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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Are We There Yet...??

[As threatened in the previous post, this is the not-really-a-follow-up to an idea already touched on.]  

I always know it’s out there . . . lurking . . . waiting . . . with a sly Cheshire grin on its face, frolicsome malice in its heart . . . and the certainty of inevitability that one of the wide-eyed, unsuspecting neophytes in the room will undoubtedly speak the magic words that summon it, giving it free and full rein in the classroom.
And after that . . . pfffft . . . all bets are off.
The question always comes, no way of getting around it. It’s usually asked with an edge of suspicion, as if the questioner somehow knows as he or she is in the process of asking, the act of bringing the heretofore nascent concept to vocalized center stage, of saying in effect “Holy shit, look at the elephant in this room,” that the answer will be somewhat, nay much less than satisfying. It’s like asking the IRS “How much do I owe you…??”
The question, simply put is this:
“So how do I know when my play is done?”
Believe it or not, I don’t have an immediately acceptable answer for that one yet. I mean I have an answer but it’s (when considering the audience) pretty lame and kinda pretentious.
My first instinct is to say “Never.” But that’s ridiculous. Not ridiculous because it’s inconceivable that something might never reach perfection (it’s not), but because I can’t look at a classroom full of playwright wannabes and hit them with that. It’s not really fair.
Age (hopefully) brings experience and experience changes perception. Maybe the play I wrote fifteen years ago looks a bit dated, trite, or (god forbid) na├»ve. I may see things in last year’s award winner that are now so obvious as to be worth a forehead-smack. I may decide that the character of the lover needs further development so as to become more real, less of a literary tool, less purely functionary, and become truly flesh, raising the emotional level of act five, scene twelve.
Let me backtrack a bit. First of all, I think, there are stages to “done.” There is the “First Done,” when you have managed to string a somewhat credible thread all the way through your latest creation and all of the basic pieces are in more or less proper order. You have a beginning, obstacles, and an end. This is known in the business as a “first draft.”
(FYI…? Nobody sees my first drafts. Nobody. You can try to bribe me, get me drunk, or descend upon me the latest in physical torture, or tie me down and play an endless loop of REO Speedwagon’s greatest hits, but it ain’t ever gonna happen.)
“First Done” is only a mile marker that signifies that the basic skeleton is now assembled.  “First Done” goes on (in my case, after several more drafts) to “Second Done.” This is the stage where actual human eyes are allowed to traverse the pages. Actually his means just my wife, Maura. She reads it, edits it, and hands it back, dripping with red like a recently dispatched horny teenager from “Friday the 13th Part 42.” I then incorporate all (or nearly all) of her editorial notes, occasionally rejecting what I consider to be character-necessary exceptions: word choices that either maintain or augment a syllable-based tempo or accentuate a certain personal trait (for example “Whazzup?” for “What’s up?”). For me, word choices are my anal-retentive excursion into micro-managing. Syllables count. Juxtaposition of sentence structures make a world of difference. I am painting a canvas with a series of interlocking syllables. It is a magic spell that only works when the right sequence of properly chosen words is found.
“Third Done.” This is where I open it up to my initial workshop group of actors and director. Workshop process occurs, which leads to, yep, “Fourth Done.” Now it’s ready for a staged reading.
And on and on. I mention this process simply because there are playwrights out there who will say that a play is done when it’s been produced. Or when it’s been read and corrected. Or when the playwright has had enough. Some playwrights workshop once, others twice (or more), others eschew the entire process, believing that allowing others to effect changes on or in one’s script violates the playwright’s creative boundaries. Everyone is different.
