Sunday, December 31, 2006
Honestly, it's been quite long and exhausting and, well, nothing like what I thought it would be 365 days ago.
Back then, I was hoping a raise at the ad agency I was working at would give me financial incentive to stay in NY. More foolishly, I was still thinking that Nokia would do something more intelligent with its marketing dollars than do what it did. (The brand has all but disappeared in North America despite producing a campaign with a theme that could've taken them 20 years into the future. They have serious Motorola envy... but that's a whole different soapbox.)
In theatre, I was hoping it would be the year of DRESSING THE GIRL. Alas, despite a draft that was a finalist for New Work NOW! - and an interesting site-specific reading - the producers of the world saw fit to lose money with other plays.
But there were highlights.
AND, rather than do a top 10 list of things that I had nothing to do with (Top Movie; Top Book; Top Play; Top Stupid Celebrity Thingee; etc.) - and I might add, a list that would look like everyone else's - I'm doing a top 10 list of good things for my year.
A list of self-absorption? Sure.
Something you should do for yourself? Absolutely. Because why should the culture brokers at People Magazine, US Weekly, The New York Times and elsewhere have all the power?
Anyway, here it is:
1. I'm still sober.
Yep. This is a good thing for me. And an especially good thing for you.
2. Still in love.
Could it be clearer from my blog that this is true? If not, please email me and I will carve it into a blunt instrument, come over to your house and use it on your head.
3. Still solvent.
I freak out about money. A lot. I wish I didn't. But I do. And yet, I am still so so lucky. (Check-in 6 months from now though and see how I'm doing. Then you'll.... Shit, I doing it again.)
5. Still writing.
I'm sure my Clubbed Thumb Boot Camp chronicle bored most of you after the second entry (assuming you got that far), but it was a great experience. (And I don't give a damn what the blogosphere's consensus says about New Play Development - YOU'RE ALL WRONG! WRONG!!!!!! YOU HEAR ME?!!!!! WRONG!!!!)
6. Still not in New York.
Sorry, New Yorkers, but the city I loved living in when I was 19 (that was in 1983) isn't the city for me now. Nonetheless, it's nice to go back and visit. And I still love so many people there.
7. Still not completely employed.
I've flipped the negative here because it also means that I've got tons of time to write and even more time to spend with my wife. Since employment kept us separated, I feel this is only fair.
8. Still not at Grey.
I hear it's gone down hill since I left. While I could take the George Bush the first approach (Before me, wall; After me, no wall), I won't. It's just good to get out of a place that does not truly appreciate its own people.
9. Still have friends.
If I've alienated you, please don't tell me. I'd like to keep the delusion going.
10. Still new in LA.
I rue the day the wonderful novelty of daily sunlight wears off.
Have a great New Year.
I know I will.
Friday, December 29, 2006
It's Fred Wickham's fault over at The Bullseye Rooster blog.
Basically, the deal is I'm to:
Find the nearest book
Name the title and author
Turn to p. 123
Post sentences 6-8
Tag 3 more people
Normally, I'd ignore it, but Fred is not only a good friend, but he once did a performance art "chain letter" for me and not only was it hysterical, but bad luck did indeed follow me after I refused to perform it for anyone else.
I had to lay two people off at the office the next week - I kid you not.
I have to assume something worse will befall me if I don't do this. So here goes nothing.
The book nearest to me (at the top of the first book box I opened - we're still unpacking dammit!) happens to be Hemingway's A FAREWELL TO ARMS.
Here's sentences 6, 7 and 8 from page 123.
"You'd be a general, " said Simmons.
"No, I wouldn't know enough to be a general. A general's got to know a hell of a lot."
Lieutenant Henry has more to say, but it's beyond the quota.... so the end quote is mine.
I'm tagging someone I know well, someone I know only a little, and someone I know not at all.
Feel free to do what you like, kids. But if you play, thank you for playing.
And Fred: I'll never do anything like this again.
