Friday, December 31, 2010

Fare thee well, old 2010! Hello 2011!

Happy New Year!

Enjoy the last day of the rest of the year and I'll see you in 2011.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Be like Jenna

As 2010 comes to a close, I’d like to thank all of you, my readers.  I'd like to especially thank all of you who have made comments or asked questions on the posts.   

This year I asked you all, what do you want to read about? 

Many of you answered.  

In fact, if it weren't for a reader named Jenna who asked about the process of writing a solo show, I may never have even thought about writing my own solo show and writing about the process here in this blog--so thanks, Jenna! 

For 2011, I will continue the Writing the Solo Show series.  I’d also like to introduce some other exciting new posts about dealing with rejection, following your passions, marketing your writing, writing grants, and I am even tinkering with the idea of a contest!  You’ll have to stay tuned as that develops.  Another new addition will be some interviews and guest blogs from other playwrights, writers and theatre-makers.

Here's what I'd love from you at the end of this year.

Do you have other suggestions or questions you’d like to see answered?

These can be about the writing process, about sending off plays, about proper etiquette in the rehearsal room, what have limits. 

(Of course, math and biology questions are off the table.)  

So how ‘bout it? Got any suggestions for me? 

C'mon, be like Jenna.  Maybe your question will spark a whole new bunch of ideas for others, or a whole new series of posts for 2011.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Your ultimate vision (setting goals and writing them down)

“A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.” – Bruce Lee
 I’m not a big planner.

It's not that I don't ever plan.  I'm an organized guy and I do think ahead, but the organization skills I have acquired I have literally forced myself to learn out of necessity (and because it does make my life easier in the long run).  I’ve worked against my freewheeling and footloose personality, a supreme effort to balance my dreams with reality.

I’m mostly successful with that balancing act, though I must admit, when I met my (future) wife, she shamed me in her abilities to make five year and ten year goals that were not only ambitious, but ultimately attainable.

People who excel at that kind of goal-setting are inspiring to me on many levels.

Once, many years ago, while still a fledgling theatre student in my undergrad days in Vegas, I went out to eat at Planet Hollywood in the Caesar’s Forum shops. 

As many know, these restaurants are littered with film memorabilia of all kinds, from fake missiles used in a Schwarzenegger movie to the Blues Brothers’ hats (or is that at House of Blues?).

There was one particular historical artifact on the wall with immense substance.  It was only a piece of paper and it was never used in a movie.  Few know it exists.  Most of the diners walked right by it without ever noticing.  Inside a frame on the wall was a note by Bruce Lee in his own handwriting, dated in 1970 with the words SECRET and below:
 "By 1980 I will be the best known oriental movie star in the United States and will have secured $10 million dollars. And in return I will give the very best acting I could possibly give every single time I am in front of the camera and I will live in peace and harmony."
Had he lived until 1980 and seen the success of ENTER THE DRAGON, Bruce Lee would’ve accomplished those goals.
What I admire, though, is not just the ambition, but the specificity.  It’s not just that he wanted to be a movie star and make millions of dollars. He also wanted to give the very best acting and live in peace and harmony. 
Which makes me ask, what is your secret goal?  Have you written anything down for yourself for your life and what you want to do as an artist?
As 2010 comes to a close, I start setting goals for the year and for the next decade.  
What do you want to accomplish next year?  In the next ten years?
Go write it down.  
(If you want to see this note, I believe the letter is now at the Planet Hollywood in New York City).

Friday, December 24, 2010

Over the river and through the woods...

It’s Christmas Eve and we’re packing up the old wagon and heading up north for some holiday cheer with the family.

And yes, we really are going to grandma’s house, which is over the river (several rivers) and through the woods.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Where do you find scripts to read?

Okay, you read that last post on reading, and you think, that’s all well and good, sir, but you worked in a theater company in New York so you had to read a ton of bad and good plays.  

I’m a [blank] and I live in the middle of nowhere in [blank] and I don’t have access to a bunch of plays and screenplays.

Ah, but you do…

First of all, we live in this wonderful country with free access to libraries, either public libraries or the one in your closest university.  They have plays there, good and bad (yes, even bad plays get published and produced).  They have screenplays there, as well.  Of course, they also have a ton of novels, magazines, etc. 

Also, we live in the wonderful age of the internet.  There are many, many, many websites which host access to screenplays.  If you look hard enough, you can even find screenplays  in production or pre-production (I read an earlier draft of Mel Gibson’s new movie THE BEAVER a year ago when it was on the black list).

Another great resource—join a writer’s group or find another writer and read his/her stuff.  You can learn a lot by being involved in your colleagues’ growth as a writer (and they can definitely help you). 

If you are near a theater and this theater takes submissions, ask if they need readers.  They may get back to you and say yes, or they may not.  Or they may not get back to you at all because most literary departments are swamped, overworked and underpaid.  But they will appreciate the offer (usually).

Go to  You can sign up to receive a poem a day.  Reading Robert Frost or some new poet I’d never heard of at the start of my day reminds me of the beauty of language all around us.

Do your research.  


It’s part of your job as a writer.

(Of course, there is no substitute for actual performances--one must also go to the theatre, go to readings, be involved with your local theaters as much as possible--but that's for another post).

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Read. Read. Read. Then read some more...

 You might’ve noticed that every once in awhile I post about what I’m reading, which you might think odd for a blog about writing and making theatre.

I’m a big believer that in order to write well, one must read.  

A lot. 

