Monday, December 29, 2008

Turning Childhood Memories into Art

Over this past weekend we watched the indie film from the U.K. called Son of Rambow (made by writer/director Garth Jennings who also did the film of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

You can check out clips and get info on the movie at their website.

This sweet little film hit me right in the cockles of my heart for various reasons. First, the main characters are 10 year old boys in 1982. That same year I was a ten year old boy in Reno. So I remember the 80s music, the hairstyles, the clothes, the cold war, all that. And second, these kids run around and do various stunts in the forest playing Rambo and then film it with a VHS camera. Similarly, I fell out of a tree and swung on a tree rope several times ala Indiana Jones while my friend used his behemoth video camera—in fact, I wrote my first screenplay in 4th grade, SUPER SLEUTHES, a comedy with a lot of jokes about farts and pimples.

We intended to shoot the script in the summer of '83 but ran out of funding.

Son of Rambow is more complex and has more depth than Super Sleuthes, and far less fart jokes. It’s a story about friendship and family but trust me, this is not really a kid’s film. It will appeal probably more to adults, definitely more Stand By Me than The Sandlot.

What is particularly relevant to writers is that the story is based on the writer/directors’ own childhood experience. He really did watch a pirated video of Rambo: First Blood and then picked up a video camera and filmed himself and his friends. It’s how he got started making movies, actually. But in an interview he said he was first draft of the script was “rubbish” because he literally put down on paper “what really happened”.

This issue comes up a lot when dealing with material that is historically or personally factual.

“But it really happened that way!” is a phrase I’ve heard from playwrights young and old, alike, and it’s usually in defense of something that is not working in the script. Sometimes “what really happened” really works, but usually only in extreme circumstances like Apollo 13 or Blackhawk Down. Not so much in childhood memories. They seem extreme at the time but usually they’re pretty freaking boring.

As soon as you put a real event or person in your story then that material becomes fiction. This is a beautiful concept because it literally gives you permission as the writer to change anything you want. When you’re filing a police report, you’re talking about real people and the cops don’t really want you to lie or exaggerate. But when you’re telling a story, you don’t have to deal with facts. These are fictional characters. The “it really happened” police aren’t going to arrest you for falsifying your testimony.

In Son of Rambow, Will, the young protagonist, is in an extremely religious family, members of the Plymouth Brethren. He’s not allowed to listen to secular music or watch TV. There’s even a scene where he has to step out of the classroom when they watch a documentary (which is also how he meets up with the other miscreant character, Lee). But through the chain of events we call plot, he ends up watching a pirated copy of Rambo. The movie blows his mind and he runs home pretending to rescue his father from an army prison.

Now, did the writer/director grow up in a religious family?


In interviews, he says he had a happy childhood, a great family, and was allowed to play and do whatever he wanted. But he knows a happy childhood on screen is a bad movie. He remembered he knew a neighbor kid, though, whose family was part of the brethren. He discovered that all he had to do was move his story next door and suddenly he had a major conflict. He could still use the same events and ideas, but now there was more at stake.

Of course, he made that discovery from rewriting.

Yes, I know, again with the rewriting! But that’s where the real writing happens. First drafts are usually rubbish. You have to keep plodding on through and keep reworking the story until it works. It’s the difference between a lazy writer and a professional.

Which reminds me…I gotta take a look at that TYA tour script again. Time to do some rewrites on that.

For now during the holidays, I’m reading a few books for pleasure (instead of scholarly or work-related materials). On my bedstand is Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, a book of short stories by Miranda July and then I might dip into The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore and Northline by Willy Vlautin.

Sometimes I feel starved to sit down and absorb some brilliant writing, whether it’s a script or fiction or nonfiction. There’s real pleasure in enjoying someone else’s ability to put a brilliant sentence together or tell a great story.

I have other hidden agendas for reading, too. I’ve wanted to adapt something for a solo show but the book I had looked at for this purpose just disappointed me. I really would like to try my hand at an adaptation some day but need to find something I really want to devote my time and energy to. So sometimes I read a book and think, how would this translate to a film or play?

Meanwhile, in the next month or so I’ll do some more work on 7 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT as we gear up to head off to the KCACTF festival in February. I’m so looking forward to diving back into that multi-layered piece, as well as working with my fabulous and talented cast.

Oh, right, and then I have a short puppet play to write for a friend of mine in Chicago.

Man, it’s already a busy year and it ain’t even started yet…

Friday, December 19, 2008

The War on Cliches Continues...

Snowed again today (or rather iced in) so have some free time.

Here's a fun link that talks about all those really really bad movie lines that you hear over and over again...

You know like...

