Posts Tagged ‘satire’
Each time I finish a play, especially a full length one, I become more or less catatonic. I can’t bear even the thought of writing anything else; a state that lasts for anywhere from two to four months.
Then, one day, I realize that I’m seeing things, and starting to get annoyed. Not that I’m not annoyed a good deal of the time every day. It’s just that now, I find I’m getting annoyed and wanting to tell people about it. And that’s when I know I’m ready to write again.
I finished the script of “Getting Betta” in mid February. Fortunately, in this case my catatonia (sounds like a province in northern Spain, doesn’t it?) corresponded with 2 productions of Shakespeare Incorporated, one of Postville, and a gig of Senior Moments. So at least I appeared to have an excuse for not being productive.
But this past weekend I went to see 3 plays. One of them had gotten a great review in a local newspaper, and another had been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Frankly, the only one I thought was a particularly good script was the third one, which was presented by a group of recent CU grads I’d taken classes with over the past several years.
But the thing that got me going was the fact that all 3 plays used the same dramatic device — the characters taking turns stepping out of the action of the play and addressing the audience. I think that device was wonderful for the Stage Manager in Our Town, but that was 80 years ago. Has it become the hallmark for every worthy contemporary piece of drama?
While I was taking a walk this morning, I started thinking about that and all the other things that annoy me about the playwriting business. And Whammo!, a play emerged. (Actually, it happens in the other direction first, so I guess it “inmerged”.) The working title for the play is “Catharsis,” and it’s about overuse of hackneyed dramatic devices, people who tell you how to rewrite your plays, writing to formulae for commercial success, not being recognized for your true genius, …. You get the idea.
“Catharsis” is going to be no more than 10 pages, so it should be finished in a couple of days.
Watch out, world. I’m annoyed and ready to write!
A couple of weeks ago I crossed an important barrier. Some time during my working career – I think it was about 1980 — I realized that I was getting a sick feeling in my stomach every time the phone would ring or my boss would call me into his office. It was almost always bad news. I’d done something wrong, or somebody else had done something wrong, or something bad had happened without anyone in particular being at fault. But it usually meant that I’d have to work through the night and, more often than not, it signified that whatever I was involved with was in the process of going down the tubes.
Hope may spring eternal in the human breast, but by the time I retired, it no longer did in mine. Which was just as well, because when I started writing, the trend continued. Nobody was interested in my work, and most letters, emails and phone calls were to inform me that another one of my plays had been rejected.
Not that this was all bad. Viewing the world through mud-colored glasses is a good thing for a playwright. Being a curmudgeon makes for drama, and drama makes for – well – drama.
But then one morning about two weeks ago, the phone rang and I realized as I went to pick it up that I was saying to myself, “Maybe it’s someone who wants to produce Senior Moments. And it was! Good things had started happening often enough that, without realizing it, I’d crossed over from the Vale of Pessimism to the Hills of Positivity. That was a good thing, right?
Not quite. Crusty Old Fart-hood dies hard. My first reaction was to bemoan the loss of one of the driving forces of my artistic inspiration. If I’m not constantly pissed off at the world and everything in it, how am I going to come up with ideas for plays in which pissed off people overcome their problems.
Well, I needn’t have worried. I’m in London at the moment for the opening of rehearsals for a production of Shakespeare Incorporated. As soon as the plane from Denver took off, the woman in front of me put her seat back in my lap and stayed there for the next 9 hours. Sweet! At Heathrow, we landed at the brand new Terminal 5. Rather than being an improvement on the abysmal Terminals 1 – 4, it’s even worse. Delightful! I got onto the Tube to go downtown; we went 5 stations and the train stopped. After a few minutes, the driver came on and announced that a train following us was delayed, so in order not to have too much of a gap between trains, they were going to have all trains on the line sit in their stations until the faulty train was running again. Wonderful!
And so it has gone for the past 3 days. The weather is typical London grotty. The air bed I was sleeping on in my director’s flat has popped half its seams, so the bed lies at a 30 degree angle, and so did I all night. The 5 year old son of the couple I stayed with last night decided that the world would be better if he head-butted me repeatedly in the groin. Could life possibly get any better?
