriting, I wonder: Do we have a responsibility to tell the stories of the people who we hope to encourage to attend the theater? And further, if we profess to have a kinship with a group of folks expressed through our writing, does that mean we have a responsibility to follow those sentiments with action outside the world of theater?

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Monday, September 10, 2007

I Really Do Read Cover Letters

I just completed my first full day as Literary Manager at Victory Gardens Theater. I almost feel like I've switched sides, which says something about the subconscious frustration we playwrights have with the gate keepers between us and production. I've said and written many things about how I think lit management should be done. Now I've got to put up or shut up. Please note, I will need a few months to reorganize and re-invigorate the reading system. So don't take me to task quite yet.

As they occur to me, I'll be writing a few words of advice to writers as they approach the submission process. Today's topic: cover letters.

I really do read those cover letters. Perhaps that's only because it is my first official day. But after several hours of combining through the current batch of submissions, I do have a list of things to avoid:

1) Don't say you hate writing cover letters. Or you're no good at it. Or in any other way draw attention to the fact that you're writing a cover letter.

2) Don't announce you're an amateur. There's no reason to state that this is the first play you wrote. Or you haven't been involved with theater since college. Or that 15 other theaters have rejected this script.

3) Don't announce the weaknesses of the play. Unless you are submitting to a workshop process and have been asked to explain what you want to work on, don't list what's wrong with the work. You're submitting for production - if there are weaknesses that you're aware of, don't send the script.

4) Don't just say "In response to your request...." or "As we discussed..." The people you are submitting to are reading hundreds of scripts, and have had dozens of conversations which have included "Send me that script." Give a reasonable context of the conversation. There's a difference between "Here is the script you requested after reading my synopsis on June 10th." And "After my reading on June 10th, you requested that I send you my latest work." In addition, turnover happens --I'm a case in point!-- so you can't assume that the reader of the letter will know what you're talking about.

5) Don't characterize or categorize the play. If I wanted to read "Aliens meets About a Boy but set in Italy." I would get the two scripts, shuffle them together like a deck of cards, and read them on the plane as I go visit my brother in Italy. I hear that in TV and Film, executives need that kind of context because they're not creative types. I suspect that's a rumor made up by people who wish they were executives in film. But either way, literary managers in theater tend to be writers or directors. We're creative types. Really.

I'll save a list of do's for a later post.

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Sunday, September 9, 2007

When to Quit

Self doubt. I won't bore you with the details of my current round of it - but the gnawing beast is at it again. For me, it is usually triggered by one of two things:

1) Coming across work that's really really good. Something so frackin' brilliant that I know I'd never manage it. Something I connect to so much that I feel like the writer read my mind and wrote it for me. I hit something like that, and after the glow of the work itself fades, I wonder - should I just quit?

2) Coming across work that's really really bad. Something so horrible that you wonder if the writer has any connection to reality at all. I see something like that, and I think to myself: "Well if that writer can't see how bad it is, I wonder if I'm as blind about my own work?" And I consider quitting again.

Thing is, I think there is too much mediocre work out there. And I'm one of those people that believe we writers should raise our standards concerning the work we send out to theaters. So when the self-doubt worm starts burrowing, I wonder if I shouldn't follow my own advice and just stop submitting.

Most of you don't actually know my work as a playwright - so I'm not trolling for compliments. I am wondering, however: When does self-doubt hit you? And how do you muddle through?

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Friday, September 7, 2007

Splitting the Atom

In considering my suggested division for Rules of the World, Erik points out that the convention of presentation and the rule itself are related.

I agree. Perhaps the distinction is more important when creating a play as opposed to experiencing the play.

Erik's example was that in a particular play the Dead don't use contractions. I find it hard to believe that our imaginary writer was working away at her script, and for some reason unknown to her she had hese characters who just refused to use contractions. She keeps writing and somewhere around scene five she suddenly realizes - Oh! They're dead.

Despite that glib inversion, I hope you see my point that Erik is describing the process of audience interpretation as opposed to playwright creation.

It strikes me that the division I am suggesting between ROTW and conventions assumes a certain process as a writer.

I have assumed that my fellow playwrights first dream up a reality, and then consider how to present that reality to an audience.

It occurs to me that there are likely writers who imagine a theatrical reality: that is, they imagine only the stage event, and not some separate truth that must be translated.

To writers in the second category, my atom-splitting on ROTW is meaningless.

So let's bump this conversation back a step: what is your process? As a playwright, do you create a theatrical reality, or do you first create an internal reality which then must be translated for presentation?

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

World Rules Refined

A couple of comments on this post inspired me to refine the concept of Rules of the World (ROTW).

I think there is a distinction between rules that define how world of the play would function if it were reality, and rules that define the conventions of how the play is presented to the audience.

The question "What is the role of women in the 'world'?" and my question "Where do the bodies end up?" fall into the former category. Pookie's observation about time and Erik's thoughts on language fall into the latter category.

I tend to think first about the reality of the world I want to write about, and then what conventions I'm going to use to convey those to the audience.

I recall a day in workshop at Ohio University. I had written a play with a ghost. (Really, its better than it sounds.) The workshop accepted the ROTW that ghosts were real. But Charles Smith went on to ask how the ghost manifested on stage: a special light, a sound, did the ghost always appear from one spot, etc. He said in effect: "Fine, ghosts are real in this play. But how are you going to show that to the audience?"

Is this purely an academic distinction? Or is the line between ROTW and stage convention so blurred as to be useless?

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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

What We Don't Know Might Kill Us

I watched the first two episodes of Mad Men last night (ahh, iTunes). And something happened to me that has never happened to me before. I watched people making bad choices based on the cultural assumptions of their time --and I felt a sudden stab of fear about my own blindspots.

I suppose this is always the theory of period pieces: that they somehow make us re-examine our feelings about the present. But frankly, I've never felt it. What I have felt is safe superiority to the characters in a period story. Until now, I've felt that period pieces are at best museum pieces, and at worst are designed to make us feel really good about what we believe now.

The "look how smart we are now" variety is typified by race plays that operate beyond the 30 year barrier, as defined by Shepsu Aakhu. But I've felt the same thing in productions of The Laramie Project, and Angels in America. Granted, these aren't period pieces in the same sense as Court Martial at Fort Devon, but to me they now operate in a way that allows audience members to congratulate themselves for their forward thinking.

