Sunday, August 26, 2012

Revisions are Revitalizing

I'm always processing several life lessons at once, but one of this year's big lessons has been about understanding the fears that hold me back, and how my mind inflates these fears far beyond their actual consequence. In other words, It's Never As Bad As You Think. This goes for a lot of things, whether it's cleaning the bathroom, or phoning a cute guy, or sitting down in front of the blank page to write. (Why do you think I am writing this blog post? Because I finally managed to stifle the fear that my next post would have to be one of real consequence and earth-shattering importance in order to atone for my absence from the blogosphere.) I always, always inflate my minor trepidations into major obstacles -- and then, when I finally force myself to do what I need to do, I always, always find joy in the journey. For, if you never do anything, how can your life have any purpose or narrative zest? And I do love a good story.

And so it is with revising Pleiades. After several months of feeling like I should sit down and do a new draft, I now have an urgent reason to do so: it's going to be published! Volume 2 of Olympians Festival plays will be coming out this autumn (buy volume 1 here), with Pleiades as one of the ten scripts therein. Labor Day is my deadline for submitting a revised script to the publisher -- so I have one more week to get it into a form that will be printed on actual paper and sold in actual bookshops. (Eek!)

And for a long time, I dawdled. The reading of Pleiades last fall was generally successful and I knew the revision wouldn't involve major structural overhauls, yet there were also moments that didn't land correctly, moments that could use more pop. I was stymied, however, when it came to figuring out how to solve those problems. I'd think for a while, not see a way to resolve it, despair of ever getting the script into a form I could be proud of -- all without actually opening up the document on my laptop and playing around with it. I fell into a fatalistic mood, convinced that the problem was intractable, and felt slightly panicked whenever I thought about my deadline for delivering the script.

But when I finally forced myself to look at the actual script, I found my instinct guiding me to where I needed to edit. Change a few words here, get rid of that overwritten passage... and hey, wait a minute, maybe if I approached the scene from this angle... if a character reacted to that revelation with fury rather than fear... if I wasn't so concerned with keeping the play under a certain number of pages, if I gave my climactic scene a bit more space to breathe... could that solve the problem that had given me such grief?

It was not a flash of insight, more a steadily growing certainty that I knew what to do to fix the scene. I had read about this kind of thing happening to writers, but I guess I'd never quite believed I'd experience it for myself. My old enemies, again: fear and mistrust. I doubted myself, I feared the worst, I forgot how good it feels to come up with a new idea, test its strength, and finally say, yes, yes, I think this will work.

Only a couple of days before that, I'd read a quote from Hemingway about how to write: "Always stop while you are going good and don’t think about it or worry about it until you start to write the next day. That way your subconscious will work on it all the time. But if you think about it consciously or worry about it you will kill it and your brain will be tired before you start." Bah, humbug, I thought. Yet perhaps that quote provides an explanation for what happened to me: my subconscious, not my conscious mind, discovered what I needed to do to fix the scene.

The famous advice "Kill your darlings" has also been attributed to Hemingway. And the great thing about returning to a script after several months away is that killing your darlings becomes less painful to do. You find yourself attacking the script with Occam's razor. Anything needlessly complicated or weakly motivated will stand out in a way it didn't before. Things that seemed so important when you initially wrote them now cause you to ask yourself, "Why was I so convinced that this was the only right choice for this moment?"

For instance, in Pleiades, I had a very difficult time getting one of the characters onstage for the climactic confrontation. This scene needs to happen, in order to wrap up the plot and provide a catharsis, and yet one of the characters (Bruce) has good reasons to avoid the other character (Moira) entirely. When I initially drafted the script, it took me a whole afternoon to figure out how to get Bruce onstage -- finally I decided that he would have a preexisting appointment with Moira's father, so he'd show up at the house and run into Moira. But this raised other problems: Moira's father is an unseen character in the script, mentioned several times but never appearing. If I used him to motivate the climactic scene, wouldn't the audience then expect to see him come onstage and play a part in the climax? Wouldn't the audience start to wonder where he was, and then say "Oh, right, he doesn't appear in this play because then they'd need to hire another actor, and this play has nine characters already," and then wouldn't that shatter the illusion that I was constructing?

