An Apology

Playwrights almost always owe other playwrights debts. Usually, the debts are in the form of influence. But there’s karmic debt as well. And I owe some of that to the playwright Jose Rivera.

In the late Eighties, I was an intern at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City. I served as the assistant stage manager on Jose Rivera’s play, The Promise.

The Promise is full of magic and spectacle. Flowers fall from the sky. A man’s soul rises out of his body. A dead woman materializes holding a bloody heart. When the play was performed in Los Angeles, the spectacle was accomplished through the use of wires and pyrotechnics. For the act one finale, a real bulldozer plowed onto the stage. When it was performed in New York, at the underwhelmingly equipped EST, the magic was mostly me, the sound of a bulldozer (on a sound system like a really good clock radio), and two spirits: Earth Spirit and Sky Spirit.

The spirits were the director’s idea: a terrible idea, actually. They were onstage during the entire play. Sky Spirit wore a blue leotard. Earth Spirit wore a brown leotard. For the most part, they had nothing to do except crouch and look mysterious. It was as though a pair of Solid Gold dancers had wandered into the middle of the Long Island backyard where the play was set.

But the spirits may have been the only thing wrong with the show that wasn’t my fault. Early in the run, it became clear that I was not up to the task of assistant stage managing.

First, there was the Balloon Incident. In the play, a backyard wedding is decorated with a bunch of helium balloons. The spirit world is not happy about the wedding and lets its displeasure be known by suddenly popping all the balloons. I have no idea how this effect was accomplished in Los Angeles. At EST, the spirits used the ends of artificial flowers to pop the balloons as quickly as they could.

During the last preview performance, for no clear reason, the balloons would not pop. Bam bam bam! The Spirits whacked those balloons again and again. Nothing happened.

It must have appeared to the audience as though the Spirits, trapped onstage with nothing to do, had gone insane and started to attack the set. Relatively soon, Sky Spirit realized it was futile and backed off. But Earth Spirit was on a mission. She appeared to think that the theatre had become infested with balloons and only she could save us. She jumped on them, twisted them, kneaded them, and when she finally did manage to pop one, she’d leap on the next.

It was strange, jaw-dropping performance. It was also, apparently, my fault.

After the show, Earth Spirit let everyone know that they had not been able to pop the balloons because the assistant stage manager had not filled them full enough.

Whether or not she was right, what happened the next night certainly was my fault. The first bit of magic in The Promise is that a flower blooms, suddenly, when two lovers kiss. This was my job, and it was simple. All I had to do was stand behind a fence and push on a piece of wire. In my opening-night excitement, I pulled instead of pushed, jamming the flower into the tube that held it. Panicked, I tried desperately to jar it loose, not realizing that my hands were visible. Instead of a flower blooming, the audience saw a pair of hands, writhing and twisting, a strange portent from the netherworld.

The stage manager screamed into the headsets to leave it alone, so I ran to the other side of the stage (at EST this meant running behind the audience) and got in place for my next job, which was to hand a bloody heart to an actress who waited behind a scrim. I pulled a black mask over my head to keep the audience from seeing me behind the scrim. But alas, I forgot the gloves.The same audience that had just seen a pair of hands squirming above a fence now saw the same hands floating mysteriously backstage, gesturing, then giving a little thumbs-up sign. Surely this was a motif.

While it would be comforting to attribute the mistake to opening-night jitters, the truth is, I never really settled into the production. It was rare that a performance wasn’t somehow marred by something I did or failed to do. Worse, the mistakes didn’t seem to get smaller. For spectacle, nothing surpassed what happened on the second-to-last night.

The quite spooky, oddly lovely final image of The Promise is that a row of corn plants planted in the backyard start to bleed. This was also my job, also quite simple. Backstage, I’d flip a lever, stage blood would flow from a pressurized tank, through some tubes and down the ears of corn.

One night, the corn bled too slowly. The audience couldn’t even tell it was happening.

By this point in the run, everyone knew who to look at when something went wrong. The stage manager screamed at me to make sure that next time there was plenty of pressure in the tank.

Now a confession. It may be that there was a touch of passive-aggressive zeal in me as I pumped up the tank the next night. It may be that I was thinking about all the other times I had been yelled at: The Sign Incident (which was, in fact, my fault), the Cooking Disaster (also my fault), the Pocket Watch mishap (actually, no), the Coffin Debacle (yes). I hope that is not the case.

