Important subjects do not guarantee decent playwriting

This week, I have seen two plays about Jews and the Holocaust.

The first was Indecent, a new play by Paula Vogel, in a reading that was very well acted and directed. Complex, full of imagery, song, and dance, the show blew me away. After I finished blowing my nose—not because of some easily sentimental claptrap, but because the play is beautifully painful—I felt wonderful, because I’d seen something so inspiring.

Vogel is still rewriting, getting ready for a full production.

The second was Stella Dreams of Trains, by Joanna Rosenberg. Several roles were extremely well done. But I left the theatre in a royal rage.

This play was selected from 100 submissions to the Gloria Ann Barnell Peter Playwright Competition of Aurora, New York, probably because it dealt with the Holocaust. The show would make a lovely film, but as a piece of theatre, it had some problems.Playwriting.Vs.Movies

This 90-minute play required six locations. In none of the scenes did anyone say anything indicating where they were, you know, like Shakespeare’s “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank.” Standard playwright technique—let ‘em know where and when you are without being obvious. So we had to have sets for all six scenes. On a stage about as big as my coffee table.

See, in film you can jump cut between scenes because you have a full set. Not so much in theatre, unless you want to sit around waiting for sets to change. Which I do not. I’m not sure this writer had seen many plays.

Then there were the “confrontations.” Dialogue went something like this.

  • Please tell me
  • No.
  • You have to.
  • I’m leaving. (but she doesn’t leave, and we have no idea why she doesn’t, because she is not Waiting for Godot..)

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Finally, there were the connections among the characters. The writer set up an interesting, Dickensian group of characters who were all linked. And never gave us the payoff. Either they find out, or they definitely do not find out, about their links. But this show was as daintily unfinished as one of those French or Japanese films everybody but me loves.

In film, you have popcorn, darkness, lovely editing, delicate visuals.

In theatre, you have only darkness. If the story doesn’t grab you, there’s nothing else to do except climb over all your friends and leave, noisily. Because the acting was so good, I didn’t want to insult the performers.

But I am enraged. Aurora may seem the back of beyond to you city folk, but it’s close to Ithaca, which is absolutely crammed with theatre, and only 4 hours from the Big Apple. And this competition proved to me, as if I needed it, that all those competitions where we send our plays may or may not have any idea what makes a good one.

I think I’m going to set myself up as a judge of new music, with a competition. I don’t listen to much of it, and wouldn’t bother to learn much about it, because as long as it’s about something Important, with a Strong Message, I’ll go for it.

The Girl with Ghost Eyes and the Zeitgeist

Fantasy novels Part 2.

SpiritedAwayMonstersOnce again, I’m not part of the zeitgeist.

I did not love The Girl with Ghost Eyes, M. H. Boroson’s debut fantasy novel.

Plot, no spoilers:  In San Francisco’s Chinatown, in the late 19th century, Xian Li-lin battles ghosts and monsters, even though she must remain a dutiful daughter. Boroson has studied Chinese mythology and martial arts, clearly seen Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant film Spirited Away (pictured), and loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Along with his brilliant premise, what’s not to like?

The endless fighting, punctuated with Li-lin announcing that she’s terrified, causes the interesting relationship between a traditional Chinese father and his ferocious daughter disappears in the melee. That’s not to like. In a novel, I want character development, if nothing else.

But hey, David Gemmell’s debut novel Legend has been called “one long fight scene,’ which didn’t hurt his sales, or reputation, at all.

clan_of_the_white_lotusThat’s what I mean about not being part of the zeitgeist. If I want to experience endless fight scenes, I watch martial arts movies. Not just Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, either; I even enjoy the ones where the culture is so alien to me, so Chinese, Japanese, or Thai, that the plot makes no sense and I can concentrate on the fighting.

In a novel, along with character development, I like good writing and amazing ideas. Boroson almost delivers on the amazing ideas, but again, the background of Daoism and Chinese lore disappeared in the kung fu. And his writing is functional, but repetitive.

My takeaway: Today’s zeitgeist loves endless fight scenes. I don’t. No zeitgeist for me.

Guilty Pleasures in YA Fantasy

When get tired of the complexities of Game of Thrones #88 and life in general, I head for YA fantasy.

