See a Play: Write a Play

On September 24, I saw a terrific rendition of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” at the local performing arts center.

Earlier that week, I was starting to formulate a concept for a full-length play. I don’t write too many of them. In 2014 I wrote “The Secrets of the Magic Pool,” and in 2011 I wrote “Romans on the Couch.” I’ve collaborated on other full-length musicals and plays with students, plus I write dozens of short 10-minute plays for a variety of uses. I was starting to latch onto an idea, but remained unsure if it would come to fruition.

Well, Sept 24 arrived. I was riveted to the dialogue and the “zoom-in” focus he provided by intensely going after only four characters. The setting was simple, but the issues of life, dreams, hopes, and family lingered large. As I left the play that night, I decided I would follow Williams and make my new play only about four characters. One setting. One weekend. And I would push and develop the characters with purposeful intent to drive home the overarching themes of the play.

Yesterday, October 9th, I finished my play. (First complete draft, that is.) I became so consumed with the characters and plot that I grabbed every bit of time I could over 14 days to finish this full-length, 17000 word, one-hour and forty-five minute play. Over the weekend, I took Friday evening, Saturday afternoon, and finally, Sunday afternoon to finish it. It’s called “The Last Bastion.”

I’m really pleased with it so far.

I don’t want to share any specifics about it yet, but I’ll be pushing it forward over the next few months. I need to do a lot of editing and re-writes, correct character issues, and work on word usage, so that will take some time. Once I’m happy with the overall script, I intend to do some workshop readings of it, hopefully with some professional actor friends, to get feedback for revisions. I want to send it to theatres in 2017 in hopes someone would be interested in debuting it. It’s an adult piece, blending politics, love, religion, culture, and family.

I love productive writing sessions, and they typically come through strong inspiration and solid source material. Thanks T. Williams for the former.

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The Pressure of Pushing the Envelope

I produce dramas. I’ve been doing it for the past nine years, and I seem to be stuck in this never ending cycle of “topping” the previous performance. I don’t purposefully do it. Not at all. I would never put that much pressure on myself. Can you imagine having to always out-do, out-compete, out-perform your last whatever-it-is – whether a live performance or a novel that you’ve written?

But from the feedback I’ve been receiving, it seems like that’s what has been happening.

In 2014, I produced the musical “Boardwalk Melody” and I heard “That was the best one yet!”

In December 2014, I produced RLT “For All Generations” and I heard over and over: “That was the best one yet.”

In May 2015, I produced the musical “A Tad of Trouble” and I heard many times: “That was the best one yet.”

In December 2016, I produced “RLT Christmas: Tales of Wonder” and  I heard MANY times,”that was the best one yet.”

And now, last night, after the finale of “The Secrets of the Magic Pool” I heard it echoed over and over, “That was the best one yet.”

Do you see a pattern here?

Was this show really better than all of the last shows? Do I have to beat myself up and try to “out-do” what I just did? Or is there something else going on?

I think it’s something else.

First, there’s recency bias. The show that someone just experienced is fresh and recent. The others are months if not years in the past. It’s not really an accurate comparison without seeing the two live, back-to-back which, of course, will never happen.

Second. it’s a matter of taste. Live theatre is SO subjective that no two people will ever experience it in the same way. So someone might have liked this one better than the others, and these are the people who comment. It might have been different people commenting last year or two years ago.

Lastly, yes, some things have gotten better. As I continue to learn theatre, I have gotten better at directing. I do think this show had the best pacing of any show I ever produced. So yes, there are elements which continue to improve which may be better than the last time around.

But even so, I purposefully choose to brush-off these compliments. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them. I do, greatly. But if I took them to heart, it would create a terrible amount of pressure. What can I do to out-perform last year?

I can’t do that to myself. What it comes down to is simple: the story. Commit yourself to a story and do the very best you can with it. I have to continue to be the writer that I am. I cannot try to “out-do” myself or I will find that I am getting away from the experience and discipline which has given me this measure of success. So I will continue to write the best stories I can. I will commit myself to that story and not stop and compare with what I’ve done in the past.

Writers have to live in the present or they are condemned to fail on the laurels of their past. And that would be a shame.

So I’m glad you thought it was my best. However, it probably wasn’t. It was just another rendition from me. Nothing more.

Writers Rule the Off-Season

Are writers the forgotten entity of entertainment?

