Strike Signal Boosting

Welp, here we go.  For the first time in sixty years, the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild of America are jointly on strike.  It’s as serious as it sounds, and entirely warranted.  Taken individually, both the lack of a viable model for streaming royalties and the potential for AI to supplant screenwriters for a large part of the production process are issues worth fighting about.  Taken together, a frightening larger pattern emerges, of an industry that would gleefully get rid of the human aspect of production – also known as the artist – altogether.  If you don’t need to pay anybody to generate product, then why would you?

Unless, of course, it’s made crystal clear that you can’t.

So, in lieu of yet another blog post about how difficult it is to find time to write, this week I’m signal boosting some ways you can help out in this particular fight.  Note that boycotting current film releases, Netflix, or what have you are not currently a tactic in this fight – producers are liable to look at those numbers and say “see, the economic model isn’t viable, we can’t afford to pay anybody.”  Instead, here are some places you can donate to help those on the front lines of this particular battle.;jsessionid=00000000.app20001b?df_id=2857&2857.donation=form1&mfc_pref=T&NONCE_TOKEN=4021BD767AD118676D9370BC7B8CC73D

Again With This

As you’ve hopefully surmised by now, Constant Reader, I post each week’s new blog entry on Monday.  This Monday also marks the deadline for a one-act submission opportunity; it’s for a company I’m familiar with, and I’ve had an idea for this particular festival rattling around for some time.  As usual, however, life intervened, and instead of sketching out this idea at a leisurely pace a few months ago, I was forced to frantically start work on the piece as soon as I got home from the Valdez Theatre Conference.  Which only left me a few precious weeks to finish it, during most of which time I was frantically trying to catch up at my day job and had precious little time to devote to creative endeavors.  But with the deadline bearing down upon me, I was able to grind out a draft, and spent the whole of this past weekend revising it.  (Here in New York, it’s too muggy out to do anything else anyway.)  As of this typing, on Sunday morning, the revisions are complete.  So with hours to go before the submission deadline, what is it I’m doing?

You guessed it – I’m writing this blog.

It’s been a running gag since the very first post I made here, but that’s because there’s a fundamental absurdity in writing about your writing when you could actually be writing.  But then, there’s a fundamental absurdity in all the time management we’re asked to do.  At any given point, I may need to research some topic for an upcoming project, or comb through upcoming submission deadlines, or prepare new drafts to post on NPX, or read other playwright’s scripts to reciprocate their NPX recommendations.  If acting opportunities ever become a regular thing again, I’ll presumably need to spend time memorizing lines.  And only one of these tasks can ever be performed at any given time.

We’ve evolved a system where any writer needs a team of assistants and advocates – agents submitting scripts, donors and benefactors providing spending money – in order to be able to properly devote themselves to writing.  And simultaneously, we’ve evolved a world were only the tiniest fraction of us have any sort of access to that kind of support.  And to make things even more fun, we show every indication of being more willing to burn society completely to the ground (thanks a lot for the assist there, pandemic) than to refashion into something we could actually function in.

Man, that’s a depressing thought.  It’s a good thing I’ve finished the blog post and the new submission, because now I’ll be depressed the whole rest of the day.

(Which won’t stop me from catching up on research and script readings, but still.)

Latest Weather Report

We all had a great big slew of bad news to finish up the month of June, Constant Reader, so it’s understandable if all of last week’s events wound up feeling like a blur.  But amongst the terrifying Supreme Court decisions, presumably fascist billionaire shenanigans, ongoing meteorological calamities, and other harbingers of doom, there was one other important news story, buried way down in most people’s news feeds, which you might have missed.

A performance of Hamlet was cancelled.

Specifically, it was the current production of Hamlet at the Delacorte Theater, the latest in the Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park series.  And this past Friday, June 30, the performance was preemptively cancelled due to poor air quality.  The smoke from the Canadian wildfires had once again wound up in the New York area; while it wasn’t quite as terrifying as the previous incursion of this polluted air earlier in June – the air outside my apartment window didn’t turn orange this time around – it still posed enough of a respiratory hazard that outdoor performance was impossible.  (This was true earlier in the month as well, which is why the June 8 and 9 preview performances of this show had also been cancelled – I just had a little too much on my plate to mention it before now.  Sorry.)

