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Saturday, December 15, 2012

Who Are We?

This rant is much too late, considering the time passed since Columbine.  But I will throw it out there anyway.

It comes to a point where a decision must be made between a civil liberty (automatic weapon ownership) and the greater good: what is judged to be both necessary for the safe existence of the majority of people in a particular society without exercising the tyranny of the majority. It is not tyrannical to deny ownership of guns, particularly automatic weapons. Guns are not an integral part of a society’s necessary needs, such as food, clothing, shelter, adequate medical facilities, and the right to be let alone.

Unfortunately, there are not multi-millions supporting the greater good. Think about that for a minute; think about that statement held up next to the principles we as Americans hold up as our basic ideals: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Why do we allow such anti-life, liberty-robbing, and happiness-destroying forces to hold sway over our societies?

More simply, who allows and encourages this?

Guns kill people, plain and simple. People with guns kill other people. Our society allows and approves of our children being brought up with games and shows that advocate killing as a way to solve problems. We must change our mindset and our mores. No, we will never completely eradicate the gun problem in this country, but we can restructure our society to actively reject any representation of "It's okay for the *good* guys to kill" mentality, enact bans on automatic weapon sales, AND make gun applications much more restrictive. Sorry, folks, but most of you out there really don't need a gun unless you live on the frontier. You’ve been fed a diet of fear and you’re obese. These things are not toys, not a substitute for your undernourished ego, they are not god-given rights. They are not inherently manifestations of American patriotism. They have one purpose: to kill. We have permits for driving and laws against drugs and alcohol; to allow such unrestricted dissemination of mass killing machines is a crime against humanity.

Our children are dying. We lost twenty in Connecticut. At once. In a psychotic reign of terror. By guns that were legally bought.

A friend relates that she discussed this with someone who opined with a shrug: “These things happen.” What kind of society breeds this pathetically casual response to mass murder? That may be the worst horror story of all.

Are we already over the edge with no hope of redemption?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

There is no backup.

No, There is no backup.

So it took me ninety minutes today to prep and send out the fifty-fourth play submission of the year. Ninety. Minutes. As we playwrights all know, everybody who calls for dramatic scripts wants something different. And the professionals all tell you the same things: 
“Keep it simple, keep it short, these people have a million and one submissions to read. Most of them are crap and will make them want to rip out their own eyeballs with a spork. Don't be cute, don't give them what they don't ask for, make sure your spelling and punctuation are letter perfect; you don't want to come across as an idiot. Or worse, careless.  Wait maybe “idiot” is worse. Whatever. Doesn't matter.”

So I had to find ten pages of the new play to use as a sample. I used the beginning, thinking who wants to suddenly start reading the middle of the play? Problem is... ten pages in cut it of mid-scene. Should I go for the cliffhanger effect? It says ten pages. Fine. From now one every damn play I write will have whatever scene runs to through page 10 end on page 10.

Fine. Now the cover letter. Lately they've all been very simple, very efficient: 
Dear Literary Manager It Took Me Seventeen Minutes of Searching Your Web Site to Find,

First, let me thank you for the opportunity to submit. I'd like to offer you my play, “The Entire Cosmos in 58 Minutes,” a sixteen-act comedic drama with 103 characters, all played by the same actor. Blah, blah, blah. All in all maybe two paragraphs. Salutation, best wishes, sign-off.

Slap on a pdf containing a synopsis, cast requirements, playwright bio. And hit the SEND button.

And there she goes... like a bottle adrift on the ocean. Maybe found, maybe lost. Really, the best you can hope for is a response, a sign of life, a faint pulse deep in the chest of the almost-corpse of your playwriting success saying that your submission was just ONE of the  THIRTY THOUSAND truly exceptional choices they received and the judges were so bewildered they were forced to disembowel their own children as sacrifices to the gods for help in choosing between your play and the lucky winner: “My First Orgasm.”

There's no backup. It's you. All you. No one else. You chose to be there. There's no one to blame except yourself, you big stupidhead. You could have been something worthwhile, like a doctor. Or at worst, an accountant. BOOOORRRRING yes, but they have paychecks.

So I sent out the fifty-fourth one of the year to a theatre that actually sounded like they might be human. Aside from the usual boilerplate submission notice, this place bothered to put in a section titled: “What We're Doing With the Plays We Find.” (And yes, my first thought was “shredder.”) But they sounded like they were looking for plays and playwrights they could invest it... work with over a period of time. Become familiar with and develop a relationship. So I spent 45 minutes crafting a cover letter that included a compliment about the literary manager's blog (which I really did enjoy reading...good stuff there), a little personal information (outlook, philosophy), and something about what my writing is about. More than the usual, I mean. The rest of the time was spent tweaking the script sample. Rewrote a few lines, cut a few more, the usual thing I do whenever I pick up one of my scripts. Then hit SEND.

