Showing posts with label theater. Show all posts
Showing posts with label theater. Show all posts

12 October 2020

It's Better When It Moves


Last week, Rob Lopresti offered "The Inspiration Panel," a short play that was both funny and terrifying. I told him if he could write two companion pieces to make it a trilogy, I'd direct them. Now I think about how much my early misadventures in theater taught me about writing.

Theater audiences pay more to see a live play than they do for a movie, so you better give them their money's worth; small audiences mean you might not get to direct again. Sitting in the audience when my first baby hit the stage taught me a lot that you can apply it to stories and novels.

Years ago, I showed Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder to a high school class. The first 45 minutes of the film show Ray Milland and another actor sitting at a table talking. That's it. My sixteen-year-olds went crazy. The long stretch of nothing happening was brutal. Do you have long passages like that in your book? Audiences need movement, emotion and/or action to keep them grounded.

Action perks up a static scene 
If they don't get the stimulation they need, they'll drift away. Good dialogue is fine, but does it go somewhere that the reader can notice? Nobody includes the set design in the program, so maybe you can cut back on description, too. 

If I directed that play today (I can't think of any reason I'd want to, including a large check), those two actors would mix a drink, go to the telephone, size up the room, and laugh at each other. Movement.

Twelve Angry Men was originally a teleplay, and it works better that way because the camera cuts and close-ups give the illusion of motion. Watching the play on-stage is akin to watching gangrene move up your leg. The only successful staging I've ever seen was when the director seated the audience around the jury table so the actors could move naturally and address each other without have to face front in an awkward pose. I still don't care for the play, but that made it much more watchable.

Inertia is bad, but so is too much movement. If we see lots of action early, we get lost without a context to show us whose side we're on. That guy in the cape might really be a bad guy, not a super hero. Think of the James Cagney film White Heat (1949), which opens with ten minutes of car chases and gunfights, but includes dialogue and character background so we understand what we're watching. It's good exposition without becoming static. Can your book do that, too?

Unrealistic set that HELPS actors
tell the story: Book of Days

Bill Francisco and John Hawkins, my directing and acting mentors at Wesleyan, both pointed out that nobody watches an actor or scene unless the actors make him watch it. If the audience doesn't feel like they're getting something out of it, they'll check their watch, fan themselves with the program, or play with the change in their pockets. Earn the attention. That goes for your story, too.

Beware of special stage effects. Arcane sets, odd lighting, and bizarre sound effects may work for Richard Foreman (or not), but unless they help the actors tell the story, they'll pull attention away from action and dialogue.

If you need bells and whistles to make it work, your plot or characters can't stand on their own. Fix it. It makes a better story and saves money on the special effects budget.

Think of last Wednesday night. Did you really pay attention to what Mick Pence was saying while that fly sat on his head?



03 September 2018

Write What THEY Know


One of the time-worn chestnuts about getting ideas is "write what you know," and many people point out that staying on familiar ground will limit you. Obviously, it depends on what you know. It certainly didn't hurt Tom Clancy, did it? Or maybe Xaviera Hollander. If you have the right experience, you're golden.
The shared experiences some people think are mundane will be fresh if you put YOUR slant on them. And if they're shared experiences, you already touch a shared nerve that will affect many readers.

Everyone has a first job, first day of school, first date, first heartbreak and dozens of other rites of passage. One of the great literary themes is loss of innocence, which fills a lot of the high school literature reading list. "The Girl in the Red Bandanna," which I published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine last spring, revisits a summer job I only held for one night.

I've played guitar since the mid-sixties and one of my favorite stories was inspired by seeing the
Muddy Waters Blues Band when I was still heavily into the Monkees and Paul Revere & The Raiders. My musical world changed that night, but the story has had over 20 rejections and I've run out of places to send it. Oh, well...

Most of my titles are also song titles because Woody Guthrie, my wannabe rock & roller PI, came from meeting a classmate at my high school reunion. She was now a full-time session musician in Detroit. Blood On the Tracks, Woody's first adventure, was a long time coming, but he now appears in four novels and a few short stories, all of which take their names from songs.

My wife insists that Hell is really middle school. WE all have nightmares about it except the kids whose voices never changed, never had a growth spurt, or never went through puberty. Judy Blume is one of many writers who turned the angst into a gold mine. My own Postcards of the Hanging grew out of a scandal that rocked my school senior year.

