Thursday, June 28, 2007

Making someone's day

So tomorrow is my boss's birthday and as a surprise and treat, I wrote a short film starring her as the central character. It's not much and its very sketch comedy with plenty of in jokes that only she and our team at work would get. But she loved it. So I'm just glad that something I wrote has made a postive impact, even if to just one person.

I may post the script here. I may not. We'll see if I get fired first.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Chip Before You Drive

Learning to write is a lot like learning to golf.

Golf is simple in its objective but complex in its execution. What could be easier than hitting a white ball towards a hole? The game is rife with frustration and exhilaration. And it has many paradoxes. For example, it seems like the task of hitting the ball to a pin 400 yards away would be more difficult than if its only 120 yards, but alas, usually it’s the exact opposite. The closer to the hole, the more difficult it gets. In golf, its not distance but accuracy that’s key.

In writing, accuracy is everything. It doesn’t matter how many pages you’ve written—all you need is one good sentence. One good line. Even one good word sometimes. One thing that crystallizes all that you want to say with your piece.

But to learn how to find "le mot juste" (as the French would say) can feel like scoruing the earth for the holy grail. Eventually one masters words in a way that no one else can, just like even the average duffer creates a unique swing.

But it starts with fundamentals. When you learn golf you want to crush the ball 300 yards with your driver. But no one has that innate ability (even Tiger Woods). You have to start with the core fundamentals: grip, stance, setup, balance, and the swing. You have to learn how to hit a 9 iron straight for 50 yards. And then you work your way up with the harder clubs. Finally, you start to work on the driver. Of course, then there’s putting, which is a whole other game.

In the same way, composing a sentence should be the easiest thing in the world, right? Subject, verb. Sometimes a direct object. Any dummy could do it. But it’s the difference between, “My name is Ishmael” and “Call me Ishmael.” They’re both sentences, but one is much tighter and more interesting. One is passive and one is active (telling v. showing). One hints at a story. That’s what we want, any words that help our story. And eliminate any clutter.

In writing a play or screenplay, most people think they’ve got a Broadway musical or two-act play in every idea. That’s not always the case. Sometimes it’s best to start out with a ten-minute or even a five-minute play. If you really do have a big idea with characters that can hold an audience for more than an hour, maybe its best just to go scene by scene, even if its only a page or two, here and there. Concentrate on the small chunks. It takes awhile to see the big picture, to put the scenes together. In this way, it’s like the golf game. You learn a few different shots, long and short. When you go out on the course is when you start putting them together. First you look at things hole by hole. Eventually, you can see the layout of all 18 holes and how you have to play each one. And that makes the game.

So writing is like a game. It should be fun and you should learn the fundamentals before trying the advanced stuff. So what’s the advanced stuff? What separates the pros from the amateurs? Rewriting.

In golf, you want to get to the hole in as few strokes as possible. In writing, you want to use as few words as possible. So you grab some scissors and you cut, cut, cut out all the repetition and unnecessary words. (This is the philosophy of Occam’s razar) When you’re done cutting, you do some rewriting. Maybe you’ll add some more words, maybe you’ll cut some. It’s never-ending and quite maddening. You’re searching for "le mot juste". Sometimes you find it hidden in the dark crevices of your mind and sometimes it eludes you. Just like a golf pro putting for hours on the green trying to nail that twenty foot putt, you can spend hours on a few words. That’s the difference.

Someone once told me, “if you want to play better golf, go back in time and start when you’re five years old.” That’s how long it takes to get good. Why would writing be any different?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Everybody Blogs

Here's two thoughts for the price of one:

The first: I was driving to work this morning and even though it really should only take me fifteen minutes driving at the speed limit, it usually takes me twenty to twenty-five minutes. Everyone complains about the traffic in Seattle, but the truth is its not because there are a lot of cars like say L.A. or New York. It’s because most drivers in Seattle will absolutely refuse to drive anywhere near the speed limit. If the speed limit is 30 mph, you’re lucky to be going 25. If its 25, you’re probably almost stopped.

As someone who spent a lot of time driving on tour and weaving in and out of Manhattan traffic—this drives me crazy (pun intended). By nature, I am a “let’s get things done” kind of guy. It’s not that I can’t enjoy the journey, it’s just that I really do want to arrive at my destination.