How's your day going?

We're Just Damn Plain CHICKENSHITS.

(From August 14, 2012)
Rarely have I been so... amazed... at the pride in which some folk display their deliberate ignorance, willful bigotry , unabashed greed, and complete lack of basic human consideration for either the ecology or their neighbors' welfare as I was tonight at the Spencer, NY, town meeting.

"I ain't from the Republic of Ithaca," one steadfast Spencerite declared. Implying, one might guess, that Ithaca is the City of what? Evil? Nope. Worse: tree-huggers, religious atheists, corporate non-believers, and an unhealthy mass of other embarrassing, clearly unAmerican degenerates? The best part was that the recent ex-mayor of Ithaca was sitting right next to me at the time this mal mot was said. The “Did he just say that?” look on her face was fucking priceless.

So all us weird people who are against hydrofracking... what exactly is our problem? (Besides being terrorist sympathizers, that is.) Here it is: We’re CHICKEN. Another of Spencer’s lifelong well-known citizens listed among his crayon-scrawled pro-fracking arguments that “Most forms of energy come with some risk. You can’t expect to get things without some kind of risk.”

Seriously?  Really?

So I’m what? Yellow? A sissy if I don’t want my ground water to contain carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and to be (omigod how unforgivably wussy of me to complain about it, but) FLAMMABLE???

And so... the War on the Environment progresses like the run-up to the season finale of American Idiot. Not “Idiot.” Idol?  Idle, that's it. American Idle.  The saviors of the energy race are bound and determined to forcibly jam their side-wells into our pristine countryside, all in the name of... ummm... energy independence... US superiority (“fuck the middle East”)... gas-industry godliness. 

So we have our house on the market. 23 years of bucolic paradise squelched by a bunch of greedy dimbulbs. We just had a jaunt into Bernieville, also known as Sanders-tarium. God knows how long he'll last; maybe they'll Leninize him... give him a formaldehyde juicebox and stick him in the Vermont State Capitol on a revolving pedestal with sound bites emanating from the base, just to keep him going. 

So our neighbors, all God-fearin' simple humble folk, have invested in the New Energy Future, run up Old Glory (a couple actually do fly the StaznnnBarrrrzzz), and signed on the dotted line. Meanwhile the rest of us are hopin’ ‘n prayin’ for a rein-tarnation of that slave-holdin’ backwoods sage, Dan'l Webster, to materialize and argue agin old Mr. Splitfoot, his hand-picked jury of demonic politicians, and save our sorry uninformed asses and nullify the deal these patriots done signed. 

It's not the writing that does you in. It's the rewriting.

(From August 6, 2012)
So. Playwriting. What a freakin' mess some days.

It's not the writing that does you in. It's the rewriting. Or the reluctance to rewrite. Two ways to drive yourself mad.

Every dramatic scribe wants to hear the same thing when they ask a friend/colleague to read the latest masterpiece: unequivocal praise. That's what I want: Endless phrases extolling my unfathomable genius, my psychic understanding of the human condition, my uncanny ability to capture the essence of the human condition and reveal the deepest, most vulnerable parts of the soft white underbelly, leaving behind me a wake of permanently changed, highly moved, forever enlightened humans. 

I dunno about you, but that doesn't happen to me too often. Usually it's a litany of:
“I didn't like [the character]. I just didn't. You should change him.”
“I don't understand why she did that.”
“It's too long.”
“It's too short.”
or my favorite:
“You need zombies to eat his brains out. Or space aliens to take over the government. That would be so cool!!!”

And again I ask myself... what did I do to deserve this?

And yes, out of every ten comments, maybe, what? two? are appropriate as to what the piece might need, or close to. Maybe. Sad, I know, but, as that piano guy from the 80s said, that's just the way it is. Some things will never change.

Which means more work. Which means thinking about this damn play all over again. Which means deciding if you actually really wanna accept the criticism and rewrite. And if so, how much of a rewrite?

Recently I was presented with a play in which the ending seemed formulaic...typical...expected... unsurprising... without any special resonance. Certainly not very dramatic and nothing new was brought to light. An interesting lead-in with likable characters that suggested the usual expected reveal, which I hoped would not follow and of course, did follow obediently. Criticism from myself and others was consistent and then I saw it... the playwright immediately walled up. The smile was there, but the eyes and the facial muscles said “Nope. I like it the way it is. I'm not changing it because this is the way I want it.”

