Friday, December 31, 2010

2010: my year

On the TV and radio, from friends and family, I keep hearing the same sentiment about this New Year's: may 2011 be a hell of a lot better than 2010

I understand why -- this was a hard year in many ways.  Many people are still struggling financially, with unemployment and foreclosures.  There were also a lot of cataclysmic disasters, both natural (Haiti) and human-caused (oil spill).  Politics seemed to reach new heights of absurdity (the likes of Christine O'Donnell and Carl Palodino) and the chasm between left and right grew deeper than ever.  Unfairness abounds -- Wall Street is now more profitable than ever after having all-but-destroyed our economy, and yet few new jobs are coming with those profits.  So I can definitely see why people are glad to say goodbye to 2010.

But for me personally, it's quite possible that I will look back on 2010 as one of the most notable years of my life.

Always a goal-setter, I outdid myself this year not only in the setting of goals, but in the attaining of them.  For those of you who've been reading my blog, little of this is news.  Creatively, I set out to write a play, and not only did that, but had a public reading of it with top Broadway talent (and raised almost $4000 to make that happen).  Of all of my creative endeavors so far, this is by far the most monumental thing I have ever done.

I also set a career goal of being able to quit my office job and just teach full-time by the end of 2010.  I started off the year working 3 jobs and now I can proudly (and a little nervously) say I am entirely self-employed. A major life goal accomplished.

About half-way through the year I set a smaller personal goal for myself: to participate in my first-ever organized athletic event (a 50-mile bike ride).  I am proud of this because it represents a significant change for me: though I've always been active, exercise has historically been the thing to get sacrificed when there wasn't enough time.  But with my boyfriend's help and inspiration, I managed to squeeze that in.  Not only does this bring me joy, it also helps keep me healthy -- which I desperately need to be to accomplish all the other things I want to do!

On a more personal note, after several years of relationship drama worthy of an opera plot, 2010 found in a calm, supportive, stabilizing, delightful, and loving partnership with my best-boyfriend-ever.  We inspire each other, we support each other, we challenge each other, we make each other better people and we help each other reach our goals.  I don't know if I can say that I would never have accomplished my goals without him, but it sure as hell would have been harder and even if I had managed to, I certainly would have been far less sane.  I'm glad I have finally recognized that theater (and my own crazy brain) give me all the drama I could ever want or need -- I don't need it in my relationships too.

I am immensely grateful for all that I have in my life, and for this incredible year of growth and accomplishment.  To feel as if I am starting anew creatively, career-wise, and personally at age 38, is remarkable and encouraging: to know that there are always other options, different paths to be taken if you just keep looking and follow your truest desires.  That makes me very hopeful for my future, wherever it might lead me.

So, thank you 2010, I will always remember you fondly.  And for those of you to whom 2010 wasn't so kind, I wish you a 2011 filled with growth, change, accomplishment and, most importantly, joy.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The other side of "if only"

Today is a monumental day: my last day as someone else's employee.  I have been an executive assistant at this little consulting firm for the last 5 and a half years -- longer than I have been at any other job.  As far as office jobs go, it was the best I have had and the best I could ask for.  Nonetheless, it was still a "job" and not a career.  I realized after my divorce that I didn't want to just be working "jobs" anymore -- things to pay the bills while I was biding my time to get famous and "make it" as a artist.  I wanted to make my money doing something I was trained to do, something I loved and that brought me fulfillment.  The thing I love most - and am best at -- other than performing and writing is teaching.  As of 1:30pm this afternoon, I am proud to say that I am now entirely self-employed as a voice teacher. 

I am about to finally, finally see the other side of if only.  I have spent so many years of my life waiting, hoping, longing, telling myself if only I were hired at the Met; if only I were famous, if only I could make my living solely as an artist, then my life would truly really begin.  In the last two years, the narrative changed a little: if only I didn't have to work my office job, if only I could have more time to write, if only I could just teach to make my money, then I could live the kind of life I want, no longer ruled by my time trifecta where I must sacrifice either my writing, exercise or sleep on any given day.  Suddenly, after today, I will be living that life.  I will actually have 2-day weekends again, for the first time in 2 years.  I will be able to get more than 6 hours sleep a night.  I will be able to exercise and write.  I'll have time to go grocery shopping and do my laundry.  I can hardly believe it is really happening.

It is also more than a little bit scary -- the freedom of being completely self-employed is accompanied by the vagaries of students canceling, going on vacation, or quitting, plus my own needs for time off (as I felt keenly last week when I had to cancel a day of students because I was so sick).  Taking a sick day or a vacation takes on a whole new meaning when you know exactly how much it costs you.  I'm learning to set aside money, to plan, to create my own vacation/sick day/retirement fund, but it isn't easy.  And there is no safety net.  I have no one to rely on but me.

As scared as I am sometimes, I am immensely proud of myself for taking this step.  At the beginning of this year, I set out two goals for myself:  to write a play in 9 months, and to build my studio to the point where I could quit my office job.  Amazingly, I accomplished both of these goals.  After years of feeling like my fate was always in someone else's hands (those who might hire me as a singer), I finally, finally feel like the author of my own story.  Having embraced creating my own art for the first time in my life, it feels eerily appropriate that I am now also creating my own life.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Productivity Paucity

I set aside the evening last night, completely free of distractions of friends, boyfriend, and other obligations, to get some work done.  To write a blog post (I still owe 3 blog-by-request topics), to upload photos from the reading to the Breaking Pairs website, to begin gathering materials for my applications to some summer writing residencies, to update some script edits.  Exactly how much did I get done?

Nothing.  Nada.  Zilch.

I began a topic-by-request blog post, but I just couldn't seem to write.  Everything I wrote seemed clumsy, boring.   The other tasks all seemed too long and involved to begin.  I just could not seem to motivate myself to get anything done, other than cooking myself a nice, healthy dinner and watching more episodes of Lie to Me on Netflix (my current Netflix addition, though I fear I may be tiring of it and in need of another one... suggestions?). 

Some of you may be thinking something along the lines of "gee, that sounds like me most days".  I know and love many people who struggle constantly with motivating themselves to get things done.  But this rarely happens to me.  It is far more common for me to have to talk myself down from continuing to work, or to convince myself that it's ok to take some down-time to relax and watch something mindless.  When I get asked -- as I often do -- if I can teach someone how to stay focused and get stuff done, I honestly don't know what to say.  Because I rarely have to kick my own butt. My main thought is a Nike slogan -- just do it.  I'm used to struggling to decide which thing I will do,  not with trying to get myself to do anything.  So I was at a complete loss last night, not having many tools for how to get myself out of my funk and into working.  

I guess it's understandable -- I was working at such an insane, feverish pace for the first 10 months of the year that it shouldn't be surprising to me that I'm a little worn out and in need of some time to reset.  My boyfriend assures me that my productivity isn't gone forever, it's just on a little bit of a hiatus.  I'm sure he's right.

But for now, forgive me for the scarcity of my blog posts -- I had really hoped to pick them back up again with more consistency.  But I think that will have to wait until the new year, when I am once and for all free of my office job and will have an extra 20 hours a week to get stuff done.

Anyone want to wager how long before those 20 hours are scheduled right back up again?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

for Roger: Vera interviews her creator

One of the perks I offered for contributing to my play shower was a blog post on a topic of the donor's choice.  A creative request came in from Roger in Switzerland, a "big brother" to my play and the sponsor of the character of Vera.  He wanted to interview me in the voice of Vera, and supplied me with the following questions:

Where do I come from? Have I been inspired by a real person that you know, do I represent a personality trait of yourself or am I just a figment of your imagination?