If you want to write scripts, then you must read scripts.  Read the bad.  Read the good.  Read everything in between.  Read novels.  Read short stories.  Read poetry.  Read magazine articles and the New York Times.  Read for content (story).  Read for interesting characters.  Read for language.  Read.  Read. Read.

Last week I was at a holiday party chatting with another playwriting teacher and we got to talking about this phenomenon of wannabe writers, usually screenwriters, who’ve never even seen what a screenplay looks like on the page, much less read one, and yet, they boldly dive into writing a screenplay.  Because they’ve seen a lot of movies and how hard could it be, right?

This is crazy.

This is like thinking since you've seen surgery on T.V., you think you can pick up a scalpel and do a heart transplant, right?  How hard could it be?

Of course, picking up a pen or writing on your computer isn’t as bloody as surgery.  No one dies when people write a bad screenplay (but wouldn’t that be an interesting way to prevent bad writers from ever getting started?).

Why is it so important to read scripts while trying to write your own?

When I worked at Ensemble Studio Theater in New York city, my job was to read the unsolicited manuscripts.  There was always a pile of scripts that literally went up to the ceiling.  In fact, there might have been two or three piles.  We’re talking thousands of scripts a year.  I read a lot and I read quickly.  Some of them were from agents.  Some from students.  Some from retirees.  Most were really bad, with an occasional gem.  What I learned from reading those scripts, though, I instantly started to apply to my writing. 

I also learned how important those first ten to fifteen pages are in any script.  But that’s another post.

If you’re a writer, you love a good story.  But you should also love words.  If a good story is the foundation of your house, words are the bricks. 

Maybe commas are the mortar

(Nope, went too far with that analogy…sigh…)

This photo is from the Andre Kertesz exhibit at the Carnegie "On Reading".

Monday, December 20, 2010

What I'm Reading: After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Several years ago I saw this amazing production of The Elephant Vanishes, an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short short stories by the innovative and experimental theatre company, Theatre de Complicite. Ever since then I’ve been meaning to read this writer’s work and finally, I checked out some of his books at the library.

Unfortunately, they didn't have any of his short stories, so I grabbed two of his novels.

The first one I read was After Dark, and frankly, I was not as impressed as I’d like to be, especially since the librarian who checked out the book told me how amazing he was and how she’s read everything he’d ever written.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel Perhaps something is lost in the translation, or maybe this just isn't his best book.

 The story follows several characters in the course of an early evening in Tokyo, settings and locales ranging from an all night diner to a “love hotel” to an office. Characters ask each other a lot of questions and give a lot of exposition and somewhere Murakami sneaks in some post-modern critique of civilization (I think) which reminded me of Paul Auster’s work, only not as stimulating.

 I’ve now begun reading the other book I got, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle and so far its slightly more interesting, but still not grabbing me by the shirt collars or anything.

Maybe Murakami just isn't my cup of tea.

I’ve also been reading the radio scripts of the BBC broadcasts of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. This was part fun, part research for the radio scripts I’m writing right now. It’s exactly the kind of cynical and witty scenarios you’d expect from the series—and none of it really adds up to any logical sense. Just like life.

Next up are a few plays like Paula Vogel’s A Long Christmas Ride Home and Brecht’s Galileo, as well as my continued robot research and a biography of Descartes.

Nothing like some nice light reading 'round the old Christmas tree!

Friday, December 17, 2010

How do you tell your story in 2 seconds?

How do you entice someone with your logline?

Everyone knows the idea of the “elevator pitch”, right?  You’re stuck in an elevator, say with Steven Speilberg or Julie Taymor, or more likely, you’re at a holiday party with friends and you finally meet that director or Artistic Director of the big-fancy-theater-company who asks you what you’re working on.  How do you talk about your work (and sell your work) without it sounding like you’re a snake oil salesperson? 

Well, you have to know how to market it (be a little business savvy) and you have to write and rewrite your idea in something that could go on a website or press kit. 

I’m a big fan of being your own agent and P/R person (maybe that’s because like thousands of other playwrights, I am my own agent and P/R person), and I’ve also been a producer.  

You’ve got to be able to identify what makes your project unique and why your audience should be interested in it.  This makes two assumptions, of course--one, that your project is unique and two, that you know your audience.  Both of those questions must be answered before you can construct a good blurb about your show.

One tactic I’ve used in my writing classes, or when chatting with a playwright (or going to a reading) is taking a hard look at the logline, blurb or how they’re trying to advertise their play.  It will reveal a lot about the play itself and what story they're trying to tell—who is the play about and what are they doing?  It also reveals many faults in the script, if there are any.  And you’d be surprised how many playwrights are quite bad at writing a good blurb about a play they've been working on for years.

I’ve made it a habit to write a logline before writing anything now.  Before any synopsis or outline, before writing a scene, before doing any other actual difficult work.  I see it as creating a vision of what the show will be (transforming a vague notion into a tangible result).  The idea better be good and better be simple enough to fit into a two or three sentence blurb.  If it doesn’t, then I might be in trouble—there’s more thinking to do about the story—stories at their core are usually very simple in nature.  To achieve a simple story takes a lot of work—you have to get rid of the excess.

I’ve been having fun lately writing radio dramas.  It’s a totally different medium for me and I relish the challenge of planting visual cues in the audiences minds solely through the use of what they hear.  I’ve found it quite freeing, unleashing the inner teen-ager and therefore, the inner sci-fi/fantasy geek.  (I’ve been listening to old school radio adaptations of Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein for inspiration.)

