Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Theatre is unique...or...Fun with Stats!

I’m not really a stats guy.  

When I’m in a bar and hear two guys talking about the wins/losses and player stats for the Stillers (The Steelers for all you non-yinzers), I get lost in the haze of numbers. 

I’m also not the kind of person who likes to stare at charts or deal with Excel.

I do, however, like to track what gets the most hits on this site and see what the most popular posts are.

And here’s the fun thing, the most read post is "What Makes Theatre So Unique."

In fact, here’s something fun to try—open up google and type “What makes theatre unique”. 

Fighting the Void is the first hit.

Crazy? Right?  

Of all the sites in the world, this place is the go to for how theatre is unique.  What's even more interesting is that this post is a recap of Thornton Wilder's essay.  And Thornton Wilder isn't even the first hit--this site is...

Which does make me feel like I'm cheating and perhaps I should write some posts with my own thoughts about the uniqueness of live theatre in the future.  

So stay tuned for more content on that topic...

Monday, March 28, 2011

What I'm Reading: Plays, plays, plays and some more plays...

shining-city-poster-web-800.jpgIt may be a compulsive habit, but I seem to be unable to walk out of a library empty-handed.  

Recently I grabbed a bunch of play scripts that I were not on my reading list but were just too tempting to pass up.  

In between studying my part for the upcoming production of Shining City at Off the Wall and filming this cowboy short film, I’m not actually sure when I’ll have time to read them, but rest assured, I will get around to them at some point.. 

I grabbed Julie Jensen’s The Harvey Girls, a brand-new play she wrote last year.  I met Julie at UNLV when I was doing my undergrad and sat in on all the MFA playwriting workshops, acting in them or just watching them.  She’s not just a brilliant playwright, but a brilliant teacher, as well. I was introduced to her work by acting in The Lost Vegas Series and have since become a big fan of her quirky and intelligent wit.  If you’ve never read her stuff, go do it now.

RaceI also grabbed David Mamet’s Race, a recent play of his which is being down at the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theater.  

(No, David Mamet is not Irish and no, a play done on Broadway a year or so ago does not make it “classical” so I’m just as befuddled as you as to why PICT is doing it…)

The other exciting gem I grabbed is a collection of plays from the Royal Court Theater.  This is full of playwrights I’ve never heard of but have been doing tons of stuff across the pond.  Playwrights include David Eldridge, Roy Williams, Mike Bartlett, and Lucy Prebble.  There was one play in the collection that piqued my interest by Simon Stephens called Motortown, about a Iraqi vet returning to London.  One critic hailed it as a modern day Woyzcheck, which is high praise.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Why are "emerging" playwrights so darn lazy?

“So all together, how about we “emerging” playwrights stay away from the defeatist attitude? It’s bad for business. Let’s stay away from it by thinking about companies like 13P and Workhaus Collective—theaters like Playwrights Horizons and City Theatre in Pittsburgh—organizations like New Dramatists and the Playwrights’ Center. Defeat defeatism by opening up your laptop at the beginning or end of the day…”

For the first time in its 80 year history, the Dramatists Guild of America will have a national conference in our nation’s capital at George Mason University.  When I mentioned to a renowned playwright that I would be attending, he was a little uncertain in his enthusiasm, saying, “Yeah, I hope it doesn’t become a bitch fest.”

This was after a dinner conversation we had on the terms being thrown out in the theatrical world (and the world of funding), terms like “emerging” and “budding”.  We didn’t really know the difference, but I imagine the definitions are more clear to funders and development directors.  I’ve seen playwrights who have had a show on Broadway get an “emerging” playwright grant which just makes me think, when do we “arrive”?  When we have the same house-name status as Shakespeare or Neil Simon or Sam Shepard?

Complaining is always easy.  

It’s especially easy for playwrights.  Let's face it, sometimes we like to complain.  Who doesn't? 

We generate our own material to work on, which is a distinct advantage over the actor, designer or director.  On the other hand, we spend a lot of time waiting for someone to put up our play.  Unless we self-produce, which is becoming more and more an attractive option.

The quote above is from a recent post by "emerging" playwright Mat Smart.  The post is not a rant nor a critique of the play development system, but an insightful and provocative statement about emerging playwrights being lazy. 

I agree with some of his comments, but not all.  The bottom line is that we must focus on what we as playwrights can control—our work and how we choose to get that work out there.  It’s also about how we can support each other, which I think we could see more of in the general playwriting community. 

