Tag Archives: Theater

About An Unpleasantness at Lonesome Gulch

I didn’t blog a word about this one. I just got caught up in what was going on, and by the time I recovered, it had been over for a couple of weeks. And unless you’re connected to me via Facebook, you had no idea what was going on.

So here’s what went down. I wrote another VBS play between January and May of this year, directed it between June and July, and ended up taking a part when I ran out of actors and performed in it during the first week of August.

And it, namely a wild-west themed production called An Unpleasantness At Lonesome Gulch, was worlds better than my first VBS show, The Terrible Misfortune.

Not that Misfortune was bad. It was a hoot and people loved it. But when I wrote it, I just put it together, trying to put little Biblical lessons in each episode that hopefully the teachers could use as object lessons. Not to mention that our associate minister built a pirate ship out of a haywagon that included masts and rigging and a working wheel and rudder. Lots of things for the extras to do when the main characters were busy onstage.

But I was determined to do things righter with Lonesome Gulch. We had a VBS planning meeting in either late December or early January, can’t recall which, and I told the crew my master plan. I wanted to write a VBS play that would directly mesh with the lessons being taught so the teachers could use it to draw a direct parallel from the play to the Bible lesson if they wanted. All I knew was that I was going with a wild west theme for the play, and I needed the overall theme and the daily lessons.

They rewarded me with those very things at the meeting, and while it was a challenge to fit The Creation, Jesus’ Ministry and Miracles, The Crucifixion, and The Resurrection into an Old West town, I think I pulled it off. And some of the actors were thrilled to find out that there was more to their parts than simply The Good Guy or The Doctor. For example, The Mayor of the town represented the Pharisees – devoted to the law but wanting to put his own spin on things. The Bad Guy represented the Roman Empire, and the slimy sidekick who kept whispering bad ideas into his ear was none other than Satan. The Doctor represented non-believers, and the guy in the white hat was you-know-who, the son of the man who built the town. And the guy named Pete was… well, you can probably figure that one out.

Like any production, it had its ups and downs, but in the end it all came together much like Geoffrey Rush’s character in Shakespeare In Love said it would. “It’s a mystery!” It’s the magic of theater, that’s what it is.

Directing these plays the last three years (we did “The Terrible Misfortune” two years) has really put a bug in my ear to direct something at the local community theater. I really enjoy doing it, moreso than acting, I think. And in my last role, as Bob Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird, I gave a performance that I don’t think can be topped. At this point, I’m not sure I want to even try. But we’ll see what the next season brings… and there is the prospect of being in a Shakespeare play at some point in the future, something I have long wanted to do.

So I’m slowly looking at scripts to see if there’s something I’d like to direct. Probably a farce, since both VBS shows bordered on farce. I’ve also flirted with the idea of writing my own farce. Yeah, I did try to write a Christmas show, and it turned out so bad that I have it under lock and key until I can operate on it and make it better. There’s less decorum in a farce, and it is a lot more forgiving since the audience applies extra dollops of Suspension of Disbelief to the nonsensical goings-on. I don’t know I’ll actually do it… but it could be loads of fun. Hey, maybe I should do a Shakespears play…

Anyway, the immediate plan is for me to whip the two existing VBS shows into shape, put them into book form, and make them available through Lulu.com to other congregations looking for an unusual show without having to buy the same package everyone else in town is using. Following that, it’ll be time to start working on the 2009 production, which is going to have an outer space theme with the working title “The Incredible Adventure of the Frozen Man.” Yeah, I’m starting earlier this year.

And in between that and the launch of something else coming up soon, maybe I will have the time to start moving ahead on directing a play at the local community theater. We’ll see.

Stage Persona Non Grata, or, Can I Find the Real Me?

One of my duties, so to speak, with Random Acts of Music is The Henry and Joe, a talk show starring Henry J and myself, done for his internet radio station, Random Acts of Radio. In this show, we roll tape (well, actually, spin hard drive) and talk off the top of our heads for around thirty minutes. Sometimes we even stay on the music-related topic that I introduce.

The most recent show we taped, #13, was about the seeming inability of American acts to write fun, upbeat songs. And somehow or another, while discussing this subject, we got onto the subject of stage names and the personae that go with them. Henry said he liked my stage name, Mr. Faust, and wondered aloud what kind of stage persona I was going to have.

I thought, good question. I thought I was just going to be me.

Then I realized something that might be the key to this near-paralyzing stagefright I’ve been dealing with when I get up to play.

I’ve been thinking what an odd anomaly it is. After all, I’ve gotten up to speak in front of churches, civic clubs, classrooms, and skeptical clients and held forth on a number of topics. Sometimes I’ve had notes, other times not. Especially when I talk about writing. I just turn on my mouth and go. And though I have butterflies before hand, they leave when I get up and start speaking.

