Tuesday, July 31, 2007

...And we're back!

At some point I would love to do an in-depth trip report on our visit to New Orleans and the ATHE conference, but I fear it’s impossible. The best I can do at this juncture is simply hit the major highlights of the experience…

Fortunately, Lisa and I landed on Monday and had two fun-filled days to do nothing but enjoy the French Quarter with our friends and old VCU alum, Boone and Chandra. We had a “big ass beer” on Bourbon Street, some gumbo, some Po Boys at Johnny’s, a muffeletta at Napoleon House, some rabbit at Olivier’s, some hurricanes at Good Friends and enjoyed a jazz band at some club I can’t remember. They also took us out to eat at Nola, Emeril’s restaurant, and the food there was delicious—and the plates were huge which was unexpected for such a high-scale eatery. Boone and I even had a chance to play an earlier morning round of golf at Audubon. He kicked my ass, but I blame my mishits and poor putting on the humidity.

Then the conference began on Wednesday night with a rehearsal for the New Play Development Workshop. I was working as a dramaturg for a ten-minute play called “Cellmates” and met my director, playwright and actors for the first time to do a read-thru and discuss the play. More rehearsals followed, throughout the week, culminating in the final showcase Sunday morning, which I unfortunately had to miss because of our plane ride back. We were in good shape, in no small part to our director, Pam, and the actors, especially Boone who jumped in as a last-minute replacement.

The Dramaturgy Debut Panel paper was my most pleasant surprise. I should’ve been a lot more nervous since I was presenting at this conference for the first time, but maybe the alcohol induced evenings prior calmed me down. Despite an extremely LOUD voice class happening next door to our room (or was it a Laban class, who knows?), and that John, the other presenter, was not able to join due to a family emergency, I remained unruffled. This was in no small part to Cyndi and some of the other dramaturgs who made me feel like a superstar. The paper and presentation was well-received by a very warm and welcoming crowd of young and experienced dramaturgs and scholars. I did get a chance to hear John’s paper read by someone else and wished he was there to ask about his relationship with the playwright. Afterwards we engaged in a stirring conversation about not just how a dramaturg functions on ensemble-based works and transcribing physical actions, but also how to educate dramaturgs to be more instrumental in the rehearsal and developmental process. I believe this conversation won’t be over anytime soon as there is talk of doing a panel at next year’s ATHE in Denver.

Okay, you can say it…I’m a total geek. I mean, seriously, read that last paragraph, it’s like I’m a little kid describing candy for the first time. But I have to admit, process and intellectual conversations get me jazzed.

(By the way, that picture above is a photograph by E.J Bellocq, one of the images that inspired the show In the Belly of the Beast with Two Backs which premiered at HERE Arts Center in 2005. I handed this out at the presentation.)

As if I’m not geeky enough, one of my favorite panels was about translations. Four papers were presented on various aspects of the “necessary impossibility” of translating not just text, but the culture as well as physical movements (a fascinating exploration of Butoh by Katherine Mezur who is coming to the UW). It makes me even that more interested in brushing off my Spanish to look at Spanish Golden Age dramas, which is in dire need of exposure.

The other eventful meeting I had was with Gary Garrison, the Executive Director of Creative Affairs for the Dramatists Guild of America, Inc. He was in town as a respondent for the New Play festival, but also led a session about the Guild and the upcoming changes. It got me excited because some of the changes are a long time coming, and though I’d like to get into more detail about it, I’ll wait until they get instigated. In addition, I also met Pamela Turner, the regional rep for Atlanta (and a former Portland native) and we got to talk about the differences and similarities in the regions.

All in all, it was nonstop meeting new people, hearing new ideas, and talking with others about our wonderful art of making theatre. We were pretty much go go go from 8 am to 11 pm every day. Some of it was also getting coffee or getting drinks with folks and some of it was getting good food, but as I look back, all I see is a blur of activity. It was exhausting in some ways, but revitalizing in others. I guess that’s the way conferences should be, though.

And my birthday dinner on Saturday night was one of the best I’ve ever had. We went to Adolpho’s, an Italian-Creole place outside the Quarter. It was a charming little place hidden away with low lighting and no frills ambience. More local than touristy. I had frog legs for the first time (stringy and chewy, like a cross between chicken and fish) and had the best plate of veal parmesan ever. And of course, I was joined by my lovely wife and two of my best friends. Now, that’s living.

As much I enjoyed New Orleans, it’s good to be back in the Pacific Northwest. For one, it’s cooler, though the heat and humidity in Nola was not as severe as I had anticipated. But also, it’s good to be surrounded by the gorgeous mountains and evergreen trees. And I’m ready to get back to my diet of Salmon on the grill.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Bourbon Street Here I Come

Last night Lisa and I saw an evening of solo works down at the Theatre Off-Jackson, a showcase organized and put up by Unicycle Collective. Our freind, and fellow budding playwright, performed his short piece "Think" and it was quite impressive. Some of the acts were better than others, but overall it was a good evening. It even made me feel like I should compose my own solo piece, even though the thought of it scares me silly...but then we should confront what fears us, shouldn't we?

