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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