All posts by Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko

But do they care?

A lot can happen in ten minutes or less:

A monster attack

A car crash

A terminal diagnosis

The end of the world

The severance (or start) of an intimate relationship

And yet I’ve wondered if I expect too much, as a writer and as an audience member, of the increasingly ubiquitous ten-minute play, because I tend to like it ALL to happen (not necessarily the above, but events with comparable import). In earnest — rather than overt absurdity. In the same play. In ten minutes or less.

Tall order, but why not? What are the obstacles, but clear conflict, oppressive time constraints (or the proverbial ticking time bomb), and the je ne sais quoi required in order to make audiences care about the people and action at work in a compressed and short period of time.

OR is it really je ne sais quoi? Can it be mechanized, the art of making people care?

Well, since the world of politics is top of mind these days and is entirely about mechanics, for ghits and shiggles, I thought I’d compare some strategies for delivering a short stump speech designed to make people care with those that might be used effectively in the construction of an event-packed ten-minute play.

Did a bit of reading, Martha Nussbaum, Chip and Dan Heath, etc., etc. Some tactics that came up recurringly:

  • Highlight current problem(s) with emphasis, clarity and precision: check
  • Provide vivid details whenever possible: makes things seem real, credible; sure
  • Lean more on emotion over facts: in the case of the play, less exposition, more dialogue that reveals character truths; makes characters sympathetic
  • Reference the “challenge plot” when telling a story: make stakes high, obstacles ever daunting, with protagonist overcoming them in the end; eh, sure
  • Reference Associations/Use a celebrity or known figure: using something people already care about; I’ve done this (presented actual public figure as lead character), have seen it done; ultimately, it largely depends on the figure – my references tend to be obscure, but in mainstream cases, some recognition, for better or worse, is likely to produce some “care” results
  • Give audience ownership of what they’re hearing: can be endeavored in many ways, some interactive/immersive; interesting to chew on
  • Use specific names: (“I was talking with Frank Anderson of Davenport, Iowa, recently, who lost his farm . . .” comes to mind); personalizes things, makes whole presentation familiar

Alas, as the adage is “we’re all so different,” and it’s true, I suppose, that many of us are, what makes one person care may differ largely from that which keeps the person in the seat next to her invested.

That said, perhaps we’d be stronger politicians, we ten-minute playwrights, focusing a bit on a few of these as we go about our literary way.

Cast Control

by Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko

As I go into casting on two vastly different and equally challenging projects, and that familiar dread/anxiety rolls in, followed by sprinkles of guilt and self-chastisement for my being so—arguably—maniacal on this issue, I am comforted and, one could say, absolved by the following quotes.

(And yes, a few are of film fraternity, but the sentiment is transferable.)

“Necessarily, I’m always involved in casting, as any playwright is, because the whole process of putting on a play is a collaborative, organic effort on the part of a bunch of people trying to think alike.”
-David Ives

“For it is not enough to know what we ought to say; we must also say it as we ought…proper method of delivery; this is a thing that affects the success of a speech greatly;…”

“There are always going to be more actors than anybody can ever use.”
-Edward Albee

“My secret to all casting, and specifically kids, is cast good human beings.”
-M. Night Shyamalan

“Casting is everything. Getting the person that you imagined is this character and then seeing what they bring to it.”
-Steve Buscemi

“Casting is storytelling.”
-Joss Whedon

“Casting is…90+ percent of the creative choices…”
-Alan Rudolph

Coincidentally, a known playwright has this week voiced concerns regarding an unanticipated casting choice. Different, this, in that it was a school production with which she had limited to no involvement and the concerns had to do with race.

Here is the Huffington Post piece referencing Katori Hall’s take on Kent State University’s production of her play, “The Mountaintop.”

Whether one agrees with the playwright’s perspective here or not, it’s a reminder of how significant the assigning of lines to a performer who would seem to embody and satisfactorily flesh out the character envisioned, created and first voiced by his or her author can be.

That said, I am reminded of a quote by southern novelist, Ellen Glasgow, which would, if subscribed to, tend to ameliorate any pains associated with this issue. “Doesn’t all experience crumble in the end to mere literary material?”

Time For Labor

by Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko

They were gorgeous and exhilarating at first blush, at conception. Gave me pains and pissy-ness shortly afterward. They took a long time to grow, yet often blossomed overnight. They were my engine fuel, my mood enhancers, and a physical testament to my ability to persevere. My plays were my babies. Before I birthed a human.

