Thursday, July 24, 2008

Power of Positive Thinking

I’ve been in dark mood, lately and wearing a lot of black…not just because I like Johnny Cash’s style, but because I’ve been stressed out and overworked.

It’s not just because I have four different jobs right now, but because my main bread-and-butter job has piled on the workload in a big, bad and ugly way. I’m doing the job of two people and trying to smile.

Or maybe its just because I'm reading a Samuel Beckett biography...He's not exactly a cheery guy...

Then there is the other nagging feeling that theater in this country and theater in this town seems irrelevant. I’ve been wondering what the point of theater is…what the point of writing plays is…Every time I see a play or work on my own play, I ask, “what is the point?” and “does this make a difference?”

This, of course, may seem defeatist, but again, it’s not. It’s just asking more of what the theatre can do.

I truly believe theatre can change lives. Theatre (and storytelling) exists as an outlet for our fears, desires, loves. Theater is the way the community breathes with each other, shares heritage, and communicates in other ways besides spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations.

This is why there is a picture of Jeffrey from the show Slings & Arrows. Sometimes I feel (and look) just like that...

Except I didn't have a nervous breakdown while playing Hamlet and I don't talk to ghosts...yet...

I was talking to my wife last night about meditation. Actually, she was talking to me about how those who meditate on positive things will live longer and be happier. Studies have shown this, evidently. So this morning while walking the dog, I stopped, closed my eyes and gave it a little try. I’m not sure if I did it right…It’s been a long time since I meditated…But I think it worked.

For instance, while driving to work I didn’t seem as bothered by the cars going under the speed limit. I didn’t panic over the amount of work I had waiting for me at the office.

I seemed relaxed.

It's an unusual albeit, welcome feeling. Now, let’s see if I can sustain it throughout the day.

Perhaps I should watch that “Last Lecture” again?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Occam's Razor (Keep it simple)

My word for the day from Merriam Webster is Occam's Razor.

Yes, I get daily emails with the "word of the day". I'm a total nerd, okay? That's what writers are, they think language is the bomb.

They also use outdated slang words like the "bomb".

I actually first heard about this philosophy (I guess its a scientific reasong thing, too) when I was in a creative writing class in high school. Mrs. Muth, a lovely old lady, gave us some handout on poetry writing and it illuminated the idea that "less is more". That poetry is about distillation of words. Good writing has nothing unnecessary.

I just got done doing a major rewrite on THE ALBATROSS. I'm starting to regret naming it that title as the more I rewrite it the more it's really starting to feel like an albatross around my neck...But the rewrites went well and the play is becoming deeper and slightly different, but in a good way. It went from a 102 page script to 137, which in some ways scares me as I know it will probably need some other cuts, but its exciting because I have a lot of new scenes and an entirely new character (not really new to the story, per se, but he was offstage and now he's more involved).

People have praised my dialogue on more than one occasion and I just got a lot of comments on the readings of THE ALBATROSS about how realistic it sounded (which is nice but to me truthful is better than realistic--I'm not going after slice of life). If there is one thing I do pretty well, realistic or streamlined dialogue is it. This can be a blessing or a curse because sometimes that really great dialogue just hides some other larger issues inherent in the character or plot. (Also, this became extremely problematic when I started writing screenplays becuase that medium tells stories mainly by images, not necessarily dialogue.) But at least I know this about myself.

The key to good dialogue, though, has a lot to do with Occam's Razor.

In other words, simplify. Leave no excess words.

In good plays, characters don't say anything more than what they need to in order to get what they want, or if its applicable to the reality, or the truth, of those given circumstances.

So, for example, if your script has a line that starts, "As you know..." or "You know you've been friends for three years and..." you probably don't need it. It's there for you the playwright, not for the characters.

But won't the audience get confused? You say.

Look, first, most people that go to theater are pretty smart. Second, even if they haven't gone to the theater a lot, most people have seen so many movies, tv shows, and whatnot that they immediately get so much information from a few lines and the actor behavior than any amount of your awkward phrasings. So just cut it out and see what happens. Don't worry, the audience will fill in the blanks. Just show your characters behaving truthfully given their wants. That's where the real playwriting is...creating those events and circumstances that make for brilliant drama. Once that's done, you can cut the dialogue down to the bone and still have a great scene.

