It’s the Connection

I’m just going to go ahead and claim prescience for writing a play about a guy named Paul who leaves the Internet. (We can also rack up a few serendipity points for the fact that the actor playing Paul this summer is the one who pointed this article out to me.) It’s fascinating to see someone dealing in real life with a lot of the themes that made me tackled this subject in the first place, and real-life Paul crystalizes some of the ideas that character-Paul, and everyone else in Paper City Phoenix, give voice to throughout the play. The whole thing’s worth a read, but this stood out:

I’d read enough blog posts and magazine articles and books about how the internet makes us lonely, or stupid, or lonely and stupid, that I’d begun to believe them. I wanted to figure out what the internet was “doing to me,” so I could fight back. But the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.

Would Miller’s experiment have been different if nobody else had the Internet, either? Probably. But people who talk about its “detrimental” effect on society often miss that one, central fact: it’s not a thing that we all use from time to time. It’s a whole part of us, by now. It is connection. It is an interface. It’s not just something that disseminates or engages with culture: it is the culture. And so to leave it all behind also means, in many ways, leaving society. Is that scary? Maybe. But no more than saying the same thing about, say, public transportation, or phone service. The Internet isn’t making us become anything; it’s allowing us to become who we’re generally predisposed to be, and also helping us share that person with the world. And that seems like a sum positive, to me.

No More Victims

So, word has it that The Hunger Games is a little bit popular these days. Which is great! They’re great books and well-written and, thanks to certain knowledgeable parties, I got them forcefully pushed on to my reading list back before most other folks had even heard of them, and am thus officially cool and hip and cutting-edge. But they’re in the zeitgeist now, and that means two things: an increase in post-apocalyptic YA novels, and the proportional increase in editorials and literary articles wondering what it all MEANS that there are so many post-apocalyptic female teenagers running around.

Over at the American Prospect, Abby McGanney Nolan has an article that cuts through a bit of the psychodrama fat and highlights what I personally think has the most to do with the books’ popularity among readers: agency.

Why are young heroines thrust into ruined worlds and then routinely hunted, harassed, or beaten into unconsciousness? A New York Times forum on the grim dystopia boom featured one novelist in the genre asserting that teens in our mismanaged times are demanding to read “something that isn’t a lie.” Writing on the phenomenon in The New Yorker, critic Laura Miller wondered if the authoritarian societies that dominate the trend are analogues to the oppressive world of high-school students, who are constantly monitored and hassled and forced to compete.

Neither theory quite pins down the appeal of the new damsels in distress: They’re not waiting for someone else to save them or the world. 

Nobody likes being a victim. Nobody likes being powerless. Nobody likes feeling like things are just happening to them, and that they exist only to be happened upon.  And, lo and behold, people have a hard time connecting to characters who don’t exist with any agenda outside of the characters around them.

Easiest way to avoid that? Don’t victimize your characters. Oh, sure, be mean to them. Put them through the wringer. Let awful things come their way that they have to deal with. But then make sure that they actually do deal with it,  and attempt to overcome it, all the way up to the end. Even if they don’t end up winning, they should at least go down fighting.

When a character of any gender or ethnicity curls up in a ball, the drama stops. The scene’s over. Nothing is in question any more, because they’ve lost, and if you keep the scene going for much time after that point, you’re just subjecting your audience to a lot of boring spectacle devoid of meaning. With this in mind, of course books like The Hunger Games are compelling; they’re about characters not giving up in the most dire of circumstances. And that’s exciting!

It’s a shame that the gender of those characters is still so worth note these days, but there you have it. The trick to writing compelling female characters, or male characters, or minority characters, or characters of whatever descriptor doesn’t apply to you? De-victimize them. Give them an agenda, and respect that agenda, and make them struggle to achieve it no matter what. Because otherwise you might as well just replace them with a big scarecrow with the words “PLOT POINT” written on its chest.

Stage Directions Nobody Needs Anymore

There’s a New York Times article making the rounds (I got to it admittedly late, via Art Hennessey), detailing one of Paula Vogel’s recent “Boot Camp” exercises at Second Stage. And while the Boot Camps themselves are fantastic courses for writers, and I highly encourage anything that gives them more exposure, the quote that has really gotten everybody’s hackles up comes courtesy of “Young Theatre Director” Nicholas Gray, who didn’t like Vogel saying that stage directions can be used to provide different types of moments in plays:

Such a heavy authorial hand drew heated complaints, however, from Nicholas Gray, a young theater director who had been invited by an associate. Mr. Gray railed against lengthy stage directions, saying he crossed them out in scripts before he would begin rehearsals with his actors.

“It’s the playwright being tyrannical over all of the other artists who will ever work on the play,” Mr. Gray said, adding that even “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” would not escape his pen.

Young Master Gray is being, at best, incredibly reductive, and at worst, to use a technical term, a huge haughty jerk. But one thing that I haven’t seen being discussed yet is what led to the attitude Gray and those like him espouse, and what we as playwrights can do to avoid it. In short: we need to make sure our stage directions belong in our plays in the first place.

