Monday, October 24, 2011
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
There seems to be a blog circulating on how to avoid telling a playwright you didn’t like his play. Nice post. Good thoughts. But here’s my rebuttal.
Writing a play is hard work. I congratulate each and every playwright who manages to complete a play----good or not. But let’s face it, some of them are bad.
I’m not saying this to be a jerk. I’m not thick-skinned. I’m the playwright who sits WAY in the back during a reading, often with my hands over my face in mortal fear. Desperately trying to gauge if what I put on paper is understood. Does it work? Does it suck? Can I make it better?
The first real play I wrote, I gave to my mother to read. Like a lot of first plays, mine was set in a bar. I knew it was a cliché, but tried to mock the cliché by showing how stagnant their lives had become in that small town bar. I thought the characters were interesting. That they had interesting things to say. “Let me just get my tea, honey,” Mom said as she settled into her dining room chair and turned to the first page. I had to leave the room. I couldn’t watch The Judgment of Mom.
Half an hour later she laid the play on the tablecloth and gave me my very first review, “That was nice, honey. I liked it. It was just like Cheers. But did you have to use all those bad words?”
I knew two things for sure. First, that my play was NOTHING like Cheers. And second, Mom didn’t particularly care for it.
I was okay with that. After all, it was my first play. But (outside of those bad words) WHY didn’t she like it?
I needed to find out. I went to The Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis. There, I learned how to give constructive criticism----and how to take it. Not “take it” like taking a punch in the face. But how to listen to what people were saying. How to take in all the criticism and then decide for myself what to discard and what to take to heart---and to paper.
After many years of hard work (and many bad plays) I think I’ve become a pretty good writer. But I still need feedback. I still cling to the audience’s reaction during a reading. I re-write. Cut. Merge two characters into one. Cut some more. Lose entire scenes. Add new ones. Rearrange the plot points. Cut. Cut. Cut. And cut some more. I try to listen to the audience, the actors, and ANYONE who will offer ANY constructive criticism of my play.
Sometimes I get my Mom’s elusive critique, “I liked it.” Sometimes I even get, “I LOVED it.” Sometimes my friends leave without uttering a word. Frankly, I don't know what any of that means. Maybe it's my Missouri roots---you've got to "Show-Me".
I’ve taken classes with some AMAZING writers. Writers who were NOT gentle in their criticisms. I once took a weekend workshop with Romulus Linney---a playwright I held in VERY high esteem. The workshop seemed informal, and no one at the theatre told me to bring material, so I assumed we’d be writing new stuff and working on that.
Though I’d assiduously checked my email for weeks before the workshop----I was stunned when I showed up at a cabin in the mountains and twenty playwrights pulled material out of their bags. I had nothing. Zilch. I gingerly pulled my blank notebook out of my bag and awaited my death.
Linney, though polite, was pretty honest in his critiques. Almost startlingly so. Rarely do instructors get so blunt when dealing with paying customers. It made me respect (and fear) him all the more. Luckily, there was only time for about a half a dozen writers that night. I was given a reprieve till dawn. I went back to my cabin room, shut the door, and started writing. Regurgitating, to be exact. I’d been working on a new play. And, like most writers, had spent an inordinate amount of time on the first scene. I only needed ten pages. I strained to remember those very carefully wrought words.
By four am, I had re-written the scene from memory by hand.
Three hours later, I got up, showered, and made my way to the only corner store within walking distance-----a gas station down the road. There, I bought a large coffee and a ream of paper. Back in my cabin room, I carefully copied my illegible scrawl onto a few sheets of college-ruled paper.
Half an hour later, I was sitting in front of Romulus Linney, waiting to be called to the stand.
In the meantime, he’d called several other writers to task. According to him, EVERY delicate jewel they’d brought in needed work. One piece in particular, he just came right out and said, “This is not a play. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not a play.”
Of course, he went on to say several other things that might help it actually BECOME a play----but I felt for the writer. Nothing’s as brutal as the master saying you created nothing at all.
Finally, my turn came. My hands were shaking. While everyone had had several lovely computer printed copies of their script, I passed my measly hand-written copy to the two actors and the stage direction reader, apologized, and asked them if they could sit together and share.
I was mortified at my unpreparedness. How often does one get the chance to study with a master and blow it by not only having no material, but also looking completely un-professional?
The actors read. They seemed to get the piece. The other students laughed in the right spots. Okay. So not a total disaster. Hopefully. I sat in silence waiting for judgment.
