Thursday, February 24, 2011

36 Ways to Write a Play

Non-dog owners can substitute cats, or rats...but not goldfish.

Stay in the room.
Ignore the dog's pleas for a walk.
Delete your Facebook profile.
Throw your cell phone off the pier (the screen was cracked anyway).
Construct a fortress of solitude, only the dog is allowed in.
Write the beginning.
Write the end.
Connect the dots.
Look up name meanings on the internet and christen your characters according to their personality traits.
Procrastinate to create urgency.
Keep it top secret (when you talk about it, you release the steam).
Promise the dog a walk tomorrow.
Stay in the room.
Let the dishes pile up.
Let your ego inflate until you believe that people actually care about the ridiculous little story you’re telling.
Deflate your ego enough to make it good.
Read your favorite plays.
Read your own stuff to remember what your voice sounds like.
Scour files for bits and pieces of old writing that might save you from having to come up with anything new.
Come up with something new.
Hate it.
Save everything. Even the stuff you hate.
Roll around on the floor and groan.
Look at what you saved, and start to like it.
Get in a fight with your characters.
Let them win.
Learn how to do that neat pen flip thing and do it to calm yourself down.
Stay. In. The. Room.
Talk to yourself.
Talk to the dog in the voices of your characters.
Read poetry.
Write gibberish until your brain can’t take it anymore and imposes order.
Do jumping jacks to combat the jitters.
Ignore the clock.
Look at the clock and get scared.
Sit in a comfy chair and tell yourself you can’t get up because the floor has turned to lava, the only words that will change it back are: “Black out. End of Play.”
Pat the dog sleeping next you. (She’s lava proof.)
Stay in the room.

Lava proof dog awaits walk...under her that's boiling lava.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

127 Ways To Not Write A 10 Minute Play

This is my list. Your results may vary.

Write a 9 minute play.
Write a 15 minute play.
Don’t write anything at all.
Get hit in the head with a rock.
Spend time with your 3 year-old.
Take a hike in the woods - and get lost.
Go to the emergency room.
Stare into space, ponder string theory.
Get stuck for the weekend in an elevator.
Listen to the inner demons.
Stick to practicing law.
Think of your real job as your real career.
Lose your laptop.
Poke a knife into the toaster when it's still plugged in.
Be resentful.
Believe you’re not good enough.
Review your stamp collection.
Make a movie.
Watch season 4 of "The Wire" for the weekend.
Spend your Saturday and Sunday yelling at Fox News.
Drive down 1. (Or up.)
Spend time with your partner.
Try to find yourself in the desert.
Break-up with a loved one.
Spend more time kissing on the couch.
Go to the theatre.
Think you take “just a little trip” to Costco.
Convince yourself that it’s all been seen and done before.
Build a birdhouse.
Paint the kitchen cabinets.
Join the Socialist Workers Party.
Get arrested.
Insist you are little enough to go in the “Jumpy House.”
Join the Armed Services.
Pay attention to the news.
Balance your check book.
Do your taxes.
Read a book.
Read a play.
Kill the Swede! Kill the Swede!
Bake a cake.
Re-arrange furniture.
Chop wood.
Take up candle-making.
Volunteer at the food bank.
Take care of someone who’s sick.
Get sick.
Rail in anger at the sky.
Just be skeptical and cynical and unhappy.
Be afraid.
Undare yourself.
Devote your weekend to being naked.
Have a party that never ends.
Speak at a funeral.
Stand up for a friend.
Think about it too much.
Clean the fridge.
Learn to hack the system.
Arrive late.
Take a call from an old friend.
Adopt a pet.
Don an orange jump suit and clean up the roadside.
Write a movie.
Concept a spec TV idea.
Write agents who don’t write back.
Tell yourself you’re too good.
Read all your old New Yorkers.
Gaze at your navel. Ponder.
Identify clouds in the sky.
Fly a kite.
Spend time with your wife.
Go down to the playground.
Stalk an old lover.
Google yourself, read the results.
Let tumblr find stuff for you.
Get mixed up in the Mexican drug wars.
Contract a disease, like the flu.
Look for an apartment.
Fall in love.
Fall out of love.
Build a case for marriage. (Or divorce.)
Make a proposal.
Write a letter.
Do your amends.
Admit you have a problem.
Work on your thesis.
Hit the snooze button on the alarm.
Unexpected orgy.
Peel grapes.
Yell at people on the street corner.
Buy tickets to Europe.
Make an unending list.
Think about a girl’s tattoo.
Attend a wedding.
Fix your bike.
Vegas, baby!
Carnivale Cruise lines, here we come!
Mow the lawn.
Pick your nose.
Build a better mouse trap.
See where BART really goes.
Spend time with your husband.
Piss and moan about the 49ers.
Edit yourself.
Can some peaches.
Dead Space 2.
Go to L.A.
Synch up your iphone.
Apply to grad school.
Spend time with someone, anyone.
Carry a grudge.
Make a list like this.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Interview with Diane Sampson about her new play Naked