Ditto when I lead singing at church. Some butterflies, but nothing that doesn’t leave when the job starts.

And ditto ditto when I’m on stage in a community theater production. The worst jitters I get are opening night, and while I might be jumpy before going on for a big scene even on closing night, I always manage to go out and mostly get the job done.

So why the case of shakes that gets so bad that I can hardly strum?

I think Henry inadvertently hit on something when he asked me what my stage persona is.

I don’t have one.

See, in all of the other situations, I know who I am or what my mission is. I’m Joe Faust, an Elder in the Church, giving a lesson or leading the congregation in worship. I’m Joe Clifford Faust, author, spewing out information about writing. Or I’m somebody else – Norman Bulansky or Victor Velasco or Bob Ewell, and my job is to make the audience cry or laugh or hiss.

But when I’m out there with my guitar, well… in the words of the Firesign Theater, Who am us, anyway?.

I guess it’s just me. Joe. With a guitar.

I’m not sure I’ve ever done that before. At Church I have a goal in mind, and in every other situation I am technically somebody else. No wonder I’m scared. I don’t know how to be just me in a situation like that.

So I need to be somebody else. I need a stage persona.

That shouldn’t be so hard. Look at Johnny Cash – the Man in Black. Look at both David Bowie and Madonna, both of whom went through stage personae like they were tissues (facial or bathroom, take your pick). Ever seen David Byrne in Stop Making Sense and then seen an interview with him? In the former he commands the stage, in the latter he’s jittery and awkward, and doesn’t make eye contact with the interviewer.

The odd thing is, I might have been subconsciously reaching for something like this but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. And it might have even started with everything I went through trying to pick out a stage name.

However, I’ve had other things trickle through my mind over the last several months. I went through a period where I thought about getting a hat to wear on stage. I have a ton of baseball caps – I thought about wearing a different one every time I play. But that idea didn’t click for me (although I do wear them a lot – maybe wearing one would be too much me on stage). But I couldn’t find anything else I liked that wasn’t stupid (Pith Helmets) or that weren’t being used by others with great success (Berets and Fedoras and Pork Pies).

I thought about clothing, but I’m not exactly a clothes horse or someone with an extensive wardrobe. About the only thing I could do would be wear all gray – I gravitate toward that color. But that would kill my wife, who (no doubt, correctly) thinks I look better in other colors.

Quite by accident, I realized that every time I have played Muggswigz, I have appeared with a different guitar. No. That could get ridiculously expensive, and I’d never get it past the aforementioned wife.

After the incident taping The Santa Song, I theorized that wearing sunglasses might obstruct my view of the audience and make me less fearful. But that’s kind of silly, too, I think (and again my wife would complain because I’d be covering up what she calls my expressive eyes).

(It occurs to me that if I got a divorce, I could become this grey-wearing, fedora-topped guy in sunglasses playing all the coffeehouses – but I’d no doubt be miserable as a result – the classic tortured artist, I suppose. On the other hand, maybe that’s the problem. I’m basically a happy guy. Maybe I’m not tortured enough. Perhaps my wife and I could start shooting heroin together like the Cobains.)

Probably the best thing I could do is just keep playing in front of people and learn how to be myself in the process. I’m not sure I like that idea. I’ve gotten rather used to the idea of being someone else in situations like that. And I had no idea how prevalent that has been in my life until now. I am thinking of the personality change I underwent when I ended up getting married to a gregarious girl from Ohio. I went from being outgoing to much more the quiet observer. I explain it this way: when our personalities started to click, I let my wife be outgoing for me because I realized that inside of me was an introvert who was just dying to stay in.

And now that introvert is supposed to get up on a stage with a guitar and be himself while playing songs for people. Especially since I’m not sure who the real me is.

Heh, yeah. That makes sense.

About as much sense as leading worship service. Or being in plays.

Well, they say that introverts have a switch they flip to be able to do things like this. I obviously have one for Church Leader, Actor, and Guest Speaker. I just need to find the one for Singer Songwriter and learn how to trip it.

It’s got to be there somewhere.

And if I can’t find it? Then I’m going to write a letter to David Bowie and see if he has any unused personae laying around.

Gigs

No, I haven’t exactly been busy. With the holidays coming, the calendar has filled up quickly with the usual suspects, and some that were more unusual. And some of the more unusual things were three recent gigs I had, all playing but not necessarily paying. They looked something like this…

Gig #1: The Ladies’ Retreat. Okay, this is not something I normally would have gone to. It was a Ladies’ Retreat held by and for Church of Christ members in the area/region. One of the highlights of this year’s retreat was a Talent Show. And my wife and one of her sisters were railroaded asked nicely to perform Irving Berlin’s “Sisters,” as made famous in the film White Christmas. My mother-in-law has wanted to see two or more of her daughters perform this piece for years, and it was thought that this would be as good a time as any.