Romulus Linney looked around the room. A calculated silence. He asked what they thought of the play. Most of the writers remained quiet and terrified. I remember two brave souls commenting that they thought it was funny and that the characters seemed real. That sort of thing. It wasn’t looking good.
Then Romulus Linney leaned his elbows on the table, looked around the room, and simply said, “THAT is how to start a play!”
I was stunned. I think for an entire minute, I didn’t even breathe.
And then he went on about how wonderful it was. How the characters worked together. How the set-up worked. How EVERYTHING worked. “You’re very talented,” he ended. “That was a very, very well-written piece.”
I was in heaven for weeks. I sent query letters to agents, production companies, theatres, networks, pretty much anyone who might take an interest in my work.
But nothing. No one wanted me or my scripts. Maybe Romulus Linney was wrong. Maybe I stunk. I decided to take another class. Then another. All with amazing, talented, working writers. Writers who’d received prestigious awards. Writers I admired. On a regular basis, I was told I was talented, brilliant, a wonderful writer. Was always singled out in these workshops for having produced “the kind of stuff I really like.”
One writer/teacher actually said to me, “Did you write this just to make me happy?”
Despite all this wondrous praise----I was STILL waiting tables. No agent. No nothing. Just $4.35 an hour plus tips.
What was I doing wrong? No one would tell me.
Finally, I took one more class. With another well-known writer. At the end of the reading, I sat onstage in a pool of light. I was the only one in the class who had NO criticism. Oh, he loved it. Everything about it was wonderful. Was told I was very talented. A wonderful writer. That I write the sort of thing he loves. “You should be very proud of yourself.”
I just sat in silence in the pool of light. It was possibly, the most depressing moment of my life. There was the requisite applause from the other students. I quietly said "thank you". And left the stage.
But inside my head was screaming, “IF I’M SO FUCKING WONDERFUL THEN WHY AM I NOT WORKING?!?!?!”
I told this to a friend of mine the next day. “Why didn’t you ask?” he said.
“I don’t know. It didn’t seem like the right place to ask.”
But the truth is---most playwright are NOT working. Well, we’re working---just not making a living at it. It was at that point that I stopped killing myself. Began to focus more on life. Yes, I still wrote. God, yes. It’s what I do. But life was important, too.
So I lived. And wrote. And lived some more.
But in the back of my mind, I kept wondering, “What am I doing wrong?”
More importantly, what were playwrights doing wrong? Plays are the essence of the human experience. The most vital vessel of understanding. Why are WE waiting tables and The Kardashians taking over the world?
Of course, if you’ve only been writing for three or four years, the reason you’re not working is because you’re not ready yet. Writing, like any profession, takes a good ten years to master.
But, like many of my friends, I’m not a newbie. I WANT to know what you did and did NOT like about my play. Because if I’ve put it in front of you, that means that I’m at the point where I’ve done all I can without advice. I’m too close to it. And your distance (and expertise) might help make it better. I REALLY want to know.
Perhaps I’m different. Perhaps most writers would prefer a simple pat on the back, good job, let’s get a drink. Not for me to judge.
But if we get a drink, and I ask you what you thought----that means two things. The first is that I honestly want to know. And the second is that I value your opinion enough to trust your judgment.
I can handle it. I’m not a hothouse flower. It will only benefit me AND my play. So TELL me! If you don’t like my play---for godsakes, TELL ME!
Here’s how you do it:
- Okay, go ahead and tell me what you liked about my play. It will make you feel good. I’ll know the bad is coming----but I’ll also know what actually worked. Sometimes, that's just as important.
- Tell me what you didn’t like. You don’t have to get in depth at this point. Just point out one or two things that didn’t work. Sure, you can back-track with the whole, “Maybe I missed this, but….” Just get it off your chest. It will only make us that much closer.
- Ask me a few questions. If you have questions, that helps me figure out where the problems are. Maybe I can answer them and we’ll both be satisfied. Maybe I can’t. If I can’t----then I know what I need to work on.
- Talk about the things OUTSIDE of the writing that worked or did not work for you. Again, a feel-good moment for you as you don’t have to critique me, per se. If you didn’t get an actor’s portrayal of the character, the lighting was too moody; the direction seemed “off”. Tell me what you liked and didn’t like and WHY. Sometimes it’s in the script and I need to fix that. Other times, we’ve let our theatre team go astray. It’s flattering to have a theatre pick up your play, but sometimes (bewilderingly) even THEY don’t get it.
