Posts tagged: FPI

Report from the Colorado New Play Summit

By Kitty Felde

The delicious set for THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson. Set design by Sandra Goldmark.

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:

STRONG WORK

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.

POLITICAL PLAYS

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.

PS

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.

Day Three: Playwrights in Mind: A National Conversation – part two

Self-Production Panel: War Stories

Larry Dean Harris, Kathleen Warnock, Roland Tec

You are the one who is the most passionate about your work.  Protect your own work.  If it’s not right, you have the right to pull out.  No production is better than a bad production.  Don’t work with people who’ve already screwed you over.  When someone shows you who they are, trust that.  Work with people who like what you do.  Don’t rush casting.

PR lessons: Do not count on reviews to fill your house.  Sometimes reviewers don’t even show up.  And even if they do, the review just doesn’t have the same impact it used to.  (Reviews are good for an actor and writer for career building.)  Build an audience your own way.  New media is the way to go.  Having a PR person is the first wing of your attack.  How about a YouTube trailer?  Postcards are being used less often (except in festivals) because of new media.  But business card sized handouts are becoming popular.

Don’t count on your publicist to fill your house.  But look for the thing that’s unique about your show – it gives your publicist something to sell.  Good pictures are helpful online.  Constant Contact is helpful.  Create an event on Facebook, cultivate an individual blogger.  You first contact your personal people, then media folks you know, then start emailing reporters you don’t know, and go to the festival bar and hand out postcards or fliers.

Go out and find your audience: whatever it is about your play that will drive people to the theatre.  For a Bible play, Larry went to churches, talked to pastors and got church groups to come.  For his play about alzheimers, he went after those groups.

Venue: putting your show in the appropriate venue can be key.  Send your director to the walk thru so they know what they’re facing.  And learn to live with it.  Choose the venue with the smallest number of seats…then you’ll have a sellout.  Get your feet wet the first time.  Learn on someone else’s time: volunteer to be on someone else’s show.  Learn from their mistakes.  Find a buddy: do their show, then yours…and learn.  Go see other folks’ shows; talk to people who’ve produced in that space.  They’ll tell you what to put in your contract.  And tell you about the things you don’t know: the rockband rehearsing next door, the parking lot that fills up from restaurant patrons down the street, the helicopters that fly overhead, the pipes that bang…  Be aware that if you’re sharing space with other productions, you may have laughter next door during your serious drama.  And their intermission becomes part of your show.

Think about non-traditional spaces – the front porch of a house, a tent.  The venue can be an ad for your play.

On the road again

I’m looking forward to Tuesday.  That’s when I’m stepping on a plane to Rhode Island where yet another college is producing my war crimes play “A Patch of Earth.”  I’m looking forward to the talkback session with the students.  They always ask the hard questions.

I’ve been very fortunate with this particular play to find exactly the right audience.  It premiered at the Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo, where it won the Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition.  But it’s not exactly the most commercial thing I’ve ever written.  As my pal who runs MetroStage in Alexandria puts it, “it’s hard to sell tickets to a show about slaughtering Bosnians at Srebrenica.” 

But it’s exactly the right play for colleges, a place where young people spend hours debating moral questions.  The play is the true story of Drazen Erdemovic, a Bosnian Croat who ended up fighting for all three sides during the Yugoslav war.  He says he never killed anybody until his unit was sent to a farm outside of Srebrenica where they were instructed to kill busloads of men.  He said he didn’t want to shoot, but was told if he felt so sorry for the victims he could stand up there with them and be shot himself.  And then his compadres would go back to his village and shoot his wife and child. 

It’s a story with characters around the age of college students, a story that happened in most of these students’ lifetime.  The play has a big cast (at least 9, as many as 30) with lots of good female roles.  Perfect for college productions.

And it’s had those college productions in Detroit, Pretoria, Costa Mesa, New Jersey, and now Rhode Island.  (It even had one high school production last year in England!)  “A Patch of Earth” was even published by the University of Wisconsin Press. 

I don’t write all this to brag on myself, but to remind myself that not everything I write is destined for the Taper.  Or the Geffen.  Or the Pasadena Playhouse.  That doesn’t mean the script doesn’t have value.  In fact, it might affect more lives by being the perfect script for colleges.  Or for community theatres.  Or for young audiences. 

Write the play that’s calling you to be written today.  Worry about the audience it’s written for after you’re done.  Because plays that need to be written seem to find their own audiences.

Time management

There really are only 24 hours in a day.  And on a night like this, where I’m just getting home at 8:30 in the evening, the last thing that I want to do after dealing with words and sound bites all day is stare some more at my computer and deal with words and dialogue.  If I were a better person, I’d go to bed earlier and get up at the crack of dawn and write.  But I’m not that better person.

I’m giving myself a pass this week.  I knew it would be a stressful week at work, what with threats of a government shutdown.  Plus, my Skype partner had another commitment and couldn’t make our once a week playwriting lab.   So no new pages for me. 

