All posts by Sara Israel

the five senses

Sara Israel, January 6, 2011

I’m in the early stages of a new writing project, and I’m thinking a lot about “the setting.”

When I was 14, I took a playwriting course where we were dropped off at various truck stops throughout rural Pennsylvania for several hours, each of us left completely on our own. (Yes.  Seriously.  Although in our instructor’s defense she did get parental permission.)  We were told to observe.

I didn’t even fully realize what “observation” could be until I was at my very own truck stop, where I witnessed the most amazing and disgusting job interview I could have never ever imagined.  I’m not sharing the details here because, though I did end up writing a brilliant (if I dare say) short play using the observations for that course, at some point I will absolutely use them again as an “adult and professional” writer.

The point is, that day I learned that something being a “truck stop” meant a lot more when you thought about the people who populated the truck stop, and why, and the small and large moments of their lives.

Ever since, I’ve been a believer.  A believer that setting greatly affects who characters are and the choices that they make.  “Environmental response,” so to speak.

Because for me, a setting isn’t simply “location.”  It really is the environment.  It’s about how a character feels about their tangible world, and therefore how they interact with it.  Feeling and interaction using all five senses.

For each setting, some senses become more prevalent than others.  A couple of years ago, and for a different writing project, I sat for three hours in the lobby of Cedars Sinai Hospital.  Sight and sound are the big and obvious senses there (as they almost always are), though smell definitely gets some serious play too when you’re in a hospital.  Touch was more “the absence of”—because in a hospital lobby you spend a lot of time thinking about what you’d rather not touch.  And taste. . . Well, if I had licked the Intake Desk I might have been kicked out by one of the security guards.

Of course someone else might choose to obsessively run his or her hands and tongue over everything in the space.  Goodness knows that would be a character choice, and potentially the launching or escalation of some pretty interesting conflict.

Some settings I know like the back of my hand; they are integral to me.  A dusty rose- colored teenage bedroom.  A New England college quad in autumn.  A parched hiking path right before the sun sets.

The challenge with these settings is to extract myself from them as much as I need to in order to be able to accommodate someone else’s (a character’s) potential relationship with the space.  (This is one reason why I think the catch-phrase advice to “write what you know” is in actuality laden with perils.)

The challenge with settings that aren’t integral to me is, well, that I don’t already know them like the back of my hand.  So I have to research.  And for that research to really count, I must be able to give all five senses the option of engagement.  Which means visiting the setting.

For this new project, I’m debating between a setting that is already very familiar versus one that would be brand new.  I’m wrestling with the pros and cons of each.  But in order to make a fully informed decision, I think some location scouting is in my future.  It means braving Orange County.  Wish me luck.


Sara Israel, January 4, 2011

Happy 2011 everyone!

Last week was the time when many people—myself included—crafted some New Year’s resolutions.  (This week is the time when you are bombarded with advertisements and Yahoo “articles” about how you can stick to those resolutions.)

I won’t subject you to my quotidian stuff like not running yellow lights, but here are my four Writer Resolutions for this year.

Reading Is Fundamental: There is so much I am compelled to read (namely other people’s scripts and research for my own writing) that too often I neglect what I want to read just because.  You know, as a human being rather than as a writer.  But of course, being a human being and a writer are intertwined—and so when I do get to the “just because” it always infuses me with creative energy.  Why do I so often forget this?

In 2011 I will read whatever the heck I want, whenever I want.  I won’t worry about the work.  The work will get done; it always does.

Quality Over Quantity, Part One: In 2010, I attended a ten-minute play festival in support of my friend and very talented playwright.  I thought the performance of her piece went pretty well.  She saw it, uh. . . differently.  Afterwards she declared, “I’ve padded my resume enough.  I’m through with ten-minute play festivals.”

Her throw-down strikingly articulated something I had already been thinking about:  What is the benefit of having your work done if it is not done well?   For me, one of the biggest challenges of being a writer of work that exists to be performed is that typically I have minimal control over the performance.  But here’s what I can control:  Who I let perform it in the first place.

