Wednesday, November 29, 2006

New York. Again.

Arrived in New York this morning - after a long redeye on JetBlue - for the week long Clubbed Thumb development of Beyond the Owing.

The plane was full of babies and tall girls with paint splats on their shoes and Bob Rauschenberg bios in their hands.

They scared me, those girls. And I was uncomfortable. Plus, somehow the Big Apple, despite some temperate numbers on the thermometer, felt intimidating as soon as I got out of the gate.

Could be I'm just worried about whether or not I can whip this play into shape in a week. Could be I'm just tired. Either way, here goes nothing.

I've got a terrific cast - Cecil MacKinnon, Mary Bacon, Jeff Biehl, Meg McQillan and Jeff Steitzer - as well as a wonderdful director - Matthew Arbour - and a great producer in Maria Striar and Clubbed Thumb - so it's definitely up to me.

I'll try to post as I can - but depending on how much needs to be done on the play, that may be very little.

We'll see...

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What's a Clubbed Thumb?

Some answers. Here.

And here.

And here.

And, not least of all, here.

The reading of BEYOND THE OWING that you can come to will be Dec 6 at 8.30 pm. Playwrights Horizons in NYC.

Hope to see you then.

Friday, November 24, 2006

You are rejected

Somewhere in the midst of my 1 day. 2 miracles. Maybe even 3. post I mentioned how I've been rejected.

It's occured to me that this is a worthwhile subject just by itself.

After all, there's a lot of it in my life. A lot.

And I don't think I'm any different from most other writers out there.

Though I suppose one reason I am a writer is because early on - ridiculously early on - I was not rejected. In fact, teachers, perhaps surprised that any male student might be attracted to anything besides how the Chicago Bears were doing, encouraged me over and over to continue writing short stories. And then, the first time I ever sought approval outside the classroom, I won a prize - the Senior Scholastic Short Story Competition - for a rite of passage story about a kid on foal watch at a yearling farm.

It was all downhill from there.

I sometimes dream that I'll frame all my rejection letters and hang them in the lobby of the theatre I hope to own some day. Until then they're all in a plastic portfolio envelope like this.


There are two kinds of rejection. Personal and not-so-personal.

By and large, most rejections are of the not-so-personal variety - form letters, with my name filled in at the top. They usually start by thanking me for my submission, occasionally naming the play, and then have a paragraph about how many plays they get and how few production slots the theatre actually has. "Regretfully we do not feel that your play is appropriate for our theatre at this time."

The "this time" thing always gets me because I'm pretty sure what is really meant is, "any time."

It's not uncommon to get a follow-up paragraph to this that is probably the single most disengenous thing you can get in a form letter. It usually goes something like this: This is not a reflection on the quality of your play or your writing.

Let's face it, while this may be true - a nod to the subjectivity of their judgement - if they thought your play had quality or merit for them, they'd make it.

Lately, some theatres and theatre groups have taken to email rejection. This, for some reason, strikes me as less personal though, generally speaking, it's nothing less than an electronic form letter. Still, it feels cruelly impersonal since, outside of reading the play, it cost the theatre nothing to send. I can be removed from their world of possibilities and considerations with a finger on a send button.

The more personal letters of rejection are, of course, the other kind and sometimes they are really just form letters with a personal addendum. Once, for instance, I recieved a letter from the Nicholls Fellowship saying one of my screenplays didn't make it. But I had two entries that year and in handwriting the words "Better news to follow" was scribbled in the margin.

Most personal rejections don't have that kind of message of hope, but they are almost all a sign that you got someone's attention. Ie, somebody in the organizaiton had some heart for your script. This can be exhilarating. But it can also be devastating, because you're still rejected.

My own personal reaction to these letters is proportional to the message itself and the organization that it's from - squared to the power of the amount of hope I have for the play. In fact, the more I love the play or believe in it, the harder these personalized rejections are.

Put another way: when a piece gets bounced with a letter that lets me know that the play "has great characters and dialog" or "is compelling and fascinating" and that I'm "clearly talented", I feel like the guy who manically scratched at the cliff edge before falling to his death. In mid-air, knowing the end is coming, I'm thinking, "Shit, maybe I shoulda stapled $5 to that one."