"It's quiet...too quiet" which is usually followed up by some extreme action which is most relatively unquiet.

or my favorite:

"Did I just say that out loud?"

And if you see one of these lines in your script, do yourself a favor and rewrite it.

Don't be lazy. Be a hero. Wipe out Cliches.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Winter is here!

It is snowing like crazy out there.

(okay, not crazy like Buffalo crazy, but crazy like Seattle people who don't know how to drive on snow that freezes over crazy)

I walked the dog this morning and this is what I saw at the intersection over by the North Seattle College. Seems a bus couldn’t quite get up a hill and slid sideways, jackknifing and blocking the entire street.

So I’m working from home today and thinking, y’know, I haven’t posted in a long, long time on this site.

Maybe you noticed?

Or not.

(Only one avid reader—aka The Mom—has actually mentioned the lack of writing)

The show 7 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT was a rousing success in various ways. The ensemble really came together and brought all their focus, energy, and enthusiasm into developing this new piece of theater. The performance of the show had sold out houses (sure its only a 50 seat house, but still…).

The actors were a bit surprised that they even got so much laughter during the show—especially during the badminton showdown between the countries with the bomb. We had a thought-provoking post-play discussion about the realities of Hiroshima & Nagasaki, life during the cold war, life under the shadow of the nuclear bomb, etc, with the cast, a philosophy teacher, ethics teacher, and with a BCC member of Unicef and Japanese foreign exchange student. The audiences were generally receptive to the collage and nonlinear narratives that were thrust upon them.

And the songs really kicked butt. Especially the rap.

(It was the first time I’ve ever actually had rap in one of my shows and I gotta say, I felt pretty hip.)

As many people know, the show was entered into the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. We just found out a week ago or so that the script is a regional winner and finalist for a Kennedy Center national award, the David Mark Cohen Award. Due to this wonderful and well-earned surprise, we will be taking the show in a bare bones presentation to the regional festival in February. In fact, the whole cast was going anyway as most of them were Irene Ryan scholarship nominees (for our show or another show). And since I’m good at producing shows that could literally fit into a trunk, we’re taking all our props with us (badminton rackets, shuttlecocks, tambourines, sheets, paper cranes and yes, we’re even taking the chairs).

The most successful part of this show, for me, was that I really wanted to use the time and energy to discover new personal methods of creating theater in a more collaborative way, ie devising. I have worked on devised work and various types of new play development as an actor, director, dramaturg and playwright. Each new work can be created in its own unique way--even if you're a traditional playwright who loves him his Aristotle, you know that every time you write a play you're learning how to write THAT particular play, even if you do follow a typical three-act traditional structure.

And for devising, things get more nebuluous in definition depending on the theatre company, director, or writer. In fact, I got into a discussion about devising because this person thinks that if there is a playwright or any source material then you are not devising (to which I think Theatre de Complicite, Wooster Group and a whole slew of devising theater folks would whole-heartedly disagree...).

But I digress...

I feel I’m still learning how to be a playwright/director. In some ways I really like passing the responsibility along to another director to help shape something. Especially with all the tricky bits. This production and experience was more about collaboration, and much of the writing and directing (ie storytelling) was done in direct collaboration from the ensemble—and I use the word to include not just the performers but the assistant director, designer, and stage manager. Even though I wrote a lot, or decided where to insert particular quotes from research, dialogue or poetry, or just choreographed movement--much of the work was from trimming down a lot of the work we did in the rehearsal room.

There’s many lessons that I’m still processing and much about the creation of the show that worked well. The biggest drawback, really, was the lack of time involved. The show went from an idea to a fully-fledged production in less than a year, changing shape and storylines many, many times based on research, workshops, improvisations and conversations.

In short, I feel more proud of this show than any other play I’ve written or directed.

There have been other productions that have been magical in their own right (in particular a production of Love & Death in the Time of Crayola), but 7 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT has proven to me that I can write and direct and wonderful things can happen. I may not always want to work this way, but right now, I’m thinking it’s a pretty good way to do things for now.

The main reason is that I don't feel like I'm imitating anyone. A lot of times, I hear other playwrights' voices in my head (why do writers always sound insane?). But this time, I really asked myself, what kind of theater do I like? What kind of theater do I want to see and make? And I made that....mostly.

Anyway, this director/writer thing works for folks like Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Moises Kaufman, Richard Maxwell and Richard Foreman and Young Jean Lee, so why not for me?

Speaking of which, Young Jean Lee is about to open her play THE SHIPMENT in New York City next month. If you’re going to be in that area, you should check it out.

Here’s a clip of her talking about her work, her process, and writing about race (as interviewed by downtown theatre impresario Richard Maxwell).