This 2010-2011 season of PlayGround, we began showing sneak peeks from full-length plays we commissioned, and which are in the process of being written, at Monday Night PlayGround. This February Monday Night (2/21/11), i.e., tomorrow night's show, will feature an excerpt from Diane Sampson's play Naked. I got to ask Diane, who won PlayGround's 2010 June Anne Baker Prize for a distinguished female playwright, some questions about the play we will be seeing a glimpse of tomorrow. Here's what she had to say:

What inspired you to write this play?

I’ve always been interested in the private person/public figure dichotomy. How much does it matter, and to whom, if someone who does good things on the public stage has made mistakes in her personal life? And who is to judge what constitutes a “mistake?” In this internet age, when very little remains private and hyperbole, both positive and negative, is rampant, how do we take the measure of a man (or in the case of my play, a woman)? I wanted to look at the fall from grace of my main character, Jean Remner, a well-known playwright and humanitarian, and explore how it affects her career, her friendships, her family and of course, Jean herself. No easy answers are forthcoming, but ((hopefully) a number of thought-provoking questions are raised.

Is it based on a real person or event?

No. But you only have to access the news in any of the ubiquitous media to learn of someone well-known who has been found, rightly or wrongly, to have done something blameworthy.

Have you ever been in position similar to the one in which the protagonist finds herself?

No, thank heavens. But it could happen to any of us.

Are there any plans for it to be produced in the future?

Not at the moment, but I have fingers and toes crossed.

Tell us a little about the excerpt we will be seeing on Monday.

Jean has agreed, at the urging of her damage-control publicist, to appear on a radio talk show to address the allegations being made against her, but the interview goes unexpectedly awry when the host sensationalizes the conversation.

Anything else you would like to say about Naked, or to preface it for the people who will see the excerpt on Monday?

Can’t think of anything right now.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Your Run of the Mill 15-minute Blog

Okay...the timer is set for fifteen minutes...I can do anything for fifteen minutes...I can even clean out the trunk of my car for fifteen minutes...I can even sit and write a blog posting.

I'm five for five and I'm happy! I imagine most people reading this post will know the PlayGround format. 36 playwrights get a topic and have a crazy-ridiculous short amount of time to write a ten-page play. We're given topics that supposedly inspire us, but it's more like they conspire to constrict us, to send us in some fury only to be shot down by the limits of our time and abilities.

But in the end, I guess it's fair to say the topics do inspire. Actually, the environment inspires: the company of 36 brilliant playwrights, an amazing opportunity to have our work performed by super-talented actors, the chance to have our work directed by sharp-minded Bay Area directors, and the honor of having our work viewed in one of the premier theatres (the Berkeley Rep) on the West Coast. How can we be anything other than inspired...and intimidated, but mostly inspired?

But the point is, as I wrote earlier, I'm five for five. Five months, five topics, five stressful weekends, five nervous "do I send it" moments, and five submissions. My goal was to submit each and every month and that's what I've done so far. Three of the five submissions, I felt really good about. Two of the five, I've tried to erase from my memory. But boy have I grown.