Always willing to help, I offered to find them the lyrics online. And then, in an uncharacteristic bit of generosity1, I said, “If you want, maybe I could find guitar chords, and if I could figure out how to play it, I could accompany you.”

Well, my wife and her youngest sister said yes, and it just so happened that I found both lyrics and chords online. There were tons of chords in the song, but I figured out that if I just went with the first chord in each measure, the thing would work. And for the most part, it did.

So after a couple of practices, I showed up at the Ladies’ Retreat in time for the talent show, went in, did my thing as a hired gun, and then left. Only messed up once, but the cuteness factor of the two sisters singing was high, and nobody, not even the two vocalists, noticed. Good thing I wasn’t working for Buddy Rich.

Gig #2: Random Acts of Music. Back when I became a producer or director or whatever the heck my title is for Random Acts of Music, the first thing I did was to start shooting our guests performing original Christmas songs for a Christmas show that would air, well, around this time of year.

In the ensuing months, we’ve accumulated quite a few, but not quite enough for a full show. So partner Henry J did one of his, and I was railroaded asked nicely to perform my piece, The Santa Claus Song.

Fortunately, I knew this was coming, so I practiced the song up. For the longest time I couldn’t seem to get it right – I wanted to play it too fast, I think – so I got the idea of playing it with a metronome set at a deliberately slow pace. That did the trick.

So Friday night I put on a Christmas sweater and taped the song. The good news is I had all the chords and the words right, and the singing lessons my wife has been giving me paid off, because my voice was right there. I was okay in front of the mike because I’d practiced in front of my own mike at home. I was okay watching the camera because I kept in mind I’d have to look into it and follow it, too.

Unfortunately, I still got my usual stagefright. It about paralyzed my strumming hand. Made all the muscles Jell-o. So, after a couple of false starts, I managed to improvise enough to get through the song. As a result of this, I think I also had a deer-in-the-headlights look except when I had pre-planned facial expressions during the song.

Now the folks there for the taping thought it sounded fine. I think that’s the usual case of me knowing where all the strumming mistakes were and them not. Either that, or they were just being kind. But I told them not to use it if it was bad.

Whatever. If you’re in Northeast Ohio and have Time Warner Cable, the show will probably appear in it’s usual slot sometime next week and run through Christmas. If you’re not in Northeast Ohio, the song will be posted on YouTube and MySpace around the time the Christmas show airs. Just do a search for “Random Acts of Music” and you’ll eventually find it.

Just make sure to wait an hour after you’ve eaten before viewing.

Gig #3: The Actual Santa Claus. Okay, this wasn’t a play as in playing music gig. It was playing as in pretending. Sunday my wife and I did our annual turn as Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus for a local landmark. I think this is the sixth or seventh year we have done this.

Attendance was down as it was cold and rainy – more adults, not as many kids. The big requests this year were for The Littlest Pet Shop toys and the Nintendo DS system. Among adults, the big requests this year were for the Wii (Santa: “Are you kidding? I can’t even get one this year!”) and world peace (Santa: “Sorry, that’s not my department. You have to talk to my boss about that one.”).

Sometime during the day I got an offer to do an extra Santa appearance next year – but I’m not really sure I want to do it. Yeah, there’ll be money involved (my wife and I do the regular gig as volunteers because we were railroaded asked nicely to do it as a fill-in some years ago and they kept asking us to come back).

But money isn’t really everything (although I suppose it could depend on how much is involved). I like the idea of only doing it for four hours a year. I like the idea of exclusivity, that the Real Santa (or so many kids say) is at this one exclusive location and all the others are just helpers. With that in mind, the idea of doing it for money just seems wrong.

Plus, if I started doing that, where would it all stop? How many other paying gigs would come up? When would I have to start saying “No?” And most importantly, how many hours a year would get racked up before it became just another job instead of a lovely little one-off that helped get me in the holiday spirit? When would I stop showing up as Santa and start showing up as Ebineezer Scrooge?

Well, I’ve eleven months or so to think about it. In the meantime, it’s been a busy holiday season already. I wonder what other adventures like ahead that I will be railroaded asked nicely to participate in.

  1. It’s strange, but I’ve been exhibiting other moments of uncharacteristic generosity lately. Some church friends asked if their teenaged son could borrow my acoustic guitar for a month or so – he was interested in taking lessons, and they wanted to see if he would stick with it before plunking down a couple of hundred for a decent started guitar. And I said yes without blinking. What is happening to me? Am I becoming human at long last? No, I think that’s not phrased right. Am I transcending my own humanity at last?

