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Tuesday, June 16, 2020


COVID-19 and social distancing requirements have closed most theatres. Tragically, some will stay closed permanently. Some theatres will recover. But these lucky ones may reawaken to a new normal.
We already have many questions about how theatre, if it (a) does, as a profession, manage to hang on and its people produce live shows as they have for millennia, and (b) how they will actually accomplish that.
I've recently sat in on several discussions among professionals about how theatre artists will continue to ply their trades. No one seems to have a clue how it will all pan out. I don't really expect them to know. I don't have much of a clue either, FWIW. But I do have some thoughts.
The answer to everyone's big question: Yes, of course, theatre will continue. Because for a couple of thousand years so far, despite pre-COVID-19 pandemics, innumerable wars, catastrophic natural disasters, and The Lion King, nothing has managed to kill it.
Theatre always emerges stronger, as it will in this case, because it now has thousands of new and important human stories to tell. As Jeff Goldblum would have said in the sadly-never-filmed Jurassic Mamet, “Theatre life finds a fucking way.”
Not only will it survive, it will flourish--undoubtedly and indubitably. Because we humans need and cannot do without the thousands of personal stories told to us by friends, relatives, and live performers. Patti Digh, in her book “Four-Word Self-Help: Simple Wisdom for Complex Lives,” wrote: “The shortest distance between two people is a story.” Theatre is really just dressing up these stories and letting only your close friends play the parts.
Nothing can replace live storytelling, and nothing ever will.
But how will it survive? In what form? Are the days of too-small seats and surreptitious elbow-angling for joint armrests over?
At least for now, yes.
What will theatre in the days of social distancing and viral contamination look like?
Some theatres have already had the foresight (and hefty budget) to embrace “The Tech” and this is a three-pronged benefit:
• It satisfies the inevitable requests to provide opportunities for folks to view a production they missed when it was originally presented.
• Theatrical archives are eminently useful for later analyses of script, acting, and technique.
• It lets people see plays not available in their own area.
Live performances by virus-free actors and crew will be streamed. Computer and personal devices, which most of the people in the theatre-available world have, can act as both senders and receivers. Just imagine Facetime-ing The Vagina Monologues. The Tech has already bridged the gap between our massive geographical distances; people thousands of miles away are now at arm’s length.
I posit that, because of the ease of viewing (and as long as prices are affordable, if not free), theatre audiences will undoubtedly increase.
For years now, podcasts (including my own, Onstage/Offstage [], in which we showcase the work of artists and technicians from virtually all theatre professions) have been broadcasting audio versions of plays. Now we have easy video in the form of Zoom and similar apps, all publicly available and all relatively simple to learn and use. It's very much like what Garage Band and Pro Tools did for the music industry--they put the tools in the hands of amateurs.
We have to stop looking at this as “what we no longer have,” and start looking at it as “these are the tools we now have.” Think about it: Good plays are all about unbalancing the status quo. Evolution works the same way. Stability is good, but it has always been temporary. Without periodic apple-cart-toppling, humans would rarely change their perspectives.
Granted, we now have Zoom, a communication boon. But how long will our play performances resemble Hollywood Squares or the TV intro to The Brady Bunch? At the moment the medium is what it is, and we have to adapt our profession to it and create specifically for it. But, as with all technological progress, our needs will dictate the changes to come.
I believe The Tech will provide, at first with viable alternatives for our previous practices while concurrently expanding our production choices. What will we ask for in future upgrades? Will we still Zoom on actual hand-built sets or situation-specific virtual backgrounds--modern-day digital cycloramas? How will The Tech handle lighting? Sound? Will it do it all in “post,” that is in the computer? Will it, if this virus throws us new curves, allow us to represent live actors with avatars or computer-generated figures? Will COVID-19 turn us into Pixar? Will we soon have “Zoom for Theatre”?
I'm a playwright, and I know that if all theatres were suddenly converted to Taco Bells I'd still keep writing, and so would many of my colleagues. Because this is what we do. And we’ve done it on street corners, storefronts, and outdoor malls. We are specifically built to tell stories destined for live, immediate performance. And we will undoubtedly find a way to produce them.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Go, Teem!

There are millions of words teeming around
in my nether-wherevers,
all jockeying for position to get onto the next page.

