Monday, February 28, 2011

BUS 6 Photos/Video by the amazing Jason Cohn

Jason Cohn was the photographer who followed me and rode my P68 bus for awhile out to Braddock Hills.  He got some great dramatic shots of me taking notes and looking really serious.  I mean, really serious, like thinking deep existential thoughts, like "Why are there hardly any people on this bus at 5 pm?' or "how am I supposed to anonymously observe the humanity of Pittsburgh commuters with this guy sticking a camera literally right in my face and taking a hundred photos?"

He took great shots and video of the actor parade then came back in the morning to take shots of the directors reading plays and the actors rehearsing.  Then he went home for just a few hours to put together this amazing video that they showed right before the 8 pm performance.

It's a beautiful recap of how it all went down over a 24 hour period.  Bravo, Jason!

By the way, the actors were told to bring in a prop, a costume item, tell a story of the worst trouble they got into, and sing a little bit of one of their guilty pleasure songs.  That's why I used Peter Cetera in my play.  But we had a little bit of everything going on Friday night.

B.U.S. 6 - Pittsburgh's Best Night Of Theater - Performance Version from Jason Cohn Productions on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

What just happened?!

Theatre is a transformative experience.  It transforms our ordinary world into art that happens right in front of our eyes. Sometimes theatre even transforms the audience, the players, or the artists behind the scenes like the directors and playwrights.  It can galvanize a community or a country, whether it takes 24 months, 24 days or yes, even 24 hours to create.

And a transformative cultural event was created at last night’s B.U.S. at Bricolage.

Bricolage is all about “making artful use of what is at hand” and the whole 24 hour process was a true test of that philosophy.

At 7:30 pm on Friday night, the twenty-four actors, six directors and six playwrights all met at the theatre and we began the process of putting a show together around the theme of “abundance”.  

Actors brought in props, costumes and stories from their real life to be used for the show.  Playwrights brought their talent and inspiration from their bus ride through a neighborhood in Pittsburgh.  Directors brought their talent and experience.  And Tami Dixon and Jeffrey Carpenter, the brave leaders of Bricolage, created an environment of safety and support, where everything happened so smoothly and without any hiccups or backstage drama that they’d make you think it was easy!

(Which if you have ever produced any evening of one-acts know, it is so not easy even when you have weeks and weeks of time to juggle all the logistics of 36 artists rehearsing in six different spaces, adding the sound and light cues and organizing the opening night festivities--all without losing your sanity). 

Six new plays were born, each distinctive to the playwright’s voice, all using some of the material and inspiration given us from Friday night, and all executed with clear storytelling by the directors and top-notch performance by the actors.

Of course, I’m biased being part of the experience, but honestly, these artists put together a show that looked like it took weeks to put up, not hours. 

I was honored to be included with the other local playwrights last night: Wali Jamal, Tammy Ryan, Gab Cody, Peter Roth, and Gayle Pazerski.  

We had a play about vampires riding the “T” and a play about ghosts.  Another was about excessive Italian passion and the American tourists who witness it.  One of my favorites was the play about Mother Nature getting her drink on to deal with a breakup with Poseidon. 

My play HALF FULL was directed by Brad Stephenson and featured the acting talents of Mark Southers, Mark Staley, Matt Henderson and Don DiGiulio.  The story was about perceptions of abundance, using the metaphor of a glass being half empty and half full.  Two guys argue about this as they look around the neighborhood at a bus stop in Braddock Hills when a father and son enter.  We find out the dad lost his wife last year and has a whole other perception of what a full life is and how they see the neighborhood.  It was a character-driven piece in every way and I was really inspired by the actors I wrote for.  I thought the only bits of humor would be the gold top hat and the Peter Cetera references.  Turns out the play is funnier than I thought, but mostly due to the actors churning out such great performances in such little time.  The director and actors just hit it out of the park and nailed the comedic moments but without losing the sense of gravitas, creating a nice balance of joy and suffering that lifted my play up to new heights.  

