All posts by Diane Grant

AGATHA

A couple of days ago, a friend at work gave me a book by Agatha Christie called Passenger To Frankfurt. And I thought, “Goody. I can romp through that.”  In the Introduction, I found one of the best articles I’ve read on how to write.

I think most of us forget that Christie was a woman playwright. She’s become more of an institution than a writer. People say, “Oh, an Agatha Christie play, ho hum,” as if they know all about it – dated, formulaic, boring. Community theater. “I mean, The Mousetrap,” they mutter. (Not long ago, I wrote a ten minute play called Name Recognition, in which I trashed all those community theaters that refuse to look at a new play and instead produce The Mousetrap over and over.)

She wrote nineteen plays, eighty crime novels and short story collections, two memoirs, and six novels under another name. She invented characters that stick in your mind,  Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple to name only two.

How did she do that? This same friend who gave me that book, also came up with a quote from Christie about how to start to write. “All I needed was a steady table and a typewriter.”

To the question of “Where do you get your ideas from?” Christie answers, “You merely say firmly, ‘My own head.’” You look. You listen. You keep up with what is going on in the world – the great events and the passing events of the day – bad and good.

She insists that the setting in any work is real.  It can be described.  It can be felt and seen.

She goes for a ride on the Orient Express. Ah hah!

She has tea in a Chelsea cafe.  In the cafe, she sees one girl pull out a handful of another girl’s hair.

The setting is real – the cafe.  The characters will be invented.  The girls become hers.  Who are they and what  were they quarreling about?  She begins to have an idea about them. If an idea seems attractive, she tosses it around, works it up and gets it into shape.

And then hard part begins – writing it down and turning it into a plot.  But she has something to work with,  something to build on.

It doesn’t happen overnight. In her autobiography, Christie talks about how strange it feels to have a book growing inside you, building up all the time. For one of her books, she says, it took six or seven years before it all fell into place. Suddenly, the characters were already there, in her head, just waiting in the wings, and she wrote the book in just three days.

I’d forgotten the thrill of observing something, some interaction, some conversation, some quirk, some incident, and putting it in my notebook for use later until suddenly, it becomes insistent. (Agatha Christie sometimes had five or six notebooks!) I’ve been thinking instead, “I have nothing to say, nothing to write about.”

So, thanks for Agatha Christie, I’m getting out my notebook again. If only I could take a ride on The Orient Express.   Well, there is always the Metro line. There are lots of stories there.

AARGH!

In The Lobby

I am a box office manager at a theater.  Most of the time, I can handle everything with ease – maybe do a little playwriting during a shift, maybe get in a little reading – loved A Gentleman In Moscow – EXCEPT for twice a year when there is a Children’s Show.

The Youth Show has always had about 20 to 25 children in it – the current production has 36, ages 8 to 14 years – and they are wonderful. They work very hard with energy and joy, shepherded about by a few teenagers, and they continue to amaze me. During the rehearsal period, which uses the entire theater – the rehearsal room, the patio, the auditorium and the lobby, I can hear incessant drumming and lines read and songs sung and one day, somewhere in there, enjoyed the synopsis of Titus Andronicus on someone’s phone – EEW, SO GROSS!  Later on, I found out 13 facts about Frederick Douglas because one of the girls was writing a paper on him and my computer was up and running. A small girl told me that 2 negative minus 2 negative is 2 positive. Who knew?

The children are supported by their exceptionally hard working and cheerful parents who build the sets, make the costumes, do the makeup, serve the food and clean up and on and on. And it’s all volunteer.

However, I don’t know if most people know this, but children have not only parents and grandparents but uncles and aunts and school teachers and school friends and neighbors and most of them want to come to one or two or three of the shows or maybe to all of them.  Some people will reserve 20 tickets at a time.  But the parents who book the tickets are dealing with people who change their minds!

And even though we have listed only 70 seats a performance on the online site – an inefficient operation called Ticket Leap – so that we won’t sell out, when those are gone, the rumor immediately goes round that the show is SOLD OUT even when there are 125 seats in the theater. The parents’ pain is palpable. NO!!!!