I realized that the less I mentioned Moira's father, the less these questions and doubts would grow in the mind of the audience. Very well -- but then that brought me back to my old problem of how to get Bruce onstage. And then, suddenly, the solution seemed blindingly obvious. As I said, it's not a two-character play, it's a nine-character play. So instead of having an appointment with the unseen character of Moira's father, why couldn't Bruce have an appointment with one of the characters who does appear onstage -- Moira's sister Elena, say? And then that would allow for a nice little character beat between Bruce and Elena, too...

Plays are about action, not thought. And so, too, is life. You can't get any sense of how to revise your play from merely thinking about revising it. You have to open up that document and hack away.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Top 10 Cultural Experiences - July 2012

Trying something a little different here with my blog (After 5 years, can't I mix it up a bit?). I want to keep writing about the things I am seeing and doing that inspire, entertain and stimulate me, but I don't feel up to the challenge of cranking out thousand-word essays multiple times a week, the way I used to do. So I'm thinking that each month, I'll post a round-up of my top 10 cultural experiences, with a short explanation of why I enjoyed each one.

The list will be eclectic and draw from a variety of genres. A brilliant episode of a new TV show could be sandwiched between an old movie I just saw for the first time and a particularly thought-provoking Internet essay.  The only rule is that I have to have read/seen/experienced this thing during the designated month, and I have to have enjoyed it.

So here goes: Top 10 Cultural Experiences - July 2012

1. "Black Box" by Jennifer Egan (short fiction). When is the last time I got so excited about a New Yorker short story? Oh yeah -- "Escape from Spiderhead," by George Saunders, December 2010. Clearly I have a thing for futuristic sci-fi stories about people with things implanted in their brains -- not what most people think of when they hear the phrase "New Yorker story."

Indeed, in its structure and its voice, "Black Box" is like no story I've ever read before. It is masterfully controlled, a distanced and elliptical way of narrating a thrilling spy-adventure plot. Somehow, this only serves to ratchet up the tension even more. I started reading it on my lunch hour and didn't have time to finish -- I was in agony for the rest of the afternoon!

Though the story was published in June and I didn't read it until July, I'd somehow managed to avoid hearing that the unnamed narrator is a grown-up version of Lulu from A Visit from the Goon Squad. Reading the story, I was very proud of myself for figuring out that connection on my own. And the themes of "Black Box" dovetail with those of Lulu's Goon Squad chapter in interesting ways -- I wonder if Egan would ever consider adding this story as an addendum to Goon Squad, that novel's praise and Pulitzer notwithstanding? Because this story deserves to be read by as many people as possible.

2. Pint-Sized Plays at San Francisco Theater Pub (theater). Is it OK to put your own show on a list like this? Oh well, I'm doing it anyway, because the Pint-Sized Plays were a big part of my month. They represented the longest run ever of one of my plays: 7 performances, including a special presentation last Saturday at the Red Poppy Art House. And, because I didn't attend every performance, it's also the first time my work has been performed without me present. The five performances I did attend, however, caused a surprising range of reactions in the audience, which taught me a lot (I hope to do a longer post on this later).

Moreover, I was honored to be included among so many other funny, idiosyncratic plays. Highlights included Megan Cohen's BEEEEAR, starring Allison Page as a dancing bear who gets "growling-tipsy after the day's grueling toil," and Tim Bauer's Play It Again, Friend, a character study of a douchebaggy businessman (played by Cooper Carlson) who nonetheless claims "I see the good and then reflect it back -- I'm a mirror with eyes!" Special mentions also to Neil Higgins' hard work directing one play (Bill Bivins' Celia Shits) and acting in three others; and Matt Gunnison and Kirsten Broadbear's performances as the title characters in Sunil Patel's witty Man vs. Beer.