In 2011, I will continue my trend of being an informed bestower—aware of who is asking and the quality of their past work.  And I will not feel guilty if, once I think about those aspects honestly, my answer is “no.”  I will approach this on a case-by-case basis, aware that each potential situation brings with it a different cost-benefit analysis.  But I will always remember that the text is mine to give.

As writers we are conditioned to simply be grateful that anyone wants to perform our work at all.  This is ridiculous.  We create valuable commodities, and it is our right—and I think our responsibility—to share them intelligently and strategically.

Corollary: I will not pass judgment on my writer friends who do not adopt this approach.  However, I can no longer invest the emotional and literal time in nursing them back to health when they suffer the consequences.

Quality Over Quantity, Part Two: I saw more than 40 full theater productions in 2010, most of them right here in Los Angeles.  I was participating as an awards voter, and took the organization’s mantra to heart that I should use the opportunity to seek out new-to-me theater companies and artists.  It wasn’t until that experience was completed—and once I’d detoxed from it a bit—that I realized what a toll it took on me as an artist.

The truth is, with most of what I saw in 2010, the best you could say is that it was sometimes “good enough.”  A really great actor-performance here.  A really cool light cue there.  An interesting premise.  A well-detailed costume.  A plucky use of the space.

Some informative experiences, but “informative” is different than “inspiring.”

I love theater because of its ability to inspire.  But when it inspires me, it does so because everything—everything—about it is excellent, and the artists are collaborating together with a singular understanding and vision to create that excellence.

It also turns out that when you’re seeing too much “good enough,” even that starts to feel like less than “good enough.”  And that, in fact, is anti-inspiring.

In 2011, I will only see productions that I truly want to see.  I’m now confident that I am a well-informed theater-goer, and that I also know who to count on as my smart and savvy theater friends who will help me fill in the gaps.  Of course, not everything can be inspiring, but I can make my 2011 yield far, far better.

Dish-Pan Hands: In 2011, I will wash my dishes every single day.  This sounds quotidian, doesn’t it?  And I promised you I wasn’t including quotidian here.  But, for me, dishwashing is really fertile creative-thinking time.  I’ve known this for years.  So why don’t I already do my freakin’ dishes every day?  It’s probably because, unlike tennis, regardless of the benefits, washing them is still a chore.

Here’s to creativity and success—in both writing and chores—for the coming year.

tennis, anyone?

Sara Israel, September 16, 2010

Last night I played an hour of tennis.  I’m guaranteed to do this at least once a week because I take lessons from my world’s perfect instructor, Eric Hatcher.

I’d dabbled in tennis before Eric, but I’d never thought about committing to it long-term.  Yet within a few months, I was having so much fun that I saw greener pastures.  I constructed (and still have) a short-term goal and a long-term goal.

Short-term goal:  Use my tennis lesson to purge my mind and return to a state where I can be creative again.

Long-term goal:  Become good at tennis in a way that warrants wearing a cute, legitimate tennis outfit.

I meet my short-term goal every week.  Thank goodness, because my work relies on that hour providing me with a brain vacation.  There’s something about playing tennis that sucks out every thought in my mind, save for, Hit the goddamn ball.  I simply cannot focus on tennis plus anything else.  And I’m on a court.  With a racket in my hand.  And tennis balls flying at me.  So tennis wins.

I come home physically tired but mentally refreshed, a combination I love.  And I typically find that, unbeknownst to me consciously, I’ve come up with a great idea for a scene I’m writing, or solved a plot problem, or found a new interesting layer to a character I’m developing.  The “surface” of my mind is perhaps clearing for tennis, but it turns out the brain waves run deep.

