Category Archives: playwriting

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 invited 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, shes 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.

Mindfulness – Quilting and Motorcycling?

By: Analyn Revilla

On my desk are two books that have “Mindful” in the titles:  “Mindful Meandering” by Laura Lee Fritz.  It’s a workbook containing 132 original continuous-line quilting designs.  The second book is “Mindful Reflections – Patterns of Hope” by Antoineta Edwards.  It is a journal for reflection, growth and relaxation.  Interestingly, both use quilt patterns and mindfulness concepts.  A copy of the May issue of LA YOGA is close by.  Inside is an article on a “Call for Education Around Mindful Communication”, by Adam Avin, a 14-year old who founded the Wuf Shanti Program.  The theme of mindfulness abounds.

Antoineta attends my yoga classes at the library.  She got interested in the classes because I teach mindfulness.  She wrote a dedication in the journal I purchased, “Analyn, thank you for inspiring us to be mindful in our lives…”

After completing the first mindful exercise from her book I felt a sense of accomplishment without really doing anything.  I followed the steps of reflecting on the quote, writing down what came to me, then followed with two writing exercises on what I like about Analyn and what I am grateful for.  (It’s key in the exercise to write “I like <your name>”).  The last step is to color in the quilt pattern.  Optional is a final step to write an afterthought, like a celebratory thought.

Perhaps a lot is being accomplished in a state of doing nothing – in that mindful stillness.  In allowing a pen in hand to meander and to color I achieved a state of relaxation and surrender – a natural state of equilibrium. 

Laura Lee Fritz’ book is designed for quilt makers to use the 44+ meandering patterns.  “Meandering” is a terminology in quilting to describe lines that do not intersect other lines.  She notes at the end, “A word about art… Throughout history, quilts have represented people’s lives, often expressing a love of story as well as a love of color.  It is sufficient to practice your craft in an expressive way, and follow the path of just ‘doing it’.  You will begin to see the world with a greater attention to what it truly looks and feels like, and those observations will appear in your work.  Now you are an artist.”

Meanwhile, Adam Avin says “As a 14-year old, I’m striving to live my life to the fullest.  But it’s hard when…” and he lists the distractions of the discouraging news on the TV about danger and shootings.  What can we do? he asks.  “I think we can look at education.”  Wuf Shanti program is a team that visits schools and children’s hospitals to teach how to practice yoga, meditation and positive thinking.  “Yoga, meditation and mindfulness can improve the healing process, help us handle stress and have better interaction with others.”

A beginning exercise of mindfulness is to observe the breath.  Tuning the attention to the breath, the seer can also watch how the mind wanders away from observing the breath.  The seer reminds the mind to watch the breath.  It is a continuous observation of the flow of the breath and the flow of the mind.  In doing this exercise the practitioner begins to understand the nature of the mind – how the mind can move from one thought to another and another so easily like a gamboling goat on the side of a mountain. 

What is the connection between the mindful books, the LA Yoga article and mindfulness exercise on the breath?  I summarize it to a conversation I had with Alex, the owner of a motorcycle maintenance and repair shop on Pico Blvd.  He’s a racer and also a mechanic, the kind of mechanic any motorcyclist would want to go to when you’re cruising and zooming along on two tires.  Alex knows and has the feel for motorcycles and the rider.  I venture to identify Alex as a mindful person.  He’s the Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance.  He’s the observer and the doer.

He specializes in motorcycling and as a seasoned racer, mechanic, entrepreneur and mentor –  his education is a process that can be applied to other areas in life.  Mindfulness is a process of revelation; and in peeling off layers to reveal the true nature of things there is also an accumulation of more light – an illumination that brings about clarity and a sense of peace.  His process of accumulating a body of knowledge and work from years on the track, the shop, running a business and being an artist can be transposed to the “human condition”.  The “human condition” is what is.

We came to the conclusion in our conversation over a bottle of Pacifica when the shop work had wound down, and my Suzuki was ready to go.  The bike was scheduled for a fork job.  The seals had been worn and rust had started to corrode the forks.  He gave the bike extra TLC:  he lowered the seat so that I don’t have to be on tippy toes; fixed a slow leak on the back tire, oiled the kick stand.  I noticed he also polished my mirrors – a finishing touch like putting the sprig of mint on a strawberry parfait.