But hopefully I've avoided the fate of one man who broke the chain. Arnold Brady, 42, Susanville, CA, ignored these instructions and within a week was struck dead by lightening in broad day light while heading toward the Bi-Mart to purchase a Samsung Slimfit TV for his wife.
His wife was killed a week later in an unrelated threshing machine accident.
Thursday, December 28, 2006
In mid-August of 2006, I started this blog with an entry about the life Heather and I were putting behind the door of a storage facility outside an airport in Medford, Oregon.
Then I went down to Los Angeles, found a temporary place to live and began to look for work.
Since then, I've gone back up to Ashland to visit Heather several times, been to New York twice to develop some theatre work, met a lot of people in LA and had a lot of up and downs emotionally about it all.
One of the things I've chronicled quite closely has been our struggle to find a place to live. And if you've been reading, you know that in late November we signed a lease for a place at the corner of Sunset and Crescent Heights in West Hollywood.
Last week - on Wednesday the 20th, to be exact - after three days of driving, we pulled a rented truck up to the curb and began to unload our stuff into our new apartment.
This is the main reason I haven't written much on the blog lately. For the past 7 days Heather and I have been unpacking boxes like crazy and trying to set up our house.
In addition, we hosted a small Christmas dinner for my cousins Phil and Caryn and my mom-in-law, Eleanor.
I don't know if we bit off more than we could chew, but we sure did bite off a lot.
Still, it's been good.
Even better, the unpacking process has reminded us of how fortunate we have been with friends and family - how generous all have been to us over the past year and a half - since much of what we own came to us as wedding gifts that we've never really been able to use until now.
Thanks every one - again.
This is also why I've posted the wedding video here. Though many have seen it (I have it on my phone) - the plates, the vases, the kitchenware, the quilts, the everything - have reminded us of that first day we had together as a married couple.
And of the good fortune all who were there wished on us for our future.
And now we're here. In LA. Together. A new city. A new life. Just need to find a job. (Oh, yes.)
Ah, the writer's life....
Have a happy New Year!
Saturday, December 23, 2006
So I haven't posted much this week. (Okay, at all.)
There are many reasons - namely, we finally got everything out of the storage unit in Oregon (see The Door Of My Next Life) and into our LA apartment (see: 1 Day. 2 Miracles. Maybe even 3.).
I will post more about the move (how we got there, or, well, here) and all that later (over the holidays) but until then, well, here's a wonderful little movie from Spike Jonze.
It was made a little while ago, but it answers an eternal question.
ps. Family - if you click on the video on the blog, it'll play right in the window for you.
Monday, December 18, 2006
But within a few moments their dispassionate aura dissolves and the insults they are exploring as an exercise become arrows and spear they can throw at each other.
And the audience they are standing in front of is eating it up. Small - maybe 20 or so people - their laughter is compulsive and involuntary. And after "puke stocking" it's explosive.
i am witnessing one of the final evening shows by Heather and her partner Bill Langan as part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's school tour. Schools as far away as Alaska and Kansas have paricipated at one time or another in the program which sends teams of actors out into the world after each OSF season ends to teach classes to introduce the Bard to kids. As part of that the actors also do school and public performances.
The tour, which lasts about 8 weeks, is grueling. Constantly on the road, work usually starts early and, as you'd expect, there are some schools and groups of kids that are more welcoming than others.
Heather and Bill have been assigned to towns along the Oregon and California coasts. Many of them have fallen on hard times. The lumber and fishing industries are both in the doldrums and sometimes, over the phone, I can hear the hardness Heather has experienced in the sons and daughters of that diminishment in her voice.
Interestingly enough Heather has also told me that many of the theatres in these schools are quite big and beautiful. Tonight's show is taking place in one of those auditoriums. I know it's used for many things besides the school theatre department - rallies, school conferences, ceremonies - but I also can't help thinking that it's a lot nicer than most of the theatres I've done work in in New York City.