Bel Kaufman had a huge bestseller recounting a first year of teaching in Up the Down Staircase, and Braithwaite fared nearly as well with To Sir With Love. My own Run Straight Down comes from my teaching, too, but has a little darker perspective.

Several of my friends (well, two. I don't have many) ask when I'm going to write a story revolving around theater. Well, Linda Barnes wrote an amateur sleuth series featuring Michael Sprague as an actor who solved mysteries. She gave the series up because, as she pointed out, if people got killed in every production Sprague joined, eventually nobody would cast the guy anymore. Barnes and I both grew up in Southern Michigan, moved to New England, and taught English and theater. She's younger and taller than I am, and much nicer. She also went back to theater for her standalone The Perfect Ghost a few years ago. If you have any familiarity with Hamlet, you might check it out.

Three days ago, I finished a first draft of my first attempt to use theater as a background for a story. I  only had to look up one detail that I no longer remembered after several years. It was fun to write, too, a refreshing break from my usual rock and blues.
My favorite poster from when I was directing...

Everybody knows something nobody else does. And maybe it's so obvious we don't even know we know it.

Now for the BSP. John Floyd and I both have stories in the newest issue of Mystery Weekly, now available at your favorite website.

05 August 2016

Immersion and Interaction, (Non)Choice and Consequence


On Wednesday of this week, my wife and I had the privilege of experiencing Learning Curve, a "theatrical journey within the walls of a Chicago Public School," created by Chicago's Albany Park Theater Project in conjunction with Third Rail Projects.
From the APTP production Learning Curve


Albany Park Theater Project is run by my old college roommate David Feiner and his wife Maggie Popadiak, and we've seen previous productions by them, all conceived, designed, and performed by local high school students and regularly drawing on those students' own stories; the last show we saw, Aqui Estoy, dealt with the struggles of undocumented workers and children of undocumented immigrants struggling to find their way through the system.

We've also seen an earlier production by Third Rail Projects: Then She Fell, which reimagined Alice in Wonderland within the walls of a mental institution. While that's already a provocative concept, the most exciting aspects of the show were the intimacy of it (only 15 audience members) and the immersiveness and individuality of the experience. As the play began, audience members were led solo or in very small groups into other rooms of the institution to begin a curated journey through the story—ultimately with no two people having the same adventure. Along the way, Then She Fell also frequently became interactive, with cast members asking questions of audience members, having them join in the action to some small degree, even offering food and drink (the tea party a particular highlight, as in Carroll's book, of course).

I give this background to set the stage (excuse the pun) for Learning Curve, which roamed throughout the classrooms of the Ellen Gates Starr High School and into other corners of the institution: a library, a storage room, bathrooms, more. As the experience unfolded, we learned with startling immediacy about some of the struggles and the triumphs of today's high school students: the many challenges of standardized testing, the pressures to fit in or to try to figure out where you fit, the anxieties of young love, the difficulties for English as a Second Language students, the boredom and tedium alongside ambition and aspiration. It was startling to learn that only half of the students entering Chicago high schools actually graduate from those schools. It was startling to learn how quickly teachers can burn out or be fired, how frequent the turnover in those roles. But even in talking about those last couple of points, I need to stress that Learning Curve is less informational than experiential. We weren't simply learning about Chicago high school students; we audience members became students ourselves—complete with IDs, as you can see below.



What had the most lasting effect on me, however, was a pair of scenes that challenged me more personally—and that speak directly to what's unique about this approach to theater and the new territories audiences are drawn into by a production like this.

After a homeroom scene shared by all audience members, my wife and I were quickly brought into our first individual scene—part of which was witnessing a young boy being bullied by two other boys in a bathroom. I knew that this scene was in the show, having read about it briefly in the opening paragraph to the very positive Chicago Tribune review. (I didn't read all of that review, dodging spoilers, and advise others who might see the show to stop reading my blog post now as well.) But while I was prepared for what I was about to witness, I wasn't ready to deal with my role in the scene—by which I don't mean an actual role because, after all, I was of course just an audience member.

Or was I?

Just prior to the bathroom bullying scene, we'd already had both two of the characters/actors talk with us, engaging us directly in conversation. In those exchanges, we weren't merely immersed in the action; we were interacting as well—participants. Then we found ourselves urged into the bathroom where the bullying took place: two bullies, as I said, one of them in an ROTC uniform, victimizing a third.