- End by asking us what WE thought. This could lead to a great discussion. Or it could lead to another glass of wine and talking about great vacation spots. Even writers get sick of talking about their work. Don’t worry that opening a discussion will lead to an all-night unpaid dramaturgy event. We’re your friends for a reason---we like your company.
And those of us who genuinely want criticism don’t wear badges. We’re hard to distinguish from the guys who just want a hug. To make it harder----we want different things from different people. We ALWAYS want Mom to give us a hug and say “I love you”. We don’t always trust the judgment of the dude at our day job. And we react FAR too freakishly to the local critic who rushes out during the curtain call without uttering a word. As a side note, I used to do some freelance theatre criticism. If I ran out after a performance, it was because I was on a deadline. Had NOTHING to do with the value of your play.
But if you’re a friend. And we ASK you what you thought. What you REALLY thought. Remember that THOSE are the magic words, “What do you REALLY think?”
We REALLY want to know. We’re desperate. Think of us as a sad single woman who just broke up with her boyfriend. The sort who calls you late at night and wants to keep you on the phone for hours discussing what HE said and what that REALLY meant. Only difference is, we’re not sobbing on our beds with a cucumber facial, a pint of Hagen-Daas and a bottle of vodka keeping you trained to the phone for hours. We are right in front of you. Unlike break-up girl, we’ll happily buy you a beer and some mozzarella stix and listen as long as you want to talk. We’re trying to grow as a writer. We think you can help. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t have asked.
Some say theatre should be a safe environment. What they mean by that is Safe To Take Risks. Not all hugs and kisses.
Playwrights risk their sanity everyday. All of us are mentally one play away from the crazy, smelly homeless man on the train screaming, “Chicken butt! Chicken butt!”
You can turn up your iPOD and ignore us, tell us we’re perfectly fine and explain “that's just the way God made you”, or you can lead us to the nearest mental healthcare facility where we can FINALLY get some help.
It’s your choice.
“So, what did you REALLY think of my play?”
Thursday, February 17, 2011
Thursday, May 13, 2010
Good Lord---it's a bug!
Not ALL limericks are dirty---though literary anthropologists digging up the earliest limericks seem to concur that they do indeed have a smutty origin. You can probably lay the blame on that infamous man from Nantucket!
Actually, I found the bug a few days ago. A roly-poly---those little armadillo-looking bugs that curl up into a ball as their means of defense.
When I was little, I was informed that roly-polys belonged to the species of bugs known simply as “Nice Bugs”.
Bees would sting you.
Spiders were scary.
Roaches were nasty.
Flies were a nuisance.
And mosquitoes would suck your blood and make you all itchy.
But roly-polys were our friends. They were kind and innocent bugs that weren’t scary and you could hold in your hand. Also in this scientific category were butterflies, ladybugs, worms and my personal favorite---lightening bugs! We never tired of catching them in our hands in the summer and watching them glow inside our palms.
Despite knowing all of this, when I was very, very young, I picked up a roly-poly in my grandma’s sprawling backyard. I examined him for a few moments, and then, for some unknown reason (perhaps simple curiosity) I dropped him into a nearby spider web. Within a split second, a GIGANTIC pointy black spider LEAPT out of nowhere and pounced upon the prey. I was terrified of the black widow-looking spider---too terrified to save my roly-poly. And watched in horror as the spider injected its venom and began to suck the life out of the sweet little bug I had held in my tiny hands just a moment before.
I burst into tears.
I hid under a tree in my grandmother’s rock garden, inconsolable, for hours.
To this day, I think it is possibly the worst thing I have ever done.
Not vicious, but wanton.
Like a child with a gun.
When I first began to seriously write, one of the first things I wrote was a short story loosely-based on this traumatic moment.
To begin the short story, I quoted from a poem by D.H. Lawrence---“The Snake”:
"And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate:
To make up for this horrible sin, I have always protected the roly-poly.
Oh you may laugh, but I will go WAY out of my way to catch and release a roly-poly. And other “Nice Bugs” as well---but the roly-poly has always been my particular cause. Like Elton John with AIDS. George Clooney with Darfour. Or Paris Hilton with herself.
When I picked up this particular roly-poly, I was astonished to discover that he did not curl up into a ball.
He seemingly had no defense.
So, amongst all the other things-to-do in my life, I immediately went to Wikipedia in search of an answer.
Apparently, these “Nice Bugs” belong to a subspecies known as the “common woodlouse”.