3. Olympics Opening Ceremony (TV/theater). I had a ridiculous amount of fun watching the Olympics ceremony while lying on my couch, drinking Cabernet, and live-tweeting it with some friends. Danny Boyle certainly knows how to put on a show! (I wasn't too fond of the screenplay or acting in Slumdog Millionaire, but thought that that movie gained whatever merit it had from Boyle's kinetic direction.) And I do consider this a piece of theater that just happened to be televised, with many astounding moments of stagecraft. Although it paid tribute to the expected, beloved icons of British culture, it managed to seem offbeat and loopy and idiosyncratic rather than corporate. I especially loved how uncontroversial its liberal political slant (with tributes to suffragettes and the NHS) turned out to be. And the Parade of Nations moved quickly while allowing me to indulge my Geography Nerd, French Nerd, and Fashion Nerd tendencies all at once.

4. The Scottsboro Boys, at ACT (musical). It's difficult to say that you "enjoyed" this show without sounding like you are making light of a very dark moment in our nation's history, so maybe "admired" is a better word. Kander and Ebb can still deliver biting but catchy songs, although as a whole the musical does feel like a bit of a throwback to their '70s "concept musical" heyday. Susan Stroman's minimalist staging was lively and brilliant, and Clifton Duncan gave a powerful performance in the leading role. Due to the subject matter and the casting and staging demands, I doubt that this musical will get many future productions after this tour is over, and I feel grateful to have seen it.

5. The Song is You, by Arthur Phillips (novel). I really love Arthur Phillips' writing: above all, when you read his novels, you can tell that he had fun writing them, devising plots and characters and set-pieces and opportunities to deploy puns and other curlicues of language. Yet his worldview also contains a sense of melancholy and loss. I am a total sucker for playful-but-melancholy art, because it chimes with my own worldview, so Phillips' novels really speak to me. And as it happens, the theme of The Song is You is about how it feels to find art (music) that speaks to you and changes your life. The main character is an emotionally numb middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with an up-and-coming rock singer and turns into a kind of anonymous Svengali for her. While the plot is a bit preposterous, Phillips gets a lot of other things right about our contemporary culture. I liked how he portrays the singer, Cait, as a hardworking young artist rather than just an object of desire; and how what she wants (or thinks she wants) more than anything is someone to mentor her and call her on her bullshit. And the novel wraps up in the way that I was rooting for, too.

6. The Canadian, at the SF Silent Film Festival (movie). On my birthday, I won a pair of free tickets to the screening of this obscure silent movie. I invited a Canadian-born friend of mine along to the screening, which packed the Castro Theater on a Saturday afternoon. We enjoyed it, with no need for any caveats like "it was really good for a silent movie." (Although the live musical accompaniment on piano and accordion was terrific!) The leading actress had a neat trick of looking out from under half-closed eyelids, which she used to great effect to look haughty and supercilious (in the first part of the movie); and stricken and pained (in the second part of the movie). Also, the weekend we saw this, that whole controversy about Daniel Tosh telling a rape joke had just blown up, and in the movie, the main character rapes his wife. (They've entered into a marriage of convenience where she locks herself in the bedroom and makes him sleep on a bench -- but it's the kind of movie where once you see that bedroom door close, you know it's going to get broken down.) After this startling scene, there's an intertitle: "The next morning wasn't just any day." And because of the hilarious understatement of this -- of course the day after you get raped is not going to be just any day -- everyone in the theater laughed. "Now that is how you make a rape joke," I said afterwards.

7. Nights at the Circus, by Angela Carter (novel). Angela Carter is another author I really like. I began reading Nights at the Circus in London -- appropriate, as its larger-than-life heroine is a proud Cockney -- but finished it back in the U.S. This book has all the magical realism, stories-within-stories, theatricality, glorious excess, and love of life that you expect from Carter -- just a terrifically good yarn, full of vivid detail. The opulence, intricacy and fantasy of a Faberge egg -- an object which actually ends up playing a role in the story. Oh, I just know that I'm reiterating everything that has ever been written about Carter, but it's all true, even if her books are fantastical.

