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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.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Mutual of Central Park's Wild Kingdom


Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away...
...I was a photographer. I carried a Canon AE1 and spare rolls of film everywhere. Wanted to be the next Ansel Adams. Would have settled for Weegee.
March, 1984, Central Park, NYC. I'm at the Bethesda Fountain photo-zooming a post-wedding photo session. About twenty people, all dressed to the nuptial nines, fulgent with joy and effervescence, circling the bride and groom. I'm off to the side about fifty feet, sitting midway along the long curved concrete benches that form the barrier wall between the grand portico and the lake, clad in an outsized leather biker's jacket. Lotsa pockets and very warm.
All of a sudden my attention is redirected. I'm disturbingly aware that...something...something playing on my right side. As I look down I see the rear end of a furry mammal. A furry mammal about the size of a juvenile house cat. I say the “rear end” because the “front end” is now under the edge of my jacket. I can feel FEET—that is FEET with CLAWS—pressing into my hip. The rest of the mammal—that is the biting business endis now completely under my jacket and moving FORWARD.
Holy shipyards, Batman, it's a flippin' RAT. I have a RAT under my jacket. I freeze like I'm in Madame Tussaud's. The RAT continues its under-coat journey and in two seconds I am the new home for the RAT, who, I can detect, is now CURLING UP.
As I weigh my options—all one of them (stay the fuck still and hope it goes away then run like hell for a rabies shot)--the RAT pokes its head out of the front of my not-zippered jacket and looks up at me.
Weird thought of the month, March, 1984: this is by far the cutest rat I have ever seen. It's adorable. As soon as it has left my jacket and I've stomped it to death, I wanna take it home and feed it.
“Frisco!” I hear a man yell. “Get outta that man's jacket!”
“Frisco,” busted, slowly crawls out. Okay. Maybe it's not a rat. But it sure as hell looks like one, albeit streamlined and somewhat mink-ish.
“Frisco's” owner hurries over and scoops up the...what the hell is that, anyway?
“It's a ferret, man,” the guy says, nose-nuzzling the rodent. “You don't know ferrets?”
Man, I've seen rats in the subway that could eat a German Shepherd. I've never seen a ferret before.
The man apologizes profusely. “He got away for like two seconds, man. He's fast, you know?” Then he adds, as an afterthought, “He ain't gonna hurt you. He's real friendly.” And then, before I can politely refuse the offer, he dumps Frisco the Ferret into my lap. “You can pet him. Go ahead, man.”
Frisco's adowwable face looks up at me. Tentatively, I stroke his head. Like a cat, he pushes back against my hand. Okay, so rat + cat = ferret. This is not so bad.
Frisco's less-than-watchful owner and I talk for a bit, I snap a few pix, try to remember if I soiled myself, and then Frisco and owner stroll off.
Later that day I saw Andy Warhol crossing the street. New York City, you know?

Saturday, August 3, 2019


Was reminded of this yesterday:
A number of years ago I was delivering a folder of background reportage to the apartment home of a Newsweek editor. It was a fairly tony West Side, just-off-the-park building, probably a dozen stories tall. I entered the elevator and as the doors began to close I saw a man approach. We both reached for the doors and the man entered, and gave me a curt nod of thanks.
So there's only one man I've ever seen that wore white sideburns in that particular fashion--and carried it off. He looked smaller than I'd imagined. If you live or work in Manhattan, you inevitably have at least one star sighting. And I was standing in an elevator all alone with Isaac Asimov.
It took me eight floors but I finally managed to ask (somewhat timidly, knowing his reputation), “Excuse me. Are you Isaac Asimov?”
He turned to me. “I am.”
I just finished reading your Black Widower series," I said. "And I've read many of your other works." Then not having any idea where to go after this, I said, “You're a genius.”
The smallest of smiles. As the elevator doors opened, he said “Yes. I am.” And then he walked out.
It could not have been a more perfect moment.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Coffee Table of Essential Reading, Part One