I totally believe in workshopping. Workshopping is the process by which the kinks and road bumps in the script are revealed to me. Nothing works as well as hearing a good actor, doing the best job they can, demonstrate that a line is complete shit.
(But, you ask, as a professional playwright, shouldn’t I be able to find these blemishes on my own? Honestly . . . ? By the time I get to this stage, I am so deep within the forest I don’t see it any more. I am looking at individual trees. You’d be amazed at what I can miss. More on this in some other rant.)
But when I have a group of eager-beavers in Beginning Playwriting, almost certainly their overarching concern is Writing Their Play. And this means Finishing Their Play. So, when the question is asked and the monster is summoned, I waver between the rambling semi-rant just proffered and an answer I find almost impossible to improve on, yet know will just make the situation worse.
What I usually say is this: “Knowing when the Truth of the script is fulfilled.”
And without exception the room goes dead. You could hear a pin fart in the silence. And it’s fairly obvious how lame the answer is because of the WTF? looks I get. In my defense, the answer I gave is, according to me, the best and most truthful answer possible. You stop when you know it’s right, right?
But many neophyte playwrights don’t have any way to gauge when the “truth of the script blah blah blah.” To them, just finishing writing the damn thing is being done—they don’t get that “First Done” is not the end of their trials; it’s only the first rest point. And this is where the fun of the thing may start to disappear… when the real work comes in.
But the real work . . . that is what will separate the genuine playwrights from the non. Many of the former will understand that a script is a growing thing and that evolution is inevitable. You don’t finish raising a kid when you send him to kindergarten. Yes, it’s the same thing, except in playwriting the meltdowns are on your side.
But what if there were a way to accurately gauge the moment when the play’s Maximum Truth Level (MTL) has been reached? When everything that should be included in it has been and all the words interact to form a Perfect Creation? When there is literally no more you can do to bring “’My First Orgasm,’ a Play in Sixteen Acts” to perfect fruition?
What we need is the equivalent of a little pop-up timer like they have in Thanksgiving turkeys; as soon as the play’s emotional resonance has reached its peak, just past pink, but still moist, the timer shoots out its little rod to let us know to take it out of the creative oven. This will signify the moment when “sphagnum” becomes “magnum,” as in opus.
And yet, even that may still be just a stop gap. What’s “done” now may not be “done” in five years. Like it or not, you change, and your perceptions change, and that means the way you look at a work you’ve produced changes.
I did a small survey of some professional and semi-professional playwright acquaintances on this question and the answer fifty percent of the time to the question, “When is a play done?” were variations on the word “never.” Other responses included:
“When you start the next one”;
“When I go back and read them and feel like I'm reading a play that was written by somebody else”;
“You don't finish a script, you abandon it.”
I used the analogy of raising kid earlier. Don’t scoff, dammit; I meant it and it’s valid. Like a kid, you create it, you birth it, you raise it, you tweak it, you stop it from doing stupid things, you get its hair cut when it can no longer see through the bangs, you try to lessen to hysterical melodrama, you clean up the spills, you feed it love, honesty, and attention. And you pray like hell you’re not fucking it up.
And, like a kid, it always remains one, even after a third production, a first mortgage, idiot directors mangling it, spouses that aren’t good for it, and even though it never calls except on birthdays and holidays, it’s still your creation. You started it and you’re responsible for it. Kids are NEVER done.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