MairelonMy most recent guilty pleasure was reading Patricia C. Wrede’s Mairelon the Magician and its sequel, The Magician’s Nephew (1991). In them, I saw a more than passing resemblance to the romance novels of Georgette Heyer—another guilty pleasure.

And I was pleased to note that Google confirmed my diagnosis, both in an article by Mari Ness on Tor, and in Wrede’s blog.

Okay, I have now blown what few academic credentials I still possess by admitting that I read Georgette Heyer. But Mari Ness points out that Heyer started the whole Regency Romance trope, which should count for something among popular culture PhDs. Ness also notes that many fantasy writers have followed in Georgette’s footsteps.

Wrede is one of them. The two books about Mairelon borrow liberally from Heyer’s diction, and the finale of Mairelon the Magician is a lunatic scramble that goes way beyond the diving-into-the-cupboard ending of Heyer’s Cotillion. Almost too far—I soon began to lose count of the participants

Wrede also has collaborated with Caroline Stevermer to create a collection of Regency fantasies, Sorcery and Cecelia, The Grand Tour, and The Mislaid Magician. These are a little too cute and lightweight for even my degraded tastes—that is, I don’t re-read them.

But I do re-read Caroline Stevermer, especially her A College of Magics (1994). Stevermer’s other  CollegeOfMagicssolo novels–A Scholar of Magics, Magic Below Stairs, When the King Comes Home, and River Rats–are good, but A College of Magics stands out from the pack. Although Amazon calls it a book for the 10 to 14 set, the complexity of the characters and the strange ending to the queen-commoner romance might daunt fans of the silly sweetness of Sorcery and Cecelia.

I have no guilt when re-reading A College of Magics.

Fantasy Novels: Jane Lindskold

ChildOfRainlessChild of a Rainless Year

I love this book. It’s magical realism, a favorite style with me. And it’s a story of a middle-aged woman who has lived an ordinary life, but now must come to terms with her strange inheritance and unusual gifts. In so many fantasies, the hero is young, perhaps because publishers think that only young people read fantasy. I’ve been reading it all my life, and am happy when the heroine is someone more like me.

The book is also about a house, a house with history and opinions, although both of those emerge slowly, as in a good mystery. And it’s about finding love late in life–both romantic love, and a sense of one’s own purpose.

I’ve also read the first two of Lindskold’s Firekeeper series, now at number 6. It’s straight fantasy, about a woman raised as a wolf, who has to learn to be human and manage the politics and wars of humans. But book series are like television series—there’s a point where I give up. Sometimes the premise wears out; that is, the idea is only good for so many books or shows. Sometimes the author wears out, repeating the same tropes and images. And sometimes I wear out—a few are fun, then I want something new.

I wondered where Child of a Rainless Year came from, because it’s so different from Lindskold’s other work. Here’s what she has to say about it:

“I have always loved in between places – alleys, dry stream beds, median strips – all those places that are neither here nor there. . . . Child of a Rainless Year is a novel about those spaces in between. It is about the dichotomy between expectation and reality, about past and present, about parents and children, mothers and daughters, loving and the fear of love. Color weaves through these contradictions, not so much pulling them together as highlighting differences and similarities. Historical events prove to be as important as current events, and even a house has opinions on how things should be done.”

I’m one of those people who re-reads books that I love. I’ve now read Child of a Rainless Year several times. It doesn’t wear out.

Fantasy Novels: Introduction

Here, I begin to review fantasy novels.casa cogumelo

What I usually don’t like: epic fantasy full of strange beings. Except, of course, Tolkein, who rules them all.

What I really like: magical realism, such as the work of Sarah Addison Allen,  or Diane Setterfield.

But I’m omnivorous, especially with Kindle and Scribd, where I don’t have to purchase a print book to squash into my overloaded shelves

I read fantasy for fun. And I watch fantasy on TV and in movies for fun. For serious, I go to a lot of theatre, and read theatre history, such as Brian Seibert’s What The Eye Hears: a History of Tap.

Credentials: Years of reading. Degrees in theatre. Playwright. And I’ve written two fantasy novels…well, one of them is refusing to settle down, but the other, The Dry, can be found on Amazon.

Watch this space to learn about some great reads!

Green Gables

I went to sanne-of-green-gablesee a reading of a new musical based on the Anne of Green Gables books. I went mostly because I love the books—which I didn’t read until I was much too old for them.