I am the first one to say that the playwright has the right to do whatever he or she wishes with his or her piece. That's sacrosanct. But... why? Why submit it for critique in the first place? Just to garner praise? Bullshit. The reason we submit to our peers is (and should be) solely... here, write this down: the integrity of the piece. It's the play that has to stand all by itself. No playwright can run around explaining its purpose to every audience. That's sheer folly. This particular playwright wrote a piece that was unexceptional and predictable. No great sin. It was certainly better than many other efforts I've been subjected to. Plays that made little sense. Plays that had zero characterization. Plays that were so... what? Avant garde? Experimental? That they challenged the laws of physics with their affectatious self-importance and stupefying lack of logic? This new piece was not crap by any means, but it also wasn't anything that stood out of the crowd, either. If that's all this playwright wanted, he succeeded. Hey, mazel tov. But (if I have anything to say about it) it's not going in my next playfest. I want – and I assume the audience does, too – plays that challenge, stir, surprise, change one. That's what I and most people pay their hard-earned shekels for: a new, worthy experience.

Rewriting is as much a part of playwriting as the original first draft. More, actually. Cuz it usually lasts a lot longer. Hell... some plays take years to rewrite. They don’t just fall into place. They're They take time, indulgence, emotional growth, instinct, and humongous shitloads of patience. And, despite best efforts, one makes a bunch of embarrassing mistakes. Plays are not inanimate beings. You have to listen to what THEY want, not just toss in what you want to put in them. You can't crowbar in a line, speech, scene, or ending and have it all work out. It will turn out false. And falsity destroys plays. Listen to it... the play will tell you what it needs.

“I fixed it! I changed the ending!” Great. Terrific. Not really. These are words I personally dread. Does your new ending now match the rest of the work? That is, does your new catastrophe/denouement accurately reflect the progression of the sequential elements that came before it? Is it seamless? Is it a logical, inevitable summation of the conflict that preceded it? See... the problem is... once you change one thing, you have to go back and make sure the rest of it jibes. Chances are you may have engineered  a character change that now has insufficient justification. Or maybe accelerated the reveal or revelation, having effected a result that should have taken six (or sixty) more pages. The pieces do not exist by themselves... they live and breathe and depend on every other part of the work.

This IS rocket science. No, screw that. Rocket science is simpler. This is like psychology. Mumbo-jumbo. No way to quantify it. No way besides gut knowledge to know if it's true.   It is NOT easy. It is not about the glory of Jane Schmane, playwright. Screw that too. It is about the work and ONLY the work. Fergodssakes. If it was easy, every clown would be doing it. (Okay, somedays it does seem like every clown is doing it. I recently opened up a book of “The Best Short Plays of [YEAR]” and was so aghast with the ineptitude of the first selection that I almost pooed myself in disbelief. Holy shit what a terrible waste of ink, paper, and consciousness. Nothing new, but that was the least of its self-inflicted death blows. Not a shred of revelatory truth or insight. Just tricks. Dramatic gags. Devices without real humanity to drive them.  Crap any fool could learn in playwriting school. Flummery. Should have been a tv script.)

The deal is that every time you sentence yourself to creating a script, you are in it for the long haul. And most times the haul isn't really all that long, especially with the recent obsession for the 10-minute play. But you have to commit and you have to leave your ego on the porch. The word is “playwright”; the “wright” signifies someone who practices a craft, who is constantly engaged in a process of perfection-seeking that does not end. A friend of mine, a respected and talented playwright, once answered the question, “When is a play finished?” with “When you begin the next one.” Then she added, “Except that you usually go back to it some time later and fix the boo-boos you didn't know about till you wrote the one following.”

Good luck.

School's Out!

(From May 14, 2012)

So the semester is at an end, and having been saddled with teaching duties, it brings me to the trough of self-reflection...where I ponder once again...about myself. Not in a “Me, Me, Me” way, but in a “How did I do?” way. First semester teaching stage direction at TC3 and while I could spend copious time lauding the efforts of my excellent students, I have to reflect on the end results. At first it seemed like a leviathan to overcome: how could I ever manage to fill 15 weeks of three-hour classes? As the time progressed, I began to realize that I had been looking at a pinhole of time with an electron microscope. The question became “Holy shit. I only have this much time left to teach all this stuff!” ONE semester of directing when I knew some colleges spend at least two? What was I thinking? Oh, hubris berzerk!!

The reason I ramble and ruminate is that I saw my students' first real directorial efforts earlier today. And while there was a...diversity (?) of success... I did see effort to incorporate the things we had covered in class. Movement. Tableaus. Reactions to lines. Scoring each speech. Viewpoints. Physical interpretation. Not one of them could have been accused of not trying.

I had great students. Started with six, ended up with the same six. Not bad. 0% attrition. All were eager to learn, and ready to do the job. Which left it up to me to tell them what the job actually was. 