We can start by going to each other’s readings, workshops and productions.

As my favorite theatre teacher Davey Marlin-Jones once said, "If we don't support each other...who will?"

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Writing the Solo Show, Pt 9: Page to Stage

Plays are peculiar things.  Sure, you can read a play, but the truth is that a script is a blueprint.  The performance is the building.

I’ve said this over and over, but I firmly believe this more and more as I work on writing this solo play. 

So where am I in the process?

After many months of writing various stories, notes, observations, I have to compile these pages into a binder.  

This binder is becoming the “script”.

It's still a complete mess, of course.  It's like a taking the clay and getting the shape and size right for the sculpture with only hints of what form that sculpture will take.

The problem here is that I want to write a play.  Not vignettes.  Not the facsimile of a therapy session.   I have no desire to get up on stage and just tell personal stories about my pain and grief and hope the audience “gets” me.  My desire is the universal truth of storytelling, finding the metaphor for the story and relating that to my audience in an entertaining way.

I’m not worried about whether or not the story seems personal or not.  If it comes from my sense of truth, it will be inherently personal, as all great stories are.   

What’s funny is that I’ve already written a solo play before—And I completely forgot about it.  The play is called Material Girl and its about a 15 year old girl waiting in line to get an autograph from Madonna because this will logically prove the existence of God.  Okay, it’s a short play, but still…I’ve done it before. 

In fact, if you’d like to read it, go to Original Works and take a look.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Love, Art & Sexual Perversity succeeds with "oomph" at the Rogue Festival

It's official.

I've got a "quirky sense of humor."

At least that's what the Kings River Life Magazine says about my show, Love, Art & Sexual Perversity, directed by Nicolette Tempesta in the Rogue Festival in California.

You can read the whole review here.

Love, Art & Sexual Perversity is a performance of four of my short plays--Painting by Numbers, Green-Eyed Monster, The Lift and Dog Park or Sexual Perversity in Magnuson.  All but The Lift have been produced and I'm disappointed I missed the debut of this little two-character gem because it sounds like the director and actors really did well with it.

Here's a quote from the review:

The third scene, about a couple ending their relationship on a ski lift, really takes the action of the scenes to a second level. Brian Pucheu and Ashley Hyatt begin the scene with a quiet verve that quickly turns into some snappy insults delivered with just the right amount of acid. And then, just as quickly, that anger turns again into a soft kindness and regret that is palpable in the actors’ capable performances. Tempesta’s direction of this scene ensures that it doesn’t wallow in this turn too long or too fiercely, ending the scene with a very loving feeling at its core.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Being choosy with your projects

The past few weeks I got off track on keeping the blog posts up to date.  This is due to a convergence of jobs and projects suddenly arising (like a Perfect Storm!). 

I just started a new job in external relations in the School of Drama at a prestigious private university, an opportunity that was just too exciting to pass up.  At the same time, I was invited to a wonderfully supportive and fun playwriting group that meets every few weeks.  I’m still also working as a teaching artist for an after-school program.  This weekend, I’ll be acting as a deranged cowboy for a short film that’s shooting on Sunday and a few days in April.  Right after that, I’ll be acting as Ian in Off the Wall Theater’s production of Conor McPherson’s Shining City.


There are, of course, other auditions on top of that, as well as my own personal writing projects (which, sadly, I have been neglecting). One of those projects may be a public reading in June (more on that later).  Even maintaining this blog is a project that takes time and energy.

All of this is exciting and I’ve met a lot of talented folks, but now I’m at the point of overload.  There’s only so much time in the day and now I need to be more careful of what projects I devote my energy to.

So how do you choose what projects to work on?  There are some key factors to consider.

Is the project awesome?  
I don’t mean “awesome” in the blasé sense, but the accurate definition of the word.  Is it a project you would kill for, something you’ve waited to do all your life, something you would work on for years and years and never get tired of it.  For instance, I’ve been working on this robot project for months and I’m still reading books and interested in the ideas and fascinated by what’s out there.  Every time I think about the project, I’m energized.  That’s the kind of work you should look for.

Are you the best person for this project? 
Sometimes you have to ask yourself, is this really the best fit for me?  Do you have the right skills, background and personality for the project? Some projects are a no-brainer. If you’re in doubt, it probably isn’t a project that’s right for you.  Recognizing that early on will save you headaches down the line. 

Who do you get to work with?  
Are they amazing and talented people?  Are they collaborators that you’ve worked with before and or new artists that you would kill to get to know?  You have to love the people you work with—life is too short and the pay is not enough to tolerate jerks or fools.

Does the project pay? 
In general, theater is not a money-making endeavor, but there are paying gigs out there of various levels.  Sometimes it’s a factor and sometimes not, but it can make a difference.  I probably wouldn’t pursue writing the book for a Broadway musical but if Julie Taymor asked me to and Disney fronted the money, I don’t know that I could turn down the production of “Iron Man: The Musical”*.  Well, on second thought…
(*As far as I know, there are no plans for this project, but I could be wrong.  Let’s hope I’m not.)

How much time and energy will this project take up? 
If you have too much on your plate, then logistically, you may not be able to do it.  Sometimes you have to turn projects down because you are “too busy”.  Or you have to let go of another project to make room for it.  This is where time management and knowing your limits comes into play.

Is it something you’ve never done before? 
Will it stretch you creatively? Bring you out of your comfort zone? I stay passionate and interested in projects that force me to learn or be on my toes—that’s the kind of work I want to be involved with.  If it’s a project that is really everyday, then why am I doing it (unless it pays really well, see above).

There are of course, other smaller factors to consider, as well, and your priorities for taking a project will depend on your own unique goals and where you are in your life.  Either way, you should always think about how your project should add value to your life (ie whether its worth it or not).

Know thy enemy

As I’ve posted before, I submitted a short script for the Film Factory competition, hosted by Steeltown Entertainment.  

They announced the finalists and unfortunately I didn't make the cut (hey, them's the breaks but there's always next year).

True to the Film Factory's aim of education, they've posted the scripts that were selected as finalists online.  This is great to learn about what others are writing but also to see what kinds of scripts the judges liked or didn't like.  They do range in style and story but the southwestern Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh region is central to all of them in some way.  

Read the competition here

On March 26, next Saturday, the semi-finalists selected out of this group will pitch their scripts (now rewritten based on feedback) to three Hollywood producers, right here in Pittsburgh at Point Park University downtown.  

Read more about that event here.

Reading and watching to see what others do well or not well is an education you shouldn't pass up.  It's a competitive market out there and although, its not accurate to think of your fellow writers as "enemies", you should know who is writing the same kind of stuff you are and then make your work even more unique.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Precious Little and Circle Mirror Transformation

There are two great Pittsburgh premiere productions of new plays going on this month and I'm planning to see both of them, though I'm not sure when.

The first is Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation at Pittsburgh Public Theatre.  Aside from the fact that I love Jesse Berger's directing (from seeing his work with the Red Bull Theater in NY), the play is written by a young woman playwright who has been hailed by critics to be a voice of a new generation.  The play is set in a small Vermont town's community center and we watch six characters go through acting exercises.  This doesn't sound like the stuff of drama, but from what I hear Baker explores the minutiae of daily life in a quirky way.

Then there's Precious Little by Madeleine George (another exciting young female playwright) at City Theatre in the South Side.  All I know about this play is its about motherhood, language and a talking gorilla.  Sounds good to me.

And there's a "trailer" for it.  See below.

It seems to me that video trailers of play productions are popping up more and more as a marketing tool.  This one is actually the most interesting and cinematic I've seen of the bunch.  I remember that Theatre Schmeater in Seattle used to do these types of trailers and I know I've seen them done by other companies as well.

As far as marketing goes, it's pretty savvy.  We are a YouTube and Facebook generation.

And yet...I shudder when I see theater squeezed into that box frame.  I don't know why.

Will the trailer phenomena go away or will we see more theaters do this kind of marketing?

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Love, Art & Sexual Perversity Opens this weekend!

Nicolette Tempesta directs a stellar cast in a collection of short plays opening this weekend in the Rogue Festival in Fresno, CA.  

Plays in the show include:

Green Eyed-Monster (origin of the infamous Miss Piggy monologue)
Dog Park or Sexual Perversity in Magnuson
Love & Death in the Time of Crayola
Painting by Numbers

And the world premiere of The Lift

If you're in the area, get your tickets!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Three Things I Learned about Playwriting from my B.U.S. Ride

I’ve had a few days to decompress (and get some sleep) after the wonderful success that was the Bicolage Ubran Sprawl.  It was a such an illuminating evening of theater that it’ll keep my engine running for a long time.

After some reflection, I realize that in the crunch of time that I had to complete a play, some of my bad writing habits were revealed and some lessons learned. 

I was proud of the ten-minute play that I wrote, and even more proud of what the actors and director brought to the performance.  I credit their talent and hard work with much of its success.  I know that the play had great characters and balanced moments of comedy and drama in a real way, and this reflected the inspiration of the neighborhood I visited. 

But, because I’m a writer, I can’t help thinking about what to work on in the rewrite.  There’s only so much you can do in 24 hours, after all. 

Below are the three main lessons learned from my agonizing evening of writing.  They might be lessons to remember, regardless of the deadline.

Lesson #1: Conflict can be tricky

There’s a sneaky habit I saw in my writing (and I’ve seen in other playwrights as well).  It’s when playwrights create characters with negative outlooks or are always contrary to other people (and I don’t mean in an interesting way like Jacques from As You Like It).   I realized, though, this is not a character problem. This is a story problem.  It’s an easy way of creating the illusion of conflict when your story is lacking a major dramatic conflict--a strong protagonist with a goal and obstacle.  Your natural playwriting instincts kick in with this absence, but instead of doing the necessary and most difficult process of looking at the overall story, your characters start acting like trouble-makers—to create conflict, even if only minor struggles.

It’s ironic that last week I wrote about objectives and obstacles and passive characters because the four characters I wrote for HALF FULL are not all that active.  Their activity is waiting for a bus (passive) and their main conflict is about an idea (intangible).  I’m honestly not even sure who the protagonist would be, which would be okay if I decided that was a choice, but at 3:30 am, I was driven not by clear choices but the desire to finish ten pages of a play and make it work. 

Part of the driving force of the play was this idea of the water glass being half full or half empty.  So, obviously, I have two characters at the beginning and one is definitely a half full kinda guy and the other is a half empty personality.  Thing is, that only works for about the first page.  The character needed to be more about what wasn't going to happen--he needed hope (aka wants and dreams).  

A negative or contrary character is like an actor that only plays negative choices (“I hate this person”, “I don’t want to be here”, etc.).  Everyone has hopes, dreams and wants positive outcomes.  It’s what’s in our way that defines our life and our stories.  It’s bigger picture stuff.  When we don’t see the bigger picture clearly, we get lost in the weeds.

This is why having time to rewrite can be so helpful and informative.  You start to see the big picture.

Lesson #2:When in doubt, throw it out

You’ve heard that maxim before, I’m sure.  After hours of pounding out a comedic story that I was tied to, I finally decided, enough is enough. Even though I already had nine or ten pages of the play, it wasn’t working.  The ending wasn’t coming at all.  There was no conflict. There were four characters talking and it was boring the hell out of me.  So I ditched it. I didn’t delete it (just in case!), but I did open up a completely new blank document and started over from scratch.

Not entirely from scratch, mind you.  The nine pages I wrote gave me a lot of clarity on what story I wanted to tell and who the characters were.  Once I let go of some of my preconceptions, I was able to find my story.

This has happened to me before, on other plays, by the way.  It happened once before when I was doing a 24 hour play festival, actually.  It’s also happened many times on full-length plays.  You discover that you’re writing the wrong play.  It’s a tough realization, but every time it’s happened, I’ve never regretted it.

Again, this is why time and space can be helpful in the rewriting process

Lesson #3: Leave space for your actors and your director

In the late night/early morning thralls of creation (aka agony), I was so mired in my creative flow and finishing the damn thing that for awhile there I forgot about what my director and actors would bring to the table. The director shapes the story with the staging and by directing the actors. The actors truly bring it to life and make it their own.  They give characters life and can make clunky text seem natural. I’ve seen many bad scripts made bearable by the talents of a great director and actor. 

While I wanted to give my collaborators the best script possible, I needed to remember I was not alone in the storytelling process.  For instance, the pages I threw out had a lot of exposition.  I wanted to make sure the audience, and the actor, knew exactly what they felt and were doing in the play.  Boring.  Give the characters less to say and watch the actors fill in the hidden life behind it.  It’s more interesting for the audience and the actor. 

There are actually more than just three lessons learned from my night of frenetic playwriting, but those were the three biggest ones.  Next time I do B.U.S., I’m going to put those reminders up on my bulletin board.