I’ve experienced this phenomenon before.  I used to sing in a relatively regimented fashion— serious choirs, private voice lessons.  In high school, I noticed that every once in awhile I’d land on a good essay topic for English class while I was singing in the choir room.  I even included that observation in my next English essay.  My English teacher was sooooo excited by my “find” and made suuuuuch an intellectual show of her excitement that I decided never to think about the connection ever, ever again.  (I was 14.  I wasn’t interested in an intellectual community.  I just wanted my bad bangs to grow out.)

In college.  Still singing.  I specifically remember a time when Handel’s Messiah helped me bust through a roadblock in a proof I needed to solve in order to turn in my linear algebra problem set the following day.

And then I stopped singing (in any serious fashion).

I didn’t really realized what I’d lost until I started playing tennis.

I’m grateful for having even this one mentally vacating yet creatively rejuvenating activity in my hopper, but I’m always up for other suggestions. . . Or new people to play tennis with me. . .

Oh, and as for the long-term goal:  I am a ways away yet, but I know exactly what the cute, legitimate outfit is going to look like.  A hot pink dress (but not too bright; no neon!), racerback cut, with white piping.  I can’t wait.

text is King. long live the King.

Sara Israel, September 14, 2010

Pardon me if my thoughts about theater are a bit theoretical right now.  I have just emerged from eight packed days participating in this year’s Directors Lab West.  Lots of panel discussions and talks, which inevitably lead to lots of discourse about “the state of theater”— which of course means lots of hand-wringing and sounding of the Armageddon sirens.

But there was enough hope to go around too, and just as importantly, enough joy.

Throughout the week, we heard from Artistic Directors, designers, performing artists, and choreographers.  Unfortunately, nowhere in the week was there the explicit opportunity to truly discuss how a director collaborates with a writer the way she or he does with all of those other talented and skilled position players.  (Apparently some years there are great playwright panels, just not this year.  Luck of the draw, I suppose.)

Although collaboration with a playwright was never really discussed, the importance of a director’s relationship with the product created by the playwright— a.k.a the text— was always implied.  Through and through.  Every single day.  The text was the leader powerful enough to step aside and let his followers do the talking.  But he was always in the room.

Interestingly— though for us playwrights, not surprisingly— when the Artistic Directors, designers, performing artists, and choreographers glowed about their greatest experiences, it all inevitably boiled down to loving the play itself.  For example, Sound Designer Extraordinaire Cricket Myers declared Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo her favorite design experience not because it provided her with a whole new sound palette (though it did) but rather because, as she put it, “It was the greatest play I’ve ever, ever read.”

The text, you see, is King.

I managed to slip in a text-related question to The Theatre @ Boston Court co-Artistic Directors Jessica Kubzansky and Michael Michetti.  I asked them:  When they read a play, how do they know if it’s right for them?  Where do they feel it?  Michael answered that he feels it in the beating of his heart; Jessica feels it in the wrenching of her gut.  I think those two answers in combination go a long way in explaining their company’s compelling programming year in and year out.

Plenty of the Directors Lab West panelists and fellow attendees perceived themselves as being about something other than text.  They passionately spoke about building a conversation with the audience, about weaving organic performance with other artists.

They might go about it a different way, but each of their approaches boils down to creating meaningful stories with compelling characters, and placing great value on developing an experience that can consistently be translated for the audience.

In other words, they create a text.

Text might not have always gotten its due during my eight days at Directors Lab West, but then again, the text is a benevolent, generous ruler.  Sometimes, like this past week, he sits back and lets his minions have at it.  But eventually, inevitably, he dons his regal robes and steps out onto his balcony, ready to stake his rightful claim.

Text is King.  Long live the King.

unexpectedly, on writing

Sara Israel, July 8, 2010

Okay.  I’m going to admit it.  I’m really not into books on writing.

There.  I said it.

Goodness knows there are plenty of well-written, valuable books on the subject, books others writers swear by.  But for me they are too pragmatic or too mystical, too humble or too prideful, too technically written or too artistically rendered.  Bottom line:  I tune out.

