Friday, August 31, 2007

Better odds in Vegas

I have to make a correction to an earlier post. But before I get to that, let me just say that I’m a gambling man. I like poker and I love craps. I play skins on golf holes. It reminds me that every shot counts.

When I lived in Vegas, I gambled. Not every night, but once in awhile. But living there is much different than being a tourist who flies in for a weekend for a big score. Those suckers will play anything, never knowing what they’re doing or their odds. They gravitate towards the slots because they’re attracted to the noise and blinking lights. I stuck to the tables, mostly shooting craps. People are intimidated by the dice. You know why? The casinos want them to be. Because the little known fact is that casinos lose most of their money on the craps table. It has the best odds payout.

You know what’s the worst thing to play in a casino, what helps build those high rise hotels and subsidizes the buffet and fancy hotels? The slots.

So here’s my correction, and my point (and sometimes I have one)…

Earlier in a post I said that 5,000 new scripts were registered with the WGA every year. The actual amount is 50,000. If each script was a person, they’d fill a stadium.

My confusion was that out of the 50,000, only 5,000 get optioned or purchased (leaving 45,000 unsold). And out of that 5,000 about 200 get made into movies. That’s about 4%.

So, here are the odds:

To get a script sold = 10 to 1

For a movie to be made from your script = 25 to 1

Why am I writing screenplays again?

Oh, right, because to get a play produced in a regional theatre has even worse odds and less money. That’s why. Because there are just as many playwrights out there competing for festivals where they won’t even make a dime, much less get royalties from a professional production.

The Chester Horn Festival received over 600 scripts from all over the world. For a short play festival. For no money. Only 12 made the cut. That’s 2 % of submissions.

So let’s break that down into the odds:

Short play getting produced for no money = 50 to 1

So although the theatre is my first love, I know the stats. I know which games to play at the casino and which to avoid. This doesn’t mean I won’t put a quarter into the slots now and then, but I sure won’t expect much payback.

But really, if you stopped to think about it, both games are crazy. Both involve risk. Risk means you will have losses. You just will, in gambling or in writing. If I went to law school or med school, I wouldn’t have to worry about job security.

But as the credo goes: “you gotta be in it to win”.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Strike Three!

Okay, so another rejection letter in the mail yesterday…this time from the Austin Film Festival Screenwriting Competition. Not a surprise, though, as the draft was pretty old.

But I’m not too sorrowful as I got this email today saying that the Chester Horn Play Festival is featured on the nytheatre podcast(featuring my play LOVE AND DEATH IN THE TIME OF CRAYOLA and runs in NYC Sept. 27-30).

Check out the podcast here:

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Seeing v. Hearing

A comment has been bothering me for the last week. It was made by a screenwriter who wrote a play that a famous star saw and produced into a movie (this was years and years ago so don’t try to guess who it is).

This person said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that “plays are not as structured as movies”.

The screenwriter also said that most plays don’t become good movies, which I have to agree with as a generality (did they have to make Closer and Proof so palatable?). However, I do think there are some really great plays that became very famous and well-known movies (I wonder how many people know that Casablanca was actually written as a stage-play when the studio bought the rights?). Some good examples of those writing for both stage and screen are David Mamet, Craig Lucas, John Patrick Shanley, Tony Kushner, Neena Beber, William Mastrosimone, Theresa Rebeck and Kenneth Lonergan.

But that’s a whole other blog topic.

And by the way, this screenwriter is not one of those people…

My real beef is this person seems to believe that the majority of the work in screenwriting is developing the story, creating a tightly-woven plot with fully developed characters and subplots woven in, whereas the majority of work in playwriting is just…dialogue. Or something. Evidently plays are not thought-out stories…Actually, I’m not really quite sure what this writer means by saying that screenplays are more structured.

Because here’s the point…no matter the medium, they are both stories told in dramatic form. Now, obviously they are completely different mediums…like the difference between painting and sculpture.

My initial “a-hole” response to the comment was “Wow, you must write some really bad plays…”

Because years ago when I first started writing plays I used to think plays weren’t structured much. I’d hear characters say lines of dialogue and off I went, wherever the story took me.

Those plays were bad.