Kevin Sullivan wrote the book for the musical. He’s created three television series loosely based on the L. M. Montgomery books. Somehow, Sullivan linked up with Hangar Theatre’s managing director Josh Friedman, who connected him with Ithaca College professor Greg Bostwick, who provided a cast.

Ithaca College student Kelsey Lake was quite wonderful as Young Anne, with an expressive singing voice and strong acting chops.

But what really interested me about the cast were the locals: Craig MacDonald, Dean Robinson, Kathleen Mulligan, and Susannah Berryman are all Equity members, in Ithaca as college professors or to raise families. Camilla Schade, Holly Adams, and Helen T. Clark are just as “professional” in their talent and commitment.

I think Sullivan was pleasantly surprised at the talent available in our tiny town.green_gables_the_musical_final_card_v3_1

The script dashed off in all directions. As a playwright, I was fascinated to see how having a Name, albeit in filmmaking, allows a writer to present something that I would have only brought to my playwriting group. Not that it didn’t have some great stuff. But trying to combine about four novels into one musical is hard, and what I saw had time jumps that made no sense, along with an Anne who leaped from dreamy child to beleaguered teacher in less than one act.

(looking for pictures, I discovered that there already IS a musical about Anne. http://anneofgreengablesthemusical.com/)

And Sullivan, while charming and grateful for criticism, had a way of explaining what he thought he did that most playwrights learn is Not Done quite early in their careers. Just Listen, they tell us. Don’t Explain. STFU. Unless, of course, you are already produced and important.

Take this with some salt. Going to the theatre often makes me grumpy.

 

MAIZE at Artemisia Theatre, Chicago

mcclintock_cornARTEMISIA THEATRE: a reading of my play, MAIZE, September 25, 2015, at 8 p.m.

Artemisia performs its 2015 Fall Festival at The Frontier/Jackalope Theatre located at 1106 W. Thorndale in Edgewater. Easy access to the CTA Red Line and lots of street parking. Seating is limited so make your reservations today! www.artemisiatheatre.org

What turns a brilliant young scientist into an eccentric recluse? Faced with a threat to her beloved work with the maize plant, Barbara struggles against her past. MAIZE is inspired by the real-life Barbara McClintock whose research is still considered groundbreaking.

I’m especially excited that Artemisia chose MAIZE, which has only had readings by people who know me and my work. Playwrights learn most from strangers, because they ask all the hard and important questions. I’m also delighted because I love Artemisia’s mission. New work, empowering women, presenting women’s experience, everything I care about in one theatre.

Here are the director and actors.

Director: Mary Rose O’Connor

Mary Rose O’Connor is a Chicago-based theatre artist. Originally hailing from the great city of Wilmington, Delaware, Mary spent her formative years in Westminster, Maryland. She moved to Chicago after completing her undergraduate degree in Theatre Design & Production from Towson University in Baltimore and has been in Chicago ever since. Mary founded Lights Out Theatre Company, is a co-producer of The Gogo Show, a writer, performer, and director. In 2013, she founded the Trellis bookstore. Learn more about Mary and her recent work at maryroseoconnor.weebly.com.  “I’m a huge advocate for telling women’s stories and I am so excited to share in that storytelling with Artemisia’s Fall Festival.

About the Actors

Susan Gosdick

Susan Gosdick has been seen as an actor at The Shakespeare Project of Chicago, Drury Lane Oakbrook, Artists’ Ensemble, Shaw Chicago and many others. She also works as a Voice and Dialect Coach.

“Four years ago, I had the opportunity to read for Julie Proudfoot’s Failure is Impossible, which shared the history of Women’s Suffrage from Susan B. Anthony’s point of view. To get a deeper expression of women’s lives and perspectives, we need more female playwrights. It’s a great pleasure to read now the role of Barbara in MAIZE by Judith Pratt, and continue to bring to life these important voices.

Ashley Neal

Ashley Neal is a member of Rivendell Theatre Ensemble and was last seen in their production of These Shining Lives. She is also a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago. Ashley has worked with many theaters in Chicago including Seanachi Theatre (now Irish Theatre of Chicago), greasy joan and co., and Chicago Dramatists.

