When it comes to playwriting, I’m pretty confident. I’m pretty good at character and dialogue, though my plotting could use a lot of work. And I know the basics about how to format a draft that is acceptable for submission.
But I’ve learned a hard lesson of late: I don’t remember a thing from 5th grade grammar class.
Apparently it didn’t matter in my career as playwright and radio journalist. Nobody really cares where you put your commas. There are no quotation marks. You never have to worry about tense in radio reporting: live spots are always in present tense; radio features are told in past tense. Plays on the other hand always take place in the “now” – even when we’re having onstage flashbacks to past events.
Why this trip down grammatical worry lane? I have my first “prose” book coming out in late February and correcting the galleys has made me realize that as a writer, I really don’t know what the heck I’m doing.
The book is a middle grade novel, “Welcome to Washington, Fina Mendoza.” It’s the tale of the ten year old daughter of a congressman who solves the mystery of the Demon Cat of Capitol Hill to save her family from “cat”astrophe.
The publisher, Black Rose Writing, is a small indie house out of Texas that pretty much requires you to be your own editor. That means it’s my job to identify all the grammar mistakes. And there are many.
I never realized what a messy writer I am – throwing dashes and commas into the same sentences and (what do you call these things that I usually use as smiley faces in texts?) I had to look up whether to capitalize the first word in a quote and whether the period goes before or after the quotation mark. I’m pretty good with apostrophes, but what about phrases like “kids book?”
I slip back and forth through tenses without considering the poor reader. Even re-reading this blog post is sending shudders through my heart.
I have half a dozen writing manuals on my desk. And I use a “bible” – a text by a writer that I admire. I flip through the pages to see how she solved a particular grammar issue.
I’m lucky to be married to a guy who has even more writing books on his shelves than I have on mine. (I was going to write “than I do” but was unsure of the grammatical correctness…) I can walk down the hall to query him about various rules. But even he was stumped from time to time.
It’s enough to make you want to give up writing.
On the other hand, how many times are we given the opportunity to learn something new? Something hard. Something useful.
I like the idea of switching back and forth between writing for the stage and writing books for kids. I want to feel as confident about the latter as I do (sometimes) about the former. I want to be a writer!
But I am still looking for the perfect grammatical writing book. Any suggestions?
It was quite the weekend of theatre for me as an audience member
I finally saw “Hamilton” at the Kennedy Center. Yes, it was a road show, where the singers cheated on the high notes and the very pretty fellow who played the title role kept blending into the scenery. Oh, but the actor who played Aaron Burr made me believe the show was named after him! A fine production viewed from a fine seat on the first balcony.
It was fabulous. To quote from the aforementioned show, “Pirates” “blew us all away.”
The reason: the decision to put the audience at the heart of the action.
The experience began the minute you walked through the theatre door. Every cast member was onstage, singing not Gilbert & Sullivan, but beachy standards like “Sloop John B” and “Margaritaville.” A tiki bar was located on one side of the stage and remained open for business throughout the entire show. A batch of beachballs were flying overhead – audience members batting them at actors, musicians, and each other. I thought I was at a Dodger game.
The audience – an equal mix of senior citizens, 20-somethings, and parents with dozens of very small children – was invited to take a seat onstage.
Oh, sure, some of us fuddy duddies sat on chairs safely away from the action, but most of the audience was happy to plop down on painted wooden benches and ice chests and kiddie wading pools that filled the stage. They were instructed that whenever the action moved to the exact space where they were seated, they’d be politely tapped on the shoulder. This was their invitation to get out of the way. Fast. At times, it looked like a giant game of musical chairs as grownups and kids scrambled to find another seat.
Several members of the audience were recruited to actively participate in the play by holding up the Union Jack or the skull and crossbones of a pirates’ flag. Each was printed on giant beach towels. Parasols were handed out to young ladies who dutifully twirled them this way and that, trying to keep up with the cast member.
The smallest of kids congregated atop the lifeguard station at stage center. It was a magnet for them. Rather than making them scoot, the actors acknowledged their presence. The Pirate King and Frederic would declare that they were entirely alone – and then roll their eyes at the 3 year olds who surrounded them. The rest of the audience was delighted – when they weren’t scared half out of their wits that one of those toddlers would fall off the platform.
The evening was amazing. The energy bounced off the walls.
What a pity when those youngest of audience members discover that all theatre isn’t like this.