(Not that I’m sorry to have written them because its nice to get all that bad stuff out of the way and then recognize it when it tries to infiltrate my work again.)

I don’t write plays like that anymore and I’m pretty sure that Edward Albee, Tony Kushner, and David Mamet do not, as well.

Bad playwrights write like that. But guess what, so do bad screenwriters.

Good playwrights work the story out, sometimes in their heads (or so says master Albee) and sometimes in outline form. Sometimes its just notes on a napkin. But playwrights, good playwrights, are master storytellers. Just like good screenwriters.

What I think this screenwriter might’ve been trying to articulate (and what the hell I’ll just speak for this moron), is that plays and movies are different because one is HEARD and the other is SEEN.

Maybe not as much anymore, but theatre (I use the French spelling on purpose because I have a master’s degree and they’ll take it away if I don’t…seriously...)…theatre began as an oral (aural) tradition and has remained so from the Greeks through the time of Shakespeare up to today. We go to the theatre to hear words coming out of live actors. This does not mean that spectacle doesn’t happen (who can ever forget the chandelier in Phantom?) but it means that we listen much more closely then we realize. Master playwrights use brilliant dialogue to convey the story, rife with its emotions and baggage. Pinter and Beckett can do more with two words than most playwrights can do with two thousand.

Movies, on the other hand, are visual. That’s why they’re called MOVING PICTURES. The story is told in pictures. The actors are nice to look at (how many ugly stars can you name?). The sets and background are detailed and the more exotic locale, the better. The important thing to remember, though, is that dialogue is completely unnecessary. It’s nice to have some good lines here and there, but you don’t need it to tell the story on film. Some of the best movie moments are visual. That’s the design of the medium. Seriously, read the script for Titanic—a movie that blew away the box office and won an Oscar. It contains some of the most atrocious lines ever. But the visuals…can’t be beat.

That doesn’t mean all movies have crappy dialogue. Woody Allen mastered the art of mixing neurotic witticisms against beautiful Manhattan backdrops. Most romantic comedies have a mixture of funny lines and funny physical bits (with very good-looking people).

So this is why a Shakespearean actor can proclaim on a bare stage: “Welcome to the forest of Arden” and BAM! The audience is instantly transported.

To do that in a movie, you need a real forest. You need to film it in Yosemite and you better have a great cinematographer to convey the type of trees the audience sees.

But it doesn’t matter what forest you’re in…You need a good story. And a good story is well-structured. That’s what makes it a good story.

Every great play is carefully constructed (some more so than most screenplays, I would say.) If you doubt that, take a closer look at Ibsen and Chekhov and Shakespeare, just to start. Then read some Shaw. Then read some modern plays like American Buffalo or Lobby Hero.

One of my favorite plays, Waiting for Godot, is a structural jewel. You won’t see it at first glance, but its there. Some critics have said nothing happens, but look closer and you’ll see a chain of events, an inevitable sequence leading to a justifiable conclusion.

It wouldn’t make a great movie, though, let’s face it. And I’ve seen some try.

Two guys waiting on a road...talking a lot…nah…put in Titanic again…

Monday, August 27, 2007

Feeling a little clammy today...

It's Monday and my day job is busy so I have NO THOUGHTS on writing, but luckily I still peruse the internet (whoever surfs nowadays) and found a little jewel of advice from someone else's screenwriting site. This is not stealing. It's borrowing. It's from The Artful Writer, by way of Jane Espenson and he talks about writing those bad cliche one-liners in know've heard them before and will see them again and again.

They're called clams.

By the way, I realize I have two of them in my latest draft of my screenplay (DOH!). I've got to fix that...

Anyway, anyone who writes comedy for a living has written a clam, but we all recognize that they’re awful, and so when we’re together in a room, we’re supposed to keep ourselves from using them. In my room, we usually call them “badump bumps,” but I think Jane’s got a better, clammier term.

Here’s a short list I came up with, as well as some additions from friends. Feel free to use the comments section to add your own. As for definitions, I’m pretty lenient. It could be a single line of dialogue, or it could be a setup and payoff.

Maybe if we shine enough light on these things, we can eliminate them from the world.