But several weeks ago I wanted to buy a meaningful gift for May Treuhaft-Ali, the glorious 14 year-old author of the play May, which I just had the privilege to direct in The Blank Theatre Company’s Young Playwrights Festival.

I confidently speak for my cast as well— the terrific trio of Will Barker, Heather Morris, and Michael Welch— when I say that exploring the world of May’s writing was a singularly amazing and altering experience.  And so on the occasion of our opening night, I wanted to give May something that she could draw upon as an artist in return for this gift she had given us.

Because she is a writer, I first thought to buy her a book on writing.  And then I remembered, well, everything I’ve declared above.  But it struck me:  although I avoid books “on writing,” there are surely books I’ve read that nonetheless have made an enormous impact on my work as a writer.

At the top of that list is No Tricks In My Pocket: Paul Newman Directs, by Stewart Stern.  I first discovered this book for a college acting class.  I have read it no less than 10 times since.  It’s technically about this guy, Stewart Stern, who happens to be an old friend of Paul Newman, and happens to follow him around as he directs the 1987 film version of The Glass Menagerie.  But of course it’s not really about that.  It’s about discovery— the ways Tennessee Williams’ characters discover themselves, the ways the actors discover those characters, the way Paul Newman discovers the connections between the two, and the way Stewart Stern discovers his old friend in a new light.

And discovery— the art of it, the wonderment of it, and the mechanisms of it— are the basis for lots of good writing.

So I bought No Tricks In My Pocket for our sweet 14 year-old May.  She has reported to me that she’s already read it— though she’s never read nor seen The Glass Menagerie.  I see nothing wrong with this, because maybe it means that, like me, she’ll keep on re-discovering the book over and over again, an unexpected writing friend.

my own best/worst critic

Sara Israel, May 7, 2010

I’ve spent some time today with a comfortable friend— my play, bad Art.

It will soon receive its second public reading, and I’ll be directing it as well, so suddenly I am wearing two caps at once.  This morning I worked my way through the script making special formatting changes for the actors and stage directions reader, changes I explicitly make for readings.  I’m happy to report that I was able to read from page 1 all the way through page 94 purely as that director, keeping my writer’s urges to tinker and edit and fret completely at bay.

As a director, I spend 99.9% of my time celebrating the text before me, reveling in its depths with the actors.  But as a writer, my goal is always to make my play better.  I think I have pretty critical eyes, ears, and instincts when it comes to assessing my own writing— which in some ways makes me my own best critic, and in other ways make me my own worst.

Even if they are still very much in development, as a director I choose only to work on plays that I truly love and feel like I truly “get.”  It pains me to admit it, but I feel this sharp slice of doubt. . . Has what I’ve created here as a playwright worthy of me as a director? I’ve had to quite literally remind myself of the wonderful and empowering feedback I’ve received from theater professionals, to remind myself that bad Art was named a semi-finalist for the Princess Grace Award.  It.  Is.  Worthy.

I’m curious to see how I balance improving what I have written (the playwright) and celebrating what I’ve written (the director) with the cast I have assembled.  I admire all of their work.  Some of them are long-term friends; some of them I’ve joyfully worked with before; some were strangers who I implored to hop on board.  They are all really smart and really honest, so no matter what, I know I’ll learn a heck of a lot.

My goal will be to sit back, listen closely, watch well— and enjoy. . . in some ways wearing both caps, in some ways wearing neither.

on learning

Sara Israel, May 5, 2010

Yesterday afternoon and this morning I have dedicated myself to learning about the history, culture, and characteristics of storytelling in the region currently known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It’s for the play I’m working on, and per usual when it comes to research for my writing, I’ve had to resist plunging deep into the wormhole.  It’s a challenge to balance letting myself learn freely, and seeing where that takes me, with a vigilance to monitor myself, to make sure it all keeps applying to this play rather than purely becoming a crutch for procrastination.