Which makes me ask: why not?
Playwriting can feel like such a selfish act. Yes, we have “important stories” that we believe must be shared with the world. But they are our stories. We hope they will resonate with the world in some way, and sometimes they do. (A young man told me that seeing my war crimes play “A Patch of Earth” was the reason he became an attorney specializing in international law.) But usually, it’s a bunch of people sitting in the dark watching a bunch of actors pretending to be imaginary people we made up.
I’ve been thinking hard the past week about the role of the audience in theatre and what I can do as a playwright to make the theatrical experience more about US and less about ME.
I have no immediate solutions, but just asking the question is a start. So I’ll also ask it of you: is it our responsibility as playwrights to also consider the audience? How can we bring them into the theatrical experience? Do we want to? Does the audience want to? How does that change the work?
The mission statement of The Hypocrites is to “re-introduce communal connection into contemporary theater by embracing the desire of all people to bond with each other, especially while experiencing the same event.” The House Theatre wants to “explore connections between Community and Storytelling through a unique theatrical experience.” What’s my mission statement as a playwright?
Which brings me back to “Hamilton.”
Most of the Kennedy Center audience was as familiar with the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda as the actors onstage. Here and there, you could hear someone two seats over whisper, “teach ‘em how to say goodbye, say goodbye” or “never gonna be satisfied.” We all wanted to sing along. It was a show that did speak to us personally and we wanted to be part of it.
But we were at the Kennedy Center, not a black box theatre in rural Maryland. We knew that if we broke into song, a gray-haired, red-coated usher would find us and take us away.
Now that I’ve seen this production of “Pirates,” I’m never going to be satisfied to sit quietly in the dark.
Playwright Kitty Felde is also host of the award-winning Book Club for Kids podcast. Her play about the LA Riots “Western & 96th” will be workshopped this September at DC’s Spooky Action Theater and its New Works in Action series.
I’ve escaped to the bedroom while a quartet of hardworking young men pack my lamps and my pictures and drag more than a dozen bins of fabric out into the hallway of my high rise. It’s moving day here in Washington. After nearly a decade, living within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol, my husband and I are finally returning to Los Angeles.
It seemed like a good time to look back at my D.C. years as a playwright.
No, Arena Stage did not invite me to participate in their Playwrights Arena playwriting group or commission me for one of their Power Plays. No, Studio Theatre didn’t fall in love with my work. Nor did Olney or Signature or Synetic. In many ways, I felt like I’d arrived in DC about ten years too late. Like the rest of D.C., the theatre scene is very much a relationship game. And those relationships had been formed long before I got here.
But I did find other opportunities. And so could you.
Several D.C. theatres give a nod to local playwrights by selecting new ten minute plays that thematically relate to their mainstage production. My short L.A. riots play got an airing at the Jewish themed Theater J. A development group The Inkwell offers rehearsal space at Wooley Mammoth, actors, a dramaturg, and a director to work on 20 minutes of a full length play. I met my favorite D.C. director Linda Lombardi through this experience. (She was directing one of the other plays.) Another group Theater Alliance hosts what it calls the Hothouse New Play Development Series. It offers a commission, a week of rehearsal, and terrific actors for a one-night staged reading of new full-length work. My full-length L.A. Riots play WESTERN & 96th got an airing there.
That same theatre teamed up with California’s National Center for New Plays at Stanford and Planet Earth Arts to commission playwrights for an evening of ten minute work about the Anacostia River watershed. The plays got a second performance on the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center. My new ten minute play KENILWORTH – the story of a woman who fought the government to preserve her water lily farm – was read at that festival. And then the story grew and grew into a full length.
Unlike Los Angeles, where big corporations moved out years ago and took their arts money with them, the D.C. government sets aside a huge amount per capita for arts grants. A grant from the D.C. Arts & Humanities Commission and Planet Earth Arts made it possible to produce a staged reading of what is now called QUEEN OF THE WATER LILIES on Earth Day this spring. The cool part is that it was done in a National Park on the footprint of the house where the heroine lived most of her life, surrounded by the water lily ponds she loved.
The D.C. Arts & Humanities Commission also has an annual award for playwriting. I’ve come in second two times for D.C.’s Larry Neal Award. (First place comes with a nice check. Second place comes with a glass of wine and some cheese at the reception.)
