Big Index Cards

Talked to Matt Bray, AD of Praxis… he’s amped about this blog; so it’s all set… I’ll report on the output of the process, sometimes in a rather raw state, other times more associatively.

I plan to bring in a set of big index cards to all the meetings, possibly starting with the first if the time is right; each card has no more than 25 or so words about the ideas that have come out of the research. A picture already on the background of each card represents Shared Idea. If things ever get static and need livening up, I’ll pull out a card at random and if I’ve done a decent job on the first set, it should do some good. If there’s a flop, we have to agree to put it BACK into the pile to be drawn later. So we only dispose of an idea card once we are done.

I plan to open the process of generating these cards to the whole group as soon as possible. People can email me ideas and I will put them on cards, the same as the first ones I generated, and we will draw them at random when we need.

Maybe also take a quick vote (we have to get good at quick votes) to determine when a card should be considered completed. But I think perhaps these cards will never be completed; if we get a card again, it’s time to see what that card has to say to us again. If that idea doesn’t pan out, we’ll abandon it.

The cards:

• If someone were to say “MacBeth,” what would be kept from that, and what taken out?

• Do Banquo & Lady MacBeth represent the two sides of evil’s intimacy?

• True or False: A story published Sept 8, 2001 (NY Times website) with a CIA warning to overseas US interests did not mention the domestic US. The story is removed from the Times website on 9/12.

• True or false: The famous flag raising on Iwo Jima photo was staged.

• True or False: Video cameras watch you shop, drive, enter or leave an office building, train or bus station, or airport.

• Every word you say over any electronically transmissible medium is recorded & analyzed for key words like: terrorist. bomb. shoot. protest. congress. president.

• What if SS/Stasi/KGB/MI6/OSS/CIA operatives were really the Oracle of Delphi?

• A CIA operative’s life is 99% banal routine

• The Elizabethan worldview… through new eyes, but still influenced by the Middle Ages’ spiritual aspiration and physical corruption.

• The Body Politick – the human body as the state and vice versa

• Ann Coulter/Camille Paglia; the sexually and politically active woman, liberal or – even more interesting – conservative.

• Eventually there will be an incident that will compel us to vote the Constitution out.

• The gradual erosion of meaning destroys our ability to care, and thus to oppose.

• Elements of what Greil Marcus calls “The Old, Weird America”

• Aerial slides of military sites, taken from satellite photos.

• The Quality in Education Act disembowels public school budgets. The Clean Air Act allows increased air pollution. The Patriot Act removes our freedom. Name two other possible Acts.

A Process for Praxis

This process will involve more than an orientation to use non-logic and dreams in the construction of plays; there is also the deliberate use of coincidence outside the actual structure of a play, in fact in the making of a play. Case in point…

I’d done about 8 pages of notes for the Praxis play so far… all exploratory (no dialogue yet because the characters are still taking shape and are not ready to speak). I’ll be transcribing some of the notes shortly. I have made a tentative decision that it’s possible the model of the play is based on Shakespeare’s MacBeth, and besides re-reading MacBeth the 12th time, I decided to look at some older criticism on the play.

That same day, I took my son to the park. Someone was just closing up a yard sale in front of their house on Prospect Park West, and put a box of books out for free (guess nobody was buying books that day). Amongst the books was a copy of Jan Kott’s Shakespeare Our Contemporary.

It’s an older book, but reading the section on MacBeth and on Hamlet in that book is starting to give some ideas on how to apply the storylines to a political context… and this is definitely a political play… and now my notes:

1. One character – Ann Coulter/Camille Paglia; the sexually and politically active woman, whether liberal or – even more interesting – conservative.

2. There should be elements of what Greil Marcus calls “The Old, Weird America”

3. Play pre-show: Aerial slides of military sites, taken from satellite photos.

4. Banquo & Lady MacBeth should be merged in this play… they represent the two sides of intimacy…

5. The witch: an old OSS/CIA operative who’s trying to get in touch with her.

6. Everywhere the sense that everyone is being watched, recorded, monitored, measured, judged. Their acts transcribed directly into the Book of Justice, or St. Peter’s Book of Virtue and Sin.

7. The Elizabethan worldview should have some influence on this play… they viewed the world through new eyes, but eyes still under the influence of the Middle Ages’ cruel spirituality.