They don't always follow a strict kind of order;
some gone and have jumped ahead;
some never made it in time and then
I have to go
back inside
looking for them.

For the most part, though, they are generously cooperative.
But not all.

Some words make me change the ones that came before.
Some words that got the good seats first make me abandon the ones I thought would come later.

Some words lead me to a place I have not thought of yet.
Sentences to nowhere.
Sometimes I have to wait for a long time to see the words that come and finish the trip.
Other times I have to thank them for their effort, and wipe them clean.

They teem noisily, btw.
Banging into each other.
Some are very rude.
Some of the rude ones elbow the rest aside and barge onto the page.
Many times, the ones that come later make them move out.
You were just using me,” the rude ones accuse as they exit.

I nod because they are right.

Still I sit, unmoved by their complaints, and wait impatiently for the next spill.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Thoughts on a Hopeful Future.

In the happenstance that we somehow manage to survive this administration's blatant attacks on the people of the United States, let’s ponder a few changes we might make to the system to prevent a reoccurrence of this travesty.
1)  Require all presidential candidates to have a thorough knowledge of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It is important that each candidate who proposes to lead the country should have extensive knowledge of its rules and operating system.
I further propose that each candidate be publicly scored on their knowledge through a candidate-wide series of Jeopardy-like competitions in which selected candidates (drawn by random chance to compete in each episode against each other) face a series of questions, both theoretical and practical, on all issues in both documents. The sheer gladiator-like, deer-in-the-headlights spectacle of this competition should achieve legitimacy by entertaining the masses while giving an equal playing field to people from any profession or background.
2)  Have all candidates face a thorough and publicly available background check to determine their moral fitness to stand as POTUS. Again, to weed out individuals with a public track record of sexual abuse, human rights abuses, racial discrimination, warmongering, or other established criminal actions or humanitarian “indiscretions.”
3)  Same as above, but for financial integrity. Have their financial backgrounds examined for corporate or investor malfeasance and possible criminal activity. It is important that POTUSes prove that they behave legitimately and honestly.
4)  Award extra points (akin to college and university scorings for volunteer work) for:
i)    Time, effort, and projects initiated and fulfilled in helping those less fortunate. If a POTUS likes to talk about making our country strong, let's see how they have already worked towards that goal. A strong country has a strong citizenry, meaning its residents have access to jobs, living wages, civic financial support such as unemployment, affordable and universally available—medical care.
ii)  Demonstrated efforts to strengthen, expand, and make available to all the educational system.
iii) Substantial time spent among cultures other than the United States, or at least in communities made up of significant numbers of non–white/ male/ wealthy/ Christian/ heterosexual/ sheltered people. A good POTUS should have a knowledgeable and thorough worldview, with experience outside these privileged spaces, with workers, immigrants, the poor, and those suffering from environmental and social injustice.
If a candidate proposes to stand as POTUS, let's hold them to a much higher standard that the rest of us. POTUS is arguably the most important position in the United States government, with ramifications that affect hundreds of millions, both at home and around the globe, and as such each candidate must demonstrate an exceptionally high level of moral, financial, and personal integrity.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Not for nothing, but...

...You will fail. You will fail a thousand times. Some of these failures will be astonishingly acute. You'll watch your colleagues achieve great successes and you'll feel inadequate, out of the loop. Not one of the cool kids.

But your few successes will be worth both the thousands of dedicated hours spent bringing your visions into tangibility and the disappointments of those awaited emails that say nothing but, Sorry kid, we had this many submissions taken in and we thought a bunch were more worthy than yours. And when these e-notices come from friends, they sting a bit more.

Fact is you will, in all likelihood, not win nearly as many times as you think you should. Your belief in your own work is your greatest strength and your Achilles' Heel; it will keep you afloat during the Dark Ages and serve to highpoint the bee stings that plague your inbox. Your work will take hundreds of hours and miles of internal digging to bring to the surface—if it's to be any good at all. This comes with a mighty cost. But no matter how good it is—intrinsically--someone will not feel it appropriate for their own purposes. This is not you; this is simply bad chemistry.

(And here's the rub: even if your work does“suck”--whatever that means—somebody, somewhere will take a shine to it. Seriously: how much self-indulgent twaddle have you seen sponsors' dollars invested in that the rest of the audience simply adores?)