But wormholes be damned, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to be a good writer without being a good learner.  I’ve also come to learn– and appreciate– that learning is a skill.  It has to be taught, and then encouraged to flourish.

I’ve been very, very lucky throughout my life to be surrounded by people who have both taught and encouraged me, starting with my parents and my Grandma Helen, continuing with my elementary school librarian, with my music instructors, with public school teachers, college professors, and the wonderful friends I’ve collected along those paths and beyond.

  • I’ve had English teachers who have taught me to be more analytical and less judgmental.
  • I’ve had math teachers who have taught me to be more creative and expansive in my thinking.
  • I’ve had art teachers who have taught me the value of precision and repetition.

You never know what you’re going to learn, and from whom you will learn it.  You just have to be open to learning, and fortunate enough to have people in your lives who will take you there.

dusting off my playwright’s cap

Sara Israel, May 3, 2010

Moss Hart is one of my role models– a director who terrific playwrights relied upon, but also a terrific playwright in his own right.

I wish I could reach across the decades between us, hunt him down, convince him I’m not a crazy person and I really had just traveled through time– so I could pick his brain for a few minutes.  Over a cup of coffee, say.

I’d ask him, How do you balance your responsibility to your own plays with your responsibility to the work of others?

He’d probably have a pretty pithy answer for me.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve almost exclusively been wearing my director’s cap.  I love wearing it.  It’s really fashionable and sexy and it looks good in public.  But now, after a weekend that included directing both a fantastic reading Friday at 6PM and a wonderful opening of another play later that very same night, it’s time to swap out that director’s cap for the slightly dowdier playwright’s variety.

My directing work no doubt informs my writing.  That starts with the other writer and his or her play, of course.  But what I find really sinks into my own playwright’s bones is what I learn from the actors.  The truthful and unexpected places they take not only words, but also silences, and how those words and silences create an architecture for character and story and, well. . . a whole wide world parallel to our “real” one.  The work they do– and, as a director, having the privilege of seeing it from the inside out– reminds the writer-me not to limit myself, reminds me that the world is my oyster, because their skill and talent is my permission and my safety net.

The seven actors I had the pleasure of directing, culminating in my crazy Friday, performed in plays I did not write, but working with them will absolutely serve to propel my writing forward.  You should work with them too, soon and often:  Keith Allan, David Bickford, Michelle Gardner, Sharon Madden, Eric Nenninger, Karen Jean Olds, and Rick Steadman.

It’s apropos for me to be waxing rhapsodic about actors right now, because the play I am working on this week is inspired by the wonderful actor Drew Powell.  “Inspired,” as in, I wouldn’t have a freakin’ clue how to approach the lead character of my play– and therefore the entire play– if I didn’t have a vision of what I know Drew is capable of achieving.

A few years ago, I knew there was this story I wanted to tell, but I was completely lost when it came to telling it.  And I didn’t know why.  Then I saw Drew perform, not the first time I’d seen him on the stage (he was a friend of a friend) but his work that night– heartbreaking yet gregarious yet incredibly restrained– made me realize that I wasn’t cracking this play I wanted to write because I was afraid.  I was writing with a fear that the character I wanted to create couldn’t really exist in my story.  Drew’s performance screamed at me to stop being a chicken, stop underestimating myself and others, and just go for it.

This play is still frightening and unwieldy for me at times, by far the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to get out onto the page.  But Drew remains my touchstone.  It’s the first time I’ve ever written anything with an actor in mind, and who knows. . . by the time it’s done, the character that he’s inspired might manifest in the form of an 85 year-old woman.  (And if Drew’s reading this, he was probably a bit freaked out by this point anyway; now add to that he might have to age himself by 50 years, shave significantly, and buy himself some quality hosiery.)

And now, my playwright’s cap dusted (and maybe sexier than I give it credit for)– onward to my “real” writing for the day.  If anyone knows what Moss Hart would have said to me over that cup of coffee, please let me know.