Bridge or Berkeley’s Monlogue adaptation

Reading Playwriting Master Class by Michael Wright… interesting to study the processes of other playwrights… although at the same time, valueless. Every writer has their own unique process… though Wright’s premise of dividing writers up into three categories of process (dreams… journeys… cut from whole cloth) does bear some scrutiny if for no other reason than a chance for each writer to query the specifics of their own process. Possibly there is a fourth, perhaps even a fifth and sixth.

Research proceeding apace on Bridge/Berkeley’s monologue… found a huge trove of research on Berkeley’s life, including some accidental parallels between certain relationships with women in his life and relationships of my protagonist and women in his life. I couldn’t have known this beforehand, yet somehow it seems to gel so perfectly.

And of course the job is knocking me flat so I’m grateful to even write this blog, nevermind a script. The day I leave the job, aye, indeed thah will be a blessed one.

Genesis commission!

Wow… four months since my last post… guess i suck at this blog thing. sorry everyone…

good news is that Praxis Theatre Project – a terrific NYC company that had a hit this Spring with How His Bride Came to Abraham – has designated me their Genesis playwright in residence for 2003-2004… they’ve got a real cool process for developing plays that’s sort of up the alley of any active hands-on type of playwright.

Their process in a nutshell… their Artistic Director, Matt Bray, meets with the playwright over the course of the summer to coalesce some thematic material. it’s a suggestion-built-on-suggestion process that’s very interactive and leaves a lot of the gathering to the playwright… and Matt’s a fascinating and charismatic personality and a great talker on his own.

You enter the Fall development period with a two things decided (1) the skeletal themes of the play to be (2) a basic rundown of the actors who will participate.

That’s it. The rest is up to the process.

Actors meet weekly with the playwright as moderator to read script in the works, discuss themes and ideas, argue, whatever works. The playwright is unleashed with the actors, without a further need for artistic moderation on the part of the company… the degree of trust implied by the process is very impressive.

And since I have this blog thing… perhaps I will record a portion of the experience and insights that come with the process here for all of you… perhaps it will even capture some of it for you.

Notes to a playwright

These are actual dramaturgical notes I recently gave one of the playwrights with whom I  work.

The points below will no doubt annoy you because they are deceptively obvious play writing text kinds of things, but I’m going to say them anyway, because you still need to hear them.

  1. If the new scene 2 has the same stuff going on as the last one, the whole scene’s got to go. The scene I read appeared to show an appalling lack faith in your audience – but really it was probably just a lack of faith in yourself, so you’re forgiven.
  2. If the characters’ world isn’t so different from ours, skip all exposition. Don’t even have one moment of someone recounting something from the past unless that information is being used in the present. Don’t have a single line there for gratuitous purposes. None of your puns where someone fucking breaks plates just so they can later talk tectonics. Someone has to cut their foot on the plates and that cut foot has to interfere with something critical later (which is what you did to fix that). Peppered throughout this draft, people were saying things without a character-driven reason for saying them. Entire pages needed to be crossed out – they were well written but totally unnecessary because they were providing detail about the past, which we could have figured out if the people would stop talking and start doing something.
  3. Keep an eagle eye out department – we often admit to ourselves in the writing when we have characters say things like “I know / that,” “as you know,” “I keep asking myself,” or “I told you before,” “you told me this.” Or when the same information is repeated twice – bad enough it came once as exposition, then it has to be repeated again, to another character who needs to hear the news too. If that’s “needs” to happen usually the scene started in the wrong place. Start right after the news was related, the audience will know exactly – oldest trick in the book but still frequently used and never sounds stale.
  4. Avoid starting your café scenes at “hello, I’m me, you’re you.” Start ten minutes into that scene, after some ridiculously funny, shameful or horrible thing was said. Then you won’t fall into the exposition trap. All you have to do is have one moment where it’s clear this is their first time meeting, and then all the knowingness about each other MUST be because he told her just then, no? So we get to skip the exposition.
  5. Grill sessions of three pages where two characters do question and answer format, that’s what scene 2 felt like. Don’t pause the play to feed the audience information. In the type of play you’re writing, which is either realism or magic realism, you have to resist all temptation to talk to the audience. If it were a musical, or Epic, you could get away with a few breakouts.
  6. Focus on voice. All we know of these guys is what they do and their sounds or silence. Everything else is submerged or silhouetted. Get a map of the US and put a star with a character’s name next to where each one was born. Make a grid with all characters’ names on it up the left and across the top and write a few words about how each character should talk to and act against their counterparts, or include a few sample lines. Hang those up above your writing table. I use these tools – and I invented them, they don’t come from a book.
  7. When reading a play it’s as if I am going to direct it. Am fairly ruthless with most plays and usually feel bad about it only after closing night. Say to yourself, “would I tolerate this from a play I was watching?” It’s a maddeningly simple question, but really ask it anyway. Even the exposition in scene 1 of my play is going to go, it’s nothing but scaffolding. And this is an alien world to which the audience needs orienting.
  8. I directed a 15 minute play last year and cut a page out of it and the playwright agreed to it (it took less than 5 minutes to convince him). What does that mean? That I am an asshole? (Yeah, probably) Or that the play was 10% too long? (Yeah, probably) As it was, the playwright so shackled the play (one of the characters was paralyzed and the other forced to spend the whole scene washing him) that the play felt like static talking anyway. I realized after a week of performances — there are never enough rehearsals in these no-money NYC showcase code shows, professional actors can’t afford to waste their time rehearsing a fifteen-minute play when they can get paying work — it felt totally like my fault, I should have worked harder to open the play up with the playwright. But the playwright was actually trying to distance himself from the play, it was about a very painful experience he’d just gone through (I admonish you, go through serious therapy and wait 20 years before trying to write about your own pain!). The fragment we held was merely notes, a sketch, and the play hadn’t even been born.
  9. Write scenes with only stage directions and no dialogue to counter the scenes where nobody does anything but talk for 5 pages.