That's not to say that I feel completely bad about this kind of rejection. After all, I'm decidedly not dead at the bottom of a ravine. I will get up. I will write again. I will have my revenge.

And, since I think everything is about relationship, a rejection that goes, "I like you but I don't want to sleep with you" is always followed by a "Yet" in my mind. I'm a sick bastard this way. The turn down is essentially an invitation to send something else.

Oddly, acceptance, the few times I've gotten it, has always been less interesting. It's come in an email or a phone call. "We're interested in doing this" or "Congratulations, your peice was chosen from thousands" etc. Then I've usually found myself off in the details of what's next without much reflection on how truly astounding it may be that I'm a winner.

Obviously, I'll take this kind of deflation any day.

Fortunately, I've been accepted to a few things often enough to also get some perspective on why I've been rejected elsewhere. By seeing what's been chosen, I can see that quality really is not always a way to determine what's to be produced and what's not. Especially in short play competitions. Certain themes and ideas emerge that show you're not crazy.

There's actually a pattern of craziness.

Currently, I'm waiting for quite a few letters of rejection in the mail. My philosophy is to truly try not to think about a submission after I've dumped it in the mail. If I don't hear from someone, I don't hear from them.

As far as I'm concerned, I'm still being considered.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

My first LA party

This weekend I went to my first LA "thing". It was a wrap party for WEDNESDAY AGAIN, an independent movie starring Richmond Arquette (yes, of the endless and endlessly talented Arquette family) and was written and directed by John Lavachielli. It was at Arquette's house.

A laid back affair, everyone was incredibly nice. And, again, smart. I was a guest of one of the movie's actors and while I was quite shy, my "date" was very good about introducing me to everyone. And I found both Arquette and the Lavachielli to be warm, interested and entirely ego-less. Weirdly, Shirley Jones was also there (her husband is in the movie) and I got to shake her hand. (Yeah, me and Mrs. Partridge.)

Honestly, I never thought I'd be in any Arquette backyard - but there I was. And it was nice. Like a neighborhood BBQ should be.

I'm in Ashland for Turkey Day and then, next week, in NY for the Clubbed Thumb workshop of Beyond The Owing. I'll post from the Big Apple if not before then.

Friday, November 17, 2006

1 day. 2 miracles. Maybe even 3.

"In dreams begin responsibilities."
- Delmore Schwartz

Okay. I admit it. I've been a little glum lately.

In fact, some of my recent posts could send the most ardent "Don't Worry Be Happy" believer to consider a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge as an upwardly mobile thing to do.

But on Wednesday this started to change.

Miracle 1:

Over the weekend, Heather was in LA and we looked at apartments together. The first one we saw we loved. But it was also the first one. The woman who showed it to us (her name will be Susan) was lovely and clearly liked us, but like I said, it was the first one. The first. We took applications and then we looked at some more apartments. Saturday we called and said we'd take the apartment and come in with the paperwork on Sunday.

But Sunday, just before we went over, Susan called and said she'd rented it to someone else.

I couldn't blame her. Heather and I are a tough sell economically. She's an actor. I'm a writer. Neither of us have jobs. Just savings. And while there are plenty of reasons in our backgrounds to believe we'll make it, those things can't be expressed by numbers on a ledger sheet.

It was hard news. Heather cried. Though I kept our applications hoping something else might open up with Susan, I went into a deep funk. Deep.

How were we going to rent? Work wasn't/isn't coming effortlessly. We have debts. Our only assets: Optimism and a Mini-Cooper.

Things only got worse after Heather went back up to Oregon to finish school tour work and I applied for another apartment that was nice, but not as nice as the one we didn't get.

The landlord read me the financial riot act. It got me down even more because I understood how rational he was.

I'd faced this before once, in New York, but I'd overcome it there. Somehow, on the West Coast, I just felt more exposed. More vulnerable. Perhaps I want it more out here. I dunno. I certainly couldn't ignore what had happened.

I snapped at Heather over the phone. She reminded me that we had money. That she was still working. That we both had talent and that if we just kept putting it out there, something would happen for us. But I was wallowing. Work. Work. Work. Where is it, I groused, not counting the blessing of being married to Heather.