We live in troubled times.
But as Sean Connery once opined, “The empire ish alwaysh in shome kind of peril,” a statement some folks may see as a warning against all sorts of Foreign Intrigue Hatefully Directed Against “Our Freedoms.” I take it to mean “We just don't know how to leave well enough alone. And now look at where we are.”
Our species, through the centuries, in order to escape the frightening realities of our failed political policies, has created dream worlds. We have imagined societies that function prosperously, peacefully, and embrace all of its (to be fair, usually selected) citizens with fairness and equality. Despite the attractive brochures, many actual places around the globe come much closer than the United States in achieving such Utopian realities. One might reason that it would be an easy thing to steal the best of those ideas and incorporate them into our own society, but in the current dominant paradigm our wide-eyed jingocentrism teaches that “ours” is the only “true” dream.
I say again: We live in troubled times. Actually, they never seem to end. The Empire is always in some kind of peril.
To wit: the words “only” and “true” have arguably done more to separate us from each other than all other words combined. “Only”: the solitary viable option, all others choices being incorrect, negligible, insufficient. And “True”: that which exists completely without falsity. That which is to be wholly believed, heart and soul, mind and body--without question.
Because to question something is to cast doubt on it, to take it from its proclaimed unassailable pedestal of ultimate perfection, to pull the curtain aside, to reveal the impurities and untruths, and ultimately destroy cherished dreams. When you destroy dreams, you destroy hope. And hope, bless its cancerous little heart, is what keeps the dream machine well-oiled.
Which brings me (finally) to the crux of this screed's biscuit: Since the dawn of writing, people have been inscribing their ideas and viewpoints for consumption by others. Books by the thoughtful and prescient past and present of this rapidly dying planet that explicate, comment on, praise, decry, and render in cold harsh words their views of the effects of our presence here on this criminally abused mother-organism. I've read a bunch that have refused to leave my brain over the years, and it occurred to me to consider what books I would recommend and believed were the best at telling future generations a necessary and essential truth about ourselves as humans on planet Earth. What critical lessons should we pass on? What shared experiences are the most important to be kept alive as lessons or celebrations?
So of course I made a list. It starts immediately below and will follow with subsequent posts. The books are in no certain order, no ranking of importance. I consider each to be critically valuable in shedding a ray of illumination upon ourselves as we have so far evolved (or not). I would say they all have one thing in common: they represent a danger to some part of someone's dominant paradigm merely by fostering that most heretical of crimes, critical examination.
I begin with Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, a book that has been said over and over to encompass all that can be said about the average soldier's experience of war. Wars are inaugurated and set in motion not by average people, but by politicians and global money brokers. Let me clarify: wars are not inaugurated by the ones who will actually fight them.
What All Quiet on the Western Front tells us about the hell experienced by the average soldier is painful and terrifying: The minute by minute fear of injury and death; the heightened, fevered desire to grasp what may be left of the joys of life; the fights with nature and fellow soldiers for morsels of food. What pressures can come to bear to turn a caring young man into someone who visits his hospitalized comrade mainly to see if he can be there at the unfortunate's moment of death in order to take the man's boots, which are in so much better condition than his own?
But the most frightening part of the book for me now that I have seen the run-ups to several wars instigated by my own country is the level of manipulation involved, the ceaseless lies and senseless exhortations that convince healthy, dream-filled young men and women to sign up.
In All Quiet there is a character, Kantorek, a schoolmaster, a respected figure of authority, who exhorts the young men of the village to sign up and fulfill their patriotic duties. While he, of course, does not. (He is later forced to enlist, which he does reluctantly. But not before sending dozens of glory-eyed students ahead of him.)
This Kantorek represents those three of the worst citizens imaginable. First he exemplifies the propogandists, who, throughout history, have passionately preached the righteous glory of war while rabidly extolling nationalistic fervor. They are the hysterical doomsayers who paint the Foreign as direct threats to our “freedoms,” who distort and disregard geopolitical realities and conjure up devils in kaffias or sombreros in order to pursue various economic and political agendas.
Secondly they are the cowards who, while sitting pretty in their own protected nests of luxury, have claimed exception to military service by reason of “bone spurs” or having “other priorities.”
Thirdly, the sideline flag-wavers, such as political mouthpieces masquerading as “news” services who turn the indescribable horrors of war into colorful video game-like displays of technoglitz, showing the fearsome tools of mass destruction as ultracool toys to play with. All you need is a joystick and you can graduate from the Call of Duty killing of virtual enemies on your laptop to virtual murder on the battlefield.
The major lesson to take away from All Quiet on the Western Front, aside from the description of the horrors of war, is this: from whom do you take your information, and why? Who do you trust to tell you the truth? And most importantly, why do you trust others to feed you the information you need? Why do you not seek your own truths, carry your own set of scales and blindfold, and weigh what factors you can find at your disposal?
Last thing: All Quiet on the Western Front was one of the first books banned and burned in 1933 by the rising National Socialist Party in Germany. Clearly, it was a danger to someone.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Hamlet’s Hamartia