At any rate, there was plenty of pressure in the tank.

Did you ever see the movie Carrie? Imagine that the title character is a telekinetic ear of corn, and you have a pretty good idea of what happened

The poetic final moment of the play became a gore-fest. The corn stalks whipped back and forth as blood spurted into the air, soaking the stage and cast members. As I recall, it got a round of applause.

So, Mr. Rivera, I apologize. It’s clear that I did hinder your career.

Still, you deserved better.

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Where are the high school plays?

Every year, Dramatics magazine, the magazine of the International Thespian society, does a survey of the most-produced plays in the country. Three surveys, actually: full-length plays, one-act plays and musicals. The one-act list is replete with new material; every year there’s another new title or three. The list of musicals is robust; newer entries like Legally Blonde and Beauty and the Beast sit alongside classics like Guys and Dolls and Bye Bye Birdie.

But the list of full-length plays is a disaster. The average age of the full-length play is a hundred and thirty three years old. Even if you take out the two Shakespeare plays on the list, Romeo and Juliet and Midsummer Night’s Dream, the average only comes down to sixty two years.

Sixty two years old. That’s the age of the high school canon.

John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, last year’s most-produced play, is nine years old at this point. The second most-recent play is Twelve Angry Men/Jurors, which is sixty years old (and boring as hell.)

This is a problem that snuck up on us. The plays that played on and off-Broadway used to translate to the educational theatre stage. But the economics of the professional stage shifted, while the casting needs of middle and high school stages did not. Financial constraints have meant that professional theatre cast sizes have shrunk steadily since the 1950’s. Seven is now about the maximum, two the optimum. Meanwhile, if you ask a theatre teacher for her optimum cast size, you’re likely to hear that it’s twelve to seventeen.

This is not something that’s going to go away. The average age of the most-produced high school plays will increase by a year, more or less, with every year that passes.

We need to start fixing that.

The first step – a huge one – is to cultivate awareness. Tell your playwright friends about the absence of high school plays. Tell your screenwriter friends and your novelist friends. Tell yourself.

And when you talk to your playwrights-to-be, don’t present the great high school emptiness as a problem. Present it as an opportunity.

This is an empty ecosystem. There’s room for dramas and comedies, for thrillers and farces. I bet both fantasy and science fiction would go over big (and give the techies something to do.)

High school theatre is a volume business. A successful play gets dozens or even hundreds of productions a year.

There is a model out there, and that’s the list of most-produced one-act plays. Twenty five years ago there were no one-acts written just for the high school stage, but then a handful of plays showed that the market is huge and hungry.

Twenty five years from now, Twelve Angry Men and You Can’t Take it With You should be competing for productions with plays that were actually written with high schools in mind: plays that have large casts and more characters in their teens than their forties.

Some of those plays will become classics of a genre that doesn’t yet exist.

Jump in.

Fly Fishing with Devon Roberts

One of the reasons I love teaching is that it forces me to learn. You can’t pass on a skill without mastering it yourself.

Or at least without pretending to.

Sometimes – I can’t be the only teacher who does this – you make stuff up and cross your fingers that you’ve gotten it right.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about a lesson that I had seen John Patrick Shanley teach. The point of the lesson was that as a playwright you need to find something that you like about your characters. Mr. Shanley illustrated his point by saying that if you saw him fly fish you would like him. And then, a few hours later, a stage manager I was with said that she liked Shanley; she’d seen him fly fishing earlier.

But as I wrote the post, I had a guilty secret. I knew it was missing something. The lesson is that you should find something to like about your characters. But how do you do that?

I wrote it as though this were a trivial matter. But it’s not. In fact, I didn’t actually know to find something that I liked in my characters.

There was a second problem with my post, and that had to do with the example, the stage manager who said that she’d fallen in love with John Patrick Shanley while watching him fly fish.

The woman couldn’t explain what about Shanley’s fishing was so likable. Over the intervening years, I’ve sometimes tried to picture the playwright fishing in a way that’s especially charming. Sometimes my image involved pirouettes.

So that was my recent post. A lesson I didn’t believe in illustrated with an example I didn’t understand. Perfect pedagogy.

