I know so many people who complain at being left out of opportunities. There’s so much “they don’t want me because I’m too (x, y, z) for them” that I hear, and I want to be in a culture of saying “yes, and.” This is one of those times where we can step up and build the sandbox in which we want to play.
Speaking of building your own sandbox, progress on Jarnsaxa Rising continues. In addition to the script, I’m working on “meet the artist” posts for the podcast’s blog. Every time I open up my e-mail, see the performers’ headshots and read their bios, I get all warm and giggly inside. This project is going to be Really Good.
And last night it rained, finally, so the garden is getting wild again. The red lilies are blooming and doubling and trebling, and the morning glory vine has started to fight with the lavender, but they’re no match for the mint, so I have to get in there and break up some of this battle.
If you are, or plan to be, in the Los Angeles area on Thursday, November 13, you owe it to yourself to head down to Casa 101 Theatre in Boyle Heights to see Teatro MOZ.
Tickets are now available for a showcase of Latino-American love for the man whose voice helped redefine masculinity, Morrissey. The short plays are all culled from a nationwide call for submissions. I took a gamble with my friend, DJ and cultural connector, Rhienna Renee Guedry. We wrote a play about bicycles, not having sex, and woman-loving-women who love Morrissey, and sent it in, crossing our fingers and clapping our hands because we believe in fairies.
A few weeks later, we were fortunate enough to have our play, Pretty Petty Things, chosen as a finalist.
Unfortunately, I’m unable to get to Los Angeles from Philadelphia right now. BUT, if you can, you should! The cast is not only talented and skilled, but also gorgeous. The show promises to be a tour de force, complete with live musical performances and a lot of sweet and tender hooliganism. It’s only playing for one night, Thursday, November 13, at eight pm.
How often do you get to see a theatrical event that combines Latino contemporary life and California culture with the Anglophilic pop sensibility of the former frontman of The Smiths? Come to Casa 101 Theatre, 2102 East First Street, Los Angeles, California, 90033, for a singular dramatic event.
Earlier this summer, I was browsing through different lists of playwriting opportunities, and I found one that reached out to me like a beacon in the dark.
TEATRO MOZ, sponsored by Real Women Have Curves Studio, is sponsoring a short play contest. Do you have a dramatic memoir about the first time you fell in love with this Charming Man? Do the lyrics or title of a Smiths/Morrissey song inspire a story in your soul? Submit a short MOZ-themed play for a chance to win prizes and a staged reading of your piece by professional actors later this year!
I thought, that sounds so crazy it has to be fun. I know next to nothing about Morrissey, but I bought “You Are The Quarry” when it first came out, and loved “Irish Blood, English Heart.” I listen to The Smiths’ older hits quite a bit, and the sense of desire and longing, maybe desire for desire itself more than fulfillment, speaks to my inner gay man. Usually themed play contests and showcases are about heavy topics, but I’ve never seen anything like this before. I thought, I love this.
So, I sent a quick e-mail to my friend Rhienna. She is a DJ and creative connector (as DJs tend to be) in Portland, and every year she runs the annual Morrissey Mobile Disco bike ride as part of Pedalpalooza. Basically, a lot of people get together and ride a pre-planned course, with decorated bicycles, Morrissey look-alike outfits, and, of course, music, music, music. I thought if anyone knows anything unique and fun about the phenomenon that is Morrissey, she does.
We had a cross-country confab. Oddly enough the deadline for the play contest was immediately following the next annual ride, so she had plenty of fresh material. We talked about Morrissey, his cancelled tour dates, loving him from afar, how his appeal transcends boundaries of sexuality and gender, and how the ride is a really fun time. and how riding bikes with a group on a gorgeous summer evening is a fun young and in love or in love with love thing to do. Their course’s goal was the Joan of Arc statue in Coe Circle, and since it’s beautiful and Philadelphia also has a Joan of Arc statue, I had to work that in.
She gave me a lot of information, helped me sort through ideas, and I typed it up and sent it.
Today, we got an e-mail from Teatro MOZ that Pretty Petty Things was picked as one of ten finalists! Which means it’ll be in the showcase!