You are a figment of my imagination.  You bear my grandmother's name, but you are nothing like her.  You are the complete opposite of Frank -- your bubbly, nosey, super-talkative perkiness was inspired by needing a foil for Frank's taciturn, stubborn curmudgeonliness.

Have worked out backgrounds for all your characters? And if yes, what does mine look like?

Backgrounds emerged for my characters as I needed them.  I have not fleshed out an entire life story for you from childhood, but I do know that you married young, had only one child (though you wanted more) and lost him in WWII as a very young man.  You yourself were not from a large family either, so you now find yourself alone since your husband died a few years ago.  But you don't let all that loss stop you from reaching out to other people.

Have I been part of your play from the beginning or did you add my character later to liven up the narrative bring a fun and color to it?

You were there from the very first scene I wrote, long before I even knew I was going to turn this into a full-length play.  I wrote the scene with you and Frank in the nursing home, watching Lawrence Welk and bickering over the remote, as an exercise for my playwriting class.  You've come a long way, baby. 
Why would a young thing like you write about getting old? Mind you, I know I bear it well, but I would anything to be your age again. That was so much more fun.

You must have been a riot when you were footloose and fancy free!  I can just see you, dancing up a storm in your flapper dress, sneaking drinks and smokes, egging on your friends and the boys for just one more dance.  But as to your question, honestly, I don't know why it is that I seem to tap into truths about what it feels like to age -- my mother asked me the same question, "how do you know how it feels to be you trapped inside an old worn out body?"  I guess my empathy stretches far enough for me to be able to imagine that.  I was also very close with my grandmother and my great aunt Rue before they passed, and perhaps I gleaned something from them.  

Your boyfriend looks very handsome, do you think he would take me for a ride on his motorbike when we have our next free afternoon at the retirement home?

You bet!  Nothing would please him more.  He is great with passengers (in fact, he might be too cautious for your tastes!)  He'll make you wear a helmet though, he's very strict about that.

I have loved working with you. So when you start working on your next play, you might consider writing a sequel or prequel focusing on my character. I think that would be just fabulous;)

I will keep that in mind.  You are an awful lot of fun.  Thank you for coming into my life.

Monday, November 29, 2010

A dia-blog on success vs. merit

A blog post responding to a blog post.  How very meta.

My friend Brian Rosen (a like-spirit: driven and multi-talented as a performer and creator) picked up on my post-partum depression post on his blog ("Music vs. Theater", what a thought-provoking title) where he writes insightfully about the distinction between success and merit:

"I think the trick for the emerging creative is to keep a rock solid wall between the concepts of merit and success. You need to be able to look at your output and see its merit without the coloration of success (or lack thereof). It’s the internal voice that defines your creative output, not the external. .... That’s the voice that needs to look at your work and say, “'Yeah. This is good. I need to make more of this.'"

(please read the whole post, there was too much for me to quote here).

To separate "merit" from "success", ah, but what a challenge that is!  To recognize and believe in the merit of your own work irrespective of what the outside world has to say about it (as well as to see clearly when the merit is NOT there) -- is this a challenge unique to artists?  Certainly an athlete has measurable goals - you know how fast you are or how far you can throw compared to someone else.  Doctors know if they make patients feel better, business people know if they make a profit, carpenters know if the house stands on its own or not.  Is there any other field where there is so often so little direct connection between merit and success? (I'm open to being corrected on this by the way, it's an honest question).

And certainly one must look at what others say about your work, to some degree.  We've all known those artists/performers/writers who think they have this amazing talent, but they just... don't.  I can think my play is great, but if no one wants to hear it, or if when they do hear it, no one responds to it, then I don't think I can really call it great.  I do rely on what other people think - not to the exclusion of own instincts, but along with - because my goal is to create art that speaks to people, that touches people, that causes them to look at something in life a bit differently than they did before.  To me, my instinctual feeling that my work has merit can only be validated by achieving that goal.  Which I can't know unless I put it up in front of an audience and observe their response.  How do I get my piece in front of an audience without some degree of commercial success?  I can only do that so far as my  resources allow me to produce my own works, which is in a very limited fashion.

So while I believe my writing has merit -- and I'm actually very critical and picky about my own work and will futz over a single line for hours til my inner voice tells me it's right -- those instincts are only validated when the work is in front of an audience.  Most of the time my instincts are right, but sometimes they are wrong.  I need at least some outside voices to be in accordance with my inside voice.  For me, that's the rub.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Post-partum Depression

Forgive the silence - these weeks since the reading have been a bit challenging for me.  After such a long build-up -- almost 10 months of striving towards such a momentous goal -- I crashed and needed to step back from it for a bit.  I also needed to devote some time to my friends and boyfriend, whom I had by necessity neglected during the weeks leading up to the reading. 

I now find myself in a place that is all-too-frustratingly-familiar.  Everyone is asking me what’s next?  Have you heard anything?  Is anything happening?  To which the answers are I don’t know, no, and not yet.  I did such a good job of getting people excited and (literally) invested in my play, that they all want to know what’s happening.  It’s wonderful to have so much support and interest, but it is difficult to not be able to say, why, yes! I got a call from a Broadway producer yesterday and they will be mounting a production next fall!  To have no answer, and no real idea of where things are going to go from here, is very painful.  It is the reason why I stopped ever telling anyone about auditions I had as an opera singer, because it was just too painful to continually have to answer no when asked so have you heard anything yet?.  Perhaps painful isn’t the right word -- it feels more like shame.  I’m ashamed -- I feel like if I haven’t landed anything then it must not be that good.  Or at least that is what people must think, because the only way to know in the arts that something you have done has merit is if other people give it a stamp of approval.  Without the mark of commercial success on something, what you have created (or what talent you may possess) is all so much drivel.  At least that is how I feel.  I can say my play is good until I’m blue in the face, but without an external stamp of approval no one else has any reason to believe that.

Can I do this again?  Can I get my hopes up and strive for yet another creative career that very well may never happen?  Regardless of how good my play may or may not be, there are no guarantees that anything major will happen with it.  I used to believe (hope?) that if you are good enough, and work hard enough and stay in the game long enough, you will make it.  That the cream rises to the top.  But I know now that it is not that simple of an equation.  There are plenty of mediocre talents who somehow manage to rise to the top by their sheer dedication and the luck of what connections they have.  There are many great talents who don’t succeed because they don’t have the stick-to-it-iveness to fight the fight.  And then there are even people who have the talent and work their asses off and still don’t ever get the big break.  I felt like one of those people as an opera singer.  Am I prepared to risk being that person again as a playwright?

It is far too early to give up and I know that it is a long road for any work to get produced.  When I started this journey, I was fully prepared that my first play might very well suck -- I mean, who writes a great first play?  The fact that this actually seems to be good doesn’t change the fact that it will need more rewrites, that I will need to submit it to probably several dozen places and keep pitching it and slogging and working to get it out there.  And just because a producer didn’t walk up to me after the reading to hand me a check doesn’t mean my play won’t get produced someday.

So now begins the less-fun part.  The diaper changing, the late night feedings, the calming of the un-soothable infant.  All the un-fun stuff of parenting.  Do I have what it takes to see this through, to try to nurture this baby to grow up to its fullest potential?  I know I do; motivation and drive are never in short supply for me.  The real question for me is, do I want to.  I think in another month or so, when I have a little distance and can look at things a little more objectively, the answer will clearly be yes.  Because to let my play languish, to not even try, would be a bigger regret than trying and having nothing happen.