I think the difference I saw in Mad Men is that we watch people make bad choices. My recollection of contemporary pieces sent in earlier periods is that too often we are shown good guys and bad guys. We have vilified slave owners and noble slaves. We have backwards men and righteous suffragette. The plays themselves encourage us to judge morality of their actions in the past as determined by our current cultural moment.

I'm also willing to admit that my new experience with a period work may be as much about my own personal development as much as any narrative technique. The older I get, the less I feel superior about anything, let alone period plays.

So I'm curious: what period plays have you seen that made you fear for the present? And what do you think the author was doing that made that connection?

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Monday, September 3, 2007

Rules For a New World

I'm working on a project idea that has a lot to do with scavengers. As a result, I'm reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. The book was published in serial form, and the pace is glacially slow. As one of my friends said, you can tell Dickens was paid by the word.

As I recalibrate my brain to accept the rhythms of this particular work, I've found I have a lot more time to think about the structure of the piece.

Our Mutual Friend, in combination with the scavenger project has me thinking about the concept of "rules of the world" in a slightly different light. I use the term "rules of the world" to refer to the conventions, practices, and behaviors that define the narrative logic of the piece. For an easy example: if you have wizards zapping each other with wands, then one of the ROTW is that magic exists.

Most of the time, I think of ROTW as having to do with fantasy, sci fi, or visions of the future. Our Mutual Friend is set in the past - and I've been reminded that ROTW applies to every play. Even ones set in a time or place supposedly familiar to the audience.

As I work through Our Mutual Friend, I'm going to be posting questions inspired by the world of the book. These questions, taken together, might form an interesting exercise for a writer trying to create their own new world. I suppose its worth noting that "world" in ROTW doesn't need to refer to the entire globe. It can of course refer to the immediate culture your characters inhabit.

Set A
1) Where do the bodies end up? What happens to the dead in your world carries a huge amount of information about economics, value of life, religion, etc.

2) What is the value of education in this world? What type of education is important, how it is attained and who attains it also shape the world.

3) What are the approved libations and intoxications? This also begs the question of what are the illegal intoxications.

What other questions would you pose when crafting your world?

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Friday, August 31, 2007

This blog is a fortune cookie...

You know how you're supposed to add "in bed" when you read the fortune in a fortune cookie?

Well, in the spirit of the blog refocus, I will be periodically reminding you to mentally add "What do you think?" to the end of every post.

Not all the new posts will ask direct questions, but I'm still interested in fostering conversations. So if my observations about writing make you think of a similar experience, share it the comments. Disagree? Share it. Make you think of something totally unrelated? Share that too. Done something similar in your own writing? Post it.

For example, if you read that last post on the Lives of Others, you might share a moment from your own work where you used similarly two-purposed evidence. Or you might share another observation about writing that was also inspired by the film. Or you might take umbrage with the fact that this is a blog about playwriting and I keep writing about film.

You get the idea.

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The Lives Of Others

I behind the curve on this one, but I just watched the Lives Of Others last night. (ah, Netflix).

Don't read this post if you plan on watching the film but haven't yet.

Thought I'd use the Read More... feature to prevent accidental spoilage. Nice, eh?

The Lives of Others is set in the GDR. A Stasi agent, Wiesler, has bugged the apartment of a playwright and his actress girlfriend, investigating possible subversive activities. At one point in the film, Wiesler enters the apartment while the couple is out. It is a brief moment, he simply walks through the apartment, gazing at the various artifacts of the couple's life. I noticed the scene, thinking it somewhat odd. But I accepted it as evidence that Wiesler was becoming involved in the lives of his subjects.

Near the end of the film, when Wiesler rushes to the apartment after the girlfriends confession and removes key evidence, I suddenly realized the true purpose of the scene. That scene offered evidence that Wiesler could enter and leave the apartment at will, undetected.

Among many other structural gems in the play, I was reminded of a basic principle. Every moment or action that is used as evidence for a future action should have two reasons for existence. The first reason should be answered in the now of the story: "Oh, he's doing that because..." As a result, the second reason (the true purpose) will be more powerful and effective. Giving the audience a chance to come up with a reasonable rational for an action in the moment allows a much stronger turn later on.

In other words, causing an audience to ask "what the hell is going on" and answering it later is less powerful that having the audience believe they know what is going on and then changing their minds --or taking their understanding deeper.

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Fowl is Fair

There's a playwriting lesson in this. I swear.

For those of you keeping track, this would fall under the "Putting it Together" category I outlined earlier today. There's all sorts of pontificating to be done about timing, turns, expectations and buttons. But really, you should just go over to Tantalus Prime and watch the vid.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Blog Refocus

The original goal of this blog was to foster a discussion about the nuts and bolts of playwriting. I laid out my plans in two early posts here and here. In two short months, I've strayed from that original mission.

I'm going to try and refocus things on the craft of playwriting. My main impetus for this move is realizing that a lot of what I think about the "state and purpose of theater" is thoroughly and intelligently covered by other blogs. These blogs will soon be listed in a sidebar.

I'm also motivated by two other observations. One, that there are enough blogs already in existence that are about personal journey's peppered with observations about writing. And two, that I am not aware of many blogs that wrestle with craft as opposed to theory.

With that in mind, here are the types of posts I hope that I and my fellow contributors will create. This is not an exhaustive list. Rather, a concrete starting point for our new way forward.

Case Studies
I'm looking for narratives about specific instances of writing, development, and production that illustrate an challenge you've wrestled with. I've noticed that a fair number of my posts in my theater blog sample group start with broad theoretical statements. In the ensuing argument about the theoritical statements, sometimes specifics are demanded. Even when they are given, the discussion stays conceptual.

I hope that by starting with specifics, I will release myself, contributors and commentors from the pressure of creating broad theoretical conclusions in every post. If we are lucky, trends and principles will start to emerge over time.

Eureka Moments
We've all had those moments when something we've understood intellectually suddenly clicks in practice. Please share those moments on NTFD soon after they happen. Perhaps your particular spin on a concept will trigger a similar moment for someone else. The more specific the better. Include sample text if you wish.

