Tomorrow my first play for Very Young Audiences – A Bucket of Blessings – will close at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta after a one month sold-0ut run. The play is an adaptation of the best selling children’s book written by Surishtha Sehgal and Kabir Sehgal, and as a TVYA play, is meant for an audience of 0-5 year olds. A Bucket of Blessings was directed by the ridiculously brilliant Rosemary Newcott, and I developed it in the rehearsal room with Rosemary, our cast, our choreographer, designers, and of course, our multiple adorable test audiences.
It was a very intensive writing process, perhaps the most intensive theatre project I’ve done so far.
Here are the two things I want to take with me from that experience into future plays.
1. Theatre as service.
Theatre for very young audiences is, more than anything else, 100% about the audience and only the audience. There’s no room for the artist’s ego, the artist’s special voice, for flourishes, for statements. The only thing that matters is the audience. For a TVYA writer, this comes from a point of love. How could you not love these little ones? How could you not desperately care for them, and want with all your heart for them to have a safe, enriching, adventurous time in the theatre?
Now let’s take that same sacrifice of ego and unhesitating love for the audience to our work for grown ups as well.
2. Every second counts. Every line matters.
When children are that young, and their attention spans so brief, we are aware that every second we have with them is precious. The work we did in rehearsal was the most precise, exacting writing I have ever done. We worked hard on crafting every single moment to mean something, to engage the audience, and to carry the story forward.
Let’s be as ruthless as that with our writing for adult audiences. Even when we don’t have to be.
We must admit that playwrights are often coddled. What we lack in monetary compensation we make up for in creative control, but sometimes that can get indulgent. So the next time we’re in a room with our collaborators, let’s take our play to task, moment by moment. Is every single line crafted in the exact way required to communicate the story to the audience? Is every pause earned? Every word vitally necessary?
Seriously, what if our audience had the attention span of a toddler? Would our play still work? Have we built something captivating enough, engaging enough, to truly serve the audience that’s spending their precious time with us?
We should be doing these things anyway, but nothing brings it into perspective like trying to keep a room full of 2 year olds inside the world of your story.
Have you seen or worked on a play for very young audiences? What did you take away from the experience?
A lot can happen in ten minutes or less:
A monster attack
A car crash
A terminal diagnosis
The end of the world
The severance (or start) of an intimate relationship
And yet I’ve wondered if I expect too much, as a writer and as an audience member, of the increasingly ubiquitous ten-minute play, because I tend to like it ALL to happen (not necessarily the above, but events with comparable import). In earnest — rather than overt absurdity. In the same play. In ten minutes or less.
Tall order, but why not? What are the obstacles, but clear conflict, oppressive time constraints (or the proverbial ticking time bomb), and the je ne sais quoi required in order to make audiences care about the people and action at work in a compressed and short period of time.
OR is it really je ne sais quoi? Can it be mechanized, the art of making people care?
Well, since the world of politics is top of mind these days and is entirely about mechanics, for ghits and shiggles, I thought I’d compare some strategies for delivering a short stump speech designed to make people care with those that might be used effectively in the construction of an event-packed ten-minute play.
Did a bit of reading, Martha Nussbaum, Chip and Dan Heath, etc., etc. Some tactics that came up recurringly:
- – Highlight current problem(s) with emphasis, clarity and precision: check
- – Provide vivid details whenever possible: makes things seem real, credible; sure
- – Lean more on emotion over facts: in the case of the play, less exposition, more dialogue that reveals character truths; makes characters sympathetic
- – Reference the “challenge plot” when telling a story: make stakes high, obstacles ever daunting, with protagonist overcoming them in the end; eh, sure
- – Reference Associations/Use a celebrity or known figure: using something people already care about; I’ve done this (presented actual public figure as lead character), have seen it done; ultimately, it largely depends on the figure – my references tend to be obscure, but in mainstream cases, some recognition, for better or worse, is likely to produce some “care” results
- – Give audience ownership of what they’re hearing: can be endeavored in many ways, some interactive/immersive; interesting to chew on
- – Use specific names: (“I was talking with Frank Anderson of Davenport, Iowa, recently, who lost his farm . . .” comes to mind); personalizes things, makes whole presentation familiar
Alas, as the adage is “we’re all so different,” and it’s true, I suppose, that many of us are, what makes one person care may differ largely from that which keeps the person in the seat next to her invested.