Another commission came my way courtesy of the artistic director of one of the very fine children’s theatres here in D.C. The commission wasn’t for Adventure Theatre. It was to create a one-person show for an organization called Pickle Pea Walks to be performed every weekend on the grounds around the White House for all those tourists who didn’t get their security clearance. My play QUENTIN is about the youngest son of Theodore Roosevelt on the night before he reports for duty in World War I. He’s hoping to reunite with his pals from the years when he lived in the White House. They don’t show up, so instead he takes tourists down memory lane to help him say goodbye to D.C. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Quentin Roosevelt’s death (his plane shot down by German fliers in World War I) and rangers from Sagamore Hill (the Roosevelt home) are coming to D.C. to see the production this July.
D.C. is also home to the fabulous summer Capital Fringe Festival. As an audience member, I’ve seen an opera based on the War of 1812, a 45 minute version of “Moby Dick,” and more political plays than even Washington could imagine. My own entry was a production of ALICE: an evening with the tart-tongued daughter of Theodore Roosevelt. Alice was famous for her bon mots (“If you haven’t got anything good to say about anyone, come and sit by me.”) and lived most of her life here in Washington. The show played to sold-out houses and was named critic’s pick by The Washington Post.
There are also odd opportunities for playwrights in this town. I was once asked to write a play in 40 minutes based on an audience suggestion. The wonderful artistic director at MetroStage – the first person in D.C. to fall in love with anything I’ve written – invited me to take over her theatre on a Monday night for a public reading of my controversial play with a character in blackface THE LUCKIEST GIRL. I was challenged to write a one minute play for a festival at Roundhouse Theatre – one of dozens being performed for one night only. I knew I wanted mine to stand out, so I wrote a naked play METAL DETECTOR. It was great fun to see the sign warning of “brief nudity” in the box office window.
I also served four years as a judge for Washington’s version of the Tony’s – the Helen Hayes Awards. This meant free tickets to some of the best – and some of the worst – evenings of theatre in America. (I’ve learned to ask: “will blood be spilled on the audience?”)
Finding community has been the most difficult part of living in D.C. Everyone is busy, busy, busy. I was lucky enough to find a writing group – Playwrights Gymnasium – and a terrific crew of writers. Unfortunately, the group has been on haitus the past several years. We’re all too busy. And frankly, all that business has left me lonesome here in D.C.
So I’m coming home.
I’m nervous about rejoining the L.A. theatre community. It’s likely that many of the literary managers reading scripts today were still in high school when I was last living in Los Angeles. Most of the artistic directors I know have retired. Or died. It will be like starting all over again. Just like it was ten years ago when I moved to Washington. But Southern California is home for me. I’m looking forward to re-introducing myself.
It’s worth a plane ticket to Denver once a year to see what other playwrights are writing and thinking. This was my third (or is it fourth?) year I’ve attended the Colorado New Play Summit – a chance to see seven new plays in three days. For invited playwrights it’s an opportunity for them to workshop their pieces for a week with professional actors, directors and dramaturgs, plus get feedback from a live audience. For the uninvited, it’s a chance to talk to other playwrights, to have lunch with literary managers, and to experience COLD weather without strapping on the skis. I particularly enjoy attending because the Colorado New Play Summit makes the uninvited playwrights feel as welcome as those whose works are being put onstage. It’s also like a crash course in playwriting. I always come away with half a dozen new writing tips.
Here’s my overview of what I saw and what I heard:
It was a good year at the New Play Summit. Every one of the new plays was full of promise. Every one of them was unfinished and flawed in some way. Every one of them was exciting and stimulating.
And every one of them taught me something about playwriting.
Here’s what I learned:
Decide what to leave out
“Christa McAuliffe’s Eyes Were Blue” by Kemp Powers is a tough piece about how racism in America affects a pair of biracial twins (one light skinned, the other dark.) The inciting incident of the play takes place the day that the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The question for a playwright is: how much of the gruesome details do you include onstage? Is the audience old enough to have experienced it for themselves? Powers withholds specifics until almost the last scene. And then he lays them on with graphic delight.
Is it more powerful this way? I know that I’m a writer who could stand to go a bit more for the jugular. But I also wonder whether the graphic details about the Challenger disaster overshadowed the larger questions Powers wants to address.
Several plays used the phrase, “did you know…?” or “do you remember…?” It seemed like a lazy way to take care of exposition. I’m going to scour my plays for this lazy playwright way of sharing information with the audience.