Not only am I excited about this, I’m excited about what this means. Basically:
Someone in LA loves the phenomenon that is Morrissey and his music to say, “let’s put up a short play festival about this thing I love.”
And a professional theatre said, “Sure. This is new, this is different, yes, we’ll back it.”
And they sent a call for entries out.
Meanwhile, in other cities in other parts of the country, two women said, “You know what, that sounds like fun and it’s something I know a little bit about, I’ll work on something and send it in and if they like it, they like it.”
Basically, once again, as Lorna Howley said, what is theatre but a big party?
I love the idea of people getting positive ideas and putting them together to make something bigger and better. which, in my opinion, is what theatre is all about.
and I can’t wait to find out why the celebrity judges are. I’m secretly hoping for Thomas Lennon.
Last night, Dominic D’ Andrea sent out the e-mail explaining the groupings of scripts and pairing with directors, and just reading it feels really, really good. Dominic D’Andrea is one of the hardest working men in show business: he produces these One-Minute Play Festivals all over the country. They’re not just specialized by city or state; INTAR Theatre has partnered with the OMPF to create the One-Minute Play Festival of Latina/o Voices twice. The focus and energy of last year’s Philadelphia show was contagious enough to sell out all three performances. Remembering how much fun it was to watch and be part of, and looking forward to this new show, is making me feel all twitterpated.*
One of the goals in writing a piece for the One-Minute Play Festival is to reflect or explore a issue or trait unique to the host city, in a simple, powerful theatrical moment. So, basically, it’s a living haiku about our experience right now. They take longer to cook up and picture in your brain, than they do to actually write. When you write them, you have to write them so they’re actually much shorter than a minute, to give the actors room to breathe and be aware in the experience.
This is why we write plays, so we can take a plan and hand it off to other artists and see what they do with it.
Anyway, I’m excited, and based on the names and information I’ve seen so far, this promises to be a really good show. It takes place on August 3, 4 and 5 at 8pm, at the Adrienne Theatre. Yes, they’re school nights, it’s summer, deal with it. All the good stuff happens on weeknights anyway. I get more excited over new plays than babies or jewelry. This is going to have over a hundred new plays. Whee!
Dermatologists hate me! Mortgage lenders curse my name! Why? Because I know the one weird trick that will help you, yes, YOU, pay off your mortgage, get rid of your wrinkles, reduce back and belly fat, and crack your script into shape to ensure total and immediate Hollywood screenwriting success in just minutes!
All of this is a gross exaggeration for comic effect, but you knew this, Gentle Reader. However, it’ll be interesting to see if my SEO skills result in some interesting search engine terms leading readers here.
Once upon a time, I knew a struggling actor, beginning playwright, and reasonably successful waiter. Just one? This one in particular, let’s call him Phil, had some bad networking habits. He was a schmoozer, and he was pretty good at getting into conversations about the business of making art with people more advanced in their career than he was. If you’re in any aspect of art-making, this will probably sound very familiar to you.
Inevitably, once some cheap wine or craft beer was flowing, and people were warming up, he would find whoever it was in the room that seemed to be the most advanced or successful in their career, corner them, and interrogate them, asking, “what’s the one thing, the one thing, the one piece of advice you can give me?” By then his interrogation had driven away anyone else, and the interrogated would be shuffling and hemming and hawing, until finally they muttered something about perseverance, and said anything Young Torquemada wanted to hear so they could slip out of the conversation.
What was never clear (to me, anyway), was whether:
A) he only wanted to know one thing, because he didn’t intend to take up too much of their time with his request for professional guidance
B) he thought there was one secret to success, one ring to rule them all, which could be easily summed up in one simple weird trick, task, or dance move.
The reality, as anyone with half a brain knows, is that there is no one weird trick that will get anyone where they need to go. While it’s true that someone’s life can be ruined with one weird mistake or choice, getting where you want to go takes many steps, lessons, and actions over time. Very few people get this until they’ve learned it the hard way (myself included). That’s why I’m using a bold font.
This past Thursday, I graduated with my Master of Fine Arts degree in Playwriting from Temple University. It was crowded and hot and fun and thrilling, and a big vindication of all the hard work I’ve done over the past four years. Now I have a bunch of scripts, an MFA, a rail pass, and a copy of Writing Movies For Fun And Profit. I can take the train anywhere I want (at least through Sunday at midnight, and as long as I’m not planning to go past more than 2 SEPTA transit zones).
