Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Passion Plays

Stepping off the second day of table-work for Sarah Ruhl's Passion Play, I'm tempted to tie together the previous discussion about Monsterism, Doubt by Shanely, and Jose Rivera's 36 theses ... but maybe it's better to examine them individually for now.

Passion Play

I love this massive, crazy opus that verges on collapse every step of the way. The suspense doesn't come from the story -- we all know the story -- it comes from watching the grand architecture of the whole composition. Symbols and stage-pictures planted almost subliminally in Part One end up bursting past the proscenium in Part Three. Characters are reincarnated as themselves, but their relationships morph form epoch to epoch. Just when you think the iconography has been bolted down, Sarah inverts it when you're not looking. There are no simple superimpositions a la Terrence McNally (Corpus Christi), no doubter-in-disguise meta-narrative like Scorsese (Last Temptation ...) and no forensic fetishism like Mel Gibson (Passion of the ...).

Finally ... and best of all ... can ya feel it coming? ... the individual scenes play like parables, but they require the particular magic of live theatre to make sense! Amen! The Pirandellian elements stay within the confines of a pretty obvious premise -- they're never used as a back-door climax for lackluster plot mechanics. And when the fourth wall does get teased off its support beams, it's for the purpose of illumination, not deconstruction.

I know most of that's just vague insider gushing, but I'm not gonna write too much more about a script that's still being re-written and hasn't been put on its feet yet. Suffice it to say that I'm excited as hell to watch another crazy-big-shoot-the-moon project develop. Between The Tattooed Girl, columbinus and this, I haven't worked with a fixed text in almost ten months. And it feels great.

36 Assumptions

I'll trade you one Jose Rivera action figure for two vintage Artaud playing cards! I love most of the advice in this list (see post below). Much of it could apply to writers of any stripe, not just playwrights -- specifically, assumptions 1, 3, 4, 7, 8, 9, 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 18, 20 - 28, 31, 32, and 36. Some I wouldn't pass on to writers of any stripe. Specifically, assumptions 15, 17, and 33. I think you should writer from your organs (#15), but the brain doesn't have to be last in the list. Especially if you're counting vestigal nipples. And while it's important to find your tribe (#17), most rites of passage come from courageously stepping outside the tribe into the wilderness. I love my fellow roundtable chums, but I wouldn't be half the writer I am now if I didn't hang with Dan Stroeh, who writes brilliantly from a completely different corner of the universe. Finally, I don't know who counts as "having a vested interest in my future" (#33), but I've gotten some pretty good advice from people who didn't give two shits about the shelf-life of my scribblings. I might be confusing Rivera's terms there, but it seems to say you should evaluate the person before you evaluate the advice. Sometimes good advice stands on its own. And it can tumble out of the mouth of the most cruel, unwitting sage.

Rivera's premium on structure is refreshing (#4, 20, 23, 26). As is his articulation of the medium (#2 and 5). The bits I like best are the ones that sharpen the writer's sense of theatricality (#9, 10, 14, 16, 19, 30, and especially 35). Yes, we should write at least one impossible thing in each script. Writing from your senses is crucial because theatre is the only place you can take in information from all of your senses at the same time. Re-writing the laws of gravity is just plain fun (although, I don't think realism is AS artificial as any other genre).

And last: writing in layers. Goes hand-in-hand with writing for all 5 senses because even most film-makers have abandonned the idea of placing more than one thought-per-frame on the screen. The gestalt in live theatre isn't merely handy, it's compulsory. That's why my eyes drift to the light plot when a writer makes me sit there to watch people conversing for three hours.