The Inside Voice: “I’m sorry…did I say that out loud?”

The Freudian Slip: “Hey, Carol, I see you’re wearing some new boobs…I mean boots!”

The “Mr.” Insult: “Oooh, check you out. Mr. Big Man! Mr. Crazy hat-wearing guy!”

The Nutty List: “All I know is I want to eat a steak, get laid, and play some golf…not necessarily in that order.”

Dante’s Clam:
“This is the date from hell!”

Albert Hoffman’s Clam: “This is like Ice Capades on acid.”

The Apollo 13:
“Houston, we have a problem.”

The Ignored: (as the character is being talked about) “I’m standing right here…”

The Fork-Dropper: “Check please!”

The Optimist: “Well, I thought that went pretty well…”

The Invisible Puke: “I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.”

The Dismissive Segue: “Anyway….” (typically after another character goes off on a long, complicated rant)

The Factory: This is a visual one. Someone gets hurt in a factory, and a worker flips the “Days Since An Accident” sign back to 0.

The Upward-Looking Rejoice: “Thank you, God!”

The Circulation: “I can’t feel my legs!”

The Contradiction: in response to a question like “Where were you last night?”, two guys say something like “At the office!”/”Playing golf!”

Someone Called: any form of “Patti LaBelle called. She wants her hairstyle back.”

The Stealthy Insultee: “He’s such a fat, stupid, idiotic—he’s right behind me, isn’t he?”

Excited Confusion: “Mom, Jared Leto is visiting my school tomorrow!” “Oh my God, honey, that is fantastic news!…….Who’s Jared Leto?”

The Translation: “Isn’t my dress great?” “Yes, if by ‘great’ you mean ‘nauseating’.”

The Countdown: “I’m leaving now, and I’m NEVER COMING BACK AGAIN!” The character exits, and a remaining character says “And 5, 4, 3, 2…” At which point the first character re-enters.

The Calculator: “You do the math.”

The Jerry Maguire: “You had me at Idiot” or “You had me at rectal thermometer” or some “comedic” version of “You had me at hello.”

The Thesaurus: “The meteor disintegrated!” “Yeah, and it blew up into a million pieces too!”

The Grocery Store: “Clean up on aisle 3!”

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Sunshine at last!

Hurray! Hoorah!

The sun is back out to play!

Forecast is 76 and partly cloudy (which is about as sunny as it gets here, really).

This picture was not taken today but you get the idea.

In other exciting news...Lisa and I are seeing a play tonight, a devised piece over in Ballard. More to come...


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

If I were a book, I'd be...

You're Love in the Time of Cholera!

by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Like Odysseus in a work of Homer, you demonstrate undying loyalty by
sleeping with as many people as you possibly can. But in your heart you never give
consent! This creates a strange quandary of what love really means to you. On the
one hand, you've loved the same person your whole life, but on the other, your actions
barely speak to this fact. Whatever you do, stick to bottled water. The other stuff
could get you killed.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

What Light

If you feel like singing a song
And you want other people to sing along
Then just sing what you feel
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong

Those lyrics are from WILCO’s song “What Light”, one of the many songs they did as an encore, including some of my favs off the Mermaid Avenue albums, like “California Stars” and “Airline to Heaven”. The Seattle crowd is very alt-country so they definitely catered to that crowd (as opposed to the Irving Plaza show in NYC we saw them at—very different vibe).

All in all, the concert was a blast. We got there super early thanks to no traffic on the 520, but we had a nice little Subway sandwich in our beach chairs, under a partly cloudy sky blue sky, had some beers, hung out, and people watched. I found it fun to count the beards (What is it with northwest guys and beards? All I saw was beards and plaid shirts everywhere…).

They opened with “Sunken Treasure” and then played a lot of songs off the new album, as well as off Ghost and YHF. And although the couple behind us screamed like wookies for “Heavy Metal Drummer” (the pregnant lady can really belt high-pitched shrieks, I tell ya), they never played it…but ended with a rocking version of “Kidsmoke”.

I realized another sign that I’m getting old. In high school concerts were IT. They were the event. You waited for it for months, told friends about going, or how you couldn’t get tickets (or your mom wouldn’t drive you), and then you finally get to the concert and its this excuse to get drunk and stoned and have the best time of your life.