I want to know what you're wrestling with. Trying to kick start a scene that just won't go? Tell us about it. Suddenly notice that all your scenes are nine pages long? (I did a few plays back- I realized I was stuck in a rhythm and had to work hard to break out of it.) Share it on NTFD - maybe by describing the problem in this medium you'll think of a solution in the other.

Putting it Together
When I'm developing a piece, I often have little glimmers of larger ideas about writing. It's not a Eureka Moment, but maybe the beginnings of a principle about writing forms. I usually jot down a note for that book I want to write some day. I'm going to start putting those little glimmers up here. I hope you will too.

Thanks for your interest so far, and I hope that you'll join us in this (slightly) new direction for NTFD.

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I used a hack created by Ramini over on Hackosphere to get the optional "Read More..." feature going.

The article is here.

It only takes a basic understanding of CSS and tags to follow the instructions.

I'm experiencing some slow behavior the first time the Read More link is clicked. However, I'm pretty sure that's a connection issue as there doesn't appear to be any looping or other process hogs in the script Ramini created. I'll keep an eye on it.

And now back to NTFD!

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Testing Slow Behavior

I couldn't tell if the slow behavior was due to the internet or the process.

This post is a test of that behavior.

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Pardon my Dust

I am testing a modification to the blog template that should allow me to optionally use the read more tag.

Folks who read this in a CSS reader will just get a couple of annoying posts.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

If the Gonzalez Resignation Was in a Play...

where would it fall structurally? The Wall Street Journal suggests that the Gonzalez resignation is both an "end" and a "turning point."

It certainly doesn't feel like an ending. This feels like the "point of no return" - that moment before the climax where the opposing forces starts to accelerate towards their inevtiable final clash.

On the other hand, I could even see this as an inciting incident. Where would you put it? What story would you tell?

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Great post on dramaturgy

Isaac Butler has a great post about dramaturgy here. I'll try and come up with a timely response. But don't you wait: there's a lively string developing over there.

NOTE: My apologies to Isaac for mis-identifiying the author of Parabasis. I have a terrible habit of just finding the first name appearing on the site and assuming that's the author. This was almost as embarrasing as the time I called Tony Adams Jay Raskolnikov

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Friday, August 24, 2007

I wanna be Dr. Frankenstein

Dr. Frankenstein did some weird science and animated the dead. Seems like folk to talk about the moral and ethical implications of his act, about "what is human" and "what is alive." But I want some cold hard instructions on how to do it myself.

At least, that's how I feel about theater conversations when we start talking about "liveness" or "immersion" or "connections between audience and performers." I feel like we jump past the nuts and bolts and straight to philosophical ruminations.

So let me put my question another way: What are techniques (events, moments...) that you have used as a maker of theater that DEMAND the event occur realtime in front of an audience?

I'm gonna put my own head on a chopping block and say I haven't done it. Not once in seven plays that I let see the light of day (let alone the ones that stay in a deep dark drawer.) Can't think of a single moment.

I'm going to go even farther and say that except for the density of language, all of my work would serve equally well on the large or small screen.

I draw from that a potentially unsettling conclusion: that I am using the density of language as a replacement for the visual palimpsest of film. That is: I'm not writing theater. I'm writing film, and trying to cover up the disconnect between the medium I'm writing for and the medium I'm actually getting produced in, with language.

But I don't want to do that. I wanna be Dr. Frankenstein. So help me out. What are those moments you've created that demand to! LIVE!?

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

What is Theater’s Secret Weapon?

This isn’t a Theater vs Other Forms post. Really. Every form has its own strengths –a not-so-secret secret weapon, as it were. Lately I’ve been wondering exactly what theater’s secret weapon really is.

First, a little context. I’ve been burning through the 24th Annual Years Best Science Fiction collection edited by Gardner Dozois. It’s a pretty good collection of short stories. And as always, my playwright mind is always running in the background, trying to figure out how I might adapt some of these short stories.
Short stories are a form of story-telling. Film is a form of story-telling. So is theater.

The not-so-secret weapon of short fiction is the omniscient narrative voice. It is a direct link to the mind of the writer – or at least the mind of the persona relating the story. Great observations about the state of the world can be uttered directly, like this excerpt from The Highway Men by Ken McLeod

The Bodach – the Old Man – is what the locals call Osama Bin Laden. Nobody knows if he’s still alive or not. Maybe he’s getting the Reverse [aging] treatment but he’s not in a healthy line of work. His gloating videos still come out every now and again. But that doesn’t prove anything. You could say the same about Mick Jagger.

In films, the secret weapon is the wealth of visual information. In an article I read about the film Children of Men, the reviewer spoke of a “visual palimpsest.” So much information about the history of a location in the visual details of scrolling terrorist warnings and graffiti. We’re not even talking special effects, here. Just rich visual detail that conveys in a more immediate way than description or dialog.

So what is theater’s secret weapon? We can turn a phrase, and with a good designer, get some layered visual information going. But that kind of thinking makes theater the inferior cousin of other narrative forms.

People usually start talking about the fact that theater is live – but I’ve yet to be persuaded that just the fact of liveness is the secret weapon. If the secret weapon is in live performance, why do so few of our playwriting forms explicitly embrace it?

I’ve been thinking more about ritual of theater being the secret weapon. Inspired in part by this post on Superfluities by George Hunka.

What are you thinking?

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

My faithful Reader(s?)

Returning from San Francisco and going back to the daily grind has put a crunch on my time.

I will return soon with some thoughts about playwriting gleaned from reading the 24th annual collection of the year's best science fiction.

In the meantime, check out the developing (if rambling) conversation triggered by A Safe Black Universe (the previous post).

Also, check out this post by Qui Nguyen, fellow OU playwriting alum.

Thanks to Mathew Freeman for bringing Qui's blog to my attention.

No matter how many times you click "Read More" there isn't more to read... working on getting conditional formatting together so I can opt to suppress that option. One thing at a time...

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Monday, August 13, 2007

The Safe Black Universe

THE SAFE BLACK UNIVERSE was originally published in the BlaQ Market collection available here.

It is reprinted here with permission from the author, Shepsu Aakhu.

My voice has its own metronome. It comes from an amalgam of my personal experiences, as well as a deep commitment to introspection. I essentially write a world that is populated by the people I have known, and the many facets of my own spirit. I do not write to sell. I write to explore, discover, and reveal.