So--theoretically-- if somebody whacked my beloved old man then proceeded to wed and bed my mom I'd resolutely be set on the path to complete, ultimate, and dare I venture--Biblical--revenge. The revenge story is almost always a gripping read. William Shakespeare, no slaggard at using whatever was lying around, employed this theme in many fashions, as in Romeo’s hot-blooded slaying of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet and Prospero’s agonizing treatment of his brother Antonio in The Tempest. However, nowhere in his esteemed canon does revenge figure so dramatically as in Hamlet.
But there's a twist: unlike many other revenge procedurals where we watch the protagonist embark on a nonstop program of retribution, our woefully incapable prince dithers and procrastinates, dragging out the patience of both his co-characters and his audience as he struggles with the issue of intellectualism versus politics.
Basically, Hamlet’s problem is his ceaseless attempts to rationalize what he has been taught at a very progressive university against what he has been raised with: the traditionally violent course of action. For many other characters whose near and dear were ruthlessly murdered it might be a simple choice to enact revenge (one need only look at Malcolm and Macduff), but for the troubled Prince of Denmark, it is a tortuous and soul-searching process. Neither Malcolm not Macduff (as far as we know) were the recipients of a newfangled Enlightenment education stressing thought and rationality over knee-jerk lethal retribution. I argue that, Hamlet's moral, ethical, and political confusion, is his scholastic training that renders the prince hamstrung and confused.
Shakespeare could have had Hamlet educated anywhere in western Europe, (for instance, Hamburg) but he deliberately puts him at Wittenberg. George Bernard Shaw wrote that “Hamlet as a prehistoric Dane is morally bound to kill his uncle, politically as rightful heir to the usurped throne, and filially as ‘the son of a dear father murdered’ and a mother seduced by an incestuous adulterer” (Wilson 79). Seems like a pretty sound reason for revenge, I’d say. But the influence of Wittenberg’s neoclassical/Protestant training, Hamlet finds himself totally incapable of reconciling what he feels he must do to retain honor and salvage the future of Denmark—which is kill Claudius and avenge his father’s murder—and the impulse to constrain nature’s basest behavioral level through a rational, modern, progressive mindset, not to mention coupled with the threat of eternal damnation for murder.
To wit: Wittenberg was the home of Martin Luther, whose teachings destroyed the homogenous rule of Roman Catholicism. As Luther reacted so angrily to the excess and corruption that he found in Rome, so also did his adherents attempt to prohibit similar faults in their own religious lives, and instead of bowing to numerous intermediaries between themselves and God, cut out the thousands of earthly middlemen between themselves and their deity.
Shakespeare mirrors this rejection of excess and rejection through Hamlet, who sees his uncle (named a regicide by a spirit in the shape of his deceased father, but we'll get to that in a minute) carrying on late into the night, drinking and carousing: “The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse/Keeps wassail and the swag’ring upscale reels/And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,/The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out/The triumph of his pledge” (Shakespeare I.iv.9). Hamlet plainly sees a direct corollary to what Luther railed against: the debauchment and moral diminishment of one who should have been respected and revered.
It is important to note that Hamlet only objects to his uncle’s (and now step-father’s) Bohemian habits and ignores—or is hampered in his ability to denigrate—Claudius’s abilities as king. In fact Claudius does indeed conduct himself quite ably as Denmark’s monarch, especially hammering out solutions to tricky situations such as hamstringing the impending attack of the Norwegian hothead Fortinbras in act II, scene ii, and later on when he handles Laertes deftly, both in act IV, scene v when Laertes comes to Claudius looking for blood to match his father’s spilled blood (and incidentally finds his beloved sister Ophelia gone mad from Hamlet's coarse abandonment), and in act V, scene vii, when he puts the grief-stricken youth in a position to “accidentally” kill Hamlet through a rigged fencing match. Claudius' ability to judge and negotiate a difficult situation and sway others to his point of view makes him a man who should be in power. He's no dummy.
Hamlet's situation would be more than enough for most any other victim to bear, and these others might not think twice about setting the matter straight and immediately and without a second thoght putting the usurper’s head on a stick. But Shakespeare set up his Hobson’s Choice well: Although Claudius is utterly odious to Hamlet, the Prince is held back from killing him by his newfound Protestant religious beliefs which include both a more strict reading of the Bible and the elimination of church intermediaries between the supplicant and God, putting the supplicant face-to-face with the Almighty. Both of these practices effectively serve to keep Hamlet from enacting bloody revenge.
The Bible clearly states that “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and even though Hamlet ignores this in times of hot blood, causing the death of Polonius, he does, I believe, bear the weight of this commandment in mind throughout the play. It would be illogical for Hamlet, in times of sobering thought, to ignore what is possibly the best-known single line from the Bible, especially when he knows that being in a one-to-one relationship with The Almighty leaves absolutely no wiggle room. Hamlet has mused on the prohibition of wrongful death—in the form of suicide—before, when he bemoans “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” (I.ii.135). This commandment effectively prohibits the one course that Hamlet could pursue to quell his moral outrage. (There's a reason why barbarians don't go to college.)