The other thing I think about as I watch them is how selfless an act it is that they - Heather and BIll - are engaged in. Sure, there is a financial stipend, but it will never make them rich, much less even barely middle class (if they had to live on it year round).
Or maybe just saying it a little differently, I can see they're in love with theater and that they're there to pass that on.
It really humbles me.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Coming back from New York, I caught the tail end of one of my favorite rock doc's.
They bleeped most of the offensive language as if that by itself made it less dangerous somehow.
Time has done that to punk pretty well.
I confess, however, I still felt the old sense of "fuck'em" run through the soul as I watched four drunks put it back in the face of the machine with their completely unmanageable "not gonna take this shit anymore" truthfulness.
There are days when I'd like to feel this after a night of theatre.
Occasionally, of course, it still happens. Usually during a Martin Crimp or Sam Shepard or Martin McDonagh or Caryl Churchill show, believe it or not.
But without further bullshit, here's the trailer for "The Filth and the Fury." It's got some kind of Eastern European subtitles which seems appropriate.
Have a great weekend.
Clubbed Thumb Boot Camp: 4 – Final thoughts on car crashes and play notes and, yes, oh, yes, the development thing
Fear of failure. Fear of not getting it right. Fear of embarrassing myself.
That, and coffee, of course.
My writing process is more comfortable when it’s not driven by that very primitive emotion, but the little adrenaline rush that it brings has something to it and there’s no doubt that a lot of my best work has been done with a pearl handled revolver pointed at my head.
The trouble is that right after you spend a week locked away in a room rewriting - fueled by little else - well, when you finally do cross the finish line, you really can’t be sure what you’ve got is any good.
Or isn’t bad, as the case may be.
Getting notes right after a reading of the thing you’ve been bashing your head against doesn’t necessarily make things any clearer either.
In fact, I don’t think it’s outrageous to say that the feeling of disorientation I have after a reading of my work is akin to pulling myself out of an overturned car with a perfect memory of the accident but still asking: What the fuck just happened?
Okay, maybe it's not really as traumatic as all that, but then maybe it is.
After the BEYOND THE OWING reading I had several immediate responses in addition to that. The first was relief: I got it done. This was followed closely by the need to profusely express my gratitude to those who’d come by to see and hear the piece.
I went a little overboard. I always do. But this “thanking response” is deeply connected to the fear that propelled me through the process in the first place: the fear of failure.
Somehow I hope that thanking people for being there will get them to overlook the problems of the work.
However, we all know that it doesn’t.
Generally this is why I try to remain impassive when I get notes directly after a reading (unless I’m doing a talk back, which is often less a discussion and more of a performance half the time).
See, despite my best intentions, I really have no perspective on what I just heard, let alone what I just worked on. And if I let myself go beyond thanking, I might start explaining myself.
Or worse, defend myself.
These are not good positions to be coming from when getting notes. For me, when I’m defending and explaining, I’m usually re-acting to the most literal surface meaning of the note. And if there’s any interpretation going on for me beyond that, it’s that I’m interpreting every note as another way of saying, “You suck.”
And, let’s face it, notes – especially when given by people you trust – are signs of respect as much as anything else. More importantly, sometimes a note isn’t even a suggestion for change but rather nothing more than an observation.
But listening to people tell you how they experienced the car accident you just had can be pretty instructional. Especially if you don’t dilute it with your version of events.
The best note I got was that I hadn’t gone far enough with the lie of omission created when one partner in a relationship hides something important from the other.
There were other notes, too, (one character appears only one once in the play, etc) but this particular note was especially resonant for me because I understood it as an opportunity to really harpoon my theme in much more muscular way.
Of course, it’s only been a week since the final presentation, so who really knows. I’m still a little fuzzy.
But I don't regret for a second getting in that vehicle and taking the curves at 120 mph. I might've slid off the road, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It's kinda exhilarating to watch the world come loose and turn upside down just before the airbag explodes and breaks your nose.