I went to AA meetings. I talked with my sponsor. I applied for more jobs online. I decided to continue working on my spec TV script and keep putting the ad portfolio fearlessly out there.


And then, Wednesday night, while I was hunkered down at the WGA, Susan calls.

"Have you and Heather found a place you like yet?" Susan asked.
"No," I said, "I'm afraid we haven't."
"Tell me a little more about your finances."

Twenty minutes later Susan said the other people had backed out and she was still interested in us if we were interested in her.

I signed the lease this morning.

Miracle 2:

You write a play. You send it out. 9 times out of 10, you get a rejection back in the mail six months to a year and a half later.

Sometimes the rejection is a nice one. Whoever is repsonding liked the piece enough to note it personally, even though, ultimately, they're turning you away.

Most times, though, I just forget who I've sent it to and move on.

This morning, even before I signed a lease, my phone rings. It's a 212 number I don't recognize.

"Hello, This is Malachy."
"Hi, Malachy, this is Maria Striar from Clubbed Thumb."

Clubbed Thumb is something I've written about before on this blog as one of the things about NY Theatre that I will miss most. Fortunately, not as much as I thought however.

Maria, whom I've only met once, briefly, following a show, offers me a space in Clubbed Thumb's Boot Camp to work on BEYOND THE OWING. Though I've sent her many plays - this is a play that I sent her in the spring following a workshop in Ashland at the OSF. After a reading in September at the NJ Rep, I worked on a new draft to send to the O'Neill. Matthew Arbour and I, (he's the director I've worked closely with on this piece for the past year) were recently talking about this new daft and thinking how good it would be to have a more formal workshop of it where we could really put some time against it together.

Maria is offering us that chance.

After I signed the lease, I bought a plane ticket to NY. I'll be there from Nov 29 through December 11.

Two of the other writers involved are Karl Gajdusek, who I admire and know through mutual friends, and Ann Marie Healy, whose work I've actually seen and admired often at Clubbed Thumb.

Miracle 3?

I get a call from someone with a job I applied for through HotJobs. They're not sure I'm right for them - and since it's in an area of expertise I'm not completely versed in, I'm not sure I'm right for it either. But they want to talk. Next week.


This all happens in one day.

I have a lot of work to do.

Where cookies will come from very soon.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

7: The Director

One of my biggest fears about LA is that I'm not cool enough.

I mean, you watch the movies and there are plenty of depictions of agents, actors, directors, production assistants and hangers-on with so much cool, well, southern California begins to feel cold. (For me, it got so I started worrying that even the parking valets sit at the unattainable lunch table of hipness.)

The next biggest fear about LA is that cool is all that counts.

When these two things are combined with a third fear, cool never has any substance, well, I have a pretty potent cocktail in my head: I start thinking that I need to have a more Vince Vaughn delivery and need to pitch movies about Nazi zombies and the action stars who blow them up.

But I don't have Vince Vaughn's patter (and certainly not his looks) and I have no passion for Nazi zombie movies (which, by the way, I actually overheard someone pitch to someone else at the Farmer's Market on Fairfax one evening).

If anything, I am sincere to a fault.

This truth about myself occasionaly sends me into a depression. I despair that there's no one like me out there on the LA highways, that they've all come here and gone back to the midwest where they were raised, that substance is incidental, that seriousness is unimportant and that sensitivity is an obstacle to be overcome.

Then I meet the Director - a guy who I'll call, Steve - and I realize I am way way way wrong. In fact, I'm wallowing in foolishness and fear.

Not that Steve isn't cool. He is. In fact, very.

But when I meet him at a Starbucks in Westwood, I also find him to be kind, warm, funny and accessible. He has worked in commercials as well as features and tv. In the 80s he invented an interesting cyber icon right out of art school. There's been some luck in his life, but I know too there's been a lot of talent backed up by hard work. This is reassuring.

He definitely knows the world (advertising) that I'm coming from. And the world I'm trying to get to.

His advice echos that which I got from the agent a month earlier.

"If you haven't been produced, it's very very hard. When people find that out they back away. It's very hard. So I reccommend that you try to make something. It doesn't have to be very long, but it has to be good. It should also be something that's part of something else that you want to make. That way you can show people what you want to do and they can see it. They'll say, Oh, I see. And you can get financing that way. Once you have a project done, it will be much much easier."