In this practiced art of mining my own soul, I have found freedom in style and subject. I have since discovered it to be largely unappreciated, unheralded, and unrewarded on the American stage, especially as it relates to the diversity of Black stories.

I define a Black story as a story where Black characters are central to the narrative. That is in contrast to the common practice of placing Black characters in the periphery of the narrative. In such stories, the Black characters exist only to support others (typically the white characters). These characters rarely have a rich internal life and are rarely motivated beyond simple ethnic stereotypes. They certainly are not reflective of the Black people that I have known, feared, loved, or admired. Essentially, they are only tools to tell the story of someone else and not people in their own right.

There is a book entitled: Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks by Donald Bogle. The book has a simple yet effective premise. Black stereotypes (i.e., Toms, Coons, etc.) were the only characters we were permitted and encouraged to create or portray. Unfortunately, over twenty years later audiences are still being fed a steady diet of Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks. The cultural landscape has not changed significantly enough to erase those pervasive archetypes, but enough to create an equally detrimental alternative. I call it the Safe Black Play, full of safe Black characters inhabiting a safe Black Universe. Ironically, however, that safe Black universe provides little actual safety for the Black audience as to not offend White sensibilities.

To better understand this point we need look no further than the American “Race Play”. What does the topic of race look like in the Safe Black Play? First, it must not make the White audience, or the affluent Black audience for that matter, uncomfortable. Removing the story from a contemporary setting is the easiest way to accomplish this goal. A period piece, set anytime in American history before 1975, will typically get the job done. We can draw bold characters steeped in overt racial opposition without the fear of offending the great masses. I call it the “Thirty-Year Barrier”. The Thirty-Year Barrier represents old America - confused, obstructionist, unenlightened America. When the audience sees this America on stage, they see it as a politically or historically Dark Age and not an extension or commentary of themselves. This Dark Age was an unfortunate time, but it is not at all reflective of our present enlightened society.

The thirty year barrier facilitates the notion that the evil has passed, which may be unintentional on the writer’s part. The work may have higher aspirations, but inevitably exists as a work that does not directly force its audience to examine themselves within a contemporary context. The audience is given an out and allowed to cloak themselves in a well worn deception. “Those people back then had it bad. Boy, aren’t things better now?” This disconnection allows the audience to empathize without taking any responsibility for the issue being explored, thus the “Safe Black Play.”

For the Black community, it is anything but safe – it takes racism out of its usual institutional context and personified it instead. It is embodied in a flesh and blood character that exists as the antagonist. Any writing teacher will tell you that this is a good idea because, in theory, it gives the audience a clear villain and creates clear motivations for the protagonist. Functionally, however, this device undermines the Black community’s sense of reality. The obstructions of racism are rarely limited to one individual. We effectively tell the Black audience that what you know to be true will not be seen on this stage. For the white audience we go in the other direction; what you WISH to be true will be validated on this stage. White society has allegiance and responsibility only to the white individual.

In this scenario, the white audience is safe while the Black audience is not. The race play requires a certain truth telling. We have to see race in a contemporary context, with all of its complexity, and with an acceptance/understanding that we will be made uncomfortable from time to time.

In American theater we are allowed to be angry, violent, impoverished, anti-social and generally self-destructive. We are allowed to be comical. Our comedy, no matter how subversive the creator’s intent, is largely consumed as a docile or passive diversion. From this comes the concept of the coon. We are allowed to be objects of lust and exoticism. Can it be healthy to think of oneself as exotic? This is by definition an outsider’s viewpoint. Forming one’s self-image from an external viewpoint has to be considered a destructive practice.

None of this imagery challenges audiences to view us with any depth. As BLACK artists we have to OWN and utilize these images. I am not of the school of thought that purports all representations of Black culture have to be positive and uplifting, but we have to be more complex than this. We have to be more than what makes others comfortable when they interact with us. We have to be the conflicted, contradictory, profoundly heroic, and deeply flawed people that we all know and share our lives with. We must be and represent our true selves.

Do we exist in American theater outside the boundaries of the race play? The answer is yes. Are these stories widely produced? Not really. Why? Because once the race play is put aside, Black characters exist in a world with conflicts that are not bound by our relationships to white America. The white audience does not see itself in the story. Their interest in a Black story typically declines sharply when their experiences, culture, and sense of superiority, are not referenced textually, or within the greater subtext. Simply put – if the story is not clearly about them, they tend to divest. If you doubt it, ask yourself this question: how many reviews of Black stories do you see with the following line buried in the body of the critique: “It is a universal story about...”. Decoded, this simply means that white America doesn’t need to worry, because they will see themselves (their culture and values) in the story.

When was the last time you saw those words in reference to Hamlet, Death of a Salesmen, The Producers, Blueman Group, or UrineTown? We are not allowed to be ourselves yet. We are not allowed to tell our stories for their value to us. In the Black Market, we exist largely to entertain and amuse white America. This is a problem, one we help to create and reinforce.

We have to value our own stories. We must come to view our art as a reflection of ourselves. We must view our work as more than an opportunity for escapism. When you give your time and your hard earned money, you deserve more than just a laugh. You deserve a good cry whether in joy or pain. You deserve the tingle of self recognition when characters that look like you and share your experiences move across the stage. You deserve to be challenged instead of pandered to by the production. You deserve to be welcomed by a sense that your stories are valued in this space, upon this stage, by these performers. The Black universe should portray a world that is populated by the people you have known, and the many facets of your own spirit.

You’ve been getting short changed. Frankly, the industry doesn’t think that we have been paying attention. And quiet honestly, far too many of us have not.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

San Francisco

I'm heading to San Francisco for a little vacation from my unemployment.

As taking an entire week off might be death to a nascent blog, I'll be posting a couple of essays by Shepsu Aakhu about associative storytelling and Afrikan Centered theater. My favorite essay is "A Safe Black Universe" - I can't wait to hear what you think of it.

Actually I can wait. Until Monday. Which is probably when I'll post it. Until then...

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My mind on my mapping and my mapping on my mind

I post this in hopes that other artists might share some of their experiments with visualizing and constructing plays.

It may seem self-evident, but the way I visualize play structure limits the form of the final product. So if I think of a play in the climatic arc, its gonna come out that way.