I'll have to put this blog on hold for a week while I'm attending the ATHE (Association for Theatre in Higher Education) conference in New Orleans. Needless to say, Lisa and I are thrilled to be checking out the Big Easy.

We arrive a few days before the conference to hang out with some friends and then we have to get down to business on Wednesday night. I'll be working as a dramaturg for the New Play Development Workshops and I will also present a paper for the Dramaturgy Debut Panel, my work on Lisa's devised interpretation of Othello called IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST WITH TWO BACKS.

While there, we plan to eat a lot of good food, hear a lot of good jazz, do some shopping, and have a few drinks...a trip report awaits upon my return!


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

No Means...Keep Writing?

Another day, another rejection letter.

To outsiders, writers may seem masochistic. Not only do we spend hours and hours working on material, we then send it out into the world to be criticized and rejected. Sometimes it’s sucked into a void and you never hear from the recipient. Ever. You wonder…did this theater even receive my play? Did their Literary Manager suddenly die? Did they hate my play so much there are no words that can be put into a letter or email?

I’ve worked in literary offices, one of them a well-respected and quite busy Off-Broadway house, so I know that sometimes it takes up to six or eight months to respond. This is not unusual. However, there are some theatres where it’s been a year and a half before I heard anything. By that time, what’s the point of sending a letter? I got over the rejection six months ago and then suddenly I get this letter that says, “Hey, just in case you didn’t figure out by now…we don’t want your play…” Gee, thanks.

This past week I have gotten not one, but three letters of rejection. One of them was from my blind submission to a theatre company in Berkeley, another was from a friend running a short play festival in Cleveland (and believe it or not it was more impersonal then the one in Berkeley…) and the other was the Bluecat Screenwriting Competition. Now, the latter wasn’t really a rejection as much as my script didn’t move on past the 10% to the semifinalist circle.

When I worked at this highly-respected Off-Broadway theater, one of my jobs was to write three different yet distinctly pleasant rejection letters that said:

1) Please don’t ever send us anything again…ever
2) Please understand your play is good but won’t work for us and we hope you keep writing
3) Please forgive us for not doing this play now but keep sending us more of your work.

You may notice there’s no letter saying, “Please let us do your play”. That’s because this was a member theater company which did only so many shows a year, many of the slots filled by the ensemble members (of which there were over a hundred or so, including several recognized and brilliant playwrights). There were many wonderful plays that we just couldn’t do. Sometimes we could squeeze people in for a staged reading, but not often.

This is not rare in the theatre world, especially with companies doing new work, and it gives me perspective on the whole rejection thing. I know that it is not a reflection on my talent, on the play, or on the theater company’s tastes. There are many factors involved. Literary Managers are usually swamped and under-staffed (as well as under-paid). And they don’t make final decisions of who does what plays—that job goes to the Artistic Director who may just want to do Hamlet so he can cast his new young girlfriend as Ophelia. It’s just like auditioning—sometimes the best actor in the world is still wrong for the part. An actor perfect for Stanley Kowalski is probably not right for King Lear.

But still…when I see my name and the words “not at this time” or “sorry, but…”…it messes with me. It jabs at my psyche and pokes at my confidence. Just ask my wife, Lisa, who must deal with my ups and downs of acceptance/rejection. I start to feel like the only person I’m writing plays for is my self. Of course, this isn’t true. I have had many productions, won awards, and been published. People have read or seen my plays and told me they’ve liked them and I have no reason to believe they were lying. But these successes disappear under the shadow of a rejection. I mean, seriously, why can’t everyone like my work? I tell myself not everyone likes Samuel Beckett. Not everyone gets Pinter. Some people can’t watch Chekhov or Shakespeare. I tell myself that Van Gogh never sold a painting. This, however, does not comfort me because I don’t like being poor. Besides, I don’t want to be Van Gogh. I want to be a writer who gets produced and possibly paid once in awhile, not when I’m dead, but now, while I’m still alive to enjoy some of the royalties. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

So I mope. And I mope some more. Sometimes I even do say, “no one understands my work…” But luckily I don’t mope for too long…well, not forever, that is…I probably wouldn’t mope as long as I do if my wife wasn’t so pleasantly understanding. She really should just slap me and say, “Dennis, stop being a crybaby, just shut up and deal with it”. Gary Garrison, a great writer and teacher was at a party once and complaining to some old lesbian all his woes and she quickly retorted, “Honey, no one asked you to be a writer”. I love that. This is my choice. I don’t have to write (and trust me, I have thought about quitting many, many times…). Ultimately, this idea hits me and I get back to work. This past weekend I wrote two short plays for a Mamet competition for a local theater. They’re very fun and funny (I think so, anyway). But I know this theater company is looking for a late night mix of short plays—will my plays fit into the mix? I have no idea. I can’t know. But I was glad to write them nonetheless. I’ll send it off and wait to hear from them. Maybe they’ll get back to me. Maybe not. I keep working just the same.

Craig Lucas said “the act of writing is an act of hope”. Writers are about nurturing potential. Every person we meet is a potential character. Every idea is a potential play. Every play sent out is a potential opportunity. And every rejection letter is a potential contact to which you should submit again.