He asks what kind of movies I like. I go through a list of 70s films I love (5 Easy Pieces, Last Picture Show, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) and then name a few more recent features (Lost in Translation, Eternal Sunshine, Little Miss Sunshine) I'm crazy about.

He also asks about my plays and my screenplays. I summarize them for him.

"This is good. All good good," he says. "I see."

Then he suggests something I can do in addition to - perhaps in lieu of - shooting something.

"There is a television channel that makes 40 movies a year with budgets of less than $1 million each. You don't have to write the whole script to sell an idea to them. You could write a really great logline and if they show interest, you could get in that way. It's something someone like you, from advertising, should be able to do. It's what people in advertising are good at. You should develop 10 or 12 loglines. Really work on them. Polish them. That's another way."

What is great about this advice is not just its directness, but also the feeling I get from Steve as he offers it. He clearly seems interested in helping. Of sending me in the right direction. He's floating ideas based on what I've told him. It makes me want to work for him in just about any capacity.

He presses me about my commercial reel. (To see it, click on the MY TV WORK link off to the right - the file's big, so you'll have to wait, but it's all there; or go to IDEAS BY A PLATYPUS - it's all there too.) Again, echos of the agent.

"That could be a big thing. It's a kind of production. Especially if there's comedy. People can see that you did that and they'll feel that they might be able to trust you."

Naturally, I love hearing this, but as our meeting ends, I know I can't rely on it alone.

"Send me your screenplay and if I respond to it, then, well, maybe we can talk some more," Steve says. "In the meantime, I'll look at your TV commercials online, too."

I get in my Mini-Cooper and drive home feeling upbeat, feeling that while being cool may be important, being good is important too.

Then I get out a pad of paper and start working up loglines in case Steve likes my script and calls me. As I start, I feel grateful that no logline I write will have to include anything about Nazi zombies.

Maybe someday, of course. Just not today.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Two Rabbits

Can you hunt two at once?

This weekend a friend from advertising who has also been creating his own music wrote me with a question. It's one that's been around a bit in a variety of forms (see Laura Axelrod's Gasp!), but I thought was particularly well put.

And, as someone who has written for advertising, theatre, film and more, I thought it very ap-pro-po for this blog - a kind of record of a copywritin' playwright trying to swim in waters that are decidedly different for him. (And maybe even foolish as the previous Post suggests.)

Here it is, a bit excerpted but generally in tact.



So, my friend, I don't know what you did to deserve this but I am very interested in your answer to a question.

I just heard a fascinating comment. From all things, a script for CSI - the TV world you are trying to break in to.

It said "If you chase two rabbits you end up losing them both."

You and I are friends, I think, because we have in common the fact that we are chasing two rabbits.

With you it's script-writing - whether for TV, film or the stage is of no importance. With me, it's writing also. Definitely songs and maybe things I've never even attempted yet.

But we both have the other rabbit. Advertising.

By chasing both do we lose both?

Let me know what you think.


ps I know paying the bills is important. But as Leonard Cohen once said "I never wanted to work for pay but I want to be paid for my work."

Here was my answer:


Interesting question. Especially since a lot of times the right answer is the one that sounds the best in a given a moment.

Also makes me want to say a lot of smart sounding things like, if I made art with a gun it would be as simple as hunting rabbit. etc. etc.

Certainly, there are a lot of ad people who'd say that hunting two is bad. Nick Cohen of Mad Dogs & Englishmen really frowned on the writers and art directors who had "hobbies".

On the other hand, David Ogilvy thought creatives without outside interests were boring.

I've never really thought I was ever pursuing two rabbits though. I've always wanted to entertain and engage people by using language as a starting point for creation.

I've done it in advertising. I've done it in theatre. Now I'm trying to do it in other forms.

That said, when I'm hired to do one of those things, I pretty much am devoted to it until the project is over. I found this to be true the last two years I was in advertising: I could never really leave the office at the office. Yet the training and experience I have in other forms always helps inform the answers I come up with in whatever form I'm working in - which is to say sometimes thinking outside of the box really means to get outside of the box.

