Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Clubbed Thumb Boot Camp: 3

A girl praying doesn't seem like it should be a break-thru in writing a play, but when the scene came to me late on Friday it proved to be a gateway for the rest of the piece.

Within 12 hours of writing this simple one page scene, I had redrawn the breaking point in the play, lopping off a third of the first act and completely re-organizing the emotional world of the second.

Well, actually, let me correct that: I'd completely rewritten the first and last scenes of the second half of the play and decided to scrap all the scenes in between.

Obviously, there were a few things in the play that I lost that I loved. One of them was the plum tree speech which is below. In the original draft it had been the turning moment in the play. It was the moment that Sutton, the groom, realized that his future mother-in-law was not going to help the financially beleaguered couple out. The idea was to have her say no without actaully saying it - a matter of point of view created by the tone the actor takes to the content...

Watery light comes on Sutton from the window. Light falls on Ruth from a different angle. Everything about Ruth’s speech says, NO.

We planted trees along the side there. Plum trees. I said I didn’t think they’d take. Didn’t think it was the right environment for it, but no-one listened and the builder just did what he wanted. These are my hands, he said, I’ll do what I want with them. And he made holes in the ground and put them in. They were hardly sticks to start with, never really had a chance. And one by one they died. The soil here, like I said. I think one or two I actually mowed down when doing the lawn. Accidents you could call it – if you are one of those who believe that a word such as accident can exist in a universe such as this. Still, one lived. One made it past a point where the mower couldn’t run it over and the blades couldn’t cut it. It was a scarred thing, but it lived. Grew big too. And after all that, I was glad. It bore fruit in the summers. Big, juicy plums, liquid sugar that quenched the thirst you get for everything sometimes when you look up at the sky. Occasionally, I’d grill a couple on the barbecue. And more than once I’d catch a black bear out here at midnight stretching up to a branch to find a good one. Eventually, though, well, it got so big that its branch spread out over the roof. And when the leaves fell off it, the gutters got clogged. And nothing drained right. A few seasons, I had a man out here to clean the gutters, make it right, but one day, he came out and said he was tired of the work involved and wondered if I was tired of it too. He pulled a chain saw out of the back of his pick-up. It smelled like oil and diesel. If you look out the window, you can still see the hump. Never had any trouble with the gutters again.

Sutton, during the speech, has turned to her.

You’re not going to help us, are you? Never even considered going to the bank with us, did you?

She slowly looks at him.

How do I know you’re gonna be around after all’s said ‘n done?

She stares down at her plate. LIghts shift....

I was very much attached to this speech, but it also turned out to be an example of one of my writing problems with this play. It was oblique to say the least. And rather than say what a character wanted from another, it simply explained the inertia that a character had - an inertia that was not the result of active fear.

So it was cut. Ironically, Cecil MacKinnon who played Ruth told me later that she'd just figured out how to deliver the speech to make clear what I was trying to do, but she also said it in a way that let me know the cut was the correct action. As noted in the previous post Clubbed Thumb Boot Camp: 2, in its place came a public revelation between lovers about what one owed to the US government for getting an education in the arts.

This simple change meant the play was about three people working out their mutual obligations rather than a play about what one guy was gonna do about a debt.

Ultimately, by Monday, I had crafted a final scene for the play that was also different from where I had been at the beginning of the process. Originally, my two main characters had reconciled, agreeing that their love for each other was more powerful than their fear of never getting out from under their debt.

In the new version, my bride, Liz, after watching her fiance Sutton fail at his attempt to fix a leaky roof, realizes he is attached to things rather than ideas and tells him - almost defiantly - what she is (an actor) and lays out what she owes monthly before leaving.

Her man, Sutton, for his part remains attached to things and so stays in the home where he clings to the hope that she'll come back after he's gotten his mother-in-law to re-mortgage the house to cover their financial problems.

I had not figured it all out, but the direction was more active. Still, with so many holes still to write through, I wasn't sure how the cast would take it.

The rehearsal on Monday loomed and in I came with the new first act and two scenes from the second act and a one page prayer.

They all looked hopeful as we started. About an hour later we all looked up from the new work. There were continuity problems all over the place. There were things that didn't work. But for the most part my cast, my producers and my director all had big smiles on their faces.

The emotional map that the new work laid out definitely pointed in direction that all felt would work.

Maria, tongue-in-cheek, put it out there for everyone: "Now all you have to do is fill in the connector scenes and you've got a play. You can do that before Wednesday, can't you?"

We all laughed.

And I relaxed. The play could be read as it was in front of people, holes and all, and it would be fine. It would show people what the play could be and how it could work. More importantly, it was clear that the spirit of the Clubbed Thumb boot camp had been embraced whole-heartedly.

Best of all, by Wednesday, I had filled in a lot of that connector material.

Certainly, there were still issues.

In fact, we made our audience sit in the hallway for 15 minutes longer than they should have as I tried to fix what I could. To make sure every one knew just how unfinished the play was, we also had the actors sit behind a table crowded with coffee cups stuffed with pens and pencils. During the reading, I felt it was almost possible for me to jump up and change something right in front of everyone - that's just how raw it was.

But it was clear, I believe, that there was a play here on our marked up pages.

It was good.

This play will be produced July 13 -26,
at the Red Eye Theater in Minneapolis,
directed by Genevieve Bennett.

Check it out.... right here.

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