I was reminded how wonderful it is to have talented people working on your plays—it can change everything (see, its transformative).

One thing about going through the 24 hour playwriting process is that the pressure can bring out the best and worst of your writing habits.  I learned some hard lessons about my process.  And lessons learned at 3 am you don't easily forget.

But I think I’ll share what I learned in another post.

Right now, I’m just going to enjoy the buzz of success that comes from being part of such a transformative artistic event.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

It's almost showtime!

At about noon I dropped on my four actors and my director to chat about my bus ride and the inspiration for the play and watch a quick run-through.

I'm in good hands.

I left them to their excellent work and went home to try to take a nap but it's a bit like trying to sleep before Christmas Eve.

With a 24 hour play, you're literally dealing with the buzz of inspiration that drives the first draft and the nerve-wracking opening night jitters all at once.

I'm three and a half hours away from watching the debut of my play that I thought of about twelve hours ago.

What I'm also excited about, though, is seeing what the other five plays will be.

Did I dream all that?

I woke up just about an hour ago around 9:30 am as if in a daze. Perhaps that's how people usually wake up after only four hours of sleep.

Or perhaps it was because I was feverishly writing and when I woke up I had horrific nightmare thoughts creeping in my head, like "Did I really write a play last night? Did I remember to send it?  What the hell is my play really about?"

After some coffee and breakfast, I've got my bearings.

Yes, I finished a play.

The title is HALF FULL.  Remember, the theme this year is "abundance".

I'm disappointed my original idea and location didn't take off they way I wanted to.  I'm glad I scrapped it when I did, though. I think it was for the sake of a more complex and interesting play.  When I first began writing at 11 pm last night, I thought I was going to write a comedy.  The actors I choose had some great, funny stories and I knew the characters they would inhabit would be funny.

Turns out I didn't really want to write a comedy.  Or that particular story I was working on just didn't want to come out last night in any easy fashion.  It's too bad, as some of the funny lines and images I wrote won't be used, some of them inspired by my bus ride.  Luckily, the new play is not all that dark and heavy and the actors have great comedic timing so will add some humor and warmth to the play.

My favorite image from my bus ride was a sign I saw at the Fairway's Lounge.

Thurs. Karaoke. DJ Josh
Sat. Deliverance

The first play idea was located inside the Fairway's Lounge, of course. Needless to say, there was a DJ Josh character and some references to Deliverance, which just started to get really weird.  (See clip below).

But alas, a funny sign does not always make a funny play.  Or a good one.

So I went back to the theme of "abundance" and focused on the neighborhood that I got off the bus at.  I created a space and environment that was tangible and interesting and let my characters be informed by that place.  Once I had clear characters, the story came together.  I'm still unsure of what works and doesn't work in Half Full, but then, that's what the performance tonight will tell me.

Let's back up.

So, what happened is that all the playwrights had until 8 am this morning to send their play in.  The six directors read the plays (with the names of the authors taken off the title so as to be a blind read).  The directors choose their plays.  Then the actors arrive and they rehearse.  They have until about 5 pm tonight until the tech rehearsal where each play gets about 15 minutes of tech time (for our play that's great, because there's hardly any technical requirements).  Then the curtain goes up at 8 pm and anything can happen.

I'll be heading down in about an hour to drop in on rehearsals and see if I can shed any light on what I wrote.  Or maybe the actors and director can shed some light for me on what I wrote.  Probably will be more the latter, as it usually is.

Starting to feel sleepy and I ain't done yet

It's about 4:30 am right now and I've scratched the first nine pages of a play I was writing because it just wasn't working.

This was a hard decision to make at 3 am, but it had to be done.

So now there's a new play.

Same four actors.  Totally different play.

But it's not done yet. So off to finish it now.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Here we go!