But just giving myself a week off gave me the space to actually send out some query letters and submit a couple of plays here and there.  And my brain has been working on rewriting the LA Riots play.  So I haven’t completely given up my identity as playwright. 

I’ve had a hard time finding a regular schedule for my writing – partly because of the unpredicability of the day job, partly because both my husband and I work out of an 800 square foot coop.  And he’s a writer, too.  There’s something about that other person sucking all the creative energy out of a place. 

When I was working on the many, many rewrites of “Gogol Project,” I found that if I could set aside 90 minutes a day, I could write a play.  That resolution has fallen away. I did manage to finish the first draft of a new play in spits and spots.  But after more than two decades of writing plays, I wish I knew a more efficient way to do it.

I’m curious about your writing habits.  Do you have a sacred place and time?  How long do you typically sit down to write at a time?  Is caffeine a requirement?

Adaptation

I was taught that Jon Jory was a god in the world of playwriting.  But I saw a lousy production of his adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” in Florida.  And the actors and director cannot take all the blame. 

Jory’s adaptation was way too literal – this happened, then this happened, then this happened.  The theatricality was mostly absent, except for borrowing the technique used in “Nicholas Nickleby” where prose is put in the mouths of characters and shared with the audience breaking the fourth wall. 

Now, I admit I’m a bit prejudiced myself on the topic of Jane Austen and “P&P.”  I’ve seen the 1995 BBC adaptation at least two dozen times and the various movie versions several times apiece.  But those were films.  This was theatre – or at least it was supposed to be.

I’m no expert on adaptation – though I did win the LA Drama Critics Circle Award for my adaptation of Nikolai Gogol short stories for the Rogues Artists Ensemble – but I do have some thoughts.  And I hope you’ll add to my list of what makes a good adaptation.

A work of theatre has to be theatrical.  There has to be a place where the page is left to lie there to gather dust and something bigger than life comes alive in front of an audience.  I don’t need Spiderman to fly across the stage (speaking of problems with adaptation) or a helicopter to land at the end of the second act.  A play should be dangerous.  And unpredictable.  Use the stage.

Someone will be disappointed.  It happens all the time in movie adaptations – something gets left out, characters get melded.  A playwright has to face those expectations an audience brings into a familiar work and be brave enough to disappoint some people.  Trying to please everyone creates bland work.

Jane Austen will not turn over in her grave.  We all want to honor the original work.  But why bother to do anything but retype the book in play format if you’re not willing to make it a bit of your own?  It’s an adaptation, not a literal translation.

That’s enough for now.  What’s on your list?

A Writing Assignment

Kitty Felde – January 23, 2011

I work on Capitol Hill.  It’s a day job much like the theatre – lots of colorful characters and drama.  And mystery.

I’ve started collecting odd signs.  This one keeps haunting me…it sounds like the title of a play.  But I can’t imagine what it would be about.

So as I sign off this week, in the spirit of  leaving you with homework, I offer this sign as the title of the play you’ll never get around to writing.  Write a one paragraph synopsis – the annoying kind theatres keep demanding.  And this is your title:

The title of your next play

Caffeine, please

Kitty Felde – January 21, 2011

Time and energy seem to be my biggest obstacles to writing these days.  I have a day job where I’m writing a lot.  And running all over town.  And shocking though it may be to admit, I just don’t have as much energy as I used to.  

I consume vast amounts of tea and chocolate to fuel my writing periods, but it’s just not enough.  There aren’t enough hours in the day for work, exercise (ballet and swimming), opening the door for the cat, and kissing my husband.  Oh, and many days I’d much rather be pursuing my other creative outlet: sewing.  I can spend an entire weekend at my sewing machine and plan entire trips to various cities just to shop their fabric stores.  (My last trip to NYC was split between seeing theatre and seeing the Balenciaga exhibit and the costume exhibit at Lincoln Center.)

I’m trying to take the long view.  I’ve written ten plays over two decades.  I don’t have to do it all in 2011.  I am entitled to just sit around and be a vegetable sometimes.  I don’t have to write everyday. 

But that’s the rub, isn’t it?  On days when I don’t write, I’m not as nice a person to those around me.  Growl.

Guess I’ll summon the energy to write a few lines.

A Dream of a Play

Kitty Felde – January 20, 2011

Have you ever dreamed about writing a fabulous play?  Usually such dreams involve a Tony or a string of productions or actors like Alec Baldwin and Colin Firth fighting to play roles in your work. 

But do we ever dream about the actual WRITING of a play? 

I did.

Of course, I can’t remember most of it.  But even in my sleeping state, I knew that I’d forget 99% of the wonderful plot devices, character development, sparkling dialogue, etc, etc.  So I kept telling myself in my dream to remember one thing.  Just one thing.  And when I woke up, that one thing is all I remembered.  It boiled down to two words: vegetable juggling.  Which actually meant something to me and made its way into a scene I was writing.

It’s the only time I’ve ever had this experience.  How about you?  Have you found a way to tap into your subconscious?  Tips, please!