Thursday, July 14, 2005

References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot

As promised, here's the list by Jose Rivera, courtesy of Gregg Henry:

36 Assumptions About Writing Plays

by Jose Rivera

Over the years, I've had the good fortune to teach writing in a number of schools from second-grade to graduate school. I usually just wing it. But lately, I've decided to think about the assumptions I've been working under and to write them down. The following is an unscientific, gut-level survey of the assumptions I have about writing plays, in no particular order of importance.
  1. Good playwriting is a collaboration between your many selves. The more multiple your personalities, the further, wider, deeper you will be able to go.
  2. Theatre is closer to poetry and music than it is to the novel.
  3. There's no time limit to writing plays. Think of playwriting as a life-long apprenticeship. Imagine you may have your best ideas on your deathbed.
  4. Write plays in order to organize despair and chaos. To live vicariously. To play God. To project an idealized version of the world. To destroy things you hate in the world and in yourself. To remember and to forget. To lie to yourself. To play. To dance with language. To beautify the landscape. To fight loneliness. To inspire others. To imitate your heroes. To bring back the past and raise the dead. To achieve transcendence of yourself. To fight the powers that be. To sound alarms. To provoke conversation. To engage in the conversation started by great writers in the past. To further evolve the artform. To lose yourself in your fictive world. To make money.
  5. Write because you want to show something. To show that the world is shit. To show how fleeting love and happiness are. To show the inner workings of your ego. To show that democracy is in danger. To show how interconnected we are. (Each "to show" is active and must be personal, deeply held, true to you.)
  6. Each line of dialogue is like a piece of DNA; potentially containing the entire play and its thesis; potentially telling us the beginning, middle, and end of the play.
  7. Be prepared to risk your entire reputation every time you write, otherwise it's not worth your audience's time.
  8. Embrace your writer's block. It's nature's way of saving trees and your reputation. Listen to it and try to understand its source. Often, writer's block happens to you because somewhere in your work you've lied to yourself and your subconscious won't let you go any further until you've gone back, erased the lie, stated the truth and started over.
  9. Language is a form of entertainment. Beautiful language can be like beautiful music: it can amuse, inspire, mystify, enlighten.
  10. Rhythm is key. Use as many sounds and cadences as possible. Think of dialogue as a form of percussive music. You can vary the speed of the language, the number of beats per line, volume, density. You can use silences, fragments, elongated sentences, interruptions, overlapping conversation, physical activity, monologues, nonsense, non-sequiturs, foreign languages.
  11. Vary your tone as much as possible. Juxtapose high seriousness with raunchy language with lyrical beauty with violence with dark comedy with awe with eroticism.
  12. Action doesn't have to be overt. It can be the steady deepening of the dramatic situation or your character's steady emotional movements from one emotional/psychological condition to another: ignorance to enlightenment, weakness to strength, illness to wholeness.
  13. Invest something truly personal in each of your characters, even if it's something of your worst self.
  14. If realism is as artificial as any genre, strive to create your own realism. If theatre is a handicraft in which you make one of a kind pieces, then you're in complete control of your fictive universe. What are its physical laws? What's gravity like? What does time do? What are the rules of cause and effect? How do your characters behave in this altered universe?
  15. Write from your organs. Write from your eyes, your heart, your liver, your ass -- write from your brain last of all.
  16. Write from all of your senses. Be prepared to design on the page: tell yourself exactly what you see, feel, hear, touch and taste in this world. Never leave design to chance, that includes the design of the cast.
  17. Find your tribe. Educate your collaborators. Stick to your people and be faithful to them. Seek aesthetic and emotional compatability with those your work with. Understand your director's world view because it will color his/her approach to your work.
  18. Strive to be your own genre. Great plays represent the genres created around the author's voice. A Checkhov genre. A Caryl Churchill genre.
  19. Strive to create roles that actors you respect will kill to perform.
  20. Form follows function. Strive to reflect the content of the play in the form of the play.
  21. Use the literalization of metaphor to discuss the inner emotional state of your characters.
  22. Don't be afraid to attempt great themes: death, war, sexuality, identity, fate, God, existence, politics, love.
  23. Theatre is the explanation of life to the living. Try to tease apart the conflicting noises of living, and make some kind of pattern and order. It's not so much and explanation of life as much as it is a recipe for understanding, a blueprint for navigation, a confidante with some answers, enough to guide you and encourage you, but not to dictate to you.
  24. Push emotional extremes. Don't be a puritan. Be sexy. Be violent. Be irrational. Be sloppy. Be frightening. Be loud. Be stupid. Be colorful.
  25. Ideas may be deeply embedded in the interactions and reactions of your character; they may be in the music and poetry of your form. You have thoughts and you generate ideas constantly. A play ought to embody those thoughts and those thoughts can serve as a unifying energy in your play.
  26. A play must be organized. This is another word for structure. You organize a meal, your closet, your time -- why not your play?
  27. Strive to be mysterious, not confusing.
  28. Think of information in a play like an IV drip -- dispense just enough to keep the body alive, but not too much too soon.
  29. Think of writing as a constant battle against the natural inertia of language.
  30. Write in layers. Have as many things happening in a play in any one moment as possible.
  31. Faulkner said the greatest drama is the heart in conflict with itself.
  32. Keep your chops up with constant questioning of your own work. React against your work. Be hypercritical. Do in the next work what you aimed for but failed to do in the last one.
  33. Listen only to those people who have a vested interest in your future.
  34. Character is the embodiment of obsession. A character must be stupendously hungry. There is no rest for those characters until they've satisfied their needs.
  35. In all your plays be sure to write at least one impossible thing. And don't let your director talk you out of it.
  36. A writer cannot live without an authentic voice -- the place where you are the most honest, most lyrical, most complete, most creative and new. That's what you're striving to find. But the authentic voice doesn't know how to write, any more than gasoline knows how to drive. But driving is impossible without fuel and writing is impossible without the heat and strength of your authentic voice. Learning to write well is the stuff of workshops. Learning good habits and practicing hard. But finding your authentic voice as a writer is your business, your journey -- a private, lonely, inexact, painful, slow and frustrating voyage. Teachers and mentors can only bring you closer to that voice. With luck and time, you'll get there on your own.
(c) 2003 Theatre Communications Group -- Jose Rivera

Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Just got back from a 12-hour day on the set for work. Quick updates before the next round of posts:
  • Anyone catch Peter Marks Sunday Arts Section article about the phenomenon that is Doubt? Don't know how you could miss it. Sigh. I'm really gearing up for this one, I promise. Maybe it'll fuse nicely with ...
  • Response to RennyRu, Hester, YS, H, and Trillum on the ongoing Monsterism discussion. I fear that the discussion is digging deeper than the founding fathers/mothers intended, but that's a good thing.
  • Jose Rivera's "36 Assumptions" essay from References to Salvidor Dali Make Me Hot will be posted shortly -- thanks once again to Gregg Henry, Hester, and YS for locating that one.
  • And in all fairness: I'm going to spend a chunk of time gushing over some plays/playwrights I love. Might help guide the critique. Short of Hester's prescription to "shut up and write a damn play," which I have, I figure I should at least give equal shrift to the stuff I like. The grapes aren't sour, they just taste funny with all the DDT on them.
  • That last metaphor doesn't really work at all, but it sure sounds like the kind of punctuating turn-of-phrase with which bloggers typically end their petitions, right?

Friday, July 08, 2005

Romantic Monsters

Responses to the previous post:


I think the three scenarios you offer make sense. Just found this post from a blog called, appropriately enough, Mirror Up to Nature:

The Guardian talks about a movement called "Monsterism," which claims to be a doctrine to get playwrights to think bigger and better. I think it will probably prove to be only useful in making the first few practitioners of it famous enough to get regular work before they abandon the church they started. Think Dogma 95.

Their Manifesto for the most part lacks vision or creativity, most of it is a rehash of things one would learn from The Art of Playwrighting by Largos Egri.

Jose Rivera wrote a much more daring and inspiring credo for playwrighting in American Theatre a few years back.

I dug around for that article by Rivera, but couldn't find it in the A.T. online archives. As for Largos Egri's book, I don't recall much more about it besides the fact that it was written in the 50's with an eye toward screenwriting (when the overlap in playwright/screenwriter population was bigger than today). Would like to check those sources if anyone out there happens to have them. Esp. Rivera's, whatever it was.