Then an excellent thing happened. Devon Roberts, an Oregon Thespian, responded to the post. He described how he’d managed to unstick himself while writing a full-length play:

“I went back to the drawing board and I started thinking like this. I gave a character something completely unrelated to the story to be passionate about and by doing so I influenced relationships, I created the opportunity for scenes and just general commotion that adds a depth of reality to the show.“

Give a character something to be passionate about.

That has a touch of genius to it. It solves both problems with my botched interpretation of Shanley’s lesson.

First, it makes the process active. Finding something you like in a character is a tough assignment, since the character doesn’t yet exist. But in Devon’s spin on it you don’t look for a quality; you assign one.

Second, he solves the mystery of why the stage manager was so taken by the sight of an unlikely fisherman. What’s charming about John Patrick Shanley fly fishing isn’t his footwork or the way that he casts his line.

It’s that he’s John Patrick Shanley and he’s fly fishing. He’s a well-known, New York playwright engaging in an unlikely, bucolic pastime. That’s appealing. It turns him from remote-because-famous person into a quirky, likable individual.

A character’s passion is appealing even if (and sometimes because) it doesn’t directly relate to the story.

So: John Patrick Shanley, thank you for the lesson many years ago.

And Devon Roberts, thank you for finally explaining it to me.

Laugh Tract

If you’ve written a comedy, you want my father in the audience.

My dad has one of the hardest laughs I’ve ever heard. It’s a convulsion that so clearly takes over his body that one can’t help but join him. Growing up, my family of seven almost always went to movies as a group. As an adult, I’ve encountered people who found this behavior odd, but it was really fun. Part of the fun was seeing which moments hit the other members of your family just right.

Recently, I saw that the Steve Martin version of Father of the Bride was on TV. I settled in to watch some of it, because I remembered that it was hilarious. But this time, I didn’t find it funny. Ten minutes in, I remembered that not only had I seen the movie with my family, but that I’d been sitting right next to dad.

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Comedies are better when other people are laughing along with you. But when it comes to theatre comedies, there’s a dark corollary:

A false laugh is worse than no laugh.

The other night, I dragged Todd to see a play at a half-full, fifty five seat theatre in the corner of strip mall. The play was awful, but it was actually the audience that was intolerable. In such a small theatre, every body is aware of every other body, and the people in the audience become performers in their own right. The percentage of people in the audience who are friends of cast members is likely to be high, and if the play is a comedy that can be problematic. Five people in the front row roared with laughter every time an actor did something meant to be amusing.

We left at intermission.

Laughter is difficult to fake. False laughter originates from a different part of the brain than does real laughter. Even the timing is not quite right: forced laughter has a tiny telling lag, the equivalent of the micropause that allows you to hang up on a robocall.

If you have been the person laughing too hard at your loved one’s comedy, then you have been a jackass. Don’t do it again.

It’s a sin born of goodwill and so easily forgiven. But the thing is, you’re not helping your friends. You’re hurting them by alienating an audience that’s trying to meditate its way through this unfunny play. TV laugh tracks work because they’re essentially subliminal. But human-generated artificial laughter grates on the other audience members and (I promise) embarrasses the actor you’re trying to help.

It’s OK—required actually—to beam love to your friend who’s performing. A warm smile communicates everything. It says: “Congratulations on getting this part, on bravely going onstage night after night even though this play, like most plays, is a misfire.”

The smile, combined with your presence, tells your friend that you care about her and that someday, after a year or five years have passed, you’ll both be able to laugh about this.

Staring into the Abyss

Once, in grade school or in grad school, you wrote a short play or maybe just a scene. You were rewarded—with laughter or applause or a “well done.”

You thought (woe betide thee) ”I’m going to become a playwright.”

But that was then, when you were young and talented. Now you’re a fraud, unable to conceive, let alone execute, anything resembling a play (At this point, the siren song of Performance Art may beckon. Resist. Resist. Resist.)

You’re not just blocked. You’re frozen.

To help get you unstuck, let’s borrow from cognitive behavioral science.

People who are depressed often have trouble taking action. Even small things—getting out of bed, going to the store—can seem impossible.

What cognitive therapists have figured out is that motivation doesn’t necessarily precede action. Paradoxically, the reverse can be true. If you can force yourself into taking some action, then motivation may follow, which will lead to more action, and so on.

Motivation follows action.

Inspiration follows writing.

You just have to force yourself to write. (“But,” you protest, “that’s the problem we started with!)