So it is his intellectuality that ultimately stops him from killing Claudius outright, and here lies another paradox that tortures the prince. Wittenberg, considered a radical university for its time, taught neoclassicism. It is this neoclassicism that fills Hamlet with florid tales of antiquity, many of them overflowing with murder and revenge. If Hamlet was not confused before, he receives no help here. These sanguinely gushing tales seal the fate of the prince, who was (by his tendency to lean away from bloodshed in the first place) obviously of a nonviolent nature to begin with, by allowing him to avoid the realm of physical action and dwell solely in the realm of the intellect.
Neoclassicism, like Lutheranism, lays down strict rules. Accented are structure, reasoning, and a focus on humankind; art should be a mirror to the image of man. Shakespeare clearly illustrates this through Hamlet’s exhortations to the players:
“For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (III.ii.20-26).
In modern terms...don't ham it up.
Hamlet’s classical training would have instilled in him the idea that literature was an art perfected by the Greeks and Romans and could only be achieved by prolonged study—a philosophical indoctrination. Hamlet’s adherence to this mode of thought further crippled his ability to “think on his feet”, or be able to act with relative quickness and surety. His slowness to action exacerbates the already tense situation, driving everyone around him nuts, and when he hamfistedly does break into quick action, people drop like flies, as evidenced by the impassioned slaying of Polonius and the “brilliant idea" of forging the letter that get Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed.
As mentioned above, the other side of the Classical paradox is the subject material to which Hamlet would have been exposed, one that Shakespeare himself mined throughout his career for all it was worth. Many are the tales of murder and revenge that Hamlet would have encountered, especially those of ancients such as Homer and Seneca. Seneca figures importantly in Hamlet because Shakespeare modeled Hamlet—directly or indirectly—on Senecan tragedy, emphasizing melodrama, bloodshed and revenge. Particularly Senecan is the use of a wronged ghost to introduce the vengeance theme. It is obvious that Hamlet has absorbed the writings of the ancients because at nearly every instance he invokes their literature and mythologies. By my count, there are no less than 38 instances of conjuring up the worlds of the Greeks and Romans—most notably in the speech about Pyhrrus and Priam. He also frequently invokes the Christian god, seemingly without any more intent than dramatic effect. This attests to the prince’s confusion between reality and theory; if he cannot separate the two theologies in thought or speech, how much weight does he give to either?
Hamlet’s hamartia is his inability to decide between his duty and his philosophy. C.J. Sisson writes that Hamlet is “a man of urbane intellectuality and immune from...crude passions” (Sisson 53). In the 1948 Laurence Olivier-directed movie of Hamlet, Olivier subtitles the film “The Prince Who Couldn’t Make Up His Mind.” Both are correct. Hamlet is a man of the mind; thus neither kingship nor any other physical, ruthless vocation is for him.
And as if all this weren’t confusing enough for the poor kid, Shakespeare further turns up the paradox theme by introducing the father-ghost. Given the doctrine of Protestantism, which denies Purgatory and effectively closes out any transportation to or from either Heaven or Hell, it is therefore impossible that the ghost should be able to appear at all. Hamlet himself acknowledges this when he admits that death is “The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” (Shakespeare III.i.87). So how can the ghost of his father appear to him when liturgical teachings absolutely forswear this phenomenon? The only other possibility is that the apparition is a demon sent by the devil to bring wrack and ruin to Hamlet and Denmark. The ghost is real, remember: Horatio, Bernardo, and Marcellus have also witnessed it.
But this is Shakespeare again messing with not only Hamlet’s, but the audience’s minds as well (which is ultimately the playwright’s job). It is not ultimately important whether the ghost is the real thing because the play deals not with the ghost's legitimacy but Hamlet’s subsequent journey to decision. In any event, the ghost’s accusation is eventually proven correct by Claudius’s own confession in the chapel, thereby validating at least the original impetus for Hamlet’s troubles.
In the end, Hamlet never really does decide what to do. He constantly waffles among laying traps, playing insane, spreading disinformation, and blustering through ragings promising blood. At one point he asks himself, “Am I a coward?”, and at another he claims to be “Heaven’s scourge and minister.” What it takes to make Hamlet act is a series of events that push him along towards an inevitable conclusion. Shaw writes:
“He finds to his bewilderment that he cannot kill his uncle deliberately. In a sudden flash of rage he can and does stab at him through the arras, only to find that he has killed poor old Polonius by mistake. In a later transport, when the unlucky uncle poisons not only Hamlet’s mother, but his own accomplice and Hamlet himself, Hamlet actually does at last kill his enemy on the spur of the moment” (Wilson 80).
Shaw then goes on to add that “This is no solution to the problem: it cuts the Gordian knot instead of untying it” (80). Shakespeare knew his audiences and their taste for action and shed blood, so ending the play this way was most likely more satisfying than just offing Claudius (especially after five whole acts). The Bard's instincts were wholly on target, creating possibly the most famous work for stage until, say, oh...Hamilton?

Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Pocket Books. 1992. New York
Sisson, C.J. Shakespeare’s Tragic Justice. Metheun and Co. Ltd. London, England.
Wilson, Edwin. Shaw on Shakespeare: An Anthology of Bernard Shaw’s Writings on the Plays and Production of Shakespeare. E.P. Dutton and Co. Ed. Edwin Wilson. 1961. New York.
Young, Karl. The Shakespeare Skeptics. The Century Co. 1925. New York

Friday, May 24, 2019

The Best of Us

The world is a much less bright and wonderful place today.
My dear friend Camilla Schade, the very embodiment of loveliness and joy, left this earth last night. Her life was much too brief, and many who loved her will miss her radiant smile dearly.
Camilla was a challenge and a pleasure to collaborate with. Years ago I directed her in a 10-minute play (that we had one day to pull together). During that process when I'd come up with an idea or direction, she was not only receptive and eager (“Okay! Great!”) but added something to it, some little move, some minute vocalization that gave that moment more emotion, gravitas, truth. You could see her assessing the line in the script and putting it through her particular filter and coming up with something only she could have thought of. And it always came out better.
In my play "And They Lived Happily Ever After," I wrote the part of Mixie with her in mind. It was the first time I'd crafted a part for a particular actor. I remember thinking that with Camilla in the role, I had the freedom to attempt almost anything. Her first scene was outrageous: Bounding onstage in nothing but a hospital johnny (her character had just escaped from an observation ward), Camilla performed what is probably the nuttiest performance of the worst piece of slam poetry ever written. Holding nothing back (she almost never did—in anything), Camilla howled, growled, and prowled the stage ejaculating complete nonsense as if it were Holy Shakespeare. And that was only the opening scene. She made my idle comedy so much better than it had a right to be.
A few years later, she and her beloved Bruce bestowed on me the great honor of officiating at their wedding. Of course, I take every ceremony I officiate at very seriously and, since she and Bruce were my very good friends, I felt this to be even more exceptional. But...because it was Camilla and Bruce—and because it would be in front of many of our mutual friends—I took extra care to prepare a homily virtually dripping with devotional meaning, inspiration, and personal reminiscences. That lasted pretty much four minutes into our planning meeting, when Camilla announced that during the ceremony everyone would be wearing red clown noses. “Including you,” she added. A beat of silence. I looked at Bruce, who just grinned back at me. Camilla wanted (ordered, really) the wedding to be fun, joyous, anything but a dour, solemn occasion. And so it was. But silly red clown noses or not, the looks of love between Camilla and Bruce completely usurped both solemnity and hilarity by what every wedding should have more of: absolute joy.
I use the word “joy” a lot here. There really isn't another word I can find that sums up Camilla as well as that. Her life, her presence, was a special one-in-a-million gift to all who came within her sphere. Her smile was infectious perfection. We only get a few people like this in our lives—if we are lucky—and while we mourn their loss we have to remember those many times when their innate joie de vivre enhanced our days and taught us that life can always be special if we genuinely desire it so. Because that is exactly what Camilla was all about: JOY.

