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Cue Emotional Music

A nifty short documentary about long documentarian Ken Burns, talking about stories and craft. A few random thoughts to lead off:

  • Ken Burns’ hair, man. Wow. Is it still salt & pepper if your hair is entirely pepper and your beard is entirely salt?
  • Ken Burns is smart.
  • I love the “1+1=3″ idea, because it begins sounding very deep, and then you have that moment where you go “Wait, that doesn’t make any sense!” and then he immediately follows up by, in fact, making it make sense. Stories are a place where the sum of the parts are greater than the whole. It’s a very nicely done metaphor, and paced in a way that lets it hits home nicely. Which leads me to the bigger musing:

I’m of two minds as to whether asking a “master” storyteller (or someone who identifies as a storyteller in general) about what makes a good story is something that is really the best approach. On the one hand, we get the 1+1=3 thing, which I like, but on the other hand we also get the story about his mother being sick his whole childhood and how maybe him doing historical documentaries about dead people is all an attempt to bring her back to life. Which, don’t get me wrong. That is incredibly effecting and when he brings it all back to storytelling at the end and the emotional music swells and everything, I honestly got a little choked up. But I also think that Ken Burns is a man who hears emotional music swelling at every moment of his life. He is intimately familiar with the structure of an emotional-music swell, and the structure of storytelling in general, and because of that he has structured his story about storytelling into just that: a story. It’s got pacing, it’s got beats, it’s got just the right moments for a slow-zoom-in-on-a-picture kind effect overlay. Those rhythms are ingrained in who he is and how he talks, and then, for added abstraction, it’s edited and compiled by people who have very obviously studied his work intently.

Is that helpful for learning about story? I’m not sure. It’s effective, of course, but it also runs the same risk that a lot of Ken Burns’ stuff can run: inflating every single fact or thought or idea to the nth degree, until it’s all just so significant and deep and moving but really might not mean as much as we want it to. The best illustration, of course, being the storied history of Black Nasa:

I think this is one of the things that makes it so difficult for writers and storytellers to talk about craft. We think about structure and flow and meaning a lot, to an obsessive degree, and so even when we try to explain it we’re looking for the epiphany moment, or the emotional sting, or the big culmination where All Is Revealed and everyone listening feels that something has been  illuminated. But is that really teaching? Or is it just recycling a bunch of the same ideas in new packages, so that everyone can tell us how smart we are? (By the way: if you like this post, don’t forget to leave a comment below!)

Of course, there’s no way around this for anyone: we all tell stories, all the time, whether we mean to or not. I just think that Ken Burns is particularly better at it than most people, to the degree where I find it hard to trust him sometimes, even when I agree with him. Maybe it’s about making sure we stay skeptical as audience members, and demand the truth behind the emotional music. And maybe it’s also about making sure that we, as storytellers, don’t go so far up our own storyholes that we lose the ability to just come right out and state our beliefs as simply and un-gilded as possible.

Word Count on this post: 646 (and two videos!). I’ve obviously got a bit of work to do on that last one.

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Elephants Are Bluesmen Too

So posting’s been a bit light on this end; the combination of SpeakEasy tech week and auditions scheduling, finishing a first draft of a new play that I’m totally stoked about, a trip to Chicago for Sideshow’s gala, and jury duty have all conspired to make things a bit crazypants. But, to tide you over until I can find the time to continue tenuously connecting things to theatrical themes, here’s a lesson in how awesome it probably is to be a zookeeper:

Seriously, folks. I chose the wrong profession.

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Mondays Abroad: Happy UNbirthday, Ant Shakespeare

Today’s Sideshow Blerg post, wherein the Harvard Review posts a really fascinating article about the evolution of art, and I get completely and utterly fixated by one particular sentence in the course of dumbing it down.

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Stupidity at High Speeds

Not a whole lot meaningful to say this Friday, so instead I’ll just share this, because it’s delightful:

I’m sure there’s a metaphor in there about building up an audience’s anticipation, and delivering with a good climax, and expectations vs. outcome, and all that, but y’know what? Those guys just set a roman candle off inside a house. And filmed it in slo-mo! What more do you need?