I am in a booth that is open to the lobby and inevitably when I come in to work, a parent will follow me. I can be taking off my jacket, putting down my purse, opening the place up and someone will say to me, “I know you’re not open yet but do you have two tickets for the Sunday matinee? Ideally, I’d like four.” There will be somebody behind her who says, “Isn’t that show sold out?” and the first person will say, “How would she know? She’s not even open yet!” And I will say, “That show is sold out,” and will hear “You’re kidding me. Right?” Wrong.

The lobby is adjacent to the box office – there is no door or window separating it – and the crowd is LOUD so that the person shouting through the box office window at show time from outside can’t be heard. Over the years, I’ve become somewhat adept at lip reading but am not always sure what’s been said. Opening night is the most chaotic but you would think after the searching for seats and the fear that we won’t have enough, that everybody would be in and happy by at least ten minutes after curtain – when someone will rush in from the auditorium and demand an answer to “So when did we allow reserved seating?!!!!”

After a stint, I lie in bed, thinking about the Monarch Resort Hotel in Pacific Grove just a block from the sea. I’m there, with my husband, watching the flickering embers from the room fireplace and contemplating the May arrival of the Monarch butterflies, which will fill an adjacent lot – thousands of them – none making a sound. It’s a beautiful dream, broken only by the sound of my husband, who teaches school, muttering in his sleep. “Sit down,” he barks.

In the Monarch Sanctuary

Staged Readings

By Diane Grant

I might have written about this before. It’s been a while and I’m glad we’re all back. Thank you lafpi!

The Palisades Playwrights Reading Festival will be in its ninth year next April. It is produced at the community theater in the Pacific Palisades and for three Tuesdays in April 2018, it will again be presenting staged readings of three new plays.

We ask for submissions until January the 1st and every submission is read by the committee and discussed.

No playwright is paid, and the only money that changes hands is a five dollar fee at the door, which covers the wine and refreshments. The festival now has a growing number of people who come to the readings, which are really well received with a Q&A afterwards, if the playwright wants one. And everybody has a good time.

All of the plays have something interesting about them, the subjects are diverse, and some stick in the mind long after. We had a play about a submarine crew underwater after a nuclear war called The Letter Writer, by Steve Yusi, that people still ask me about. We’ve had romantic comedies, one by Don Gordon, about the issue of two license plays marked PANACHE, one by Jim McGinn, called Vincent O’Shea about a man who never looks older; a look at end of life issues called Reprieves, by David Reuben, a gerontologist as well as a playwright, and a dark comedy by Virginia Mekkelson, called The Losers Club, about an office, a crocodile and Bad Bosses.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter. The theater will not consider producing any of these plays! I don’t think it is because it is a community theater, although it may be. But it is reflective of such a large problem for all of us. I have a play called The Last of The Daytons, which is read over and over. Years ago, it had a wonderful reading at Theatricum Botanicum as part of their Seedlings program. (Thank you, Jennie Webb.)  It’s had several staged readings since and an almost production in Memphis.

This year it won the PlayFestSantaBarbara. First place, with prize money! The festival was a weekend affair of workshops and readings of new pieces and the company at Santa Barbara presented a brilliant reading after a very helpful rehearsal with a skilled director. It was one of the best experiences I’ve had in the theater and I’m so grateful for it.

(Check out their website for new submission dates. The competition is closed for 2018 but will probably be taking 2019 submissions in the New Year.)

So, The Last of the Daytons is ready to go, as are the others we’ve read. The trick is finding the production company that loves it, wants it, and has the money and time to produce it. I’m looking.

Submit, Diane, submit!

In the meantime, if anybody would like to submit a play the Palisades Reading Festival, send it to me at grantdiane04@gmail.com.

Writer’s Block – dialogue

by Diane Grant

I’ll finish with Walter Kerr’s demonstration of  good dialogue – the difference between general language and the way we speak. He says that detail, detail, and more detail is what you are after and quotes two different passages from plays by John Steinbeck – Burning Bright and Of Mice and Men.

I’m putting it in here mostly because I can never read the excerpt from Of Mice and Men without crying.  It’s that good!