We talked about the education of police officers who are trained to shoot a person posing a threat.  The example was a mentally imbalanced sixty-year old woman who is wielding a knife.  If she moves to threaten a police officer then the officer is trained to shoot her once she’s within a defined perimeter – say 16 feet.  It is baffling why the officer is not trained to contain the situation, rather than pull the trigger as the first line of defense.  The officer could call for backups or at worst shoot to disarm the woman (say aim at the feet), rather than aim to kill.  Then upon containment of the situation call on an expert to deal appropriately with the hysteria of the woman, and perhaps begin to understand the root cause of the problem instead of shutting off the possibilities of beginning to understand why she’s mentally imbalanced and carrying a knife.

“The main purpose of education should be to enable us, as John Dewey said, to come into the possession of all our powers, to help us grow as human beings, and to locate our potentialities so that we can better develop them” – interview with Norman Cousins from November/December 1984 posted on Mother Earth News.

A practice on mindfulness is a path that leads to seeing the possibilities and the potentialities within an individual.  As an example, to control your breath as means to direct and extend the prana (life force) within you has a direct effect on the mind and anatomically the brain that secretes hormones that brings a sense of calmness and even euphoria.  In a state of equanimity we can make better choices.  Mindfulness is a practice.  It is not medicine.   It is exercising your free will to choose to attend and to be present to regularly practice mindfulness.  There are other methods of practicing mindfulness and it need not be in a yoga studio.

“What is the eternal and ultimate problem of a free society? It is the problem of the individual who thinks that one man cannot possibly make a difference in the destiny of that society.”  – Norman Cousins from his book “Human Options”.

Alex White is practicing mindfulness just being human and doing his work of calling.  His mindful practice resolves to showing compassion to a fellow rider and being a steward of human kindness.

I express a deep gratitude to Alex who has helped me deal with all of the motorcycle work and dealing with the situation of Bruno’s fatal accident on his bike.  Alex is a solution to the problem of a free society.  He made a positive difference in my life and that will have domino effect that I can make a positive effect on others too.

When you’re seeking motorcycle advice, repair, maintenance, performance tuning and purchases of bikes and accessories go to MPS –  Motorcycle Performance Services, located at 4150 W Pico Blvd 90019.  Phone number:  323-939-2370.  You’ll find Alex there and his sweet and friendly staff including the two gorgeous German Shepherds.

Further Along the Road Less Traveled

By: Analyn Revilla

I am self-conscious in my new outfit, a widow of a tragic accident, but my self-awareness is still intact.  I will shush the self-conscious one and let the self-aware wise woman on the hill write so that I can get on with the task of living authentically.

The last three and half months has been an inward and outward journey.  I feel I’ve exploded and imploded at the same time.  To make sense of death the way it came upon Bruno and our life is still beyond making sense to me.  Maybe someone else has the answers so I talk to others who’ve been through this and I read a lot.  I found a copy of “Further Along The Road Less Traveled” by psychiatrist and educator M. Scott Peck. The third chapter, “The Issue of Death and Meaning”, speaks how society has a tendency to turn away from the reality of death.  He observed, “Of course, most people have very little taste for struggling with the idea of their death.  They do not even want to think about it.  They want to exclude it from their awareness thereby limiting their consciousness.”

Yesterday, Monday morning, I racked my head for what to blog about.  I struggled with not writing from the shoes I’m wearing; one who has just lost a dear loved one, my husband.  But nothing else has occupied my mind other than that loss.  What can I contribute from my perspective? I asked myself.  At this moment I can share that the pain, suffering and sorrow have expanded my consciousness.  It is a loss of innocence, not unlike losing one’s virginity that opens a new dimension to living and dying.  Losing sexual innocence is not just the ecstasy of a sexual relationship but the wholeness of losing oneself in a relationship – the whole gamut of sharing inner and outer space together with someone you’ve chosen and whose chosen you.

There was supreme joy in finding that special one, Bruno, who loved me for who I am and not what I am.  His joie de vivre and compassion attracted all kinds of people and he accepted them all.  We were enthralled by his burning bright flame till one day that light was snuffed out.  The pain of the loss is confounded by the suffering of the suddenness and unexpected death; and deepened by a hit and run accident on his motorcycle, only five minutes away from home.  All that is a tape that plays over and over.  I get relief by meditating, gardening, eating, drinking and trying to get on with life again.

Death is a shadow on my shoulder, but I don’t carry it in a morbid sense.  I appreciate the circle of support I’ve received from friends and family.  I encounter loving and caring words and gestures from strangers whose heard about it, or with whom I’ve shared the news with directly.

In Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ book, “On Death and Dying” she identifies the stages a person who is dying can experience and these are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  These stages are also the same process that a person experiences in steps towards psychological or spiritual growth.

