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Friday, September 28, 2018

Bad Decisions Make Great Drama.



It's a truth. Look at any great play and see what the bad decision was. Someone fucked up hugely. Someone got badly burned. Someone got irreparably damaged. Maybe someone got killed.
For various reasons, we tend to nurse on others' misfortune. I use “nurse” in its most beneficial definition. Not voyeurism, where we enjoy the vicariously tumultuous ride of a soap opera, but a lesson in which we witness a tragedy and its aftermath.
This is what art does. It holds a mirror up to life and shows what humans truly are, both at our most noble and heroic and our most despicable evil. That's its purpose. Good plays show us both at the same time.
But still. Bad decisions make great drama.
Like killing your brother then marrying his widow and stealing a throne. Like putting profit over safety and shipping faulty airplane engines to the war front. Like using driving lessons to sexually abuse your pre-teenage niece. Like seeking the imprisonment of a teacher who dares to teach science rather than religion. Like leaving your lover when he gets AIDS or denying the truth of yourself in the face of cultural superstition. Each of these is a tragedy. Each of these decisions destroyed people’s lives.
Somewhere in the theatre world there has been an argument about creating new art based on the current Ford/Kavanaugh hearings. I've seen arguments on several sides: why we should use this topic to create, why we shouldn't create something so unfair to men, why we shouldn't create anything new in favor of existing work on the subject, why only certain people should be allowed to create certain work because of who they are or shouldn’t be allowed to do so because of their ignorance of experience.
Someone, somewhere will create a work based on this. It's inevitable. I hope it's profound and sympathetic and above all, truthful. I hope it makes a statement so indelibly formidable that it cannot be ignored.
I hope it's written by someone with a compassionate soul.
And for those who see this as apology for scavenging a tragedy for personal gain, I offer the words of a  profound, sympathetic, truthful, and compassionate woman:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.
—Toni Morrison


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

How much control is too much? How much control is not enough?




There's an ongoing discussion (started around Euripides' time, I think) about how far playwrights should go to protect the intent, the mode of expression, the overall tone, the biology of the being – the essential, unique identity that communicates the play's intent..
Unlike movies, where the final presentation is set in digital stone--static, unchangeable, and repeated exactly the same with every viewing--every individual production (indeed, every performance of every production) of The Play I Took Fifty Years to Write will undoubtedly be different. And while this allows flexibility and creative input from the artistic and technical collaborators involved, to uniquely flavor each performance, it also opens the door for individual professionals to alter and even destroy a play's original intention.
Some playwrights are famous for demanding strict adherence to their specific ideas of how a script should be cast, directed, and performed, insisting that every production remain as close to the playwright's personal vision as possible. And in all fairness, playwrights have that right. The play is theirs, and they can be as prescriptive as they like. The play is an entity that represents themselves as artists, and any egregious variations in such representation will mislead audiences as to what the playwright meant to offer the world.
And while some playwrights have made news by exercising strict control over their work, I believe that in most cases their “interference” is not about hyper-control. Yes, there have been productions where a particular piece was so altered through direction and/or actor choice that it becomes almost unrecognizable. It's happened to lots of us. A few years back one of my monologues was presented at a community theatre. What was originally intended as a tender, confessional moment became a threatening, macabre date gone wrong. How did this happen? Performance interpretation without playwright guidance.
It proved to be an invaluable lesson to me about how differently my words can be interpreted, and thus, how much more thoughtful I must be when I finalize those words within the context of the whole piece. Did the director and actor do the piece as I intended? Hell, no. They simply worked with the words they had been given and presented a reality that, while making perfect sense to them, I had never considered.
Was there any harm done? Nope, none at all. The world moved on with nary a ripple in the zeitgeist.
But this experience made me think about how widely my words could be interpreted. (And no, I am not referring to the myriad and innumerable productions of Hamlet Out West/in Space/in a Zoo/in a Brothel/with Zombies.) Without explicit playwright guidance to a certain character's proclivities, limitations, or critical actions, how many possible doors of interpretation might be opened with my use of, say, this particular word choice? Or this sentence? (Or this syllable, even?) What Pandora's Box might I inadvertently open if I employ the use of, say, slang? Every word choice should be a clue to a certain character. And, since in most cases the playwright is nowhere near the rehearsal room, it's possible for directors and players to stray from the playwright's intention.
As a director, actor, dramaturg, and sometime designer as well as a playwright, I have always strived to be as open as possible to interpretative variations. To me, theatre is a room with an always-open door where anyone with a desire and passion can enter and play. Theatre does not look at who you are, nor does it restrict; it is the ultimate playground for any and all to have the chance to exercise their visions and creativity.
And yet casting and directorial choices do affect the production. Change the chemistry, and you change the result. A recent play of mine included a married couple, one man, one woman. Why this choice? No reason other than I am a straight white male and my play did not call for the couple to be anything other than straight. Initially, I thought, making them anything but a straight couple would have been disingenuous. I felt that if I were going to include a gay couple, that particular choice should be relevant to the theme of the play.* In this production, the director found a perfect female actor to play opposite the female lead. The chemistry was so good between the two actors that he asked for permission to cast them as a lesbian couple. 
My entire concern was about the dynamics and tension between the couple, not their genders or sexual orientation. I agreed with the casting change. Ultimately this proved to be without a doubt the correct decision. The two particular actors embodied everything I could have wished for in their onstage relationship: love, truthfulness, strength, and dedication. It was clearly the best actor combination I could have wished for. And I was happy to be able to be a part of the discussion. But I was part of that decision, which is what's important here.
But what if I hadn't been? What if the production company was in West Noodle, AK, and I was on the Riviera drinking away my royalties for The Play I Took Fifty Years to Write? What responsibilities do I have, as a playwright, to ensure that my work is handled with proper creative judgment? I loathe the idea of flooding my work with caveats and prescriptive stage directions, attempting to force directors and actors to do it “this way and only this way.” I cherish freedom and variation, yet how can I as a playwright ensure that the original intent and purpose are maintained?
Guidelines. No director will be able to read your mind to determine your preferences. It's up to playwrights to include, either in the character descriptions or notes, whatever they think is of critical importance to keep the play on its best track. The inclusion of playwright's notes, perhaps such as “X remains calm until the last scene,” “Y exhibits no verbal hesitations whatsoever before page 32,” “Character B is an African American lesbian and should be played by an African American female,” can guide the production team toward performing the work as closely as possible to what the playwright intended.
Playwrights are not prescient. It's hard to envision the many interpretative choices a production will surface. This is why I wholeheartedly recommend a workshop process. With a good team of actors and a capable dramaturg/director, nearly every play will undergo a series of readings and examinations that will most likely bring out possible interpretive pitfalls.
Can one make a play actor- and director-proof? Probably not. But a playwright can take steps to reduce possible future instances of “What were they thinking?” It's part of the job to journey with the play beyond the initial creative phase and into the second part of the process: giving it over to new participants, and therefore new viewpoints. This is an excellent way for a playwright to learn about other possible pitfalls lying in wait within the script.