If one of the dangers of the minimalist, po-mo aesthetic is that anything can be reduced to a semantic or subjectivist flourish (e.g. Buddhism was "soooo '1993'.") -- then Monsterism's greatest weakness may be the fact that it already has a name. Since I believe the romonsterist school (such as it is) would be doing battle with the minimalist/pomo camp that encourages such casual reductionism, these dangers and weaknesses are important -- if for no other reason than the monsterists would have to fight minimalism on its own philosophic playground before effectively carving out a place of its own on the bandwidth. Fight fire with fire, then with water. I think the author of "Mirror" is just trying to say that, as with any new school, there's the danger that monsterism will spawn a flock of annoying fundamentalists who never really knew what the fundamentals were. Now is the time to clarify.

After ten years, Dogma95 films offer little else than the knowledge that the film you're watching conforms to certain rules for lighting, camera placement, editing, special effects, etc. Because many of the rules strike professionals as arbitrary or self-referential, they don't "enforce" clarity of vision or purity of craft as much as they enforce the sustenance of Dogma95 as a movement. Not that great films haven't been made using these rules; just that the rules themselves aren't effective guidelines for making superior art.

Couple reasons I believe monsters won't fall into the same trap:

1. Dogma95 was about the imposition of fundamental restrictions on the craft of film-making (natural light only, no mounts for the cameras, no digital film/cameras). Monsterism is about the re-appropriation of existing resources to more deserving writers -- so that they may overcome restrictions. The lament that spawned it wasn't about economics as much as it was about management.

This ties into what "H" mentions in his/her post: If it's really about money, why are there so many crappy productions at Arena, Shakespeare, and the Kennedy Center? Taken further, this attitude goes from saying "more money's not the answer" to saying "more money's actually the problem." Both are false. The theatre community has money. Lots of it, actually. And while more support from grants and groundlings would be nice, it doesn't change the fact that we have to be smarter about the resources we already have. So while H continues that "marketing would be so huge that audiences would flock to see this fresh piece of art and a generation of true theatregoers would be born," I submit, again, that the seminal gripe from those early monsterists wasn't that marketing, design, acting, and directing resources were poor -- merely put in service of self-defeating goals.

2. While Monsterism makes certain judgements about contemporary theatre, it doesn't preclude two-person epics, living room dramas, naturalism, etc. I think I gave off the wrong impression earlier when I said something to the effect that Stephen Adly Guirgis's plays would work just as well on the radio. Well, they wouldn't and couldn't -- mostly because half the language wouldn't pass FCC standards. Theatre is still useful for writers who care to let language be the driving force of their composition -- a choice that mainstream media doesn't honor. Bear in mind, please, that print culture does this better than theatre does. Theatre can be a refuge for such writers, but rarely a home. After a while, the freeloaders need to move out and write a novel if they want that much linguistic/psychological sovereignty. Happily, Monsterism is more about kicking the canon forward than excommunicating the writers who've adapted to it. It's a school, not a crusade. And its starting axis is writers qua management, not writers qua writers.

Having said that, H brings up another interesting point: where do the fancypants actors fit into this? Sounds like H believes actors are even more susceptible to the influence of money. How many of us retreat to cushy gigs as third spear-shaker that will pay student loans for a change instead of bold, new works that can't beat off creditors when they knock? How will better play composition affect this? Mamet and Albee are decidedly anti-actor and I count that as their greatest failing. I believe the relationship of writer qua actor ties into this, even though it hasn't been articulated by the monsterists yet. Put simply, I believe acting is a creative, not interpretive, enterprise. Mamet, taken seriously, would prefer that actors not only resist creation, but that they resist interpretation, too. "Mimetic artist" is perhaps the highest calling he enunciates for performers. Why he finds mimicry "courageous" is beyond me. That we interpret goes without saying. It's like admitting that audiences should probably speak English before they sit down to watch Shaw. Beyond that, the distinctions are vast.

The creative v. interpretive issue needs to be resolved in its own right because any overall aesthetic should harness every last bit of creative umph anyone cares to bring -- monsterism is refreshing to me because it acknowledges that writers and producers need to be on the same page. But it's in service of better productions, not just better scripts. Mamet and Albee only ask that the fuckin' actors get out of the way of the true artists. And theatre is weaker for it. To borrow H's example of the lavish treatment of The Goat at Arena Stage -- it was a story that didn't merit its funding because at its heart was a writer who holds essential theatricality in shameful contempt -- after it was written, there was no hope of dolling it up to make it stage-worthy. That's why the monsterist revolution begins with writers, but depends on producers and actors, not as mere tools, but as honorable contributors to the creative process.