I cannot say it better than how M. Scott Peck ends the third chapter other than to quote him directly:

It is not an easy journey.  The tentacles of  narcissism are subtle and penetrating and have to be hacked away day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade.  Forty years after first recognizing my own narcissism, I am still hacking.

It is not an easy journey (he repeats), but what a worthwhile journey it is.  Because the further we proceed in diminishing our narcissism, our self-centeredness and sense of self-importance the more we discover ourselves becoming not only less fearful of death, but also less fearful of life.  And we become more loving.  No longer burdened by the need to protect ourselves, we are able to lift our eyes off ourselves and to truly recognize others.  And we begin to experience a sustained, underlying kind of happiness that we’ve never experienced before as we become progressively more self-forgetful and hence more able to remember God.

I hack away at the weeds daily, throughout the day and the night, hoping and hoping that light will pour in through the crack.

The Impossible Play

by Chelsea Sutton

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with fellow playwrights and students about the demands put on a new play. There can only be such-and-such amount of characters. There can only be this many locations. There can be only this amount of demanding tech requirements like puppets or sets or costumes or music (see: zero). The play must address this or that “issue” and let’s make sure there’s a long speech explaining exactly what that issue is and how we should feel about it.

Here’s the thing. The plays that get me excited tend to scoff at all these rules. They have just as many characters as they should have. They go to far away locations and very intimate spaces. They have puppets and video and music and sets that break your heart. They are about something, sure, but they don’t cram it down your throat. They have spectacle or sometimes they don’t – whatever they have is in service to the story.  If it needs an empty stage or a ten foot puppet – great. Bring it on.

The plays I’m talking about are the “impossible” plays. And so often in MFA programs and the like, we’re told we have to keep our imaginations and character lists in check.  Don’t go too crazy, we’re told – you want to get produced, don’t you?

In undergrad, as I was working on my first one act play, I found myself thinking as a director or producer. In my play , there are day-dream sequences – the main character can’t express her emotions clearly to a friend she’s with as they are waiting for a train at Union Station – so she goes into fantasies. And crazy things happen in these fantasies. And I was scared of them.

 

A sea monkey follows a guy around in 99 Impossible Things.

Mostly I was scared someone would read it and say “there’s no way to do that on stage.” And then the play would never have a chance. I wrote a fantasy scene in which she sings a song and it starts raining and there’s a orchestra comes on stage or something – and I wrote long stage directions explaining to the reader exactly HOW they could do this easily and simply. I wanted to make sure they knew it was possible.

My teacher at the time, Naomi Iizuka, seemed to know exactly what I was doing. She pointed that scene out and told me to relax, to not feel like I have to do the work of the directors and designers. She said to not be afraid to write “the impossible thing” for the stage. If it needs to rain, say it rains. If the whole theatre needs to turns inside out, then write it. There is always a way to do it. If it is important to the story, it will happen.

And that’s when I let go and began to write that way. My first full length play had a sea monkey and a guardian angel, and an invisible friend for characters and the play was called 99 Impossible Things (see what I did there?) The show I’m working on now opening May 12, Wood Boy Dog Fish, has an underwater dance with fish. It has a marionette show. Kids turn into donkeys. A puppet comes to life. Someone dies, someone is burned up, a trip in a carnival ride is the climax. It is completely impossible. And yet. And yet.

Some weirdness happening in Wood Boy Dog Fish in 2015.

And I’m not saying every play needs spectacle and chaos. Some plays need a living room. Some plays needs an empty chair. But some plays need the Abominable Snowman or upside down world or a runaway train. And that’s okay.

Do me a favor. Don’t be afraid to write the impossible play. Because it doesn’t exit.

On Second Productions

by Chelsea Sutton

There’s a system to these things. You sit in a room alone and create something. Let’s call it a “play.” If you’re lucky or have some friends who will hang out with you for some free pie, you get actors to read that “play” either in your living room or in a little black box theatre or a rehearsal room downtown. If you’re super lucky, maybe you get a “workshop” of the “play” where people walk around and maybe hold props or something. And then, if the theatre gods are smiling upon you, you get that premiere.

Most of the time, we’re stuck in a revolving door of readings and rewrites, with no premieres in sight. And if the premiere does happen, it feels as if everything is riding on that one production. One false step, and that’s the end of that.

The point of course is that a second production is often a unicorn. This is why the National New Play Network and Block Party and all that are so sought after. When the unicorn comes around, it is a gift for the art-making.