The hard part is that you have two choices: persist or change your road. Changing one's road means deciding that you're best served in another medium where the possibility of success has lower odds. That's a very hard decision, especially with the time and heart already invested. 

But maybe you do have that other ability within you that needs to be explored. We are annoyingly (and maybe overly-) complex creatures, and many times, like in our writing, we need to head west-by-southwest to crank out those six pages that lead us to that One Glorious True North Beat.

Only fellow artists will truly understand your existential pit of despair. In that, at least, you are not alone.

My own plan is simple: have my somewhat voluble yet momentary pity party, then take up my shovel and continue scraping away at the stony Earth, and to completely mix up metaphors, gallop full speed with head down, ears back, heading straight for Masterpiece Barn.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

They Talk Lots Funnier in Comedies

One of the critical elements of both farce and satire is the use of pseudo-naturalistic dialogue--dialogue that sounds completely apropos for the specific world in which the play is created, but specifically designed to remind the audience that the action on stage is in the realm of the absurd. A classic example of this is Ben Elton’s comedic dark tragedy Gasping. Gasping uses this device extensively to bring hilarity to what is essentially a morality tale about the end of the world.

Gasping’s story follows a supreme corporate toady, Philip, as he slimes his way up the corporate ladder. Much like corporate sycophants everywhere who only look at the next quarterly earnings, Philip never stops to consider the ramifications of his brilliant new idea: selling recycled/ processed oxygen. His “designer air” campaign takes off like a moon shot and soon everyone who can afford it is buying into the idea of breathing air that has been sucked from exotic locations. 

Designer air (not "cleaned" air) is of course an absurd concept, but something that is totally believable because someone is always coming out with some bit of psychotic nonsense, selling it to an unsuspecting, uninformed, and distracted public. But what starts out as a silly idea quickly turns into a disaster of global proportions.
Elton’s way of keeping this terra-ble death spiral comedic is to load the dialogue with absurdist speeches, mainly between Philip and his boss, the Chief. At first it is a fairly benign element, coaxing the audience into the tone of the play:
Philip: Our corporate hemline is showing plenty of thigh. If this keeps up we’re going to have to move into a very much bigger pair of corporate trousers. Possibly Switzerland.
As the play progresses, becoming more and more alarmist, Elton keeps the dialogue coming swiftly, loaded with scathing social commentary:
Philip: Wine glasses the size of buckets…portions so small you think you’ve got a dirty plate and it turns out to be your main course…the very best in executive dining....His muesli is so coarse it could prize open the buttocks of a concrete elephant.

Philip’s love interest, Kirsten, is another character who has no concept of social responsibility. Her interest is purely what other people see in her; she rails against a dinner guest who she claims has over-breathed her specially obtained air one night:
Kirsten: I’m sure he could discipline himself to take smaller breaths, I mean it’s just rude, it’s not as if the stuff just grows on trees. I was blowing some really terrific stuff tonight, Sicilian sucked on the north face of Mount Etna, completely wasted on him, of course.

The company has managed to buy the rights for local and foreign areas of oxygen farming, claiming rights to the gas, then selling it back to the local residents, forcing everyone to buy in. (Exactly like what some actual companies are doing with our water supplies as we speak.) In both the Chief and Kirsten’s minds it’s just good business; in fact they are Elton’s (and society’s) worst nightmare, people who have no social conscience whatsoever and are only interested in profits and prestige.

What eventually happens is that competition arises from other firms and everyone is forced to harvest all the oxygen they can. Soon all of the Earth’s oxygen has been appropriated and millions begin to suffocate, unable to pay the price to breathe. On the corporate level, only Philip seems to be aware of it. The Chief explains the situation and Elton’s thrust of the play in one speech:
Chief: Have you any idea how much grain was destroyed in the eighties? While people starved, how much milk was poured away while babies screamed with want? Nobody likes it Philip, but you can’t just give the stuff away; that way lies financial anarchy.