"Truth"; a Rambling Discourse on the Essence of Knowing It When you See It But Not Knowing How to Describe It in Terms That Might Actually Be Useful

[Warning: This essay was written a few months ago, then abandoned and forgotten because things piled up. I started another essay a few days ago and will post it, and the new one will also deal with  the nature of Truth in a script; there will be similarities between the forthcoming and this essay, but I think there will also be substantial differences, enough to validate them both.

The last question posed by the dramaturg in the post-show talkback was “In your opinion, what was the theme of the play?” Decent question, and one most likely asked by matriculating theatre students of a certain, still-in-discovery age. Usually this question gets a scatter-shot result, with any number of audience members throwing out concepts with reckless abandon. (“Love!” “Despair!” “You need zombies!”) In this case, as stated conspicuously in the text, the protagonist's crisis was a “loss of faith.” Decent premise, and certainly can lead to any number of possibilities.

The protagonist, a life-long dedicated Christian, finds himself suddenly doubting the very existence of God, the supreme peg on which he's hung his entire life, the very nexus around which he has structured his beliefs, morals, and prejudices. And like most inherently good people, he feels this absence of faith is, not a flaw in the either the deity or the religion itself, but a flaw in his own system. The Christian God is, by its very nature, perfect. And, he reckons, if god does not exist, or he believes the god does not exist, the responsibility is not God’s, but most definitely his. Guilt abounds. Uncertainty. A questioning of the very nature of the fabric of his existence. So (based on the advice of his friendly neighborhood pastor to “take a vacation”) off he goes, like Don Quixote with a midwestern accent, on a quest to find . . .  he knows not what, because before this (and like many good-hearted folk who put their lives in the hands of their deity) he's never bothered to examine or question his own existence. The non-thinking blind man begins to travel. We await the awakening of his thinking muscles. Now that hold a promise of good theatre!

And the more I think about the play, the more I come back to the remark I made in the talkback, that by the end of the play, at the point of catastrophe, just before the oh-so disappointing deus ex rectum (when the God of Resolution is pulled from the playwright's nether region to magically tie up the loose ends), I believe that the protagonist had suddenly and finally found, NO, not the answer to his question of faith, BUT, more importantly, the direction in which he was supposed to head in order to achieve his goal. This… this is the critical moment. We, the audience, can assume, as the character begins to wake up… discover… break out of his self-imposed modes of thinking and self-restrictive reactions, that he will stumble along his way into the light sooner or later. In this and many other cases, the complete answer, the protracted denouement is not important. Really. Anti-climactic in many instances, I believe (yes, pun intended). What is critical is his breakout moment, that crest-of-the-shark’s fin of rising action epiphany when he suddenly, surprisingly, and naturally knee-jerks into a heretofore completely different mindset. And it worked. The moment was honest, vital, truthful, and OMG so effin’ sexy.

And yes, most everything had worked up until (and including) that critical point. But the next scene, the last scene, was the wrap-up, and I didn't buy it. Nothing up until then even indicated the resolution the playwright presented. But there we were. Happy ending achieved. And as some are aware, “Happy Ending” has more than one meaning these days.

Truth. Helluva concept. Our intrepid hero seeks it, but has no idea how to find it. His pitiful wanderings are both aimless and fruitless because he’s never been acquainted with non-linear, instinctive, self-directed thinking. He doesn’t understand it. It’s not a language he can speak. So he looks for a clue, something he can recognize, something he understands the language of. His belief in God has deserted him, so he naturally seeks something to replace it. And herein lies his real problem. He seeks to replace, and does not look at what remains. He who worships another and subjugates himself to that idol cannot understand being his own god. So he seeks a simple, objectively clear answer, just like the ones he’s believed up till now.

If life were that easy, drama would not exist. But Truth (yes, capitalized), like the sculpture device presented in this play, is representative. Objectivity is useless here; what our hero needs to unlock the door is a metaphor, a non-linear, abstract, figurative epiphany. When one’s own language fails, Truth must communicate by emotion.

Truth. Ya know . . . it sounds great, but . . . its very nature is a threat. It promises a subjectively accurate mirror to one's own psyche. Who wants to see who they really are? We say we do, but frankly that shit is terrifying. We spend so much time in our heads, subconsciously building up an image we can live with, be proud of, that just gets us through the day. Truth? Dude... absolutely. No problem. Tomorrow.

And here I arrive (omg finally) at the crux of the biscuit: truth in playwriting. The play I recently saw upon which I base this circuitous typing exercise was ... well ... the story moved, the characters were (almost) all interesting, and the direction was solid, imaginative, and visually stimulating. But the play itself — the text — forsook finding the truth of the dramatic crisis and settled for an out-of-left-field plot device to steer the protagonist into a revelation that supposedly settled the dramatic question. I respectfully say, “Poppycock.”