Now, I know there is a lesson in this. I know that as a creative person I want to rush the process. I have about ten projects in my head I want to sit down and write tonight. And I know that life is too short to dawdle. I’m so anxious to get things done that I forget that sometimes things just have to take their own time. It’s part of the process. This doesn’t mean don’t do anything (ie sitting back waiting for the Muse to strike) but it does mean being patient. Art is about persistence.

My second thought of the day comes from this interview with John August I read on someone else’s blog. Most people don’t know him, but he’s the guy who wrote GO, Corpse Bride, one of the Charlies Angel’s movies, and one of my favorites, Big Fish. He has a great site for screenwriters with “tons of useful information” at In this excerpt of this interview he talks about writing and how damn hard it is and that just because you have a blog doesn’t mean you’re writing (which means I shouldn’t just post any old tidbit that comes to my head, I guess).

“JA: I really don't like writing. That's a terrible thing to say of course, because one is supposed to love one's art. But I'd rather do just about anything than sit down and start writing.

The thing is, I love having written. I love going back and looking at the scene I wrote. So "writing" is a necessary, painful process I go through in order to get to "having written."

When people say, "Oh, I just loving writing!" I know they're full of crap. They're probably lousy writers who are regurgitating their daily thoughts in a journal. Actual writing is hard work. Even when you have the flow and it's going well, it's still incredibly taxing. My deepest nights of sleep are after days of having to write ten pages.

(By the way, this -- answering questions for an email interview -- isn't writing. This is talking with a keyboard, which is damn near effortless. I think one of the dangerous things that's come with the rise of the Internet is that people are confusing typing with writing. Just because your words are captured in a UTF-8 character set doesn't mean that you're actually writing. Writing involves carefully shaping a thought for its desired impact. Writing means anticipating the reader's reaction, and honoring (or defeating) that expectation. Writing requires logic. Blogging just requires an account.) “

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Where Everybody Knows Your Name...Not!

Who’s Craig Lucas?” she said.

I had just told Beth, one of the many intelligent and cultured people in my office, about this playwright/screenwriter and director who I am going to have the honor of interviewing for The Dramatist Guild magazine. I was excited to tell somebody who I thought knew his work (other than Lisa, of course). Y’know, someone who actually attends theatre on a regular basis. She just saw Gem of the Ocean at Intiman. She regularly asks me about any shows that I’d recommend. So when I told her about my upcoming interview, I was a little surprised she didn’t know about him.

“He wrote A Light in the Piazza. Prelude to a Kiss. Wrote and directed The Dying Gaul.”

A flicker of recognition flashed on her face. “Oh, right, I know Light in the Piazza. What’s his name again?”

Slowly, the conversation changed to the last show I had seen..

But it got me to thinkin’. So here’s a guy who has “made it” let’s say, who can do his art and make a living. He’s been nominated for a PULITZER and a TONY award, has been produced on Broadway and Off-Broadway. He’s had three of his screenplays made into films (one of which he directed). Anyone in the theatre knows his name and has read at least one of his plays.

And yet, some people—college educated and cultural savvy people—still have no idea who he is.

I must confess that this filled me with a little bit of satisfaction.

It’s not because I don’t like Craig Lucas or don’t think he’s deserving of the praise and recognition. On the contrary—he’s up there with Tony Kushner and Sam Shepard and Edward Albee as far as quality and quantity of work being done here in the U.S. No, it’s because when someone at a party or at work asks, quite innocently, “What have you written? Anything I’ve seen?”, they’ve no doubt never heard of you. We know this. Writers will cringe at this question. We try to remain calm and collect intelligent and articulate words to express our plays, but usually we mumble, stammer and eventually throw out something about an award won or a show in New York and the other person looks at us as if an Ostrich egg had just dropped out of our butt. They’ve never even heard of the theatre company that did your play, much less your play itself.

So I must admit it fills me with a slight tinge of satisfaction to know that no matter how “big” you get, how well-known you are, how many awards you might receive or are nominated for, some people in certain circles will never know your name or work. It’s quite humbling, really, and levels the playing field somewhat for all of us.

I have to remind myself, people do not clamor over writers the way they do for directors and movie stars. No one knows or cares who wrote The Pirates of the Caribbean or Spider-Man. If you ask most Americans what playwrights they know, you’ll get two consistent answers: William Shakespeare and Neil Simon. And I’m okay with that, actually, because when I really think about this idea of being “famous” or well-known, I don’t think it’s for me. I like anonymity. It’s why I loved living in New York City. I want to be recognized for my work, certainly, and everybody wants to be praised, of course, but fame and fortune is not the bucket of gold at the end of the rainbow. I’m not denying the perks of fortune (I’m no dummy) but my writing is for me, first and foremost, and I’m just happy when any audience gets a chance to enjoy it. The more the audience the better, but I never forget the first audience member to see my work: me. Selfish, yes, but I think you might find that other writers are okay with that—after all, they spend a lot of time alone with that sole audience member.