It’s the right call, of course.  If you can’t safely go outside for more than a few minutes at a time because the air quality is so poor, you can’t be expected to sit through a three hour theatrical event in the open air – much less speak iambic pentameter verse, engage in swordfights, and so on.  We can definitely forego a theatrical event until things are safer.

But when exactly is that going to be?

During the height of the pandemic – which, remember, is still going on damn it – there was a lot of speculation about how the theatrical calendar might change.  If it was too hazardous for people to gather indoors for protracted periods, then shifting theatrical production to more open-air venues would be a logical course of action.  (It worked for Shakespeare’s company, after all, traveling out of London and putting on their performances in the courtyards of rural inns during times of plague.) That would result in a change in the usual theatrical calendar – instead of late July and August being the period of general inaction, more events would be scheduled from early spring through late fall, with a months-long Christmas and winter break providing safety for performers and audience alike.  But if the summer air is befouled by ash and smoke, outdoor performances at that time aren’t an option either.  And since the wildfires causing all of this are a result of ongoing climate catastrophe, which doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon, this is a long term problem.

We’re running out of safe locations and times for theater to happen.

We’re running out of safe locations and times for a lot of things.  This is a theatrical blog, and a holiday weekend, so I’m trying to narrow the focus of this post and not have it be too calamitously depressing.  Uh, Happy Fourth everybody!

Wonder Twins

One more blog post this week about the Valdez Theatre Conference, I think, before I’m back to the grind of making my through the New York arts scene.  (I’ve spent the past week getting caught up at my day job, and apart from this parenthetical sentence there’s not that much to write about on that subject.) Specifically, a post about the monologue workshop which concludes the conference, in which participating actors get to work on brand new one minute pieces – some excerpted from larger works, some stand-alone – provided by the participating writers.  If, like me, you’re there in both capacities, you can take part in the workshop as both writer and actor, working on a colleague’s one-minute selection even as another performer is rehearsing your own.

Last year, I worked on a piece by Alaska playwright Heidi Franke*, and was fortunate enough to have the chance to do so again this year.  Unlike last year, however, Heidi was participating in the 2023 conference as an actor, and elected to perform one of the pieces I’d submitted.  Which made the rehearsal process rather easy – we scheduled back-to-back coaching sessions, forcing our coaches to sit through a half hour of the Michael and Heidi show.  And after a week, the performances went up, me speaking Heidi’s words, and Heidi speaking mine.

I think we did pretty good.  I know Heidi did – she brought the house down, mining physical comedy I was blissfully unaware I’d thought to put in the monologue.  And I got some nice visceral reactions from her piece, which hopefully I’d earned.  (That’s always the goal, at least.)  And we both had plenty of our fellow conference come up to complement us, which is always a gratifying thing.

But it raises the question – which of us is being complemented?  And for what?

After all, if you tell me “good job on your monologue.”  which monologue are you referring to?  As a playwright, I’m always going to have a proprietary attitude towards what I wrote, and assume that’s what you’re talking about.  But that’s not how we experience things as an audience member; the writers and directors and producers are these shadowy figures, these names in a program for most of us, while the actor is right there in front of us.  We assume those words are theirs; the hard work and craft of a score of different artists throughout the process is designed to make you think that very thing.

So if you say “my” monologue is good, you probably mean that Heidi’s is good and should complement her on her achievement.  But if you complement her, then it’s really a complement of my writing.  And if by some chance you did read the program and realize which one of us wrote which piece, will we know that you’re complementing us?  And shouldn’t the credit go to the performer who did the hard work on stage anyway?  Which, again, is also us?

It’s all very confusing.  Fortunately, we tend to drink a lot at the conference, so it’s not so noticeable.

*Heidi is also a terrific visual artist; you can check out her work here.