It's almost 11 pm right now.  I just got home from Bricolage in downtown about twenty minutes ago and have made some coffee and had a snack and am looking over my notes from my bus ride.

I took the P68 out to Braddock Hills.  I have to actually look on the map to really know where that is.  All I know is its in east Pittsburgh.

The actor parade was great--there is A LOT of talent here in Pittsburgh!  Part of me was enjoying the performances of stories and songs, and another part of me was checking my watch, thinking, "okay, I gotta go write something."

The funny thing is, my bus ride was the most boring bus ride ever.

Usually, without fail, I'm stuck on an overcrowded bus with lots of diverse characters, a cornucopia of dramatic fodder to use.  Tonight I was on a bus that had about ten people, all on their phones or listening to their headphones.  The bus ride back had two people in it, both of whom were asleep.  The scenery was mostly the East Liberty busway until we got closer to the Braddock Hills.  Then I started to see some images and ideas that could be used.  An indoor tennis court.  A boxing gym.  A graveyard.  I noted some of the names on some graves I saw.  There weren't a lot of people out and about since its a bit chilly out there.

And our theme for the evening is "abundance".

Perhaps my play will be about the lack of abundance...

Okay.  No time to procrastinate.  The clock is ticking...

B.U.S. Begins Tonight!

I'll be heading downtown (or dahntawn if yinz from da burgh) to the Bricolage HQ to get my schedule for the bus ride that will inspire the new 10-minute play I'm about to write.

Nervous anticipation is in my belly right now, which will be promptly replaced with a grande latte and maybe a red bull later.

After my bus ride, I'll get a preview of our acting pool and choose the actors for the play I want to write.  And then off I go.

More later.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What do you want?

"The difference between a good playwright and a bad playwright is caring about every single word that comes out of a character's mouth."  
   -- Tony Kushner
Jude Law and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Hamlet.

In my teaching and dramaturg-ing, I've often talked to playwrights about “passive characters”.

This notion floats around but maybe we all don’t know what it means. I’ve certainly been guilty of writing a passive character.  Sometimes its easy to see and  fix, but other times, not so much.

What are they really saying when a director or dramaturg says  your character is passive? 

I equate it with a director giving me as an actor a note of “I don’t know what you’re doing in this scene?  What action are you playing?  What do you want in this scene from the other person?”

Which, as an actor, clues me into the fact that I’m not playing an objective, or it isn’t clear what objective I’m playing, and also that the obstacle is not clear.  Characters want something and are defined by HOW they go about getting through the obstacles to get what they want (ie behavior and actions).

So when a dramaturg, director, or fellow playwright describes a character as passive, that’s really what they’re saying.  It’s not just that the objective/want is unclear, its that the conflict and obstacles are not clear, either (or completely absent).  Or it may simply be that the objective/conflict needs more at stake.

Every character in your play, whether they have one line or a hundred, must have a driving need to be there.  They cannot be a mouthpiece for you as the playwright.  They must serve a function.  It can be a simple need but it needs to be dramatically active.  Of course, the more complex the need and the more conflict, the more dramatically interesting its going to be.  A messenger with one line should have a relatively small need compared to say, Hamlet, right?

But if Hamlet’s only need is to “grieve his father”, we wouldn’t get past the second scene of Shakespeare’s play.  His overall need is to avenge his father’s death.  Once he hears from the ghost his father was murdered, a whole series of actions gets set into motion and he starts DOING a lot of things.  Hamlet is not just a “gloomy dane”, as some English profs would like to believe.  He’s on the move and quite active.

Most of the time, I find myself walking into the “passive character” zone when I have a character that is quite similar to myself, or I’m using a real situation.  This is natural.  In real life, most of us are quite passive.  Yes, we do things, but on the whole, most of us avoid conflict.  Few of us enjoy confrontations.  We deal with them when they happen, but if we can get what we want without pissing off our neighbor, that’s great.  And it’s rare when we run into not getting what we want in a big way. 