Me, as a pretty unpleasant fellow

JCF as Bob Ewell in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

We opened To Kill A Mockingbird this weekend to two consecutive standing ovations. I would have played the picket fence in this show, but I’m elated to have the part of Bob Ewell. We have three more shows next week – Saturday is already sold out.

I Got Some Catching Up To Do

The sun is out and The Darkest Month has about melted away. I’ve had a couple of passing urges to pick up a pen, but couldn’t seem to decide, or perhaps was unwilling to contemplate, which set of words I should direct to come out of the other end.

Since it has been a while since I have arranged electrons for display, I suppose I should catch you up on what has been happening. I’ve been busy, but that is with the everyday kind of stuff. Nothing earthshatteringly creative or anything like that.

Here’s some notes on what I’ve been up to, and some other random postings:

I Visited St. Paul in the Dead of Winter
My son posted and won a job inside the Large Corporate Giant he works for. It entails a raise, a promotion, and a move to what is probably the next state that Sufjan Stevens will write an album about: Minnesota. Specifically, St. Paul.

My father-in-law and I loaded up most of his earthly belongings and drove him up there during The Darkest Month. As it turns out, the time we chose had a special relationship with three massive storms that hit the state in general and the city in particular – we missed the first one by a day or so; we drove into the second one (and nearly got marooned in Madison, WI), and we left STP just hours before the third one hit and outran the sucker coming back to Ohio.

Not much time for a lot of tourism, but we did swing by the Mall of America just to say we’d been there. The next trip out will be the More Fun, I hope.

When I Say I Died Onstage, I Really Mean It
I auditioned for and was cast in the local community theater production of To Kill A Mockingbird. While I told the director I’d play the picket fence just to be in the show, I snagged a juicy role – Bob Ewell, the drunk, racist, child beating-and-molesting villain of the piece.

Given that I’ve played Nazis (The Sound of Music and The Diary of Anne Frank) and an anti-semitic tool of the Tsar (Fiddler on the Roof), I guess this was just the next step up – or down – for me.

And for the first time I get to actually lie dead onstage.

I’ll try and remember to post the details on the Appearances page.

The Rock Hall Restrospective on The Clash Had Nothing To Do With It

I bought a Fender Telecaster. It’s a basic Standard Telecaster, MIM (Made In Mexico) with a black finish, just filled with twangy single coil goodness. I stole bought it from a friend at church who had it as a backup but didn’t really need it.

I also did see the exhibit on The Clash at the Rock Hall, and yeah, Joe Strummer was a dedicated Telecaster player. I wanted one before, though (and I think the purchase was made before – I don’t remember now).

R.I.P.B.C.
I need to make note that Johnny Hart, creator of the comic strip B.C., passed away over the weekend. I always knew about the strip in the paper, but didn’t develop an appreciation for it until I went through some of my brother’s paperback B.C. strip collections, and for years I was hooked. During its heyday, the caveman strip was the focal point for edgy, subversive humor within the realm of the daily funnies, and it was a definite influence on me during my Cartoonist Wannabe stage.

I drifted away from the comics page entirely over the years, and when I came back in time for The Far Side and Calvin and Hobbes, I thought B.C. had lost some its edge (as had Peanuts). When Hart underwent a religious conversion, he carried it over to his strip. Not everyone appreciated it, but I for one especially looked forward to see what he would do for his Easter Sunday strip.

It’s rumored that the strip will continue, making use of scanned and recycled images from Hart’s own catalog of work, with outside writers. I hope that’s not the case. Nor would I like to see it recycled, rerunning old strips as is happening with Peanuts and Lil Abner. I don’t think that’s appropriate, either, and I wish the estates of Schultz and Capp felt the same way.

Were it up to me, I would just let these strip go, let them rest, and let Hart and the others be remembered for their best work – and let it be collected into book form.

By the way, Hart died at his drafting table.

NP – Pat Metheny Group, “Across The Heartland” (American Garage

The Reading Party, or, If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Don’t Become a Writer

It never ceases to amaze me. Just when I think I should shutter the doors on this online journal, something comes along that I realize I haven’t written about, and the blog goes on for another few weeks.

My wife and I hosted the reading party for A Father Christmas last night. I brought in five community theaters regulars, a writer-in-progress with some theater background, and my two children. And between Christmas cookies and other snacks, we managed to slog our way though the second draft of the script.