Yes, I think that’s true, and for the most part, writers are okay with that. Writers don’t usually have a problem being behind the scene out of the limelight. Perhaps it’s part of our DNA. Crafting and creating is indeed our existence and watching a script eventually come to life is most times reward enough. Sure, a nice thank you or an occasional award wouldn’t be bad either. (Or some monetary gain. Most writers won’t refuse that either.) But audiences care little about writers. Actors don’t care much either. Directors care more. Who cares most about writers? Other writers, I suppose.

As audiences talk about the season-ending cliffhanger, anticipating what will happen in the next season, the writers are already working behind the scenes to make it a reality. The off-season is the on-season for writing. That’s the case in television, motion pictures, and even the theatre, where I do my writing.

I’m currently in the midst or writing a brand new Christmas show which will be performed at the local performing arts centre in December. It’s for my drama group, The RLT Players, who are just about to start rehearsals for the new show even though they haven’t seen any of the scripts yet. The RLT Facebook page remains idle. Hasn’t had a post in months, but it doesn’t mean that it’s dead. It’s merely idle. It’s in the dormant season. It’s winter, but beneath the frosty sheen of this drama group’s veneer, a bustle of activity is happening on the keyboard. Characters are being created. Plots are being twisted. Humor is being added, and poignancy is rounding everything into shape. Soon these characters will be released to the actors, and they will shape and mold them into a new show which will thrill hundreds of people.

Off season is peak time for the writer. It’s glorious, actually. The audience may never know what truly goes on underneath a production, but we writers know. That’s what make us pretty awesome.

Writing Comedy: From Page to Rehearsal to Stage

I had the extreme pleasure of watching my new play (co-written with a team of student writers), Grandparents’ War, at its debut the other night. Once the audience shows up and the lights go down, everything changes, and a writer finally gets to see (and hear) if the words he has written resonate off the page or not.

Yes, the actors have a lot to do with this. A great acting performance can make up for a poorly written script.

When I’m writing comedy, I never really know what will be funny and how funny certain lines actually are until there’s a live audience. I know what is funny to me, and certain lines I write certainly make me chuckle as I visualize in my head how this would play out on the stage. Once the script is written, I can only hope it will translate well and resonate with the actors and audience.

The first indication of whether my writing has succeeded or not is when I give the script to the actors. I finally get, for the first time, an unbiased look at how funny it actually might be. The initial read-through is a discovery for the actors, director and writer, as the actors see how the action and characters unfold and I get to watch their reactions to the lines or antics of the play.

Then when we move on to rehearsals, (especially once the script is memorized) I finally get a solid glimpse as to how the movement, plot and dialogue all work together to create the absurd and unexpected delights which make people laugh. This is where an actor can really create a special connection with a script and bring out comedy that I didn’t even write into the script.

By the time it all is ready for the premiere, I have a general idea if I think it will be successful or not. I was cautiously optimistic about Grandparents’ War.

I love the script of Grandparents’ War. It is, in many ways, politically incorrect as we work through many stereotypes and cross-cultural issues which create havoc in the relationships that the characters have with each other. There are many, I think, very funny lines, which ultimately entertain while carrying a subtle, positive message about family and the importance of ethnic diversity. Ultimately, however, it’s the audience which decides if the script is a success.

On Wednesday, when the crowd began to interact with the performance, I knew we had a hit on our hands. People called it, “laugh-out loud” funny. Someone said they couldn’t stop laughing. The actors had them exactly where they wanted them.

And then it happens, as it always does, the audience laughs at very unexpected moments.  Certain actors seize the moment and capture the imagination of the audience, making, it seems, nearly everything he or she does funny.

For our production of Grandparents’ War, it was Raj, the Indian love interest of Cordelia, played brilliantly by the Caucasian American actor, who stole the show.  His appearance, his mannerisms, his movements, his facial expressions brought rolling laughter throughout the play.

During one scene towards the end, when Jia Guo and the Colonel are bareing their souls to one another by telling each other where they were when their first child was born, Raj breaks the silence and with a dead-pan voice says the innocuous line, “I was in India.”  The crowd roared in laughter. The line worked far better than I ever could have anticipated because of the beautifully timed way the actor said it.

This is what I love about live theater. It’s scripted spontaneity. It structured improv. It’s all about bringing a script to life and letting the writer know if he or she has accomplished his writing objectives.

By the amount of laughter I heard on Wednesday, I cannot be anything but pleased.  I can’t wait to see the final two shows on Saturday.