Here are the loglines for the two different radio scripts I’ve written:

Vanishing Point(Thriller/Suspense)
After robbing an adult nightclub in Las Vegas, three women on the run take a shortcut through the Mojave Desert and find themselves lost in more ways than one.

The Adventures of Johnny Elektro Across Space-Time! “Episode 19: Attack of the Atomic Robot” (Action/Adventure)
Johnny Elektro, the bionic boy from the 1950s who has been teleported to 2050, discovers that Dr. Zero has returned and plans to use the atomic robot, Destructo, to blow up half of Pittsburgh at the robo-boxing match 4th of July Spectacular at Heinz Stadium.  Can he and Hank Hammer stop Dr. Zero in time?

What I like about these loglines is that you know the protagonists and you know their Major Dramatic Questions right after the bat.  The title, as well as the story, reveals what kind of genre we’re dealing with (even without the tag I put in).  What I don't like about the first one is the cliche "in more ways than one".  This isn't specific enough and although vague enough to pique interest, I know I can do better.

Do I need to include all of my plot points?  No.  This isn’t an outline or synopsis.  This is a teaser, a trailer, a way of enticing interest.  Will I go back and rewrite it after I finish writing the script?  Probably. In fact, I'll rewrite the logline several times before I feel it accurately tells the story and also sells the story.

Writing a logline is part of the plotting process--its as essential as writing great dialogue, great characters and all that other nitty gritty work.  It's not fun, not glamorous, but hey, most of our writing life isn't.  

So how's your logline?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Approaching the Beginning of Approaching Eve

The other night I met with two of my collaborators for this new project and it sent my mind reeling in all sorts of directions.  This is the beautiful thing about beginnings.  Sure, I have ideas and some assumptions, but mostly, the play and performance as I know it is still just a glimmer in my eye.  Even more exciting than that is the prospect of other smaller and/or bigger projects related to this new one.

So now I'm looking at the overall idea and synopsis and I think, well, how well this change?  What can change?  How can I make this more interesting and exciting?  How can the story be further developed?

Questions, questions, questions.  It all begins with questions.

What's also fascinating is the similarities and differences of creating a performance and the process of creating a robot.  We're both solving problems and dealing with bodies in space, among other things.

And for greater context (and in effort to be more concise and hopefully to help me get better in talking about my latest project) here’s a rough synopsis:

In 1994, Dr. Ichiro Kato begins a final project to create the perfect woman, named “Hadaly”.  Already a successful roboticist at Waseda University, he pioneered the first bipedal robots (precursor to Honda’s walking robot ASIMO) as well as robots that could play piano.  Yet Kato’s ultimate vision before he dies is to create a robot that could fully cohabitate with humans.  When Cynthia Matthews, a grad student from M.I.T., enters into his laboratory, she questions him about his projects for her own research on creating a social robot that could learn from people, much like a toddler.  As a young scientist, she struggles with the ethics of her work, her research trip masking her real journey through her own doubts and fears about creating an anthropomorphic machine.  Following Cynthia to Toyko is an American in a dark suit, a man who won’t give his name but his intentions are clear—to recruit Cynthia to work for DARPA (the research and development arm of the U.S. Department of Defense).  Technologies like facial recognition and advanced social skills could be used in combat humanoid robots and save human lives.  But Cynthia struggles with the question of how far should we go in creating a robot that behaves and appears human?  As ideological differences clash, the audience is taken on a journey of exploring an obsession as old as humanity.  As Cynthia tries to uncover the secrets of Kato’s final project, she encounters a world where Descartes’ wooden android daughter intersects with master karakuri engineer Hosokawa, and Thomas Edison collides with Pygmalion in a quest to create the perfect woman.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Real Steel Trailer

They don't look much like Rock'em Sock'em Robots to me!

Scooped again!

A few years ago (okay, many years ago), I wrote a play about a high school shooting as a response to several of the incidents that occurred--not just at Columbine but elsewhere.  The play was workshopped and a respectable downtown theater and was even optioned for the movie rights.

Then Gus Van Sant started showing ELEPHANT to various film festivals.

And the project died a slow death...

As a playwright, I was pretty inexperienced and I'm actually not bitter or surprised that the project didn't get off the ground.  I learned a lot from that experience, and I know that my play was a lot different than the Van Sant film.

Yet, this kind of thing happens to writers again and again.  It's true that trying to come up with something completely original and unique that no one has seen before is pretty much impossible.  What is unique about your story, is that YOU are the one telling it.  If I gave the Three Little Pigs story to ten different writers, I'd have ten very unique plays.

It is with mixed feelings, then, that I saw the recent trailer for Hugh Jackman's new movie (coming out in 2011), the robot boxing movie REEL STEEL.  While it looks cool, its also a very similar premise to the radio script I'm writing right now, which features a robot boxing match set in the future of 2050.  Of course, my story bears more resemblance to Astroboy and Futurama and Jackman's just looks like Rocky with robots.

Am I going to see the Jackman movie?  Um...yeah!  In fact, I'm hoping that any buzz on that movie and robots in general will help with the new play project I'm doing next summer.

Will 2011 be the year of the robot?

One can only hope.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

ROBOTS need love, too

ROBOTS by Dan Mangan official music video directed by Mike Lewis
I don't know why, but this is song is so darn catchy...

The video is fun 80's style goofiness, too.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Amazon will steal your soul...I mean, your movie

Everyone is talking about this new Amazon studios thing on the web right now.  I must admit, when I heard about it, I checked out the site and watched the little video about what and why they are doing what they are doing, read a little of the “rules” and “regulations”…

And then vomited in my coffee cup.