(A recent episode of Onstage/Offstage features Camilla; you can hear it here.)

Friday, March 29, 2019

Development, Part XVII

In my endless quest for places to send my scintillating scribblings, I routinely come across opportunities for play development. Most of these places are unfamiliar to me; I don't know who runs them, I don't know what they mean by “development.” I cannot comment on their programs without having experienced what they have to offer and I do not know what they try to achieve without knowing what their programs consist of. I do apply to most, however, because I have work that has been written, rewritten, rewritten a few more times and is now in a state equal to staring at a word on a page until it becomes a collection of meaningless hieroglyphics and ceases to have any meaning whatsoever. When I get to a certain point of revision, I then stare at an entire play and wonder what any of it means.
Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. I'm a dramatic writer; hyperbole comes easy to me.
The concept is the same, however, and my history with the practice of developmental workshopping is a largely favorable one. Most of my plays have been through a professional workshopping experience with dramaturgs who understand how plays work--not just on the page, but on the stage as well. Understanding both is critical because having a play that reads grippingly on the page is one thing, but as many of us know, translating that text to a real production brings with it myriad problems, adjustments, and quite possibly, rewrites.

Some development programs are quite famous and many of us are familiar with their names. Others are not so well known, but may very well offer a program that could benefit many of the plays ready for the process. (I say “could” because, like Speedos, not every program fits every play or playwright.)
In my mind, knowing my own writing process pros and cons, and knowing full well that what looks beautiful in my own head may not translate as clearly and dazzlingly to others, I have to approach each development opportunity as a blank slate. I cannot expect every program to fit me or my work like the aforementioned Speedo. I have to be prepared to take from the program that which I believe benefits my work while also being prepared to pass on those things that I think are not appropriate.
Many places offer a developmental process, and each one varies in one or more ways from the others. But let's put that aside; the success or failure of any development process ultimately resides with the playwright. I can recommend several director/dramaturgs that I have worked with right now whose judgment I rely on and who I would work with again in an instant. With each process I have benefitted greatly and yet I have also had instances where I have had to reject some of their ideas and suggestions.
I'm a working playwright. I apply for as many development opps as I can. They are opportunities for dramatic growth and I always seek out an objective alternative to the On-Tuesday-It's Brilliant-On-Wednesday-It's-Shit nightmare I have to go through. It's not easy by any means, but I'm willing to bet that every development experience a playwright goes through makes them a better writer in some way.
Oh, and by the way...I wrote a book on the subject. If you're unfamiliar with development, you might want to give it a read:
Workshopping the New Play: A Guide for Playwrights, Directors, and Dramaturgs.