And if the audience does get confused...just say you're inspired by Harold Pinter.

And now for Fun Facts! (courtesy of Merriam-Webster):

William of Occam (also spelled "Ockham") didn't invent the rule associated with his name. Others had espoused the "keep it simple" concept before that 14th-century philosopher and theologian embraced it, but no one wielded the principle (also known as the “law of parsimony”) as relentlessly as he did. He used it to counter what he considered the fuzzy logic of his theological contemporaries, and his applications of it inspired 19th-century Scottish philosopher Sir William Hamilton to link “Occam” with the idea of cutting away extraneous material, giving us the modern name for the principle.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

“I don’t want realism. I want magic.”

Every once in a while you get that flash of inspiration and remember what it is about the theater that you love.

I think its indefinable in some ways, but it usually happens when you are conscious of the fact that a large group of people got together in a darkened room to watch a story unfold about humanity. It's when a script really reaches for the heights of ambition, but remains truthful--as do the actors and director. As an audience, you laugh together, cry together, and when it's good enough give a standing ovation together.

Last night I saw A Streetcar Named Desire at the Intiman and needless to say, I had that moment. It was a wonderful performance and production. I don’t shower praise lightly (most people think of me as a misanthropic cynic) but Sheila Daniels did a fine job of letting these characters live out this touching, disturbing, and haunting story, finding moments of joy and comedy as well as moments of tragedy.

And when you have such a brilliant and well-crafted script—man, that Tennessee Williams was good!—then you can trust that work and dive in.

That’s what we’re trying to do as playwrights, I think. I mean, we should be, right? If we’re not trying to be as good as Williams then what’s the point? We shouldn’t waste people’s time. Otherwise, what’s to stop a theater from just doing another Williams play? Or Miller? Or Hellman? Or Pinter? Or Shepard…and on and on…

But it’s so nice to see be reminded of the power of good storytelling, especially when executed so well.

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that they have some good live music on stage, too. Gotta love that.

It also doesn't hurt that the play is set in New Orleans, a city with millions of dramas unfolding every day.

I mean, Seattle is a good place, but different...Imagine, "A South Lake Union Trolly Named Desire"...Wait, doesn't that spell...?

(On a side note, one of the lighter moments of the show was when Stanley couldn’t find his bottle opener and opened a bottle of beer by slamming it down on a counter—to which, some guy in the audience loudly proclaimed—“Whoa!”. The audience laughed…Evidently that’s more impressive than screaming “Stella!” while soaking wet and crumbling in a heap of emotional jelly…)

Monday, July 7, 2008

Mississippi John Hurt - John Henry

A little taste of the blues...We learned this song tonight. Okay, we didn't so much learn the song as the teacher taught it to us at a very slow speed and we all fumbled with our fingers making nothing sounding like this...But someday. Someday, maybe in a few weeks, I'll play this song.

LMDA Review Article of In the Belly of the Beast...

So one of the things I worked on this past weekend, other than my Drama Guild report and rewriting The Albatross, was putting the final touches on the article about the work I did as a dramaturg on the devised show In the Belly of the Beast with Two Backs, an adaptation of Othello set in Storyville, New Orleans during the turn of the century. I presented on the ATHE Debut Dramaturg panel last summer (and got have a fun trip to NOLA and enjoy the conference, yippee!).

Oh, LMDA stands for Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of America. The answer to that follow-up question "What's a dramaturg" will be answered at a later time...

When it gets officially published, I'll post some excerpts of the article here...although I must warn you it is quite academic and dry...

But I love this picture from the show.

(Photo courtesy of Patty Melamed who is an awesome photographer, by the way).

It's Rachel Scott as Aemilia and Alex Smith as Iago. Oooh, can you feel the dramatic tension, the conflict...Acting! Genius!!!

Actually, I just think they look so I totally would not want to mess with them in a dark alley, whether its Storyville or not...

Sunday, July 6, 2008

How Long Does It Take?

“How long does it take you to write a play?”