Take theatrical chances
In the play “Mama Metallica,” playwright Sigrid Gilmer puts herself front and center, working out her grief at losing her mother to Parkinsons. Sounds dreary, right?
It’s hysterical. Our main character is a playwright and both Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill drop by to chat. The band Metallica also makes an appearance and plays a few numbers. The play is weird and wonderful and funny and touching. It’s truly theatrical. I only wish I’d thought of it. At least now, I’ll ask myself: have I missed an opportunity to make magic onstage?
Let your protagonist be the star
Two years ago, I saw a reading of José Cruz González’ “American Mariachi.” The reading was more of an ensemble piece. It sported a very large cast of women – something every high school drama teacher in Los Angeles would snap up in a heartbeat.
The full production in Denver focused on a single mother/daughter and father/daughter relationship. The story was easier to follow with a single protagonist and one main conflict. It was as though you could commit to the play because you only had to give your heart to one person onstage.
In the play “Celia, A Slave,” playwright Barbara Seyda took the trial transcript of a young woman hanged for killing her master and turned it into a poetic series of monologues. The language was beautiful, though we heard little from Celia herself. Instead, a cast of thousands told her story. Does a large cast make a play more powerful? Would an audience be more willing to give its heart to Celia if we had more of an opportunity to hear from her?
The power of music
Sigrid Gilmer had Metallica onstage. José Cruz González had an entire mariachi band! The music was both powerful and exciting. Plus, the musicians became our guide as the play weaved in and out of time and space. And how can an audience not be satisfied when they get a play and a mariachi band for one ticket?
Of course, music can work against you, too. Matthew Lopez’ play “Zoey’s Perfect Wedding” is one of those wedding-gone-wrong stories set in a crummy hotel with an awful DJ playing all the worst hits you can imagine. The groans from the audience were audible. And very funny.
Do you have to like everybody onstage?
One of my own favorite plays features a main character everybody loves to hate. It’s my orphan play that’s had lots of readings and no premiere. Most of the criticism for “Western & 96th” is directed at the ex-cop-turned-politico Mike Marcott. Me? I love the guy. I can’t understand why my audience doesn’t love him as much as I do. Is that the reason nobody wants to produce the play?
I thought about that watching David Jacobi’s “The Couches” – a piece inspired by the “affluenza” trial. It’s a wonderfully written play, but it’s not pleasant spending 90 minutes with the two main characters. They were horrible human beings. Horrible. I’ll be happy if I never have to spend another moment in their presence. (But I’ll bet Netflix snaps it up as their next series!)
Contrast that with Lauren Yee’s “The Great Leap” – a tale about basketball and Tiananmen Square. I dare you not to fall in love with every one of the characters in her play. I saw a reading of it at last year’s New Play Summit. The minute her characters came onstage, it was like seeing old friends. You actually missed them!
I don’t think it’s necessary to fall in love with all the characters in a play. But it’s sure a lot more fun when you do!
Hope you’ll consider joining me next February in Denver for the next Colorado New Play Summit!
These days, I produce a podcast called the Book Club for Kids. A trio of middle graders discuss a novel, there’s an interview with the author and a reading from the book by a “celebrity.”
Last month, I blew it. I was a no-show at a scheduled taping. More than a dozen young readers were waiting for me that Sunday afternoon and I stood them up.
I could use the excuse that I was jet lagged, arriving after midnight the night before from a cross-country flight. Or I could plead that Sundays I take a tech Sabbath, not looking at my phone – and its calendar – at all. But excuses didn’t make any difference to the dozen or so disappointed young readers awaiting their chance at podcast stardom…and their angry parents who’d driven for miles to get their kids to the bookstore for the taping.
It was then that it became very clear that I needed to get organized.
I’m not the only one – particularly at this time of year. You can’t even go in to the Home Depot without stumbling over a display of 2018 calendars for sale. At Fed Ex, pickings were slim among the display of pretty, fat calendar books with floral motifs. Even my husband gets into the act every December, watching the mailbox for the one thing on which he spends an absurd amount of money: the new filler for his portable paper calendar book.
Then I stumbled across Bullet Journals. There’s an enormous cult following for “BuJo” as the aficionados call them. Invented by a digital designer named Ryder Carroll, Bullet Journals seem to have captured the imagination.