Theater is a truncated version of real life.  As soon as a real story or situation is put on stage, it needs to be leaner. We don't want to see the moments of non-conflict (usually).  We want to see people at their very worst or their very best, overcoming obstacles.   

So if people are telling you that your character is passive, you need to reexamine the wants and needs in a big way.  Are they as dramatically interesting as you think they are?  Is there enough conflict or do your characters get what they want pretty quickly?  What are the actions that your character is doing to get what they want? 

Sometimes it’s just a little tweak here or there.  Other times, you might rewrite the character completely in a whole new and exciting way.  

Rest assured, you’re not alone.  Everyone lands in the passive zone eventually.  Good writers just know how to rewrite their way out of there.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Getting ready to ride the B.U.S.

The B.U.S. is coming!

B.U.S. (otherwise known as the Bricolage Urban Scrawl) is a 24 hour play festival extravaganza put on by Bricolage Theater in downtown Pittsburgh.  This is its sixth year running and I am fortunate (or unlucky) enough to be invited to participate as a playwright.

Last night I ran into Tami Dixon and Jeffrey Carpenter, the dynamic duo that run the theater company and I told her I was psyching myself up for it and getting into training.

Cue Rocky Theme Music and workout montage now.

Okay, the thing with this 24 hour play festival, as with others, is that you can’t really do any prep work.  They give you a theme on Friday night.  You go ride a bus and observe people.  You don’t even know who your actors or director is yet.  Then you have twelve hours to write a ten minute play.  The beautiful thing about this is that you will probably end up riding a bus through a new neighborhood, seeing different people and literally getting of your comfort zone.

But just because I can’t do any prep work for the festival, doesn’t mean I can’t get myself ready.  

Ballet dancers do physical drills.  Musicians practice their scales.  Actors do voice, movement training and work on their monologues.  We playwrights and screenwriters should be exercising our creative skills in the same way. 

B.U.S. is like one giant writing exercise—like a test.  Here are your parameters and limitations—make something out of it and oh by the way, the clock is ticking.  This is not just a fun whimsical idea, but a task that can develop real world writing skills.  It prepares you for on-the-spot rehearsal rewrites or trying to polish up a script before sending it off for a commission. 

You don't have to do the madness of B.U.S. to workout your writing muscles, though. There are plenty of exercises you can do, even if all you have is a spare fifteen minutes.

For instance, my favorite has and always will be the six-line play.  The rules are easy.  Write a play using only six lines.  You can have two characters or six, but the goal is to create a real situation, real characters, with a story that has a beginning, middle and end.

A great book, chock full of playwriting exercises on various techniques is Playwriting in Process by Michael Wright.  

For you more advanced playwrights, check out New Playwriting Strategies by Paul Castagno.

Or just make up some of your own.  Like any workout, it should be fun, right?  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A ticking clock is always more interesting

Wait, no...not that kind of clock...

(That's the Doomsday Clock, if you didn't recognize it.)

My next post will be a little bit more about the progress of the solo show I’m working on.  I have many new pages, all random thoughts and scattered stories right now—it’s a big mess basically, and perhaps even a possible title: Dreaming to Fly.

However, what I really need right now is to give myself a deadline.

I had a wise, old theater teacher named Davey Marlin-Jones who used to joke with us that the reason he got into the theater was because he was so bad with deadlines and this profession forced him to confront that weakness.  There’s no pushing back opening night.  Once a date and venue is set, the clock is ticking.

So I realize I need a deadline.  That means setting a date and time and getting a space (even an informal one) and doing some kind of reading of material.

This really scares the hell out of me, actually.  But in a good way.

The deadline needs to be realistic, by the way.  It’s no good saying “I’ll have a 70 minutes of material ready in two weeks” if you have only a few pages of random thoughts.

Also, think of your workload and other projects you might have in the pipeline.