Okay, not really.  Well, I threw up a little in the back of my mouth.

Because it’s disgusting, for several reasons.

Mostly, you can get the working and professional writer’s opinions from John August on his blog, or Craig Mazin, who lays it out perfectly why this idea is doomed to fail, and who they are really targeting (weak, inexperienced and hopeful writers who probably have more chance of winning the lottery than getting their script made).

The big problem I have are the assumptions that 

1) Hollywood is a just a bunch of old fools that make schlock 


2) Writing by committee (like writing source code) is a better way to do things.

Okay, everyone knows Hollywood makes some bad movies and errs on the conservative side.  Yet, look at the grosses for Harry Potter.  Look at Star Wars.  Look at Batman and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Spiderman movies.  People like those kinds of movies (I like those kinds of movies).  Hollywood also brings us Academy award-winning fare and independent movies, like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno and  In Bruges and the Wrestler, etc.

So it’s a little insulting (and pretentious) that Amazon proclaims “we don’t know jack about movies but we have a lot of money and we write code, so darn it all, we can do better…”  What they are actually saying is, we can have a whole bunch of people write it for us and we’ll steal it. 

And second, I’ve seen too many talkbacks at play readings to know that Ibsen is pretty dead on about how the “majority is never right”.  The more writers you have working on things does not necessarily make it better.  In fact, the reason Hollywood churns out such schlock is usually because they fire so many writers and a script gets rewritten and rewritten until it’s a tepid, cliché-filled cardboard cut-out of a real movie.

And yet, that’s exactly the model Amazon is proposing.  If you write a script, any moron with time on his hands, from Ohio to Mongolia, can rewrite it and rewrite it, and guess who owns the final project?  Not you.  Not the guy or gal in Mongolia.  Amazon.  Hmmn, that sounds fair…yeah, not really.

I do believe that there is going to be an alternative to the old Hollywood system.  There will be a revolution of sorts that will happen, mostly due to the way media is being streamed now on computers and iPads.  It’s getting easier for the average guy or gal to make a movie and distribute it all from the comfort of their own home.  All you need is a great script, a DV camera, and a Mac, really. 

(I mean, you could do it on a Windows computer, too, I guess, just factor in another few weeks of editing and production time...)

I’m going to bet that this new model and new way of thinking about making and selling movies isn’t going to come from a large corporation like Google or Amazon.  It’s going to be coming from someone new and upcoming, like some young upstart who’s probably bored in class at Stanford or Harvard right now.  

And that’s what scares Amazon and why their new deal stinks of desperation.   They’re desperate and appealing to other desperate people.

Just stick to shipping my books and dvds, Amazon.  Christmas is coming and I don't want you getting distracted.

Friday, November 19, 2010

So, whatcha working on?

Every writer dreads that question at cocktail parties.  A lot of times we can't always clearly articulate the story or the reasons why a particular question fascinates us.

For instance, I was asked a few weeks ago what I was working on and with excitement I said:

 "It's an adaptation of Pygmalion but its about robotics and robot-human relations, but with puppets, and actual robots, and it'll be nonlinear, with movement, y'know, like a big ensemble piece, spreading out over several centuries of time."

I realized that the person I was talking to probably thought I was adapting the play Pygmalion by Shaw (which I'm not), rather than going straight back to the Greek source of the Pygmalion myth.  Not that it would've made my project less confusing.  

I really have to get better at talking about my work.  Seriously.

The problem is, whenever I start a new idea, I'm nervous and excited and not sure how the project will evolve over time.  This newest project, Approaching Eve, is only a few weeks old.  I’m knee deep in research, reading books about robots (real robots, not sci-fi robots), and Descartes, and about karakuri (which are mechanized puppets).  And yes, it's about the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea.  Not entirely, but its present.

See, here’s the thing—we’re going to increasingly see robots interacting with humans, moving out of the manufacturing plants and into our daily lives, becoming healthcare assistants, cleaning houses, or driving cars.  My mom already has one of those little vacuuming robots (aren’t they cute!).  

As scientists get closer to robots resembling or behaving like humans, what are the dangers and what are the benefits?  How has the science of robotics already transformed our lives, and what will the future hold?

These questions are no longer questions reserved for science fiction writers.  These are questions scientists are grappling with right now.  Today.

(By the way, that photo is of a real robot that mimics emotions, called Nexi.)

The idea of robots were “invented” almost a hundred years ago.  The word “robot” actually comes from a play by Karel Capek, a Czech writer (the origin of the word actually relating to the word “worker” or “slave”).  That play, Rossum’s Universal Robots (R.U.R.) debuted in 1921.  

Since then, in the western world, the story of robots taking over and killing us all has dominated.  This is evident in movies such as Terminator and The Matrix.  In Japan, they actually don’t have the same fears, mostly due to religion, but also their view of animatronics and automatons (as evident in the very cool mechanized puppets, the karakuri, which was invented in the 17th century). 

Robots have gone from a sci-fi idea to a reality.

The only comparison I can have to that phenomena is for me to imagine a vampire or a werewolf being discovered as a scientific fact.  If humanity learned that the Twilight series was based on true events, and then we actually met real vampires and had to find a way to coexist with them, there would be a lot of fear and anxiety about that.  They’re not human and they’re quite dangerous.

So far, we don’t have that problem.  Vampires and werewolves are not real.

Robots, however, are very real.  And they’ve been around for decades.  And soon they’ll be in our homes.  So how will they act around us and how will we act around them?