This speech is so exactly where Elton wants the play to be: deep within the horribly absurd (for those with a social conscience, of course) and thereby darkly comedic because of the unthinkable concept of such a situation. Elton makes use of a real event, the destruction of surplus milk and grain by mega-companies in the 1980s, directly in the face of hunger and starvation, merely for the all-consuming sake of monetary profit. In the end when everyone faces death and the world is entirely without oxygen, Philip decides his only move left is to kill the Chief. Just before they both suffocate:
Chief: …you’re going to realize what a hugely detrimental career decision it is to try and kill your employer.
Philip: It wasn’t made lightly, Chief, and I was so unsure I nearly rang my accountant.

Both men are acutely aware of the colossal destruction, the irreversible tragedy that is claiming all oxygen-breathing life on Earth, and they still cannot think outside their corporate box. It is only Elton's use of absurdist humor is that makes this nightmarish play palatable.

Friday, January 17, 2020


Step one: Have a great idea. Hilarious. Suspenseful. Brilliant! Can't wait to start putting words to parchment—Yay!
Step two: Got the amazing opening monologue down completely, end-to-end in one session. Requires remarkably little editing; came out perfectly. I live for days like this! Writing is wonderful!
Step three: Bash out first scene just as planned. This is gonna be a good one. All characters, individual and clear and fully formed, just jump off the page.
Step four: Character 3 surprises me with an unexpected tactic. It's a good one. Forces me to rethink the next batch of forward movement, but the play as a whole looks better.
Step five: Character 4 suddenly—out of nowhere—suddenly morphs into a completely different character (one from a previous, directly related  play—hello, excuse me, why are you here?) making it necessary to incorporate two more previously written entities. A strange turnabout indeed, but you gotta love the surprises in this game.
Step six: Realizing now that I have these repeat characters, the original ending will have to change. That's okay; it was a little fuzzy to start with. So, like the intrepid explorer Stanley, I place the pith helmet of my creativity squarely on the crown of my purpose and set boldly off into the jungle of the unknown.
Step seven: Realize now that my original first character, the one the play has been named after, has suddenly been relegated to a tertiary position. I wonder how much of my original scribblings I can keep. I had a whole series of utterly brilliant comedic running gags serving as plot tactics written down in my Notes for Play file. I’m sure I can salvage most of them.
Step eight: Hmmm. Is it possible to make the play about a different character and still keep the original title and premise?
Step nine: Finish first scene. Yep--it's now a completely different play. The words are still coming like an open faucet, but I'm not sure where it's leading anymore.
Step ten: Hey—no worries! I'm back on track because of Character Two's sudden reveal. Whew!
Step eleven: …which forces two other characters to get killed. Did not see that coming. Also did not see Character Four doing the dirty work. This...ummm...enriches...the play...?
Step twelve: Realize that the play is now a one-act and that because of the loss of two characters and that unexpected sentence that Character One just spewed out, the original planned Act Two is no longer viable. Hmmm. I have to think about this.
Step thirteen. Still thinking.
Step fourteen. Original two-act full-length play may actually be only a ten-minute play.
Step fifteen. Realize the opening monologue no longer fits. Maybe I can use it on its own. With some tweaking.
Step sixteen. Character 2 reveals she is now (and has always been, really, I just never knew it) female.
Step seventeen: Have to change the title (originally Surfing With Pasquale), as Character 1 is now in a coma. Coma-ing With Pasquale just doesn't have that snap.
Step eighteen: I think it's finished. Character 3 just suddenly ended their arc. I have nothing left. Pasquale still in a coma.
Step nineteen: Decide this is the last time I try to write a YA play.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Asking for 10-page samples