*Oddly enough, the choice to make the couple gay was welcomed by several same-sex couples who thanked me for (inadvertently) "normalizing" the characters' marital status.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Still Working This One out...


Nike guilty of sweatshop employment practices for years, paying ~20 cents a day to workers working 60-70 hours a week to produce high-end gear for privileged buyers. Most people don't give a shit and continue to buy Nike products.
According to the Guardian: Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice-president of brand, said: “We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward. We wanted to energise its meaning and introduce ‘Just Do It’ to a new generation of athletes.”
Possible translation: "Using this high-profile situation to capitalize."
(https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/sep/04/nike-controversial-colin-kaepernick-campaign-divisive)
Colin Kaepernick legally exercises his rights as a United States citizen to "petition the Government for a redress of grievances" by taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem, causing a storm of protest. It is a peaceful yet powerful gesture, and controversy explodes. Meanwhile, African-Americans are being murdered with unconscionable regularity in the streets—and on camera--by police with almost no justice for the victims ensuing or change in police oversight. Kaepernick is then “not hired” by any football teams. ANY teams. 
Then Kaepernick then becomes one of the faces of the new Nike ad campaign.
Here's the dilemma. Nike sucks. You can take their asinine swoosh and compost it. It's simply just gear. Clothing. Sneakers, t-shirts...inconsequential, high-priced crap. None of the products really matter. None of them are life-critical. None of them, if they were gone tomorrow, would matter. Oh, right, right...except to its shareholders, who ignore the sweatshop conditions under which this crap is made. Fuck Nike. 
But if Colin Kaepernick needs another venue to transmit his message, then I'm with him. If the slogan “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” wants to use him and his issue to get their advertising across to a new generation of Americans, and Kaepernick (or Assange or Snowden or whoever else has given up everything because they believe in something) have to be that face to keep their issues alive and current, then fine. I still won't buy Nike's pretentious shit, but I will cheer Colin Kaepernick (and Assange and Snowden and whoever) on wholeheartedly. And if you want to protest Nike and its inhumane production practices, then donate your Swooshy gear to people who need clothing. Give it to those whose shoes are falling apart, whose clothes are filthy, who are in need. That is what we should be doing every day: looking after our fellow citizens across the world. Let's make Nike the unintended and inadvertent brand of compassion and generosity. 
Malcolm X said it in 1965: “We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”
And I'll go with a peaceful yet powerful means any day.