I also have a lot of new neural pathways burnt into my brain, from a four-year regime of writing, rewriting, reading, reciting, reiterating, re-reading, re-rewriting, researching, rehearsing, late nights, early mornings, too little sleep, too much coffee, and occasionally too much bourbon. I’ve built some good habits and learned a few things. Which means I think now is the only time in my life that it’ll be fresh in my mind to address the question I was asked, back at the beginning of this process:
“Why do you need to go to graduate school to be an artist?”
It can be assumed that art is subjective, originality is more important than craft, that meaning is in the perception of the beholder, and maybe learning too many of the conventional rules of art-making can destroy creative impulses. Therefore, graduate school could, effectively, stifle real originality and creativity. There’s the NYC vs. MFA debate (as if New York is the only city in the world where anyone does creative work and gets paid for it), where some people feel that rather than attending grad school, young people should get a job in their preferred industry and do it until they become successful.
Some of this is true. Some of this is not. I would make the argument that work and education need to co-exist. The ivory tower can insulate and stifle, and the working world can make you honest, but wear you down as well. You need both to improve as an artist.
Prior to applying to graduate school, I had a pretty good cultural education. I had worked in a lot of theaters where I had the opportunity to see world-class plays, music, dance, and whatever the Flying Karamazov Brothers are, for free, as long as I didn’t mind standing in the back. I heard Randy Newman play from the trap room underneath his piano, I saw the first production of Anna In The Tropics from 8th row center in a 300-seat house, I’ve been hugged by Dael Orlandersmith and kissed on the cheek by Tom Stoppard. For ten years, I absorbed all the culture I could, read tons of scripts, and sold probably thousands of tickets and subscriptions. Through this experience, I learned a lot about playwriting. Some of it I learned in weekly writers’ workshops and self-producing. Some of it I learned by seeing what shows were selected every season and where, and what wasn’t.
The biggest thing I learned is that if you don’t clean up real pretty, you don’t get asked to the dance. The competition for what I wanted to do was so fierce that if I didn’t have the MFA making me stand out, anything else that would was probably The Sarah Kane Solution.*
Right before I started graduate school, I was asked, “How is going to graduate school going to make you a better artist, something which relies on originality?” and I finally said, “I don’t know, but I have to try, because I can’t work the overnight shift at the big-box craft store for the rest of my life.”
So, here’s what I did learn in graduate school, how it changed me, and why I would advocate a mix of graduate school and “real-world” work in order to improve as an artist.
First of all, as Polly Carl said, it’s a terrible idea to go directly from your undergraduate years into a graduate writing program. You need to go out and make mistakes and get scared in order to fully understand risks, stakes, consequences and motivation. Many playwrights who come from Ivy League universities produce scripts which suffer from the consequences not of the stakes needing to be higher, but the consequences of your protagonist not reaching their goal be a fate worse than death. If you spend your summers playing piano and tending bar in Brooklyn or Prague while reading poetry, or using the word “summer” as a verb in Cape Cod, you don’t know what a fate worse than death is. You need to get lost in very bad neighborhoods, and find your way home all by yourself. You need to run completely out of food but still scrape up enough change to buy enough kibble to keep your cat alive. You need to work double shifts for a bad boss and too many customers and ache like you’ve been beaten with hockey sticks with no end in sight. You need to get so broke that you will do anything to get enough to eat, and then do that anything. You need to let time and tide and experience work on you. You need to learn the hard way who your real friends are. Then, when you do get a good job, survive the night, see the sun rise, sink your teeth into that excellent meal, you need to let yourself feel real, heart-warming gratitude and pay it forward. After all that, you’ll have something to write about.
Secondly, it is true that graduate school insulates you from the “real world,” but this is a good thing. Effectively, it is a safe space to make creative mistakes. If you make mistakes in a job, you get fired, so you learn very quickly not to make mistakes. What you’re really learning is what your boss, client, etc. wants to hear or see. So, you might not create the most meaningful or affecting work, but you might create what gets you paid. Then you’re making the work that makes the groupthink happy and innovation doesn’t happen. Next thing you know, you’re buying up creativity books and going to seminars on “Five Highly Effective Ways To Think Outside The Box And Move Their Cheese.”