While louse may sound very much like lice---a genus I would NOT refer to as “Nice Bugs”---they’re actually pretty helpful little critters. They help with decomposition, which is why they’re often found under old logs or dead trees.
Unfortunately, there were no dead trees in my kitchen, so I have no idea what this little guy was looking for.
And unlike other roly-polys---these particular “woodlouses” (for semantics, I’ll avoid the standard plural of “lice”) have no ability to either “roll” or “pol”. In fact, their only defense seems to be to remain perfectly still and perhaps you won’t even know that they’re there…
Oh my god.
NEVER have I had so much in common with a bug.
If I were a bug---that would be me.
It was late at night, and I had no desire to change out of my pajamas and go to the park across the street with a flashlight looking for a safe, new home for the little guy.
So, I did what any common sense person would do---I grabbed a pinch of soil from one of my houseplants and put the soil (and him) in a salt shaker.
The holes would give him air, and the moist soil would give him food and water till I could get him to a safe haven.
And he’s QUITE photogenic!
Of course, I know the time will come when I have to let him go and be with other roly-poly friends. Maybe make some baby woodlouses of his own.
Maybe that’s why I’ve resisted giving him a name. I don’t want to get too attached.
But for now, we’re quite happy together. And he’s inspired me to write a blog and even a silly little poem.
Poem-worthy? A common woodlouse?
That’s the wonder of both life and art.
Finding joy in the minutiae.
And transforming it into something that shows us all why we should never drop the nice bugs into a spider’s web.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
I have a fear of clowns.
Over the years, this fear has extended to pretty much any masked character.
Halloween is difficult.
I don’t know where the whole clown thing started. As a child, I remember being terrified of my Jack-in-the-Box. To this day, just hearing “Pop Goes the Weasel” makes me a little queasy.
When I was living in
As my friend parked the car, she and her sister gave each other that Sisterly Look, and then turned their heads towards me in the backseat.
“Okay,” her sister Kathleen said with dead seriousness. “I think you should know that there is going to be a clown there.”
“I’m sorry. But we knew you wouldn’t come if we told you before…”
“It’s was Joel’s idea,” her sister Ellie explained. “He thought it would be funny.”
“Clowns are not funny,” I tried to explain. “Clowns are scary.”
“Well…just…you know…” Kathleen stammered. “You might want to avoid the clown.”
This seemed like my best bet. After all, I was now stranded at a bowling alley in Chaska with no way back home.
And then it got worse.
“Joel told his friend to dress like a clown, get really drunk, and accost women. His name is Fondles. Fondles the Clown. Just stay away from Fondles.”
As I crept carefully into the wood-paneled bar of the bowling alley, my eyes immediately spotted Fondles.
He was the creepiest clown I’d ever seen.
Luckily, by the time we got there, he had already downed about six Leinie Bock longnecks and was currently slumped over the cigarette machine, making sexually inappropriate comments to women as they walked by.
A few minutes later, he lost his grip on the cigarette machine and slid down the side to the floor. One of the writers propped him back up---just in time to grab some woman’s ass. And then, he fell again. He drunkenly pulled himself back up onto the cigarette machine and ordered another beer. A few sips later, he tumbled to the sawdust floor.
Kathleen (who had also grown up Catholic) turned to me and said, “Fondles Falls For the Third Time.”
I immediately cracked up.
Stations of the Cross references always slay me.
Two years later, I attempted to get over my fear of clowns by writing and shooting a short film on the subject---a comedy that also tackled my completely irrational fear of John Davidson.
It was titled “Fear, Loathing, and John Davidson.”
For one particular scene, I needed a real clown who could make animal balloons. One of the photographers at my day job suggested the perfect clown.
“She’s nice. You’ll like her. She does children’s parties. I did some headshots for her and she’s not scary at all.”
Steve, the photographer, slipped me her number and I gave her a call.
Right away, I explained my fear.
It should be noted that this was the SECOND time I’d explained my fear of clowns…to a clown.
But she was the first clown that understood.
“They warned us about this in clown school. That some children---even adults---will be afraid of you. And the instructor told us, ‘Don’t think that YOU’RE going to be the clown who gets them over the fear of clowns.’”
She understood me! The clown understood me!!!
My only request was that she not show up for the shoot in costume.
“I think,” I explained over the phone, “that if I meet you and talk to you before you put on the make-up, I’ll be okay.”
I’m sure she thought I was completely batshit. But she agreed to the stipulation.
The night before the shoot, she left a message on my machine.