So the next time I’m at a party and someone asks me about my plays and if they’ve seen anything I’ve done, I’m going to feel pretty good talking about my work and not really caring if there are any bells of recognition ringing in their head.

Okay, I’ll care, but I won’t let it get to me quite as much, because deep down I’ll be thinking, “Even Craig Lucas has this problem”.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Summer is here!

Last night Lisa and I went to see the Quickies Festival at LiveGirls! Theatre, a great evening of short new works, all by women playwrights. I wrote about it for The Dramatist, which will run next month (See below for the full column). I'm always encouraged and inspiried when I see an evening of brand spanking new plays. Even if the plays aren't brilliant or particularly spectacular, its always good to see playwrights at work. And these plays were of a consistent quality--some more than others--and it also helps that the acting and the directing were top-notch. I'll be looking forward to seeing more shows there this season.

Below is what will run in The Dramatist magazine next month:

I’ve lived here just long enough to know that when the sun pokes its shiny head out of the clouds even for a nanosecond, Seattleites don shorts and sandals and head to Green Lake or Gasworks Park for some fun in the sun. So when summer days get longer and warmer and the sunlight gets so soft it’s reminiscent of the Mediterranean, everyone rushes outside to enjoy it.

Well, not everyone.

We have no shortage of theatre-loving fools who willingly stay indoors to do theatre.

What we do have a shortage of in the summer is play festivals. Unlike New York City, which seems to have a new summer play festival pop up every year, in Seattle they’re few and far between. With much dismay, the Seattle Fringe Festival closed up shop a few years ago and has yet to be revived, despite a lot of talk and desire to see it running again. But some wounds may need to heal first (and from what I hear, some people still need to get paid). Theatre Schmeater valiantly tried to mount Open Stage as a slimmed-down version of the festival, hoping to attract those companies already going to the Vancouver Fringe Festival, but unfortunately they received only half the applications they needed to make it happen.

There are those who feel it’s best to just let the Fringe Festival rest in peace, claiming that it was rife with shoddy productions. But even though the quality of the festival may have been inconsistent, we lost a critical venue for dramatists. It was a wonderful sandbox to play in, to develop new works, experiment with new forms, take some risks, and most importantly, an opportunity to interact with the theatrical community. I was excited to hear about the festival when moving here, only to become disappointed when I looked up the website to find it nonexistent. I’ll gladly buy a round of drinks for the theatre company that revives it. I know it’s not much of an incentive, but I hope somebody takes me up on it.

Just because the Fringe Festival isn’t around anymore doesn’t mean theatres are completely empty. There’s one festival that’s still going strong after eight years, the Quickies festival at LiveGirls! Dedicated to producing and developing new work by women since 1999, LiveGirls! premieres plays by national and local playwrights and continues to create workshops and readings to support script development. Meghan Arnette, Artistic Director of LiveGirls! calls the “short and sassy” festival an excellent and exciting showcase for short plays from dramatists not just in the Pacific Northwest but all over the country. It’s a yearly trademark for the Ballard-based theatre company and kicks off their season.

Aside from festivals, there are a few world premieres from the big houses this summer. It’s a busy year for Craig Lucas. Not only did he adapt Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya for Intiman, but that theater will also premiere his new play Prayer for My Enemy, directed by Bartlett Sher (their third-time collaboration). No doubt the next stop will be Broadway. And you can get your dose of prime poetry in action with the premiere of First Class at ACT—A Contemporary Theatre. This one person show about the legendary poet (and UW professor) Theodore Roethke is written by renowned local poet David Wagoner and stars Seattle actor John Aylward.

When you run out of Saturday BBQs, venture down to the Jewel Box theatre nestled in the Rendezvous Bar in Belltown for the Seattle Dramatists Open Box. The first six playwrights that sign up get ten minutes of material read by professional actors. The time limit doesn’t deter commitment to longer works; Kelleen Conway Blanchard wrote Small Town by bringing in each scene, ten minutes at a time. The real bonus is you can grab a microbrew from the bar and soak in some drama instead of sunshine.

Speaking of brews, I hope next summer I’ll be giving a toast to the saviors of the Seattle Fringe Festival.