One of the most common issues that I encounter when I’m teaching playwriting is the idea of Playwright As Director, attempting to dictate the exact pace, location, blocking, and tone of every moment being constructed. It’s a natural inclination: we all have an imaginary stage in our head on which all of our plays are performed by an imaginary ensemble of perfect actors.  There are two problems with this, though:

  1. Imaginary stages, by definition, don’t exist. The stage all of my plays get performed on in my head is a proscenium set-up with five hundred square feet and a state-of-the-art projection and fly system. I’ve kind of come to terms with the scarcity of such spaces in real life, and also with the fact that…
  2. All of my very clear ideas about how everyone sounds and where they stand on the stage are the result of my imagination and my imagination alone, and thus are limited to one point of view. I’m already crafting the structure, dialogue, action and overall rhythm of the play; are we really to assume that my distracted brain will also come up with the best blocking and set design? Of course not. That’s why we work with directors and designers and actors. Many brains are better than one.

This is not to say that stage directions aren’t useful. They’re immensely useful, but only as a part of the overall experience. Paula Vogel advocates for stage directions that open doors, and play a part in the tone, spirit and approach of your play. Directions that, when you hand them to directors, designers and actors, actually get them excited about the further possibilities provided. Stage directions like “A fuzzy pause,” or “Uh oh,” or “Everything starts changing,” or “The space begins opening,” or, hell, “An angel bursts in through the bedroom ceiling.” These are stage directions as challenges, as collaboration: it’s you saying “Hey, fellow artists, I want something that kinda feels like this, and I know we can all come up with a solution together, so let’s do this thing! Go team!” Even a pause or a beat, properly placed, tells your artistic team more about a moment than a direction that tries to fill that same moment with a specific action. It’s up to the team to figure out how to fill the pause; all you know is that it has to be there. (But, seriously. Make sure it does have to be there.)

Your script  is a skeleton that your collaborators build the meat on to, and stage directions are just additional bones in that skeleton. What they are not is an instruction manual on where all the organs and muscles go, and how sarcastically the heart beats. But, of course, it’s hard to let go of that kind of control, and trust your collaborators, and so a lot of writers try to dictate everything and bring their imaginary productions to life on the page. And that leads to Young Theatre Directors who decide that, y’know what? Fuck it. No stage directions for everyone. To prevent further angst in this regard, I propose the following list of Four Types of Stage Directions That Nobody Would Miss And You Should Probably Avoid When Writing:

  • Adverbs: Sarcastically. Eloquently. Angrily. They’re crappy in prose fiction, and they’re crappy in plays, too. That line that you think just NEEDS to be delivered deeply, sadly, and profoundly? I guarantee you that your actor can come up with a better reading, that actually springs from the rhythm of the scene in rehearsal, and fits the moment of that production exactly. So give your actor the chance to find that reading on his or her own.
  • Geographical Stage Plots: You demand that there be a beige couch, but we only have a red divan. And that door you want stage left, five feet from center? Too bad; we only have off-stage space on stage right. This is the Imaginary Stage all over again. If your play has a Big Significant Visual Metaphor that absolutely demands a specific orientation of objects and set pieces, then I guess you can include it, but it better be a damn good metaphor and you’d also better be willing to adapt it to a three-sided thrust when that’s your only chance at a production.
  • Incredibly Specific Actor Positioning and Movement: No one gives a crap what side of the couch you think your actors need to sit on. They don’t! They really don’t. Such is life. Let it happen.
  • Stage Directions that Interrupt the Rhythm: When I’m reading a script, there’s nothing more frustrating than reading a vicious, fast-paced argument scene that is constant broken up by stage directions like “She turns away from him,” “He gets a glass of water from the kitchen,” or whatever other random actions the writer feels the need to tell me are also helping. The first experience any artist (director, producer, actor, designer, whatever) has of your script is on the page, so why not use that first impression to actually let them feel the moments as intended? If the scene needs to be fast, make it a fast read. If it’s a super-involved, intense discussion, then make it as lean and mean and propulsive to read as it will be to watch. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot by demanding that the reader switch gears between dialogue and direction constantly.

Really, all these points boil down to one major thought: stage directions shouldn’t be used to tell people how to do their jobs. They’re a part of your toolbox, and your job is to use them to evoke, inspire, and challenge your collaborators. So have fun with them! Obviously every rule I’ve just stated is made to be broken, but recognize that, if you’re not breaking it for a really really good reason, you’re just giving more ammo to every Young Theatre Director out there who wants to justify their laziness by cutting all directions they see.

It’s Been a Good Fall

There’s been a lot going on lately, though you wouldn’t know it from this blog. A wonderful production of The Farm wrapped up, I’m in rehearsals with Fresh Ink Theatre for a similarly wonderful (though wildly different, tonally) production of Priscilla Dreams the Answer, and, most importantly, on November 5th I got married to my favorite person. There’ll be much to say about all of that soon, I’m sure.