QUICK NOTE: I've gotten some feedback that some people think I didn't feel my play went over very well in the final presentation - please know that I felt quite to the contrary. It was simply a lot of work. And I tend to bring an intense amount of pressure on myself whatever the task. There was a lot of growth - and, as is often the case with quick growth - there were some aches and pains. But I'd do it all over again in a second.
Interestingly enough these last few entries have described my part in one theatre companies development process – a company devoted to developing and producing work by living American playwrights - just as the discussion over development heats up again on some of the blogs you'll find in the right sidebar.
While the debate about development’s value and place in American theatre will go on in the blogosphere and elsewhere for, well, probably ever, I hope my recounting of my experiences shows that development does not have to be some evil crime against a writer.
Jason Grote makes more sense of it than almost anyone else I've read so far.
If plays are to be about opening up difficult questions, well, nobody should expect the process of addressing those questions to be easy - and even less so because you're squeezing those questions into "art".
What's required for any of that be successful - if it's ever to be successfull - is some smart people, well placed trust, a willingness to run blind and a high tolerance for failure.
A high tolerance for failure.
Put more directly about what I'm reading elsewhere: Any general conclusion anyone draws up about how the development process is ruining everything - or really great for everything - is pure bullshit. They're only telling you how crappy or great their own experience has been working on plays with other people. They also are often revealing just how big their own egos are (writers who don't take notes; dramaturgs who believe their conclusions are always golden nuggets of wisdom; intellectuals and critics who'd rather be shaping culture than commenting on it from the sidelines.)
That's all I've actually done here, as well.
Nothing more may ever happen with my play.
But already a lot of shit happened with it that I never thought would.
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
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.
Sunday, December 10, 2006
She starts in a low mumbly voice and doesn’t get much louder. It’s a lot of “I, I, I…” and “But…” and that’s about it. She knows it was a mistake. She didn’t mean to not tell him. But the size of the debt was so big and the whole affair was so quick that before she got the nerve to say what was what, she was wearing a ring.
I know this. She knows this.
But for some reason she seems unable to figure out how to say it to the person she’s hidden it from - the person she was obligated to tell.
I look away from the pages where she’s struggling to say this very simple thing. The west side of Manhattan glitters at me like big stupid Christmas ornament.
What am I going to do? The play’s a complete mess and I’m having trouble connecting to the voices of these characters the way I had once.
Part of the problem is that I haven’t truly jettisoned the old play. The play I came in with. The play that I’m carrying in my head. Every page, no matter how blank to start with, slowly fills with it. Every moment I visualize on stage, the characters start in a new direction but almost always find their way into the comfortable rut of behavior that I carved for them long ago.
It’s some kind of monster I’ve let rule the closet too long and now I can’t get rid of.
Maybe I should start by listening to him – her lover. He’s the wronged party. He’s gotta be pretty pissed. I would be. But it turns out he’s too stunned to say much. Too angry to do more than be an ogre.
This is not going to work. Maybe it’s time to do something radical.
I get up, get in the elevator. Ten minutes later I’m watching the new James Bond chasing bad guys across the globe and thinking the unthinkable: This new Bond just might be better than Connery. I’m impressed.
I go back to Playwrights. I get out the spiral notebook. It’s time for some old-fashioned writing, writing that moves slower than hands type. Writing that gives time for characters to respond.
I close my eyes. It’s night. I see a girl next to a kiddie pool brimming with water at the center of a living room.
She looks up at a hole in the ceiling where water drips down.
She opens her mouth.
Saturday, December 09, 2006
99 times out of a 100, I’ve left those same offices – sometimes within minutes – bleeding from the nose and feeling lucky that I got paid at all, let alone every two weeks.
Though getting your ass handed to you is never pleasant, I was usually relieved to discover that I was not alone - a quick poll of my fellow writers and art directors in the hallway often revealed they’d suffered similar fates.
For some reason though, there is no relief for me when it comes to plays. I just simply never want to miss. I never want to leave anyone unengaged. I never want to feel that someone reading, watching or hearing my play could walk away feeling like they wasted their time.