So I needn’t have worried about losing my inspiration for a world in which things are constantly annoying and going wrong. I’m so relieved!
That quotation comes more and more to mind as Shakespeare Incorporated and several of my other plays begin having some success. Each of these plays was rejected — occasionally quite rudely — by quite a number of the theaters and contests to which I submitted them. I’m also reminded of another Hollywood executive who had an option on the screenplay for ET and sold it to Steven Spielberg. And of the guy from Decca Records who turned down the Beatles.
OK, so I may not be in the Beatles’ class in terms of recognition any time soon, and Shakespeare Incorporated may never rival ET for commercial success. But just in case, I’ve decided to follow the lead of the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado, and I’m compiling a little list (they’d none of them be missed). If Shakespeare Incorporated ever wins a Tony or a Pulitzer, I’ll be ready to look up each and every person who rejected the play and make them eat their words. Preferably, I’ll force them to ingest the rejection letters they sent me. (If they ignored me and didn’t even have the decency to send a rejection letter, I’ve saved up some old scripts that should be particularly appetizing.)
Yes, I do take all this very personally. But hey, I’m a crusty old fart; that’s my job.
I know it’s not the Boulder way. Instead of being bitter and twisted and savoring thoughts of revenge, I should be grateful for whatever success I achieve, and we should all hold hands and hum and frolic semi-naked in the snow of a Colorado January. Screw that! You must be mistaking me with someone else.
Those of you in Boulder, don’t expect to see me any time soon. No doubt when this post becomes public, they’ll rescind my visa to the People’s Republic. Again.
Last night we had the 6th of 8 performances of Taste of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. (I’m in a Renaissance quintet that we formed to sing before and during the play.)
Merchant of Venice has sometimes been tough to swallow. It’s a great play, but it’s deeply anti-Semitic. While it’s probable that Shakespeare didn’t have anything personal against Jews — they were expelled from England in 1290 and weren’t officially allowed back in until 1655 — anti-Semitism remained widespread in Britain. As well read as Shakespeare was, he would have been exposed to it in literature and come to regard it as accepted wisdom. The play reflects that fact.
Nonetheless, we’ve gotten through 6 performances of Merchant of Venice so far without any picketing. It is Shakespeare, after all, so people make allowances.
When I started talking about writing a play about the events in Postville, my family and friends pleaded with me not to.
“There’s no way you’re going to be able to write this play without it being anti-Semitic,” they told me.
“Sure there is,” I responded, although I have to admit that at the time I wasn’t quite convinced. Unless the play was going to be too sticky-sweet to say anything, it was going to have to tread through a host of “ism” minefields — anti-Semitism, anti-immigrantism, anti-Midwest farmerism, …
I’m convinced that I’ve achieved the objective of writing a play that deals sensitively and appropriately with a number of difficult issues. But each time there’s a public reading — this past week were the second and third — I’m concerned that I’m going to get the crap kicked out of me by people who hear individual sentences but miss the point.
“You said that Jews are cheap!” Kaboom!
“You showed a Hispanic immigrant who couldn’t speak English well!” Crash!
Some of that happened in Des Moines in March, but I knew it would. (See Write Your Own Damn Play.)
There was only one instance of it this week. And that was a woman who beat me up for not following up in the play on the otherwise un-referred-to occupants of a bus that gets clobbered by a train. Anti-innocent-bystanderism? (Come on, Lady, even Tolstoy when he was writing War and Peace had to make choices about what to include and what to leave out!)
I’m hugely relieved, but I’ll continue to worry about people who are so burned by their hot buttons that they can’t or won’t see things in context.
So here’s my plea. Just treat me with the same consideration you’d give Shakespeare. That wouldn’t be so hard, would it?
It’s been a mighty busy week in the great scheme of play marketing.
Last Monday I flew to Omaha and then rented a car and drove to Des Moines for a public reading of “Postville” at StageWest. (“Postville” is my play about the group of Hasidic Jews who bought a defunct meatpacking plant in a struggling, northeast Iowa town and reopened it as a kosher facility. Click here for the synopsis.) There was a rehearsal on Monday night and then the reading was Tuesday night. There were over 100 people at the reading, which is about three times the turnout that they normally get for this kind of thing. Given the media attention the play has gotten, that wasn’t surprising.