So, okay, yes, in grad school you get some playground time, and this is necessary in order to learn new ways of thinking.
When I wrote plays back in 2009, I used to type drafts directly into my computer, maybe very rarely handwriting if I had to.
Now, I storyboard and collage through idea generation, use a whiteboard through organizing my thoughts and structure, type in Final Draft, and scribble throughout the process on paper. I also listen and talk out loud. I’ve traded various iterations of the same sentence back and forth with director Liz Carlson to find the right blend of craft and intention. We had a great time trying to figure out which was better, “lie back with your bed full of cupcakes,” or “lie back in your bed full of cupcakes.” I’ve done improvisation and used puppets to find new ways of telling a story. I learned from the most powerful brains in art-making fields, all with widely varied perspectives and methods. If I had been in a for-profit work world, the opportunity to learn from leaders, make mistakes and try again would never have happened.
It’s true that Mark Foster of Foster The People honed his skills in commercial jingle writing, and John Hodgman sharpened his scholarly sensibilities as a literary agent. However, these artists also were able to use grassroots and non-traditional media to create their own sandboxes. “Pumped Up Kicks” garnered its initial success via a free download on Foster’s website. Hodgman wrote a column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and now hosts his own podcast, Judge John Hodgman.
Were I cornered at a beer-and-cheap-wine fundraiser, by someone like Phil, and badgered for the “one weird trick to ensure success” (See how great my SEO skills are? You guys can stop spamming me now), there would be a lesson I learned the hard way, to which I would refer.
In my second year of graduate school, I was working on a docudrama, which I grew to loathe. It dealt with a brutal murder, a woman falsely convicted via the court of public opinion, and her exoneration. The source material was so savage it gave me nightmares.** Writing this play was Not Fun Anymore.
Now, if you have a situation where you work nine to five and make your art on the weekends and in the evenings, you can, and probably should, walk away from it when it’s no longer fun. If you’re doing it for love, and the love is gone, don’t stick with it. If you’re making a project for money, and you don’t love it, you’ll take the path of least persistence and do what the money wants. Client wants a beagle with mustard-colored ears on the label, you’ll make the beagle’s ears mustard-colored, even though you know caramel would be better. But, in this situation, failure to take this painful situation and not give it the honest illustration it required, would mean disappointment from people I admired, and in myself. It would have been failure without honor. I needed to rely on craft to carry me through the emotional pain of this project.
So, I dropped back, took a good look at the project, and thought about what it was that brought me to this project more than anything else. The idea of being tried in the court of public opinion was the one thing of which I could not let go.
I invented a new character, Lucky Moskowitz. Lucky is a 35-year-old lesbian who wears a lot of black, has black spiky hair, big blue eyes, and runs Lucky’s Gas n’Gulp out by the Interstate. She comes from a Chicago family of cops, but moved to the heartland to get away from a painful past with a mob-related former girlfriend (none of this ever came up in the play, but it sure is fun). Lucky gave me a means to tie together the disparate strands of the play and move the plot forward. Everybody comes through Lucky’s Gas n’ Gulp, and everybody’s got an opinion. Lucky’s presence allowed me to look at the story in a new way. The point is, eventually, you will hate a project so much that it is impossible to continue in the same way you always have. Then, you have to get perspective, and either find or invent a new personal point of entry into the work.
Then you have to do it again and again and again, using the right tools and with the right people, until it becomes second nature. Then you have to forget all that, back up, take a good look, and just do it.
I don’t think an MFA alone is superior to real-world work, or vice versa. Neither is superior or inferior to building one’s own sandbox and using new technologies to find an audience. I think all these components have to work together. I do know that I’m definitely a better, more confident artist with more tools and techniques for play writing and screen writing now, after four years in the playwriting trenches at Temple University, than I was in 2010, left to my own devices.
I believe that the one weird trick for absolute success is going out there and finding it for yourself.
That statement may seem like an oversimplification, and I don’t mean it that way. I could not have the portfolio of scripts, confidence, or neural pathways burnt into my brain without the teachers I had at Temple University, or the colleagues. I am deeply grateful every day for their work, skill, and talent. What I mean is that the journey is the destination, and the goal is the work is takes to get there.
