Monday, August 29, 2011

"Suddenly, Greek gods can be just as interesting and relevant as real people"

A Metafilter thread today led me to this passage from the novel Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, that deals with the continuing relevance and power of Greek mythology to the modern world. An extract:
"Okay. So the Athena that you honor on your medallion isn't a supernatural being--"

"--who lives on a mountain in Greece, et cetera, but rather whatever entity, pattern, trend, what-have-you that, when perceived by ancient Greek people, and filtered through their perceptual machinery and their pagan worldview, produced the internal mental representation that they dubbed Athena. The distinction being important because Athena-the supernatural-chick-with-the-helmet is of course nonexistent, but 'Athena' the external-generator-of-the-internal-representation-dubbed-Athena-by-the-ancient-Greeks must have existed back then, or if she existed back then, the chances are excellent that she exists now, and if all that is the case, then whatever ideas the ancient Greeks (who, though utter shitheads in many ways, were terrifyingly intelligent people) had about her are probably quite valid."
It goes on from there and is thought-provoking. A nice thing to read as the San Francisco Olympians Festival draws nearer.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Feliz Cumpleaños Borges

Today's Google Doodle doesn't look the way I think a "Borges" illustration ought to look -- somehow it's too sci-fi. Yes, Borges wrote speculative fiction, but he was steeped in erudition, enthralled by the thinkers who had come before him, and fascinated by dreams and mysticism and conspiracies... The image above is too bright, too orderly, too futuristic.

Nonetheless I am happy that Google chose to honor him on this day. "The Aleph" might just be my favorite short story of all time -- I think it is absolutely perfect. And, as a playwright, I find myself thinking about "The Secret Miracle" an awful lot, sometimes praying for a secret miracle of my own!

I read the complete short stories of Borges the summer I was 17 and keep meaning to do a lengthier post on him. But I can't afford to do so at the moment: there are no secret miracles, and time marches on apace. And besides, you'd be better served by reading the actual JLB than by reading my opinions of his work. I encourage you to check out the above two stories -- and feel free to come back and tell me your thoughts on him. Or let me know your personal favorite Borges story.

Other great writers born on August 24: Jean Rhys (someday, too, I'll write about why I think Wide Sargasso Sea is overrated and Voyage in the Dark is underrated) and A.S. Byatt (a favorite of mine; see all my Byatt posts here).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Radiant Sisters

Clearly, my blog has gone into abeyance while I work on Pleiades, but to tide you over, here's a poem, "On the Beach at Night" by Walt Whitman, that I found while doing research for mentions of the Pleiades in literature.
On the beach at night,
Stands a child with her father,
Watching the east, the autumn sky.

Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.

From the beach the child holding the hand of her father,
Those burial-clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all,
Watching, silently weeps.

Weep not, child,
Weep not, my darling,
With these kisses let me remove your tears,
The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious,
They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition,
Jupiter shall emerge, be patient, watch again another night, the Pleiades shall emerge,
They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine out again,
The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure,
The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall again shine.

Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter?
Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars?

Something there is,
(With my lips soothing thee, adding I whisper,
I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and indirection,)
Something there is more immortal even than the stars,
(Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away,)
Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter
Longer than sun or any revolving satellite,
Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.
Of note: my play is about Jupiter (Zeus) and the Pleiades, and long before I read this poem, I had planned for my play to take place in a summer house on Walt Whitman's native Long Island, with some key scenes occurring "on the beach at night."

Also of note: I found two different versions of this poem online, the one above, and a version where the Pleiades are referred to as "delicate brothers" and "radiant brothers." I had heard that Whitman compulsively revised his poems, but never seen such a clear-cut example! It seems that when the poem was originally published in Leaves of Grass in 1871, it was "brothers," but twenty years later, it had changed to "sisters." Did he revise it to make it less shocking/controversial? After all, if the Pleiades are always referred to as the Seven Sisters, it's a gender reversal to portray them as brothers, and a phrase like "delicate brothers" would have served as a big sign-post pointing to Whitman's homosexuality.

Then again, according to another website I found, the Pleiades have always had an association with homosexuality -- I suppose because they are seen as such a strong feminine influence that, when they appear in a man's astrological chart, they signify effeminacy or homosexuality? But I enjoyed this astrologer's positive re-interpretation of the Pleiades (seeing them not as victims, but "divine sisters on a voyage to true individuality and rebellion against social expectations... a reminder to those who would follow in their steps of revolution, promising that all burdens endured would lead to a greater brightness that would withstand the darkness of man's own ignorance") and his discovery of an ancient text that assigned a virtue and a color to each of the seven sisters. One of my challenges while writing Pleiades has been to develop each sister as an individual character -- when the myths don't give them much in the way of individual personality. And I get a kick out of this esoteric astrological stuff.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Manifestation of a Script

So! Last week my script was featured in Un-Scripted Theater's "Act One, Scene Two" project. It was an unusual, surprising, fun, and very valuable evening. I'm so pleased with how it all turned out.