So I save my rejection letters in a little pile and I notate it in my spreadsheet which tracks what I’ve sent out and to who. Then I keep writing.

Because that’s what I do…I’m a writer.

Monday, July 9, 2007

So much to do, so little time...

Tomorrow I'm having lunch with Craig Lucas.

The day before the 4th of July, I chatted with him over the phone about what makes Seattle a great theater town and his current projects (he just got done filming a movie with Matthew Perry and Hilary Swank).

Needless to say, I'm feeling a little bit of awe. Starstruck. I just read his newest play which opens next month at the Intiman. It's brilliant. It explores the dark underbelly of American family life. It's funny. It's tragic. It's the kind of play I wish I could write. Maybe someday I will after thirty years of writing plays.

Anyway, more on that later.

I realized this weekend that I have far more ideas than time and so am trying to prioritize my projects. First things first, I have this interview and feature article to write on Craig. But then I also have a paper to write that I'm presenting at ATHE in New Orleans in two weeks. Then there is the vampire movie I'm writing. The rewrite on Tangled Up in Bob. The rewrite of Obscura. The new Oedipus adaptation (set in a Reno hotel/casino). There is also a few other screenplay ideas and two other plays in the hopper, 12 Minutes to Midnight and 10:28.

Too, too much to do. Not enough time.

And I have a party to plan for the Dramatists Guild of America, a sort of meet and greet for Guild and LMDA members.

To say its a busy summer is an understatement. When am I ever going to have time to work on my golf game? Or just workout, for crying out loud...

Oh, and I work full time at the foundation.

Speaking of which...its time to get back to work...

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Happy 4th of July!

Happy fireworks day!

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

ABC: Always Be Closing

That phrase is from Mamet’s film version of “Glen Garry Glen Ross”. It’s an interesting philosophy about how the salesmen are always trying to get the customer to “sign on the line which is dotted”. Selling is a continual process, never quite complete until the deal is done.

And that applies to writing, as well.

I spent most of last night rewriting my screenplay “Dylanology”, which is now going to be titled “Tangled Up in Bob” (Doesn’t that title just sound like a more fun movie?). Being in the top 10 percent of the Bluecat competition is not like winning an Oscar, but it is encouraging to know that I’m not in the pile of crap that is the other 90% (of which there were 1800 screenplays). I’m not patting myself too much on the back, though, because I realized how old that draft was that I submitted (by old, I mean four months…). So I dug out the most recent draft and started reading. I’ve haven’t sat down and read it from page one all the way to the end since May. It’s always beneficial to pick up a script after you haven’t seen it for a few months because suddenly it’s like you have a pair of 3D glasses and all the glaring errors and ugly spots literally pop out of the page at you. So I made some changes, added some lines, cut some descriptions, and tried to make the script a leaner, more fun read. I’m still working on it but its getting better.

You may well ask, “Hey, if your old script has already placed well in that competition and you’ve already done a rewrite, shouldn’t you just leave it alone?” Like I wrote before, a good writer is constantly rewriting. Rewriting is the promise of perfection. We search for the perfect expression of our ideas. So we are always rewriting. Always. Always. Always. Tony Kushner says the difference between a good playwright and a bad playwright is that a good playwright cares about EVERY SINGLE WORD. Any extra word, or extra moment is unnecessary and starts to add up. It slows the script down. When you’re trying to set a tone and a tempo, clutter is death. The only way to really nail it is to rewrite.

Now there may be that rare occasion when a script has reached perfection and any more tinkering with it will just destroy what goodness exists—but I have yet to see that script. I have yet to write that script. Maybe some day I will, but I’d rather place my odds on winning Megabucks.

I think this idea about rewriting stems from the same pile of crap about writing that other myths stem from. One of those myths is that great writers write excellent first drafts (yeah, right) so they don’t have to rewrite. Or that great writers write everything feverishly quick (also not always true). For most, writing is a laborious process. Rewarding and joyous, yes, but a real pain in the ass.

When do you stop? When is the deal done? When the audience sees it. Until then there’s always work to do. After the audience sees it, it’s too late (unless you’re George Lucas).

So always be rewriting. Until the deal is done.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have my full-length play OBSCURA to rewrite. That thing hasn’t been touched in over a year. I shudder to think what changes need to be made.

Sunday, July 1, 2007


Just got an email about the fabuluous news--my full-length screenplay DYLANOLGY has just made the list as a SEMI-FINALIST in the Bluecat Screenwriting competition! It is in the top 10 percent of scripts, along with about 200 or so others (which means they received well over 2000 scripts). Not bad, especially considering it was the old draft before two other rewrites. It hopefully will fare well then in the Nicholls or the Austin competition but we'll see.

I will find out on July 15th if it makes the cut for the five finalists, and then in August they announce the winner. Keep your fingers crossed.

If you're aren't aware, Bluecat is a relatively new competition run by another screenwriter in L.A., Gordy Hoffman (the brother of Philip Seymour Hoffman and writer of LOVE LIZA). For the complete list, and to see my name in lights, here's the link: