Sunday, October 29, 2006

Love opens with a closing

Today is the last day of the OSF season. Today is the last day of THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. Today is Heather’s last day as Gwendolyn. And as big a day as that is for me (she's coming home) - selfish me, it’s an even bigger day for her.

See, Heather didn’t just come to Ashland for the first time as an actress.

She was born there. Raised there. Her mother, a single parent school teacher, in a valley that was home to a unique thing started by Angus Bowmer many many years ago.

For the last two years (and the last three of four), she has lived the dream she had as a girl – to be up in the lights, on the boards, in the place where she was first introduced to theatre. First fell in love with it.

Few of us are destined for such things.
The first time I heard Heather's voice, it was over the phone. An ex-girlfriend I was still on good terms with had been an acquaintance of Heather's in college. When I was accepted in Columbia's graduate MFA program, this ex told me that Heather might have an apartment I could sublet.

The voice at the other end of the phone had some depth to it, but was cheerful. And the mind it was attached to was funny; the soul fair and sensitive.

"Think of a clown car. Without wheels," she said, describing the place.
"A clown car? Well, how small is it?"
"It's about 5 and a half by 9."
"Uh, pardon me?"
"5 and a half by 9."

5 and a half by 9? I walked around in my rather spacious San Francisco office, skeptically thinking that nothing could be that size and lived in. I'd heard of coffins that were bigger.

"But it's a block from Central Park," she added with some chirp - as if my enthusiasm had waned. But it hadn't. She was simply hearing my mind come to the decision that she was dimensionally challenged. That was the only possible explanation for her quote. There was just a little too much pause though, so she went on: "And it's only $630 a month."

Having concluded that she didn't understand the difference between and inch and a foot, I was sure it was a steal. "Great. It's mine. Don't even think about renting it to anyone else."

It did turn out to be a steal, though I wasn't really to find out why for another year and a half. It also turned out that her clown car description was charitable.

When I arrived in NY four months later, I called to set up a time to see it. She insisted on this, feeling that before I wrote a check for it, I should understand just exactly what I was in for. Apparently she knew I didn't think she could measure space for shit.

After repeating her "It's small" warning, she warned me about something else, too, though. "Now, look," she said, "Before you come over, there's one other thing - the place is going to smell like pot, but it's not me. I don't smoke. My acupuncturist comes before you do and he burns moxie, so...."

"Don't worry," I reassured her, "I'm sure you're not a doper." And then I thought, no wonder she doesn't know how big her apartment is, she's stoned.

My suspicions about her devotion to magazines like High Times were confirmed on my way up to her place (it was a 3 floor walkup). I hit a wall of dope smoke so thick on the second landing I thought the place had to have been built in Jamaica.

Jesus, I thought, maybe she's actually growing plants in there.

And just as I was about to answer my own question, the door to 3a opened and I felt something wonderful happen: there before me, in the tiniest, moxie-smoke filled, apartment in New York was a beautiful blue-eyed, petite redhead wearing an untucked blue oxford shirt and a grin that said: See, it's a lot smaller than you thought, and it really is moxie-smoke, you idiot.

She had to step aside for me to get in.

It took less than three seconds to look at all of it. It had a loft bed and a mini-bar refrigerator. The bathroom made airplane toilets look like McMansions. It was too small even for a cockroach.

"I told you."
"Uh, yes, yes you did."
"Still want it? I'll understand if you don't."
"Why don't we talk about it over coffee at the diner around the corner."

With that visit, and over that coffee, I realized that she was not a stoner. Not dimensionally challenged. Oh, no. In fact, if anything she was about as grounded and real as they get. And she was even funnier in person than she was over the phone.

Her story was not so simple however. Having grown up in Ashland, she'd always wanted to act. In the early 90s she took a giant step in that direction when she was accepted into the NYU graduate acting program. After NYU, she joined The Acting Company (of Houseman-Kline-Streep fame) and did LOVE'S FIRE in London, New York, etc. Two years later, she started working regionally - The Guthrie being one of the bigger places - doing Shaw, Ibsen and good old Bill, as well as some contemporary stuff. I was catching her after an illness had brought things to a halt and she was trying to decide if she wanted to continue acting. The recent year had been tough - and as if to make things worse, her grandmother in Ashland was in failing health. Should she give up her NY apartment?

Well, since she didn't know, renting it to me seemed like a good way to buy some time while the answer made itself clear.

"I have a short play in Atlanta and then l go back to Ashland and take care of Grandma Rie," she told me.
"I won't leave you in the lurch" I said. "Are you sure you don't want anything to eat?"
"No, thanks, though."
I frowned at her. She'd only had a glass of water.
"I'm really not hungry."
"Okay," I said, "But next time I see you, lunch is on me."

And I meant it - she seemed like someone I wanted to know.

I moved out 11 months later. In those months, however, I had felt that in some ways, she had been like a roommate to me. I had lived with her stuff in the apartment. Ate off her plates. Read some of her Shakespeare editions. And managed to break, and replace, her stereo.

We had also been drawn closer together over the phone by events: She went to Hotlanta on the morning - and I moved in on the evening - of Sept 10, 2001.

So, when she came back to NY in November of 2002, I thought I should make good on the promise to pick up a meal between us. Plus, I wanted my security deposit back.

Finding a time we were both available wasn't easy. She was spending a lot of her days out in Connecticut helping some friends with some very difficult family problems and I was experiencing a lot of doubt as a writer in my second year of grad school.

But somehow, just before Thanksgiving, we managed to figure out a way to see a movie together. It was very cold that night and we were both pretty well bundled when I met her outside Harry's Burrito place at 71st and Columbus. There was a part of me, based on our phone calls and our one previous meeting, that hoped maybe this was some sort of quasi-date and I took it as a good sign when I noticed she was wearing lip-gloss and a new pair of cowboy boots.

Unfortunately, the movie we saw was Roger Dodger. Definitely NOT a first date, or maybe any kind of a date, movie.

Afterwords, I tried to salvage the situation. I mean, I liked talking to her. My problem was, well, I didn't drink, so that kind of thing was out of the question.

"Listen, um, would you like to stay out just a little later with me. Maybe get some coffee and pie?"
She looked a little stunned and then a big grin crossed her face. "Pie?"
I looked back at her. "Yes."

(Pie? Yes. These are the words that are inscribed on the inside of my wedding ring. Inside hers is the address of the apartment where we first laid eyes on each other.)

Within several months, I knew she was the one, but in the beginng of February 2003, she returned to Ashland where she appeared in Nilo Cruz's Lorca In A Green Dress - his first big production following his Pulitzer. We kept our relationship alive over the phone and through long visits (one of the benefits of being a grad student) and I got to know Ashland, and her, and her mother.

I also got to know just what acting meant to her, how much she loved it, and how much it loved her.

I convinced her to return to NY when the 2003 season was over, but I knew that if I was to really keep her, that I would have to share her with the stage. Particularly that stage.

I could only hope that the call would come later, rather than sooner, in our life together.

Of course, it came sooner. In July, she was offered the part of Leticia in The Belle's Stratagem for the 2005 season. I proposed in August. We got married in May 2005. It was an extra-ordinary year for both of us.

She, well, she burned up the boards on the Bowmer and was, to her happy surprise, asked back for another season to play Gwendolyn. She told me she would turn it down for our marriage, but I couldn't let her do that. I knew how much she loved acting - and how rare it was to work in a place with such a long contract on such genuinely good terms. Plus, she was a hometown favorite (still is, actually). The best anology I can think of is to imagine a little kid who grows up playing stickball in the shadows of Wrigley Field finding his way onto the pitching mound when he grows up.

Besides, I hated New York. I'd taken a job in advertising to pay off the MFA loans, but really just, well, you know. Then, too, the agency I worked at didn't seem to dig what I wrote. As time wore on, I realized that I was more interested in pursuing televsion and film in LA - and doing theatre on the side - than hanging around Gotham and its daily dose of bristling hostility. And I could do advertising, something that could be a lot of fun, anywhere.

After Heather was asked back, it seemed clear that I should move out West and really go for it.

Then, to prove a point at the office - and out of sheer spite - I shot some TV spec spots on my own in response to a marketing problem. When the client, Nokia, saw the ads, they bought them immediately and I was stuck in NY just when I thought I was going to escape. Eventually the campaign was inducted into the MOMA archives, but the work meant that Heather and I were to be separated for almost another whole year.

And now we are at the end of that year.

And while Heather will do school tour (teaching and performing Shakespeare in schools under the Festival's name) for a few weeks, for her, it's a conclusion to a childhood dream. For me, it's a true end to the separateness that had come to define my New York life (eventhough I am already in LA, that is one aspect of NY that followed me).

For both of us, though, today is the beginning of something that started 5 years ago when I picked up a phone, dialed a number and said: "Hi. My name is Malachy Walsh and I hear you might have an apartment for rent."

Thursday, October 26, 2006

4: Story Story Die

The first time I met him - "Jake" - was at Columbia University in a screenwriting class.

It happened to be the week one of my screenplays was being presented and he was visiting the professor, an old friend, who was teaching the class. We were actually short a reader, so being a good sport, he took a part and read.

I remembered two things about him from that afternoon. The first was that he had a gruff voice that seemed to justify every bit of anxiety I had about whether or not he'd like my script.

The second was, after the reading was done, he gave me the best, most insightful fucking advice I ever got on a screenplay - advice that actually started from an understanding of what the story was about.

But then, what else did I expect from one of the best, most respected story analysts in Hollywood?

I certainly didn't expect him to call me back when I arrived in LA. And I certainly didn't ever expect to be sitting across from him at the Broadway Diner in Santa Monica one morning listening to the story of how he became one of the best.

"When I came out here I didn't come out to be a reader. But I had this interest in comic books and Joseph Campbell and it turned out that I was good at analysis. I'm not even sure I'd say I was the best at it - there was one guy who was very successful and actually in some ways I just followed in his footsteps. When he left a studio for another studio, he'd call me up and say, Hey, I'm clearing my desk and they need someone. Call so-and-so this afternoon and tell them you're ----- and I recommend you. Usually I got the job. It was the easy way, really."

Over hash I told him that I'd gotten quite a bit out of his book, a book that outlines the heroic journey at the heart of so many movies and that most people must know if they're interested in writing screenplays.

"I'm more crafty than anything," he said. "Every studio has its own way. If you can't figure out what that way is, then you're not going to fit in. {One of the studios} I worked at was run on memos. It was the way the top guy did things. If he wanted something, he didn't have a meeting so much as sent out a memo. So everyone there communicated that way. I was sort of low on the totem pole. I couldn't just send out one of those things. But I had these ideas about story that I'd been kind of building on from my interest in comic books and Joseph Campbell - eventually I became the guy everyone turns to when they want to work with comic books - yet, back then, what could I do? I decided to write a memo that outlined some of my thoughts. Then, I'd just left it on the copier. Other people saw it and read it. Eventually, people started copying and holding onto the memos. I know someone's really been around when they tell me they read my book on the Xerox machine."

Though I'd been a reader in New York for a theatre company or two, that wasn't what I was out here to do. Did he have any advice?

He said a few things that have been echoed by many others, but also built on it: "You'll need an agent or a manager. But you can't get one until you've done something or have a deal cooking. What you'll need to do is go over to the bookstore and pick up the creative directory. Look through it for studios that might be interested in the type of material that you have. That's how you'll have to start."

I've got an MFA in playwrighting. Will that help?

"Right now, playwrights are respected. So when you sit down with people, you've already got something going for you. They'll expect you know how to create good dialog. It's a good thing."

We split the bill and walked down the promenade.

I told him about the type of material I had to see if there was any direction he could give me there. I unfortunately realized that I was pitching him right there. He seemed disappointed - like this was a transgression of our breakfast relationship. I regreted it since it was unnecessary. And on reflection, I know it came across as a desperate, giant, "Please save me" sign in little verbal blasts of story idea.

That was not only NOT within his power to do. And it wasn't why he'd agreed to see me.

Stupidly I pressed on saying that none of my work was tricky. That I was developing simple, straightforward stories with large social contexts that people could hook into easily. I put story over style since I never knew who'd be reading the scripts.

"That is very smart," he said tersely. "How do you like LA?"

"It's great. Not just the weather, but the people. I'm finding that most people will talk to anyone at least once since no one seems to know where the next big thing will come from. I like that."

We shook hands. He seemed like a very gentle man to me.

Then I wondered which of my screenplays to leave on the copy machine at Kinkos.

Monday, October 23, 2006

3: Dream Factory

Writing is a lonely thing to do.

But theatre is a quintessentially social art. In fact, even when I'm alone writing, I'm listening to a bunch of characters talking in my head. And then there's readings, rehearsals, shows, etc.

Nonetheless, it helps to know other writers who are trying to do it since often you need to kvetch about what's going on with those characters in your head, the rehearsals and the yaddie yaddie ya.

Even moreso when it comes to writing tv and film - arts that are social in a quintessentially different way.

Which is why, when I arrived in LA in September, I gave my old friends at the Writers Boot Camp a call.

A "school" that offers classes to help aspiring tv and film writers the tools to put together spec film and tv scripts, I was a Boot Camp conscript (to boldly continue their metaphor) back in my San Francisco days. To be quite honest, I thought there were many problems with the program, but it did help me accomplish my goals: I wrote a screenplay; I got an understanding of screenplay structure; I met other writers working in the form.

It was the meeting of other writers that I was after this time. Plus, any kind of connect to the Industry might be helpful - even if I had to pay for it.

It had been a full ten years since I'd taken a class, so it was eye-opening just how big they'd gotten in LA. The offices themselves were nestled in the refurbished warehouses of Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. The parking lot was thick with luxury cars and SUVs. Production companies and art galleries occupied spaces on either side of the WBC space - which itself was large, airy and loft-like.

I sat down on the Knoll-like couches in the lobby and waited for the Boot Camp representative whom I'll call "Dave" to come down and talk with me.

We passed a glass walled room filled with about thirty actors sitting in a U on our way to another classroom to chat. "We do full readings of some of our students work occasionally," Dave explained. I'd been to a Boot Camp event or two in New York where they have another office that was little more than a room with a desk.

Dave, who'd been a standup comedian at one time, was funny and genial. He told me that most of the offices in smaller markets like San Francisco had been closed. "We found that people who were serious about this tended to move here anyway to do it."

"We have two programs, a short course and an intensive program. The intensive is 22 weeks and $7200. It's the one I recommend for most people who are serious. It will help you get a script together, rewrite and get another script together. The shorter course tends to be filled with people who are still trying to figure out how serious they are about it."

They put tv and film writers together in classes. "The tools are the same for both," Dave said.

I told him that I wasn't sure I could handle the price tag - I already owe a lot of money for my MFA. He answered by saying that there are ways - through credit cards or lay-away - to work with my pinched situation.

What about after you finish? Is there any pipeline to the Industry?

"If you go on the Web site, you'll see we have quite a few success stories. And we're working on creating a production company as well."

It wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear, but it was true - the site was full of stories from alumni who'd gone on to bigger and better things - though I seemed to remember vague chat about the production company stuff 10 years ago.

Do you drop people who are no good?

"No, I can't say we do. Though you'll get a pretty strong indication if you're not coming up with stuff that's any good."

Again, I have to say, I was hoping to hear something else - that you'd get canned if you sucked. Especially since I'd gone to an advertising portfolio school where that's what they did. Because of that they were able to claim - at the time - to have a 99% placement rate if you actually graduated. Few did - but that was often because they found jobs before they had to pay for the final semester.

Here, however, I had to kick myself under the table. It was an unfair comparison on my part. The movie and tv industries were/are significantly different from advertising.

Dave inadvertently reminded me of that near the end of our conversation: "We can help you get a couple of scripts together and ready. Hopefully, what happens is you get those in a producer’s hands and they like you and remember you next year when you give them some new material. It's a long process."

We ended our interview with some conversation about the Dodgers. Dave's kids were big into baseball and he was heading off to go watch one of their games.

Eventhough I'm no Dodgers fan (I'm for the Evil Empire), it made me like Dave immensely.

This is the Writers Boot Camp logo. Only it's not the stars and stripes being raised, it's a pen.

No, really. It is.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Literature? Or exercise equipment?

A little while back, I did some commerical editing in midtown NYC. Turned out the editing suites (Crew Cuts) were once occupied by THE NEW YORKER.

Guess whose office is still there?

Yeah, once someone sweated over short fiction there. Now they just sweat. Here's a very short movie about it: The Modern World

Part 3 of the "People I'm Meeting In LA" series will be here soon.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

2: The Agent

On a warm summer night in 1966, two friends met for an evening of fun in Manhattan. This being the 60's, it was a good time for the Big Apple and the young men, one a writer who'd just landed his first job in advertising and the other an actor still waiting to land his first job in "acting", wandered around Greenwich Village doing what young men did back then - wondering if they should go to the Village Vanguard, sneak into Max's Kansas City or score a little weed in Washington Square and wander East to kick back a few beers at McSorely's.

Nothing had been decided when the young advertising writer remembered he knew some girls in the area. The young actor was up for anything and off they went to meet two fine young women living their own bohemian life. Little did the young actor know that this was to be the night of his life.

Was it good kielbasa? Was it love at sight? It doesn't really matter, because, you see, at some point, between pirogi and laughter at Vaselka's, the young actor - handsome, ardent, hopeful - got nailed by an arrow shot from the bow of a fat little baby hovering on angel wings over their table. That's right, he fell in love with one of the girls. Stupid in love.

At least that's how I imagine it when, 40 years later, I'm sitting on a patio couch overlooking Wilshire Boulevard because an old NY advertising guy handed me a yellow sticky and said, Call him when you get to LA. He's an agent. I introduced him to his wife.

I am also thinking about how incredibly efficient this actor guy has become since the days when he was free to wheel around New York City meeting girls in his plentiful spare time. My meeting was scheduled for 11. At 10:59 I'm hustled through the offices to the patio where my man in tinted glasses and a sports jacket is chatting with someone on the phone. It looks like the conversation is nowhere near ending when, at 11 on the dot, the guy hits the "end call" button on his Bluetooth headset and turns to me: So, _____ sent you to me? How is he? How do you know him?

I tell him about his friend. How I worked with him. What a great guy. I don't think my listener was ready for such a sincere and thorough answer, but he is patient. We have a standard chat about the difference between NY and LA for a bit followed by some back and forth about women. Somehow he ends up telling me he has a thing for French women and it briefly crosses my mind that the woman he met 40 years ago had an accent and exquisitely pouty lips.

I use this detail as a way into my writing. "I wrote a play about a girl who loves Paris so much she can't be with her man. Of course, he's screwed up too. He keeps buying her the same dress over and over again eventhough it doesn't fit."

This entices the response: "So, you write movies or..."

I go through the short history: MFA in playwriting with three screenplays to boot. Nicholls Fellowship quarterfinalist and Chesterfield semi-finalist.

He's not impressed, but it doesn't hurt either. He asks if I've had anything produced. I mention a few theatre things. He asks about movies specifically. I say no, nothing and he gives me the first piece of bankable advice I'm going to get from him.

"I think the answer to that should always be, Yes, I've been produced a lot - by Madison Avenue."

Then he goes on to say that it's very hard to break-in and wonders what I've been doing about it.

I say: visiting the WGA library, boning up on episodic television, preparing to write a spec script. He seems unfamiliar with the word "teleplay" which confuses me for a second since it's clear he's a fairly significant agent. He advises me not to waste my time at the library.

"You need an agent or a manager or lawyer to get anywhere in this business, though getting one of those isn't easy either. Honestly, we don't take on new writers. It's too hard to get people to hire them, use them. Our writers are all known quantities because that's easier and anything to make it easier, well... It's just too hard the other way. You understand?"

The tone is sympathetic and honest. I appreciate this. But I'm undeterred.

"Did you bring a script for me?"
"Yes. It's right here."
"What's it called?
"What's it about?"

For the first time, I detect a real downturn in his voice. I feel he's made a decision about me and it's not in my favor. But he's still polite as he stands.

"Well, I'll read your script. But I have to tell you, if I don't like it, I'm not going to critique it."
"I don't expect you to," I reply. "I read scripts for three years at the Public in NY."
"So then, you know how it works."

Indeed. I sadly do.

As we shake hands, he smiles at me through his tinted glasses. And that's when he says it, the thing that if I wrote it into a script it would be stricken by the rewrite guy as a cliche, the thing that I'm going to tell everyone at parties for the rest of my life about meeting a big time Hollywood agent for the first time.

He says: "If I don't feel the magic, I don't feel the magic."

Of course. Feel the magic. Just what everyone wants to feel.

And then I'm out, moving past the assistant who will actually read the script first - and may be the only one to read the script - and I'm into the elevator.

I look at the clock on my phone. 11:15. Exactly.

On my way home, I think about the meeting. He was nice to talk to me. To give me 15 minutes. And then I remember seeing his wedding ring and I think of all the meetings he's had in his life, and how mine is just one of a million.

But I think too about how my meeting with him was set up by that other meeting - a meeting between a then hopefull actor and a woman who might have had sexy pouty lips that came with a French accent 40 years ago.

That was a good meeting. And I'm sure it had magic. Lots of magic.

I'm lucky its spell was so strong.

Friday, October 13, 2006

1: The Actor

Los Angeles is home to many fine ad agencies.

But just as I'm trying to break into advertising, I'm also trying to find my bearings in that thing that LA is also home to: "The Industry."

To that end, in the first 45 days I've been here, I've met with a veteran actress who has a recurring role on an episodic television series that I'm not going to name; a well-known story consultant currently working at Paramount; a high profile agent who represents both writers and actors; an Emmy-nominated TV writer who's just moved here from NY himself; a playwright who is still working to break into the business; a representative of a "writing school" that promises to help you write several spec scripts in 22 weeks for $7200; an ad writer who left the business a long time ago but is still trying to get into TV; and last, but not least, a myriad number of other actors, directors, dp's, writers and production people.

In the next few posts, I'm going to relate the advice I've gotten from each of them as to how to break in to the business.

And I'll tell you right now, while I've heard many contradictions, one thing has been clear to me in every conversation: Getting in to "The Industry" is monumentally HARD.

This post is PART ONE: THE ACTOR.


When I told a director friend I was leaving NY for LA last summer, he flattered me by exclaiming, "Shit" - as if something of value had been lost to him in a moment. The next thing he did was give me the name of an old friend of his who'd done the same thing to him thirty years before.

"She's a great person," he said. "She may not be able to help you, but she'll definitely talk to you. And she's a good person to know."

When I got LA, she (I'm going to call her "D") was the first person I called. She had a deep voice - the kind that makes you think of Lauren Bacall and lets you know you're in touch with someone serious.

"Why don't you come out to my house next Tuesday morning," she said. "I'll make you bagels and my fresh squeezed orange juice. Everyone likes my orange juice."

She lived out in Mar Vista - which, for those of you unfamiliar with LA, is out toward the beach but east of Santa Monica. She had a low simple ranch style house about 23 blocks from the Pacific. There was nothing pretentious about the place or the neighborhood.

I parked under a palm tree. She was waiting at the door.

"I'm early," I said.
"That's okay," she said, "I just made another pot of coffee."

We sat at her kitchen table for about a half hour. As I wolfed my way through an everything bagel and a glass of her OJ (it was excellent) she told me about her life.

In digest form: She'd been an actress in NY who'd come to prominence along with the major non-profits - Playwrights, MTC, etc. (She said she actually knew John Seitz who'd been in a reading of my play FIRE BABY.) She came out west to do some film and tv and though she thought she'd go back, she never did. Instead she became enmeshed in the theatre circuit out here, working at South Coast and the Taper on a regular basis. She bought the house in which we were sitting some 20 or more years ago and confessed that these days she would never have been able to afford it. She'd also had some children, one of whom had just gotten out of college and was now breaking into production. From odds and ends that I saw about the house (pictures in the bathroom, snippets of conversation), I got the feeling her partner had died sometime in the last 5 years - and that the loss had been hard on her though she was handling it well. Oddly, even though she'd been in LA much longer than she'd ever been in NY, she said people still thought of her as a NY actor. She seemed to feel that was a good thing, that it gave her some cache, that it said she was the real deal when it came to acting.

When we moved out to the porch she told me that our mutual NY director friend had given her one of my plays, DRESSING THE GIRL. She said she'd been unable to put it down.

I asked if that was because she'd had to actually throw it down. In disgust.

She laughed. "I can't really tell you much about what to do to get in to the writing part of what's going on out here. I'm working on a book right now and I think the UCLA extension is a great way to go. The instructors are very good. And they're already working so it's one way to get to know people. Generally the thing to do, if you ask me, is to not really have any expectations. Then when something happens, it's gravy."

We chatted a little more and she offered to meet with my wife when she came down, but then it was time for me to go.

As I got back in the car and waited for the top come down on my vehicle, I took another look at her house and thought about her buying it way back when. It was clear that she had a lot of talent - which made me feel pretty good about LA and "The Industry."

After all, talented people don't always make it.

Then I wondered if my time in NY would label me a NY writer for the rest of my life... If I was talented enough.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Playwriting - Surgery while awake?

From a close playwright friend.

"When I'm writing a play and it's going well, I start to feel like I'm on an operating table - awake while someone is cutting me open, looking for something. It gets weirder because, always, when I look up, I don't see a doctor. Instead I see all these strangers looking down at me from the operating theatre's bleachers. And then I lift my head to find out who is operating on me and I see that the hands that are cutting me open, using stainless steel instruments to explore my insides, don't belong to a doctor at all. The hands are my own hands."

Yep. Pretty much.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

The $77,000.00 Movie

This movie was made over 2 years ago.

At the time, I was wondering if I'd move to Los Angeles.

It took two years for the answer to become clear, but it did. And I moved. (The cost of the movie and the decision to move are not completely unrelated.)

It's a fun movie and I don't regret the decision to make it - or anything about the 3 year process of making it - but it's interesting to note that it will be another 38 years before I'm finished paying for the movie.

The first person to "get a flower" in the movie is Genevieve Bennett, a great director who now lives and makes work in Minneapolis. The second person to "get a flower" is Adam Szymkowicz. We were roommates. He also happens to be a wildly talented writer.

H is the redhead at the top of the movie. I married her.

The $77,000.00 Movie

A post about the "getting in" to the "Industry" will follow soon.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Martha Stewart gives up: Another reason to never do theatre in a theatre.

DRESSING THE GIRL at Montmartre.

I've been told Martha Stewart walked by during the reading.

So glad we didn't do it in a theatre.
Above, from left to right, Laura Marks, Kevin Stapleton, Sarah Elliott and Daniel Isaacson

Sarah and Daniel

Laura and Kevin

Three of the best people I know, Jack, Dave and Molly

Sarah and my favorite lawyer, Carrie

Yours truly trying to look smart as I talk to Liz Frankel

The play was directed by Charles Maryan and presented at the Montmartre Boutique in the Time Warner Center, NYC, Sept 21, by the Relentless Theatre Company

Thanks to Bruce Arendash for the photos. And to all for coming.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Do you have an agent? Or a champion?

Do you have an agent?

This is a question I’ve gotten a couple of times in LA. When I say no, I almost always get the same response from the questioner, well, that’s all right, you don’t need one.

Naturally, I wonder about this, but they universally re-assure me: An agent isn’t really helpful unless you’ve already got something.

But that doesn’t make me any less desirous of representation. After all, isn’t having someone saying good things about you better than having no one saying anything about you?

Still, the response is so uniform that it got me to start thinking about my relationship with agents in New York’s theatre world.


When it comes to writers – especially in theatre - it’s very tempting to divide them into two general classes: Those with agents and those without agents.

I always thought that I would be in the first class, the class with an agent.

I am not. And I have always made up a lot of reasons why I didn’t have one – or more accurately - couldn’t get one.

They simply weren’t taking on new clients. They didn’t want to take a risk. They didn’t know a good thing when they saw one.

Please notice all the “they” in those sentences.

When I offered “I” reasons, it was usually a reflection of them, too.

I am writing things that are too difficult for them. I am not a hack. I am not cool enough. I don’t hang around people who can do that for me.

Yep, agents sucked. I didn’t.

And yet I had good reason to believe this might be true. For one, I was a reader at a major non-profit theatre in New York and I saw, firsthand, what agents were sending out. In fact, I regularly plowed through scripts that were often undercooked, occasionally terrible and sometimes downright bad with letters attached from “agents”. The letters themselves were often breezy but business-like and almost always had a tone of superiority to them, a sense that the writer was “in the know” and putting the reader onto something they “needed to know.”

The scripts they accompanied were, themselves, different from the scripts that had simply been sent to the theatre from the unagented after an initial synopsis and 10-page sample. They were bound in good shiny cardstock with bright colors and logos from William Morris, ICM and elsewhere. And they were always in the proper format.

In a weird way, this all could work to a script’s disadvantage because after all that build-up, well, it was so disappointing to realize that the pages between those glossy covers weren’t any better than any other script you might have read at random from the unsolicited piles already littering the literary office.

On the other hand, if a script was not very good, but it was agented, I was, at certain times, prone to push it laterally, suggesting it was not for me, but maybe some other reader would see its value. It should be noted, however, that, to my knowledge, none of these scripts ever saw production, much less further development.

Still, overall, reading scripts, it became clear to me that agents certainly didn’t seem to know anything special.

Sometimes, I’d tell myself that the agent was involved in a larger strategy with the theatre and that the script I was reading was what I’ll call “a builder” for the agent. That is, the agent knew the script sucked or wasn’t ready, but sent it because they wanted to remind the theatre that they existed. Or, they sent it in a package of scripts in which one of the others, the one that I wasn’t reading, was the plum to be picked.

I also reasoned that I had no idea what the deal was between either the theatre and the agent, or, the agent and their client. It could’ve been that over the phone the agent said, hey, I’ve got a script by someone new and it’s not right for you, but you should look at it anyway. Then, too, a client may have bullied an agent into sending something that wasn’t ready. Hell, I’d read several scripts by big name writers - including Pulitzer winners - that were complete train wrecks, so I figured this had to be the reason the agent sent it.

But the conclusions about agents that I was drawing from reading scripts were being supported by what I was hearing from the agented people I knew.

So what were my agented buddies saying?

Here are some quotes:

“I don’t really know what she does, I don’t even know how she makes money.”

“I found all my productions myself. She even almost screwed those up because she was negotiating with the director and was always slow to get back to him.”

“I do all the Xeroxing myself.”

