Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Sea Change

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
- William Shakespeare’s The Tempest

For as long as I’ve lived in the Bay Area (nearly nineteen years), I’ve heard the theatre community bemoan the reduction in theatre coverage and reviews with the reported “slow death” of print journalism. We’ve lost papers and critics over time, for sure, and the few remaining papers and critics have – it seems – gained a greater role in shaping box office success or failure for Bay Area professional theatres. While there has been much discussion within the community over the years about what might be done, it’s not clear that we can agree on the solution (or even the problem).

And, surely, these are different times – with the recent rise of social media, blogging, online publications and web 2.0. So why do we continue to long for old solutions? “If only there were more critics.” “If only there were more print publications willing to invest in arts coverage.” “If only…” Fill in your own anachronistic fantasy.

Today, I set before you a challenge and an opportunity. Today, I invite you to be part of a sea change, as it were. Let’s create a new and expansive community of theatre critics and theatre criticism – of and by the theatre-goers and theatre-makers. One that lives entirely within the networked world of the internet – through facebook, twitter, blogger, etc.

Next Friday, May 6, at Thick House is press night for the 15th annual Best of PlayGround Festival (, an evening-length program of six short plays and one musical by arguably some of the Bay Area’s best new writers. If you would like to begin the theatre criticism evolution (note I do not say “revolution”) and are willing to commit to blogging or posting your review on the internet by the following Monday (while we may be advocating the democratization of theatre criticism, we’re not above the authoritarian practice of requiring deadlines!), we will provide you a pair of complimentary “press” tickets for the performance.

And to the rest of you. You’re not off the hook! If you agree with the “critics,” sound off and add your comments. If you don’t, let them know. Our only requirement is that discourse remain civil and to the point.
What makes for good theatre? Why do some things move us and others don’t? Who else would enjoy this experience? Why does this story need to be heard?
In time, I can imagine this new breed of theatre reviewers, vetted by their own peers and social networks, playing a significant role in how we engage potential audiences and build a stronger community. Facebook and other social media have connected us and allowed us to share our stories and opinions in ways we couldn’t possibly have imagined ten years ago. Let’s use these tools to create the next logical phase of theatre criticism and, in the process, introduce new audiences to this incredible art form.

So, who’s up for the challenge? Post a comment to reserve your tickets for the May 6 performance of the Best of PlayGround.

Thinking small? Or big?

Jeffrey Sweet - a terrific playwright - linked to this article from the Guardian on facebook.

Though the writer is commenting on work in the UK specifically, as usual, her questions are worth raising on this side of the Atlantic, as well.

And there are a lot of issues this will bring up (or, at least, that have generally been brought up in the many conversations about this very topic that have popped up frequently in the blogosphere in the past): Are MFA's to blame for this (my opinion: If you're really familiar with MFA programs, that answer is: no)? Is realism in theatre really like television (my opinion: If you've actually watched television lately, the answer is: no)? What does theatricality really mean (who knows?)? Who's really to blame for the state of theatre today (my opinion: the decision makers - ie, Artistic Directors are responsible for what's on stage, no one else)? Is this really a trend (haven't 2 handers been a staple for at least 50 years)? And so forth.

However, what was interesting to me were some of the ideas in Sweet's facebook feed. I've cut and pasted some of them below. I think they all have something valuable to ponder. What do you think?

Having just read a few hundred plays for Seven Devils - it seems to me the situation is complicated here by the idea of what is producible (both in schools that teach playwrights to be more producible, and perhaps also really gear them to be able to make money in other media - and for those who don't have the magic MFA and think that a smaller, less expensive play is more likely to convince a theater to take a risk on them). I read some strong, big, ambious plays this year... but I don't think most of them will even get read by the people that need to read them, and they won't be seriously considered by theaters that don't know them. I'm not blaming the theaters either - it's like a vortex that we're all pulled into. I think everyone wants out of it. Maybe we're just more afraid of what awaits us beyond the vortex? - Jeni Mahoney

The choice isn't so much between big and small but between the dazzling counterfeit of the literal (movies with special effects can make you believe in the moment in almost anything that can be imagined) and the metaphoric. In the theatre, metaphor rules; the biggest special effects are those you conjure with the willing collaboration of the audience. Among the most theatrical pieces I've ever seen were directed by Paul Sills, who always worked with modest budgets. He would put an orange-billed baseball cap on Hamilton Camp and you would see a duck. - Jeffrey Sweet

The whole business of submitting manuscripts to theatres is self-defeating. The real way to get stuff on is to become part of the life of a company -- volunteering to do stuff that always needs to be done that nobody wants to do (grant-writing, PR, etc.) -- get to know the artists and to write for the people who are there. I once asked Paul Sills how he formed such good companies. He said, "They're the people who show up." Playwrights are too inclined to think that their work is off in separate rooms. No, you may do some of your writing elsewhere, but the point is to become a regular presence in the company's home and be part of that life. Lanford Wilson practically lived at Circle Rep in the golden years. - Jeffrey Sweet

Most people -- including a lot of people in the theatre -- can't read genuinely theatrical scripts. A lot of literary managers can read only the words and can't chart the behavior that gives the words their context. I've had stuff that was rejected in manuscript later produced by the same theatres that had turned them down once they saw productions by other companies. There's no easy solution to this, but universities could do a lot more to encourage the building of bigger stuff. They have the resources -- actors who don't have to be paid -- that the professional theatre doesn't. But, of course, one hopes to write plays that will have continued lives. - Jeffrey Sweet

Friday, April 22, 2011

Inspiration & The Creative Process Part II

In the Comments section of the first blog post on this subject, Malachy mentions using "sense memory exercises" to help get his creative process going.