The reading went better than I had hoped for — people laughed at the right times, they oohed and aahed at the right times, they even wiped their eyes and sniffled at the right times. Wait! Maybe that was me wiping and sniffling. But the laughing and oohing and aahing is the gospel truth.
Everybody seemed engrossed in the play from the first page through the end, an hour and forty intermission-free minutes later. No shuffling in seats, no checking of watches or talking among themselves, and only two people running out to the rest room. And when it was over, there was sustained, enthusiastic applause. I’ve been around theater enough to know the difference between polite, “Let’s get out of here, but not embarrass the cast” applause, and “This was really pretty good” applause. This was the latter.
Next there was a 5 minute potty break. Most of the audience then left, but about 30 people returned for a talk-back session.
The events in Postville (see the article on the play in the Iowa Independent or the Des Moines Register for some of the background) have been in the news in Iowa on a daily basis for the past year, and it has all been incredibly traumatic and emotional for the people of Iowa. Was the owner of the plant guilty of immigration and human-rights violations? Or was the whole thing being blown out of proportion by the media because he is a member of a Jewish religious sect? Did the immigration agents abuse the rights of the illegal immigrants? There are dozens of issues here.
Given the level of attention and emotion, I knew that many Iowans were going to have very strong prejudices about what should be the focus of the play, what should be included and excluded, and even whether it should have been written at all. So I was expecting to get beaten up by at least some of the people who remained for the talk-back session. And I was.
Three groups emerged from those who stayed. Five or six people were what I’ll call activists. They came with an axe to grind, and they were going to grind it. How dare I write a fictional play (the play has been marketed as a fictional account, inspired by the events in Postville) and use the name of the town? I should either write a documentary, 100% factual, or else I should move the setting of the play somewhere else, change the Hasidim to some other group (Amish?), and make it otherwise unrecognizable. Some people insisted I should make it more clear that the owner of the plant was criminally guilty. Others insisted that I should make him completely innocent.
You get the idea. Nobody likes to talk more or louder than a social activist with an audience. These 5 or 6 people each had vastly differing opinions, each insisted that I HAD TO change the play as he or her wanted it changed. Between them they monopolized most of the conversation.
The second group was made up of three older college playwriting professors. Someone who has taught playwriting for 40 years gets used to looking for problems and telling their students how to fix them. And the students have to listen to them. So off we went to the races with the professors being professorial, recommending changes that ranged from throwing out 80% of the play to throwing out 120% of the play and starting over. My favorite suggestion from this group was that the play shouldn’t have 11 characters and take place in and around the main street of the town of Postville, it should have 2 characters and all take place in the living room of one of the Hasidic Jews. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Thanks a lot. Very helpful.
The third group was made up of normal theater-goers, a few of whom said nice things about the play, but most of whom sat in shocked silence while the activists eviscerated me and the playwriting professors eviscerated my play.
Later, the people from StageWest and several of the readers told me that they couldn’t believe with how much aplomb I had sat and absorbed the abuse. One of them said to me, “But I guess you’ve been to this sort of rodeo before.” Amen to that, sister. It takes a thick skin to be a playwright!
By the way, the feedback from the cast and the artistic management of StageWest is that “Postville” is a good play, which may need some tweaking but certainly doesn’t need to be gutted before moving on to production. (Thank you to Ron, Ron, Todd, and the cast for your hard work. You did a great job.)
The next day I drove to Postville and met with several people, including the rabbi of the town’s Hasidic community and the man who had been the mayor during and after the raids. Overall, I felt I got a mandate to go ahead with the play basically as is, and to leave it referring to Postville. Several of the people I talked to said that it may even do the town some good. And the ex-mayor suggested that I submit “Postville” to nearby Luther College to see if they would be interested in producing it.
The next step is a reading of “Postville” at the Theater Company of Lafayette (Colorado) in September, and a production at their Mary Miller Theater next February.
Take that, bleeding heart activists! And for everyone who told me what I HAVE TO DO to rewrite most or all of the script, write your own damn play.