The mistake you’re making is thinking that you have to write something original.

Here’s your assignment. Pick a play from your shelf. (If that’s not possible, then we have a second problem. In the meantime, Google up Hedda Gabler.)

Now start to type the play, as if it’s your own.

At some point early on, change the name of a character. Voila! This work of art is now a little bit yours. Now change the gender of one of the characters, the age of another.

By now you may have some ideas of your own. If not, start to make more substantial changes to the text you’re (let’s call it) fixing.

Skip some or all of that boring first scene.

Gussy up the stage directions.

Make a different character the protagonist.

And if those changes seem too radical, if they freeze you up, go back to typing the play as it exists, embellishing it where you wish.

Stop when you get too bored.

Even if you haven’t come up with an idea for your own play, the exercise is useful. You’ve learned a little bit of dramatic structure.

You know more than you did an hour ago.

That’s a good start.

The Writing Snowball

I organize my day with a To-Do List. Projects. People I’m supposed to call. Chores and appointments. But the mildly guilty secret about my to-do list is that I pad it.

The top item, every day, is Make To-Do List. When I finish writing the list, I go right back to the top and cross that item off. The little ping of satisfaction this gives me is perverse but real.

Only ten minutes into the day, but already I feel productive.

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In their excellent book, Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard, the brother authors Chip Heath and Dan Heath write about a financial adviser named Dave Ramsey. For clients who come to him because they’re deeply in debt, Ramsey uses a technique that’s anathema to most of his peers: he calls it the Debt Snowball.

He has his clients make a list of all their debts.

Then, instead of having these clients pay off their highest interest debts first, which is the conventional advice, he advocates paying the minimum payment on every debt, and then working at paying off the smallest debt.

Relatively soon, that small debt gets paid off, and then they move on to the next smallest debt.

What Ramsey recognizes is that a mountain of debt can so demoralize one that it’s overwhelming, paralyzing. By paying off a small bill and then increasingly larger bills, his clients get a sense of progress, of momentum.

I’m not a financial adviser, and so I’m agnostic on whether or not this is good advice for people in debt.

But it’s excellent advice for writers.

Faced with all the decisions that accompany the writing of a play, it’s easy to become frozen. And when you’re frozen, the humble to-do list is your friend.

Begin your writing session by making a list of things you’ll eventually need to accomplish. Your list will include large tasks (plot out the first third of the play), medium-sized tasks (decide how to introduce the protagonist) and small ones (read for typos.)

Then, instead of worrying about the large tasks, start by checking off the small ones. Even accomplishing something tiny will motivate you to keep going. And doing small script tasks eases your mind out of the concerns of your life and into the world of the play.

You’re trying to create a Writing Snowball.

And if the first item on your list is: Make Writing To Do List, you’re guaranteed to get something done every day.

Fly Fishing with John Patrick Shanley

I have exactly one story about me and a famous person. He’s a playwright, so he’s not that famous, and I’m not really part of the story. But it’s what I’ve got.

Years ago, I was having a play produced at the Powerhouse Theatre in Poughkeepsie. The theatre also ran a conservatory, and they brought in John Patrick Shanley to speak. Shanley is the author of Doubt, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and Moonstruck, which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

A student asked Shanley how he created characters, and he said that he started by finding something about the character that he liked.

“For example,” he said, “I fly fish, and I’m not good at it. But if you saw me doing it you’d like me.”

Later that night I was sitting in a pizza place with the stage manager and some actors. The door opened and in walked the playwright.

“Oh,” said the stage manager. “That’s John Patrick Shanley. I love him. I was watching him fly fish this afternoon.“

The stage manager wasn’t able to articulate what it was about Shanley’s fishing that was so lovable. The closest she could come was to say that he wasn’t aggressive about it.

If you’ve written a play, you’ve probably had the experience of feeling like you understood a character completely. He or she was easy to write. When they said something in a scene, your mouth moved.

But you’ve probably also had the reverse experience, that of having a character in your play who you don’t understand, whose lines keep changing because what they really are are things you need them to say to advance your plot.

That’s when it’s time to follow Shanley’s advice. If you like something about a character, you’re a good way towards understanding him or her.

There are two lessons here.

1) Find what you love about each of your characters.

2) If John Patrick Shanley passes you, holding bait and tackle, follow him.