This month the task otherwise known as "the topic" was "Numbers." I sat at the MSRI practically giggling because I knew that my being there alone was going to give me cool points during my time with my father-in-law over the weekend. (He is always sharing his latest musing about math and computers and how they both weave into and comment on our lives, and when I told him of the topic he shared that he has a book reviewed by Steven Strogatz, a mathematician sometimes featured on WNYC's Radio Lab.)

Soon my childish giggles gave way to childlike wonder. Our presenters weren't only sharing with us some nice concepts to spark our interests and give us a foundation on which to begin a play. They were sharing their passions, and by sharing their passions I was able to once again see and feel and hear my grade school self, a person for whom curiosity trumped certainty and numbers were a play thing just as prized as my Raggedy Ann and Andy alarm clock or my Nurf football.

That night, still in awe of Prof. Barry Mazur's ideas about how a simple word could help a mathematician overcome a profound obstacle and Manjul Bhargava's introduction to the Golden Ratio, I went home in search of the mystical or to be more exact I went home in search of my copy of In Search of the Miraculous and Bertrand Russell's Mysticism and Logic, and for good measure the Bhagavad Gita. I also picked up a copy of Anne Carson's Eros the Bittersweet because I knew there was a hint of love in all that was stirring. I packed my bags and readied myself for my trip the next day to New York where my wife was to show her graduate collection at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week.

Only the awe that was stirred in me at MSRI could keep me from being consumed in the craze and awesomeness that I experienced while first anticipating my wife's night on the runway and next witnessing the reactions to the collection. No matter how far I fell into the going ons about town, I was never without a foot in the Kingdom of Numbers where eventually I fell in love with a character.

I fell so in love with this character that I went off and wrote what was more than thirty minutes of material. Somehow I managed to take a slice out of it all and tweak that up so that the six-page monologue had something that resembled an arc and something that I felt was an engaging story.

How successful I was...I don't know. And to be honest, from what I learned through the process of writing this one particular piece, I was more happy with my gesture with this play than with any literary gesture I've made before. It's not that I feel I wrote a great play or anything close to that; it's not even that I took a great risk with my treatment of the subject. What makes me so happy about this submission is that I gave myself to a play like I had never given myself to any writing project before, that I accepted my shortcomings without accepting anything less than my best effort, and that after I pressed and delivered my manuscript for review and "judgement," I knew that I had made it five out of five. Five months of writing assignments and five submissions from this green playwright.

Submitting each month was something I felt I wanted to do and something I told myself I had to do, but I have to admit that I wasn't sure if it was something I could actually do. Our first prompt was "It Gets Better" as our collective response for the It Gets Better Project. Only now do I realize how fitting of a start that was for me in my first year with PlayGround. It has gotten better. I don't pout for as long as I used to when I see that I'm not selected, or roll my eyes at the impossibility of my being able to write anything meaningful to "that topic," or doubt myself or hate myself for having exposed to others that I'm not quite as good at playwriting as I hope to one day be.

I'm going to watch our It Gets Better Video over and over for a few minutes. Maybe now would be a good time to sign off.

Obviously, the alarm on my timer went off a long, long time ago. That damn trick works all the time!
(image taken from Professor's Mazur's Homepage)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Tall, Dark Stranger, or How to Begin

Suppose a young man approaches you in an empty café and asks you to tell him everything you know about numbers in ten minutes. Maybe you’re a mathematician. Maybe you’re an armchair math aficionado with an enthusiastic layperson’s knowledge of the field. Maybe you stopped taking math classes as soon as you could. But this mysterious fellow doesn’t ask you how you know about numbers. He asks you what you know. And no matter who you are, you’re going to have a lot to say. Panic takes over. You have to buy some time, organize your thoughts. You take a swig of your mocha. And then?

This month’s topic was that shadowy gentleman, coming up to all thirty of us in our offices or at our desks or in our dreams, tapping our shoulders, clearing his throat impatiently, demanding to know everything but only giving us ten pages to tell all. “Kingdom of Number,” read the prompt, drawn from a poem by master W.H. Auden. While I enjoy the prompts with deeper grounding (like the passage from Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night in November 2010), “Kingdom of Number” went even deeper than I’d imagined.