style: naturalism & unnaturalism

Is Realism the most important artistic movement in the twentieth century?
Actually, Realism (or “Naturalism”) came to Europe in the 19th century in something like this order [1]:

Here comes the curve ball. Perhaps what’s significant about 20th century theater is what’s significant about all 20th-century art forms. Perhaps what makes it significant is: it reflects a change in thinking [3], similar to what happened in Physics.

Physicists at the turn of the century inherited a two-hundred year old system based on the limited observations and measurements that could be made in Isaac Newton’s day. The means of observing and measuring were constantly improving, and a lot of the tenets of classical physics were starting to contradict the observable phenomena.

It was time for a New Physics, which would corroborate the experiments they were conducting (especially those of James Clerk Maxwell and Michaelson-Morley). All they needed was a single, superior model on which to base it.

Central was the question ‘what is matter?’ Luckily, there was only a Tao of possibilities: matter was made of either particles or waves. Some findings suggested particles. Others, waves. Scientists argued back and forth. There was a lot of near-religious dogma. Almost jokingly, a few scientists broke off and started talking about ‘wavicles.’

A few years passed. Then Niels Bohr and team proposed the Copenhagen model, which suggested that perhaps matter was composed of both particles and waves (don’t believe they actually said ‘wavicles’).

Instead of letting the data be limited by a single point-of-view, the scientists were allowing a dual model. This dual model, though paradoxical, kept them from excluding experimental data that contradicted either point of view.

Similar changes transformed all the arts.

  • Literature bloomed—James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner wrote episodic works that slipped in and out of multiple points of view and narrative styles. In parallel:
  • Jazz busted out and evolved weedlike—an episodic music style that combined African rhythms with Western instrumentation and whose forms are based on musical virtuosity and improvisation
  • Painting and sculpture fractured—because photography had become a commodity, the role of recorder had now passed from human hand to technology. So artists imported African art forms and began to wander into total abstraction. Look at the multiple points of view in Marcel Duchamps Nude Descending a Staircase (the same body pixellated across different moments in the act of walking downstairs) and the face morphing in Pablo Picasso’s The Young Girls of Avignon (multiple sources of not only light, but form).
  • Cinema emerged—and permitted the tightest control of point-of-view.
  • In theater, this began happening before the turn of the century with Alfred Jarry (Ubu the King, theater as childish prank; forms shattered lovingly) then with Vsevolod Meyerhold in Russia and Weimar Germany in the twenties where the Cabaret culture invaded the palace of high art and produced Klabund, Brecht, Wedekind, Lion Feuchtwanger.

In some senses this is a standard argument. All Twentieth-century art forms underwent a change in allowable paradigms. Theater is no exception. What makes it significant is what makes everything about this century (as it slams shut) significant—its openness, its allowance of free-flowing narrative and quick context-shifts needed for an age where communication becomes more and more instantaneous (witness how you receive this dinky essay).

[1]You’re free to dispute the exact order.
[2]Acceptable to state that high theater was perceived as a branch of literature in the 19th century? Of course, there are exceptions to everything…
[3]Or at least a change back to an older mind that doesn’t refuse to see things that don’t fit a rigid logic model?