Well, I’m not a teen-ager anymore…so we sat on the grassy hill a little ways from the stage, drank only a few beers, and enjoyed it like civilized adults. It was good to know we weren’t alone, though. And there were even some college kids and high schoolers sitting down right nearby. Smoking pot, of course. But still…

And then I had a sobering thought related to screenwriting…the WGA usually registers an average of 5,000 new scripts every year.


That’s how many people were at the concert last night. If you’ve never imagined the amount of people your work is competing against before, just try to picture 5,000 people at a concert. Imagine each one wrote a screenplay (and I’m sure at least 100 of them have, or have tried). It makes you want to make sure your script is really good in order to stick out.

Because out of those 5,000 scripts, only about 10% get bought or optioned and then only 5% get produced. Actually, those estimates are probably high. Must be the optimist in me.

Forecast is partly cloudy today. Again. I think I saw the sun peek through the clouds so there’s some hope there.

And remember:

If you’re trying to paint a picture
But you’re not sure what colors belong
Just paint what you see
Don’t let anyone say it’s wrong

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Let the Sunshine In...Please, dear God...Sunshine!

To the right you'll see the world's smallest violin playing for me because I'm about to whine a little...


I don’t mind when it rains. I live in Seattle. It’s supposed to rain.

In fact, sometimes there’s nothing nicer than a rainy day…You can drink some coffee, read a book, do some writing, go see a movie…it can be calming, even. I’ll even play golf in the rain, like I did on Sunday.

But I must say last winter was a hard winter. It wasn’t just the rain but the lack of sunlight on top of it. I’m not looking forward to the next winter. People up here are heartier than me, I think, and more used to it. I grew up in a desert.

Last week we had some really nice weather (Partly cloudy with some sunshine in the 60s to 70s). We romped the town with Lisa’s mom and step-dad. Lotta fun. But now it’s been raining for three days. First day of rain it was nice to have a break from the sun. Second day was okay. But now the third day the clouds have outworn their welcome. I’m ready for some sunshine. This is August. It’s supposed to be summer.

Also, we’re going out to Marymoor park for the WILCO concert later today. It’s outdoors on the grass. We even bought little beach chairs last night at Target.

My mom told me that in Reno they’re having like their thirtieth day without rain…now that may be too much sunshine, but it still made me a little envious.

I’m trying to think of analogy for the rain…and creativity or writing or something…like comparing the rain to inspiration or “when the well runs dry” blah blah blah…but honestly nothing is coming to mind…maybe my well really has run dry.

Seattlities have as many names for rain as the Eskimos have for snow. Seriously.

Monday, August 20, 2007

"I am McLovin'!"

This will be short—Superbad super rocks!

Okay, I know it’s a bit raunchy…it’s a bit crass…and seriously, it’s about two high school kids trying to score booze so they can score with some hot chicks…but the movie is like a “hooker with a heart of gold”. You just can’t help sympathizing with those kids. High school sucks. It’s got its ups, its downs, its weirdness and its own rules. Screenwriters Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg have milked all of their own autobiographical horrors into a giant monster comedy hit.

They say write what you know and here’s an example of it working quite well. I mean, Seth and Evan even named the characters after themselves (kinda gimmicky really, but still, endearing).

Of course, not everyone is as talented and funny as Seth and Evan and let’s face it, although they claim to have started writing this movie at 13, this movie was definitely not written by a 13 year old. Seth acted and wrote for the TV show “Freaks & Geeks” years before acting in “Knocked Up”.

And there’s the scary thought, because now some 13 year old wannabe screenwriter (or even a 20 year old ) will believe that hype and we’ll see thousands of imitation Superbads. These scripts will be pouring with raunchy jokes and racy language. The problem is these raunchy jokes will only exist for the sake of raunchy jokes as the screenwriters will forget that you still need a great story and some kind of character development.

Because Superbad is really not just about getting booze and getting laid (though that’s a huge part of this movie). It’s really about two best friends scared out of their minds about going to different colleges. And that taps into the idea of ending one chapter in your life and beginning another…who can’t relate to it?