Without offering too many details: Somewhere in the middle of the scene, I wondered whether I should intervene. If you see something, say something—do something. Right? But we were audience members, trained as theater-goers to be watchers, so....

But then, on the other hand, we were just interacting with these kids a few moments before, so....

But the play's instructions (delivered via morning announcements over the PA) had cautioned us to speak only when spoken to, so....

But really the scene wanted me to ask myself what I would have done if I were a real high school student, so....

But wait, it was just a play, so....

But.... So.... 

The bullying escalated, then ended. On the way out, the first of the bullies gave me a quick "thank you"—amping up the volume of those questions already echoing in my head.

We interacted briefly with the bullied boy afterwards—again I hope to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that I myself felt inept. Then we moved into the next scene, which turned out to be a Junior ROTC classroom. And there in the middle of it stood the second of those bullies, the one in the ROTC uniform, who made eye contact immediately, gave me a little smirk and an uplift of his chin, a recognition of kinship, it seemed, and another expression of gratitude for my complicity.

Quickly, the class was brought into formation, went through inspection, lined up beside our desks, the bully standing directly in front of me, his posture perfect. Soon, the instructor has us recite the ROTC pledge, repeating the words after him—about conducting ourselves in ways to bring credit to our families and schools and fellow cadets and country, about practicing good citizenship, about being accountable for our actions and deeds, about being the future of the United States of America.

In front of me, the bully repeated each of the instructor's phrases with vigor and enthusiasm. At first, I followed too, but quickly—watching the boy, this bully, hearing him, hearing myself.... I do not know quite how to explain this adequately, but I found I could not continue to repeat the words of the code, physically could not. My mouth trembled. My words faltered. My forehead tightened, and there was a tightening too behind my eyes. I could feel tears building there, hot and angry and shameful.

Frankly, never had I had so visceral and really so vicious a reaction to a theatrical experience in my life.

There is more to be said here about the play, and about those characters in particular—those and others and the actors and actresses behind those roles. But I don't want to reveal too much about the storyline for anyone who might be fortunate to have tickets to the sold-out run of the show. Instead, I wanted to mention my reactions as a testament to the power of Learning Curve and to the skills of the actors here and throughout the production—their shared abilities to bring us into this world so vividly and viscerally.

Once, many years ago, I saw a production of Death of a Salesman at the Kennedy Center, with Dustin Hoffman in the role of Willy Loman—a heart-breaking performance. Around the time I attended the show, the Washington Post review included the story of a woman in the audience and her reactions to a small but significant turning point in the play, a small gesture Hoffman made to indicate that Loman was, finally, lost. The woman, somewhere in the audience, stood up and shouted "Oh, no! Don't!"

Reading that experience, I thought, "How odd. How embarrassing. How silly."

My personal experiences in Learning Curve couldn't help but remind me of that story—and to help me revise my opinion of her reaction, which clearly wasn't odd or embarrassing or silly at all.

Instead, that story and my own reaction to Learning Curve reveal how easily we can get lost inside a bit of storytelling—lost in such a way that maybe we find something important and meaningful at the same time.




08 July 2014

Friends & Influences


In the late summer of 1988, I spent a week living inside a novel. I was staying with a friend (Albert), who himself was staying with a friend (Victoria), at a dilapidated farmhouse on the edge of a town that didn't seem to have anyone in it or even a name. There was a school house, closed for the summer (or maybe forever), and a general store that had a CLOSED sign in its door (also probably forever). The town was about forty minutes out of Hamilton, in a direction I couldn't tell you.

A long dirt track led up to the farmhouse through fields of corn, and Victoria's landlord, the farmer of said corn, who I never saw, apparently had a limp and only ever came to collect the rent after dark. Apparently, he'd turn up, like a character out of Dickens, clutching a lantern, his raincoat damp with the rain, even if it hadn't rained all week.

I was starting a screenplay (at that time of my life, I had wanted to be a screenwriter). Albert was writing a new play (he was a reasonably successful playwright), and Victoria was learning lines for two different upcoming productions (she was an actress). Victoria and Albert are not their real names. There was also a cat at the farmhouse, whose name I don't remember at all, and for the purposes of this telling, I'll call William Makepeace Thackeray.

Victoria and Albert were both ten years older than me; and Victoria probably a further ten on top of that. If a movie could have been made of that week, I would have cast George Sanders as Albert, Ida Lupino as Victoria, and in the part of "me" that confused-looking bystander who is always the last one to get the point and run when the foot of Godzilla slams down.