I tell my basic playwriting students this: that a denouement does not have to wrap things up tightly. And here is where I see what kind of people my students are. Life, I pontificate sonorously, is a really long and mostly boring story. Nearly every play you see is the last part of a section of someone’s life. Could be the very last section, in which they die. Could not be, in which case they go on. But, in well-crafted plays, they go on changed. Irrevocably. Some students get this in theory, others completely shut it off. For them Truth means absolute closure; everything all tidied up with no flaps sticking out anywhere. And this forces them into a mode of playwriting that can easily deny the very essential truth of human existence: that the imperfect nature of humanity denies, nay, abhors a clean wrap-up.

So, the poor befuddled students ask me, how do you end a play?

Truthfully, I reply. You’ll know it when it happens. Blank looks ensue, possibly scorn.  I try again. Let the play tell you, I say. Let the play write itself. Now the reactions range from one, maybe two, quiet “I got it” smiles to notebooks petulantly slamming closed.

Explication: The stimulating device in the play in question was the protagonist’s dying mother. There were three scenes featuring her, but her element was never truly utilized. Her illness never had the emotional weight to sway our intrepid yet quixotic hero into seeking the truth of his own dilemma. There was no interaction, no action at all, really, between near-catatonic Mom and our intrepid hero. No, it is not our job to assume what he felt, how he was affected. Seriously, how did he feel about her? That plot element wasn't special; mothers die all the time. Yes, it’s tragic, but without seeing his relationship with her in action how can we judge the effect of her passing? Did he love her? Was there a long-standing resentment? We have no idea. So her passing could not sway us to understand his final decision.

He says he suddenly no longer believes in God; fair enough. What does he do to rectify that dilemma? Does he seek spiritual answers in a quest for religious truth? No, he gets drunk, does drugs, falls in with ne’er-do-wells, and tries to learn sculpting. While on this hejira he deserts his wife (a cipher in the play; does she have a personality? We never find out. She is the true Stepford wife, dutiful, and nearly without identity/dialogue), leaves his dying mother to slowly fade away, and abandons both his daughters, only one of whom will have anything to do with him (another issue raised but never examined). But hey ... the mother's death brings him home, instills cosmological hope, and makes him beg for the love of his wife. Ooooo-kay.

Truth. It kinda happens in this play, but chickens out. It comes sooooo close, then diverges at the 1:54 mark. A breakthrough—a true breakthrough--happens and then the play leads, no it LEAPS, to something that should have taken another 43 minutes to get to. Truth is the biggest demon for a storyteller.

The protagonist was not searching for his lost faith in God. That was his symptom. In any journey story, heroes travel through discoveries, and almost inevitably the greatest discovery is the one where the hero realizes that his/her original crisis was a symptom of a different problem. In this case his loss of faith in God is really a questioning of his entire life, a midlife crisis, a creeping sense of the fruitlessness of one's avocation, marriage, beliefs. The approach to and the inevitable realization of the truth of the matter: What the Fuck Am I Doing? How the Fuck Did I Get Here? What the Fuck Do I Do Now???  

Taken generically, midlife crises are mundane. Dime a dozen. But it’s how our hero attempts to solve his dilemma that makes him interesting. Whether he does or doesn’t is immaterial; doesn't really matter at all, actually. It’s his choices along the way that tell the story, show who he is, and keep our interest. The Truth is in the action.

Truth, like the sculpture that was produced by our regretful, sorrowful, emotionally traumatized protagonist at the top-of-the-shark-fin catastrophic moment, is not objective but representational. We get a slim slice of a vision of the nature of grief, the simple yet earth-shaking nature of the ache in our hearts. Essential truth doesn't come in a chaptered book full of answers and step-by-step solutions. It comes as images, fleeting moments, epiphanies, subjective representations that speak the language for which there is no easy or sufficient verbal equivalent, where emotions like love, joy, fear, and despair dwell. We’re not even sure our hero gets it all himself, but his breakthrough comes as he finally understands how to express himself representationally, instead of trying to replicate a moment precisely and accurately. He learns that life and love and pain are instances, indescribables, non-diagrammable, unable to be boxed and labeled. His breakthough, where he finally looks into himself and sees his agony, comes in the form of a twisted clay figure that reaches to the sky, its head thrown back, and is so simple, so open, so honest, that it could have been done by a third-grader.