Yeah, I said slog. A funny thing about writing – you can look at a manuscript all you want and think you’ve cut it to the bone. But then something happens that makes you reassess what you’ve done and suddenly there’s stuff all over the place that makes you cringe as you reach for the red pen.1

In the case of the Christmas play, it was a matter of having a bunch of people together in one place at the same time reading the parts of the characters. Not only did I hear lots of cringe-worthy moments that made me bloody my pages with red ink – but between acts and afterwards the readers had lots of useful comments for me. It helped that one was a writer, but some of the other had lots of theater experience and were quite articulate in things they thought were wrong with the play:

  • The parents were nice… too nice… sickeningly nice;

  • But the wife was something of a cypher who didn’t really react to losing her adopted daughter (well, the play is called A Father Christmas, but that’s no excuse);
  • The antagonist was not nearly sympathetic enough. With him the way he was, the court case would have been a slam dunk in favor of the parents. Making him more sympathetic would create more conflict over who had the right to the child;
  • The antagonist also didn’t act like someone who’d been in the military, who’d seen combat. And he was a loser;
  • The courtroom scene was way… too… long…;
  • The six-year-old seemed more like a four-year-old (that’s a fair cop – my six-year-old was six twelve years ago);
  • Some of the dialogue was really, truly, cringe-inducing. No, wait. That’s my comment. Although one brave soul did tell me that one particular line “really sucks” (if I hadn’t caught it and red-penned it, it was red-penned then);
  • There was also some disagreement among the cast over the motivations of some characters. Some agreed with what I’d used, some didn’t. Lining those up for tweaking, too, to get everyone on one side – hopefully.

Looking at this laundry list of literary sins, perhaps some of you writing aspirants are thinking that maybe my friends were a little too articulate in their critique of my play?

No. They weren’t.

That’s why I picked these folks. I knew they’d be honest. That’s what I needed. Besides, in my career as a novelist, I’ve had my share of criticism that was just plain mean spirited. It was filed under the heading “Reviews.”

See, editing is an important part of the process of creating a piece of writing, but the ability to see what needs to be edited or revised is one of the hardest things to learn. Ask someone who teaches writing at any level of education. I have even been asked to speak in classes specifically about the need to edit one’s on writing simply because the participants thought that one draft was all that was needed and that their work was perfect, say Amen and close the door.

But it’s not. It’s the very nature of our closeness to a work that we sometimes get blinded to its faults. So we do things like employ outside readers (for a general look or to look for specific things), or set manuscripts aside and work on something else for extended periods of time (at least a month works for me).

Besides, if you’re serious about writing, you understand that your work is going to come under scrutiny at some time or another. Better that you give it your own beforehand. There’s no guarantee you won’t get an unflattering review, but how much worse will it be if you realize that it addresses dumb, stupid things you did in your draft that you would have fixed had you only known about them? Besides, if the mistakes are that dumb and stupid, they will likely prevent your work from getting into print in the first place. Yeah, better to get those out of the way now, while the manuscript is young.

Which means you’ve got to get used to criticism. Which means seeking it out.

Author David Brin has an approach to using outside readers that I think should be a model for how we all approach criticism. He recruits readers to look at his work – and if they don’t have any criticism of the manuscript at all, he does not use them again.

The lesson being, the whole object of the criticism exercise is to make the manuscript better, not accumulate Yes-men who would grin and nod their heads if you handed them your novel that reads like it was carefully plagiarized from the Manhattan Telephone Directory.

On the other hand, you don’t want to continually use someone who shoots your material down just for the sake of being critical, or perhaps out of jealousy (I’ve chronicled here before about an acquaintance of mine who did just that, so I won’t revisit that here – just be mindful that folks like that are out there).

Which is why it helps to accumulate a trusted group of people you can rely on for that kind of favor. If they’re writers, you should be prepared to return the favor for them, too. And if they’re not, well… maybe you could promise them a part in the play (if you’re writing one).2 And if not, well, I usually promise an autographed copy of the book. Some people have been known to respond well to plates of Christmas cookies, too.

So don’t be fearful. Thicken your skin and seek out folks you can trust to give an honest criticism of your work. As I said, if you don’t, there are overworked editors, agents, and critics who will also point out the error of your ways in terms a lot less blunt. And if you can’t bear the thought of doing it, be prepared to accumulate a closet full of unfulfilled manuscripts.

Or else become a goth poet and do a lot of coffee house readings.

Yeah, the reading party worked really well for me. It’s a shame that I can’t do the same for a novel. I did put out a feeler – “Anyone want to come over and tackle my 800 page thriller?” – to which I got the response, “Should we bring our sleeping bags?” Guess I’ll have to stick with first readers, and letting the manuscript sit.

And in the case of And That’s The End of the News, that’s one peoject that ought to be ripe for the plucking. While going through the blog to add categories labels to all the posts, I realized that it’s been three years since I last looked at the manuscript.