*Which would make a brilliant band name.
**I dreamt that I was employed by a tourism board to find all the haunted houses in a given area, witness the ghosts living out their own murders, write them down, and make it into a book to sell ghost tours. After describing the dream to my prof, Bob Hedley, he suggested I take a couple of days off from the work.
I know nobody’s looking at the Internet on a Friday evening in Spring (and if you are, please, step away from the screen and go enjoy some fresh air). But, I’ve had a cocktail, and since I haven’t posted anything here for a while, now seems like a good time as any to post.
I’ve been way underground for a while, and here’s why. First of all, I had the black plague. It’s possible I may be exaggerating for comic effect. I had pneumonia for a little bit over a week, probably a by-product of the weather vacillating wildly from warm to cold and back. In any case, I lost several days in bed manufacturing sputum of many colors. I learned something very interesting in the course of this illness.
If you take an SSRI, as many of us do (I think Zoloft will be OTC by 2020, but that’s just my opinion), you may want to consider its interaction with your over-the-counter cold medication, specifically, dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant). It clearly states on medications such as DayQuil and Mucinex DM that this medication should not be taken in conjunction with any medication that is an MAOI. I may be the exception to all of this, but, to make a long story short, the combination of dextromethorphan and sertraline resulted in a case of restless leg syndrome which should have made me eligible to join the Rockettes. Hence, what should have been a 5 to 7 day recuperation period stretched into 10 days because I had to take 36 hours with no medication which suppressed symptoms (other than antibiotics) to let things get out of my system, which meant I couldn’t sleep. The moral of the story is, Cough Syrup Is No Joke.
Know your drugs, know your doses. It’s elementary.
But I digress. Here’s the heavy lifting which I’ve been doing this semester.
I’ve been writing a play about poet and journalist Walter Lowenfels. He lived in Paris during the 1930’s, hobnobbing with such literary luminaries as Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller. After the Depression hit, he returned with his wife, Lillian, to New Jersey, where he worked in his father’s butter business by day and wrote poetry by night. In the 1940s, he moved his family to Parkside, in West Philadelphia. There, he edited the Pennsylvania edition of The Daily Worker and was active in the Communist Party and the Civil Rights movement. In 1952 he was arrested for violation of The Smith Act, allegedly for trying to overthrow the government, and briefly held at Holmesburg Prison. The case was thrown out for lack of evidence; apparently the FBI does believe the pen to be mightier than the sword.
Lowenfels lived a multifaceted life, stretching between the demands of his family, his community, and his art. In the play created for my Seminar in Community Arts Practices, we’re exploring how he maintained that balance, via the metaphor of his kitchen table. The play, Walter’s Table, will be presented as part of the Radical Jewish Culture symposium, at Paley Library, on Temple University’s main campus, on April 25 and 26. This production stars Philadelphia veteran actor David Ingram (most recently on the Wilma Theater stage in Cherokee).
My thesis project is the real elephant in the room. The working title is Dream Of Wide Open Spaces. To make a long story short, from the fall of 1932 to the spring of 1934, Georgia O’Keeffe stopped painting. During that time she had a physical and emotional breakdown, lost all her appetite for creativity, and gradually found her way back to become the visual powerhouse we know and love. As I’m working on this play, I am madly in love with The Beinecke Rare Book And Manuscript Library at Yale University, which holds much of Georgia O’Keeffe’s correspondence. Reading her letters in her handwriting, and interpreting the nuances with which she wields fountain pen or pencil is an adventure in and of itself. I’m also reading My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz by Sarah Greenough, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe by Laurie Lisle, Georgia O’Keeffe by Roxana Robinson, and O’Keeffe and Steiglitz: An American Romance by Benita Eisler.
My process has been to read, read, and read, either before going to sleep for the night, or while on the train commuting, and then either sleep or go for walks, and let the data roll around in my head. Unfortunately, I know what it’s like to be creatively frustrated, as O’Keeffe was during that period, and what it’s like to be in a relationship with un-chosen non-monogamy. I also know what it’s like to be sick, and not to trust one’s own body, and have to regain that trust. So I let things marinate, and then get up early in the morning and write what makes the most sense.
