With Good Intentions

Gawker passes along the really painfully delightful story of what happens when a well-meaning non-professional (octagenarian, in this case), decides to help out a struggling work of art:

The restored version is apparently the work of an octogenarian neighbor of the church, who, noticing the damage to the painting, took it upon herself to restore the painting “with good intentions” but “without asking permission,” as culture councillor Juan Maria de Ojeda put it. It became clear to the amateur restorer — quickly, one imagines — that “she had gotten out of hand,” and she confessed to local authorities.

There are so many theatre-audience-talkback-workshop connections to draw here I don’t even know where to start. The easiest takeaway, obviously, is that audiences don’t always know how to fix your piece, and their ability to do so will be largely determined by 1) how much experience they have with a particular form and 2) how many of them are adding their insights. If the aspiring artist in the story had been a professional restorer, then her taking the job on in her spare time might’ve had much better results, and just been a kind act of charity. Likewise, if she had had even one accomplice, to stand over her shoulder and say “Hey you should probably use a different brush because that one is making Jesus look like a doll-eyed wookie,” well, maybe it wouldn’t have looked like that.

It’s the same with audiences and “constructive” feedback: you want to get a lot of it, and you want to get it from people you trust. There’s always the off-chance that some guy off the street will solve your play for you with one sentence of insight, but it’s also just as likely that he’ll say “Needs more clowns,” and then you write your whole restoration drama to make it somehow feature a modern-day clown transported in from the future, and before you know it you’re stuck with…hold on. I just had an awesome idea for a play.

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?

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.