I just have to ask the world to be kind to me.  To not look down upon me as a failure if nothing major happens.  To tell me I’m still loved and respected for having tried, no matter what the outcome.  Or maybe I need to learn to tell myself that. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A note of thanks!

I wrote an entry earlier today summing up some of the post-partum depression I've been feeling lately, and was about to post it, but it somehow didn't feel right to be wallowing on this day of thanksgiving.  There is so much I have to be grateful for, and how much better is it to focus on that?  I will save the other post for another day.

In no particular order, I am grateful:
  • for the love and support of my family
  • to have been so warmly welcomed by my boyfriend's family
  • to have such a supportive, understanding, patient, and encouraging boyfriend
  • to be blessed not only with my actual family, but also with the most wonderful chosen family of friends
  • that my cat recently spontaneously decided to become a lap cat
  • that I have this incredible drive and need to be creative
  • for all the energy and motivation I have to get things done
  • for my studio full of talented and lovely voice students, and that it has grown enough for me to leave my office jo
  • for the new and improved version of me that emerged out of the darkest time of my life 
  • that I discovered a love - and apparent talent - for playwriting
  • to live in the greatest city in the world
  • that, as screwed up as our politics are, I live in a country where at least I can listen to the likes of Rachel Maddow and John Stewart
  • that, as difficult as my money situation has felt at times, I have had the luxury of choosing work that allowed me to pursue my creative endeavors
  • for this amazing and wonderful internet that allows me a forum for expressing myself and connecting with people
And more, there is always more.  What are you grateful for this year?

Sunday, November 7, 2010


I hardly know where to begin to tell you what happened on Tuesday - what it felt like to hear my play acted by six exquisite actors; to hear two full-house audiences laughing and sniffling in reaction to my words; to witness them riveted for two hours - no papers rustling, no shifting in their seats, no throat-clearing - as they watched the story of this family unfold. The most surreal moment of it all was the very beginning of each reading, as the actor reading the stage directions said "Breaking Pairs - by Natalie Wilson". Hearing my name as the author - I can scarcely wrap my head around that fact. My play isn't the only thing that was born on Tuesday: Natalie Wilson, playwright, was also born.

Something new and wonderful has happened to me through this journey - there is an authenticity that comes through in my writing that I always struggled to find in my singing. Randy, my last opera teacher and dear friend, told me he was very surprised by this play - surprised by its darkness and depth. He said he felt like he had been at a "major cultural event" (and this is a man who was part of some of the greatest operatic performances of the last century, so that means a lot, coming from him). He said he had no idea I had that in me - he had never seen it in my singing. I always knew it was there, ever since I was very young, and I have wanted nothing more than to find a way to share it with the world. But except for a few rare, exquisite moments, I felt like there was a wall between that part of me and the outside world that I couldn't break through. I finally have. In creating these other characters and telling their story, I have found me.

Everyone keeps asking me "what's next?". I don't know right now. (My director and I will be coming up with a game plan very soon). The response on Tuesday was overwhelmingly positive, both from my friends and from the industry people and producers who were present. I am fairly confident that someone is going to want to produce this, somehow or another. My director and I - and others - both feel it is worthy of a Broadway production with a star-studded cast, followed by an option for a film. That's what we're going to work towards. We'll see what happens.

In the meantime, this newly born playwright has to get back to actually writing - this play needs some siblings.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The night before

Tomorrow is the official birth of my play.  As of 9pm tomorrow night, my play will no longer just be my own -- it will be out in the world and beginning to take on a life of its own.  Some of that has already begun -- my director has already shaped the work for this reading, and even the actors have had input during rehearsals for some small line changes and tweaks.  Though I still maintain creative control, I am no longer the only influence over my play.  And this will only get more and more true, the further along in this process we go.

I am remarkably calm at the moment -- I finished my to-do list about a half hour ago, so my metaphorical bag for the hospital is packed.  To draw out this metaphor, I'll go into labor at 10:30am tomorrow, as the final rehearsals begin.  The first delivery will be at 4pm, then another at 7pm (so am I having twins?).  75 people have signed up to bear witness.  It will be a long, exhausting, exhilarating day -- which, unlike an actual birth, will be followed by a big party to celebrate. Thank god for that.

My emotions swing from excitement to anxiety, from hope to fear.  My fears and anxieties are not from wondering how it will go (I have utter confidence in the amazing talent assembled), or even if people will like it (I am confident enough that the play is good) -- but whether or not the big producers who said they will come will actually come, and whether or not anything will actually happen after tomorrow.  Will someone get excited about my play and join me and Steven in trying to get it produced?  I never expected to get this far -- never expected this reading would turn into what it has -- and thus the specter of hope has reared its head.  Hope never comes alone -- where there is hope, there is always the risk of disappointment.  I've tried to protect myself from that somewhat since I gave up my opera career, having suffered so many years of hopes being dashed.  Every time I thought something major might happen, it never did, and I grew weary of it.  Yet here I am again, daring to hope.  It's scary.

But it's also exciting.  And, as I tell my voice students all the time, the physiological response to fear is exactly the same as excitement -- your heart races, your breathing gets shallow, your arms and legs tingle.  When you feel that, it is up to you to decide whether you are about to get in a car accident, or if you are riding an exhilarating roller coaster. 

So, I choose the roller coaster.  Look out world, here comes my baby.  I can't wait for you all to meet her.

Monday, October 25, 2010

New title, new cast, new website!

So many things have been happening, I haven't had time to write.  Do forgive me!  But I'm sure you can imagine how hectic things are with the birth just around the corner on November 2nd.  And so much is changing!

First of all, my play now has a new name: BREAKING PAIRS.  I am quite enamored of this new title, and am glad that my director prompted me to change it.  While All in the Shuffle was fitting for the play once you had read/heard it, out of context it connoted something very different -- something much lighter, or even a tap-dancing musical (like "shuffling off to Buffalo").  I searched and searched and searched for something that captured the essence of the play, indicated its weight, and was a card reference (this was very important to me).  Thank you to google for turning up dictionaries of card-playing terms, which led me to BREAKING PAIRS. (To "break a pair" is to discard one of a pair, in the hopes of getting another card that will make something else work).  This phrase was incredibly apropos of my play (I won't tell you why -- some things need to be a surprise).  It landed with Steven, my director, and thus my play had a new name.

Then a few days ago, the cast finally came together!  I can hardly believe the level of talent my director has been able to secure -- all save one are long-time veterans of Broadway (and one from London's West End).  You can read all their bios on my spanking new webpage:!

All the details for the reading are on the webpage as well.  I hope you'll take a moment to check it out.  If you would like to attend the reading, please email and I will do my best to fit you in!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

for Jessica: my "cathedral made of fire"

One of the perks I offered for contributing to my play shower was a blog post on a topic of the donor's choice.  The first such request to come in was from Jessica, who became a "big sister" to my play (and the sponsor of the character of Annette).  She asked me to react to this comment in the NY Times by author Michael Cunningham:

"Many novelists ... will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write. It’s one of the heartbreaks of writing fiction. You have, for months or years, been walking around with the idea of a novel in your mind, and in your mind it’s transcendent.... It is vast and mysterious and awe-inspiring. It is a cathedral made of fire.

But even if the book in question turns out fairly well, it’s never the book that you’d hoped to write. ... It is an object, a collection of sentences, and it does not remotely resemble a cathedral made of fire."