They showed varying degrees of success, but all high levels of intent and work involved. And yet I feel as if, through their first kicked-out-of-the-nest efforts, that there could have been more uniform results. Was I not clear? Did I not cover this or that? Did I cover it but insufficiently? Going back over my lesson plans I see few gaps in critical material coverage. I do, however, see inadequate time to thoroughly explore topics. 

I'll definitely spend a bunch of time reworking the course... spend more time here, less here... drop this... introduce that. Pick and choose among all of the several hundred equally crucial and necessary topics. And probably do it again after the next time I teach this course. (What the hell, I'm constantly reworking my plays years after the original crayon stains have dried.) 

I know part of me is being unrealistic; that behind this scribble-babble is the idea that I can churn out --across the board--astute directors who GET IT. By this I mean get the idea...the concept... a glimpse of the whole play, inside and out, organic and inorganic, and the ability to develop a perspective about their projects. Give them tools enough to walk out and do an (at worst) semi-decent job of putting something on stage.

How responsible am I for my students’ success? Yes, yes, yes... stupid question and I already know the answer.  So why do I ask?


Sorry it's over, glad it's done for now. 

Writing Habits of the Highly Non-Productive.

(From May 8, 2012)
This was a FB post from today, based on a list-article from writers telling about their quirky writing habits.

“Think about the project for a long time. Procrastinate like an Olympic champ, including finding and installing album cover graphics for all of my iTunes songs, waiting for images and epiphanies to assemble themselves, and posting on Facebook incessantly. Anticipate with grave dread the day I sit down at the computer, realize I can't put it off any longer, say "Fuck it," and start typing.

Then it's off to Gimme! every day, earphones on to deflect "How are ya?/Are ya writing?/What is it?/Is it a new play?/Do you have a part for me?" interruptions. And you can say goodbye to me for the next six months cuz that work is ALL I ever think about.”

Someone *will* do a study attempting to calculate how much creative writing time is lost by writers wasting their time on FB. And they will have a large grant to enable them to do it. And then someone will write a play about that.

Historical Curiosity or Obsession?

(From Saturday, April 21, 2012)
I guess most people develop a... shall we say, “extended interest”... in one thing or another. Why I focused on the life of Richard Plantagenet, also known as Richard III of England, I can only guess at. Possibly it was the “black legend”; I’ve learned that when all you hear about someone or something is pretty much similar and of a negative nature, then it generally bears investigation. And since my favorite historical period is medieval Europe, checking out the dark matter seemed the thing to do.

And almost instantly my efforts were rewarded. First of all came the debunking of Shakespeare’s dramaturgical legacy.  No, Richard was not physically deformed. He was in fact quite fit and in generally excellent shape. It was common (and still is, unfortunately) to indicate to audiences that a character was flawed internally/spiritually by giving him/her a visible physical disability. Shakespeare’s Richard had a spinal hump and a withered arm, but the real McCoy was said to be of just below average height, medium weight, well-muscled, and generally pleasing to the eye.

Further investigations (eventually two-and-a-half years of them) unfolded further Bardish debunkations. Far from being the evil mastermind, Richard led a largely upright moral and ethical existence. He was loyal to his family and friends (his motto was “Loyalty binds me”), fair in his judicial renderings, and did several other impressive things:
  • Established the Court of Requests for poor people who could not afford legal representation;
  • Introduced bail to protect suspected felons from imprisonment before trial and to also protect their property from seizure during that time;
  • Banned restrictions on the printing and sale of books;
  • Ordered the translation of the written laws and statutes from the traditional French into English so reg’lar folk could read them.
All in all he was fairly progressive. He was also extremely careful. He’d seen two of his older brothers (both of whom he was said to worship) end badly. George, the Duke of Clarence, was quite greedy and, by royal decree, ended up upside down in a butt of malmsey (if you believe that) or stabbed. Edward IV, the oldest brother, stretched the limits of how many turkey legs, mugs of ale, and loose women any one man could consume and paid for it with his life. Richard, eyewitness to all this, was a lot more careful and a lot more boring. Still and all, being careful and progressive didn’t quite help him. He died in battle--the last monarch to do so--at approximately 1:30 p.m. on August 22, 1485 at age 32. 

Whether or not he ordered the deaths of his nephews has been hotly debated. Some say emphatically and forcefully yes, others vociferously decry the calumny and shout “no!” There is no real proof either way. The bodies have not been discovered or verified. It would have been politically idiotic for him to kill a pair of royal children...believe it or not, despite the various and sundry atrocities committed in the day, some things were still sacred back then. But then again, having them around meant that some folks would see the older one as the rightful king and raise an army to reinstate him.

Sometimes there are no perfect answers. And it remains that the journey to seek what might not be there is all the reward there may be. I spent two-and-a-half years digging into this. Others have spent ten times that much. I could do that too but I like to go out once in a while.