Anyway, there are plenty of examples of writers and artists who did more than one thing with their talents - often doing something to make money during the day while doing something completely different at night.

Joseph Heller, Bernard Malamud, Ted Bell and James Patterson were all copywriters for a while. Wallace Stevens worked at an insurance company. Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol worked in the commercial arts before going on to pop greatness. Many teach.

And there are currently lots of directors who cross freely from commercial forms to theatrical release forms; and writers who move between screenplays and theatre and television.

Of course, there are purists out there - and some may have been successful enough early on to go on being purists throughout their life. I'm somewhat glad to say, I'm just not one of them.


I'm sure there are plenty of purists out there who disagree.

Friday, November 10, 2006

What have I done?

OKAY, you tell yourself not to look at the freekin' bank account, but you do.

You tell yourself, not to worry about the phone bill, but you can't have a conversation without a less than philosophical discussion in your head about the nature of time.

You promise yourself to be yourself when you meet other people, but somewhere in the middle of hello, you hear the silent cry, "Help me."

You go by houses on the block and do everything you can to look away from the brightly lit rooms you see behind the windows, but you just can't help yourself.

You step into your shoes every morning thinking, today I will not consider what I'd have if in my 401K if I'd stayed in New York and took full advantage of the matching plan, but the calculator in your head adds it up anyway.

You look in the mirror and plug your ears to the sound of the little man inside yourself that shouts, "You shoulda gone to LAW SCHOOL!" but you hear him anyway like a muffled voice through a shitty hotel wall.

Yeah, you do, you do, you do.

Cuz that's what you do when you do what you do, word boy.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

6: The WGA Library

I am writing this post from one of the best places on earth for a writer: The WGA Library.

Located at 3rd and Fairfax - a stone's throw from the Farmer's Market and The Grove - the library is a collection of tv and film scripts that are available to anyone who can read.

It's a great great thing. And it's the first place I came to read a teleplay - specifically SMITH. (It was an amazing experience since it was incredibly fast to read and gave me the sense that all good guilty pleasures do: Let's do that again and hope we don't caught.)

While not exactly huge, my guess is that there are probably 5,000 or so scripts here, both TV and film, behind locked glass cases. The way it works is simple: You come in, introduce yourself to the librarians and then, once you decide what you want to look at, you hand them your driver's license and they give you the script. (Everything stays in the library.)

Don't underestimate the introducing yourself to the librarians bit. These folks are the gate keepers of the secret books and they know what people read, and thus what people write.

I learned very quickly that the shows that had been most popular for spec scripts in the last year or so were "House" and "Medium" for drama; and "The Office" for comedy. ("Two and a Half Men", I've since learned, is the other 1/2 hour comedy everyone's supposed to write for.)

The librarians also know what people are talking about - which I hope will give me a good jump on next spring's scripts to write. (I'm placing big bets on DEXTER, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS and HEROES.)

And they do favors too. One of them, when I asked whether they'd get a copy of DEXTER from Showtime, told me that they wouldn't but that he had a friend who was taping them. "I'll email you when I get them."

Now THAT's a librarian I like.

But even if they didn't have these wonderful people and fairly large library, it's a great place to hang out if for no other reason than hearing the sound of other writers writing. Yes, indeed, to sit in the library is to hear ambitions songs played out on computer keys.

It's beautiful.

Monday, November 06, 2006

5: The Playwright

"Theatre is like the long legged girl I used to be in love with but that still comes over to my house to kick me in the balls and steal all my money."

This is what the playwright, whom I'll call Robert (to protect the innocent as well as the guilty), says to me over lunch at Grub in LA.

"I know what you mean," I reply. "Only I'm still in love. And since she's already taken all my money, she now comes over with a blood bag and a needle to extract a pint or two to hock on the open market."

The first time our paths crossed was in San Francisco about a month before I headed to NY and Columbia. We were playing softball. When he discovered what I was about to do, he told me he was a playwright who'd been through the MFA mill himself. Between home runs (boy, could he smack a ball), he gave me one of the best pieces of advice I was to ever get about grad school and theatre.