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Building vs. Excavation, cont.

As a lot of people who know me could tell you, I’m kind of obsessed with the perils and pitfalls of world-building in fantasy and sci-fi. It’s an endless topic of fascination to me, and so I was pleased as punch when the AV Club did a discussion between editors Keith Phipps and Tasha Robinson about just that subject, and the way it pertains to dystopian society books. (Which are also a thing that I have occasional opinions about.)

At the heart of the article is a question: when we read about dystopian societies, do we need to know where they came from? And the answer, after much very interesting back-and-forth that you should go read, turns out to be a resounding…maybe. Yes, sometimes. Some of the time definitely, others not so much.

Keith: [Tasha,] you listed a lot of instances of books and movies that succeeded in part because they filled in the details of the dystopian and post-apocalyptic worlds in which they were set. I’ll co-sign that if you agree that Metropolis wouldn’t be any more powerful if Fritz Lang provided a detailed history of how the class divisions of his film’s world widened. Or that Blade Runner wouldn’t work better if we were given more information about the off-world colonies, or we knew what those C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate were, or who revived Pan Am and put up all those neon signs. Or that Sleeper would be funnier if we had a better sense of what happened in the 200 years Woody Allen spent in hibernation. Deal?

I think I’m pretty much with Keith on this one. Tasha is of the mind that most dystopian society stories would be improved if we could see the clear logic of their existence, but I tend to be in the camp that says that’s only necessary if it’s the story you’re telling. The Hunger Games is not the story of a nation’s rise, just as The Lord of the Rings is not about the dawn of Middle Earth. They are each, in their own ways, about the end of the worlds they’ve constructed, and expecting authors to interweave the equivalent of The Silmarillion into their books and still make it interesting just isn’t going to result in a compelling story.

People are weird, and we are never weirder than when we’re trying to talk about what we want. Because we’re wrong, most of the time. We say we want naturalism in theatre, but we also want the living room on stage to only have three walls so we can see what’s going on. We say we want to see our lives reflected back to us, but we often connect more to stories about talking toys or fish. And we say that we want to know the details and history of the worlds that we read about, but then we all skip the Star Wars prequels when they’re on television and watch A New Hope every damn time.

People want as much information as they can get, but as writers it is our job to give it to them in a way that feels like active discovery. We need to make our audiences participate in the uncovering of our worlds. And, at the end of the day, we need to leave them wanting more. Otherwise, how will we ever make any money off of the sequels?

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Mondays Abroad: Artists Shouldn’t Suffer

I’ll be spending my Mondays blogging for the unequaled and awesome Sideshow Theatre Company for the next little while. Today’s post is about the myth of the starving artist, and why it’s a load of bull.

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Making Stuff Talk

This past week I was invited to give a talk to the high school writers involved in Boston Playwrights Theatre’s Young Playwrights Project, and while I was trying to think of a topic the inestimable Kate Snodgrass pointed out to me that I have a veritable trunk full of plays that feature non-human characters in them. Socks, Polar Bears, Dinosaurs…apparently I think regular people are boring or something, because I can’t resist the allure of making things talk that shouldn’t talk.

So, being confronted with that particular proclivity, I put together a talk for the YPP writers examining why theatre is such a great medium for non-human characters. It featured a few readings of ten-minutes interspersed throughout, and discussions about their specific methods, but a few parts were generally applicable enough that I thought they’d make for an interesting post (and one that I’d already written most of! Yay laziness!). A few excerpts of the talk, wherein I try to explain my habit:

Non-human characters are something that you see a whole lot of in theatre. Especially in ten-minute or shorter plays: short-form seems like it’s particularly good for non-human characters. But even full-length plays are full of them, they’re all over the place, because a lot of dramatists and playwrights have realized something awesome about theatre, and the awesome discovery that they made is this: a play is not real life. It is not a real thing that happened in the real world. This is probably my favorite thing in the world about plays, because real life is, honestly, pretty lame most of the time.