Yesterday morning I flew from Denver to Austin for 4 days of topping up my grandfatherly batteries. When I got to the baggage claim area in Austin, I went over to monitors to see which carousel my bag would be coming in on. The second listing on the screen was an arrival for flight 1147 from Austin!
That’s right, Flight 1147 (the name of the airline is being withheld to avoid a lawsuit) was going from Austin to Austin. (As my old Haverford College classmate Dave Barry says, “I’m not making this up.”)
At first I thought it had to be a mistake. But then it hit me. No, it wasn’t a mistake. It was just another creative attempt by a struggling airline to BEAT THE RECESSION.
I would love to have been a Japanese tourist taking photos (nobody pays any attention to a Japanese tourist taking photos) at the meeting where they came up with that idea.
“Come on, guys, there must be something else we can do to avoid losing our jobs.”
“Maybe we should schedule more flights.”
“Don’t be silly. There aren’t enough people on the flights we run now, so we lose money on every one. The more we schedule, the more we lose.”
“How about if we get more people to fly?”
“We tried that last week. It didn’t work. “
“OK, then, let’s run fewer flights.”
“That’s not going to work either. Then we don’t cover our overhead.”
“You mean like the building? Maybe we can get a smaller building”
“I mean like your salary. Maybe we should get you a smaller salary. The problem is that our costs are too high.”
“I know, let’s cut back on services.”
There’s a stunned silence in the room.
“Wait! I’ve got it! Let’s schedule flights from airports to the same airports.”
“No, I’m serious. Think about about. What’s our biggest expense? Fuel. How much fuel is it going to take to taxi out onto the runway, sit for 20 minutes, and then come back to the terminal?”
“Maybe you’ve got something there.
“That’d be bound to increase our on-time arrival percentage too.”
“It might. If — and this is a big if — we could manage to get the planes back to the terminals on time.”
“And we wouldn’t need nearly as many staff checking people in and handling their bags. Who’s going to bring a suitcase if they’re going to be home in an hour anyway?”
“Practically no one.”
“We could save a lot of money on the planes, too. I mean the planes wouldn’t even need engines would they? Just one of those little tractors to pull them away from the gate.”
“We’ve got plenty of those already.”
“And no toilets! The doors would have to be there, of course, but there wouldn’t need to be anything behind them. We’d just keep the seat-belt sign on for the whole time.”
By now the ideas would be flying (unlike the planes) fast and furious. Skip ahead a year — a venture this complex is going to take lots of planning, isn’t it? — and voila, we have a flight from Austin to Austin.
By the way, the arrival listing on the computer monitor in Baggage Claim showed that Flight 1147 was scheduled to arrive 90 minutes late.
This morning there was quite a nice little piece in the Boulder Camera about all my theater activities and the book launch and reading coming up next Sunday for “Ups & Downs: The (Mis)Adventures of a Crusty Old Fart and His Bouncy Son as they Trek Through the Alps.”
Good news, right? But half-way into the piece, it says, “He’s also involved in Rising Stage, a local troupe devoted to new plays.” Which was true the last time I spoke to the columnist, but since my acrimonious break-up with the Boulder Chapter of Colorado Dramatists is no longer the case.
Now I’m sitting here absolutely certain that my former colleagues at Rising Stage have already convened a meeting and (having finally stopped holding hands and humming and opened their eyes — and in the few minutes they can spare not talking about what a big, cruel world it is and how much they’re going to do to save it, very little of which they actually do) are talking about how I intentionally falsified the truth in my mania for self-aggrandizement and what an asshole I am!
I’m bracing for a scathing email to come winging over the wires any minute. I’ll reply and explain what happened, but it won’t do any good. Once you reject the true touchy-feeliness, you will be consummately evil. In fact, you will always have been consummately evil, no matter how long before the breakup you had a cordial relationship.
Am I being paranoid? Of course. But it’s not like it’s not justified. And it’s not like it’s something I can stop. When will I ever stop agonizing about the fact that not everyone is going to love me? Probably never.
I’m resolved to the fact that there will always be an ample supply of people who are angry at me. Because the one thing I will never do is to stop sticking my turtle-head out of its shell and making progress. And seeing my little turtle backside in front of them is one thing that a lot of turtles in the world just can’t stand.
