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I Will Happily Complain On Your Behalf If You Like

I always try to be careful in writing these posts, Constant Reader.  It would be incredibly easy to complain about the annoyances of the creative life, of pointless auditions or misguided productions, and get some measure of catharsis from sharing my pain – hopefully in some stylish prose that provides some measure of entertainment to others.  No matter how artfully told my account may be, however, it would always run the risk of offending potential co-workers or collaborators who recognized themselves in my jeremiad.  No, I can’t risk the potential blowback I might incur by making complaints on my own behalf.

It’s a good thing I have friends, then.

A friend of mine had a reading of a full-length play of theirs this past week.  Given the nature of this week’s post I’ll refrain from saying who, or what the piece was, but rest assured it was a terrific play.  And it’s getting an off-off Broadway production this coming spring, as it should; the company mounting that production held last week’s reading as a combination workshop and fundraiser.  That is, of course, the way of theatrical productions – there’s always a reading or a workshop or some such thing in order to get the bugs out, make sure everything is ready before making the investment of time and money in a full production.

In fact, there’s inevitably more than one.

This particular piece had two additional prior readings – last year.  All told, since it was written in 2018 – six years before it’s ultimately produced, as its writer intended – it’s had a total of five staged readings, and been a finalist or semifinalist in a dozen separate playwriting competitions.

I’m pretty sure they got the bugs out some time ago.

Which raises the inevitable question – just how much development do we need, anyway?  It’s not that we don’t need it – I’ve certainly had my scripts benefit from workshop readings and table reads, in ways I’d never be able to anticipate ahead of time.  But after a certain point, you know what you’re dealing with, and any further changes can only happen once you’re in a rehearsal room and your actors are on their feet.

Actors are empatically not on their feet in a developmental reading.  In a contest they’re probably not there at all.

And the question becomes – exactly why do we all need to jump through quite this many hoops?  Are we trying to prove that there’s interest, to mitigate any risk?  My friend’s play, to use the popular metric of the day, has a whopping fifty-three recommendations on NPX thus far.  He’s an award-winning writer with a recognizable name.  How much risk can there possibly be?

 Again, it would be churlish and self-serving if I were making this argument on my own behalf.  But I’ve got enough friends who are better and/or more prominent than I am who are going through all of this to be able to say it’s not about me.  It’s not about any one of us.  It’s a broader system, and it’s unsustainable.

The reading was really good, though.

Memoriam

I received the awful news last weekend that a friend of mine had passed away. Jamie Carillo, an actor I’d worked with back in my days at Classical Theatre of Harlem.  (Also a director, and a professor at Emerson College, and many other remarkable things besides.  To give you a sense of how remarkable, his family has requested that any memorial donations go here, where he served as an interpreter.)  A sweetheart of a man gone way too soon – he was my age.  Actually, he was five years younger than me.  Goddamn cancer.

Jamie and I worked together on a number of CTH shows, the most prominent of which was probably our 2004 production of Mother Courage and her Children.  It gave Jamie his most prominent role – Swiss Cheese, the middle child in Mother Courage’s doomed brood.  It was a production of Brecht’s famous anti-war play at the height of the Gulf War, about as relevant as theatrical programming can get.  (The Public Theatre certainly thought so a few years later, when they mounted their production with Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline.) And it was a good, strong, production – vintage CTH.  The performances were sharp and aggressive – Jamie was wonderful at creating standout characters with economy, so that you’d never see him reaching for an effect and yet they’d be lively and vibrant – and a set that could potentially kill you at any moment.  The good old days, if you will.

I miss those days.  And I’ve been thinking about that production a lot.

Part of the reason for my reverie is selfish, of course.  For most of the run of Mother Courage, I played a succession of small roles such as the Clerk.  During our final week, however, the actor playing our Chaplain took ill.  An understudy would have stepped in – except that our small off-off Broadway company didn’t have any.  So instead, the director called me – seven hours before curtain time, mind you – to see if I could get up to the theatre right away and be worked into the part.  I’d barely gone through the blocking before giving a public performance – including the Chaplain’s song, mind you – and I will never forget the feeling of stunned relief as I made my last exit as that character that first performance, embraced by my castmates.  Jamie included.