Burning Bright is about a man who is afraid he can’t have children and he’s talking to a friend:

JOE SAUL: A man can’t scrap his blood-line, can’t snip the thread of his immortality. There’s more than just memory, more than my training and the remembered stories of glory and the forgotten shame of failure. There is a trust imposed to hand my line over to another, to place it like a thrush’s egg in my child’s hand. You’ve given your bloodline to the twins, Friend Ed. But I….

FRIEND ED: Maybe you should go to doctors. There might be a remedy you haven’t thought of.

JOE SAUL: What do they know? There is some dark curse on me and I feel it.

FRIEND ED: On you alone, Joe Saul? Do you feel singled out, pinned up alone? It’s time we sing this trouble out into the air and light, else it will grow like a cancer in your mind. Rip off the cover. Let it out. Maybe, you’re not alone in your secret cave…

JOE SAUL: I know. I’m guess I’m digging like a mole into my own darkness. Of course, Friend Ed, I know it’s a thing that can happen to anyone, in any place or time. And maybe all these have the secret locked up in loneliness.

Steinbeck wrote another play about loneliness and friendship, Of Mice and Men:

His characters, George and Lennie are eating dinner.

GEORGE: There’s enough beans for four men.

LENNIE: I like ‘em with ketchup.

GEORGE: Well, we ain’t got any. Whatever we ain’t got, that’s what you want. God Almighty, if I was alone, I could live so easy. I could go get a job of work and no trouble. No mess…and when the end of the month come, I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want. Why I could stay in a cat-house all night. I could eat any place I want. Order any damn thing.

LENNIE: I didn’t want no ketchup.

GEORGE: I could do that every damn month. Get a gallon of whiskey or be in a pool room and play cards or shoot pool. And what have I got? I got you. You can’t keep a job and you lose me every job I got!

LENNIE: I don’t mean nothing, George.

GEORGE: Just keep me shovin’ all over the country, all the time. And that ain’t the worst – you get in trouble. You do bad things and I got to get you out. It ain’t bad people that raises hell. It’s dumb ones. You crazy son of a bitch, you keep me in hot water all the time. You just want to feel that girl’s dress. Just wanta to pet it like it was a mouse. Well, how the hell’d she know you just want to feel her dress? How’d she know you’d just hold onto it like it was a mouse?

LENNIE: I didn’t mean to, George?

GEORGE: Sure you didn’t mean to. You didn’t mean for her to yell bloody hell, either. You didn’t mean for us to hide in the irrigation ditch all day with guys lookin’ for us with guns. Alla time it’s something you didn’t mean. God damn it, I wish I could put you in a cage with a million mice and let them pet you.

LENNIE: George?

GEORGE: What do you want?

LENNIE: I was only foolin’, George. I don’t want no ketchup. I wouldn’t eat no ketchup if it was right here beside me.

GEORGE: If they was some here you could have it. And if I had a thousand bucks I’d buy ya a bunch of flowers.

Walter Kerr says, “The difference in the two is in the words. In the first, the words remind us of nothing real: the second is specific and the words crackle.”

So I’m looking for that moment that crackles, that puts down that first sentence, that leads me to a protagonist and an antagonist and a struggle between them. That leads to me a story.

People advise me, “Doesn’t matter what it is. Write a line a day.” “Take a walk.” “Meditate.” “When you are most frustrated, that’s when the ideas will come.” “It happens to everybody.”

So I think I’ll have a glass of wine and watch Chopped.

Could work!

.

Writer’s Block 2 – Finding the Story

by Diane Grant

What I did was go back to a book on playwriting written called How Not To Write A Play by Walter Kerr, who was a playwright in the 40’s and 50’s, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and a critic for the New York Herald Tribune and the Sunday New York Times.

His mantra is, “Avoid generalities. Be specific.”

The beginning of the work arises from something specific, from seeing something or hearing or remembering something concrete that starts your imagination working.

It can be just a glimpse of someone – an old acquaintance laughing, a man crying in a corner, two women jogging, one talking on the phone. It could be a piece of landscape – that enormous, bright supermoon in November, for example. It could be a snatch of dialogue.