Act Two, Scene Four

Kitty Felde – January 19, 2011

One other thought about writing this ‘trick myself into writing something’ play.  I’ve decided to try some of the techniques I admire in other plays but never employ in my own. 

I rail against ‘kitchen sink dramas’ all the time and crave a real theatrical experience.  But how often do I write them myself?  Not often enough.

Since this children’s play I’m writing “doesn’t really matter” (that’s what I keep telling myself to stop putting pressure on myself to make it FABULOUS) I can experiment, get outside my comfort zone. 

So here are my rules:

Simplify.  I’m always writing large cast pieces with complicated plots.  For this piece, I’ve decided to simplify the play at its core: it’s the story of a relationship between a girl and her grandmother.  All other characters come and go. 

Well, that was the first thought.  Now a best friend has cropped up for the girl and he’s threatening to become a more fully realized character.  But okay.  Everybody ELSE comes and goes.

Dare to offend.  I’m fairly polite and probably overly politically correct in my personal and professional life.  Why be that way onstage?  I’m going to RISK offending people.  Writing characters that are not from my background or life experience and bring troublesome images on stage.  Yes, in a children’s play.  It will go over the heads of the kids and drive the parents crazy.  Which is the point.

Make stage magic.  My Skype playwriting pal Ellen Struve described a very bad production of “A Christmas Carol” that was saved by one thing: it snowed – not just onstage, but also IN the audience.  Magic happened somewhere in that theatre.  That’s what I want to try onstage.  Vegetables dance.  Pictures talk.  We’ll see how far I can pull this off.  But just giving yourself permission to try things is fun. 

No judgments until you get to the end of the first draft.  I’m making notes about this or that (didn’t I already write a similar scene?  Isn’t this scene inappropriate for the age range of the audience?), but I’m not trying to fix anything.  Yet.  The goal is to get to the end. 

 Have some fun.  So far, so good.

Act Two, Scene Three

Kitty Felde – January 18, 2011

I keep coming up with ways to trick myself into writing.

I have an act two problem with a play I’ve been struggling with for several years.  It’s the one about which my husband keeps saying, “why don’t you just let it go?”  But you know how it is.  It’s like the troubled kid you know you can see through the bad times so he’ll become an upstanding citizen when he’s done growing up.  So I know I’m committed to that play. 

But I’ve been stuck for months trying to finish act two.  And not writing a thing.

So I’ve decided to trick myself.

The very first play I ever wrote was a melodrama, “Shanghai Heart.”  As an actor, I had played a season in lovely Oceano, California with The Great American Melodrama and Vaudeville Theatre, playing 12 year old ingénues (I had just graduated college!)  Some of the plays were classics, some newer knock offs. 

Melodramas rarely get the kind of serious dramaturg attention that other genres get.  Even musical comedy is taken more seriously.  So when the urge came for me to write my first play, I chose a melodrama.  I knew the style.  But more importantly, I told myself, if the play stunk, no one would know.  It was a melodrama, for heaven’s sake. 

This kind of ploy worked pretty well when I was freelancing as a journalist for several years.  The days that my story ideas were rejected, I told myself I wasn’t a journalist, I was really a playwright.  When my plays came back in that sad, beaten up envelope, I told myself I wasn’t really a playwright, I was a journalist.  Schizophrenic, but it worked for me.

Of course, in my heart of hearts, I was going to write the BEST melodrama on planet earth.  And with a cast of ten (TEN!  What was I thinking?) I had a lot of characters to create and plots to keep straight.  But in the end, my tale of mistaken identity and love on San Francisco’s Barbary Coast was a hit.

The Los Angeles Times said, “Felde knows the melodrama form and has created an admirably intricate plot involving lost children, double amnesia, filched land deeds, a displaced Mountie, vamps, chorines, an evil foreigner, revenge and love triumphant.”

 Drama-Logue raved, “clever, talented and resourceful Kitty Felde…we should be hearing more from this versatile young lady.”

 I went on to write ten other plays. 

 And then got stuck in act two hell.

 So back to my solution. 

 I decided to choose another genre that’s gotten short shrift: plays for young audiences. 

 I’m a Helen Hayes judge here in Washington (kind of like the Ovations or LA Drama Critics Circle awards) and because I’m on the New Plays committee, I see a lot of new kids shows.  And unfortunately, a lot of them are bad.  (I know because the kids I’ve borrowed as my theatre companions tell me that on the drive home.)

 So I decided to write a kids show, using the same rationale I used to write that very first play: if it was bad, who would know?

 Now, before anyone gets all hot and heavy, I know kids’ theatre should be the BEST we have to offer.  Otherwise, why would kids ever pay the big bucks to attend theatre as adults?  And I have seen some WONDERFUL theatre designed for kids that’s MUCH better than the dreck offered to adults.  In my heart of hearts, that’s the play I want to write.  But I won’t admit it to myself.  Not just yet.

 www.kittyfelde.com

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