Terry Bozeman

Terry Bozeman was last seen as Doc in FLYING for ELT’s All Access Staged Reading Series. Other credits include roles at the Goodman Theatre, Northlight Theatre, Oak Park Theatre Festival, Court Theatre, The Organic Theatre and West Coast Theatre

Michael Doonan

Michael Doonan was recently featured in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac and will play Edmund in Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Court Theatre in the spring of 2016.  “I am limited in my view of the world. We all have our own set of perceptions. If we’re lucky we encounter a person, an event, a work of art that challenges those perceptions. Artemisia’s mission is to produce works that challenge our world view. I feel lucky to be in this festival.”

Anu Bhatt

Anu Bhatt was born in London, grew up in San Diego, and made Chicago her home in 2010. Recent Chicago acting credits include Lifeline’s production of Jane Eyre, Rasak Theatre’s Much Ado About Nothing – Bollywood Style and Henry VIII at Chicago Shakespeare.

Her Story is Our Story

Artemisia is breaking down gender norms all festival long. See six thrilling female-driven plays that are being staged as readings for the very first time. Then cast your vote to choose our next hit show! A friendly reminder: See a minimum of two readings to receive your voting ballot. Free Admission.

 

 

 

The Combustible Plot

As a writer of fantasy novels, I’ve been reading a lot of them. Well, I always read a lot of them; now I can pretend that I have a reason for that. And not just the ones that hit the New York Times Book Review, such as Erin Morganstern’s glorious The Night Circus.

My first two books have young women as protagonists, putting them in the ever-fluid category of Young Adult, or YA. My problem in writing for that group is that I do not like frantic. Not in books, not in movies, not on television. If crazy things happen—abductions, sudden bursts of strange powers, car chases with explosions—I want the story to earn them; to lead up to them. I want the story to focus on character rather than endless plot.

Wolverine Walks Away

Wolverine Walks Away

I know, I know, movies crammed with car chases and explosions are essential entertainment for a fried Friday night. But I don’t read books for over-the-top explosive plots. In fact, I started writing novels because you don’t have to start in the middle of things, the way you do as a playwright. You have time to set things up.

That’s why I adore Ursula Le Guin and Robin McKinley. They create their worlds and characters before starting in on the adventures. It helps, of course, that I always want to memorize and quote their words—because they take time with the words, their worlds, their characters.

Here’s an example of frantic. I liked Holly Black’s YA fantasy The Darkest Part of the Forest. Great situation, interesting main character. Although Hazel, manifests lots of teenage lunacy, she also has some sense—and a dark past. You can read it in an hour, but it’s satisfying.

So I picked up Black’s novel Tithe. Which is frantic. The heroine, Kaye, is supposed to be fierce, but she mostly rushes into things just to serve the plot, just so awful stuff can happen to her. By the middle, I didn’t much care if she even lived through her misadventures.

aspie-girl-freaksYeah, I know, Holly Black is published and loved. To me, that means that lot of YA readers must like frenzied tales—maybe because their lives feel frenzied. But don’t their lives get more frantic when fed on jittery stories?

I picked Holly Black because I just finished reading two of her books, but plenty of other successful, well-regarded fantasy writers have the same effect on me. I want to tell them to stop rushing about and tell me about some PEOPLE.

However, my irritation with the combustible plot has led me to write stories where nothing happens. That, of course, is not the answer. Recently, when I was fighting a no-plot tale, the husband suggested that I re-read Stephen King. But King doesn’t land his characters in the middle of horror: first, he shows us the comfortably dull surface of their lives. See The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. He also gives us the added bonus sneaking his great analysis of popular culture into his novels. I’m all for added bonuses—unusual point of view, energetic language, stuff like that.

Now don’t tell me to go read Today’s Important Novel just to get all those bonuses. I still love fantasy, and I know it can be just as good as the New York Times Best Sellers. Even YA Fantasy novels can make their Best Seller list, like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs.

And if you haven’t read Neil Gaiman, put down Ulysses and Moby Dick, and enjoy yourself.

For the Actor: Butch or Femme?

men.take.spaceA young actor recently asked me for advice about a role he was playing. And I was reminded of a long-ago college student, to whom I gave the same advice, and who ended up playing lead roles. I told him to remember the male/female exercise we did in his freshman year–and to butch it up.

I prefaced my advice by saying that none of this has anything to do with how we move in real life. What actors need to do is have many character choices available to them. (Many women end up playing male roles—especially in Shakespeare. They need this stuff!)