Having had to negotiate reading 50+ submissions at a time (on more than a few occasions), I favor asking for 10-page samples. This is not a wholly favorable practice; it frequently provokes pointed questions about the legitimacy of vetting scripts.
And of course I have had ethical issues with this. Does my asking for an abbreviated version of your play cheat us both by not having the full product at hand to judge in its entirety?
But, as one who has 50+ full-length plays to wade through, and as someone with little to no assistance in reading the aforementioned 50+ plays, does it make my jobs as literary manager and producer easier?
I've weighed the pros and cons of abbreviated samples, with fairness as the primary criterion:
By asking for the first 10 pages, I get the beginning of your play, and thus I should know two things:
• The specific importance of your inciting moment, what I call the Passover Factor: What is making this day/moment in time special? Why does this play need to exist? And;
• Is what is happening indeed interesting enough to get me through 10 pages of dramatic action?
Play readers need to judge as best we can what our audiences might think were this text inflicted upon them. It's not enough for me, the initial arbiter, to like it, although that's a definite plus because I will favor its further consideration for production. And to assume that my judgment is of a critical and professional proficiency to instantly and infallibly detect all Scripts of Unusual Caliber is self-righteous poppycock. But if I have the first 10 pages I can make a fair assumption about (again) two things:
• The efficacy of the opening of the play, and;
• The remainder of the work, which I can reasonably expect to be equally compelling. If your first 10 pages kick my ass, I'll gladly ask you for and read through the rest, waiting for the grand payoff. If your first 10 pages don't grab me, then I can safely deduce that the rest will similarly glaze my eyes over.
Remember, I have 50+ plays to read and judge to the best of my ability. And “to the best of my ability” means just that. Few folks admit to play-reading fatigue. One person can read only so many plays before they get tired and lose the energy needed to fairly critique each successive play. If I have to read 50+ complete plays, all ranging from 45 to 95 pages, I'm going to lose my shit.
But if I have to read only 10 pages, I can not only process the bulk faster, leaving me more time to coach my actors, design the posters, sell tickets, and clean the theatre's toilets, but convince myself that I am judging fairly every play on my desk. The job is easier, and my time is better spent.
And as I read those ten pages, I have to imagine the audience experiencing those 10 minutes of performed script. That’s a long time to wait before the play shows its power.
Before we go any further, let me state for the record that, as an eternally hopeful scribbler of dramatic material, I want everyone to read my entire play through. Why? Because they are damn good, and I want literary managers to have the whole things to judge. (Yes, I see the contradiction here.)
Theatres, in order to achieve their noble goals of Producing Killer Art For The Masses, spend an inordinate amount of their time asking for money so they can stay open, have electricity, pay their taxes and rents, maintain heating and cooling systems, pay directors and (we hope) the actors, and keep the artistic director brimmed with skinny double soy lattes and Ramen noodles. All these items are highest on the “Necessities We Absolutely, Positively Need to Pay For” list 
What's far down said list is “People to Read All These Damn Submissions.” That is, people who know how to read plays. People with experience who know how to read plays. We've all seen the opp line: “Give us six months to a year to get back to you.” It could be they have only one or two people to read every play submitted. It could mean they really want to dedicate time to making sure they find the best work. Most of the time, I think, it means both.
And as long as I'm ranting, let me briefly discuss opps that ask for a second option: “Send us your best 10 pages,” or more commonly, “a 10-page representative selection of your play.”
Why is this different from asking for the first 10 pages? Simply because reading the first 10 pages takes us chronologically into your magnum opus, the same as the thousands of future sold-out audiences will experience. That's important. But if the playwright cherry-picks an arbitrary section of the work, the reader cannot reasonably extrapolate the assets and liabilities of the whole work. We're getting what the playwright feels is the best part of the play. I don't want that. If this is the best 10 pages, then I have to think the rest of the play is less compelling.
So why not just ask for the whole play and stop reading after 10 pages? Seems like the perfect answer, no? I remember someone telling me to “just get through the first one hundred pages” of this particular novel, and then “It will all pay off.” Granted, the second hundred pages were thrilling, but if I had not been urged to stick with it, I would have set the book down for lack of interest. Likewise, theatres can't have someone push you back into your seat through the first act waiting for act two to spark joy or other emotion. We all want your work to be fantastic, and sometimes we carry on reading counting on that glimmer of hope you showed in the first 10 pages, waiting for the worthy payoff that many times, sadly, does not come. For us, that's precious time spent. 
In this society which undervalues, or in some cases, negatively values the need for art to flourish and creativity to stir up the coagulated Zeigeist Soup, theatres have one overarching job: survival. The need to do whatever they can to pay the rent and the staff, keep the grid functioning, and find 30-foot hamster wheels for their ex-lover's surrogate father's updated version of Hamlet, now set in a steampunk Habit-Trail. They need plays that are sure winners. And they need to make sure they accrue those sure winners as efficiently and as fairly as they can. It behooves every dramatic writer to make those 10 pages count.