And then I came back from the honeymoon and immediately froze up on what to blog about. Until I was riding the T this morning, and reading this article by Howard Sherman in Howlround, about “old” new plays and their necessity. It’s a great article, but what’s even more remarkable  the follow-up comment by playwright Bill Cain, in regards to his play Stand-Up Tragedy. The whole thing’s worth a read, but this quote in particular hit me like a bolt from the blue:

Stand-Up didn’t just teach me how to write; it also taught me why I should write.

On opening night at the Taper in Los Angeles – a wonderful night – one of the young teachers on whom the main teacher was based – had flown himself out to see the show. I was very nervous to hear how it had affected him. When I found the courage to ask, he didn’t say that he had liked it or not. He said something much simpler. He said, “I didn’t know anybody had seen me.”

When the show opened on Broadway – also a wonderful night at least until the review came out – the boy who was the model for the central student was there and I was terrified of his response. He said something similar. He said, “I’m the hero, aren’t I?” And I said, “Yeah – you always have been.”

They taught me what writing is about.

Letting people know that they have been seen in all their hidden greatness.

It was a big thing to learn.

And a new way to evaluate success and failure of a work that took years to write.

I feel like I talk all the time about theatre’s ability to spark conversation, to inspire, to awe the audience. But there’s so much possible connection and validation in just taking people’s stories seriously and making sure that they know. Cain put it perfectly, and I’ll be thinking about it all day as I work through a few new projects and enjoy what’s been, as of right now, a really wonderful year.

The Matter of Time

Well, this is one the most supremely fascinating things I’ve read all year. It is also, in a very literal and non-hyperbolic sense, awe-inspiring. It inspires awe.

Long story short: there is a clock being built, inside of a mountain, that will tick for 10,000 years. But you should go read the whole thing, believe me. There’s even a robot with a chainsaw arm, just to spice things up in the middle.

“Over the lifetime of this clock, the United States won’t exist,” Bezos tells me. “Whole civilizations will rise and fall. New systems of government will be invented. You can’t imagine the world — no one can — that we’re trying to get this clock to pass through.”

I think that, in theatre, we have a very schizophrenic relationship with the immediate. We want to make things that last, obviously; we want to create experiences that resonate, that live on when they’re done, that fundamentally become a part of people’s lives. If we’re playwrights, we want more than one production, a lot of the time; we mostly want to pen words that will carry down and be found relevant through time, and space. We want to last.

Of course, we can’t. Our works can’t either. Certainly not on the scale that the makers of this clock are talking about. Theatre is about immediacy. It’s about the moment; it’s about a shared communal experience of story and catharsis and fleeting togetherness that is so great exactly because it can’t be repeated. It’s what we all love about it, but it guarantees that anyone writing with “posterity” in mind is going to fail, more often than not.

At its best, a great show can be a pebble in someone’s shoe for the rest of their lives: quietly niggling, never quite settling, it can echo in their actions and can even change their behaviors, but it can’t stand as a monument unto the ages. It just doesn’t have that kind of power, or intent, behind it. It’s not one of the tools.

So on first glance, after reading an article like that, it seems a little silly to me that we’re running around on painted, temporary sets speaking words few will ever hear while out in the desert of Texas these clockmakers are building an apparatus that will quite possibly last longer than our entire species. It’s a humbling realization, and it’s even a little shaming, because how do you measure up against ten millenia? What kind of ambition can we have in the face of that sort of time, if we’re just trying to put together a show for next season?

But that’s the beauty of the clock: it’s not about the clock. It’s about the theatrics of the clock. And, really, the way that the clock is employed has a whole lot in common with what we do as theatre artists. (Minus the robo-chainsaw. For now.) Building this clock isn’t about the people/beings who may/may not find it 10,000 years from now. It’s entirely about us, in this moment, and the attempt to make an impact on the way that we live our lives. For one thing: it’s gigantic. It’s inside of a mountain. It’s shiny and pretty and there’s a big spiral staircase you take to walk all the way up it. It’s grand and immense and fantastic, and designed specifically to take your breath away. It’s theatrical in the way a cathedral is theatrical. And then, there’s this passage from the article:

To conserve energy, and to encourage visitor participation, [the clock] won’t actually display the current time on its face most of the time. Instead, the face will show the time and date (and the corresponding position of the stars and planets) of the last person’s visit to the clock, whether that was yesterday or 300 years ago. If you want to view the current time, you’ll need to turn a wheel near the clock face, which advances the clock’s dials, moving through time until it automatically clicks to a stop at the present moment:


The point of the clock isn’t to make something that lasts 10,000 years. It’s to make us, right now, think about what 10,000 years means, and to help us realize that as vast as that length of time is, we’re a part of it. We’re in the continuum. And we’re connected to everyone else in the stream, and we can see that by simply turning a wheel and leaving our mark for the next participant. We can take a hike through the desert, walk up a staircase, marvel at something that’s going to last exponentially longer than us, and we can then directly participate in its existence, and put our own little timestamp on its face.

Then we can go back outside, and walk back to our cars, and drive home to our relatively short lives. But if we visit the clock, then we’ll have one more pebble in our shoe, slightly changing our gait. We’ll have a big, quiet ticking in the back of our minds, reminding us that we have a place in the cosmos.

Sounds like a pretty awesome piece of theatre, I’d say.