And it has McLovin...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Are You Relevant?

Maybe I’m getting older but if I hear another theatre person say “theatre is dead” one more time, I’m going to slap them upside the head.

I’m not prone to violence, but ignorant comments deserve punishment. It’s bad enough when people outside of our profession try to claim this as truth, but we don’t need it from within our own ranks.

Usually they’re not referring to theatre as an art form or the theatrical community in any sense outside their own microcosm. What these theatre folks really mean is: “I can’t get people to see my shows; therefore theatre must be dying”. They think it has something to do with the audience and nothing to do with

a) the quality of the shows or
b) the relevance of the shows or
c) both.

While new entertainment mediums may jab at theatre, they will never deliver any smashing blow. Theatre is ancient, but not obsolete. It’s always present, always immediate and always reactionary. Theatre has caused riots in the streets and contains power for true social change (look at Ibsen, Brecht or Boal if you doubt it).

Here are the facts about theatre in this country: There are over 1,400 professional and semi-professional non-profit theatres, not counting community theatres (By contrast, in 1961, we only had 16 non-profit theatre companies) employing more than 100,000 people (actors, directors, playwrights, stage managers, et al) and in 2005, over 32 million people saw their shows.

That’s just this country—there’s a whole world doing theatre.

Although theatre isn’t dead, one could say it’s looking a little malnourished, mainly because we’re losing that which feeds it: the audience. Theatres across the country are finding new challenges in audience-building. People are going out less and becoming choosier about their entertainment. Why should they spend gas money and fifteen bucks to see some unknown in a low-budget play when they can stay home and be entertained by the Hugh Grant movie which came from Netflix?

The real question is not “is theatre dead?” but “IS THEATRE RELEVANT?”

Is it relevant to do a production of a play because you once did a scene from it? Or a director who says, “Well, I’ve always wanted to do Hamlet, so let’s do that next” without considering a few questions like; what’s your point of view? Too often, we don’t consider the political and social sphere when considering our choices of material. Why this play now? For who? What do you want the audience to get out of it?

Theatre has become insular and we aren’t bothered enough by the fact that other people aren’t interested. Our job is to make them interested. Many theatre companies struggle to find a new audience because they keep seeing the same faces in their seats (family, friends, colleagues from past shows). As artists, our first audience must be ourselves. We must tell stories that ignite our own passions. But we must take the next step and communicate to an audience. Theatre cannot be only about us and our circle of friends. This requires thought because we need to know who our audience is and we must have something to communicate.

We can’t throw a big blanket over the word “audience” so that it’s defined as “anyone who will please pay fifteen bucks to see my show.” We must be specific. Is it the neighboring community? Your Aunt Myrtle? Hip twenty-somethings? If you want to reach all of those people, then why and how would you do that?

Once you’ve figured out your audience, then ask: is what you’re doing worth it?

It’s not a defeatist question.

I’m not saying theatre should throw in the towel. On the contrary, I’m saying that theatre is worth too much. It’s worth too much of an audience’s time to sit in a darkened room for two hours and patiently wait for you to figure out who you’re talking to and what you’re saying about the world. Audiences want to be entertained but above all else they want substance, where they can say, “Yes, life is like that—that’s so true”. People used to call theatre cathartic. Now we view it as medicine that must be taken, because its “culture.” And like all medicines, it may be good for you but it feels pretty gross going down.

The same theatres complaining that their audiences “just don’t get us” are the same companies blindly sending form letters for money to support their mediocre work. It’s time to take responsibility for what you’re putting up on your stages. Stop blaming the audience and reexamine the quality and relevancy of your own work. Quality is not about only having nice sets and pretty costumes or even professional directing and acting (although that’s always nice). I’ve seen many professional productions with top-quality actors and tight directing that nearly put me to sleep. They all made good choices in the work, but no one made any daring choices. No one took risks. Joseph Chaikin said we should always be working outside of our comfort zone, but very few of us actually push ourselves to do this. We need theatre that is unforgettable, that grabs the audience and shakes them up. I’ve seen a lot of shows and few truly shattering moments come to mind. Unlike a movie, the only real record of a theatrical performance is in the mind of the audience and if they forget it by next week, then it’s gone forever.