"When I got out of school, I got out with all these friends from the program. I thought they'd just make my career automatically blossom. That doesn't happen. Well, maybe it happens for some people, but most people, that doesn't happen. Still, you'll have a great time. Especially if you're going there just to write. It's a lot of fun if that's what you're really interested in."

In NY, I discovered that Robert was not only correct about grad school, but a fairly successful playwright, a member of New Dramatists, a gifted screenwriter and a writer on a television show or two that I happened to have a lot of respect for. He'd moved to the West Coast several years ago.

Now I wanted to find out about writing in Hollywood. And that included playwriting. Sort of.

"I've just found that the darker themes I'm interested in are more frankly handled in television and film than in theatre," he said.


"Well, theatres seem to be interested in producing plays that are nice little unchallenging things. They want audiences to be comfortable. Television and film are actually less afraid."

I had to agree - or at least, let me say, my own experience suggested this was true. FIRE BABY, my dark comedy about generational problems that are played out when a kid tries to kill his parents (only half successfully - his mother proves to be quite a challenge to kill) had won a few awards but had been rejected everywhere. DRESSING THE GIRL, a story about our darker mental habits and prisms, had met the same fate. And almost every play I'd read for the Public that had some dark heart to it never made it much beyond a New Work NOW! consideration. Yet on TV, I could get THE SHIELD, THE WIRE, THE SOPRANOS, RESCUE ME, DEAD LIKE ME, ROME, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, BIG LOVE, SIX FEET UNDER, DEXTER, all the Aaron Sorkin shit and more. Hell, even the GILMORE GIRLS was occasionally more provocative than some of the programming at the major non-profits in NYC. And film, well, among all the blockbusters, you still had Aronofsky, Nolan, Gondry, Egoyan and Soderbergh working - to name a few.

"What do you want to break into? Television or film?" he asked.
"I've got a few movie scripts, but I thought I'd try my hand at television."
"Well, I think you'll find it easier if you go for one rather than both. There's really not as much cross over as people think."

I asked him to expand on that since he seemed to have actually avoided making a decision about which to do for himself.

"That's actually why I suggest making a decision. It's kind of hard to run between them. It's a lot."

Feeling like selling a screenplay was like winning the lottery, I told him I was probably going to pursue television pretty hard.

"I think being a staff writer on a television show is the best creative job in the world right now. You get paid well, the audience is there, the outlet is terrific and the quality of work is high. And nothing squeezes your brain harder. It's really amazing."

Any drawbacks?

"It's a great job for someone who's single, but it's not really for a family person. You work a lot. The hours can just be insane."

The bill came and we both produced credit cards. As we made out the tip amounts, I told him about the agent that had suggested making a film and putting it on YouTube.

"With technology being what it is, now anyone can make a thing. But unless they have access to some kind of cleverness that no-one else can get their hands on, I'm not sure there's anything to it."

I mentioned one of my favorite YouTube videos, THE EASTER BUNNY HATES YOU. We both agreed it was funny, but not exactly the kind of sustained narrative that says, trust me, I can write your movie.

Still, making a movie. There had to be some value to it. Strangely, it brought us back to theatre.

"Sure. I made a movie a couple of years ago. It wasn't any good, but it made me remember what it was like to do theatre once. You work with a small group of people, very closely, very intensely and you really believe it's gonna be great so that you hardly notice that you're sitting around working with lights and actors in some hole at 3 o'clock in the morning. It was good to be in touch with that."

Yep, I knew exactly what he meant - after all, as I said at the top, I was still in love with that long legged girl.

Which is why, when we finished lunch, I went home, rolled up my sleeve and let her plunge that needle into my arm one more time: She needed that pint of blood much more than I did.

On her way out, she gave me a good knee to the groin.

I told her to come back tomorow morning. I was sure I'd have some more for her by then if she wanted.

Take a look at this on young audiences courtesy of the Playgoer. It's way worthwhile. In 20 Years Everything You Love Will Be Dead

Thursday, November 02, 2006


For two years, there's been 3,000 miles between us. Here's how we did it. Or, well, thought about it.

(Yes, all my obsessions in one link - but it also serves as a nice rebuttal to those who say the arts can't sustain you.)


More of "The Industry - People I'm Meeting" in LA to come early next week.