My friend, Madeleine, collects things she’s heard on the street and publishes the results every year during the holidays. She just loves to listen. I love to listen, too and I really recommend carrying around a recorder or a notebook so that you can catch something you see or hear that astounds or delights or amuses or just interests you.

Just recently, I looked at my notebook and found two men walking down the street arguing and the one said, “Of course, your Dad thinks Jesus is magic.” Another day, I heard a woman shouting into her phone, “Well, the drugs aren’t working so I’m not going to pay for them.”  I heard a man screaming at his wife, “This is my time. Don’t you understand? This is for me! My time!”

My husband and I were at lunch not long ago and heard a full bearded man talking to someone in a big wide brimmed black hat about how he could get her a radio show with an international following because he knew the King of Jordan’s sister. All he needed was some start up money. The person in the hat never spoke, we never saw the face, just the hat.

Where could that lead me?, I thought.  Who was the person in the black brimmed hat? Was she old or young? Maybe she was very beautiful. Was she crying? Was she smiling? Was she listening? Maybe the person in the hat wasn’t a woman!

I could do a little research perhaps. (I’m a great fan of Wikipedia.) Does the King of Jordan have a sister? Aha. He has six and he once had a bit part on Star Trek. King Abdullah’s Sisters.

Walter Kerr’s advice is to let all the pieces start to come together and don’t yet criticize. Keep your eyes and ears open and see where they take you. Put down details. One phrase may lead to another, one association to another, something will jog your memory which will connect to something else, and gradually you will have accumulated material to work with. You will put it all together to tell a story.

Maybe the situation would start me off. Maybe, King Abdullah’s Sisters has nothing to do with the King Of Jordan. Other characters might appear, a waiter who knows that the bearded man has run a tab that has to be paid, or a street musician who serenades them, or a woman who says, “Marguerite! At last!”

I don’t want to start with a theme. I can never enter those contests that ask you to write a ten minute play that has a theme to follow – Holey Moley, Curves Ahead, Time Forgot, etc. My brain freezes.

However, recently, I forgot that and thought I could write a play about the friendship between Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson. (And that’s probably when my writer’s block started).

In the afternoon of October 12, 1952, Paul Robeson visited Einstein at his home on Mercer Street in Princeton and they talked for six hours. Einstein was not well and very discouraged and it’s said that he was re-energized by that visit.

How inspirational, I thought. I kept seeing the last moments of the play with Einstein at the piano and Robeson singing.

I read all I could about them and their mutual activism. And the play just sat there. Dead.

I was trying to write about two historical figures, two geniuses I had nothing in common with, had never met, and never would meet – I, a white woman with no mathematical ability or scientific ability like Einstein’s, who speaks only one language, not twenty, like Paul Robeson. (I do sing.)

But the problem wasn’t that I was trying to write about historical figures. I was starting not with specifics but a theme, a generality. I was going to write about altruism and the efforts of two men to help change the world.

And it didn’t work. Back to the book!

Writer’s Block 1

by Diane Grant

I just wrote a paper for a festival and that is about all I’ve written for a while. It’s long, so I’ll put in here in sections. Maybe, it can help somebody with the same problem.

I’ve been suffering from writer’s block. I want to write a new play and have no ideas. So I’ve been thinking about it. How to start again? Can I work myself out of it? Do I wait until it’s gone? Do I just stop?

Sometimes, writing is easy. I’ve written with ensemble groups and know and love how that works. It’s so much fun and so exciting to build a play together with others – from stage to page using research and improv and a writer who gets it all down, then cuts and shapes the work into a whole.

I fantasize that Will Shakespeare came in to work every morning and said something like, “I just read about a man who was poisoned through his ear while he slept. Could it be a king, maybe?” “Not another king,” they say. “No, this is different. He’s the King of Denmark.” “OK. What next?” “Maybe his son wants to avenge him.” And the men say, “How does he know about it?” “Who tells him?” they ask. “What about a ghost? says one. “I play a good ghost, Will. Isn’t that right?”

However, Shakespeare was with one company for a long time and could work and rehearse every day. I don’t know too many companies who have the time and money to do that now.