People argue that no one puts money into a theatre that takes risks. Mainstream theatre has become corporate and they only want reliable hits from Broadway. But mainstream theatre has always been more concerned with the bottom line than any artistic statement. This is why it’s called mainstream. The Disneyfication of Times Square is just the inevitable evolution of a direction begun since Broadway first existed.

It’s not enough to say “I want to do good theatre”. Of course you do. No one wakes up in the morning saying, “I want to put up a crappy show.” Quality and relevance should be the standard. There are many theatres competing for funding, so why should anyone give to yours? It’s not enough to say we must fund the arts—of course we must and people do. But how are you different than the hundred other fringe companies? How are you taking risks? How are you pushing yourself and audience out of any comfort zones? Every time you choose to do your work—write a play, choose a season, direct a reading—think about whether what your doing is worth it.

Doesn't the audience deserve something relevant?

When theatre embraces the power of everything that it can and should be, then we won’t have to moan about the lack of audience. People will support theatre when we give them something they cannot get from the multiplex or YouTube.
If this sounds difficult…guess what? Making theatre is hard. Get over it.

And stop saying “theatre is dead.”

It’s getting old, already.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Love & Death...Comes to NYC...Again!

I’m proud to say that my play LOVE & DEATH IN THE TIME OF CRAYOLA will be presented in the Chester Horn Play Festival at the Medicine Show Theater in New York City on September 27th through the 30th. The theater company which produces the festival, called TheatreRats, are one of the many small OOB (off-off-Broadway) companies that abound in the big apple.

So if you happen to be in town, please go check it out and tell me how good it was (and if it sucked, then just keep your mouth shut, okay?).

This is, I think, the fourth NYC production of this play, which is very cool.

The funny thing is that I used to work for Ensemble Studio Theatre which is in this building way over on the west side of 53rd street. In that same six floor building is The Medicine Show Theater. Now, while I know the location may prevent people from trekking all the way out there to see the show, it makes me feel good to know the space where it will be produced. This is as opposed to when some other theater company did that same play in Providence, RI and didn’t even tell me they were doing it.

And that’s where we have the sticky thing about being a playwright. After a play has been developed and performed several times in several places, it’s time for it to live on and keep getting performed. So off the play goes like a teenager off to college. You may hear about the play happening across the country, or you may hear nothing at all (as is usually the case with play productions and teenagers). Hopefully it went well; the actors knew their lines, the audience laughed, etc. That’s the one drawback and benefit of being a playwright…the work can go on without you and usually does. But it makes you appreciate a local production where you can be fully involved in the process and hang out with the actors and director.

That’s why I’m writing for the theater and not novels or poetry—I’m in it for the human interaction. I like to go to the opening night parties.

Monday, August 6, 2007

What's in a Name?

Titles are so important for one obvious reason—it’s your audience’s first introduction to the idea and story of your script. For some titles may be easy, but for others it’s an elusive process to find the right words.

I recently changed my screenplay DYLANOLOGY to TANGLED UP IN BOB. Just look at those two titles—those are two entirely different movies. Which one sounds more likes a buddy road comedy?

A few years ago I used to love titles. They came easy for me. Sometimes the title would come first and that alone would inspire a play. I always have a fondness for LOVE & DEATH IN THE TIME OF CRAYOLA. It’s funny because it’s obviously a rip-off of the novel Love in the Time of Cholera (which I still haven’t read, by the way) but it also encapsulates what happens with those pre-schooler characters in my play. It really is about love and death. And a kid eats crayons. It’s all there in the title.

But now I’m struggling… I used to love the title OBSCURA. It seemed mysterious and intellectual, at least to me…and one of the characters was a photographer who made a make-shift camera obscura out of his hotel room. For me, it evoked the darkness and obscurity of being an amnesiac and trying to recover a lost identity.

Yeah, great. For everyone else it meant nothing.

The title confused them. It’s a confusing play as it is, and they’re lost from the get go. It doesn’t even have a character name in the title so we have trouble figuring out whose story it is. Also, it’s slightly pretentious. I mean, it’s just the latin word for “dark”. So why don’t I just call it “Darkness”?