The Un-Scripted Theater Company specializes in long-form improv: improvising a full-length, 2-act play in a specified genre or style. "Act One, Scene Two" is a new thing for them:
Each performance features a different guest playwright with Act One, Scene One of an unfinished play. The Un-Scripted Theater Company interviews the playwright onstage, performs their scene while reading it for the first time, and then goes on to finish the play -- now without a script -- starting from Act One, Scene Two. It's a blend of scripted and un-scripted that exposes the electric heart of live theater.
Writing my scene for "Act One, Scene Two" was actually a really good playwriting exercise. I had to devise a premise interesting enough that it could self-evidently sustain a full-length play, even though I had no idea what the remainder of the play would be. My scene -- required to be under 8 pages -- would have to establish characters, setting, style, and tone, provide some kind of action, and drop hints or dangle plot-threads that the improvisers could pick up. I quickly realized that the opening scenes of my existing full-length plays wouldn't work: they were too slow-moving or didn't have a clear enough "hook." So I wrote a new scene, titled "Manifestation."

The scene begins with two female friends, Annie and Elise. Annie believes in "manifestation," understood to be some kind of New Agey, The Secret-type philosophy where "the universe exists in order to manifest our deepest desires" and if you want something enough, you'll get it. For this reason, Annie asks Elise to envision and describe her "ideal man." But Elise doesn't believe in Manifestation, and thinks it's wrong to spend your time dreaming about an ideal that will never come true. Finally, she says:
ELISE: OK, if this is my ideal man we’re talking about, he is a good cook. He is also the heir to a billion-dollar fortune, owns a flying carpet, and gives me an orgasm every time he touches me. But I have to be practical. It makes no sense to daydream about a man like that. So, sticking to the realm of the possible, and being careful not to set myself up for disappointment… it’s nice if he can cook. But it’s not necessary.
And then, wouldn't you know, a good-looking man (Jake) shows up on a flying carpet, and he's the heir to a billion-dollar fortune, and when he shakes Elise's hand... yowza! Jake and Elise ride off on the flying carpet, and Annie is left feeling confused and resentful.

It's kind of silly, and I'm sure that this same basic premise has been used before. And I don't usually write plays that violate the laws of physics, with things like flying carpets. But at the same time, this felt like a "Marissa" play. It has female protagonists, and suggests that female friendship can be complex and involve emotions like envy or competitiveness. It has a heterosexual-romance element to it, and somewhat cynical or dissatisfied characters. The "Manifestation" theme is there to give it a bit more philosophic depth than just "two girls talking about their love lives," as well as to provide a sort-of explanation for why Flying-Carpet Jake shows up.

The Un-Scripted actors received my script about an hour and a half before curtain time. The show itself began with me being called to the stage and interviewed about my writing. I said that I enjoy playwriting for the characters it allows me to create, and that I particularly like telling women's stories, and exploring "flawed" or "unlikable" characters. Thus, I told the Un-Scripted troupe not to be afraid of acting unlikable: "Don't have the audience love you because you're so wonderful, but because you are interesting and messed-up."

"That's a pretty good philosophy for life in general," said one of the actors.

I was also able to drop a few hints as to how I envisioned the arc of the play. For instance, I said that I thought either Annie or Elise could be a compelling protagonist, and I wanted to see how this incident affected their friendship.

Then I returned to my seat, and the show began. There were five cast members that night: Mandy Khoshnevisan as Elise, Stacy Mayer as Annie, Aaron Saenz as Jake, and Joy Carletti and Merrill Gruver in a variety of smaller roles. Mandy had a wonderful array of incredulous grimaces that she used to convey Elise's amazement at her "ideal man"'s sudden appearance. Aaron did a very funny parody of a smooth-talking romantic hero, pointing up the absurdity of this stereotype. Stacy managed to be sweet and likable (okay, maybe I do want the audience to like my characters?) even when playing a sad-sack who felt like she'd gotten a bum deal.

As you can see, there were four women and one man in the cast that night. I knew this going in, so I figured that Aaron might have to play multiple roles. What I could not have guessed is that Aaron would decide that his character, Jake, had an evil identical twin who matched Annie's description of her ideal man! Utterly brilliant. The revelation that Jake had a twin brother came right before intermission, and I couldn't wait for Act II to begin and allow us to meet the evil twin. Un-Scripted knows how to use the tricks of dramatic structure to hook an audience.

Not everything about the show was necessarily "the way I would have written it." The last scene felt tacked-on, though this is probably an occupational hazard of long-form improv and the need to wrap things up. And the play ended with Elise happily married to Jake and the mother of twins, whereas, cynic that I am, I would probably have broken the characters up -- Elise would realize that she and Jake are incompatible and that it is indeed ridiculous to daydream about "ideal men." But I really appreciated that the troupe decided to follow both Annie and Elise's stories. You couldn't say that one woman was the protagonist and the other was the sidekick; they were both protagonists, and I loved that the show had two women at its core.

One of the most interesting things about Un-Scripted's shows is that they often end up becoming meta-theatrical -- somehow commenting on the act of live performance and improvisation. Seeing the show, I made a connection that hadn't consciously occurred to me when I wrote my scene. "Manifestation" is the act of creating something just by saying that it exists. Well, isn't that what theater is -- particularly improvised theater?

(There were a couple of funny, coincidental "manifestations" surrounding the show, too. Without knowing the subject of my play, Stacy had brought the New Age book A New Earth to read on the bus that day, and she ended up using it as a prop -- it's exactly the kind of thing Annie would read! Another odd manifestation: the entire cast decided to dress in purple shirts. How could they know that purple is my favorite color?)

Long-form improv is a high-wire act, full of risks. But the folks at Un-Scripted are so talented and quick-witted that they can make amazing things manifest.

Image, from left to right: me, Aaron Saenz, Joy Carletti, Mandy Khoshnevisan, Merrill Gruver, and Stacey Mayer, after the show. Photo by Scott Keck.