Jessica asked if I felt I had conveyed the play I wanted to write; if I ever felt frustrated at not being able to capture thoughts on the page.  A very interesting question.

I suppose I was very fortunate in writing this play the way I did. I imagine many people who begin writing do so because they have had, "for months or years", some idea in their mind, some story burning inside them, screaming to be shared with the world.  That is not how I began this play. I had no idea what story I was going to tell. I actually feared I didn't have a story to tell. I knew I wanted to write a play, but I didn't know what play. I started with a character I loved from a short play I had written, and I knew a little about his conflicts and struggles, but I didn't know how it was going to end until I was probably about two-thirds of the way into it. Even my playwriting teacher was a bit amazed by my writing process - how I would begin a scene with no idea where it was going to go, and with no idea of what the next scene was going to be. He always writes to an ending. That ending may change a dozen times or more along the way, but he is always heading towards something. I was writing blind. Many pages got thrown away in this process - probably nearly as many as remain in the play. But the only way I could discover the story was to keep writing, letting the characters talk to me, until I began to see the shape of their story.

So unlike Mr. Cunningham, I had no "cathedral made of fire" in my mind. I was even kind of prepared for the play to suck - I mean, shouldn't a first play suck? Who gets something like this right on the first try? It does happen (Crimes of the Heart was a first play, for example, and there are others), and it may even have happened here. At least there are some people who think so. But I barely dared hope for that.

Since I had no idea what to expect, and had no vision in my mind to live up to, my little play had nowhere to go but up. Since I basically had no expectations for it, it could only exceed them - not fall short. This was truly a blessing for me, I'm sure. And I'm sure that it will be difficult if not impossible to repeat, because now I have expectations.  Will the next play I write be anywhere near as good as this one? Will it take me longer to write, or less time, since I have a little better idea of what I'm doing? Haven written something good the first time out, my next play will have a precious, prized older sibling to live up to - it will be the younger sibling always striving to achieve what the first born did.

I think I may have a way around this problem though. I have already conceived of my next big creative idea, and it isn't a play. It's a musical. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Day 266: D Day

I can't believe it.  Day 266.  The original projected due date for my play.  And I did it.  I wrote a play.  And not only that, it's good.

This project may well be the furthest I have ever stretched myself.  I never wrote creatively before a year and a half ago -- I was always a good writer of letters, reports, commentary, that sort of thing, but I had never sat down to attempt to tell a story.  To make up a story, at that.  To create an entire universe out of thin air - a family, a history - is something I really didn't know I was capable of doing.  While I had successfully written a dozen or so short plays before attempting this full-length, telling a flash of a story in 10 minutes is very different from creating an arc over 2 hours. 104 pages!  I've never written anything close to that long, not even my Master's thesis.

When I began this project on January 15, 2010, I may have fantasized that I would be where I am right now, but I certainly didn't expect it.  To have completed 2 drafts, to have a play so strong that I have secured a director who is bringing in top notch talent in for the reading and inviting all of his industry contacts.  To have already pitched my play to a number of producers, and to have several of them interested in reading it and/or attending the reading.  To have raised over $3,500 from my community of friends, family, blog followers, theater lovers, and even some strangers in order to put on this reading at a caliber worthy of those producers' attention.  I think I figured I would put on a reading with actors I knew, for my friends and family to come see what I had done, and hope against hope that one or two of the producers I'm fortunate enough to know might attend.  But this?  This is so much more. 

There are no promises, no guarantees. Schedules change, people might not come, and even if they do they might not be interested in my play for any number of reasons.  So I'm not holding my breath yet.  But it feels wonderful to be so excited, to be so hopeful.  I think not having the expectation is allowing me to enjoy this feeling all the more, because I am not clinging so desperately to the outcome.  Oh, if only I could have had this balance in my opera career, I would have enjoyed the process so much more.  But then I might not have quit, and I wouldn't have written this play. 

This play, this baby of mine I love so dearly.  My characters are so real to me.  I know them so well, and yet they still surprise me every now and then, just like real people.  I can't wait for you all to meet them.

Happy almost-birthday, little play!  Thank you for coming into my life so that I can share you with the rest of the world.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Day 262: from the pitcher's mound

Yesterday I had the opportunity to pitch to about 20 producers, from Broadway to Off-Broadway to non-profit theaters, at a writer/producer "speed date" held by TRU (Theater Resources Unlimited)note: if you are in the theater business and don't know this organization, you absolutely should.  They do amazing things and have been so helpful to me.   TRU sets up producers at stations, and then writers each get 2 minutes to pitch their play, followed by 2 minutes for the producers to ask questions.  A whistle blows and the writers rotate to the next station.  It's completely relaxed and no pressure at all. NOT.

Participating came about very much at the last minute for me, so I only had since Friday to prepare my pitch and put together a packet of materials, including a one-page synopsis (which is much, much harder to write than you might guess).  I completely lost my entire weekend to this task, as it is surprisingly difficult to distill a 2 hour play down to a couple of sentences, all the while attempting to capture its essence.  How does one capture the essence of a play whose strongest quality is how real it feels?  How familiar the characters are, how true the dialogue sounds?  When I drafted my pitch and tried to say that ("with strikingly honest dialogue and hauntingly believable characters"), I was advised that I can't just say that, I have to show it.  But how do I show that?  It's not as if I can quote a few lines from the play, especially not in 2 minutes.  I still don't know the answer to that question, and I kind of had to just let that go.  I attempted to just say enough about the play to pique their interest to want to know more -- the goal was not to get a producer to sign right then and there, but to hope they might want to read the script or attend the reading in November.

With the help of the comments from the folks at TRU and my director's input, I ended up feeling as well-prepared as I could last night.  I learned a lot -- most importantly, that the plot summary I felt I had shortened as much as I possibly possibly could was still way too long.  While a few producers wanted to know more about the story, almost all of them wanted to know right away what kind of piece it is, where it is in its development, and what I want out of them -- so they know whether or not to bother being interested.  Then they can hear more about the story if they want.  I so wished I could have had a few minutes to think between producers, to try to shorten my plot summary after I'd heard that a few times, but there just wasn't time to think.  Fortunately, the whole process is intended to be a learning experience, a place to practice pitching and to learn what works and what doesn't.  And I definitely did.

The very, very best part is this: even with my imperfect pitch, 3 of the main producers (and 2 of TRU's producers-in-training) expressly asked to be invited to my reading on November 2nd!!! 2 of the 3 are Broadway producers at that.  Who knows if they will be able to come, but the fact that they were interested enough to ask thrills me.  It means I did manage to get something across about my work, I managed to present myself and my project in such a way that they want to learn more. 

When I began this project 262 days ago, I have to say I never dreamed I would be at this stage already -- that I would be pitching it to Broadway producers and actually having them be interested.  Who knows what will come of it, but it is a very auspicious beginning for my little baby.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Day 254: Monday progress report - 2nd draft

(Exciting news: my play shower is now a featured project on's home page!  Visit and you'll see it there.  If you don't see it at first, just hit refresh once or twice and it will appear.  This is very exciting because it means that thousands of strangers will see my project!  Thank you to everyone who made a contribution, wrote a comment, made a testimonial, or referred it to a friend -- all of that activity is what inspired them to feature it!)