My usual tools are outlining and journaling. In my ongoing attempt to break my own habits, I've been searching for different ways to visualize plays. One of my inspirations has been Suzan-Lori Parks, who in the essays found in the collection The America Play: and Other Works uses sketches and quasi-mathemetical formulas to represent ideas about her work. Following is an account of my introduction to mind mapping, and a partial review of the FreeMind software.

Mind mapping is defined on Wikipedia as "... a diagram used to represent words, ideas, tasks or other items linked to and arranged radially around a central key word or idea." The radial idea - and its associated lack of hierarchy or rising action interested me immediately.

Some quick product searching, and I settled on the freeware FreeMind. Why? It was free. The download and install took moments - no problem there. The documentation is in English, but written by a non-native speaker - so the syntax is a bit challenging.

This post will make the most sense if you download the pdf of the map I ended up creating here. This static pdf does one major disservice: part of the fun of the mind-mapping software is the ability to collapse and expand each branch of the map. You can see some of the nodes collapsed here.

Before trying to use the program, I took a moment to glance through the help file. The help file itself is a mind-map, but at this point it just seems a fancy way to re-purpose an outline.

Then I find myself staring at a blank page. That's a familiar feeling. I start out by putting my working title "mining play" in the central node. I experiment by adding child nodes to the central node, and then waste about 15 minutes trying to see if you can control which side of the nodes the connecting lines connect to - you can't.

My first step is to add each of the characters to their node around the central circle "mining play." This doesn't seem to get me anywhere, and I find myself wondering what I'm mapping. For example, Caleb is my main character. As such, should his father be a child node of Caleb? Or should Caleb be a child of his father? In other words, am I mapping familial relationships or character relationships?

I then switch gears and start thinking of the mind map as a constellation of all my random ideas about the play.

The feel of entering data into the program takes some getting used to. Because clicking expands/collapses the nodes, its much more efficient to use the arrow keys to navigate around the map. The Insert key is a great shortcut to enter child nodes. After about 45 minutes the keyboarding is practically intuitive.

I encountered two major glitches. One, the program froze after executing a series of undoes . I had to restart the program and lost several edits. Save often. Two, the window to create longer text nodes has white text on a white background as a default. A work around is to enable Rich Formatting on that attribute.

I started including the events that I know I want in the play. As I was laying the events, I was reminded that each event presupposes other events. For example, I know that I want a moment where the pay raise offered to the miners is offset by the prices being raised at the company store. For that to work, I'm going to need to establish the rules of the company store, the payment in scrip and at least one scene at the store establishing the normal base line. The branching ability of the program certainly can handle the information, but I realize I want to create multiple connections.

Since I'm putting all the ideas in one representation, I want to be able to link events to thematic ideas and to represent the multiple meanings a single event might have. My dream is a program where I can select one element of the play --an event, an image, a theme-- and see the threads that trail off to all the other interconnected moments. What I love about playwriting is the density of it, and I often have a desire to represent that physcially - almost as if the play was a network. There are "graphical links" in the program (those are the big swooping lines on the PDF). But its pretty clear that I've hit the limit of the software as the map becomes cluttered and any clarity is lost.

Once I got rolling, putting all my budding ideas about the play into one graphic representation was fun. Even though mind mapping purports to avoid the "implicit prioritization that comes from hierarchy or sequential arrangements," I found that in trying to decide which branch a particular idea went into, I was still trying to organize my play in an outline style. In other words, even though the external representation was different, I was still relying internally on my habits and translating that to the mind map.

I think that my approach to the experiment may have locked in that behavior: I was trying to represent information of a play I was already developing. I think next time I'll try to use the software as a brainstorming tool. I often get vague images or associations that I think might be a play. The next time one of those floats through my mind, I'll explore it with mind mapping.

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May the circle be unbroken...

I was going to riff on alternative models of literary management, but some smart folk have already covered most of what I was thinking about.

David Alan Moore's thread here has some honest observations. And this thread on the professionalization of theater from David Cote is also relevant.

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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

New Look

After reading block quotes in some of my earlier posts, I found the light green text a little to hard to read. Hence the new look. I'm hoping this will make the posts easier to read. Please take a moment and let me know if that is (or is not) the case.

Thank you.

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Swamp Baby was High Yella

When I started this blog, I was hoping to have discussions about the nuts and bolts of playwriting. I'm still finding my way towards that specificity. I am interested in theory and general principles, but hope to connect those principles to live work.

In that spirit, over the next few days I will detail specific choices I've made as a writer that were consciously influenced by my ethnicity (as generally discussed in yesterday's post). I do this in hopes that other writers might offer their own similar specific instances.

Before I begin, I'd like to be clear on a couple of points.

1) I'm not complaining. Navigating my mixed-race status in relation to my work and in relation to the concept of blackness is just something I have to do. At times I find it frustrating, at times in brings me great joy. So as you read the choices I've navigated, please don't read "forced to make" or "oppressed by."

2) I consider conscious choices in relation to identity, audience and marketing to be part of the artistic process. As I become familiar with other theater blogs, I notice that there seems to be a dichotomy underneath discussions of the artists relationship to the audience: either you're thinking like a marketer, or thinking like an artist. That is, either you're worried about numbers and what the audience likes -and are therefore not an artist. Or you're just working from your gut and putting out there what you want to see -and therefore are an artist. There are echoes of that in this interesting post on Paul Rekk's blog. This subject probably bears addressing in a separate post, but I wanted to make it clear: for me, these choices are part of the artistic process.

Swamp Baby was High Yella

You can read a blurb and brief sample of Swamp Baby here.

Swamp Baby began life as an experiment in adaptation. I was scanning short stories that were in the public domain when I came across Desiree's Baby by Kate Chopin.

The brief story details the courtship of the orphan Desiree and plantation owner Armand, followed immediately by their marriage and birth of their first son. After a time, it becomes clear that the baby is mulatto. It is assumed that Desiree - who never new her parents - carries the taint of African blood. Armand banishes Desiree from the house, and Desiree walks into the bayou to drown. In the final moments of the story, we learn from a letter that it was indeed Armand whose mother was black.

In the library book I was reading from, someone had scrawled "Ooooo .... not!" in the margin at the final revelation. I felt compelled to somehow bring the shock that Chopin intended into the contemporary world.

A brief perusal of college discussion boards set up by English teachers teaching the story supported my initial assumption - that young Americans considered themselves so "post race" that they failed (refused?) to see what all the fuss was about.