That said, perhaps we’d be stronger politicians, we ten-minute playwrights, focusing a bit on a few of these as we go about our literary way.Tweet
by Cynthia Wands
I’ve read two books recently that remind me of the days of understudies/rotating casts in a show. Those performances when suddenly someone else is saying those things that belonged to someone else.
The first book is Longbourn; a novel by Jo Baker based on the servants in the book , Pride and Prejudice. It’s very much like a look at the back stage of a fancy costume play: yes there are sparkles from the chandeliers, but it’s a life of hard labor and grubby interiors. I really appreciated this back story of the servants, who appeared only as extras in the Jane Austen story. Although not written in Austen’s style, it’s a great read of “backstage” life.
The second book, THE YEAR OF LEAR by James Shapiro, is a treasure. I’ve spent many hours trying to understand the writer William Shakespeare, (this is how I know a multitude of useless bits about the Elizabethan court, and Queen Elizabeth’s favorite Shakespeare play (The Merry Wives of Windsor;), and court gossip about witchcraft and illegitimate children hiding in royal family trees). The Year of Lear reveals the time during King James when Shakespeare was writing King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.
Shakespeare was writing under the rule of a king who was obsessed with witchcraft; King James had even published his own book on witches, Daemonologie, (a wide-ranging discussion of witchcraft, necromancy, possession, demons, were-wolves, fairies and ghosts, in the form of a Socratic dialogue). (Now there’s a play!) I vaguely knew of some of the historical events, (the Gunpowder Plot, the ongoing issues with Catholics and Parliament); but I didn’t really know of Shakespeare’s world when he was writing some of his best work.
The book is very densely written; I had to come up for air many times while reading it. But I came away with a different view of someone’s life that I thought I knew. And that is quite a gift. And it reminds me of the power of theater, when we can illuminate all the characters on stage, not just the leading players.
In December of this past year, I was given the chance to hear my script, THE LOST YEARS, in a staged reading at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre up in the Bay Area. The finished script had never been heard, although there had been three readings of the piece in development. And let’s just say that it had been a long time since I had heard the voices of these characters, and I was excited and anxious to be able to hear them again. Marilyn Langbehn, who directed the reading, is the Artistic Director at the Contra Costa Civic Theatre, and also works with the California Shakespeare Theater. I’ve known Marilyn for many years – and was very happy to have her helm the reading.
I was anxious because I was going to hear the script read out loud by actors I didn’t know (up until this point I’d been involved in the casting/rehearsal/sounds of every actor who had read the script); I was nervous because friends/actresses/kindred spirits were driving over to listen to the reading; I was also fraught that although my loving brother and his wife were coming, my partner, Eric couldn’t be there, (and he has had to live through the development of this script for some time now) and I was blue about that. I was also back in the land of Berkeley, where I no longer live, although I had fallen in love there and performed there, it isn’t my home base any longer, and that was rather disorienting. And I wasn’t sure what I would get out of a one night reading: what if I hated it, or discovered that I needed to rewrite it entirely from another point of view, or – what if. And then fortune and fate interceded, and my twin sister flew in from New York to come to the reading. She found us a wonderful place to stay, took me out to dinner with dear friends, and jollied me along. And, when I came down with a migraine the day before the reading, she tended to me so I could rally and manage it. So I will say that I was given incredible support to experience the reading, and it went by in an instant.
One moment I was sitting by my friend Ellen at the theatre listening to the script being read out loud by six actors, and then we were out having a beer with some of the friends and family afterwards, and it was done. That astonished me: that disconnect with time and place had sometimes happened to me in and after performances on stage – I didn’t know it could happen to playwrights.
