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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