When I was a kid, I was so focused on what I was doing and what I wanted, that I tended to ignore everyone who I didn’t think would be of immediate use to me. All too frequently, that resulted in my footprints being on people’s foreheads. Yeah, I was a self-centered jerk!
Now I spend a lot more time trying to be nice – or at least helpful – to everyone. Mind you, I’m still not what most Boulderites would define as a nice (read “enlightened”) person. I’m not nearly enthusiastic enough holding hands and singing Kumbaya for that. It’s just that the older I get, the more evidence I see that “What goes around comes around.”
Don’t get the idea that I believe in divine justice, either. But if there are lots of people who “owe you one” then sooner or later, some of it is going to be repaid. And since it’s a mighty complex world out there, you never know who it is who can do something nice for you, so you’d better be nice to everyone.
And the converse is true. If you are an asshole to enough people, it’s bound to come back to haunt you. (See my gloating post, “May they all get halitosis . . .”)
What brings this to mind today is a column by John Moore, the theater columnist of the Denver Post. He came to see Friday night’s performance of “Separated at Birth: The Lincoln/Darwin Plays. (My play, “The Debate” is one of the works in “Separated at Birth” and I’m acting the part of Darwin in it.) I’d expected to see a review of the plays in the Sunday paper, but instead there was a piece about the fact that at the recent Colorado New Play Summit, a panel of theater leaders from throughout the U.S. had spoken with such delight about the impending fall from power of theater critics in traditional print news media. (“Death of Criticism: Careful What You Wish For”) Moore calls it “grave-stomping,” and part of the piece details the many benefits that critics provide the theater community.
I tend do agree with him, but I can certainly understand the reaction of the panelists. Theater critics are renowned for being frequently brutal in their reviews of plays and the people who create them. Either they have had so little regard for those people that they just don’t care, or they thought that this is the way to sell more newspapers and magazines. Probably both.
Contrast this with a critic who has reviewed several of my plays (to avoid being accused of pandering, I won’t mention his name). That critic always manages to be gently even-handed in his reviews, pointing out the good along with the bad. The audience gets the idea, but even when a review of my play was less than glowing, I couldn’t help but feel fairly treated and supportive of the columnist. That’s just to show that there is an alternative to brutality in theater criticism.
But that’s the exception, rather than the rule, and now that print media is in crisis, there are seems to be an inexhaustible supply of people lining up in gleeful anticipation of stomping on the graves of the theater critics.
So let that be a lesson to all you 500 pound gorillas, you muscle-bound beach bullies. All the rest of us may be 98 pound weaklings today. But you may not 500 pounds and muscle-bound forever.
You may be surprised to learn this, especially those of you who know me personally, but in actuality I’m a sixteen year old, black, gay, female Hispanic, of Armenian ancestry.
This week, anyway. Next week, it’s entirely possible I’ll be something else.
Let me explain.
Every week or so, I look at several playwrights’ newsletters. They all have listings of contests, asking for submissions of unproduced plays, and I pay a lot of attention to those listings. As I’ve mentioned before on my blog, sending unrequested scripts to theaters is not a particularly productive way for a relatively unknown playwright to spend his time. So these sorts of contests are a key element in the playwright’s tool kit.
The problem, though, is that an extremely high percentage of the listings are very restrictive in terms of who the playwright must be and what is to be submitted. To one degree or another, many of them specify age, sex, sexual orientation, race, place of residence and ethnic background. That’s not to mention the length of the play; its subject matter; the number, age and sex of the characters; the size of the stage required; the complexity of the set …. You get the idea. And many of the contests aren’t content with only one of those requirements. They bundle them together.
“The Black Kitten Theater is looking for 4 minute plays by female elementary school students living in upper-central Wyoming. The plays must be about the experience of 19th Century Lutheran immigrants in Iowa. Minimum of 12 characters.” That’s only a slight exaggeration.
So if, like me, you thought you were a middle-aged, Caucasian, heterosexual male who has written a full-length historical comedy about Shakespeare, you can be mighty restricted in what you can do with it.