Last week I had a table reading of the second draft of the play, with my director Steven Yuhasz present.  It was a chance for him to hear the play out loud for the first time, and for me to hear if the rewrites held together and accomplished what I wanted.  I also invited a couple of people who had never heard it before, as I have found in the past that asking for feedback on rewrites from people who heard the original version isn't always productive.  (Having heard the story before, it is hard to assess whether their impression is left over from the first time they heard it or if it is truly what they heard in the new version.)

The feedback was tremendous.  The two guests, as well as my boyfriend, were crying at the end.  One of them said "that was so satisfying".  The actors loved the script and felt the rewrites made it much tighter and set up the story better.   Several of them mentioned how much I had rewritten, how much work I did -- but to me, hearing it, it didn't feel that way.  Don't get me wrong, it was a lot of work and it wasn't easy, but it just sounds like that was the way it was always supposed to be.  I imagine that by the time I get to the final version, whatever that looks like, it will feel that way as well.  I've used this analogy before - it's like the sculptor who says they aren't creating the statue, they are merely revealing the statue that already exists in the marble.  I feel like this play, this story, already exists and I'm discovering, or uncovering, it. 

This week my director and I will be making some important decisions about November's reading.  I'm very excited about the prospects, and will keep you all posted!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Day 248: I have a birthdate!!

It is official: my little play, All in the Shuffle, is going to be introduced to the world on Tuesday, November 2nd at 7pm.  The reading will be held in a most auspicious location: the Frederick Lowe Room at the Dramatists' Guild on Broadway and 43rd.  So, in the very literal sense, my play will be born on Broadway. (If you'd like to come, send me an email!)

I realize November 2nd makes my play 25 days overdue.  But the delay is not because my play won't be ready by my initial due date of October 8th -- it is merely when I could get everything to come together the best possible way, which is what my play deserves after all this work.  The right space, the right director, the right actors.  November 2nd is the date all those things came together, so that is the date my play is going to be born.

I can scarcely comprehend that this is happening.  9 months ago I didn't have any idea if I could write a full-length play.  A year and a half ago, I had no idea what it meant to write a 10-minute play.  2 years ago, I had never even written a single line of dialogue.  Now, I have written a full-length play, and it's going to be performed.  Not in a full-out Broadway production, just as a staged reading, but still.  A really good director loves my script.  Really great actors love my script.  People who have heard or read it so far love my script.  I wrote a play, and it's good.

Like any expectant mother rapidly approaching giving birth (I imagine), I am filled with a combination of excitement, fear, and hope.  I am excited for a larger audience to hear my play, a little nervous as to what their reactions will be, and hopeful for the play's future.  I don't know what will come of this reading -- I almost don't even know what to dare hope for.  I am going to invite some producers I know -- will any of them come?  Will any of them want to sign on to help make it happen?  Will this reading take me straight on into another opportunity, or will I begin pursuing another path of submitting it to festivals?  How does one get a play produced?  I really don't know.  I have been so focused on the pregnancy part of this journey, that I haven't really begun investigating where I'm going to send the little tyke to school. 

Fortunately, there is time to figure that out.  This is not a play with a shelf life -- while I'd like it to become a smash hit in the next couple of years, it'll still be meaningful if it takes 10.  So for now, I'm going to enjoy the process, of hearing actors bring my characters to life, of watching a director shape my vision into something more concrete. I'll worry about the rest later.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Day 241: The art of writing vs. rewriting

First a quick blurb: There is a very exciting new addition to my play shower page: a movie trailer-style preview! The 3-minute video clip features audio and still photos from the first reading. This will give you a feel for what the play is about, for my writing style, and for how talented my actors are. There is also a great new video testimonial about my play from a fellow writer/director (look under "updates"), with more to come.  Stop by and check it out!  If you like what you see, please leave a comment on the indiegogo page and forward on to your friends. The more comments and referrals my page receives, the more likely indiegogo is to feature my play on its home page - meaning thousands of strangers would see it!

The process of writing this second draft -- which is now, thankfully, complete -- has been very, very different from writing the first draft.  Before I started this whole playwriting thing, if someone had asked me which I thought would be harder, writing a first draft from nothing or rewriting that draft to make it better, I'm pretty darn sure I would have thought writing a first draft would be harder.  I mean, how do you pull something out of thin air?  How do you create something from nothing?  How do you even begin on a journey when you don't know where it's going to end?  Surely, it must be much simpler to fix something you already have than to create something completely new.

Boy, is that not true!  While writing a first draft certainly isn't easy, there is a beautiful simplicity to it, an opening of yourself to not judge or try to be perfect.  The biggest struggle is not filtering -- just letting it flow, getting thoughts out on the page and seeing where they go.  That is not at all the case with a second draft.  Rewriting is much more surgical, more precise, more effort.  It requires a delicate, precise tool -- you don't want to lose the good stuff in the process of changing the bad stuff.   There were pieces I wanted to keep, and new pieces I wanted to add, and I had to try to fit them together.  I felt like I was putting together a complex puzzle where I only had some of the puzzle pieces, and had to actually make the other pieces to fit in between.

Of course the great thing about the second draft is that you do already know what you have.  You know that you have a play, and, hopefully, you know that it's good.  So there is a confidence in the work that you don't have when you are writing your first draft -- where all too often, you can write something you think is great, only to have it fall completely flat when you hear it out loud.

I get to hear this second draft out loud next Thursday, where my director will also get to meet all my actors and the real work on bringing this play to life can begin.  I can scarcely believe it's almost here.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Day 238: The "struggling artist" stereotype and me

I was a bit stumped for a blog topic, so I put out a notice for ideas on facebook.  An old childhood friend of mine, Gina Fraser Hoppa, replied with a couple of great ideas, including "the stereotype behind struggling artists and your personal journey".  It got me wondering, how typical has my experience as an artist been?  Do I wear the mantle of "struggling artist"?

First, what is the stereotype of the struggling artist?  I picture a young kid who comes to New York with big dreams and $20 in her pocket, gets into an arts college of some kind, slaves away taking classes all day and waiting tables all night, and lives in a dingy, cramped, cockroach-infested 2bd apartment in the east village with 5 other roommates.  She graduates school, ready to conquer the world, and now instead of being in class all day and waiting tables all night, she is standing in line for auditions all day and still waiting tables all night.  On top of that, she still must squeeze in dance classes and acting classes and voice classes whenever she can, only now she has to pay for them out of her table waiting money because student loans are over (except for having to pay them off now).  The apartment gets smaller, and she lives on top ramen and peanut butter.  She lands an acting/dancing/singing gig here or there, and sometimes they even pay enough that she can take herself out to dinner or even, if she's really lucky, stop waiting tables for a few weeks til the job is over.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  This goes on indefinitely - possibly for many, many years - until she either can't hack it anymore and gives up the dream to take some kind of soul-sucking corporate job, or she gets lucky and actually gets the kind of break that allows her to change her mantle from "struggling artist" to "working artist".  Sound about right?

My journey has had some similarities to this, certainly, but also a lot of differences.  I was too intimidated by NYC to come here for college (it was a very different city in 1990), so I stayed out west for both college and grad school.  I did work a few stints as a waitress, but I largely paid my way with my computer/admin skills and teaching skills (I was also fortunate to have scholarships, teaching assistantships, and some family help).  I didn't escape student loans altogether though (I am still paying them off, 13 years later).  I still didn't come to New York right after grad school, instead getting married and going back to California, first to San Diego and then to San Francisco.