I miss moments like that.  I miss Jamie.  But I also miss productions, like our Mother Courage in the middle of a war, with that unshakeable conviction that they were making a difference.  My god, there were a lot of us twenty years ago, shaken out of our complacency here in New York by a terrorist attack and a war that followed.  We also had comparatively cheap spaces and generous funding from the Bloomberg administration, so anybody who’d get some hungry actors together could find a stylish way of saying “war is bad” or “Bush is dumb” and be hailed a genius.  But it’s twenty years later, and despite our efforts there’s at least two additional wars engulfing the planet, and our audiences seem to want to have their cares soothed away by jukebox musicals instead, and a particularly horrifying question keeps pestering me.

Did we make any damn difference at all?

I want to believe that.  For my sake, for Jamie’s, for all of ours.  And I’m going to keep plugging away as if that’s the case.  But with each passing year, it gets a little harder.  And for a whole bunch of reasons, I’m really starting to feel the years right now.

Superstitious

Well, I think I’ve finally gotten it.  In spring of last year, I attempted to write a ten-minute play as part of a broader project, a night of thematically-linked readings which ultimately didn’t happen.  My piece went a little long – it wound up being fifteen pages, running between fifteen and twenty minutes in performance – but even so it felt rushed at that length.  So when it became clear that the initial project wasn’t going to take place, I started tinkering with the play further, to see if it made more sense as a longer one-act.  I know have.a thirty-page script that somehow manages to read faster than the original version, that feels like it’s the length and shape it should have been all along.  And as luck would have it, there is a perfect submission opportunity for this piece, and the submission window is occurring right now.  So obviously, I’m writing this right after filling out the necessarily online forms to send along the draft, right?  Or will be doing so immediately after I finish this?

Of course not.

You see, the play is set at Halloween, and references the old Celtic and pagan practices the holiday is based on.  The darn thing is even called How to Pronounce Samhain.  (“Samhain” is the ancient Gaelic name for the ancient festival that took place on what our calendar calls October 31.  As you might suspect from my title, it’s not pronounced the way you probably think it is.)  So naturally, even though the draft has been read and proofread and read and proofread again, and there is absolutely no reason for me to wait, I am not going to submit the piece until Halloween is here.

I do this a lot.

Some years ago, when the Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries competition was still active, I made certain that my political satire revolving around Sir John Falstaff was submitted promptly on July 4th.  (Falstaff may not be American, but I didn’t exactly see a need to satirize the political machinations of medieval England.) Another play whose inspiration stemmed from a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which I performed in college, many long years ago, was submitted on Friday the 13th, which is always a designated alumni day for us.  (Long story.) I’ve made a point to submit on the birthdays of figures related in some tangential way to my script.  I’ve waited to submit precisely on the hour, or when some auspicious series of digits show up on my laptop’s clock.  If I’m not racing to hit a deadline, then I’m deliberately waiting to hit “send” at that one precise, fortuitous moment.  To make sure that, if destiny is on the side of anybody’s script, it’s on the side of mine.

This is silly.

But like any superstition, it gives me the illusion of control.  By timing my final keystrokes to some specific, portentous moment, I can let myself believe that there’s more at work than the whims of programmers, or the simple numbers game of submissions.  That there’s some unseen lever at work, and like all such levers, if I grab it just right I can move mountains – or at least guarantee myself a production.  This is almost certainly not the case, but it’s comforting to think it is.

Plus there’s always the chance it might work.  That would be a nice, spooky story for Halloween.

Rainy Saturdays

Here in New York, it has rained for something like the past eight weekends, Constant Reader.  Like clockwork, every Friday the clouds darken, a little drizzle starts, and then come Saturday there is a steady blustery precipitation – nothing anybody would want to go outside in.  My work week runs from Sunday thru Thursday, and Fridays are my day for running errands.  So, exhausted by the week’s activities and deterred by the rainfall outside, my Saturdays of late have consisted of me, sitting at my desk, my laptop in front of me  and my cat curled up next to me as I’ve wiled away the hours, barely stirring at all.

I feel guilty about this.

There is, after all, so very much to do, so many things I’d like to try and accomplish.  I’m a theater artist, after all – my pursuits involve getting people together to rehearse and perform some exciting fiction before a delighted audience.  To spend my one free day alone, sitting at my desk, seems like such a massive waste of time.  And this Saturday, having done this for several Saturdays in a row, I found that sense of waste particularly overwhelming.

Of course, in the course of that day –

I finalized the casting for the coming week’s Tuesday reading series.

I went through submission opportunities for my existing drafts.

I fielded a potential offer for one of my short plays (which probably won’t come to anything for a variety of production issues, but one never knows).