At this point, my project jumped the rails of adaptation and became interpretation. I wanted to start where the story left off - I imagined that perhaps the baby had lived through the ordeal in the swamp. Combined with the poem Swamp Baby by Cassie Sparkman, the play became an exploration of the Freak.

So my tactic was to raise questions about the connection between biology and identity, while removing direct reference to miscegenation and race. Rather than try and move through the preconceptions about race and identity, I tried to move around them. This had an interesting effect: Swamp Baby is probably my play that says most about my identity as a black person, but due to its subject matter it is not easily positioned as a "black" play. For example, I won't ever be submitting Swamp Baby to the Theodore Ward Prize.

Is the tactic successful? I don't know. Friend and contributor Shepsu Aakhu contends that I've offered the audience an "out." That by making the play about something so fantastical as green skin, I've allowed the audience to avoid confronting the reality of the situation. In feedback after readings, there are plenty of audience members who see the analogy to race - but curiously their responses feel academic. I've managed to get across that A comments on X, but some of the more disturbing implications of that commentary (the sexual activity in the play) are missed or ignored. It is almost as if once the initial connection to race is made, the audience feels their work is done, and can jump straight to "racism is bad" without considering what obsession with biological identity has done to both the protagonist and antagonist.

So I was drawn to create this play because I had a personal connection to the source material that I wanted to get across, and in the process have managed to obscure the question of racial identity in both the play itself and my ability to position it as a black play.

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Monday, August 6, 2007

(sub)Culture Aesthetics

I just read an article entitled "The New Black Aesthetic" originally published in 1989. If I had read it then, I think I might have been able to skip my angry (not)black years.

I wish I could link to the article, but I pulled it off of J-STOR. Here's the relevant citation:

"The New Black Aesthetic" by Trey Ellis. Callaloo, No. 38. (Winter, 1989), pp. 233-243.

In the article, Ellis posits a rising new (at the time) aesthetic among black artists marked by a new relationship with our past:

Yet we all shared a lot more than skin color... I ... along with other young black artists I run into more and more frequently, all grew up feeling misunderstood by both the black worlds and the white. Alienated (junior) intellectuals, we are the more and more young blacks getting back into jazz and the blues; the only ones you see at punk concerts; the ones in the bookstore wearing little, round glasses and short, neat dreads; some of the only blacks who admit liking both Jim and Toni Morrison. Eddie Murphy, Prince, and the Marsalis brothers are just the initial shock troops because now, in New York's East Village, in Brooklyn's Fort Greene, in Los Angeles, and in Harlem, all of us under thirty only ones are coming together like so many twins separated at birth-thrilled, soothed, and strengthened in being finally reunited.

Ellis goes on to describe a rising tide of artists who are second-generation middle-class blacks. The first generation that, as he put it, felt secure enough to go into art school instead of medical school. These are cultural mulattoes, he claims, who due to their cross-cultural education, can effectively move in both black and white worlds.

A major portion of the new black aesthetic is the perceived freedom to create a larger definition of blackness - one that is not limited to "uplift" of the race, or worried about what "white folks think."

Ellis writes with an optimistic tone, one that leaves you imagining the brave new black artists that must have come into being in the nearly 18 years since the article has been written. Perhaps we've back-slid since Ellis was writing. Or perhaps (just like his original article) I just don't know the folks are out there. But in 2007 I find myself still trying to position my work on the black-white continuum.

Some of my work (such as Panther Burn which produced last year) falls clearly into what most folks would call "Black Theater." Most of my work features at least one major black character, but the work doesn't necessarily preoccupy itself with race.Still others (such as Raw Material to be produced this year) have not discernible race element at all: no indication of race of characters. Nothing. Guess which plays I send to contests looking for work by "African American playwrights."

The notion of what is a black play (and by extension a black playwright) has an effect on my subject matter. That is, I often find myself asking - if I write this play, does it make me less of a black writer? More?

The notion of what a black play is also affects my structural choices. For example, traditional narrative is identified with European cultural hegemony. So when I write narrative plays, am I less of a black writer? More?

In short, my self-identification as black man raises questions about both how I market and how I construct my plays.

Had I heard of this "New Black Aesthetic" earlier, I wonder if my cultural identity would have been more allied with this sub-group of black culture. As Ellis puts it:

Today, there are enough young blacks torn between the two worlds to finally go out and create our own. The New Black Aesthetic says you just have to be natural, you don't necessarily have to wear one.

Of course, the politics of identity affect artists of all affiliations. I'm curious: how has your (chosen?) cultural identity affected your marketing and structure choices?

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Thursday, August 2, 2007

Cheap Theater

In the comments on Are Closed Shops Good For Theater Devilvet offered an interesting suggestion:

Maybe the reinvention of the wheel should be towards finding way to produce theatre for less money during those first five or so years so that you don't lose a mint.

Here are some of the ideas I've kicked around with my friends. Mind you, not one of these ideas is a complete actionable framework. But hopefully it will get people interested and maybe sharing some examples.

1) Serial Theater. A single show with multiple episodes. Its like HBO comes to your stage. Chicago has already sprouted one new effort: a "live soap opera" called The Ville. Are there efficiencies to be gained in recurring casts, one hour scripts and limited rehearsal time?

2) Site Specific Theater. Certainly not a new idea. But most of what I've been seeing is more what I'd call "non-traditional location theater." That is, taking an existing show and performing it in a bar or in the park, etc. But playwrights could be a little more proactive in this regard, creating work specifically for a location, taking into account and using to our advantage the lack of lights, problematic acoustics, etc. Don't we save some dough if we don't have to rent a space?

3) Truncated Rehearsal / Performance Periods. Ann Filmer and I had an interesting conversation just today about how changing the expectations of what the "finished product" is could change the way we go about making theater. What if actors were expected to show up off-book, and we opened the house to audiences the second the show was blocked? What if shows were intended to run only one or two weekends, compressing the series of 10 or 20 seat houses into one weekend of packed houses? What if it was perfectly acceptable for actors to be off book in one scene, but carrying script in hand for another?

4) Living Wage Theater. This is an idea I've been kicking around for awhile. Basically I'd like to take the entire planned budget for a small show, and divide that into person-hours using the Living Wage formula. In Chicago, that's about 12.85 an hour. Obviously, that would drastically reduce the number of hours a show could be developed and performed. With only those available hours, what new innovations in rehearsal and production would we be forced to come up with? Would we even produce something that we recognize as a play?