Economically speaking, again, the whole enterprise will be stronger and more competitive if actors are given the creative premium they deserve. I know this is hard since many actors are annoying as fuck. There should still be an authority structure that pivots on the vision of the artistic director, but the sad fact is you can have theatre without scripts. You can't have it without actors. If more actors realized the primacy of their existence, they'd be in a better bargaining position for their own well-being and could go about discriminating between projects for more compelling reasons (i.e. the value/utility of the project instead of the paycheck of the project). It'd be nice (though kinda silly) if AEA factored in the value of new characters over dead ones when they designed their pay-scales, but ... maybe they should figure out our dental plan first.

Regarding spectacle, I don't think the idea is to force theatre to keep pace with movies and television -- enough Broadway re-mounts are already in that trap. It's not about paying for an explosion on stage instead of paying for a good monologue or actor. It's about realizing that theatre is a temporal-spatial art form more than a language-driven art form. That third dimension is ours, kids. We should probably do something with it, and quick. The parallax between eyeballs isn't going to cut it.

Sure, we all "know" this -- but rarely are plays written or performed with that knowledge held as an irreducible axiomatic truth. Living room dramas are fine, as long as there's a reason we're in the living room. Naturalistic snapshots are fine, as long as there's a reason we need to visit nature at that time and in that place. Monsterism wouldn't purge these plays, but it would demand a more forthright justification for their respective settings and POV's. The best justification, in my mind, would be that the theme and subject-matter requires them. The very core of the story deals with issues of time and place. This does not hold that the story is strictly unified in time and space, as Aristotle would have it, but that our relationship with time and place is the first goal, however primordially, of the theatre makers.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Episode III: Revenge of the Pith

I posted a while ago about "Monsterism" -- a movement/aesthetic/fad being carved out by a handful of new British playwrights whose names I didn't recognize. I love it because it's a happy half-way mark for understanding my previous rants about contemporary American playwriting. I found it comforting to know that at least some writers were frustrated with the Rule of Pith: namely, that theatre's best shot at survival in a culture dominated by "Mr. & Mrs. Smith: the IMAX Experience!" was to:

a) retreat uffishly into compact, easily-digestible (i.e. pithy) plays about commonplace topics
b) slobber all over itself and loudly declare its inadequacy by overcompensating with postmodern escape clauses or sensationalist uber-absurdist id-worship
c) only spend money on the dead masters who don't need a royalty check anyway or
d) only spend money on clumsy diorama versions of Disney movies, disaster stories, John Waters films, ANY film, etc.

The ultimatum presented by the Monsterists seems responsible enough. Imagine if the money spent on The Shakespeare Theatre's Tempest went into The Clean House at Woolly Mammoth or anything done at Synetic Theatre? Or if the exposure given to the forthcoming pan-disciplinary Shakespeare-in-art festival went into the forthcoming Capital Fringe festival? It sounds like begging the question because, liberal though we may be, we all still shrug at ticket sales as the best evidence of worthwhile art.

Yes, you do.

Come on, admit it.

Buns in seats, right? Don't worry, it's okay to feel this way. I was hanging out with the venerable Hugh Owen a couple weekends ago when even he confessed, upon seeing the legions of followers at a Coldplay concernt, that "we're in the wrong business." The evidence being, apparently, that Coldplay hits the same basic emotional/philosophical/political notes that say, Tennessee Williams did ... only they're stinking rich! So if no less a busybody leading young male commodity than Hugh will turn his head at the sumptuous chords of the capitalist machine, we should feel no shame in joining him from time to time.

In any event, the re-appropriation of a ghost's royalty money isn't something you can legislate, but it is a choice we can make "in the industry." Besides, if more money really translated into better art and better art always got more money from consumers, The Shakespeare Theatre would never be allowed to fail -- according to the capitalist paradigm. But it has. And how.