And these are the questions for my show.  

More to come.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Humans Are Dead

Just a sneak peek at my more fun research on robots...Here's a clip of Flight of the Conchords, "The Humans are Dead."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How far have we really come?

I’m a big fan of the show MAD MEN.  

When we first moved to Pittsburgh, we watched the first season back to back (thank you, Netflix), and are now working through the end of the second season.  

We're fascinated by how things have changed.  Back in the early 60s, people drank and smoked like there was no tomorrow, littered in the parks without a care in the world for the environment, treated minorities like garbage, and women (being one of those minorities) were left to pick up the messes of the badly behaving men.  If women worked, they were secretaries, but usually they were moms and trophy wives.  So in the offices on Madison Avenue, its fascinating to watch Peggy try to survive and thrive as a copywriter, a women in a man’s world. 

The sad thing is that I don’t know that we’ve come all that far when it comes to the theatre world.  

Granted, I’ve got a limited perspective seeing as I am the wrong gender here.  I really can’t complain.  I look around in rehearsals and in the theatres and I see replicas of myself—middle-aged white men.  If women are in the theater they are mostly education directors (women can always be teachers, right?), literary managers, dramaturgs, or stage managers.  

I’m generalizing, of course.  There are women directors and even a few women Artistic Directors, but not a large percentage.  Women are present, but not as influential as they should be.

But I’m digressing.  

My beef today is with the Wasserstein Prize committee.  They have do a do-over because evidently they had nominees for women playwrights to win the prize and narrowed it down to 19 women and then decided that not ONE of them deserved to win the prize.

Excuse me?

Not one?


Did we not just have a discussion about the recent Sands study of the large bias against women playwrights?  I mean, just from a PR standpoint, that’s embarrassing, but I also have a hard time believing there is not one worthy female playwright.

This is part of the problem.  This is why we need to keep talking about how there are more male playwrights being produced and studied in school then women.

This is a fun game I like to play in my playwriting classes.

Name 10 male playwrights.

Easty, right?  You got maybe Shakespeare, Moliere, Mamet, Albee, Simon, Shepard, Beckett, Chekhov, O’Neill, Odetts, Wilder, and on and on…

Now name 10 female playwrights.

Most can name three or five, tops.  But then they struggle.

But why?

They’re out there.  Go find them.  Read their plays. Put the plays on your syllabi and talk about them in your classes. Do scenes from them.  They’re good and they deserve awards.

Okay, so now I’m off my soapbox.

By the way, here’s a few women playwrights:  

Wendy Wasserstein (of course), Paula Vogel, Maria Irene Fornes, Lillian Hellman, Aphra Behn, Caryl Churchill, Teresa Rebeck, Marsha Norman, Lynn Nottage, Sara Ruhl, Beth Henley, Jenny Schwartz, Kia Corthron, Suzan Lori Parks, Liz Duffy Adams, Carson Kreitzer, Ellen McLaughlin, Young Jean Lee, Brooke Berman, Neena Beber, Julie Jensen, Sheilagh Callaghan, Tammy Ryan, Stephanie Timm, Joy McCullough-Carranza, Ruth Margraff, Cynthia Hopkins, Erin Courtney…and that’s just a small sampling…

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Never Forget Rule Number 6

My favorite boss, Heidi Guest, who I worked for years ago in New York City in the education and training department at a major cosmetics company (yes, you read that right, a major cosmetics company), is now running her own mentoring and consulting business, as well she should, because she is inspiring and amazing and recoznises beauty and talent in everyone and…I’m digressing…

She recommended to me this wonderful book The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.

In it he tells this lovely story about Rule Number 6.

Two politicians are having a meeting when they are interrupted by a man, shouting and stamping and one of the politicians says to him, “Remember Rule #6”. The shouting man is restored to calm and leaves. They are interrupted again by a hysterical woman and again the politican says, “Marie, remember Rule #6”. She is calm, apologizes and leaves. A third person enters and the same thing happens. The other politican says, “what is this Rule Number 6?”
The politician says, “Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so g—damn seriously’”.
The other politican says, “that’s a fine rule” and then asks, “what, may I ask, are the other five rules?”
“There aren’t any.”

This is just one of the wisdoms this book gives us, and there are many. This one is one of the most important, though, for me at least. I find myself always being serious about the work—the play, the writing, the ART!

Not that I’m saying it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Art is not frivolous. But it’s about life and life can be fun. Life can be goofy. And its important to know what’s really important in life.

Some people get really bent out of shape when a production doesn’t go the way they want it to. Some productions will be bad, due to forces out of our control, or just because we’ve failed. To recognize that we are fallible, though, and then to laugh about it, is part of Rule Number 6.

For instance, the other day, I walked into a glass door at the library.

Seriously, I did.

And I would like to say that I instantly got the joke on myself and chuckled about it.

But I didn’t.

I got really mad at that stupid glass door right away! How dare it make me run into it and look foolish!

Then I felt really stupid about it. Two hours later, recalling what I must’ve looked like, I laughed. I mean, honestly, if I saw some idiot do that, I'd show no restraint.

My goal is to skip all that wasted anger and go right to the laughing bit. Rule Number 6 is not always so easy to apply, though.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Approaching Eve, a new project

As you can see from this photo, I've got myself a little bit of a reading list.

It's not that I like doing research, its just that I seem to choose projects that require a lot of it.

So I've started research for a new play.  It's a big "pie in the sky" kind of project, so I'm collaborating with a puppeteer, a dramaturg and a roboticist.