“Aha,” I hear you saying. “He ‘thought’ he was a middle-aged Caucasian. Wouldn’t he know?” Apparently not. Last week I was going through some papers in the attic, and I discovered that I’m not middle-aged, Caucasian and heterosexual at all. And it turns out that I’m a sixteen year old, black, gay, female, Hispanic whose ancestors come from Armenia.
The good news is that my new demographics nearly match a listing I came across yesterday. The bad news is that to enter the contest, the play needs to be no longer than 10 pages and I need to live in Delaware. Don’t worry, though, while I’m waiting for the moving van to arrive I’m working on cutting 70 pages out of “Shakespeare Incorporated.” They were mostly fluff, anyway.
Aren’t I lucky that the attic is so full of papers I’ve never been through?
The opening of my play, “The Debate,” about Charles Darwin was this past Saturday night. I’m playing the role of Darwin in it. That’s me, hamming it up in the picture.
When Madge Montgomery, the Artistic Director of the Theater Company of Lafayette, spoke to me about submitting a script for their Lincoln/Darwin play festival (Lincoln and Darwin were both born on February 12th, 1809), I knew relatively little about either man. Having lived 20 years in England, I was more intrigued with the idea of writing something about Darwin, and I had a feeling that more of the submissions were going to be about Lincoln. So I went on-line and spent about 15 hours reading everything I could find on Darwin, his family, his colleagues, Victorian England, …. Then I headed off to the University of Colorado library and got out Darwin’s autobiography, as well of that of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s protege and self-proclaimed “bulldog.”
When I started the research, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to write about. One thing that I was certain of was that I didn’t want to write about the controversy over whether or not evolution is scientifically valid. (Of course it is. Sorry, Creationists.)
But since I’ve started as a playwright, I’ve found that when I immerse myself in a subject, something invariably presents itself that has to be written.
In this case, I soon became caught up in Darwin’s description of his relationship with Huxley. Darwin had formulated the bases of the theories of evolution and natural selection by the time he was 29, but he realized what social, religious and political dynamite he was dealing with. So he spent the next 20 years gathering more evidence and biding his time. Then a colleague named Wallace sent him a letter with many of the same ideas, and Darwin rushed “Origin of Species” out in a few months. A year later an impromptu debate occurred at the Oxford Museum of Natural History pitting the supporters of evolution against the Creationists. Darwin, who was ill and house-bound most of his life, wasn’t at the debate, but Huxley was and defended Darwin’s theories.
In Darwin’s autobiography, he talks about how he would constantly chide Huxley for being so aggressive in attacking everyone who dared to question his (Darwin’s) theories. In contrast, Darwin was deeply into being a gentleman scientist and believed in dealing civilly with everyone.
The action of my play occurs a few weeks after the Oxford Debate, when Huxley comes to Darwin’s house to tell him about what had transpired. And the “Debate” of the title refers to both the Oxford Debate and the heated debate that Darwin and Huxley engage in on a scientist’s responsibility to take into account the potential impact of his discoveries before making them public.
Thoughtful stuff for a loose cannon like me, who has a habit of deciding what he thinks needs to be done and declares “Full speed ahead,” huh?
The next day, I did a gig as Darwin at a Unitarian Universalist service in the area. The Unitarians, and the Universalists in particular, claim Darwin as one of their own. After speaking with the Reverend, I made up an extract from the play that seemed relevant to the theme of their service. In costume and with my phony British accent coming and going, I addressed the congregation. They seemed to enjoy it, and it was a real kick for me.
I’d never been to a Unitarian service before, and I must say that it was a revelation for me. Much of what I heard was what has been going through my head for the last 50 years. It was a lot like coming home after a lifetime away.
After the service, a woman came up to me and said that she thought she’d worked with me many years earlier. It turned out that we had trained together in Chicago in January, 1974 (!!!) before flying together to Iran and teaching English as a Foreign Language in Tehran for the Iranian army. (See “Up close and personal — with your chicken thighs” and “Banging on doors, yelling ‘Those Bastards.’ “)
Small world, huh? Amazing that she’d recognize me after all these years. I guess it’s because I’m succeeding in my obligation to live forever and stay young and beautiful all that time. On the other hand, I do have a painting in the attic that’s getting old and ugly!