Money issues aside, I just love the fact that a handful of playwrights are demanding their right to be imaginative again. And all they're doing is throwing the neo-classicist's rules back at them. The demand for broader license with spectacle and cast size ties into my demand for plays that deal with the literal space a story inhabits. The look and population of the playspace is the greatest advantage theatre has over the other competing entertainments. We charge people $20 for two hours in a poorly-climate-controlled room with uncomfortable seats and no food for a reason. It better be something more than five actors talkin about "fuckin life, man!"

Albee would have you believe that the degeneration of theatre is due to people attending the present-day equivalent of circuses and executions. That's how he dismisses the TV and movie crowd. All that other media is just shit and the cognoscenti of today are basically the same people who were discerning enough to attend the theatre four hundred years ago. I read that in an interview of his from lord-knows-when, so maybe he's changed his mind. Or maybe he's cracked open an actual history book and apologized for screwing it up. Either way, I think the belief you have about the utility of live theatre plugs directly into how well your plays are written (i.e. how theatrical they are). In Albee's case, it's a higher order of sarcasm, manipulation and cynicism. Sadly, "higher order" usually just means "polysyllabic" and "manipulation" usually just means "it was all a lie/dream!" And unless you think we need more sarcasm, manipulation and cynicism in American culture, there's not much else to recommend theatre as a worthwhile venue for your daily dose.

So anyway, the anchoring moral for Monsterism is that the administrative side needs to take a jump if the playwright's are going to take a jump. We're such a tight crowd when it comes to voting for the right political candidate -- so why are we so conservative when it comes to nurturing the lifeforce of our own art form?

That's my piece for Monsterism-as-critique-of-the-status-quo. Here's why I like it in its own right. Besides being a welcome antidote to the above-mentioned problems, Monsterism (from the sound of it) might actually have a shot at making playwrights the Romantics they should be. If theatre isn't the best channel for transmitting news, political discourse, escapism or education, then what does it do better than anything? Ooooh! Essay question for everyone! I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours.

In short: when playwrights dare to (are allowed to) shoot for the moon ...
  1. They stop hacking out meticulously coded inner-monologues and shoe-horning them into arcane stage directions (see: Albee again) and ...
  2. Start ... well ... trying to explore instead. When they explore instead of interpolate, they usually find out that ...
  3. What we do is more dramatic than what we think. After that ...
  4. The subject matter switches to how the world could be instead of how shitty the world presently is. This orientation demands solutions to bridge the two. Because a Romantic-Monster aesthetic would celebrate and engage the imagination and intellect ...
  5. All solutions offered in the Romantic-Monster canon would have to be compelling on a philosophical/conceptual level. Not just the tactile/emotional/gastrointestinal level. As a result ...
  6. Audiences would emulate the spirit and belief systems of genuine heroes instead of the speeches and mannerisms of useless anti-heroes.
Our imagination is one of the few places where we have a chance to get it right: utopia, true love, perfection or just the funniest joke ever. So let's save the pith for the fortune cookies.

Friday, July 01, 2005

"Pun" doesn't rhyme with "suck" ... but it should.

Friend and free-lance smart-ass Anna Gorisch recently submitted to the grand re-naming challenge by tundratastic and offered the following ten possible new titles. Cast your vote or submit your own. My daily diet of vitamin pith is running low, so I'm outsourcing this task.

10. Blog (as a match for all the Pulitzer-worthy, one-word titles of which I so frequently bitch)
9. Freaks & Irrelevancies
8. Kevin
7. Blog Benedict XVI
6. "That's Hot!" My Tribute to Paris Hilton
5. Les Miserablog
4. Blogman Begins
3. Folly of the Moment
2. Smorgasblog
1. Fear and Loathing in Las District

Not a bad start. Clearly, numbers 7, 6, and 4 are bound a little too snugly to current fads to yield a sustaining shelf-life, but then ... oh, nevermind. Was going to throw another Wallacean remark about how that's just what the po-mo-rons want you to do! Help me out here folks. Not looking for a new URL necessarily, but the Alaskan vestige will have to go for now.