The basic idea is simple: a blankish book and a variety of colored pens and perhaps a ruler are all it takes. I say blankish because “BuJos” prefer blank pages with dots that they can use as grid makers to create weekly or monthly pages full of “things to do” lists and food diaries and weather reports and words of the day.
Things get more extravagant after that.
Some “BuJos” fight on social media about page thickness and the bleed level of pens. They proudly show off their collection of highlighter pens. (Who knew there was a gray highlighter pen?) There’s a debate about whether stickers are appropriate. I counted eight different groups on Facebook devoted to Bullet Journals, including the Minimalist Bullet Journal group that still seems overly complicated to me. Pinterest, as you can imagine, has hundreds of pictures of Bullet Journals.
Buzz Feed has an article to tell you what your style of Bullet Journaling says about you. I realized my style says I am not a Bullet Journaling kind of girl. I can’t draw. I never scrapbooked in my life. And why would I spend hours drawing in the dates of a 2018 calendar when I can get a perfectly good one at any store in America?
I think the BuJo serves the same purpose for visual people as my Morning Pages do for a word person like me. Julia Cameron’s classic “Artist’s Way” assignment has always helped me untangle my disorganized brain. Sitting down first thing in the morning to scribble away for three pages in a cheap composition book – part diary, part writing ideas, mostly things to do lists – grounds me and helps me sort out what’s important in my life and what to let go. Obviously it wasn’t enough to keep me from missing an important appointment.
So I bought a nice, light paper calendar that fits in my handbag. I’ve started marking it up with travel plans and podcast tapings. More important, I vowed to look at it every day. Even on my tech Sabbath.
What about you? How do you keep organized? Please share your secret!
Sometimes facing a blank page on your laptop can be the most depressing sight on planet earth.
Nobody said playwriting was going to be easy. But the email rejections, the harsh feedback from your writing group, the statistics on the tiny number of new plays that get produced every year (and the even smaller number by female playwrights not named Lauren Gunderson) can just shut you down. Or, as I put it, take the heart out of the writing.
How do you get your mojo back?
I had the pleasure of interviewing writer Laurel Snyder whose middle grade novel “Orphan Island” is a very odd book – orphan kids on a desert island who come as toddlers and depart as teenagers to parts unknown. Needless to say, it’s not like anything else Laurel has previously written.
She says the book started as her own prescription for writers block. She was stuck in the “business” of writing and forgot about the joy. So she bought herself some toys – markers and paint and notebooks and her favorite mechanical pencil. She vowed to write the entire project in longhand and take the time to illustrate the characters. She drew islands and maps. She drew animals that didn’t exist that didn’t make it into the book. She had fun – the same fun she felt when she started writing when she was eight years old.
She promised herself that she wouldn’t show the project to anyone until it was done and if it didn’t get published, that would be okay, too. She would write a book just for herself.
Laurel got back in touch with the reason she started writing in the first place. She was writing out – putting on paper something inside of her that needed to get out in the world. In the process, she rediscovered the joy.
And of course, the book she created was so unique, it made the longlist for the National Book Award.
We’re not guaranteed such a reward of public recognition, but we can at least make the journey more enjoyable. Slow down. Buy a fabulous red gel pen with sparkles for the editing process. Find some fun stickers and reward yourself when you put down 500 words. Take yourself out for an outrageously fattening Toasted White Chocolate Mocha at Starbucks when you’ve written every day for a week. Give yourself permission to watch hours of Hallmark Christmas movies. Find a way to make the writing fun again.
And share YOUR secrets with us.
You can hear the whole interview with Laurel Snyder here. You can even hear kids dissect the book on this episode.
This is the third year I’ve flown to Denver for the annual festival of new play readings. In the past, I’ve attended Humana, CATF and the National New Play Festival, but the Colorado New Play Summit at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is my favorite. Seven new plays in three days! It’s like a combination of cramming for midterms, eating everything in sight at a buffet table, and using all your season subscription tickets in a single weekend.
As a playwright, I find it extremely helpful to see that much new work all at once. It allows you to see trends and fall in love with new playwrights and come away with 101 ideas for your own plays.
Here’s a few trends spotted at this year’s Summit:
It was a particularly good year for new plays in Denver. Strong writing, big thoughts.
