Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘playwrights

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!

500-pound-gorilla3When 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.

hippiesI’ve written before in my blog about how Boulder is one of the world centers of new-age sensitivity and touchy-feelihood and the fact that I frequently get into hot water here.  Well, I think I may have really put my foot in it this time.

Last Wednesday I had a reading of the first draft of my “Postville” play at a little playwrights’ self-help group that I’ve been helping to start up in Boulder.  Boy, was that a bad idea.  I guess I should have realized that I wasn’t going to fit into this new group when, at the organizational meeting, a large part of the discussion by the other attendees was about how sensitive and caring they all were.

“I’m just so concerned about the injustice in the world I could cry.”

“I’m twice as concerned as you are, and I’m in touch with my inner-self and the cosmos as well.”

“How could you even think that you are as concerned and active as I am?  I keep my thermostat at 46 degrees all winter and eat only things which have fallen off of trees, and my carbon-use footprint is lower than that of a Kalahari bushman.”

OK, that’s not an exact transcript of the discussion, but believe me, it gives you the general idea.

At the reading of my play there were 10 people, 3 of whom had been to at least one of the meetings before, 6 acquaintances of mine that I had invited to listen to the play, and me.

There had been some talk at the organizational session about doing a short writing exercise at the beginnings of the meetings, but I had asked the regular members to skip it this time because there were so many outsiders and because reading my play was going to take over 2 hours.  No, they were going to do it anyway.

So the facilitator had us spend 5 minutes (it seemed like hours) with our eyes closed, breathing meaningfully into various parts of our bodies.

“Breathe into your toes.  Breathe into your feet.  Breathe into your thyamus glands.”

Then we were allowed to open our eyes and were instructed to write whatever came into our minds, without letting our “inner editors” interfere.  I’ve heard from several of my friends who were there that they were absolutely appalled at being invited in under false pretenses and forced to participate in a sensitivity ritual like that.  I agreed with them and could only apologize.

What is it with so many touchy-feelyers that they are so oblivious to the fact that others may not be interested in being subjected interminably to rituals like that?  It’s like being accosted by a religious fanatic who harangues you interminably and won’t take no for an answer.

And even worse with the “sensitive and concerned” of the world is that so many of them are bullies!  If you don’t believe as they believe, and do exactly as they do, you are clearly an inferior human being and you deserve to be tied to a stake in blazing sun on an anthill.  Or at least ostracized until you publicly admit the error of your ways and demonstrate that you have reformed.

I’ve let the other members of the playwriting club know just what I thought of what went on.  I don’t think they’re going to invite me back any time soon.  That’s just as well, because they’ve managed to get my entry visa into the People’s Republic of Boulder rescinded.

I’ve been puttering around with a small start-up theater group in Boulder for the past couple of months. The vision for this year is that the group will call for previously unproduced, one-act plays from regional playwrights.  The “reading committee” will select the best plays and present them in public reading evenings from February through September 2009.  Then, the best scripts would be produced in an evening of short plays.

We’ve posted listings in several playwrights’ newsletters and arts events calendars and so far have received about 10 scripts.  So far, so good.  The problem is that that all anyone seems to want to write about is unhappy people sitting around at funerals agonizing over their relationships with the deceased and bitching about their unhappy lives.  No kidding, a significant portion of the plays have somehow managed to have that same plot line.  And most of the rest of the scripts are about unhappy people somewhere other than a funeral agonizing over their relationships with still-living people and bitching about their unhappy lives.

One of the cardinal rules for playwrights is that all of your characters must have strong desires, and something must get in the way of their achieving their desires.  They will struggle to overcome the obstacles, and sometimes they will succeed (comedy) and sometimes they won’t (tragedy).  In my book, desiring to sit around bitching about how unhappy you are just doesn’t satisfy that instruction.

wayne-newton1A few months ago I submitted a short play for a call for scripts.  The requirements were that the plays had to be between 30 seconds and 4 minutes long, they had to be about Las Vegas, and they had to use the words “Wayne Newton.”  Wacky, huh?  I thought so.

In response, I wrote, “Tough Town.”   In “Tough Town,” a down-on-his luck Wayne Newton comes into a seedy booking agent and tries to get a job as a Wayne Newton impersonator.  At first, the booking agent doesn’t believe that the person he’s talking to really is Wayne Newton.  He’s just another kook star impersonator who’s gotten carried away in the role.  In any case, there’s not much demand for Wayne Newton impersonators, so the agent tries to give him a gig as an Elvis impersonator.  But Wayne doesn’t do Elvis; he really is Wayne Newton!  The elvis1agent is unconvinced.  If this really is Wayne Newton, he must be worth millions of dollars and have people breaking down his door to offer him concert gigs.   So now Wayne must persuade the agent that he is short of cash and that he can’t get a job anywhere.  At the play’s conclusion, the agent has convinced  Wayne to don a honey-blond wig, and is training him to be a Celine Dion impersonator.

Over the course of the play, Wayne needs to convince the agent: a) that he really is Wayne Newton; b) that he really is broke and needs a job; and c) that even if there is infinite market demand, he isn’t going to lower his standards to doing Elvis.  The agent: a)  needs to convince this seeming madman that he believes him; b) needs to find him a job that is in demand and that will earn them both some money; and c) needs to get him to agree to do something (someone) other than Wayne Newton.  Wayne Newton’s character goes from being somewhat arrogant and inflexible, to humbling himself and compromising his principles.

All this happens in about 3 minutes. Lots of high-stakes needs from the characters, lots of action, lots of humor.  Nobody sits around bemoaning their unhappy pasts.

Sure, good scripts usually come from what the playwright cares about.  But writing plays must also be about entertaining the audience.  Wallowing in morbid, autobiographical self-pity rarely does that.