For instance, I have been cast in a production of Shining City by Conor Macpherson and therefore, will want to wait until after that show closes in mid-May.

Now that the clock is ticking, time to write more pages.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Write about what you love

World premiere of Measure of Love  in 14/48, Seattle

It’s Valentine’s Day but I have a different kind of message about love for you today.

There have been times I wrote a play because I thought it was funny, or a good idea, or was intellectually stimulating, but if I lacked any emotional connection to that play, the idea or story would never really take off.

This has happened more than I would care to admit, actually.

Which is why I want to stress to you the importance of writing about what you love.  They say you should write about what you know (and I think that’s true to some degree, as well) but what will really pull you through the dismal days of rewriting or writer’s block will be the emotional connection to your characters and material.

This idea to “find the love” is true of all artists, actually, from actors to designers to directors.  I make a conscious effort sometimes to start conversations about a show I’m working on by saying, “What I love about this play is…” 

If you can’t come up with one or two things you love about the play, you shouldn’t be working on that play.

If there is no ache inside your gut to tell a particular story, then walk away.  This is not an easy decision to make, of course, but you’ll know when you need to just let it go.  For instance, if you started writing the story but a year later you just can’t get interested in finishing it, you probably didn’t have the emotional connection you needed.

Although I’ve never run a marathon, I imagine that writing a play or screenplay is much like that arduous activity.  No one wakes up one idea and says, “I think it might be a good idea to run a marathon”.  Most marathon runners have some kind of inner drive, or compulsion.  There is a deeper need.  That’s what gets them through all the training, and the pain, and the psychological hurdles they have to overcome.  There's a deep love there.  Either that, or they're just masochists.

If you are passionate about what you’re writing, that will be evident to the audience.  They will pay attention.  And then, once you have their attention, tell them a damn good story.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Spalding Gray, I wish I had known you

Tonight we're off to see the show Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell at the Warhol Museum.

If you don't know of Spalding Gray, I'm sorry.

Look him up.  Now.

Especially if you're reading some of these posts about building a solo show.  Everyone from Eric Bogosian to Mike Daisy who are doing autobiographical solo shows or performance works are standing on the shoulders of his groundbreaking work.

I remember seeing the video of Swimming to Cambodia years ago when I was in undergrad.  At the time, I'm not sure I fully appreciated the scope and power of it, the audacity and the genius of it.  I did know though, that I was completely mesmerized by the electricity of his writing and performance.

Spalding Gray is one of those performers I wish I had seen in person.  Although I'm looking forward to the presentation tonight, I know it won't quite be the same.

And Everything Is Going Fine Trailer 2010 HD

Monday, February 7, 2011

Love, Art & Sexual Perversity at the Rogue Festival

For those of you who might be able to check out my plays next month in the Roque Festival in Fresno, CA, you'll be able to see some funny, short plays, including the ever-popular Green-Eyed Monster, Love & Death in the Time of Crayola, Painting by Numbers and Dog Park.

Get more info and your tickets here.

(Photo: original NYC world premiere of Painting by Numbers at Brass Tacks Theatre, directed by Lisa Jackson and starring Matthew Wilson (of Cyberchase fame) and Judy Jerome.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Put yourself on the map

Have you ever thought, "If only I were on the map as a playwright?"

Now, you can be!

So this New Play Map is kinda fun, and informational and could be quite helpful, though I'm not exactly sure how unless everyone uses it (and by everyone, I mean all theater companies and labs and workshops and such).

Hit the tab and find me on the map:

This new play map is developed by American Voices New Play Institute at Arena Stage (in DC).  The goal is a visual mapping of where new plays are being developed and by who, from playwrights to ensembles to other theater organizations.  First thing you'll notice is that theaters center around cities, of course, and also, that the information is few and far between.  I do hope that others will put themselves on the map and see if we can track data on how many new plays are being developed.

So, what are you waiting for?

Take a few minutes and put yourself on the map.