I’d better get another box of red pens.

Listening:
And then I heard some footsteps in the hall outside my door
The same ol’ Christmas trick my dad had played since I was four
He stands outside my bedroom yelling “Ho! Ho! Ho!” because
He knows I don’t believe in Santa Claus

(via iTunes shuffle play)


1 Yeah, I know that by tradition it’s a blue pencil. But what I’m doing is editing to get a manuscript in shape to face the blue pencil, so I use a red pen, which can be easily seen against the white page and black print.

2 But what if their comments result in you cutting out their part? Best not go there right now…

A Brief Postmortem of Saturday’s Marathon

Just some things I wanted to note of that I didn’t really have time to cover while liveblogging on Saturday.

1) The Change of Ending. As usually happens, the ending changed as I got right down to the wire. This doesn’t mean that it ends differently than the way I had intended. It ends the way I wanted, but the way it happens on stage changed. My original idea involved the singing of a Christmas carol, and framing the stage in a Norman Rockwell kind of way, but when I got to the last lines of dialogue between protagonist and antagonist, I realized that it wasn’t needed. Over the years I’ve come to realize that I tend to over-write my endings anyway, and have to work to keep them in check (case in point, see the extended ending of A Death of Honor). As things stand, I may add one more line of dialogue at the end just to make sure the door closes properly. I may play with that part of it when the play goes into production.

2) Speaking of the Ending, I Almost Changed the Way it Ended. This happens to me from time to time. I get down to the ending, and an alternate springs into mind. What came to mind was less predictable, more unsettled, and more true-to-life. I told my wife that if I had been doing this as a straight drama, I would have gone with the alternate ending. But because there was a Christmas tree in the play, I went with my original planned ending.

3) It’s Finished, But it Isn’t Finished. This usually happens during the Marathon: I forgot a couple of things in those last pages, not the least of which is closure of a minor running gag. I may close that particular gag or I may end up cutting it completely (my first editor – my wife – doesn’t like it – and I trust her instincts). There’ll be a lot of shaping up by the time the first rewrite is done.

4) Why Was I So Slow On the Write – Or Was I? Not counting the pirate playlet I wrote this summer, A Father Christmas is the first play I’ve written since Old Loves Die Hard, which was written when I was still in college, during the summer of *cough* 1979. So in reintroducing myself to the form, I started wondering why I was progressing so slowly, producing probably around three pages in an average writing session.

That’s when it occurred to me – duh! – that writing a play and writing a novel are two different animals. With a novel, I write action, dialogue, and description in one long, seamless stream. Writing a play is basically writing dialogue with all of that other stuff stripped out of it.

If you’ve ever seen a play script, you know what I’m talking about. Unless you’re looking at the second act of Noises Off, action is minimally described. To take it to what might be a ridiculous extreme, when I talked to the director of my community theater’s recent production of Over the River and Through The Woods, she told me that the author didn’t put in any stage directions at all – the script was all dialogue. Talk about a challenge.

So typically in a script, you describe the scene at the beginning, yes, and you write action in little brackets as the people speak. But my guess is that 90% of your communication in a typical play is done in dialogue, and therefore, when working with such a concentrated medium, the words had better be more on target. And if I took anything from the experience of writing this play, it’s how much more I had to work on each page, sweating out the dialogue so it was just right.

Just to find out how concentrated a page of script might stack up against a page of a novel, I did a little math. If 150 page play script is equal in effort (if not density) to a 500 page novel, then 1 page of a play script is equal to 3 pages of a novel. Comparing that to my novel writing speed of 5 – 10 pages a day, then I should be able to write 1-3 pages a day of play manuscript. So far, so good. And when you look at an all-day finish-it-up marathon, 26 pages of play would be equal to about 78 pages of novel. Considering my marathon record is 80 pages, that puts the comparison right in the ballpark.

These are the things writers worry about sometimes. But someday, somebody is going to ask about this, and I’ll be glad to have done the math in advance.

That’s it for the postmortem. I’m going to take a week off from the play and then tackle the first edit. I’d like to have it done by Thanksgiving so I can start the edit of And/News while it’s still November. See, it was November, 2003 when I finished the manuscript, and it’s pretty much been sitting inert since. Has it really been three years already?

Listening:
Now children saddle him for riding
Pick a fight with love and she will
Tan your hide in

(via iTunes shuffle play)

Magic

A Father Christmas
Act Two, Scene Two
Pages, 10/7/06: 3
Pages, 10/8/06: 1
Total pages: 124

Made it to the computer over the weekend. More would’ve been done if there’d been time, but there were chickens to feed and poison ivy to burn and songs to lead at church.