When you’re alone at your computer, it’s different. I know I always want to have a story, someone to root for – a protagonist who wants something, a conflict – an antagonist or antagonists who prevent him or her from getting what he or she wants – and a resolution – a decision or action by the protagonist that changes things.

But how did I begin before? What started the process?

Here’s what John Steinbeck said, writing to a friend.

“Dear Robert,

I hear from a couple of attractive grapevines that you are having trouble writing. God! I know this feeling so well. I think it is never coming back, but it does – one morning, there it is again.

About a year ago, Bob Anderson asked me for help in the same problem. I told him to write poetry – not for selling – not for seeing – poetry to throw away. For poetry is the mathematics of writing and closely akin to music. And it is also the best therapy because sometimes the troubles come tumbling out.

Well, he did. For six months he did. And I have three joyous letters from him saying that it worked. Just poetry – anything and not designed for a reader. It’s a great and valuable privacy.

I offer this if your dryness goes on too long and makes you too miserable. You may come out of it any day. I have. The words are fighting each other to come out.

Love to you,

John.”

Might be worth a try!

THE OTHER SIDE OF THE COIN

by Diane Grant

I now know how difficult it is to send those rejection letters we all hate to receive.

Seven years ago, a small group of us started the Palisades Playwrights Festival at Theater Palisades, wanting to introduce new voices to a community theater that is still convinced that plays like Chapter Two, The Foreigner, and You Can’t Take It With You, are the only plays that people will come to see.

We have readings of new plays for three Tuesdays in April with a Q&A after and wine and refreshments before. We’ve found some really well written, entertaining – even crowd pleasing – new plays. They are well rehearsed and staged and the actors throw themselves into them. (A friend from ALAP came and although she didn’t say whether or not she liked the play, thought the acting was stupendous.) And even though we have yet to convince the powers that be to add any of these new plays to a season – we’ll keep trying – our audience for the readings has continued to grow and people come back every year.

We initially had submissions from only the Westside but alarmingly for such a small crew, our submissions have increased too, and this year we had seventy plays to read! We had to open up the process to more readers, and from October to February, we read, read, and read.

With only three slots, choosing the plays was very difficult.

Then came the writing of the rejection letters! It is so hard to reject good scripts and really awful having to turn friends down. Some people ask for notes and that’s OK. I’ll do that when I can think again. And some people don’t take it well at all! One playwright sent me a message that said, “Your financial institution has important information for you. Click here.” (Fortunately, he neglected to remove his photo from the side of the email.)

Surprisingly, we had far more submissions from men than women. We chose two plays by men this year, a romantic comedy about a novelist being dragged into the 21st century; a play set in 1947 about PTSD and the then new idea of putting small offenders into community service; followed by a dark hilarious comedy by a woman, Virginia Mekkelson, about how a surprise delivery of a crocodile solves a couple of problems with bad corporate bosses.

I hope that we have more plays from women next year and that lapfiers will make our work even harder next year and submit.

 

 

PITCHING OUR LITTLE HEARTS OUT

by Diane Grant

A while ago, Nancy Beverly, a fellow lafpier, sent me a link to a YouTube series called The Calamities of Jane, which is about a 50’ish actress who is still trying to make it in the biz. Nancy wrote a lot of the episodes on this show which stars Rebecca Klinger, who produced and plays the title role.

Each episode, and I’ve seen three so far, is sharp, honest, very funny and so painful.

And all released a flood of memories. I remembered the time I was auditioning for a commercial in which a woman who has won a big prize throws a bunch of cash in the air. I had made everyone laugh and I knew, just knew, that I’d booked it, when some demon inside me spoke up and said, “But wouldn’t they have given her a check?” End of story. There was a game show I thought I was sailing through until a guy came up to me and whispered, “Relax, sweetheart, and pull down your skirt.” Didn’t book that again. There was always something. I was too fat or too thin, too young or too old, or “too short for a two shot.” Strangely, whenever there was something I was absolutely right for, the daughter of my agent would get the part.

Then, my husband, a filmmaker, and I wrote screenplays together. And of course, pitched them. We pitched our little hearts out. And kept at it until we had holes (not diamonds) in the soles of our shoes. We worked for Amway distributors and phone rooms and wrote a charming little story that could have made the studios millions, called The Blini.