It’s a slow and painful process, but so far, I feel pretty good about it.
Coming up in the next month, Liz Carlson and I are banging our heads together again, for Temple University’s MFA Playfest. Liz will direct the play which I wrote as an independent study with Ed Sobel this past fall, The Wreck Of The Alberta. It’s a family drama about the weight of history, mental illness, puppetry and the secret life of objects. I love working with Liz, and our previous collaboration, Fox Haven was very successful, so this should be a good time.
So. That’s all the news that’s fit to print right now. Hopefully, I’ll make it through to the other side with two good scripts, and I can write about something other than balancing art with one’s mental health, someday. Right now I’m really feeling the experience of being on the fence between mentally healthy and productive, and crazy and frustrated. But, I’m walking the fence one step at a time.
This morning, my friend Clarence Wethern posted on the Internet that listening to the Doctor Who Season 5 soundtrack made everything seem much more urgent and important.
When I read this, I was sitting in a 7-11, waiting to be let into the library so I could start my lonely early morning work shift. Because, when you ask yourself, “what does a dangerous, destructive thug look like?” automatically, you think of me. And, that’s why the security guards want nothing to do with me before 9 on a Saturday. I thought, heck yeah, I could use a sense of importance and urgency. Also, not only is Clarence one of my favorite actors, he’s one of the kindest, funniest, smartest people I know, so how can any advice from him possibly be a bad idea?
I mean, where could it possibly leave me? In a library basement in North Philadelphia, trapped while the rest of the city enjoys its one breath of Spring before another blast of Winter?
So, as I went into the library (apropos) I cued up Clarence’s link to Spotify, and “Honey, I’m Home” by Murray Gold and The BBC National Orchestra of Wales started playing. It starts out light and airy, pleasant, but gradually increases its minor key to become more threatening. As I turned keys in locks, logged into the computers with pass codes, turned tumblers for secret combinations and unlocked the door to the room where the DVDs are shelved, the suspense was palpable enough that I sincerely questioned the silent, staring eyes of Media Services Bear, sitting on the trolley in the darkness.
And the piece of music is exactly the same length of time that it takes to open the library’s Media Services desk. So, that was fun. I kind of wished that Christopher Eccleston would suddenly grab my hand, look deeply into my eyes and say, “Run,” as an alien creature hatched from an egg laid deep inside Media Services Bear’s stuffed tummy.
Of course, once the alien invaders have been vanquished (probably via my secret skill of getting lost or being late*), that means inevitably that I’d have to explain to him that I can’t possibly go travel through all of space and time with him, because of course he’d want me to, duh.
LINDSAY: I’m married.
THE DOCTOR: I’m not the marrying type.
LINDSAY: I have cats and dogs to take care of.
THE DOCTOR: They’ll never know you were gone.
LINDSAY: I have a thesis to write.
THE DOCTOR: What’s it about?
LINDSAY: Georgia O’Keeffe’s break from painting between 1932 and 1934.
CAMERA TRACKS IN CLOSE TO THE DOCTOR’S WIDENING BLUE EYES AS THE CLOSING THEME BEGINS
THE DOCTOR: Oh yeah?… You want some help with that?
MUSIC: DOONKETA DOO, DOONKETA DOO, DOONKETA DOONKETA DOONKETA ooo-WEE-ooo!
Because, obviously, I have had a hole in the space-time continuum tethered to me since birth. Every now and then I fall into it and have to find my way back out again. Or other things fall into it. That’s why I’m always late, lost, or losing things. Or early. Sometimes.
SEE HOW WELL I AVOID WORKING ON THE SHORT PLAY, AT WHICH I AM TEMPORARILY ANGRY, TODAY? I’ve just set up an entire season of Doctor Who. BAM. Hire me, Moffat.
And then we go to 1960s London because Harold Pinter also has a hole in the space time continuum tethered to him, except he sucks whole lives into it and spits them out again as plays (because The Homecoming is scary). But Pinter doesn’t know it (because after it becomes a play, all memory of the life having ever existed disappears. QED). At the end of the episode, he’s inspired to write Betrayal. For some reason. To be determined.