I didn’t expect it to happen with a play, but I’m at that magic golden hour – if I wasn’t swamped at work, I’d take a day off and do a marathon writing session that would finish the play. I thought that only happened with my novels, but this morning as I looked at the manuscript and unconsciously started typing more lines where I’d left off last night, I realized I could just sit down and finish it.

More writing magic afoot. I plunged right into Act Two, Scene Two knowing only what needed to happen along the plot line and less than a scant idea of how I was going to make it happen. But as I typed, the protagonist started to argue with his wife and I realized the loss of their child is going to pull them apart. It made perfect sense. After all, my friend Tom makes part of his living from people who have this happen to them, and part of his living again from when they get pulled apart.

How does this happen? Was it internalized from my years of friendship with Tom the Lawyer and hearing stories of his work? Had my writer’s subconscious had already worked it out, and it didn’t become evident until I started typing? Or did the idea spontaneously show up as I started typing in lines, and they worked well in pulling characters in a direction I previously hadn’t counted on?

I can’t explain it. I can see why the ancients talked of muses who whispered into the ears of the creative as they worked to inspire them. It really seems like an outside thing some times. Maybe not so much a full blown white moment as a flicker, a brief spark from a lit match that adds up with other sparks to fill in the blanks that the outline doesn’t cover.

Maybe it’s just me connecting the dots. Or maybe God is nudging me, saying “Go this way a little bit. It’ll make it more realistic.” Hey, to Him be the glory if that’s what He did – but if it’s my talent that somehow popped this up, to Him be the glory, too – because He gave me that talent to begin with.

I don’t know how all this happens. All I know is that, man or muse or God, it feels like magic when it does.

Listening:
From Castile does Franco come
and the Government driven out shall be
An English king seeks divorce
and from his throne cast down is he
One named Hister shall become
a captain of Greater Germanie
No law does this man observe
and bloody his rise and fall shall be

(via iTunes shuffle play)

Almost Accurate

GRIERSON
(to the GALLAGHERS)
Mr. and Mrs. Gallagher, this is a court of law. It is governed by laws and by rights. I swore an oath to follow the law, and sometimes, following the law isn’t the right thing to do, but it is the legal thing to do. Right and wrong is to be judged in a court different than this one. My job is to make decisions, sometimes gut wrenching decisions, in accordance with the law, and this decision is made accordingly.

That’s a line from the Christmas play I’ve been struggling to finish for, oh, 18 months or so now. I think it’s a great line. You might agree. But there’s something you should know about this line: I didn’t write it.

See, I was afraid that my courtroom scene was going to be the weakest part of the play. I was in a courtroom once about 20 years ago watching my friend Tom try a case between two druggies who had a falling out, and I’d never been called for jury duty until this time last year – and even then, I didn’t get picked (I missed it by one juror). Everything I knew about being in a courtroom I got from that one shot experience and from reruns of Perry Mason and the Law and Order series.

Well, almost. There were the stories that my friend Tom told about his courtroom adventures that I absorbed and filed away. That’s why, when the courtroom scene was finished, I e-mailed Tom to see if he’d take a look at what I’d done. I told him I was straddling a line with the scene – I wanted it to be realistic, but there were some things I was cheating on for the sake of making it easy to stage. I figured if I got it mostly right, that the audience’s suspension of disbelief would take care of the rest.

Anyway, Tom agreed to look at the manuscript. I sent off a pdf, and he looked it over and suggested a few changes that I think made all the difference to the way the scene flowed – including the paragraph that begins this post. He added just the right amount of verisimilitude – stuff I needed but didn’t know enough about lawyering to write.

Tom did a great job of walking the line I’d described with his suggestions. In his e-mail back to me, he said, There are some technical things about your objections that could be changed, but it would be technical, and would turn what is a great piece of drama into a droll courtroom proceeding, so I didn’t touch them.

Granted, he’s a writer, too, and he’s hung around me longer than anybody but my parents, so he knows the game. But this is something that some writers and a lot of professionals don’t get: sometimes real life makes unexciting storytelling, even if the event is noteworthy.

My wife recently had to have an MRI. Since we’re both huge fans of House, I joked with her that she was getting to go into the Seizure Machine.* When she was finished (note that she waited until she was done…), she told the technician, “And I didn’t even have a seizure.” The tech asked her about what she meant, and she told him/er about our family joke.

And here’s what’s important about this story: the tech laughed and said, “Oh, yes. We all watch House. And we all think to ourselves, ‘There’s no way we’d let an intern or a doctor use our machine. They’d probably break it.’” This tells me that even though the program has some inaccuracies, the combination of writing, plot, and character is strong enough to keep medical professionals watching it, even though there are some things going on that they know are not what you’d call kosher.