Yes, a roboticist.  She makes robots.  Social robots.

Think C-3PO or Data from Star Trek.

The future is nigh, folks.

More about this project as it unfolds.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Email a playwright

 The world is getting smaller and smaller.

(That photo to the left is actual size, no really.)

This means we live in an age where everyone is accessible by email or phone (or even Facebook).  The degrees of separation are shrinking from six to three.  This means that emailing a playwright is easier than you think. It doesn’t matter if it’s a local small-town playwright or Tony Kushner.  

Chances are if they're still alive, you can probably get in touch with them, especially if you’re nice, normal (ie not crazy), love their work and want to talk to them about their plays (and/or produce them). 

It’s so easy, why wouldn’t you?

Some folks seem to prefer to work on plays by dead playwrights: Shakespeare, Chekhov, O’Neill, etc.  And some folks have gotten so used to working only on these old dead guys that when a playwright actually does enter the room they don’t know how to talk to him or her. 

As many people know, I'm a big fan of playwrights being in the room.  I love rehearsals, whether I'm working as an actor, director or a playwright.  I don't always want to watch the painful but necessary process of actors getting off-book, but I like to be available, and not just for the mentality of being a "playwright cop" making sure they "do it right".  I'm not Beckett, y'know.

Just imagine for a second how nice it would be if you were directing or acting in Hamlet and you were having trouble with a particular scene, or line, and you could just email good o’l Billy Shakes and say, “What the heck is Hamlet doing with that whole “To be or not to be” speech, Bill?”  And he could tell you.  And it would save a lot of time and heartache and guesswork. 

Why wouldn’t you just do that?  With a living playwright, you can.  

And guess what?  Playwrights like to be included in the process—it sure beats hearing about a production after the fact and finding out the director and/or actors missed the boat completely.  And that happens.  A lot.  Playwrights also like to see how actors and directors solve some of the same challenges they’ve been struggling with—and playwrights might even be able to learn and grow from your production.  Everybody wins!

So take five minutes to email your playwright.  

It’s the right thing to do.

Like voting!

(By the way, did you vote today?)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Is it November already? Time to write a play!

It's hard to believe a whole year has passed since the last National Playwriting Month (or Naplwrimo, for short), but it's November, so you know what that means--its back!

Tomorrow begins the first day for all those adventurous souls who have always thought, "I've always wanted to write a play in only 30 days!"

As a participant last year, as well as a guest blogger (Follow Your Digressions), I can speak from experience that its not the easiest task, but it can be done.  You just have to make an effort to write every day (yes, every day, but we've already talked about that many times in this blog).  Set a schedule of a couple of pages a day, or a scene a day, and get to work!

(By the way, a great book despite its awful title is How to Write a Movie in 21 Days
 by Viki King--although its for screenplays, it is really helpful for structuring a story and giving you a schedule of what to work on and when.)

One thing to remember is that it's not called National Write a Brilliant Play Month.  Although, I must say, some of the best plays have been written in only a few weeks or a few days (at least according to Albee or Shepard or McDonagh, but can we really trust that?).  Who's to say you won't write something brilliant, that the pressure of finishing so quickly won't bypass your Inner Critic and let the true artist inside pour out onto the page?  It can happen.

So go forth and write a play you suckers for literary masochism!

(And for those of you who are bothered by so much white space on the page and want to write a novel, go to the NaNoWriMo site and check that out).

On a side note, I have put the solo show on the backburner for now as I develop a new project, which sadly, due to its element of research on robotics and its necessary element of collaboration with live actors and live puppets, will most likely not be able to be completed in a month.

And I also have a short screenplay I want to work on, as well.

(Call it a poor excuse if you like for non-invovlement, but it works for me.)

Saturday, October 30, 2010

What I'm Reading: The Woman Who Walked Into Walls by Roddy Doyle

I should’ve paid more attention to the title of Roddy Doyle’s book when I picked it up in a used bookstore months ago. The author of The Commitments and A Star Called Henry, has written one of the most moving portraits of a woman enduring hardships, yet its not for the faint of heart.

A Star Called Henry is one of the best books he’s ever written, and one of the best books I’ve ever read (although that list is quite long).

The Woman Who Walking Into Walls is a far more intimate look at an abusive and long-term relationship, though the ending does have an uplifting and upbeat feel (as upbeat as one gets for an Irish tale of woe, that is). It begins with the death of her ex-husband and then precedes to enlighten you about the main characters relationship in flashbacks. It’s not really summer reading and not the kind of reading that will take your mind off your troubles, but if you’re looking for a great character study, pick it up. You won’t be disappointed, but the images and words will stay with you for awhile.

Now I'm off to read some research on robotics and brush up my Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick for an exciting new project which I'll write more about at a later date.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rube Goldberg would be so proud

Rube Goldberg, as some of you may not know, was a cartoonist.  He was famous for creating complex machines that performed simple tasks.  So famous, in fact, that these devices are now named after him.  You see these kinds of wacky inventions in movies all the time (from Doc Brown in Back to the Future of in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang).

But watch this video below.  It is the ultimate Rube Goldberg machine (and the music is awesome, too).

It confirms my belief that "anything is possible", whether that's in theater, or engineering.  You only need to imagine it and stick to your vision.

And have a lot patience, I think.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Dramatists Guild is coming to town

Exciting events are planned for this weekend!  

The talented and prolific playwright, Tammy Ryan is the regional representative of the Dramatists Guild of America and she has compiled a weekend packed full of events for dramatists, librettists, directors and other theater folk interested in the state of affairs concerning developing new works. 