It was magical to hear the laughter, and the knowing nods from the audience during the reading, and I struggled with some of the – missing bits – that some of the exchanges in the script needed. But the play itself held up well, and I was so happy to hear those voices again. I was really heartened by some of the characters revelations that I hadn’t seen before, and was able to witness in a reading by the generosity of those that put the reading together.
So, yes. It was absolutely worth the nerves, and the apprehension and the helplessness I felt in watching those words come to life. In the mean time, I’ve been able to fine tune the parts of the last scene, and make some minor edits along the way. It was a wonderful night that gave me a lot of impetus to go another step.
This story brought back memories of doing live theatre.
I’ve had to improvise when drunk people walked onstage in an outdoor Shakespeare performance I was in, and I watched a fellow actor collapse onstage (I thought he really died in front of us but he survived), and I witnessed a choreographed duel get out of hand and two actors get slashed up (they got stitches), and then there was a special effects coffin that nearly killed the actor who was playing the unfortunate role of Dracula that night. And I’ve sensed annoyance and disappointment in some of the (hostile? feeble?) applause at the end of some of the shows I’ve seen/performed in. I’ve also heard audiences scream obscenities to opera singers at their curtain calls. (really – opera! boos and yells and slurs like you wouldn’t believe!)
But I realized, I also remember a time when I performed in theatre (and this will date me) before cell phones. Before iPads. Before Apple watches. This was back in a time when the idea that audiences might bring an electronic device to a performance was, well, far-fetched and bizarre, and not real. I remember this as a time that will never happen again: Pandora’s box has been opened and we will never again not know what roaming charges are.
I haven’t read this script,(“The Flick”) nor seen the play, but I did hear from friends who saw the production (which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won the 2013 Obie Award for Playwriting and was awarded the 2013 Susan Smith Blackburn Prize ). The only comment I remember about this play is that the running time was over three hours long. (I remember thinking “Three hours? That’s like a Shakespeare? Or a Chekhov? It’s really over three hours long?”)
But I do still wonder about an audience member shouting from the back of the house, (just before intermission): “Kill the playwright!”
“Kill the playwright” ?
It sounds so theatrical, and far-fetched, and bizarre, of course, it had to happen in real life.
From a wonderful article on story telling:
“The most important thing that I think fiction does [is that] it lets us look out through other eyes … but it also gives us empathy. The act of looking out through other eyes tells us something huge and important, which is that other people exist.”
“The reason why story is so important to us is because it’s actually this thing that we have been using since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person… Stories are ways that we communicate important things, but … stories maybe really are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”
This article by Neil Gaiman reminds me of a saying I heard my Irish grandfather repeat to me when I was a child:
“Do you want the truth or do you want the story?”
And you know, every time, I would much rather listen to the story.
Well yes, I’m always stuck in my own head, that’s how I write. I work it all out in my head before I commit to paper. Not the best way to do it, but I work out the problems I think I’ll have then I write. But the stuck in my head I’m talking about is a song. You know, you’re in a store shopping and on the overhead speaker some song comes on and you start bopping to the tune. Next thing you know you’re walking to your car and now you’re full on singing that same song. I hate that when that happens.
But today, I used this mild annoyance as a writing exercise. It was a song from when I was in high school. After I sang myself horse, I sat down with pen and paper and tried to recall where I was the first time I heard the song and all of the sights and sounds of the day. It was the summer between 10th and 11th grade. It was a Friday night in July. The air was hot and muggy and my friends and I contemplated what to wear to that night’s dance at the community center. Wendy’s parents were gone for the weekend and we had the whole house to ourselves. Shanon was in the kitchen mixing drinks, while I turned on the tv to MuchMusic. I could smell the sweetness of Shanon’s latest concoction as I brought it my lips, she had a thing for blue drinks and this was just the latest in a rainbow cocktails. A warm breeze blew through the screen door. The metal frame tapped as a reminder that we had to go. Outside, the blue sky was fading into burning shades of red and orange as the sun set. A chill filled the air. I could feel the goosebumps popping up on my arm. The mile walk to the dance felt like an eternity, why did I wear heels? After paying our money at the door, we found our way to the dance floor. I took off my heels and felt the cold concrete under my feet. The light from the disco ball caused prisms of color to bounced through the fog. Even though there was a chill in the air outside, the heat from all the bodies inside made the air inside heavy. The DJ called the last song of the night. There is was. The song. My friends has deserted me for dance partners. I sat in the bleachers as he walked over to me. He had finally made it to the dance. He stretched out an arm as an invitation to the dance, a feeble attempt at an apology for being so late. The only saving grace was that it was our song.
