One life for theater characters

Sometimes, I am slowed down in my play writing because I don’t want to let go of alternate scenarios that cannot coexist in a single play.

Since I usually start from character and place and never use an outline, my early thoughts and drafts go through a wide range of what-ifs and I find myself resisting doing actual scene work because I want these characters to be able to do this AND that rather than this OR that.

Eventually, though, I accept that these paper people become more human when I accept that they can only live, like us, second to second, minute to minute, and day to day, eventually forging one path through life.

That’s when I start to seal off those alternate routes in an effort to cover up any evidence that those dead-end tunnels once existed.

But I’m not there yet. For now, Donna and her daughter Connie and Mark and his brother Joey are living lives in multiple universes at the same time. Eventually, they’ll tell me the story–the one story–that they want written about them.




The morning of the first read

It’s that time again. The morning of the first reading of a new play.

I’m not talking about the first reading after a theater has agreed to produce a play. I’m talking about the first time I’ve gathered actors to give this creature a voice–my first opportunity to hear what I’ve gotten myself into.

As the architect of a play rather than its builder, a playwright has to eventually put the play into the hands of others, knowing that, barring a publishing deal, that’s the form by which its audience will see it.

I like to do that early in the process (early, of course, is a relative term–I’ve been working on today’s play for years. It began life as a novel, in collaboration with Eric Pfeffinger that never found a publishing home).

This first-read can be a deeply awkward time. The first time I gathered actors in my living room to read what became “Midwestern Hemisphere,” it proved an empowering–if way, way too long–evening packed with guideposts for developing the play. On the other hand, the first time I did the same with what became “Popular Monsters,” it was a cringe-packed afternoon that made me avoid for weeks the trio of talented actors who forged through the mess I had gall to call a play. (At the time, it was narrated by a werewolf and was only about an hour long.)

Note: I always find the best actors I can for these readings. That way, I can only blame myself.

There are some who believe that it’s shirking a writer’s responsibility to show a work to anyone until the writer has taken a work as far as he or she can. I’ve never been that kind of writer. One of the blessings of my time editing Indy Men’s Magazine was that I had a reciprocal relationship with Todd Tobias where we were each comfortable tossing a draft to the other and discussing a piece while in process. Rather than agonize over that last 10% of polish, we trusted that the other could pinpoint some places that would take the piece close enough to the finish line for publication. It worked.

A first reading of a play is similar, for me, except I am handing off the play not to another writer but to a set of people with very different talents. I’m not looking to them to give a post-read analysis of the piece and tell me where to go (although sometimes that happens and sometimes it’s very helpful).

More important is hearing the play as it happens, getting my first sense of the overall rhythm of the piece, finding the places where my voice gets in the way of its voice, and hearing if I’ve left room for the actor.

Sometimes, as with today, I’m trying to find if there’s a play in there somewhere. And I’m blessed to have actors in my universe willing–for a pizza lunch–to dive in for a few hours and show me what’s really inside this world I’ve tried to create.


“How do you have the time to write?”

They say it suspiciously.

“How do you have time to write?”

You see, I’ve been lucky enough to make my living as a writer/editor for my entire adult life. For the vast majority of that time, I was employed full time by a magazine or, now, a newspaper. And in all that time, I’ve actively kept projects going outside of the workplace. (Never for competing markets, of course, or on stories that I could have written for my employer.)

Sometimes those have been book projects and freelance pieces that were assigned or contracted. Other projects have been speculative–plays, books, even poems–that did not have a guaranteed market. Either way, I’ve devoted a fair amount of what other people would consider free time to telling stories in one form or another. Posting here is yet one more example.

While most people I’ve worked with over the years have embraced this fact about me, there’s often a period of skepticism during the hiring period. The assumption is that someone writing outside the office can’t possibly be devoting full mental energy to creating inside the office. Part of my job is to prove the falseness of that assumption and I’ve hope I’ve done that.

What I’ve never voiced–and what I haven’t really considered until recently–is how selectively targeted that implied criticism is. I’ve never heard anyone ask an employee or colleague “How can you possibly have time to memorize all of those sports statistics?”, “How did you manage to screen all of ‘Breaking Bad’ over the weekend?” or “Isn’t going to the gym so often distracting you from office work?” I think it’s a fair assumption that I spent about as much computer time working on my most recent play as many people have spent playing Candy Crush. Yet their commitment to their full-time employer isn’t questioned. (Unless they are caught doing it on company time, of course.)

I’m not knocking sports fans, TV watchers, or candy crushers. What I am saying is that we’ve all got X amount of time in our lives to devote to whatever we want to devote it to. And it’s very possibly to engage passionately in whatever that is without impacting your “real” job. It might even enhance it.

Out of My Hands: On the time before the play opens.

A marker at the entrance of Butler University ...