After school, instead of waitressing, I went right into the soul-sucking corporate day job, squeezing in voice lessons during my lunch hour and dance classes on Saturdays and acting classes at night.  I was eventually able to leave corporate life and teach music instead, both privately and at a college (this is the one leg up that my grad degree gave me).  I auditioned - always, always auditioned -- and I got a lot of small-time gigs, but they rarely paid much more than the gas money it took to commute the long distances to get to them.  I traveled to New York City every couple of months for bigger auditions and to study with teachers and coaches here.  Almost every dime I made teaching went right back into my own lessons, audition fees, and travel expenses to New York.  I could never have done this if I hadn't been married.  Eventually, finally, I was able to relocate myself, my then-husband and our two cats to THE BIG APPLE.

To be an artist in New York, one has to be scrappy.  I've worked a lot of different jobs here, including walking dogs.  Seriously.  Eventually I landed a great part-time office job (as great as an office job can possibly be), which I still have 5 years later.   When I was still singing, a large amount of my income went to private lessons, workshops, and audition costs.  Since I gave up trying to get other people to hire me and started putting on my own shows -- first as a singer and now as a playwright -- that same money now goes to producing those shows. 

The last two years are when I most keenly felt like a true "struggling artist".  Upon getting divorced, my part-time income was close to impossible to live on.  I took on additional part-time work, reluctant to strap myself into the full-time-soul-sucking corporate job, as it is almost impossible to leave that once you are in it.  At times, I have juggled as many as 3 different jobs, all the while taking classes and writing and performing and producing shows.  Those of you that have followed my blog have heard me bitch and moan about this.

Finally, in just the last few months, I feel I have gone beyond "struggling".  Now that my voice teaching studio is firmly established and growing, I make enough money between that and my office job to actually save money as well as enjoy some meals out and some vacations -- no more buying groceries on credit cards for me.  Soon, soon, I will even have enough students to let go of the part-time job and then I will have that most precious of all commodities -- more time.

But beyond money, I think the main reason I no longer feel like a struggling artist, is that I am no longer trying to make a living from the art I create.  Sure, I would love for that to come to pass, but I know it very well may never happen.  I know that I have to create in order to be happy, so I am finding ways to create that are fulfilling to me regardless of whether or not they make me any money.  I only demand that they make me happy

I think rather than a "struggling artist", I would call myself a "striving artist".  As I described myself on my indiegogo profile for my play shower, I am: "an opera singer - turned cabaret singer - turned producer - turned playwright, a woman forever striving to inspire, touch, and connect with people through her art. 

And that's my story.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Day 233: The art of vacation (or a vacation from art)

Do forgive me for the radio silence the past two weeks.  I was on a John Denver-inspired vacation along the country roads to and from the Shenandoah River and other parts of Virgina, including the quaint Chincoteague Island famous for its wild ponies.  (I guess I'll have to try again to actually make it to the Blue Ridge Mountains and West Virginia).  I embarked on the vacation with thoughts of lots of time to do things like write blog posts and second drafts, but somehow, that isn't what happened.

Vacation is a funny thing.  Before you go, you envision all these endless hours stretching in front of you, free of the encumbrances of work, bills, pet-feeding, etc, giving you limitless time to sleep, eat, read, lounge, take a walk or a swim, and (if you're like me) get lots of creative work done.  And yet, there is a little problem with that equation.  The endless hours of sleeping, eating, lounging, reading, and walking don't also allow for endless time of getting creative work done.  One must still choose between biking to the beach to play in the surf and staying at the condo to work on one's second draft.  A difficult choice.

I'll admit it -- I don't vacation well.  I don't weekend well.  I don't take-a-day-off-well.  I don't relax relax well.  I have a very hard time doing any of those things without feeling conflicted about the creative work that I am not doing.  This is not always true -- and I am getting a bit better, especially with my boyfriend's help -- but it is definitely a large problem of mine.  Because I must take days off and weekends and vacations - from my creative work as well as from the day job and voice teaching work - in order to have the energy to do my creative work at my best.  Not to mention in order to not give myself ulcers or high blood pressure.

My boyfriend always tells me, pick one or the other.  If you decide to work, focus and work.  If you decide to relax, then just do it and don't beat yourself up about it.  (Oddly enough, I often find myself telling him the same thing). Because if you don't, you have the worst of both worlds -- you didn't get work done and you didn't really relax because you were too busy feeling guilty.  I've gotten better at doing that in the moment, but unfortunately the guilt over not working often still comes back to bite me the next day like a bad hangover.

All this is not to say that I didn't enjoy my vacation.  By and large, I really did, and didn't feel guilty for taking it.  But I also had days where I got very frustrated, where I felt like the world was passing me by, that I was losing too much traction on all my important projects by not being able to really work on them on the road.  I found myself wishing there were a cosmic pause button where everything could stop -- not just me -- so that I could relax without losing any time.  And now that I'm back, I have to figure out how I'm going to catch up on everything. 

Yet, I must also admit, I do feel more relaxed and recharged.  I am not dreading going to work tomorrow -- I actually feel ready to dive in and take things on again.  Despite feeling the need to get caught up, I also feel like I now have the inner resources to do that.  So perhaps that is the secret -- vacation isn't the time to get things done, it's the time to recharge your batteries so that you can get things done when you return.

It sounds so bloody simple when I put it that way.  How come it doesn't feel that way in the moment?  I must learn to start managing my expectations.  I need to allow myself not to take a vacation only from my day job work life, but also from my art work life.   Will someone please remind me of this before my next vacation?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Day 219: on collaboration and being my own artist

(if you notice that my day count seems off, I noticed that I somehow got a couple of days off somewhere along the line so I'm catching up.)

Last week, I secured a director for the staged reading I am planning for my play's birthday in October.  His name is Steven Yuhasz, and I have to admit I am a bit humbled that someone of his caliber and experience wants to work on my play (especially for virtually no money).  And it is not for any reason other than the material itself -- he doesn't know me, I wasn't recommended to him by someone he trusts, he merely saw a posting sent out by an organization I belong to (Theatre Resources Unlimited -- great organization you should check out if you are in the theater biz in any capacity).  The description of my play's subject matter intrigued him, so he emailed me.  I sent him the script, and he loved it.  My writing style, the characters' arcs, my knack for dialogue, the emotional weight of the play, all resonated with him.  I feel like I'm entering the big leagues here -- we're even signing a contract that connects him to the play for the immediate future.  This is a gamble I am willing to take to work with someone like him.

The process of finding a director was very interesting for me.   Though I've done this several times before for my short plays, this is (obviously) the first time I have searched for one for a full-length play.  I felt like I really didn't know what I was doing, especially as I received so many responses (apparently my birthing project intrigued a lot of people).  Do I send the whole script to everyone who responds? (I decided no, since I don't want a whole bunch of copies of my play floating around for people to steal from.) How do I screen them *before* sending out the script to decide who gets to read the whole thing?  (I decided to send out excerpts and then talk with people).  Then, once I have found someone I like and who likes the material, how do I engage someone as a collaborator without giving up my artistic integrity and control over the script?

I was worried at first about that last one, but I discovered something really important about myself in the process of figuring all this out:  I have become my own artist.   In a way I never could as an opera singer, and only started to as a cabaret artist, I trust my instincts.  I believe in my work, I stand by the things that are important to me.  I received a fair amount of (unsolicited) feedback on my script from some directors, and I was able to hear what they had to say and not let it make me doubt myself or my work. I even turned down a couple of offers of feedback because I didn't want to confuse the clear ideas I already have for the second draft of the script. Even in talking with my playwriting teacher, I didn't take every suggestion he had, as there were some things I really liked and felt worked that he thought could be changed.  I am learning to trust myself.