Needless to say, I’ll be attending many of these functions, but here is a list of the events below:

Friday, October 22

Dramatists Gild Town Hall Meeting with Executive Director, Gary Garrison, 6-7:30 pm at Pittsburgh Cultural Trust Arts Education Center, Pierce Studio (805/807 Liberty Ave)

Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company presents: The Theater Festival in Black and White, 542 Penn Avenue ($10.00 tix to DG members!)

Saturday, October 23

11:00 am to 1:00 pm, The REP at Point Park University presents a Panel Discussion on the Status of Women in Theater, with Gary Garrison, moderator.  Panel will be at the Rep, 222 Craft Avenue in the Rauh theater

2:00 pm The REP presents a performance of La Ronde, directed by Robin Walsh at the Pittsburgh Playhouse (1/2 price tix for DG members).

6:00 pm to 7:30 pm, Bricolage Theater (937 Liberty Avenue) hosts a discussion on Writing for Radio with Tami Dixon, Co-Artistic Director, actor, writer and genius behind Midnight Radio

9:00 pm, Bricolage Theater presents Midnight Radio featuring H.G. Wells War of the Worlds ($15 tix for DG Members).

Sunday, October 24

10:30 am, Pittsburgh Public Theater hosts a wrap up discussion with Gary Garrison and Rob Zellers, Education Director at 621 Penn Avenue

2:00 pm, Pittsburgh Public Presents The Royal Family directed by Ted Pappas (1/2 price tix for DG members, call box office for tickets).

To RSVP for any of the Dramatist Guild events, please email Tammy Ryan at  

For tickets to the shows, please contact the theaters directly.

As you can see, with all these discounts, it pays to be a member of the Dramatists Guild. 

(It pays in other ways, as well, but that's for another post.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Writing the Solo Show, Pt. 7: Show it to a friend

I’m getting to that point and maybe you are, too.  You’ve been working in a vacuum for a long time, creating pages and pages of material.  Some of it could be crap but you have a sneaking suspicion that some of it is quite good.  

But how do you know?

It’s probably time to enlist the help of a friend. 

And by friend, I mean someone who can give you honest, critical feedback.  This should be preferably someone with a performance, theatre, or writing background.  Not your mother (she loves everything you do).  Not your spouse (need a more subjective and outsider eye).  Not someone who is in competition with you or finds ways of demoralizing you (who needs that?). 

(If you don’t have any friends, maybe you should hire a dramaturg.)

By the way, bribery in the form of buying a coffee, beer or taking them out to dinner is a perfectly acceptable form of coercion.  People are motivated by rewards and are more likely to help you if they know you are grateful, which you should be.

Make sure when you send off the pages, even if it's just a small amount, that you give the friend some context.  Define your objectives for the piece and say, this is where I’m heading, what you do think?  Even if you don’t know for sure, tell them and see if they agree.  The more specific you are with what you want to know about your work, the more specific your feedback. 

This is the first baby step towards the end goal of communicating something to an audience.  Your aim should always be to remain truthful to your own vision, but remember, you have to communicate that vision to others.  This person can help you do that.

Also, give yourself a date—I will email you pages by (blank) and let’s go out for coffee and talk about it on (blank).  Define the expectations for both of you.  The deadline keeps you motivated and accountable.

Don't just sit around waiting for the feedback.  Get back to work.

Friday, October 15, 2010

It's called a play for a reason

This photo is a production shot from 7 Minutes to Midnight, the show I developed and directed at Bellevue College about the invention of the atomic bomb and the Doomsday Clock (as well as the Greek story of Kronos who devours his children).  In this section, they're balancing badminton rackets (badminton became a metaphor for the bomb).  This was one of many playful exercises I had them do in rehearsals and I ended up incorporating this one into the show.  

The activity reminded the actors to stay focused in the present moment, to react to others in the space as they moved around, but also, most importantly, to have fun.  Games are not just idle warm-ups.  The sense of child-like play should always be there.

The point today is:  it’s called A PLAY for a reason.  Actors used to be called PLAYERSIt may be the most serious drama in the world, but at the end of the day its still actors playing pretend.  It’s not much more sophisticated than when I used to play G.I. Joe with friends in the backyard. 

Okay, maybe theatre is a little more complicated than that.  Usually.  As theatre artists, we should embrace that child-like sense of play (most actors already know this, but same goes for writers, directors, and designers).

When I was around eleven, our family would pile into the station wagon and drive between Reno and San Jose.  We had just moved up to Reno from the bay area and would travel the fours down to visit family for the weekend, then drive the four hours back on Sunday night. 

On the drive, I usually ended up in the very back of the wagon, lying down. This was before seatbelt laws, fyi.  I would put on the headphones of my walkman (yes, a real Walkman) and play a tape of music as I stared out the window.  We drove a lot at night and I remember staring up at all the stars while the dark shadows of the trees of the Sierra Nevada forest whizzed by the car.  As the music played, my mind would wander and images would appear.  Those images became stories, like little movies playing in my head. 

I’ve never been able to read or write anything while in a moving car because I get nauseous.  So I created my own stories and some of them I thought were so good, I wanted to write them down, only I couldn’t.  So I replayed them and rewrote them in my head, burning the images and story into my mind.   This was my own mental version of playing G.I. Joe.

Yes, I know.  I was a strange child. 

Now, I can still find that “sense of play” although some days its harder to get there than others.  I don’t always have to be there and I don’t have to wait for inspiration—in fact, I’ve done some great work even when I wasn’t in that state. 