This is pretty much what I wanted to talk about next. That is, using writing exercises to help the creative process along.

For me, I tend to need writing exercises after the writing process has begun. I use writing exercises to get to know the characters I've just engendered. And there are two writing exercises in particular that I rely on to "get to know" my characters better.

The first is a dream monologue. I always begin with the line, "Last night I had the strangest dream..." and let the monologue go from there. My own dreams are quite vivid and strange, so I let the characters describe whatever random weirdness comes to my mind at the moment.

And since I personally believe that its in our dreams that we work out our subconscious preoccupations, I look at the finished monologue for clues into the subconscious mind of my character. What are their fears? They preoccupations? Their desires?

The dream monologue isn't something that necessarily makes its way into my play, but it helps me get a better sense of who the character is.

Playwright Christine Evans describes the world of the play like an iceberg. What we see on stage is just the tip that's peaking out above the waterline. But there's an entire world of the play that lies beneath, that supports the play we see on stage. This is the backstory, the personal histories of characters, the events that precede the play. Therefore, I consider writing that comes out of writing exercises to be just as important as the what makes it into the play.

My second go-to writing exercise is an interview. I started using this writing exercise a few years back when I was trying to determine if a fourth character in the play I was working on was in fact superfluous. So I decided to give her a job interview of sorts to figure out if i needed her in the play.

Turns out that the interview exercise reveal more than I expected and I realized I did in fact need her in the play.

Now I use the exercise to help me develop characters when I feel like they need more depth. And when I'm lucky the exercise produces writing gems that make it into the play itself.

So what exercises do you use to help your creative process?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Inspiration & The Creative Process Part I

Last week The Atlantic asked its readers to chime in about their respective creative process, processes...processi?

So I thought I'd bring the question here. How does your creative process work? What starts it? What keeps it going?

For me it often starts with images. I'm a very image-driven poet and that goes the same for my playwriting. My plays often start as an image that I can't shake: a man and a teenage girl alone in a motel room, a wolf chewing through a door, Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son, pomegranates...

Sometimes these images become the first scene of my play. Sometimes they become part of a visual repository for my muse as a way to continually fan the flames of inspiration.

'Cause let's face it, sometimes you run out of steam before you finish that first draft. Then what do you do?

So how 'bout you? How do you start a play? Where does your inspiration come from?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Monday Inspiration from a Director

Several years ago, I was rummaging around the house when I came across a few pieces of paper that my wife had pressed between the pages of our Riverside Shakespeare edition.

They were quotes from Liviu Ciulei during his tenure at the Guthrie. My wife got a copy of them from a stage manager when she was in a production of a Shaw play there. (She had also worked with him previously at NYU as well as the THE ACTING COMPANY.)

Way, way back in the day, I posted them on my blog (The LitDept). I occasionally repost them. When you read them, I think you'll understand why.
Whatever you cut nobody can boo.

Words shouldn't be faster than the thought. Only the thought creates reality.

It is a very hard play and we have so very little time, so we must go very slowly.

Righteousness is in the jawbone.

To see the thoughts. THAT is the great spectacle of theatre.

Hamlet is a very difficult role - 5 acts, no pockets. What do you do with your hands?

Sometimes you have to create a little scandal to get what you want.

Take the holes out of the cheese.

We have to pay attention to the small logics. We have to help the audience.

The secret of good lighting is not to light the feet.

This moment is Turgenev, not Dostoyevsky.

I like what you do. You do it very well. Cut it.

You cry here. You cry there. Symmetrical crying, please.

But you can't stand there, like that. They'll fire me. At least they should.

Don't look - SEE.

You are just wasting your tongue.

Each line is a thousand shades of grey.

You'll meet a lot of directors who want to impose their own imagination on top of the play without regard for the logic of the play. Sometimes they are lucky and they get a good play. But rarely. The modern theatre has too many examples of such directors.

Muslin doesn't inspire me.

Acting means thinking with someone else's mind.

Those little things without importance which count enormously much.

I think it's time for another script intervention.

The shoes will tell me what to do.

Sometimes I'm wrong. If I'm not ever wrong, I'm not learning anything.

If you are talented but not intelligent, be a poet. If you are intelligent but not talented, be a playwright. If you are talented and intelligent, be a novelist. If you are not talented and not intelligent, be a critic.

And my favorite...

You see, they didn't have a television, so instead, they lived.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

And you do it anyway.

Your betters say you're not inspired enough to do it. But you do it anyway.

Michael Kaiser says you’re too ignorant to do it. But you do it anyway.