Like Jane, we always had car trouble and one day on our way to a studio, we heard a thump and a clunk and a rattle and a horn honking. A woman in the next lane yelled, “You’ve got a flat tire.” We kept on, flat tire or no. (We found out on another occasion, that the spare tire in the trunk is smaller than the other three and when you put it on the wheel and drive off, you feel like clowns in an impoverished circus troupe.)

We limped into the studio, and pitched our charming little story with great verve and sparkle and passion. The producer told our agent that she was “underwhelmed.”

We were sent out again and while waiting and waiting in the anteroom of yet another producer, told an assistant that we had to go soon to pick up our daughter from school. When the producer finally appeared, she said, “Make it quick. We don’t want your daughter to be abducted on the street corner.”

We were sent to another studio. We’d had to change the date and our agent assured us that that hadn’t been a good move. While we waited, sitting in two tiny chairs, in yet another anteroom, which was the size of one of those walk in closets you see on reality shows, the producer’s “girl” talked on the phone. “Well,” she shouted. “So what if he had a gun? What’s so wrong about that? What is your problem?”

Finally, we were waved into the producer’s enormous office, where he was watching the stock market figures moving across an electronic band at the base of his office walls. He might have said, “Go ahead,” but we weren’t sure because he was talking over his shoulder. However, we pitched our little hearts out and then he said, “I think I heard that pitch before and passed.”

We did have a little run of luck and after winning with a short film at Cannes wrote another charming little script, this time for a studio, a complete rewrite of one of their films. We called it Cannes Artists. I have to make this short because I might START SOBBING. It did make millions for the studio but not for us because the head of the studio who had employed us left and the project was passed on to a new writer who rewrote it and called his script Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Now, when I send out my plays and receive a rejection in two seconds flat or don’t hear back at all or get that “not for us at this time” email, I don’t blink. I pour myself a glass of chilled Pinot Grigio, turn on the TV, put up my feet, and watch Chopped.

The Calamities of Jane – www.youtube.com/watch?v=qIfiumV3S4s

Lady-Like

Lady-like

It is so difficult to write a play based on real characters, particularly people who lived in a time different from our own. What were their mores, their culture, their understanding of the world? How did they talk? What did they wear? What did their world look like?

And how do you make the events of long ago feel immediate and new?

Laura Shamas took all that on and wrote Lady-Like, an enchanting musical with all the elements of a really good story – love, jeopardy, suspense, surprises, humor and sadness.

I felt as if I knew the characters, two aristocratic women, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, and their faithful Irish maid, Mary Carryll , who in 1778, ran away from English society and made a home in Wales, where they lived together until they died.

What was thoroughly engaging was the sense of place and time that Laura evoked. She researched the story with a research grant when she was a grad student and traveled to “Kilkenny, Woodstock, Waterford, Oxford, Aberystywyth and Llangollen to retrace the women’s steps, hold their letters, and smell the flowers at Play Newydd” (their home in Wales).

We got to know the women, whose elopement was sensational and who became known as the Ladies of Llangollen, “the two most celebrated virgins in Europe.”   (On a modern note, as they became famous, they were visited by other famous or soon to be famous people, like the Duke of Wellington, Josiah Wedgwood, and William Wordsworth. The cult of celebrity is not new!)

Laura first wrote Lady-Like as a play and then turned it  into a musical, teaming up with Lisa Donovan Lukas, who wrote the lyrics and music. I was happy to attend the “very first reading” of the show at the Santa Monica Playhouse in June.

Lady-Like has only three characters. Sarah was played by Emma Appleyard, Eleanor by Janna Cardia, and Mary by Jean Kauffman. Each was excellent. A lot of humor was supplied by Jean as Mary, who was a perfect foil for the two. Alex Shamas was the stage director.

The music, which is lovely, had the composer at the piano. You can listen to her music on You Tube and on her website www.lisadonovanlukas.com.

Congratulations to all. I’m hoping that I’ll see a full production soon, perhaps at the Geffen or the Taper.