Until someone invents a pill that we could take to instantly get us to that kind of playful state, we will just have to find our own ways of getting there.

For me sometimes it’s listening to music.  Or it’s sitting quietly with my eyes closed.  

So what are your ways?

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Writing the solo show, pt. 6: Now what?

You've been writing and writing and you've got all this material down, so now what?

That's where I'm at.  

Mostly I've jammed out on paper a lot of text that may or may not be used.  And a lot of notes.  Much of it is far too personal, but there are some really great gems in there.  I’m still too far away from knowing exactly what this piece will be, but the molds of clay are taking shape.

If you’re in this place, you may get impatient and want to do too much too soon.  You have to resist this urge.  I’ve already started to imagine the opening scene and the last image.  This might be a good touchstone for me in some ways, but I need to not get ahead of myself. 

Remember, it's a process.  One step at a time.

This first step in the process of getting as much down as possible is crucial.  It’s throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks.  There’s no thinking about quality.  You don’t know what’s good or not, you just have to get out of the way and get your story down.  

And whatever you do, don’t show it to anyone yet. 

There is going to come a time when this brain-dumping process is over with.  You may want to put a date on the calendar and say, I will have a “draft” by this date.  By draft, you can give yourself a page number, say 30 pages or 60 pages or whatever you feel comfortable with.  Then say, I’ll have that done by November 1st.  That’s my date.

I call this part of the process, the “vomit draft”.  When I teach playwriting, I tell my students this is the part of the process where you give yourself ultimate permission to fail.  Write a piece of crap.  Write a real, honest-to-god turd of a manuscript.

You’ll find that once you release the “I have to write a masterpiece” idea from your mind, the writing goes a lot smoother.  When you look at it afterwards, you’ll find that it’s not a piece of crap at all, that there’s some real gold there.

Once you get done with this process, then you move on to showing it someone.  That’s when things will get interesting, too.  

But that’s for another post.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fight the stereotype

There’s this stereotype that artistic people are “scatterbrained”.  They’re wild and chaotic—like children running around in a zoo—and all this frenetic energy is part of their brilliance.  They create by inspiration, not by planning. 

Only thing is, that’s a myth. It makes for a good story, sure, but it’s not the whole story.

We artists secretly embrace this stereotype when it suits us, don’t we?  We love to create mystique, that we’re tossed by the waves of inspiration and our minds and souls can’t deal with menial tasks.  We say things like:

I’m an artist, I can’t be bothered with contracts”
“I don’t know anything about PR.”
 “I’m not good at grant-writing—my work can’t be neatly summarized”
“I can’t be bothered with contracts.”
“I can’t do my taxes—I’m an artist not a mathematician.

Even artists have to write rent checks.  And we have to balance our budgets, whether for our personal life or artistic visions.  Part of living as an artist is an ability to embrace all the little things in life as well as the existential things, even if they’re not fun.

Over the years I’ve gotten much better at planning and organizing my work.  It’s not fun to write a play and not get it produced.  It’s no longer romantic to not get cast in a play because I’m trying out for the wrong parts.  

I don’t find planning and organizing to be limiting.  I find it empowering.  Setting specific and measurable goals and then attaining them gives me focus.  Not all goals are possible, but it gives me an idea of what I’ve accomplished, or will accomplish, and how I’m doing in my own eyes (instead of playing the game of measuring myself with others, which is a dangerous trap we artists play).

When you find yourself uttering words like, “I’m an artist, I don’t…”, stop and think about it. What if you tried, anyway?  You might find you can write a grant proposal and get financial support for a project.  You might make a goal to work with a specific company and plan some steps to accomplish that.  Once you connect the dots to how your productivity can make you do more or better art, it becomes easier to do those organizational things.  And then it becomes a habit.

The truly successful artists are driven and ambitious.  They have a vision of the world and plan how to make that vision reality. There’s a lot of organization going on, in the process of making art, as well as behind the scenes.  We may not always see it, but it’s there. 

It’s just too bad that’s not as good a story as the scatterbrained artist who can float on talent and brilliance without any real grunt work.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Do the hard thing first

I saw this video clip on Faceblah about a week ago, put up by a fellow playwright, and I just can’t get the words out of my head.  

John Patrick Shanley, as most know, is that author of the play Doubt and directed the film version starting Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour-Hoffman.  He has been writing plays for decades, as well as screenplays (including the academy-award winning Moonstruck). 

Although he gives a lot of great advice here, the words that that I can’t get out of my head are: 

“Do the hard thing first”. 

In a time of monster task-lists and to-dos, we frequently do the “fun” and easy things first. 

(Or let’s face it we check our Facebook for inspiring videos or to watch those freaky two people dance with their hands—is that crazy or what?!)

I don’t really enjoy the activity of physical exercise.  I like being in shape and feeling healthy, but I’m not one of those perky people that bounce out of bed into a push-up and crunches.  If I workout first thing in the morning, though, I’m usually in a better mood and have a lot more energy than on the days when I don’t.  If I save my workout for the end of the day, often I blow it off for something more fun and easy.

This is why writing first thing in the morning can be so beneficial.  It’s not my favorite thing to do.  I don’t bounce out of the bed for this either.  It’s not easy and not usually fun, although it is rewarding.  Once it’s done, though, I feel accomplished. 

And once you get into a habit of writing, then you have to stop and ask yourself, “what’s the hardest thing I have to write today?”

Then write that first.  You’ll feel better after. 

But you’ll still have to workout, too.