Monday, March 11, 2019

De-confusing “Cast Appropriately"

Casting Call
BEN: Male, 35-40, large-boned, seems dangerous but really a pussycat. Dark blond hair.
ALVY: cast appropriately.
The above confuses some people. Why does Ben get all this specificity, and Alvy none at all? Doesn't the playwright care about who plays Alvy? Is the playwright too lazy? Is the part so small and unimportant that the playwright couldn't be bothered?
Or is it a typical situation in which the regular actors at a particular theatre get all the juicy roles and there I am again, last to be picked, knowing I'm going to hear the dreadful words: “Oh yeah. Sapio. Right field.”
When as a playwright I instruct directors to “cast appropriately,” I mean the play has, in terms of physical requirements, a non-specific role. Thus I don't care if you cast an actor who male-identifies, female-identifies, is non-binary, tall, thin, blonde, bald, Asian, physically different . . . or not. I use “cast appropriately” because the question is not the visual physical relationship, replete with all of its subliminal cues, but the resulting dynamic between the onstage actors. It has to work onstage, and those prattling about in the gaslight need to appear as if they were truly intended to be there.
My first play, Headstrong, has one of those roles: an agent who shows up mid-play to provide the unexpected twist necessary to hurl the play into its screwball second half. What matters is that actor playing the part must be breathlessly hopeful in anticipation of meeting their literary idol, annoyingly bubbly, and so briskly incessant with their non-stop, true-believer monologue that you wish their character had been the one who’d been murdered (and now being ickily disposed of).
When I first wrote the play I was told that I couldn't, nay shouldn't be vague in defining this character. That in order to be “professional” I needed to be specific with my casting requirements. But when it matters little or none at all what the physical presence is, but matters a lot that the resulting chemistry is correct, then I feel that it would be inappropriate to narrow down the casting choices because of my own biases. I may have imagined and indeed have written the role with a woman in mind who is in her fifties, desperately lonely, who reads two Gothic novels a week and swoons over the Fabio-esque cover art. (A stock character, but one that gives me an initial voice to the entity when I do not have a specific human being to cull from.) But—what if in the audition queue for this role there was a gentleman in his senior years with serious acting chops who could perfectly fit the lead in The Adventures of Mister Magoo? Think of the possibilities then. Or what if the right actor was someone completely different? Plays are living, breathing entities that live uniquely in different situations. It is fitting that flexibility be built in to allow for different dynamics, different experiences. “Cast appropriately” simply means no more that “find someone who makes the proper dynamic happen onstage.”
We can fling words back and forth onstage all night long, and with luck and thoughtful assignment of actors to roles, they will flow mellifluously and with true intent and effect because the people onstage fit each other. They work perfectly together because of some non-quantifiable, ethereal...magic. They're right together, and that's it. I can't describe how it happens, but I know it when I see it.
I have a seriously talented actor friend who measured six-foot-four, and back in the day wore a mane of blazing red dreadlocks and a full bushy beard. Because he fit the dynamic for a particular part and had the right chemistry with the other actors, I had no problem sticking him in a onesie and a crib and told him he thought he was three years old. To say he nailed the role would be a criminal understatement. This actor might not have been the obvious first choice to play someone who sleeps in a crib and thinks he's three, but because of who he was at the time his casting was perfect. His grasp of the part was instinctive and his dynamic with the other cast members was seamless and fluid. In a production of Macbeth that I directed, my Banquo was played by a female because she had the right mix of ballsiness and rough carriage and she was pretty damn comfortable—scarily, in fact--with a sword. Richard III in my play Kynges Games was played completely believably by a woman—because she had what it took to do the part truthfully. I could have specified Richard as “early 30's, dark hair, medium build, slight case of scoliosis, brash, lacks a sense of humor” and so forth, but I wasn't into strict verisimilitude. The part of Richard needed the correct personality to make it real. I wanted my Richard up there, and my friend Holly had that in spades.
On the other hand, when I do take the time to specify actor parameters, I do so because the mechanics of the text demand it. The actor must be of a certain age either because their actions and beliefs are of a certain time period or the number of their years is a critical plot point. Or they may be of a certain financial situation. Or of a particular physical reality. When I say Ben is “Male, 35-40, large-boned, seems dangerous but really a pussycat. Dark blonde hair” I mean that the script needs someone of those exact characteristics to make the dynamics of the play work. Even the seemingly innocuous requirement of blonde hair means something. It's not a trivial whim because in my wildest, most secret dreams I want to see a young Gerard Depardieu play the part. It's me, the playwright, giving the director, actors, and reading audience the clues necessary to make the script work as best it should.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Giving Yourself Every Advantage, or Shameless Book Plug