Sometimes I wonder if this is because failure in theatre is almost always a social occasion.
Or maybe it’s just that I care too much.
Or perhaps it’s just that I have too damn big an ego.
I don’t know.
But, for the record, I hate failing and my fear of it was unusually high this past week as I went into the Clubbed Thumb workshop.
Maria Striar, the producer working with me on my play, assured me – repeatedly - that the point of the workshop was to try new things, fail and try some more.
The word fail is in there, so I wasn't so sure. But she assured me that if I didn’t like any of the material created during the workshop, I could return to the original script for the final presentation.
“The play I chose,” she said, “is production ready. You don’t have to do anything to it if you don’t want. But this next week is about seeing what else you might do.”
I suppose the idea that you’ve got 7 days to play around with an option to return to the script that you started with would’ve made most writers happy, but me, well, it was something else.
Why? Because after the first read through on Wednesday the 29th, the one thing I was certain of was that the original script was not production ready. In fact, it was no good. At all. Sure, it had a good idea in it. And it had some great characters. But somehow, in that room over 42nd Street, I heard something in it that I hadn’t heard at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in March or at NJ Rep in September – a creeping flatness that kept the characters from truly engaging with each other and the problem that was keeping them at odds with themselves.
Matthew, my director, heard it. And my cast did, too. We all talked about it in different ways at the table after. It felt like an ocean of notes that I might drown in.
Having taken a red-eye in from Portland, I hoped it was just fatigue. I hit the hay and decided to worry about it later.
Matthew and I jawed about it all the next day. I hoped I could reroute the train; Matthew suggested track needed to be ripped up and re-laid. I discussed it carefully with my other collaborator, Heather, over the phone and then pulled out an old draft.
On Friday morning, I brought this older, but now more polished draft in for the cast.
We read. We looked at each other. Maria and I separated from the group to discuss.
She noted the play was different from the other plays I’d sent her. Those plays had been spare linguistically but visually interesting and laced with mysterious tension. This play had long monologs and action that happened offstage. The characters had interesting things to say but weren’t trying to change what other characters were doing.
Perhaps most notably, the play – about how a young couple is dealing with educational debt - was naturalistic when most of my other plays were decidedly not.
Maria made one concrete suggestion: Have the size of the bride’s debt revealed to the groom during the course of the play – don’t make it something he already knows at the start of the play.
This meant widening the focus of the play’s central problem from how a young couple deals with a financial problem caused by chasing dreams (school) to include the effect that hiding such a sizeable fact means in a relationship.
I went home and opened up a blank page on the computer screen. I couldn't go back to what I had. It was time to see what would happen next.
I just tried to forget that I only had 5 days to see it.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Revised soup to nuts in less than 4 days.
5 great actors.
2 fantastic producers.
1 terrific director.
An audience of 30 or so.
All huddled together in a room above 42nd street engaged in the act of theatre.
I have more work to do - but for now I'm pleased.
Don't forget, readings from Ethan Lipton on Friday at 8.30 and Ann Marie Healy on Saturday at 3.
(More later on the entire process as well as the what New York was like this time.)
Monday, December 04, 2006
I've been rewriting.
Is it any good?
Please come and find out.
CLUBBED THUMB reading of BEYOND THE OWING
WHEN: Wednesday (tomorrow) at 8.30 pm
WHERE: Playwrights Horizons (on 42nd Street, just west of 9th) on the 5th floor. North Rehearsal Room.
I gotta say, Maria Striar, Michael Levinton, Matthew Arbour, Cecil MacKinnon, Mary Bacon, Jeff Beihl, Jeff Stietzer and Meg McQuillan are all warm, kind, smart, patient and incredibly talented.
I'm very, very fortunate.
IN OTHER NEWS: The job in LA - there's a second interview. Originally they wanted to do it over the phone. Now they want to do it in person. Looking forward to meeting them. So far they've been great.
Cross your fingers. For everything.
*Morgan Freeman will NOT be there. However, his wax figure may appear.