MOST LIKELY TO BE PRODUCED A LOT:
THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson is a love letter for every Shakespeare theatre in America. The late Will’s friends race against time and lawsuits to publish as many of his scripts as possible. It’s a big cast show, a perfect complement to a season of TEMPESTs and HENRY IVs. Round House Theatre in Maryland has already announced it will be part of its 2017-2018 season.
TWO WORD TITLES:
Don’t ask me why, but I’m fascinated with titles. Maybe because I’m so bad at writing them myself. This year, the trend seemed to be plays with two word titles. HUMAN ERROR and BLIND DATE were two of the new plays featured in readings. THE CHRISTIANS and TWO DEGREES were onstage for full performances.
I predicted that we’d get a flood of anti-Trump plays NEXT year, but they were already popping out of printers by the time I got to Denver. Political plays were everywhere.
The cleverest of the bunch was Rogelio Martinez’ play about Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and the battle to come up with a nuclear treaty in BLIND DATE. Call it ALL THE WAY for the Reagan years. Very well researched, very funny. Martinez carries off an interesting balancing act, portraying a much more savvy and sympathetic Reagan than you’d expect, perhaps looking back at him with different eyes now that there’s a very different sort of president in the White House. Bravo. (I’d vote for a better title, but that’s my only complaint.)
The politics of Nazi Germany were the focus of a play by the man who wrote ALL THE WAY. Robert Schenkkan’s piece HANUSSEN is the tale of a mesmerist who dabbles in Nazi party politics. It has a highly theatrical beginning, and ends with a pretty blatant rant against Donald Trump.
Schenkkan pulled off a very difficult trick: bringing Adolph Hitler onstage and allowing him to come off as a rather likeable character. Perhaps it’s because he followed the Hollywood solution to making villains less unlikeable by giving them a dog. Hitler’s relationship with his annoying dog was quite delightful. (One wag of a fellow playwright at the conference observed that our new standard for unlikeable characters is now to ask: is he/she more or less likeable than Hitler?)
TWO DEGREES by Tira Palmquist is a climate change play. It received a fully staged production this year, after its debut as a staged reading at last year’s festival. It featured a set with panes of ice that actually melted as the play progressed.
There was also a nod to the protestors in pink hats (I actually spotted one or two of those in Denver) with Lauren Yee’s play MANFORD AT THE LINE OR THE GREAT LEAP. It’s a lovely piece about a young man’s search for an absent lost father, basketball, and Tiannamen Square. How can someone that young write that well? MANFORD is terrific and should get productions everywhere.
WHERE ARE THE LADIES?
Two of the five new play readings were by female playwrights, as were two of the three fully staged productions. (Thanks to Artistic Director Kent Thompson who established a Women’s Voices Fund in 2005 to commission, develop, and produce new plays by women.)
Yet, despite the healthy representation of female playwrights, there was a decided lack of roles for the ladies. Of the 34 named characters, fewer than a third were female. And with the exception of the terrific family drama LAST NIGHT AND THE NIGHT BEFORE by Donnetta Lavinia Grays, few plays featured roles of any substance for actresses. Nearly every one flunked the Bechdel test. The sole female in one particular play will likely be best remembered for her oral sex scene. Sigh.
PLAYING WITH TIME AND PLACE
I always come away from new plays with new ideas about what I want to steal for myself. In this case, the overlapping of scenes in different times and places happening at the same time on stage. Lauren Gunderson’s BOOK OF WILL very cleverly juxtaposed two scenes on the same set piece at the same time and it moved like lightening. Look something similar in the play I’m working on.
CHANGE IN THE AIR
The man who made the New Play Summit possible – Kent Thompson – is leaving. Kent’s gift – besides putting together a rocking new play festival – was making playwrights like me – those of us not invited to bring a new play to his stage – feel welcome. At the opening luncheon, all playwrights – not just the Lauren Yees and Robert Schenkkans – are invited to stand and be recognized by the theatrical community with applause from the attendees. That may sound like a small gesture, but it’s symbolic of the open and kind community Kent created. He made every one of us who pound away at our keyboards feel that we are indeed a vital part of the new play community. Thank you, Kent.
In the interest of full disclosure, I will share that I had my agent send my LA Riots play WESTERN & 96th to the New Play Summit this year. It was not selected. I never received an acknowledgment that it was even received or read. But the non-rejection does not diminish my affection and admiration for the Colorado New Play Summit.