A condition of my staying over, as a guest of a guest, was to paint the living room -- in any color I liked. The farmer had left behind some leftover buckets of paint: beige and yellow. I painted the living room in a curious shade of sunshine. The front hallway, by contrast, had been painted (by Albert, a month earlier) entirely in black (walls, ceiling, and floor) and he'd trimmed it with a band of silver foil. It looked like the inside of a packet of cigarettes.

The days of that week were largely made up of writing; rehearsing, in the case of Victoria; and additionally in my case, an hour or two of painting. The evenings were given over to discussion and alcohol. Albert and Victoria were professional drinkers. I was (and still am) a mere amateur at that game. The paint fumes kept us out of the living room, and our nights were confined to the kitchen.

The kitchen was the heart of the house: a bare wood floor, off-white paint peeling off the ceiling, and a blue brick fireplace, which had been bricked up a decade earlier on account of the aged chimney being a fire risk. Irony in blue. Commanding the center of the room stood the kitchen table: a wide, worn, bare wooden artifact that had probably been in the farmhouse since it had been built (circa. 1920). It was the type of table on which you just knew a dead body had been laid out, many farmers' stubby fists had been slammed in anger, and more than one couple had made love. The kitchen was also William Makepeace Thackeray's bedroom.

Dinners were conducted like Pinter plays: non sequitur remarks and sullen pauses. Lots. Of. Pauses. With only the sound in-between of crickets in the twilight through the open window.

By the end of the first bottle, the three of us had largely returned to humanity and the conversation unfailingly moved onto the theatre. Ponderables, such as: What if Hamlet had been a decisive alpha-male? What if Martha and George had actually been happily married and really did have a son? What if Godot had turned up? And of course, memories of productions past (such as the murder mystery where the door jammed at the beginning of act two and the cast had to enter the cozy drawing room in London by coming out of the fireplace). I had my own share of those stories, having worked on and off in amateur and semi-professional theatre since I had been a kid (it was how I had come to know V and A).

On the third drunken night at the kitchen table, we got into a long discussion on narrative, and by about 3 a.m., we had drained six bottles of red and had distilled the discussion down to this: What is the most important thing in a story? Any story -- be it a play, a book, or a movie?

Moments of poetry was Victoria's response (an actor's perspective). And she backed up her claim with empirical evidence. An hour's worth of it.  

Structure was my answer. A couple of years earlier, I had embarked on a very long learning curve of story structure (I'm probably still on it) and structure at that time was foremost in my mind.

Get the hell out of my room was William Makepeace Thackeray's answer.

At around 4 a.m., Albert, who had been hitherto staring drunkenly at the bricks of the fireplace, slammed his fist down on the table. Having gotten our attention, he lit a cigarette (he already had one smoldering in the ashtray). In addition to playwright, Albert was a theatre director and, drunk or not, he knew exactly how to direct his audience.

"Characters," he said. "That's what's it all about. The characters are the only thing the audience or the reader cares about. It's the only thing they're interested in or that matters to them. They might recognize the odd passing moment of poetry, they might be peripherally aware if a plot has a solid structure, but what will stay in their minds long after the curtain closes, the end credits roll, or the book is closed, are the characters."

William Makepeace Thackeray mounted the table, strolled its length with bored indifference, examined a leftover slice of bread, and then dismounted.

Albert continued: "A story is viewed through the filter of its characters; it is only through them an audience experiences that story. It is a vicarious interaction."

I'm paraphrasing him from memory, of course, but the sentiments have long remained in my memory, to be revisited and re-examined at odd intervals. And honestly, it took me 20 years to fully appreciate what he meant. Movie director Fran├žois Truffaut once said (again a paraphrase, because I don't remember exactly where I read it): What is behind the camera is not important; it's what is in front that is.

I lost contact with Albert and Victoria over the years. Albert was probably the closest I ever got to having a mentor. His knowledge slid off in chunks, and I followed him around for a while picking it up. Friends are curious things. Some stick around, some vanish. You can never tell. A great friend this year a year from now could be a distant memory. It's the friends that leave their mark, that induce changes to your sails and alter the course of your life that you never forget. Sadly, sometimes, they're not even aware they've done it.

Somebody asked Jean-Luc Godard why a character in one of his movies suddenly walks off and never makes a return appearance. He answered: Because life is like that.

Be seeing you!