I’m in the middle of rehearsals for a show I wrote with Rogue Artists Ensemble, Wood Boy Dog Fish – a dark reimagining of the Pinocchio story first produced in 2015. As a playwright, this first production was unique and full of struggles. Though the company had been working on versions of the show for many years, the time from when they brought me on as the playwright and when we started rehearsals was about nine months. It was a very short gestation period in playwright years. The premiere was already looming. The “play” and I were never alone together. We skipped that entire step.

Rehearsals were lots of new pages (so many pages), rewrites in the room, changes to whole plot lines and concepts. I was tweaking up until opening week. And still. While we overcame a lot of obstacles in the way of the show, and created something to be proud of, it always felt like there were things we had to ignore or let go of because there wasn’t time. Because we were CREATING. When you’re giving birth, you’re not worrying about the name of the kid or whether they are going to like Spiderman or My Little Pony. You’re just hoping it enters the world alright and you both survive.

Wood Boy Dog Fish, 2015

So now it’s round two. Wood Boy is rising from the ashes for a new production at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank. Since 2015, I’ve rewritten almost every page of the script with the exception of maybe one or two pages in Act Two. We cut songs and added new ones (writing songs with composer Adrien Prevost is a joy.) Puppets and masks and costumes and props and sets are being reimagined, upgraded, polished. Dances are being tweaked and perfected and laser-tight on the storytelling. And we’re doing it with less rehearsal time, less prep time, even MORE obstacles, all of it. But there’s no longer a question of WHAT story we’re trying to tell, which is what premieres are so often about. Now we’re focused on HOW we want to tell it, and HOW to improve and deepen our choices from 2015. The choices, I think, are smarter now, more specific, more grounded in the heart of the play.

This path to a second premiere was not a traditional one, nor was the play’s birth, but I am learning how vital it is to the life of any new play. It’s all about the details now. It no longer needs me or any of us to figure out how to breathe. It’s ready to get out there and LIVE. I hope more theatres are willing to take chances on new plays – and if they don’t land right away, I hope they get a second shot. Don’t we all deserve one?

Rogue Artists Ensemble’s Wood Boy Dog Fish is being presented at the Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank, May 12 – June 24. Info and tickets here!

Let’s Change Some SH*T!

Timing is everything.

An hour ago, my toddler wouldn’t have let me sit down with my laptop.

A week ago, I wouldn’t have had time to blog ANYTHING.

A month ago, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about Protest Plays’ new #TheatreActionVote initaitive.We can write all the socially engaging work in the world, but if our audiences aren’t registered to vote/aren’t showing up at the polls, our work/our audiences’ work is only going to reach so far. But when we shout out – and take action – together, we can create change on the macro level.

And let’s be honest—we need MACRO changes right now.

I hope you’ll join us in our effort to get audiences to the polls!  Plays/monologues must be 1-3 minutes in length and non-partisan.  Their goal should be to activate audiences to register/to vote.  It’s that simple!

It’s also that exciting!

visit www.ProtestPlays.org for details/submission form

 

 

 

A list of what works for you


Photography by Robert Petkoff, March 2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recently, a good friend challenged me to come up with a list of those things that made me happy.

I was vexed.

I was annoyed.

And I thought this was a stupid waste of time idea. One of those “The Artist’s  Way” self help kind of indulgent crap ideas. (You can probably tell I’m going through some stressful times here. Hence the negativity.)

But I also know that when I’ve written for my characters in plays, I’ve made lists of what they loved, liked, hated, wanted, and actually, what made them happy.

Part of that research fantasy.

So here is this damn list:

Build a fire in the fireplace

Make home made ice cream

Plant two trees

Visit Huntington Gardens and have Tea in the Tea Room

Make glass art

Read the book “Fools and Mortals” by Bernard Cornwall

Host a Pinot tasting party

Go to The Edison in downtown LA

Listen to more music

Wear perfume

Go to the beach and watch the sunset

Feed the hummingbirds

More writing

Go back to the Sequoia forest

Go see an opera

Put together an irrigation system

Have lunch with Friends

See snow

Burn incense

This list was written on February 22nd.

Since  February 22nd:

A good friend paid for a cord of firewood to be delivered to our house.

I’m slowly reading the book “Fools and Mortals” by Bernard Cornwall – I don’t want it to end.

I started wearing perfume again. Including a new rose perfume from Istanbul, thanks to a friend.

I bought another hummingbird feeder, and now there are six feeders. Many hummingbirds.

We went to see the opera – “Orpeus & Eurydice” at the Dorothy Chandler. It was strange, wonderful, good, bad, compelling and produced with dream like theatricality.