Mat Smart says you’re too lazy to do it. But you do it anyway.

Dramaturgs say you’re too realistic/absurd/uneven/unpolished to do it. But you do it anyway.

Audiences say you’re too weird/strange/sad to do it. But you do it anyway.

Critics say you’re too unskilled to do it. But you do it anyway.

Teachers say you’re too untalented to do it. But you do it anyway.

Artistic Directors say you’re too unknown to do it. But you do it anyway.

Lit Depts say you’re too hard to read to do it. But you do it anyway.

Fundraisers say you’re too poor to do it. But you do it anyway.

Friends say you’re too regular to do it. But you do it anyway.

Politicians say you’re too wasteful to do it. But you do it anyway.

Patriots say you’re too unpatriotic to do it. But you do it anyway.

The clock says you don’t have enough time to do it. But you do it anyway.

The movies say you’re not cinematic enough to do it. But you do it anyway.

The TV people say you’re too old. But you do it anyway.

The CATT people say if you aren’t paid, you’re not professional enough. But you do it anyay.

Parents say it’s not stable enough to do it. But you do it anyway.

Actors say you’re not obvious enough to do it. But you do it anyway.

Directors say you’re not interesting enough to do it. But you do it anyway.

Producers insist you’re not marketable enough to do it. But you do it anyway.

Mentors say you’re not ready to do it. But you do it anyway.

Video Game makers say you’re too old fashioned to do it. But you do it anyway.

People who don't to sit still say you're not fast enough to do it. But you do it anyway.

Pop culture-istas say you're not sexy cool enough to do it. But you do it anyway.

Those who've gone before you say you can't do it because you've never done it before. But you do it anyway.

Miss Manners says you're not polite enough to do it. But you do it anyway.

The demons in your head say you're simply not enough to do it. But you do it anyway.

And you don't just do it anyway. You do it all the time. Every day. Every where. And anytime you can fit it in. On the train, in the car, during lunch, before bed, when you get up, in the dreams between.

Because you're crazy.

And that's a good thing.

So keep doing it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

My Plate Spinning Routine

I wish I had more of a routine.

Though, I do blog regularly. And I suppose that could be considered my writing routine. But when it comes to working on plays, I have to carve out time or seize it when the opportunity arises.

This is the case for lots of artists who have a 9 to 5 job. But it's not just the 9 to 5 job and writing you have to balance, there's the rest of your life: errands, working out, gardening, household chores, hanging out with friends, going to see plays and of course, writing. It's a bit like plate spinning.

Essentially it's like having two jobs, but the same amount of hours in a day/week. I've struggling to keep my plates spinning and have had some months where I've been more successful than others. Usually it's the months when I'm trying to make some sort of deadline (nothing like a deadline to light a fire under you).

This year I decided to take a page from my 9 to 5 and apply it to my playwriting. At the beginning of the year I developed a work plan to help me move projects along and set goals for each month (both writing and professional). I'm finding that the work plan is helping me feel like I'm making some sort of progress and provides me some way to measure my work. Which, I have to say, I need.

So do I have any sort of routine?


On Tuesdays and Thursday evenings I have a bit more free time for writing, but not much. That means its the weekends when I try to do the majority of my writing. Which isn't fun, because, well, it's my weekend. And I want to relax, go outside, do laundry, etc, etc.

But that's the way it is. For now at least.

I know it doesn't sound very disciplined. But in the past five years I have managed to write four full length plays, am in the process of writing two more and have written sixteen ten minute plays.

This isn't to say I'm satisfied. But, what artist ever is?

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Writing Routine is not so Routine anymore

Hemingway wrote 'til his pencils weren't sharp.

Collette picked fleas from her cat.

Kerouac and Bacon started on their knees.

Whatever it is, most writers have something. And I'm no different.

And getting back to it is one of the big upsides to having a permanent address and a sense of home.

My routine used to be pretty simple:

Get up around 7.
Make coffee.
Start writing.
Stop around 10 or 11.

These days, the routine, however, is much more shattered. With a 3 year-old in my life and a new child on the way (May), I write only when I can. This means, I write on trains and foolscap. In dentists offices and during lunch hours. Between midnight and dawn and playground visits.

And while, once I found that turning on the TV, listening to music, checking email or reading the blog world generally destroyed everything, now these are all things that I just have to put behind me. In fact, there is always a Disney movie in the background these days, so...

It is both impossible and liberating. Impossible because there is no concentrated moment. Liberating because I don't spend any time second guessing. An idea is either "it" or it "isn't."

I still write long hand when I'm stuck or starting something new. I still writing in spiral notebooks and prefer the Classic (and now hard-to-find) Bic Stylo. And when things are really screwed up, I sitll "clean" the house and get a fresh sheet of paper. Though, truthfully, I am always cleaning the house of strewn toys.

And I still use Maria Irene Fornes sense memory exercises to get the world out of my head if it's in there. It turns out her ideas for finding the place within that needs to be listened to work great for a person who's inner world is teaming with loud voices and who's outer world is ruled by toddler demands.

Please take out a pencil and a sheet of paper.

You got a routine? Let's hear about it.