8. Cling to Me Like Ivy, by Samantha Ellis (play script). A few days after I met my blog-friend Samantha in person for the first time, I bought a copy of her play Cling to Me Like Ivy at the National Theatre bookshop. It's the story of a young Orthodox Jewish woman in crisis just before her wedding day -- a fairly intimate tale of family and friendships, though there's a stunningly theatrical climax at the end of Act Two. The heroine is believably caught between her respect for her cultural traditions and the temptations of modern-day London culture (represented by her best friend, who was born in India but is now thoroughly assimilated). Also, you know the old adage "To write a play, put a man up a tree at the end of Act One, throw stones at him in Act Two, and get him down in Act Three"? Well, Ellis does exactly that in this play, only with a woman instead of a man -- can't help but think this is a clever playwriting in-joke.

9. Brave (Pixar film). I saw Brave toward the end of July, so was not able to read or participate in all of the discussion earlier in the month about The Feminist Implications of Pixar's First Female-Driven Story. Which might be just as well, because that seems almost like too much freight for one movie to bear. (Pun on "bear" not intended.) Brave is not my favorite Pixar, I think because its script and story are more predictable, less dazzlingly constructed, than their best films. As someone who read a lot of fantasy stories about Rebellious Tomboy Princesses when I was a girl, I felt like Merida's struggle was somewhat familiar, even if I found her sympathetic and wanted to cheer when she stepped up at the archery contest to defend her right to remain unmarried. But the movie was gorgeous to look at and I liked the complexity that they gave to the character of the mother, positing that "feminine" skills like diplomacy are as valuable as "masculine" skills like fighting. More than anything, I hope the movie's box-office success will allow more female-driven movies to be made, till we get to the point where they are no longer remarkable or anomalous.

10. Salomania, at the Aurora Theater (play). Mark Jackson's latest play takes the #10 slot on my list, partly due to residual affection from how much I loved his play God's Plot earlier this year. Also because it allows me to note that I am having a surprisingly Salome-ish 2012: the "Cult of Beauty" exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor featured Aubrey Beardsley's original illustrations for Salome, and I attended the premiere of Al Pacino's Wilde Salome at the Castro Theater in March. (Both the exhibition and the film would have appeared on earlier editions of my "Top 10 Cultural Experiences" list had I been doing it back then.) I found Salomania a weaker play than God's Plot -- it didn't hang together as well -- but I like Jackson's approach to complex historical dramas that show how life and art influence one another.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Quick update to my post on the Bush Theatre

Today, the Bush Theater saw the rather critical blog post I wrote about them and BushGreen contacted me about it via Twitter. Yes, they are updating their submissions policies but still accepting unsolicited, unproduced scripts (one per playwright) from around the English-speaking world. They also stated that the Bush had commissioned Dominic Savage's Fear because his "process of improv was of great interest to us and we wanted to chart new and experimental territory." It was "part of an initiative to make new work in new ways."

If Fear was indeed developed through an improv-based process, that could account for some of the weaknesses I found in the script. When you commission improv-based or devised work, you never know what you're going to get, and sometimes the experiment will fail. All the same, it was odd that Fear's origins in improv weren't mentioned in any of the reviews I read or in the Bush's publicity (though I didn't buy a playbill, so maybe that would have included something about Savage's development process. P.S., Brits, what is with your insistence that people have to pay for playbills?)

I can't exactly fault the Bush for thinking that as a "new works" theater, they should explore alternative means of creating work, rather than relying solely on the scripts that are submitted to them. At the same time, I can't help being a bit disappointed that they're not devoting 100% of the slots in their season to producing some of those thousand scripts they receive in their slush pile each year.

Of course I could now segue into a discussion of the increasing prominence of devised work in U.S. and U.K. theater, and the implications of this. But I don't really feel like getting into that right now. For the time being, it sounds like we can still go ahead and submit our scripts to the Bush Theatre via BushGreen, and they will continue to be read and considered... but BushGreen isn't the theater's only source of plays to produce.