In other words, that title doesn’t evoke any feelings or hint at what the story is about.

Yes, the main character, Annie, is an amnesiac and is literally in the dark. But is that all the play is about? God, I hope not. Unfortunately, I still haven’t found a better title, but I’ve got a long, long list (we’re going at over thirty ideas and none of them seem “right”). The play is going through rewrites so I trust that I’ll find it as I discover more about the play.

Now, there’s this other little three person one-act play I’m writing about a burnt out poetry teacher in his mid-30s who mentors a younger 19 year old female prodigy. That play is called THE ALBATROSS. That title conjures up an image and an idea, made very famous by the poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. I think it works because it hints at some darkness and you might even guess that the play will not end happily. Now, we’ll see what reaction it has on audiences as I go forward with readings. By the way, no one ever mentions that poem or anything about an albatross the whole time which is intentional (maybe it’s just because I hated how Chekhov constantly has Nina saying she’s a seagull in The Seagull).

When you think about your favorite movie or play, think about the title and what it evokes in you. Look at the movie marquees these days and see how many movies you would go see just on the title alone.

I look at lists of scripts on Variety as well as on lists named in competitions. I can’t tell you how many scripts are just borrowed phrases or clich├ęs…things like “Sweet Dreams”, “Sink or Swim”, “A Long Way Down”, “Crash and Burn”, “My Father’s Son” and “Cell Mates”. Sometimes you can get away with it, especially with movies, but why settle for some generic title?

So what makes a great title? I think they’re usually simple and succinct, encapsulating the story but evoking some kind of emotional response. Sometimes it can be an image or an activity. Sometimes it can be poetical or just one word. But it’s usually hinting at something mysterious. Think about some of the great titles in literature. That’s what you should be aiming for if you want people to get excited by your story. Naming your play is not just marketing, its part of your art.

Here’s a list of some beautiful titles I love…

36 Views (Iizuka)
A Bright Room Called Day (Kushner)
American Buffalo (Mamet)
A Moon for the Misbegotten (O’Neil)
An Enemy of the People (Ibsen)
Angels in America (Kushner)
A Streetcar Named Desire (Williams)
A Touch of the Poet (O’Neil)
Buried Child (Shepard)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Williams)
Death of a Salesman (Miller)
Desire Under the Elms (O’Neil)
Endgame (Beckett)
Life is a Dream (Lorca)
Mother Courage (Brecht)
Prelude to a Kiss (Lucas)
References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot (Rivera)
Sexual Perversity in Chicago (Mamet)
The Beauty Queen of Lenane (McDonagh)
The Birthday Party (Pinter)
The Glass Menagerie (Williams)
The Pillowman (McDonagh)
The Trip to Bountiful (Foote)
Three Tall Women (Albee)
This is Our Youth (Lonergan)
True West (Shepard)
Waiting for Godot (Beckett)

Friday, August 3, 2007

To do Theatre, Read and See Theatre

As I may have said before (but will say many times, I’m sure) playwrights do not read enough plays or see enough theater. Instead, they watch a lot of TV and a lot of movies.

Now, that’s fine if you also want to also write for those mediums but each one has its own challenges and intricacies. Too often, playwrights confuse the mediums, and what we get on stage is a sitcom or movie, usually in the package of naturalism. It’s prevalent everywhere and partly to blame is this growing trend of plays becoming movies (ala Proof, Doubt, Angels in America, etc.). So, of course, playwrights who are smart and actually want to make a profit, will want to have a play that can easily turn into a movie (and may even be writing a screenplay version of the play at the same time).

I’m not completely against this as I’m a firm believer that a good story is a good story, regardless of medium. But I do believe if you’re going to write for the theater then you should know what works and doesn’t, and to do that, you should READ as much as you can—the masters like Shakespeare, Chekhov, Brecht, Beckett, Shaw, Ibsen, Miller, O’Neil, Shepard, Vogel, Churchill, Mamet, Lucas—as well as keep up to date on the newbies like Sarah Ruhl, Rebecca Gilman, Donald Marguiles, Jordan Harrison, Diana Son, Naomi Iizuki, Martin McDonagh, Adam Rapp, Adam Bock, etc.