Let me be clear -- I want feedback, I want input.  I want to know what is working for people and what isn't, I want to hear what other people see in my play that I may not.  The greatest joy for me in this process of creating theater is collaboration: working with a great director and actors and seeing what they bring to my work and having them help me shape it.  But I filter their input and weigh it against my own vision for the play, against my own intuitive sense of what works and what I want to see happen.  It is not possible to write a play that everyone will like, or that people won't think would be better if I'd done xyz instead.  In the end, it is my play, my story that I am telling, and I have to steer my own rudder through the currents of other people's opinions.

It is difficult to express how satisfying it is to realize that I have finally become my own artist.  That I have more utter confidence in my writing than I ever did in my singing, even though I've only been doing it for a year and a half and have very litte formal training in it.  Arrogant?  Maybe.  But I just feel like I've finally grown up. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Day 211: A Play Shower!

I am very excited to invite you all to participate in my Play Shower!  If you would like to help me bring this play into the world, in the form of a public, staged reading, I hope you'll visit my project at indiegogo and give whatever gift most resonates with you.  You can buy a copy of a script for an actor ($10), some rehearsal space ($25), sponsor an actor for the performance ($100-$300), and much more. 

This was an idea I had way back on Day 3 of this project, when I went to one of my best friend's actual baby shower.  I found myself musing about the fact that this play is the closest thing I'll ever have to a baby (other than my cat), and wondered if I could throw a play shower instead of a baby shower.  Now, 208 days and a completed first draft later, I'm doing just that.  It's kind of hard to believe how far this project has come -- and how far I have come -- over the last 7 months. 

Self-producing is a bitch, and asking people for money, especially in times like these, is always hard.  It is the part about being in the arts I like the least.  If we lived in a different era (or country), I might have a patron (or government) who would fund all of my production expenses so would not have to ask for money.  But, we don't.  And what helps me get over my discomfort is the knowledge that art is a community endeavor -- people create it, perform it, and enjoy it together.  In order for the arts to happen, people have to come together and decide to make it happen.  Everyone donates to the arts in their own way, whether donating labor in the form of time or talent, or money in the form of taxes, buying tickets or direct cash donations.  I am asking my community to come together and give whatever you can to help make this happen, so that the community may enjoy the fruits of all this labor. (If you can't give in the form of money, but would like to help some other way, please let me know -- I can use help of all sorts.)

So I humbly ask you to give whatever you can, and to pass this along to all the theater lovers you know who might enjoy knowing they were part of the village that helped raise this little work of art.  From the bottom of my heart, I thank you.   

Friday, August 13, 2010

Day 207: Reading Redux

It's hard to describe what it was like to hear my whole play out loud on Monday: to hear my words coming from the actors' mouths; to be aware of other people listening to them; to feel the attention and interest in the room.  With no rehearsal, staging or sets, just actors sitting at a table with scripts in their hands, the small audience was held rapt for a solid 2 hours with no break in a hot room.  There was almost no shifting in seats, rustling of papers, coughing, or throat clearing -- all the little signs that indicate when people have gotten bored and aren't paying attention.  Even I found myself engaged and and involved in watching the drama between these characters unfold.  It took me awhile to kind of step outside the play and just listen, but about a third of the way through, I felt like I was able to (at least to some degree).  It was definitely a moment of "wow, I did that?!"

But I think my favorite part was the feedback after.  I loved hearing what people's favorite moments were, and what held their attention.  There was one scene (between Vivian and her married lover Arnie) that I really wasn't sure was going to work or not.  I half expected everyone to say it seemed completely outside of the story and unnecessary.  One person did feel that, but most everyone else actually cited it as one of their favorite moments in the play (it is one of mine, too). It was very reassuring to know that my instincts are by and large right on target:  many of my favorite moments were their favorite moments, and the things that needed to be fixed were mostly things I had heard myself as being problems. 

The surprise came when people started psychoanalyzing the characters, particularly Vivian.  Hearing them trying to puzzle out who she is and why she does what she does, talking about her like a real person, seeing things in her that I hadn't even known were there.  That is always the most amazing thing to me about playwriting: having people find layers of depth in my writing that I wasn't conscious of when I wrote it. For a moment I'm back in high school English class, dissecting every line of Shakespeare or Steinbeck, and asking my teacher if the author was consciously thinking those things as he wrote, or if we were just making it up.  I know the answer now: if other writers are like me, they aren't consciously thinking all those things, but you also aren't making them up.  If you see it, it's probably there.

Now it's on to the rewrites -- I can hardly wait to get started.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Day 205: It's a PLAY!!!

I am delighted to announce, with 61 days to go before its due date, that I am having a PLAY!!

The feedback from Monday's sneak preview as to what this little play is going to become was overwhelmingly positive. There are also no major developmental flaws or concerns, which means I am confident I will be able to do the necessary rewrites in time to present a strong public reading for the play's birthday in October! Please stay tuned for info about that, and as well as about the virtual play "shower" I will be throwing to help make it happen.

I'll write more about the reading later, I just wanted to share the exciting news!

Monday, August 9, 2010

Day 203: The Anxiety of Hope

I'm starting to hope that something could actually come of this play, and that scares me.

Tonight is the first reading of the first draft of this play.  Tonight, for the first time, people (including me) will hear this whole story out loud.  It's starting to seem real, now that I actually have a finished draft.  And, I honestly think it's good.  That makes me want.  That makes me want to hope, to dream, to strive to take this play somewhere.  Unfortunately along with hopes and dreams comes the risk of disappointment, and there are few things in this world I like less than being disappointed.

I like this bubble I've been in, just doing my art for me and not being overly invested in where it takes me.  So far, this "birth of a play" project has felt more like my own personal growth can-I-do-this project than the striving-for-a-money-making-career-and-fame kind of project my opera career was.  I won't lie and say I haven't fantasized about winning a Tony for best play -- or even thought about what I might say in my acceptance speech -- but it has been a playful fantasy rather than an aching need.  I'm afraid if I start working towards actually making that happen, I will start to want it, to need it so much that it will make my writing less authentic, the way I think my need to be successful got in my way as a performer.  I'm also afraid of experiencing the death of another dream; afraid of being crushed again; afraid of losing the pure joy of doing art for art's sake.

But I don't want to just let my play languish on a shelf, satisfied that I wrote it and content to never have it heard or seen.  Can I work towards the goal of getting my play produced and stay unattached to the outcome?  Is it possible to be driven and work towards goals without being overly invested in them?  It was a balance I was constantly striving to achieve (and rarely succeeding) in my opera auditions: to be committed and invested and not attached to the outcome.  I honestly don't know if it is possible.

I am hoping that the greater balance I have achieved in my life in the last couple of years will help me to navigate these treacherous waters more smoothly.  I need people and things other than my art more than I did before.  I could still never be content without it - I will always be creating and striving towards one creative goal or another - but I have learned to place greater value on other things than I used to.  Perhaps those things can keep me afloat even if this new dream of a successful play never sets sail.

Here's hoping.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Day 200: How lucky are you?

(Since I don't have any progress to report on my play while I'm waiting for the reading on Monday, here's a random topic).

My sister was preparing for an important job interview recently, and shared with me a question she had heard of a company asking in their interviews:

How lucky are you?

This question gave me pause.  How would I answer that, if I were asked that on the spot with no time to formulate an answer?