Spouting Off

The Valdez Conference Center, where the Valdez Theatre Conference takes place, sits on a bluff overlooking the placid, bright blue waters of Prince William Sound.  The walk down to the harbor is a short and invigorating one, a fine thing to grab should you be attending the conference – as I was doing this past week – and happen to find yourself with an hour to spare amongst all of your other commitments.  I happened to have such an hour on Tuesday, just before our lunch break, and then the afternoon reading of my play Before Vinson.  Seeking for a picaresque way to assuage my playwright anxieties, I stole away and headed down to the water.

A cruise ship had come into harbor earlier that day, and a number of its passengers were sitting at the pier, fishing and sightseeing.  I said hello and made some small talk – it’s a friendly part of the world – as they stared out at the still waters.  Or at least, the waters appeared to be still, even though my new acquaintances were intensely scanning every ripple and shadow.  Curiously, I asked what they were looking at, or at least looking for.

Humpback, they said.

It seemed that they had spotted humpback whales earlier in their journey through the sound, along with orca pods, and were alert to whale activity in the area.  And they were spotting tiny little disturbances in the water, which to their practiced eyes denoted fins breaking the surface and other activity.  I spent minutes myself, trying to scan the waters of the sound, until I was forced to admit that the signs and signals my new companions could read so effortlessly meant nothing to me.  I took my leave, and headed further down the dock.  I ran into another of the playwrights – his work would be going up in the same afternoon time slot as mine, in another part of the conference center, and he’d had the exact same thought as to assuaging anxieties – and pointed out at the water, telling him what I’d been told.

And at precisely that moment, a great whalespout erupted, at least twenty feet into the air.

The animal never breached, so we never saw the humpback itself, but we got to see a total of three spouts come up, to mark the spot where it had come up to breathe.

And with that, we both headed back to the conference center, had our lunches, and then went into our respective rooms, to hear our words read and dissected, to process feedback, to field questions both fair and unfair, to have all our anxieties about our work laid bare, and then convert all of that into helpful pointers for the next draft.

Because much like whales coming up for air, most the work we do as playwrights lays far below the surface, and only those who think to look will ever be likely to see it.

Homework Assignments Over Vacation

Greetings from Alaska, Constant Reader!  I am back at the Valdez Theatre Conference, where my new play Before Vinson is being presented.  (On Tuesday, June 13, at 2:45pm Alaska time, to be precise.  There’s a live-stream if you’re curious!  And it’s on NPX if you want to tell me how great it is.) I’m writing this from my hotel room in Anchorage, during my overnight stay before the bus ride to Valdez.  (It’s a long ride.  There’s mountains and glaciers and stuff.) I’ve squared away everything at my day job, so this is effectively a working vacation for me, and this is the one free night I’ll have during that vacation when I have no particular obligations to the conference.  So it’s party time for me, right?

Oh good heavens, no.

And it’s not just that I’m exhausted after a seven hour flight.  (Although I am.) No, in these comparatively few hours I have before the next leg of my journey, I have preparation to do.  Some of it is as an actor, a role I’ll be serving in for some of my fellow playwrights at the conference.  I’ve got a monologue I need to be sure is memorized.  And I brought some books along as research material for an upcoming project – a little light reading for travelling.  But mostly, the prep work I have to do is for Before Vinson.

You know, the play I already wrote.  Which has already been accepted to the conference.  Hence my being here.

Before Vinson is a legal drama and a period piece.  I did a ton of research on it, and a large part of what I’m hoping to get out of this conference is to see whether I did enough research, or (the likelier issue with a script of mine) put in so much stuff that it’s hard to follow, or (miracle of miracles) managed to get the balance right.  But in order to facilitate the conversation, I need to go back through the script and remind myself exactly what I put in the darn thing.  It’s been half a year since I finished the draft, after all – my memory is a little fuzzy on the finer points of the 1940s Supreme Court cases I kept referencing.

In other words, I have homework to do.  On my vacation.  Oh well.

Such is life.

And since I have this homework to do, I’ll be cutting this week’s post short.  There’s only so much time I can devote to an extra credit assignment, after all.

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