That’s what I had written about the song. Memories of a distant past that brought back emotions long forgotten. No recollection of the boy, he’s just a shadow in the memory now, but when it originally happened, my teen heart was in conflict and full of drama. But today as I listen to the song again, I think of the sunset, the sky, the warmth of the air.
This writing exercise made me rethink how I listen to songs and the memories they evoke. So much material to choose from when you consider whose perspective you’re writing about.
Oh, those endless summer nights.Tweet
Goodbye, farewell, au revoir and ciao. To express good wishes when parting or the end of a conversation.
Saying a goodbye. An ending is sometimes a good place to start. To help get me started on my writing, I like to get inspiration from a quote, but while searching for a goodbye quote, all I found was sadness. My current thoughts about saying goodbye are about going on a trip. More “see you soon” than “have a nice life”. Quotes about goodbye left me with a finality of never seeing the person again.
I guess I’ve never really thought about what goodbye meant. In my head the characters were just going away on a business trip, but in truth, that feeling of leaving someone behind is a lonely and scary thought. As much as I want it to be a happy, freeing release, it’s really more like your guts are being ripped out and you’ll never feel whole again. Your life is ending, you cannot go on.
Ok, I’m a bit dramatic, but in truth you are in a way moving on. Leaving people behind. Growing. Learning. Rambling. Oh, wait that’s me. To me saying goodbye at the airport was sad, but I never thought of it a solitary moment. They give their hugs and kisses at the curb. One trying to hold the feelings in to be strong, the other a blubbering mess that cannot stop. But as I think of these characters saying goodbye, I feel a loss. It’s as though their lives are headed in two different directions. The person boarding the plane has to go. They don’t want to go, but must because they have obligations and that’s what grown-ups do. It’s supposed to be a happy moment because they are doing what they love and are fortunate that someone is paying them to live their dream. The person staying behind is living their dream as well though.
I want there to be a winner. Someone who comes out ahead. Someone who feels better for the choice of having to say goodbye. I’ll have to think about this one a bit harder. My flight is leaving.
Goodbye, farewell, au revoir and ciao.
by Kitty Felde
I’ve been thinking a lot about spectacle.
Aristotle included spectacle – or opsis – as one of the requirements of tragedy. Of course, his description of tragedy includes the physical elements of theatre: the set, the costumes, music and sound effects, and the physical and vocal performance of actors. (It should be noted that Aristotle lists “spectacle” last, believing that a truly good tragedy doesn’t require a stage experience; he believed that a tragedy can create a catharsis in a reader – even from the written page.)
I think of spectacle in terms of a high wire act at the circus, fireworks over the Washington Monument, a three year old throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. Leslie Kan at the University of Chicago says, “much of the spectacle’s appeal (or repugnance) derives from its visual power and ability to hold the gaze of the viewer.” In other words, made you look.
Last night, I covered the State of the Union address for public radio. It was my seventh SOTU, and I found myself looking at it analytically, as though I was an anthropologist. Or a theatre historian. The event was full of spectacle.
There is no more monumental setting in Washington. The U.S. Capitol is an architectural marvel that never fails to fill me with awe whenever I walk on those marble floors or look up at a magnificent chandelier or the miles of murals and friezes on the walls.