A marker at the entrance of Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When a play of mine is about to be read publicly for the first time–when I’m in that out-of-my-hands helpless phases after the final rehearsal and before the presentation–I always seem to try to flash back to its origin.

Problem is, I can never find it.

That’s true with “Lightning and Jellyfish,” my new play that’s part of Butler University’s New Works festival. I know that, for years, I’ve wanted to write a play that’s set in Wildwood, NJ, my hometown. And I wanted to use a location similar to the rock and roll shop where I worked for many summers.

But a location isn’t a play.

A character, then?

Angela, the main character, has the spirit and stories and some of the thoughts of a number of women I’ve known over the years, a Frankenstein monster of pieces, mixed with imagination, whose stitches, I hope, don’t show as a young actress breathes life into her. The goal is for Angela to pass as a singular creature, standing on her own without the aid of factual backstory.

But her origin? In some ways, Angela began on a boardwalk date a long, long time ago. In other ways, she has the spirit of my mother and the spunk of my lost daughter. In other ways, she’s me, conveniently sex changed so that I can hide within her.

The play didn’t being to really exist for me, though, until I saw Mallery Avidon’s play “Oh Guru, Guru, Guru or Why I Don’t Want to Go to Yoga Class With You” at the 2013 Humana Festival. “Lightning and Jellyfish” doesn’t actually resemble “Guru” at all, but Avidon’s oddly shaped play gave me the confidence to try something structurally very different from anything I’d seen.

Tone? The influence on tone goes as far back as the Arden Theatre Company’s production of the first half of Brian Friel’s “The Lovers” back in the  1990s (or, at least, what I remember feeling while watching it.)

And then there’s the music of Cara Jean Marcy whose sound, more than Springsteen or Dylan, echoed in me as I wrote. And the words I shared with a dear friend, unsure how to respond when her daughter asked her questions about the universe.

The play itself, though, only began becoming viable when Diane Timmerman, chair of the Butler University theater program, asked me if I would write a play for the festival. That’s when the elements that had been swirling independently in my brain grew gears and started finding each other.

The fit was rough in the beginning, but after much grinding and sanding and readjusting, I hope we have something interesting. Wherever it came from. Faith–not a faith in a higher power but the faith that Diane showed in my work–had as much to do with its creation as anything else.

Hope you can make it Thursday night at 7 at the Schrott Center.


Connecting Point A to Point C. Or not.

The 48 hours or so after I turn in a project are always an awkward, unsettling time for me.

In yesterday’s case, it was the rewrite of my play “Lightning and Jellyfish.” My mistake was kicking it out the door and to the director on a Saturday morning of a weekend when I wasn’t loaded up with arts events to cover. As I cleaned, read, played games and watched a few movies on a rare, deadline-free two days, I tried not to think about Angela, my main character. But you know what happens when you try not to think of something…

Instead of trying to start a new project–which inevitably still carried too much of the last work’s DNA–my tactic is usually to pull out a half completed or unresolved older work. I find it easier to spackle or build a new deck on an existing piece rather than worry about fresh architectural plans. (I am also, as you can see, prone to not caring about mixing metaphors during this time.)

Without worrying about world building and character creation, I can still make a bit of progress.

So I turn to my play-in-progress “Popular Monsters” and its yet-to-be sorted out second third, searching for the as-yet-undiscovered path that will connect its front and back ends. I know these characters well. I just don’t quite know how to get them from point a to point c. Which might mean that point c isn’t where they need to go.

When a writer is trying to force-fit scene (or a beloved line, for that matter), it always seems obvious to me, so I try never to do it myself. Trying to find a connector usually requires retrofitting either or both ends. As such, I have files of deleted characters, dialogue and scenes. And I’m good with that. Having a pile of trash to stand on can make it easier to see where you need to go.

Side note: I find that I rarely if ever go back to material I’ve cut. Once the limb is snipped off, why try to snap it back on the tree? Let it grow.

Now if only I could do something about those metaphors….

My new play “Lightning and Jellyfish,” on stage Dec. 5

I’m taking a break right now from wrestling with rewrites on “Lightning and Jellyfish,” my new play that Butler University commissioned. More info on the premiere here:

My style of rewriting plays isn’t the most efficient in the world, but it somehow works for me. Essentially, I start from the beginning and perform the play in my head…until I hit something that doesn’t feel right. Could be an unmotivated action, forced exposition, or a moment that feels like it should have been preceded by something. Then I tinker. If it’s minor, I go forward. If more significant, I do the work and then start at the beginning. Curtain up. Show begins again…until it stumbles.

That being said, there’s an enormous amount that I learn from hearing the play read by actors. On the first “living room read” of “L&J,” I realized that an entire scene needed to be added toward the end of the play. At the first reading with Butler’s actors, it became clear that a lengthy monologue had to be completely redone–and perhaps offered to a different character.

I love this process, as challenging as it can be.

Hope to see you at the performance. Image