In addition to reading plays, good and bad, you need to get out there and SEE plays, both good and bad. Aim for seeing good plays, the bad ones will take care of themselves, trust me. But see the old ones and the new ones, see how they're done, what works and doesn't. See what you can steal, basically.

So what have I been reading lately? Well, I’ve revisited my love for Craig Lucas’s plays like Reckless, Prelude to a Kiss, The Dying Gaul, and also was given a copy of his new play Prayer for My Enemy. All are so singular in vision and beauty. Recently I read Blackbird by David Harrower, In on It and Never Swim Alone by Daniel McIvor, Jack Goes Boating by Bob Glaudini, and I have a new translation of Sophocles Oedipus Rex.

As for going to the theatre, I’m seeing Prayer for My Enemy tonight and then seeing two new plays on Saturday, Mud Angel at LiveGirls Theater and Lightning in a Bottle produced by West of Brooklyn.

As for fun reading, I picked up The Bourne Supremacy at the New Orleans airport to read on the plane and surprisingly it’s not so much fun…but I think the movie will be quite good—if you like those espionage thrillers. And I do.

But I’m glad they won’t be making a play out of it anytime, soon. Of course, a savvy producer could dream up The Bourne Supremacy: The Musical! Could give Xanadu a run for its money.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Slings & Arrows

Everyone cries when they get stabbed. There’s no shame in that.”

Last night Lisa and I finished watching the first season of “Slings & Arrows” (courtesy of Netflix, of course).

We have become completely enthralled and delighted by this Canadian show about the ups and downs of backstage life and interior administrative drama of the fictional New Burbage Theater (based obviously on the Stratford Shakespeare Festival located outside Ontario). The show was co-created and stars Mark McKinney, from Kids in the Hall and SNL, as well as Bob Martin and Susan Coyne, the ones behind the Tony award winning The Drowsy Chaperone.

The premise is a simple play within a play, but the complexities of staging Shakespeare in this time of arts funding (do we sell out or remain true to our vision?) weave nicely into the melodramatic antics of the actors and director. Geoffrey Tennant (played by actor Paul Gross) reluctantly takes over the theater as Artistic Director after his mentor Oliver gets run over by a pork truck. Everyone questions Geoffrey’s sanity ever since he had a nervous breakdown seven years ago and walked offstage in the middle of their production of Hamlet. Coincidentally, the play about the Dane is also their heavy hitter they’re doing this year, as directed by a pyrotechnic maniac and post-Brechtian madman director. Geoffrey has to deal with not just that, but also his ex-flame is the diva Ellen, who plays Gertrude. There is also a subplot as Martin, the Executive Director, conspires with a vicious American woman on the Board of Directors, who want to revision the festival as a showcase for Broadway musicals. To make matters worse, the ghost of Oliver haunts Geoffrey throughout prodding him with advice and commentary about the state of affairs.

I love the show for several reasons, mainly because it illuminates many of the foibles of actors and performances, but does so in way that doesn’t mock the process or belittle it. The actors here are not just insecure babies (well, some are) but are real people with hopes and dreams and some kind of substance (well, most have substance). Also, it doesn’t show merely the rehearsals and backstage stuff but also some of the administrative actions and office politics, ie the business side. Rarely do we see that onscreen, and if so, it’s never shown in such an understanding and developed way.

There’s an endearing scene when Geoffrey is asked to lead a corporate session on “Using Shakespeare as Management Models” or something like that, basically trying to teach corporate types leadership styles from the canon. Geoffrey tosses out the whole idea, saying, “you want to take leadership cues from people like Richard III and Julius Caesar?” Instead he teaches them acting and sees one or two of them really blossom and find a new love for Shakespeare. And that kind of idealism and hope is what our art is about.

I won’t divulge too much. I will say that the final show of the first series ends with a triumphant production of Hamlet, showing that even when all the odds are against us, sometimes we can still pull off brilliance. The show left me with hope and joy, and a renewed fervor for that old dramatist we call Shakespeare. I can’t wait to see more.

So to the show’s creators, writers, actors, and directors, I say: Bravo!