Costume design may seem tame most of the time in Congress, but on the night of the SOTU, the brightest jackets come out of the closets for the lady lawmakers: reds, purples, a neon orange sherbet, turquoise – anything that might catch the eye of the cameras or the President as he makes his long walk down the center aisle, shaking hands every step of the way. Supreme Court justices also parade in, looking like they’re going to a graduation ceremony in their ceremonial black robes. The First Lady reminds the audience that she is the leading lady, wearing a fluorescent banana yellow dress and false eyelashes that can be seen a mile away. She’s also the only woman allowed to bare her arms in that House Chamber. And she does.
There’s the sound effect of House Speaker Paul Ryan, tapping his oversized mallet to announce the impending entrance of the President to the House floor.
The President’s performance was relaxed, almost a little too casual at times, as he paused for the expected applause or laughter from the Democratic side of the House and ignored the folks seated on their hands on the GOP side. (He had a tough act to follow. The last time all of Congress gathered to hear a speaker was this summer when Pope Francis was in town. His performance so-moved John Boehner that he turned in his gavel as Speaker.)
What will I remember of that speech, that evening, after I move from Washington? Not much.
Think back to your strongest memories of an evening in the theatre. What was the show? I’ll bet it was some element of spectacle that imprinted that performance in your memory.
For me, it was a Shakespeare in the Park production of “Henry V” with Kevin Kline as the (then) young monarch. It was a hot, humid evening performance that was interrupted frequently by rain. The show would stop, and everyone would run for cover. When it was over, lackies would descend upon the stage to mop up with what looked like old tee shirts and the show would continue. When it came time for the St. Crispin speech –
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
The skies opened up again, accompanied by fierce winds, lightening, thunder, and sheets of rain. Kline lifted his head, raised his fist to the heavens and dared the elements to defeat him. Talk about spectacle!
It was Kline’s physical and vocal performance, the sound effects and lighting show provided by nature, that transported all of us sitting on our soaking wet picnic blankets in Central Park to that battleground.
So many playwrights are again turning to spectacle in their plays.
Lucas Hnath takes us to a Sunday service in a modern mega-church. Church and theatre have long borrowed from each other in all the elements of spectacle – from architecture to music to monologues, er, sermons. And with theatre’s reputation as a place filled with refugees from religion, a safe, theatrical trip to a place many hadn’t stepped inside of for years gave audiences the theatricality without the guilt.
Rajiv Joseph takes us to one of the most spectacular pieces of architecture in the world – the Taj Mahal – in his “Guards at the Taj.” He’s not content to rely on someone else’s theatrical spectacle for his play. He adds his own with a most bloody scene of cutting off limbs and cleaning up blood.
Lauren Yee calls upon ghosts to create the spectacle in her play “The Tiger Among Us.” Charise Castro Smith also goes the monster route in “Feathers and Teeth.” She creates a flesh-eating monster in a saucepan. And Matthew Lopez takes us to a Florida drag show in “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” Talk about use of costumes and music.
I know budgets are small. And as playwrights, we have to mindful of cast size, stage space, and other practicalities if we want our work to get produced.
But we can dream, can’t we? Why not create something larger than life? A play that makes a set designer’s mouth water, that leaves an audience saying “wow”, that creates a memory of a theatrical spectacle as fresh today as it was that hot and stormy evening in Central Park with Shakespeare.Tweet
Yoga is a practice which exibits a natural cycle. It’s about the breath, and like the tides of the ocean the breath rises and falls. I started my yoga practice probably ten years ago. My boyfriend at the time was a hockey player and he took his level of fitness very seriously. He discovered yoga and he encouraged me to practice also.
I remember my first class. It was a cold and rainy evening in Vancouver and we went to a Bikram studio on 12th and Oak St. Yoga studios had just started to mushroom allover in major cities. I dressed in a loose t-shirt and shorts. The room was large with a mirror that spanned the length of one side of the room. The carpet was the industrial flat grey type. There were heaters blowing hot air into the room to warm it up to 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit. It was not an inviting experience especially with the funky odor, probably from sweat and maybe something else too.