So how much can you get away with in the process of being “almost accurate?” I’d say the answer is to be as accurate as possible, but when the accuracy begins to bog down the dramatic impact of the story, it’s time to cheat.

For example, I know that courtrooms have bailiffs in them. But there isn’t one in mine. The reason is that I’m hoping this play will be produced by community theaters all over the country, and the addition of a bailiff is the addition of one more male character in a form that is already seriously short on men. Besides, if the respective director wants to be more accurate, they can add a bailiff on their own – he would’ve been nonspeaking in my script, anyway.

This kind of fudging is where you get things like combined characters in biographical films. Two mentors or two tormentors can add bulk to a script, but making the guy who gave the hero his first dollar the same guy who would later bail the company out when it ran into tough times saves money for the producer, and ( a screenwriter will tell you) makes a nicer dramatic arc. Hopefully the audience will know that it’s just Hollywood talking.**

This can also come into play when life hands you one of those coincidences that people wouldn’t believe if it were on film. For example, Cameron Crowe said that some people took him to task for the scene in Almost Famous where his alter ego is sitting sullenly in a random airport, when quite by coincidence, his sister the stewardess happened along. “But that’s the way it really happened,” he said. To his credit, he shot it the way it really happened – but I’ve seen interviews with other writers who removed coincidences, saying that the audience wouldn’t have believed the real life version.

Thus, I suppose you could say that the job of every fiction writer to tell the truth – unless the truth is too boring or beyond belief. Then you can start lying. And people will buy the lie over the truth.

Which in turn reminds me: there’s an election this November. Be sure to vote.

Listening:
Announcing me
is all about you all of the time
my aching heart
Forget all

(via iTunes)

* For you House outsiders: in the series, for the sake of dramatic effect, patients more often than not have a violent seizure when undergoing an MRI. My wife, daughter and I all picked up on this during the first season and now anticipate them (“Uh-oh! They’re putting her in the Seizure Machine!”) whenever the MRI is brought into play.

** Although Hollywood itself doesn’t seem to understand this concept – if they did, they’d quit trying to tell us how to vote.

Milquetoast

A Father Christmas
Act Two, Scene One (Finished)
Pages, 9/19/06: 4
Total pages: 118

The courtroom scene is finished. Now I know what Richard Nixon must have felt like when the troops started coming home from Vietnam.

It wasn’t without at least one casualty. Getting toward the end of the scene, the antagonist decided to get in the face of the protagonist. But things don’t turn out the way he expects, and he retreats to where his attorney is sitting. The attorney looks at him and says something like,

“This isn’t like standing up to a bully on the playground”

and then goes on to explain the situation.

I stopped when I wrote that. It seemed awfully milquetoast to me – too understated for the height that the emotions were running at the moment. So I highlighted and changed the line.

“This isn’t like kicking the ass of a bully on the playground.”

And in context with the rest of the explanation, it was perfect. Yes, I know I’m not writing this kind of language any more, but this just fit, coming from a neutral character as it was, a commentary on how the antagonist’s emotions were running in contrast to the real life situation that was unfolding around him.

In my writer’s ear it was perfect. And I went back in and changed the line one more time:

“This isn’t like punching out a bully on the playground.”

Not nearly the impact, but stronger than the original. It made me happier. Not just because I was respecting my own standards. Because I was also respecting the audience’s standards.

See, this is a Christmas show, and that means family show. And granted, it’s probably going to be a bit talky for kids under the age of twelve, and maybe a little scary to that same age group – the idea that a stranger can come and try and take you away from your family – and even though you hear mild swearing and double entendres in G rated films now, my including that line would make me part of the problem.

Plus, I’m staying true to the genre of holiday entertainment, something you can take the family to and have it safe, no matter what your standards are. Had it been a straight courtroom drama, the line might have stayed in. Or not.

This whole issue may be moot anyway. This is still the first draft. There are many rewrites to come. That whole bit may end up with a red X through it in the next draft.

So I guess today’s lesson is this – It’s an honorable thing to make compromises like this, to think of the audience when writing. That’s what you’re doing when you pick a genre and write it. If you flout the conventions of the genre, you’re going to end up in a New York art gallery showing off crucifixes submerged in urine or covering yourself with chocolate and masturbating in public, with government art endowments and grants from people with too much money on their hands as your only source of income.

And under those circumstances, if someone comes up and tells you that your work made them cry, it’ll be for all the wrong reasons.

Listening:
Bats and badgers,
gnats and gadflies,
waterboat men,
Wake up for the greatest day of all
Ants and dormice
open your eyes
mobilize now!

(via iTunes shuffle play)

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