Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Yet another fun diversion for writer's block

Here is another wonderful way to kickstart some of those creative juices.

Just one word.  Sixty seconds to write whatever you want about it.  No pressure.

Give it a whirl.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A trick for writer's block (or a fun diversion)

Here’s an exercise for you to try, if you are feeling stuck, blocked, or generally just don’t feel like writing. 

Grab a published, produced, or well-known script.  It can be a play or screenplay, whatever you might be working on.  Ideally, choose a writer who you admire, but it doesn’t really matter.

Open it to the first scene, or a scene in the middle, or the last ten pages. 

Open up your MSWord or your Final Draft or whatever you use to type out your own scripts.

Start typing the script, copying the words, format, all of that.  Don’t think about it too much, just type, type, type.  Do this for about 10 to 20 minutes. 

You’ll find that the act of copying other people’s words is quite easy, but you’ll also find that merely typing a script will free you up to start typing your own words for the story you are stuck on.  It’s like doing a little warming up before going for a run.

And if it doesn’t help with that, at least you’ll have learned a little something about how a writer you admire handles a scene by taking a much closer look at it then before.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

What I’m Reading: Michael Ondaatje’s IN THE SKIN OF A LION

If you’ve only seen the movie version of THE ENGLISH PATIENT and have not read that book, or any of the wonderful books by Michael Ondaatje, then run, don’t walk, to your library (or bookstore) and pick up some of his work.  His book about Buddy Bolden in New Orleans in the early 1900s, COMING THROUGH SLAUGHTER, was a major influence on the devised piece I worked as a dramaturg on, IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST WITH TWO BACKS.

I just recently finished his book IN THE SKIN OF A LION.  Maybe it’s because I’m now living in Pittsburgh, but this story about immigrants forging a new city’s tunnels and waterworks was inspiring and uplifting.  Or maybe it’s the way he weaves disparate narratives together…a Macedonian bridge builder, a farm boy making it big in Toronto, a thief, an actress, a millionaire recluse on the run…

The beauty of his writing is that you feel like your mind is eating a steak, every word a juicy morsel.  His prose is elegant, poetic and stark like a poem.  For example, this moment when Temelcoff reflects on his work on a bridge, after being a baker so long:

“He came to this country like a torch on fire and he swallowed air as he walked forward and he gave out light.  Energy poured through him.  That was all he had time for in those years.  Language, customs, family, salaries.  Patrick’s gift, that arrow in the past, shows him the wealth in himself, how he has been sewn into history.  Now he will begin to tell stories…”

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Power of Spectacle

“Less is more.”
-- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Architect

My mom loves THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, but when she first saw it years ago and told me about it, the moment that lit up her face like a schoolgirl was that chandelier being pulled up from the stage floor and resurrecting itself, swinging above the audience, filled with light, while the orchestra swells.

I’m not the biggest fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber as it is, so all I could think was, it’s just a chandelier, what’s the big deal?

Then I saw the show on Broadway and was, quite literally, blown away by that moment.

It revealed to me a great power in the theatre, but a power that can be too wieldy, or can be abused, for lack of other qualities. The problem is when we get lured into thinking all we need is a bit of spectacle like that chandelier moment. We start to think that it’s not a real or “produced” show unless we have all these bright lights, or a full set, or a huge theater, or…well, you fill in the blanks.

The truth is, all you need is an actor and an audience to create theater. We need a truthful story played well.  If you don’t have clarity, truth, and a sense of a good story being told, all the chandeliers in the world won’t save you.

Last week, I saw two short plays in the Harold Pinter Festival, as produced by the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theater. (You might be asking, why is an Irish theater company doing Pinter? Considering Pinter was inspired by Beckett and then went on to inspire other playwrights such as McDonagh, it makes sense…). We saw the double bill of THE DUMB WAITER paired with BETRAYAL. The stage was a small thrust size space, fitting probably about 150 people or so. The lights were not great, certainly nothing you’d find on Broadway, or Off-Broadway. Sets were minimal. In fact, the design team handled the BETRAYAL locations by having all of them practically on stage the whole time, using a lot of the same pieces in different places, so that there was little lag time between scenes. We didn’t have to wait long for the next location to be in place. I loved that simplicity. It also helped the flow of the text. The production elements reminded me of a school production and yet, nothing in the show felt like college—it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time, especially since Pinter can be so tricky.

Without the clutter of an over-designed set, the audience was left with the power of the acting and the text. It is Pinter, after all. You cannot help but focus on the interplay of words, the subtlety of behavior, and the power games that you witness. Spectacle can be powerful, but catches the audience’s breathe for a fleeting moment, while the power of the story can carry the audience along for an entire show. That’s what Shakespeare does, what all the great playwrights do, really.

One of the first precepts I learned when writing poetry and prose in high school was this idea of “Occam’s Razor”. It was a philosophical ideal that one should only have what is needed, nothing else. Too much clutter on stage, the less clear the story. This is not just for design, either, but also goes for writing, directing and acting.

The next time you see a play or production, ask yourself, “yes, but can it be stripped of any clutter?”

You might find that in most cases, it probably could.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Traveler, there is no road

Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road:
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road
only a ship's wake on the sea.

Antonio Machado