We’re now putting together an irrigation system for the house, hundreds and hundreds of dollars later, after the toilet blew up and the water regulator bit the dust. I didn’t think that would make me happy and it didn’t.

And we burned some incense.

I didn’t think that “things” could make me happy right now.

But on the other side of this damn list, I gave myself the assignment of finding something that I look at, every day, that makes me happy.

Cat paws, chocolate cake, hummingbirds, morning dew on grass, homemade soup, a full moon.

I’m seeing it more as “character development”, than an “artist’s date”.  And that seems to be real progress for me.

 

 

Save

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Who are you to tell this story?

Right now there is a need for our stories to be told from our perspective to illustrate the diversity that exists in the world.  When I say our, I mean American Indians.  But what happens when we tell do tell our stories and our own people don’t like it?  When you are trying to spread knowledge and stories, but the victims of the crimes and their families feel cheated and used, who are you helping?  As a writer, when you tell a story, who can tell it, when is it not “too soon”, when is just promotion to sell your work and profit from someone else’s misery.
While working on a devised piece on boarding schools, my theater group read brief pages from a book then improvised the story surrounding that page.  One person was then assigned to write out the scene we had just performed and the next week we would read the new scenes aloud.   We talked about it as a group and further changes may or may not happen, but the conversation did help us to understand the process as well as how others saw the story.  As a group of American Indian performers from different backgrounds and tribes, our understanding of the boarding school experience differed, as did the message we wanted to give the world.  As we read the stories from the book, that helped form our own interpretation of the actual incident. Not once did I consider how I was glorifying someone else’s pain or justifying the actions of the school administrators and parents.
These are the things that keep me from writing. I have so many ideas in my head, so many stories I feel need to be told, yet this feeling of betrayal sits deep inside shaking its head telling me it’s not my place.  But who’s place is it then? Who can tell the story?  Just this morning, as I was “researching” (procrastinating) to make sure I was going down the right path, I found a video from Adam Conover, from Adam Ruins Everything, telling the “True Messed Up Story of Pocahontas”.  Now to me, he’s not really ruining the story.  As native people we’ve heard the true story. We’ve listened to other natives tell the story, we may have even watched a PBS show or two about it. Yet it still amazes me that in this “everybody is native” culture that we live in, there is still shock. “I never knew that”.  Yes, I know the story because I had the pleasure of playing the role of Matachanna, Pocahontas’s sister, in a play, so I was aware, but is that it?Is it because of the obscurity of Native Playwrights and Screenwriters? Does it really take a non-native comedian with a TV show to educate America? Is it less threatening coming from a “celebrity” rather than the actual people living it?  Would people have known about Standing Rock had Shailene Woodley not been arrested with a t-shirt that everyone wants now, or Mark Ruffalo wasn’t live tweeting?  Don’t get me wrong, getting the message out there is appreciated, but I continue to wonder why, if native people have been given the raw deal, why is it so difficult to actually listen to the stories from those who live it?
It is encouraging that this past weekend 3 plays opened from 3 women playwrights, who happen to be native.  If it’s any indication of who should be telling our stories, I better get writing.
So off I go write.

#LAThtr Check-Ins: GLAM

by Constance Strickland

Quick peeks at the work of women onstage in LA, by fellow female theater artists.  Click Here for all Check-Ins.

WHO: Ripley Improv (Madi Goff, Laurie Jones, Kelly Lohman, Sara Mountjoy-Pepka, Aliza Pearl, Amanda Troop & Jessica Lynn Verdi)

WHAT: GLAM aka “The Gorgeous Ladies of Arm Matches”

WHEN: Saturdays at 10:30pm in March & April

WHERE: Impro Studios

WHY:  Upon entrance into Impro Studios there is a feeling of excitement that begins in your solar plexus and wiggles it way down to your toes, an antsy anticipation for what you know is going to be a thrilling ride. Ripley Improv does not disappoint with GLAM! Based off the hit Netflix series GLOW, GLAM is directed by Laurie Jones and features a talented group of actors – who happen to all be women – delivering on-the-spot storylines and characters that are funny, heartbreaking as well as audacious and brave. It comes as no surprise that you find yourself rooting for them all and forgetting this live show is NOT scripted ahead of time, while dancing in your seat to a wicked ‘80s soundtrack. We are living in most exciting times, where we get to see women not needing to water down who they are, creating stories with their own voices on their own terms! Go support the women of GLAM – you’ll walk out a bit taller.

HOW: ripleyimprov.com/shows/ 

Playwright School: Report from the Colorado New Play Summit 2018

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.

  • Bad exposition

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!