5) Guerrilla Theater. Again, not a new idea. And perhaps as much connected to Devilvet's question about reputation (ellipses and edits mine):

But that reputation is the key, that is what makes it work[...]

The majority of people sitting in those companies shows aren't going to sit in a smaller theatre company's shows unless they are convinced that the smaller company is 'up and coming' or 'one of Chicago's brightest young stars' until someone or some paper that has the clout to put that sort of tiara on a small company does [...]

how does one get a reputation faster? Maybe that is where the reinvention has to happen.

So there are certainly cost effeciencies to breaking out into some sort of public theater experience on the L. And maybe there's away to build a reputation quickly with something like that?

What other models of production have people participated in or witnessed? And, since this is also a playwriting blog, what is the role of the writer in crafting text that needs these alternative expressions?

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Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Post-Show Discussions

Contributor Shepsu Aakhu left this comment about post-show discussions in response to a note in The Reveal. I include it in its own post in hopes that more people will see it.

You asked so here we go.

For the purpose of this response I will concern myself only with the post-show discussions that often accompany readings/stagings of new work. Not those that exist as "talk backs" following actual production performances.

The post-show discussion exists in two worlds. The first world --and it should go without saying the world that I am most interested in-- is the world that concerns itself with the needs of the playwright. It is a unique opportunity for the playwright to actually hear what an audience thinks/believes/ holds dear etc. instead of intuiting that information. This is extremely valuable information (more on that later).

The second is the world of marketing and promotions. The theater that hosted the reading and subsequent "Post-show discussion" is in the business of cultivating an audience for new work. Therefore the theater wants to get the audience to believe in/support this play, and ultimately all plays that the theater wishes to develop/produce.

Here is were the the collective nod and wink occur. People like to believe they are intelligent --and knowledgeable about just about everything. In truth we are often only one of these but seldom both at the same time ( I know- another essay for another time). The post-show discussion is where the theater says to the patron "you matter" and so we want to hear what you think. (This is a truth)- and if it stopped there -no harm done. But the nod and wink come in when "we allow" the perception that the patron is directly helping to create/shape the work. That we are in fact in partnership in developing this work.

The patrons ego often seeks this validation, and the theater rarely sees an upside to modifying this assumption.

Back to the "first world". What is valuable for the playwright? In practical terms in each play the playwright has created an elaborate manipulation of the audience. How they should feel at any given moment? What are they anticipating and when? Have they invested enough to suspend disbelief? Are they wrestling with the greater questions of the work while they are watching it, or does that come later?

The "post-show" is where you hear the answers to these questions? This is where you discover if "they" (The Audience) feel what you wanted them to feel when you wanted them to feel it? Was I clear enough? Are the connections being made? Are they fulfilled? Does the work aspire to be "fulfilling"?

These are the playwrights questions? None of the answers require you to personally sit on the stage and be "interesting" and "emotionally available" to the theater patron(s). If however you enjoy that kind of thing- go for it.

Problems with the dichotomy for the playwright

When a playwrights seeks validation from the audience s/he is no longer looking to see what worked and why? Or even what did not and why? They are now concerned with "Do they like it/me". This is ultimately a toxic place to reside. They don't know you (usually), so they're opinion about you/ your work carries no value beyond what you assign it.

The question of do they like the work seems valid, but it too comes from the needs of the ego. The Manipulation (The play) has a purpose-- A collective experience. When that collective experience is introspective/ or profoundly mind expanding , perhaps even refreshing insightful we might even call it "art".

The point of success in this "Art" is ultimately a question of have you-- the playwright- gotten the audience to where you wanted them to be when you wanted them to be there. (whether they describe that place as enjoyable, fun etc is only relevant when fun was "your" goal.

As a playwright you have to learn to listen for the evidence of the relative success or failure of the Manipulation. This success should be based upon what the work aspires to be. This is the only valid criteria. What do you want this work to do/be? Not what does some one else want it to be.

If it aspires to be a political thriller, and the audience member sounds disappointed that it wasn't a romantic comedy, you can safely assume that you are being evaluated on what they (the patron) wants for your work, and not what you want for your work.

In this area only one opinion matters. What does the artist want for their work. If you don't want it, it shouldn't happen.

If the play is missing points of view that a patron wanted but are not part of what the work calls for, encourage the patron to begin writing their on plays since they have no shortage of ideas. (On second thought don't do that it might piss off those theater folk that were kind enough to stage your reading.)

Problems with the dichotomy for the Theater/Audience.

We have touched on the notion that the audience has an opinion and a reaction to your work. And they are entitled to one. Hell they have even been encouraged to openly discuss their responses. This does not however empower the audience to become your co writer, or for that matter to tap how "true to your life" the work is.

Few theaters will correct this behavior. And it's unreasonable to expect that the patrons have studied Liz Lerman's technique on critical response.

So in the end the patrons get to feel smart and creative, and the playwright gets to sift through all of that bull to get to the heart of the matter. How effective was/is "The Manipulation (play).

Now the short version:

Post-shows mostly suck, but there is some useful info for you if you can get past all the people telling you what you should have written.

Listen better and develop a thick skin.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Are Closed Shops Good for Theater?

I don't have a home theater. So I spend a fair amount of time surfing the net, looking for theaters that produce new work. And it seems that more and more of small theaters in Chicago that produce new work have an in-house playwright. In most cases (though not all) that in-house playwright is the only new work that theater performs. I'll admit that I find that frustrating. But I'm trying to work through that personal frustration and ask - is the practice of in-house playwrights good for playwrights? Is it good for theater?

I'll tell you right off that I don't have a full answer for this one. So I'm just going to lay out the arguments as they bounce around my head and see if people are willing to talk about closed shops.

Good for Playwrights
For the in-house playwright, the benefits are clear. Production is the greatest learning tool a playwright has. The more productions, the more chances to become a better writer. And of course there's that incredible satisfaction of seeing something you've dreamed up come to life. More productions means more of your dreams come true.