Before we were told the prompt, we were treated to three talks at the MSRI by stars in the field of Number Theory: Harvard Professor Barry Mazur, whose many eponymous discoveries include the Mazur Manifold and the Mazur Swindle, Professor Alice Silverberg of UC Irvine, formerly a consultant for the (much-lamented, sadly-concluded) Rob Morrow vehicle Numb3rs, and Professor Manjul Bhargava, one of the youngest-ever mathematicians to be granted tenure and a full professorship at Princeton.

Needless to say, the presentations were stimulating. Professor Mazur spoke to us about the “transcendental truth” of mathematics, about eerie numbers and their biographies. Professor Silverberg led us through the world of Primality. Finally, Professor Bhargava introduced us to Pingala’s Numbers, a mathematical series discovered by a Sanskrit poet in 500 B.C., and then re-named the Fibonacci Sequence some 2000 years later. Of course the sequence itself had existed long before either discovery of it, Professor Bhargava explained, and it is, quite literally, at the heart of everything.

So, in this swirl of information, of inspiration, where to begin? I can only speak for myself. My mind is inclined towards the darker, bleaker side of things (dusty, empty coffee houses, strange men with strange questions, and so on), so I started with G.H. Hardy. On page 14 of The Mathematician’s Apology (1940), a text referenced by Professor Silverberg in her talk, Hardy writes:

The mathematician’s patterns, like the painter’s or the poet’s must be beautiful; the ideas like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test: there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics.

This is a gorgeous passage, to be sure, but is there not something a bit sinister about it, too? After all, how many political movements of the past century have destroyed people or places using aesthetic justifications? What happens when we value the “harmonious way” above all else – but choose to define “harmonious way” exclusively in our own terms? Hardy was against using mathematics in service of weaponry and violence, Professor Silverberg told us, but I wonder if Hardy realized how oddly similar his rhetoric was to that of some of the less-well-intentioned figures alive in the 1940s.

And so my conversation with the stranger began. He gave me a nod, listened for a few seconds, and then evaporated. The prompt had done its job. Now I had to write a play.

Photo appears courtesy of the LSE Library on Flickr.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Science of Writing or The Writing of Science

I feel fairly certain that if I hadn't become a writer I would have become a scientist. An astronomer or a geologist. You see, my father taught 8th grade Earth Science and my childhood was filled with constellations, lunar eclipses, identifying all types of rocks (shale, quartz, obsidian), fossils, dinosaur footprints and even a glimpse of Halley's Comet.

As an undergrad my Astronomy professor urged me to consider changing my major. You might have guessed I have a great affinity for science. And that love for science seeps into my writing in all sorts of ways.

For example, at the moment I'm working on a full-length play that's all about science and the nature of the universe. Heart Shaped Nebula weaves the Greek Mythology of constellations, a governing principle of matter, reincarnation and love. The entire play orbits around a scientific principle.

But science has also made its way into my other plays. Whether it be through a character who has a penchant for scientific trivia or the backdrop for an entire narrative. Take for example Playground's November topic. Even though the topic was a quote by Eugene O'Neill, I ended up writing a science play about an astronomer who goes blind when he looks through a telescope and sees what's at the center of the universe.

And this month I'll intentionally be writing about science as February is Playground's MSRI topic month (that's Mathematical Sciences Research Institute to the abbreviated impaired).

Next week Playground writers will take a field trip to the Berkeley hills where MSRI is located to listen to a lecture by MSRI's mathematicians. Last year we listened to a fascinating talk about knots and who knows what MSRI has up their sleeve this year.

You may think this sounds like a difficult challenge, to find inspiration from science. I think it depends on your perspective. If you've had a life that's been permeated by science then perhaps it's a bit easier to see how science is in our lives daily. Science is all about drama: the experiment, not knowing what the outcome will be, the discovery, looking for answers, trying to save lives, trying to understand the world around us. There's a human element behind the cold equations and formulas.

As for the February Playground topic, how a playwright incorporates the topic—literally into the play, into the play's structure or if it only serves as a jumping off point for inspiration—is completely up to the playwright. Who knows what we'll all come up with.

After all, human imagination is limitless and, like the night sky, filled with possibility.