“I’m SO sorry! But I booked a children’s party for tomorrow afternoon and I’ll be going straight from your shoot to the party so I have to show up with my make-up and costume. I know it’s going to be hard for you, but really…I promise, I’m not scary. You won’t be scared. And we can talk tomorrow morning over the phone, if it makes you feel better…”
You know---you hear those stories about what Scorsese went thru in the desert shooting The Last Temptation of Christ… Or Herzog pulling a ship over an Amazon mountain in Fitzcarraldo… Or Francis Ford Coppola wrangling natives, the Vietnam War, and a fat Marlon Brando for Apocalypse Now…
But NOTHING can compare with what I went thru that morning as I prepared to meet Sneaky the Clown.
I tried to act normal. Whatever normal is when you roll out of bed on a Saturday morning and meet A CLOWN!!!
Okay, in case some of you still don’t quite understand, let me explain.
First off, I will do anything to avoid running into a clown. I have been known to walk several blocks out of my way to avoid a clown passing out flyers on the corner. If I DO have to walk past a clown, I avoid eye contact. I keep my eyes on the ground, focus on my breathing, and try to move past as quickly as possible. I live by the hope that if I don’t bother the clown, the clown won’t bother me.
These few Clown Rules are usually enough to keep Bozo away.
But if I do encounter a clown, what happens is something along the lines of the “flight-or-fight-or freeze response”. I’m like a deer-in-the-headlights. Then my heart starts pounding like it’s about to burst out of my chest. I hyperventilate. Indecipherable sounds resembling a moose-cry emerge from my throat. My hands shake. My whole body shakes.
At best, I chatter in non-sequitors and back-away.
At worst, I’m in the fetal position with my head between my legs breathing into a paper bag.
Once, I was tapped on the shoulder. I turned around, and it was a clown.
What happened after that, I have no idea. I seem to have blacked it out.
But clowns are not my only fear.
In the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, Charlie Brown visits Lucy’s Psychiatrist booth:
Lucy Van Pelt: Are you afraid of staircases? If you are, then you have climacaphobia. Maybe you have thalassophobia. This is fear of the ocean, or gephyrobia, which is the fear of crossing bridges. Or maybe you have pantophobia. Do you think you have pantophobia?
Charlie Brown: What's pantophobia?
Lucy Van Pelt: The fear of everything.
Charlie Brown: THAT'S IT!
Over the past few years, I’ve developed a case of pantophobia.
I wake up afraid.
Yesterday morning, I was afraid of the questionable date on the Half & Half, the pile of tax papers sitting on my desk, the new deodorant I bought, my computer printer, the fancy boots my Mom bought me for Christmas that I haven’t worn for fear they might pinch---but most of all, that unknown thing that could jump out at you at anytime and yell “Boo!”
The Jack-in-the-Box that is Life.
Oddly, to get me thru my fears, I’m not afraid to smoke.
It’s all completely irrational. My computer printer is not cursed. If it doesn’t want to print the designated pages, it’s because the hp company simply wants me to buy a new one every three years.
And yesterday, I said Damn the Torpedoes!---and I wore my boots.
No, they’re not the best boots to wear while walking across sheets of ice… But my gay friends thought I looked like a dominatrix and the older Hindu guy at the drugstore asked me to marry him.
AND---they didn’t pinch my toes! They were perfectly comfortable boots.
What’s my point?
Over the course of the past 24 hours, I’ve begun to examine some of my fears. And today, I conquered one. The wearing of the boots.
Well, actually---two. I took a chance on the Half & Half. It smelled okay, so I went for it.
A friend of mine once suggested that I had a fear of success.
THAT is completely untrue. What I have, is a fear of everything.
Pantophobia is a real word. According to Wikipedia:
Panphobia, from the Greek 'pan' and 'phobos', also called omniphobia, Pantophobia or Panophobia, is a medical condition known as a "non-specific fear" or "the fear of everything" and is described as "a vague and persistent dread of some unknown evil".
In my family, we simply call this “Being Eastern-European”.
I remember reading John Lukacs Budapest, where he describes it so tersely:
"Temetni tudunk - a terse Magyar phrase whose translation requires as many as ten English words to give it proper (and even then, not wholly exact) sense: 'How to bury people - that is one thing we know.’"
Trust me, the Polish version is even worse.
It’s a vague sense of dread that is not related to depression in any way. It’s an acknowledgement of the sadness in life. A respect. Like the respect that must be given a wild animal.
Life is wild.
Today, I put on my boots, and set off into the wild brush.