“I still have to send out stuff on my own.”

“I guess it’s easier to submit things. I don’t know. She only likes the one play.”

“I never really talk to her. She’s never around.”

What was most obvious about all this – beyond the fact that most of my friends are represented by women – is that nobody knew what the agent was really doing for their career besides slowing it down.

A well-known artistic director who ran a prominent regional theatre built on a reputation for doing new work expounded on this very issue once during a lit committee meeting at a theatre I was working at several years ago.

“It used to be” {this is a paraphrase} “that agents really got writers jobs. They were powerful and could actually do that. Then we entered a phase where it became all about writers in residence with power laying in the collaborative relationship between writers and producer-directors {like Shepard and Woodruff}. Writers had a home then. Now that’s broken down and no one knows what’s next. Maybe house writers.”

Whatever you think of his thumbnail assessment of American theatre’s producing architecture in regard to new work (and oddly telescoped timeline), it’s clear that agents were on the outs. And had been for a long, long time - though this did not stop him from calling George Lane directly to apologize for sending a form letter rejection to Eric Bogosian. (Boy, was Lane pissed - after recieving the letter he faxed the theatre a stinging single-page document about how he felt completely condescended to by the theatre and would never send anything to us again: He would've been the first kind of agent the Artistic Director described.)

Then, too, I had several good friends who, despite being excellent writers with careers I felt were enviable, had been dropped by agents.

None of this argued for the necessity of – or anything positive about - having an agent.

Nonetheless, somehow, I still had the nagging feeling that having an agent was another form of accreditation, like my MFA. And I wanted it. Yes, I did.

My literary manager friends suggested I was being foolish about this, often complaining themselves about the way agents dealt with them. Still, I thought, if my friends have agents, I should have one, too. And, then, I also reasoned, if I’m reading scripts that suck from agents, surely they could use something better.

Having been unable to get an agent in 2004 following a star studded reading of a play that turned out to be a two time semi-finalist for the Princess Grace and a winner of the John Golden award, I thought I should strike again when I had another play short-listed for New Work NOW!

So, I put together a packet of info on myself, a list of my plays synopsized in the New Dramatist form, and sent off query letters to a list of agents that had been drawn up by a lit dept. friend familiar with my work, and the tastes of almost every agent in NY.

Out of twelve agents, 2 wrote emails back saying that they weren’t taking on new clients. They were flattered that I’d knocked on their doors, but not-interested. One of these two agents actually suggested my work was too commercial for her, that my art wasn’t sufficiently arty - eventhough she'd only read a synopsis of my plays.

3 agents had me send plays to their assistants. Having been an assistant to a Broadway producer, I knew this was the kiss of death, but did what I was told.

One of these agents never got back to me.

One of these agents said, thank you, but no thanks, end of communication.

One of these agents said, thank you and then gave me notes on the play they’d read. Disappointing as it was to hear, it was good, because it was obvious we would’ve been wrong for each other. Nonetheless, this agent's response earned her a lot of respect from me: she provided reasons based on the work and her own tastes.

I did not hear from the other 7 agents.

And I did not get an agent.

The clincher in all this was that I began to ask people who had agents how they got them: there were two answers I heard most often: I interned for one; I had a show that went up and got one out of that.

Neither of these answers suggests that agents are very good at “discovering” and “developing” people.

Ultimately, it’s been 2 years since I received my MFA at Columbia. Though I wish that my work were getting done (it’s not), I have to say, not having an agent does not seem to have had any real impact on whether or not people will read my work.

In fact, a recent script, sent with a synopsis and a sample first, was asked for by CTG, Steppenwolf, the Public, South Coast and the Magic, to name a few.

I don’t think that an agent would’ve sent it to anyone.

On the other hand, I’ve had to re-examine what I’m really looking for when I feel myself wishing for someone to represent me.

What is that?

First and foremost, I’m looking for someone I trust, someone I can talk to reasonably about a script.

Second, I’m looking for someone who believes that what I’m doing has to be seen so much that they’re willing to put themselves on the line for it.

These people turn out to be people I already know. And the only contract I have to sign to do business with them is a contract of loyalty.

They are directors and producers and actors and dramaturges I’ve already spent hours with working on, well, work.

And I know when they put one of my scripts in an artistic directors hands, they aren’t putting it there with a bunch of other scripts, or just to build a relationship (though it may help do that). Nor are they doing it to remind a literary department that they exist.

They’re putting it there because they believe in me.

They are championing me.

So much better than an agent, don’t you think?