Now I split my nurturing, my guidance, my anxiety, my mania, and of course my time. And, necessarily, not evenly. And, indeed, my old, occasionally elusive though fundamentally trusty comrade Productivity has often taken a shocking dip in the pool of not-quite, as a result.

Although it’s quite obvious and quite wonderful where the priority lies (and I’d have it no other way), I often wish it were easier to take optimal care of both, babe and play. Simpler – and I know this is just me – I wish there was more time. But, shock, there isn’t. Which leaves me with, only really, the promise of reconfiguration.

Reflecting recently on the rhythms of labor and my son’s journey into this sphere, I recalled successive waves of intense — no, cataclysmic stabbing, shuffling, and churning, punctuated by small periods of what I’ll call alternative otherworldly activity. This has led me to consider that, perhaps, these need be the new rhythms of my life now, of my writing: Bursts of activity, productivity, intense, chaotic, but consistent, controlled—and short, spread out over the day. The rhythms of birth over and over again, every day. Really feeling the work, in order to deliver it.

Although it’s a little more touchy-feely a thing for me, this way of working, more or less, has often been credited to Francesco Cirillo, and this recent post from a blog called “The Write Life” does a nice job of outlining his Pomodoro technique, which I’ve tried (casually) before, in my pre-maternity days. But I’ll be bringing so much more to those bursts today.

To anyone having difficulty finding the time to write, whether parenting in the conventional sense or not, you might give it a go.

happy holidays, generous writing

by Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko

Speaking of unexpected sources of inspiration or, if you will, gifts that don’t fit into (figurative) boxes, it occurred to me, how swell and gift-like an extraordinary play is – the kind with the capacity to shed light, to transform, to expand our world, along with our individual and collective understanding of it. The kind that reminds one she isn’t alone in said world. A play that acts as a soul companion of sorts for one who’s experienced it, for subsequent days and years to come. I think of “thank you” notes I might have written over the course of a lifetime to Carol Bolt for ONE NIGHT STAND, Wallace Shawn for A THOUGHT IN THREE PARTS (and, really, everything else), Gertrude Stein for WHAT HAPPENED, Rochelle Owens for FUTZ, Harold Pinter for OLD TIMES.

It’s quite a rosy way of looking at what we do, I’d say, writing as an act of giving—if only to one person, a single “willing and prepared hearer,” to borrow from Robert Louis Stevenson. And it isn’t so naïve. After all, it’s often been said there’s an audience for everything, for every creative offering. As we look and click around, glimpsing comments on various YouTube videos, there is often the suggestion that this postulate is true.

I do wonder what sorts of gifts we’ve all been working on this holiday season, who will be their most affected recipients. And how to best go about finding those recipients. Another post, I suppose.

And what was the problem?

by Kimberly Shelby-Szyszko

I met a playwright at a party, she was half-dead. She wasn’t drinking. But she was having trouble keeping the lines on her face in order. “Are you okay,” I said. I didn’t ask, even nodded my head. She was neck-to-toe in grey, and I was at the top of a staircase, so I figured we might have an understanding.

She explained that she couldn’t get a grip on her personal statement – which sounds much like one doesn’t know who she is, doesn’t it? No, in her applications to the litany of must-get-ins, into which she presumably never got, it’s that she never felt she knew what they wanted. They. Narrow or broad. Long or short. Casual or formal. Specific or general.

She was in between what we un-ironically call submission deadlines and had come to the soiree to escape the uncertainty, but it was not working. Amid all of the faces, smirking, wowing, grimacing, scanning as they encountered other faces, foods and beverages, she was again and constantly faced with “what do they want?” Really want. Tremendous, the secrets these expressions hold. On the face, and on the paper. Describe your role . . .

What do they want? Same question. Similarly unknown people. The sort found in theatre companies, non-profits, corporations, audiences, cities, parties. People.

It was driving her crazy. I asked her, more flippantly than planned, what it was like to care that much. And at 40+, at which point it’s all, I’m told by numerous magazines, water insouciantly dripping from a duck? It was meant to empower her.

She was unamused. “You wouldn’t be here, if you didn’t have the same problem.” Quietly, I considered the nature of my work and almost conceded but then wondered where “here” was. The staircase? The party? The conversation? California? And what, in fact, was the problem? I didn’t decide. I sat next to her, and we said nothing further. Our eyes in tandem, we peered out into the sea of secret wants as the flock of corresponding faces dwindled to fewer and fewer still, maybe mystified.

Then we went home, at least I did, and wrote a play, along with an accompanying statement, about nothing. Except the things I wanted to know more intimately.