We all have different ideas about playwriting and development, and that's great. I've fielded more than a few questions about the workshopping aspect of allowing other folks to comment on your work. Some have told me it's invasive to have other people suggest things you can do to better your work. Well, yes, I agree: it's invasive. But rewriting your play for you (well-meant or not) is in no way a part of a developmental workshopping process (DWP).
A DWP is designed to alert the playwright to what other people--in the best case, theatrically educated people, but really anyone who's prone to analytic thinking--have to say. It's like being let in on what your audiences might really think. You want a happy, fulfilled audience, and a DWP can help you anticipate what your thousands of loyal fans might walk away with.
DWPs are definitely not about ceding artistic control. Not in the least. DWPs are all about playwrights endeavoring to get a wider, more advantageous perspective on their own work. Many of us work in a "locked room": solely and without collaboration. Therefore what's in the playwright's brain is only one point of view. And that is what is needed for the playwright to create a work that is purely from their own heart. 
But no playwright can control the reactions or opinions of their audiences (sorry, Dave). All a DWP does is give the playwright a chance to see what reactions others might have. Whatever actions the playwright decides to take or not take based on this information is always 100% completely up to them. Plays, unlike some other forms of dramatic writing, are always completely the inviolable property of the creator. Playwrights can either act on the data they receive, or they can ignore it.
I wrote Workshopping the New Play: A Guide for Playwrights, Directors and Dramaturgs not because I wanted a book with a really long title but because I believe all playwrights should have the chance to hear what's in other people's brains when exposed to their work. It's an aid, a tool, a technique designed to give playwrights an extra advantage. No more, no less.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Trimming the Tree

When it comes right down to it, it might just be nothing more complicated than age mixed with organic, unadulterated crankiness, a trait I've been blessed with since the onset of puberty. Possibly tempered with a quiet, mature, temperate voice of Experience.
There are times now, when, faced with two distinct paths, I find myself choosing the one that encourages me to not pursue the looming, glooming argument directly ahead in the metaphorical windshield and the subsequent route through Ulcerville and Ennui Corners via the Agita Highway. 
I'm also choosing to let go of the people who want to make me drive there. Some of whom I've known for decades.
Is it really the Voice of Moderation holding sway a lot more than it ever did, telling me sedately and with a really annoying (almost condescending) air of maturity to step back from the fray? Previously this would have caused some over-the-top emotional distress. ("What? Giving up? Running away? No! Quick, grab hold of the mast of self-righteousness and hang on till the last man goes overboard! Death before Desertion!")
Or is it CrankyMan maintaining the melodrama by choosing to pull the Discord rip cord? By opting to flush the whole buffet?
Either way, I just don't have time for this shit anymore. I have more important things to do than agonize over an acquaintance's invitation to a self-righteous political smackdown. Some things we'll never be able to agree on, and when I look at it for more than a minute, I realize that I don't really care anymore. 
It used to be important to me to find a way to connect, to find that empathic Venn Diagram overlap. Because relationships of some measure must be maintained, right? And don't friendships have to withstand the monsoons as well as bask in the bucolic summer? That's what I keep telling myself. But more and more, when confronted with unchanging negative situations, I find myself choosing a less futile, more fruitful path. And sometimes I just have to let people fall by the wayside.
I have much less tolerance for self-pitying bullshit than I used to and little to no staying power for acrimonious political sanctimony. (Yet, oddly, I find myself pulling the trigger more and more when the choice is either to Remain Calm and Let It Go, or Just Go Ahead and Say What You'll Regret Not Having Said Later.)
Life is pretty fucking short. I'm extraordinarily lucky: I have more than a few vital, creative, positive, wonderful friends who make me glad I'm still breathing. All of these friends should, in a perfect world, live forever, yet some are now battling cancer. What a senseless, criminal shame. It'll probably bite my own ass one of these days. And I need to spend these coming days, years, or decades doing productive things and surrounding myself with positive, open, intelligent, intellectual, non-baggage-laden friends who know how to laugh raucously, like I-don't-give-a-shit-who's-watching. 
I'm out of boxing gloves and hankies, kids.