Bad For Playwrights
For the in-house playwright, there's the danger of becoming comfortably mediocre. I've watched many a feedback session turn into an exercise of group-think where everyone convinces themselves that the playwrights intentions have actually been manifested in the script. We all want to be doing important work, and sometimes we manage to convince ourselves that we are despite all indications to the contrary. It usually takes an outside eye, an eye with a different agenda, to bring us up short and see how reality lines up with our hopes for the piece. I imagine that in a closed shop, that outside eye is in short supply. I'll admit, that's a major assumption - there are plenty of ways of working that will ensure there is outside input. But with an in-house playwright, it seems that the chances of that self-fulfilling feedback are much higher.

For those of us without a home theater, the "bad for playwrights" angle may be too hard to separate from professional jealousy. Outside of the in-house system, it feels like yet another opportunity to get work read or produced has been lost. That frustration makes it easy to feel like theaters with in-house playwrights are more interested in producing their friend's work than looking for new voices in theater. Rationally, I can see that those two things aren't mutually exclusive. But there is an argument to be made that by producing only the work of your in-house writer and then that one Mamet play all the actors want to do, the theater with in-house writers are shutting out other developing playwrights.

At times, it feels like the only way to get your work done is to produce it yourself. Which brings us to the good for theater question.

Grant a premise so that I may continue: the more theaters with in-house writers there are, the more playwrights are going to be interested in starting their own theaters. In other words, the fewer options for someone else to produce it, the more likely it is you'll produce it yourself.

Good For Theater
More theaters means more diversity, right? Lots of different styles, lots of different subject matter. And more theaters means more productions, so writers get better and people can see work about those subjects that they've really been dying to see. A bit rosy, perhaps, but that's the theory.

Bad For Theater
The rosy prediction rests on a couple of key assumptions. 1) That each company is doing something decidedly different - that is, that the number of companies reflects a number of unique worldviews. 2) That each company is creating their own audiences from non-theater going people.

I'll leave it to the reader to decide if each storefront out in Chicago really does have something unique to be bringing to the stage. But I've been around enough small productions to wonder about the whole audience creation idea. I've been to any number of shows where the only folks in the audience are somehow personally connected to someone in the company or cast. And as a result, I fear that the more of us that choose to create our own theaters to see our own work produced, fracture that audience even further, dividing each small theater into its little fiefdom of twenty dedicated audience members.

It seems to me that instead of each of us breaking off on our own, and producing our own work, we should look at ways to bring our audiences together. To cross-pollinate. And it seems to me at least one way to do that is to move our playwrights around from house to house.

Alright - so I have come to a working conclusion. That closed shop theaters stand in the way of nurturing writers and developing audiences. But I'm willing to admit that's just professional jealousy talking.

Anyone willing to help me see beyond that professional frustration?

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What is a subplot anyway?

I'm working on a new play and I'm considering including a sub-plot. Except I don't know what a sub plot is.

Having never tried to implement one, I've though of a sub-plot as some sort of secondary storyline that somehow parallels or comments on the main plot. But as I've started conceiving the structure of my newest play, I'm finding that definition doesn't help me in practice.

I apologize for the obtuseness that's about to follow, but because the new play is being targeted at a specific theater, I don't want to get into public details at this time.

So - I have a protagonist, and I've articulated his main goal for myself. I've set up a likely antagonist who provides an obstacle to that goal. And then I realized I had left a character out of this central push-pull. This third character causes the death of the protagonist's father, and is central to a major theme of the play.

My carefully constructed framework began to crumble before my very eyes. If I included this third character in the antag/protag conflict, I would water down my central dramatic question. But I don't want to give up this third character and his themes!

So I thought: subplot.

I'm focusing now on the "plot" in subplot. Rather than being a secondary consideration of the protagonist, the subplot will have its own sub-antagonist and sub-protagonist. There will be points of intersection where the plots complicate each other, and a catastrophic intersection (the death of the main-protag's father).

I think the play will look something like this:

Notice I'm thinking here of plot as generated by the push-pull of the protag/antag pair.

My attempt at sub-plot raises further questions for me. What's the difference between a plot/subplot structure and a multi-plot structure like Crash or Arcadia? What's the difference between plot/subplot and a structure where there are secondary protagonist concerns? For example, pick any action movie where the hero has to save the world and also is marriage is falling apart.

I think I'm going to re-read King Lear and look at that plot structure. How are other (living!) writers working on subplots?

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Telling vs. Storytelling

Playwrights think of themselves as storytellers. We throw that word around all the time. It’s often used to describe the reason we set out upon the arduous task of writing a play.

“Why do you write plays?”

“Well, ultimately, because I’m a storyteller…”

This is all fine and good- most of the time I’m a storyteller, too. Or at least I tell myself that. But every time we put words to paper are we truly being storytellers? We should know for sure- because storytelling is our business, right?

So does anyone know EXACTLY what it means to be a storyteller in the theater? I feel like it’s a word I use often- but I don’t have any kind of tangible definition for it. I feel that I do see work that is NOT storytelling. (Somehow I can’t define the word for myself, but I can definitely pinpoint when a playwright is NOT being a storyteller.)

I’ve sat in a theater and watched plays that I would not consider storytelling, but the audience still loved it. 10-minute plays do this all the time. These mini-plays are often just two characters sitting around talking. The dialogue is humorous and entertaining, but ultimately, there is no beginning, middle or end. The characters are never really in conflict with each other- there are no real needs or wants between the two.

There are full length productions that follow this pattern. “I Sailed with Magellan” that just played at Victory Gardens and “August: Osage County” currently at Steppenwolf are two that come to mind. These productions seem to be collages of scenes. There is no sense of a beginning, middle and end- or a story arch for the entire play.

So I guess my question is this: what makes a play a piece of storytelling? And if it’s not storytelling, then is it just plain “telling?” Is one better than the other?

So far, I have a couple of examples to differentiate between TELLING and STORYTELLING:
- In STORYTELLING, the wants and needs of characters are carried out through the entire play.
- In TELLING, the wants and needs of characters operate predominantly on a scene-by-scene basis.
- In STORYTELLING, there is a clear beginning, middle and end. In other words, there is a dramatic question which is tied to the inciting incident. Once the dramatic question is answered, the play has resolution and therefore ends.
- In TELLING, structure is more a "slice of life," with little concern for structure. The concern seems to be more character and dialogue based, rather than structure based.

Anyone have any thoughts on this??

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