There were mats and towels spread out within a comfortable distance of each other. My boyfriend put his mat not far from mine. People either laid flat on their back or stretched – their bodies reflected in the large mirror. I sat on my butt, lotus position style taking it all in. The women wore body fitting spandex gear and the men wore shorts only. More people trickled into the room and soon the empty spots between mats were filled up with mats. People were only an arms-length away from each other. It was a full class.
Once the class got started I found I was lost in the vocabulary and just watched what others did, especially my boyfriend who was considerately looking out for me and encouraging me. Once the sweat started to pour out of my body my t-shirt was soaked and flopped around like an inconvenient yoke. My shorts were too wide at the legs and some poses exposed my butt. But I don’t think anybody cared. We were all suffering the heat and exhaustion of the asanas. As a first time practitioner I did okay. I was able to stay in the room and also I did not throw up.
I survived my first class and felt pretty good afterwards. On top of feeling a sense of accomplishment there was also that euphoric afterglow of a good sweat like great sex. I understood then why people fell in love with the yoga practice which turned out for me a momentary spell of addiction.
Lately my practice has become less regular, but what I have observed with my relationship to it is I practice yoga when I am in need of salvation. Whenever my life is in turmoil the practice of yoga stills my mind, body and spirit. I remember times when I would be holding a pose, my skin sweaty, my breath slightly labored, and I’d be thinking – “Thank you for saving me.”
Memorable times in my life when I needed saving were during relationship breakups. I would dive into relationships with joy and hope that this is it! Then when it fell apart then I fell apart too. I practiced yoga fanatically as though it was my lifeline. My body looked lean. I was strong. My gait was confident. My breath was fluid. On the flip side of that rigorous fanaticism I ignored other aspects of my life. That experience showed my capacity to obsess too much, and the balance that yoga is supposed to achieve would tip towards a kind of mental disease.
Now I’ve settled down in a marriage. The relationship yo-yo’s has stopped, but this doesn’t mean I’m immune to relationship challenges. I do recognize that the level of commitment is different in a marriage than the other ones I had. I’ve reevaluated my need to practice yoga again. I miss the things that the yoga practice taught me: acceptance, humility, challenge, consistency, letting go, stillness – among other things. Yoga is a constant sense of renewal and probably this is what I need most about it. I still on occasion go to a studio to learn something new, but the cost of yoga classes these days can be expensive so I practice at home instead. But that’s not an ideal environment either as there are distractions or at least I allow these distractions to curb my intention.
I told my husband a couple of years ago that I’ve wanted to get my teacher’s certification in yoga. Finally I’m taking the step towards realizing that goal. I’ve registered for the training at a studio in South LA. It’s a wonderful place based upon the founding concept of the founder and executive director Raja Michelle of Green Tree Yoga and Meditation.
In 1992, I watched the South Los Angeles uprising on television. The images and exposure of deep racism and brutality shook me. My eyes were opened to the systemic injustice of our world and I set my intentions on a life of service. Years later, I discovered yoga and meditation. These practices not only woke me up and helped heal my personal suffering, but I saw how it helped others to foster acceptance and to be present in this chaotic world. After twelve years of personal practice and teaching, I wanted to serve in a bigger way.
We would like to believe that yoga is available to all communities, but the truth is, it’s not.
Looking at the yoga landscape of Los Angeles, with studios opening on seemingly every other block, there are still very few studios that exclusively offer donation-based classes and even fewer studios with students or teachers of color. In fact, there is only one other yoga studio in the entire area of South Los Angeles.
On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in 2013, I founded the nonprofit organization Green Tree Yoga & Meditation in South Los Angeles. Ours is not your “typical” yoga studio—and we wouldn’t have it any other way. All classes are donation-based and open to yogis of all abilities. If we’re to stand on the pillars of the history of these practices, it goes without saying that we provide access and opportunity regardless of race, gender, orientation, body type, age, and income. Our mantra is to “allow that which connects us to flourish and to dissolve that which separates us.”