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.

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Failing the Bechdel Test

A few years back, I finished writing a screenplay, a supernatural thriller called Ice. I teased it into the world, it was met with indifference, and I put it back in its virtual file, the way one does.

In the intervening years, a boisterous conversation about gender depiction—how women are portrayed in film—made me aware of the issue. There’s a writers’ site I love, shaulaevans.com that regularly reminds me that this is important.

But more than anything, what has plunked this issue into my head is the hilarious Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test, devised many years ago by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, asks three questions of a movie:

1) Does it have more than one named female character?

2) Do those characters talk to each other?

3) If so, is it about something other than a guy?

Do a quick mental check of your three favorite movies. The odds are that two out of the three don’t pass.

When it was time to do another draft of Ice, I decided to look at it through the lens of gender depiction.

I opened the file and started to read, then started to shiver. It was late at night, quiet enough that I could hear the sound of all the flesh crawling off my body.

In the first scene, a disposable female character gets horribly attacked. Later, we learn that a female character has had sex for money. (In my defense, the character who gets attacked is the same character who later sells her body, which gives her depth.)

I was more likely to describe the women by their level of attractiveness. I never said of a guy that he was “well-muscled but not in a way that says too much time at the gym.”

Ice failed the Bechdel test.

Toward the end of the previous draft, I’d become aware that I had a woman problem. I’d fixed it by giving the insignificant female characters names; Checkout Girl became Sophie. Also, I’d changed every tiny male role to a tiny female role. This had no discernible effect except to make Boulder, where the script is set, feel like Amazonia.

As a young writer I was trained to avoid verbal clichés. I would never write “throw in the towel” or “vested interest, ” phrases that click an off-switch in the reader’s mind. But no one trained me to look for the gender cliché’s that dot the script, camouflaged by own conditioning.

As an experiment, I changed the protagonist of Ice to a woman. Reflexively, I made the character five years younger, then caught myself. The simple gender swap rippled in ways that I didn’t expect; it exposed other automatic choices that I was able to fix. Not intuitive but true, the plot improved.

The best tests teach us. They measure knowledge but they also instruct. My favorite thing about the Bechdel test is that I’m is allowed to retake it.

Blurt

Years ago, I had a writing partner. We wrote screenplays.

Most of the time our process, quite efficient, was that Trevor would bang out a first draft of a scene and I’d do the second.

I would read what he’d written, secretly (or no credit to me, openly) despise it, and rewrite it.

The collaboration didn’t last, and that was my fault. I didn’t have enough respect for Trevor’s ability to type out the bad version of a scene.

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I think there are two types of young writers.

1) Writers who agonize over every word, trying to make every single choice the correct one.

2) Writers who vomit out words, just getting them onto the page with little regard for whether or not they’re the right word.

Note the lingering bias in my verbs: agonize versus vomit, a vocabulary remnant of my writing-partner condescension.

When I was young I was an agonizer. My opinion of the young blurters was they didn’t rewrite, didn’t see the need for it. They were pleased with themselves. They’d crank out a first draft of a play over a week’s time and then wave it around, delighted with their work, certain of productions.

They were smug and they had time to frolic.

Which I did not. I was too busy sitting, not-quite paralyzed, finding the perfect word.  I knew that my method was better, would eventually produce better art.

But I was wrong. Producing the first draft is the key to good writing.

You have to rewrite whether your first draft comes out fast or slow, so you might as well get it out fast. And it’s easier for a blurter to learn to rewrite than it is for an agonizer to learn to crank out that first draft.

Rewriting can be taught. There are rules that anyone can learn.

But forcing yourself to write badly? That’s actually hard to learn. It’s more akin to character change than it is to having a skill.

These days, I’m a more experienced writer. The main way that I’m more mature is that I’m capable of blurting, of tossing out a crappy version that I’ll make better. In a sense, I’ve become my own writing partner.

My apologies to the old one.

Writing Splash Mountain

Every year the Thespian Playworks program brings four young playwrights to Lincoln, Nebraska to workshop their plays with a director, a dramaturg and student actors.

The staged readings at the end of the week are variously gripping, funny or thought-provoking. But once in a while a reading is such a freakish success that one can’t help but sit up and notice.

In 2012, there was such a reading. The play was Rachel Lepore’s wistful, one-act ghost story, Circuits.

Within a minute of the opening, the audience was laughing. At the end the audience was standing and – in some cases – weeping. Julie York-Coppens, who runs Playworks, had to hand to weave through the audience with Kleenex.

There’s much to praise in Circuits: characters we care about, sly dialogue, a compelling story. But to understand the power of the play, I need to talk about the very ending, and to do that I need to talk about Splash Mountain.

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As you no doubt know, there are four mountain rides at Disneyland: the Matterhorn, Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain and Splash Mountain.

Unless you’re under eight, the Matterhorn and Thunder Mountain aren’t worth the long lines.

Space Mountain is justifiably famous: a roller coaster in the dark that whips you past stars and a whirling galaxy.

But the best of the four is the log flume ride, Splash Mountain.

That’s because Splash Mountain is constructed like a story.

Like most stories, Splash Mountain begins by showing the world in its natural state. In this case, you float along past Song of the South forest creatures who cavort to that classic movie’s tunes. Soon though, you hit obstacles, mini-plunges. The world gets darker, scarier. Hoot owls and fireflies replace jumping fish and singing bears. You hear screams. They’re the screams of other riders as they plummet down the side of the mountain. You’ve known since you were standing in line that the climax of this story would be that plunge. A creaky chain yanks you up the final bit of mountain. Right near the top – my favorite detail – a pair of vultures peer down and hiss: “everybody’s got a laughin’ place.” Then down you go, that thrilling wet drop and – as you knew you would – you find that you’ve survived.

But wait! The ride’s not over. Instead of arriving at some sad little disembarking station, your log turns a corner and behold; there’s a giant bonus room of woodland creatures singing more joyfully than ever, singing about the laughing place. It’s your reward for having taken the journey.

In other words, what makes the ride so satisfying is the denouement: the surprising, satisfying resolution to the story.

Which brings us back to Circuits.

Circuits tells the story of a high school student named Renee and her deceased-but- lingering brother, Jack. We surmise from early on that the play will be over when Jack’s spirit leaves for good. And that’s essentially what happens.

But Lepore smartly gives us a lovely denouement.

Rather than having Jack say goodbye and wander off into the light, Lepore takes her time. She calls back details from earlier in the play. She shows us that Renee will be all right.

Best of all, she gives the siblings a surprising, resonant moment together.

It’s that unexpected moment—the bonus room—that gives the play its emotional punch, that had Julie running from audience member to audience member handing out tissues.

The next time you write a play, try to write Splash Mountain. And the next time you need a play, check out LePore’s Circuits, available from Samuel French.