A week or so ago, I was honored to be invited back for a second year to serve as dramaturg to a group of playwrights in Lincoln, Nebraska. And as usual, I learned more about my own shortcomings as a writer. It’s always easier to see the problems in someone else’s play. It’s one of the reasons I so enjoy attending new play conferences, like the annual gathering at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. “If only they’d tackle this” or “fix that” I say to myself, knowing full well I should be saying that to myself.
Here are the two big take-aways from my Nebraska seminar. I should tape them to my wall:
– Theatre is about present action, what happens NOW onstage, not about working out past trauma. Certainly the past informs the present. But if the biggest event in your play happened twenty years ago and all we get to do is hear about it, we, the audience will feel like we didn’t get our money’s worth.
– Every monologue must operate as its own mini-play. What does the character want? Why is she/he telling this story? What do they want to get out of the person they are telling it to? What challenge or problem is the character working out in that monologue? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? Again, is it just about the past? Is it just exposition? Make it necessary to the play as a whole.
These two points were a particular challenge to my class of hopeful playwrights. They are also challenging me.
I got a commission to write a one-man show that will serve as a tour for the neighborhood around the White House. A company here in DC commissioned three playwrights to build one-hour shows around a historic character who lived or worked in the White House. My character is Quentin Roosevelt, youngest son of Theodore.
There are challenges I’ve never had to worry about in previous plays: when will the Secret Service arbitrarily shut down the tour route? Do you need to build in bathroom breaks? How much walking can an audience take before it tunes out and thinks of nothing more than the next bench?
But I’ve also had those two big challenges to tackle: how do you make present a story that is mostly (by design) intended to inform about the past? And how do you do this with a 50 page monologue?
My own solution for QUENTIN was to set the play on the day he came to DC for his Army Air Corps physical – the one where he memorized the eye chart to hide his poor eyesight. It was to be a reunion with his “White House Gang” – the neighborhood kids he hung out with during the years his father was president. The gang doesn’t show up, but he encounters a group of tourists…whose tour guide has also stood them up. Quentin offers to take then around, sharing his own stories of life in the White House and bits of Washington lore. But he’s also having an internal struggle about coming to terms with enlisting, not disappointing his father, the very real possibility of death, and the excitement about his secret engagement to Flora Whitney.
We’ll see if it works. The show is in rehearsal right now. If you’re in DC this summer, you can join a tour – er, performance – and see for yourself.
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.
I’m of the messy desk set, the folks who find that filing something away means I’ll never think of it again, or even more likely, won’t be able to find it again. I like everything I need to deal with spread out in front of me, where I can touch it and move it around, and feel the satisfaction of tossing it in the trash.
Last night, I heard a talk by writer Mindy Klasky. She writes a little of everything – romance, baseball, middle grade novels, and “how to get organized” strategies for writers. She’s a former attorney who was used to billing by the hour and a former librarian, one of the most organized professions in the world.
Mindy is a great believer in spread sheets. Now, I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my play submissions and responses. But Mindy takes it half a dozen steps further. She uses spread sheets, not just for tracking her submissions and publication schedules, but also for keeping her metadata information organized – everything from an up-to-date bio to reviews to key words for Google searches. She uses them to create a business plan. And most interesting to me, she uses them to create a strategic plan for writing.
That strategic plan starts with setting her writing goals for the year. In other words, how many books, essays, short stories, etc. does she plan to write this year? And then she uses her spreadsheets to set out a 12 month schedule with specific page goals that must be met each week.
How productive is she? She averages 400,000 words a year – 5,000 words a day! Last year, she wrote nine 40,000 page novels in nine months. Yet, she only writes three days a week – Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Tuesdays and Thursdays are left for the business of writing, running errands, and having lunch with friends. She takes the weekends off – unless she didn’t meet her page goals for the week.
I’m not Mindy Klasky. I don’t think I’ll ever fall in love with spread sheets. And I certainly don’t have the stamina to write 5,000 words a day. But I like the idea of setting goals.
Playwright Jose Rivera advises those of us who toil in the theatre to write one new full-length play a year. Every year.
I think I can do that. No, wait. I know I can do that.
So here is my plan: tomorrow I get on an airplane and will have five-plus hours of flight time when I can think. I’m going to think hard about my schedule, about committing to regular writing time, about setting page goals and play goals and sticking to them. I may not open a spread sheet to map out my writing plans for 2016, but I will write them down.
How about you? Do you map out your writing life? What works best? What organizational tools do you use?