I finalized the notes and outline for the next large project I’m tackling.

So, I do realize that I’m not actually wasting anything.  Probably the opposite, when it comes specifically to time management.  But that lingering, dreadful sense of time slipping away does tend to linger.  Much like rain clouds on a Saturday afternoon.

The World’s Smallest Violin Is Playing Just For Me

So, about a year and a half ago I wrote what I intended to be a ten minute play.  It wound up running longer than that, around fifteen or twenty minutes instead – please try not to act too surprised at my long-windedness, Constant Reader – but it became clear to me that the piece needed to be a little longer still in order to work properly.  Not too long, but enough for the material to breathe.  So bringing that draft to a larger length – it’s thirty pages now – has been a project of mine for the past few months.

In its original form, the piece was vaguely set “now.”  It takes place in October, but I didn’t really specify what day of the month, or of the week, and I was a little hazy on the year.  I wrote the play in anticipation of a reading that didn’t wind up materializing, and figured the audience would assume the action was happening at roughly the same moment in history they were watching it.  As part of expanding the piece, I decided to be specific with the time.  It’s still taking place “now,” roughly, at least as of this writing.  It’s now set on the Saturday before Halloween of this year – so October 28, 2023.  This doesn’t materially change anything about the plot.  There is, however, a charity event alluded to throughout the piece, so when I decided upon this course of expanding the piece I made a note to pay attention to major news events this month, to see what might be uppermost in people’s minds and prompt such a response.

Well, crap.

Obviously the news out of the Middle East is horrific – so much so that I don’t particularly want to say anything about it, other than to extend my deepest sympathies to all affected, because I don’t want to trivialize the situation.  However, I’ve put myself in a situation where I do have to say something about it, because I’ve set up a story that refers to current events in a time when those current events are invariably horrifying.  It’s by far the least consequential issue involved in this – but it is the one I’m faced with.

I think I’ve handled it tastefully in the (for the moment) final draft – the characters come across as sincere rather than flippant, and it feels like a natural reference rather than something I’ve tacked on for the sake of topicality.  But I don’t feel any sort of relief in pulling it off.  Rather, there’s a lingering disgust in how calculated one’s thought process comes across, in calibrating how much real world horror can intrude into a fictional story for the sake of verisimilitude.  And yet having something to say about these horrors is the entire point of telling our stories in the first place.

So I suppose I should just suck it up. Come on, everybody.  Let’s try and keep each other from having to be in this position.

Inversely Proportional

You know me well enough by now, Constant Reader; most of the time, when I’m writing these blog posts, I’m doing so to deliberately avoid working on something else.  That’s absolutely the case this week.  Next weekend is the submission deadline for an upcoming ten minute play festival, of the sort where they offer you a specific prompt or set of production parameters which you need to follow.  I have an idea – have had it for a few months now, actually – and I think it’s pretty decent as far as these things go.  A ten page rough draft exists; all that remains is for me to give it a proper revision.  Not a big deal – when I write a full-length play, the major revision pass usually takes a week or two at the most.  Occasionally I can – and have – done it in a day.  It’s certainly possible to do it over a weekend.

The weekend has come and gone, and I’ve gotten nothing done on this project.  Didn’t get anything done last weekend, either – though I was still recovering from covid at the time, so at least I have a doctor’s excuse there.)

The fact of the matter is, for a lot of us, working on a ten-minute short play is harder than working on a full-length piece.  This shouldn’t be surprising.  You have to do similar amounts of prep work in terms of research, brainstorming, character prep work, and the like.  And when it comes time to write, the limited space in which you have to work actually makes things more difficult.  It’s a precise little miniature you’re trying to craft, so naturally the precision requires time.

The trouble is, we’ve evolved a whole little ecosystem – I like to call it the ten minute play-industrial complex – by which these plays are meant to be presented as a writer’s calling card.  A means of getting one’s name out into the world, getting the attention of an agent or producer who might then become interested in one’s full-length.  In one’s “real” work, so to speak.  But the creation of these calling cards winds up taking more time than the creation of the “real” work.  I could have been outlining one major project or researching another in the time it’s taken me to bash my head against my desk, trying to wrestle this one recalcitrant ten page draft into shape.

It doesn’t make any sort of logical sense.  So naturally, I’m doing neither, but am instead writing a four hundred word blog post to complain about it.  (Hey, whatever works.)

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