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.