The exercise:

Enter, sit down, wait, give up waiting, exit.

Do this as if you were your twin sister (or, in my case, twin brother.) What you get at first is a lot of stereotyped behavior–sashaying, crotch scratching–until the audience is giggling.

Then I say–is this really how people move? And don’t we all move on a sort of continuum? Me, I’m a little butch for a female. I take up space. But I can get all sweet and fluffy if needed for a role (and if no one laughs too hard!)

So here’s what I tell the actors once they’ve realized the error of their ways.

Skinny-Runway-Model-01Stereotyped female: take up less space. Feet together, arms close to body, narrow shoulders. Flexible–soft neck, delicate arms, soft upper body. Low center–baby-making hips.

(Not Toshiro Mifune big hara/power in navel, that’s different–a Japanese approach to butch.)

Femme attitudes: Smilling, no matter what. Flirtation, sweetness, or–oh, gosh, thinking of secretary-style-women I’ve known, a kind of head-ducking powerless thing. Ew. But I can do this if the role demands it!

Stereotyped male: Take up space–legs apart, wide shoulders. Everything stiff and muscled–strong shoulders, neck too thick to move much. Ditto arms—and they may stand out from the sides a little, to make space for muscles (and be read to sock someone!). Not flexible. High center–more weight in upper body than lower body. Narrow, inflexible hips. (This is tricky for me, but I can do it—it’s just a matter of imagining them strongly enough.)

Attitudes: can be sneering, can be I’ll-take-care-of-you-little-lady, can be don’t-mess-with-me. I use this physicalization when I’m in a big city; I call it my meanest-s.o.b. in-the-valley walk.

For butching it up, I love watching the guys in the gym who are pumping iron. Or Grace Jones, telling the sweet young girl how to get a man. This little video chunk, from Conan the Destroyer, is a great contrast in butch and femme.

Most people are a little of both. I know straight men who are a little femme, and gay men who are a little butch. Same with women. Practice the stereotypes; then use them carefully.

As Tom Stoppard writes in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: “We’re actors. We’re the opposite of people.”

 

It’s All In The Stories

I love stories.

I read them.  I watch them.  I even write them.

You know the Breast Cancer website, where you click on half-a-dozen good causes to help them out?  Hunger and Literacy are the two I always click.  Then there’s Child Health and RainForest.  After viewing those big problems, Animal Rescue might seem less essential to the welfare of the planet.

But Animal Rescue has stories.  Stories about how a rescued animal becomes a cherished companion.  Guess where I want to click first?

Some research even indicates that we’re hard wired to love and respond to stories.

Storytelling, therefore, has become important to marketing and business writers.

Annette Simmons explains it like this:
“The business interest in storytelling is riding this crave wave, as well as a parallel realization that designing messages that create emotions like desire, craving, and/or trust towards a product requires that the message tells a story. Nothing is important or unimportant to someone except for the story they tell themselves about it. You want your product to be important to a consumer? Inspire them to tell themselves a story about it that makes it personally relevant.”

Key word here:  personally.  Too often, my clients think of telling their stories in lists of accomplishments and impressive statistics.  So I ask for the individual stories of their customers and staff members.  Those draw the reader in, motivating them to go on to learn about the company’s accomplishments, products, or non-profit needs.

How to do this?

  1. Listen for the good stories.  Ask for them.
  2. Include images and emotional content.
  3. Connect them to your organization’s mission.

One screenwriting guru, Michael Hauge,  boils all stories down to three elements.. They are
1. character;
2. desire;
3. conflict

Here’s how that might work.

A local nonprofit that serves uninsured people in health crises got union workers to donate labor to fix up the nonprofit’s building.  But where’s the story?

Imagine a large, beefy guy ripping down crumbling walls with a crowbar, covered in dust and sweat. (Character)
He volunteered to help out (Desire), but he feels weird about the breast cancer literature that’s lying around.  (Conflict.)  He makes boob jokes for awhile. Then, in a break, swilling water and slurping coffee, he says:  “My mom died of breast cancer.  I didn’t know what to say to her.  It was hard.”

Next day, his buddies show up to volunteer their labor.

Okay, I embellished this a little bit in order to make a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end that connect to the wonderful work this nonprofit is doing.  But I didn’t embellish it much.

And it’s a great story.