Plays are not real life. This is true of plays with talking dogs in them, obviously, but it is also true of plays that are more “realistic” and just have people sitting around drinking coffee with one another. Even in those plays, the coffee-drinking ones, you will never be able to replicate real life, because think about the process of putting on a play, which is part of what we’re working on with this festival. We, the playwrights, write down a bunch of words that we think sound pretty, and then we round up a bunch of pretty-looking people to memorize them and speak them back to us in ways that sound at least kind of spontaneous and natural. And then we bring in even more people to tell the pretty people where to move while they say the pretty words and to make sure that they are saying it in front of a pretty backdrop under pretty lights with maybe some pretty music underscoring it, and we rehearse it and rehearse it and rehearse it until it’s just the prettiest thing anybody’s ever seen, and then when it’s finally ready and we just can’t wait to show everybody how pretty it is, we bring in a couple hundred (hopefully) pretty audience members, and those new people walk into the pretty room that we’ve created for them and they sit down and they spend the next ten minutes or hour and a half or two hours quietly sitting in their seats and pretending that they’re invisible. They are sitting five feet, ten feet, however close to the action on stage, there could be a murder happening on stage, and the audience is just pretending that it doesn’t exist. And it’s totally normal!

Which is to say: audiences don’t expect reality when they go to see a play. They expect something a little bit different, even if they think that they want to see real life. Even if they think that, it’s our job to be smarter than them, and it’s also our job, as playwrights, to create a new world for them. They’re not coming to see the world they live in: they’re coming to see a different one, and we’re giving it to them. And that world could be a world filled with people who look and act just like us, but it still won’t be the real world, because if nothing else the costumes and hair design will be better and the comebacks will be wittier, and the blood will be fake. Thankfully. But you can also create a world where things operate very differently, where the gravity is different and things that shouldn’t talk talk and if it all follows some sort of identifiable logic then the audience will totally go along with the ride because they want to. And what that means is that there are a lot of plays whose writers embrace the fact that they can do essentially whatever they want, as long as it makes sense, and so you get a lot of non-human characters.

But the key to it is commitment. You have to commit to the world ou are building. The audience wants to go along with the world that has been created; they want to play the game; they want to pretend they’re invisible. So don’t make that harder for them. Don’t point out the logical inconsistencies in your premise to them. Don’t have your characters argue with each other over whether polar bears can talk, or whatever, because that’s not what your play’s about. Just go with it, and as long as you tell a convincing story, the audience will go along with you, because that’s what makes theatre fun in the first place!

Which, I think, is especially true in ten-minute plays, and the reason why, like I said earlier, so many ten-minute plays use this device of non-human characters. Ten minutes is a very short amount of time, in the grand scheme of things. You know it, and your audience knows it, and that means that everybody is ready to just get dropped into the world of the play. There’s not enough time for anything else. So when you’re writing one, make sure you’re using absolutely all the time available to you. Get all your characters on-stage before the end of the second page. Limit your settings as much as possible. Don’t have anybody question why the house-plant is yelling at them all of a sudden.

You have a story you want to tell with your play; you have a thought that you want to share and a discussion that you want to have, so cut right to the chase, start mid-conversation and just have it. Use the ten minutes to build a brand new, shiny world for your audiences, and once they’re inside let them look around and see where it’s like ours and where it’s not like ours, and then show them some deeper truth with it, and I guarantee they will love you for it. Because you will have surprised them, and that’s something that’s really hard to do, but you’ll have done it, because you’ll have given them that moment where they’re sitting in their seats and watching something totally unfamiliar and then suddenly they recognize something of themselves, in that sock or that tiger of Hamlet, and it will click and it will be lovely. Because we go the theatre to see the familiar through the lens of the unfamiliar; to be surprised by ourselves and the world around us. It’s a gift you can give to the audience, as long as you’re committed and passionate and excited about the world that you’re building.

There was a lot of other stuff, too, about secret humans and serious ideas and also Pixar, but it was a bit more tied into the specific plays we were discussing. All in all I think it went pretty well, and I was absolutely ecstatic to have had the chance to pontificate for a while about it.

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