When John Guare was asked how long it took him to write Six Degrees of Separation he told the reporter “51 years”.

Or so his story goes. (He was 51 at the time).

He wasn’t just being flippant. It’s hard for anyone to say specifically, this is how long it took me, from beginning to end. There’s a matter of age to consider, as Guare says—for instance, I could not write The Albatross ten years ago. I had neither the technique nor the life experience, and let’s face it, no interest in teachers, students and gender relations. But without having written some of my early plays (most of them Shepard, Pinter and Beckett rip-offs), I wouldn't be able to find my own style and voice and what matters most to me.

So now here I am almost thirty-six and I can safely agree with Guare that it’s taken me 36 years to write this play (or any other I’m writing now).

When did I get the initial idea for The Albatross? That was probably early last summer, when I actually saw the characters and heard some dialogue in my head. (Honestly, if anyone other than a writer said they heard voices in their head, wouldn’t they lock me up by now?) But some of the thoughts and ideas in the play I was actually grappling with a year or so before, when I was teaching. And some other material was dug up from when I was an undergrad, many, many years ago. But I wrote an actual “draft” last year around June or July. I remember that initial draft coming quite quickly (Like within a week).

Of course, as I’ve said before, writing is rewriting.

I spent the next few months rewriting scenes and trying to figure out what to do with these characters, then looking back and asking, “what do I have here?”

I’m still asking that.

This is all to say that I’m rewriting the play again, after these two readings I had, one in May and one in June. At first, I didn’t anticipate a whole lot of rewrites, but I’ve realized, after much distance from the material, that I have yet to create the world of the play. The characters journeys are not specific enough. Really, the characters are not specific enough. You only learn that kind of thing after taking time off from the project for awhile, then going back to it. And instead of being discouraged by the fact that I haven’t yet achieved the story I want in this play, I’m inspired to keep working at it. Actually, I’ve added a new character and having some fun with it (he’s injecting some humor into an otherwise heavy script).

As I always say, “Rewriting is the promise of perfection”.

I know it will never be perfect, but it’s living in the promise that makes writing so much fun. It’s like rehearsal on paper. I met an actor once who said he loved acting, but he hated rehearsal because it was so boring and I thought, “How can you hate rehearsal? Rehearsal is like the actors job—you spend more time in rehearsal then in performance, usually”. It’s what I love about being an actor or director—playing in the sandbox of rehearsal.

I think the same goes for rewriting. You have to love that act of reworking stuff, because that’s where you spend most of your time. It’s your job.

Okay, so now back to some rewriting…

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Last Lecture

What if you had to give a last lecture?

What would you say to those you're leaving behind?

It's a profound question and not completely irrelevant to the ideas in 7 Minutes to Midnight, the show we're doing in the Fall.

Now, I know I haven't written much in the blog lately. My mind has been a bit crowded with a few other things…namely rewriting The Albatross, writing the next report for The Dramatist magazine, and working on this fall show.

Oh, and I just started taking a blues guitar class (which is going to be total fun and challenging).

I've gotten lazy and just started posting videos. But give me a break. It’s summer. And the weather in Seattle has actually given the impression that it IS actually summer (until July 4th, when the rains come, I’m sure) which only makes me want to sit outside sipping margaritas and pretending to be on the beach in Mexico.

So I promise to write some more here soon.

But for now, I’m going to get all sappy on you…

This video post from Youtube is for my mom, who first told me about Dr. Randy Paush, professor at Carnegie Mellon who gave the “last lecture”. She saw him on Oprah, which is where the clip is from.

All I can say is...Watch this video.

If it doesn’t move you in some way, you’ve got to be insane or simply ignorant. It will move you to tears, move you to laugh, move you to get off up your butt, move you to appreciate your loved ones, move to you follow your dreams...

These are some of the wonderful truths I'll take from this:

Have fun.
Never give up.
Follow your dreams.
Brick walls are there to show us how badly we want something.
People are more important than things.
Stop complaining, just work harder.
No one is pure evil—look for the good in others.

But my favorite piece of advice:

Be a Tigger, not an Eeyore.

I feel like we all should take a class called HOW TO LIVE 101...Wouldn't that be cool?