On a very basic level, compared to much of the world, of course I have to say I am unbelievably lucky. I was born white and middle class in the most prosperous country in the world, I have excellent health, I have the love and support of tremendous family and friends, I can afford to pay rent on my very own apartment in the greatest city in the world, I get to be creative.  These are no small things.  And there was a time in my life when I wouldn't have hesitated to say "tremendously."  Things came easily to me, I felt like I got most everything I tried for, I had a great and easy relationship.

But time and life have tempered some of that feeling of luck.   Having two major life dreams - an opera career and a marriage - fail despite years and years of diligent hard work and effort, can make one feel like you are not at the top of the luck pyramid.  Although, if I hadn't stopped singing opera and hadn't gotten divorced, I wouldn't be writing now.  I wouldn't have written this play that I am so deeply in love with and which has brought me so much pleasure and creative satisfaction to write.  So, perhaps those things were their own form of luck.

I think being in a field like the arts - where luck is such a huge determining factor in one's success - can skew one's perspective on what it means to be lucky.  It's hard to feel extremely lucky when, despite having the requisite talent and drive (and thoroughly busting my ass for it) I was never able to get the lucky breaks to make a career out of singing.  Nor have Kat & I - despite creating a great product and hustling like mad - been able to get producers to fall at our feet to produce our brilliant (if I may say so) concept for a time-traveling musical kids show.  And most recently, crappy actors who forgot half of my play robbed me of a very real chance to have a short play produced, or maybe even developed into a larger work.  When you work really really hard but still don't get the breaks, it is easy to feel unlucky.  One really has to take a step back and look at the larger picture to remember just how incredibly lucky I am.

Because truly, I am.  Beyond the more mundane I-have-clean-water-and-a-roof-over-my-head kind of luck, I have passion (and talent) for creative pursuits.  I have something I love to do - nay, need to do - that gets me out of bed every morning and keeps me constantly striving to do more and be more.  I have the drive and focus and mental acuity to accomplish the things I want.  Not everyone has this.  So yes, I am incredibly lucky.

Of course, to give myself a little credit, it's not all luck.  To share one of my favorite quotes:

"I'm a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it. " - Thomas Jefferson

So, how lucky are you?  I'd love to hear.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Day 196: Monday Report: "A Very Strong First Draft"

That's what my playwriting teacher said. "It is a very strong first draft."  Not "it's perfect, don't change a thing", which I never expected and know isn't true, but very strong.  I like that.

We focused the session on what I should listen for in the reading next week, rather than on specifically what and how I should rewrite.  He felt I didn't have enough distance yet; that I need to spend a little time away from the play before I'll be able to see clearly what is working and what isn't.  I'm glad he gave me this advice, as I was planning to dive right into rewrites.  But instead my homework is to immerse myself in other plays, reading or re-reading good scripts.   This exercise will not only fill my head with examples of good material, but also get me into the mindset of reading a script that someone else wrote.  That way, hopefully I can look at my script -- and especially hear my script on Monday -- as if it were a play someone else wrote.  When it comes to the prospect of killing some of your babies -- i.e. cutting lines or scenes or characters you are attached to -- it definitely helps to have some distance.  So this morning I cracked out one of my very favorite plays: Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare.

Whatever shall I do with a whole week of not writing?  This weekend I was almost at a loss.  But somehow I managed to fill the time.  Amongst some more mundane tasks, I rode my bike; I took myself to the most fabulous little local Italian restaurant where the owner fawned over me and made me feel like I was back in Italy; I got my toes done;  I took myself to a movie (the Kids Are All Right - great acting piece); I watched more Veronica Mars. I look forward to a week of more of that kind of thing:  of reading, of seeing friends, of bike-riding, of beach-going (and of course working and teaching and preparing for the reading next week).  Of spending a week basking in the knowledge that I have written a very strong first draft.  Damn, that feels good.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Day 194: On the other side

I did it.  I finished my first draft.  At 6:40pm on Thursday, July 29th -- the evening before my 10 day deadline expired -- I emailed the completed first draft to my playwriting teacher.  I meet with him tomorrow morning to get his feedback.  I now have my entire cast lined up for the reading of it on August 9th.  I can scarcely believe I'm here.  Having never written a full-length play before, it was a goal that seemed so distant, so fuzzy and hard to picture, that I'm not sure I ever truly believed I would get here.  Or I suppose it would be more accurate to say I just couldn't imagine what it would be like.

And it is a strange feeling, being on the other side of finishing my first draft.  I almost don't know what to do with myself, not having to spend every spare minute writing.  Of course that will start up again shortly, as soon as I start working on my rewrites.  But until after the reading on the 9th, I won't be writing.   I will take in my teacher's advice tomorrow, and then wait til after I hear it out loud myself the following week before I start rewriting.  As much as I respect and value my teacher's opinion and skill, I want to trust my own instincts and ears when I hear it out loud, to see if I agree with his assessment. 

While I am prepared to hunker down and have to do a lot of rewriting, I will admit I have a fantasy of meeting with my teacher tomorrow and having him say: "Natalie, this is one of the strongest first drafts I have ever seen."  And then only having to make small tweaks, adjust and tighten up a few things.  But I know that isn't realistic.  First drafts rarely resemble final drafts.  But I'm going to savor this brief amount of time where I get to feel like "I did it!", and let myself feel the glow of accomplishment. 

What's next?  My current plan is to have another informal reading in September after I do a second draft, allowing me time to do one more round of rewrites before the formal, public reading I want to have in October for the play's birthday party.  I'm thinking now I might like to try to do a staged reading, though that may be overly ambitious.  It will depend a lot on how extensive the rewrites are.

I'll let you know on Monday how my meeting with Stuart Spencer goes.  I can hardly wait.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Day 192: 3...2...1...

My self-imposed first draft deadline is tomorrow.  On Sunday evening, I didn't think there was any chance I was going to finish it.  I was still stuck in the middle of the big conflict scene, and felt like it was going to take too much work to get that and everything else done by Friday.  But I finished that scene on Wednesday (and actually kinda like it), and have tweaked both that and the Frank and Angie scene before it to the point where I really have to hear them out loud before I can revise them anymore.  Last night and this morning I plugged in a previously-written scene (the very first scene I wrote for these characters -- funny how the first scene I wrote is ending up at the end of the play).  I thought it was going to need a lot of rewrites, but I just trimmed and stream-lined it a bit and I think it works.  Again, at least enough to have to hear it out loud before I can really decide.

So that leaves me with two, fairly small tasks: plugging Vera into the opening scene instead of a nurse (to eliminate the need for another actor, and to introduce the audience to her character right away), and writing a small final scene for Frank and Vivian.  I actually honestly think this will be done by tomorrow.  I can scarcely believe it.

I'll report in tomorrow.  As my playwriting teacher said, this is a drama in and of itself. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

Day 189: Monday Progress Report

It's official, I'm insane.  I have scheduled a reading: booked a room, lined up actors and invited a few select attendees for a small, informal reading of this not-yet-finished play on August 9th.  Two weeks from today.   I'm sure most people would say it is complete insanity to schedule a reading of a play you have yet to finish, but this is how I work.  My performing partner Kat and I did this with all the cabaret shows we have written -- we set a date and then had to write the show by the date.  It's a great way to make sure you get shit done and don't get distracted.  Like I said in my post about deadlines, it makes decisions a lot easier.  So even if I don't make my initial deadline of this Friday to finish the first draft, I have a drop dead deadline of August 7th (in order to get it to the actors ahead of time).  Impossible?  Surely not.  Insane? Surely.

I made a lot of great progress this week.  I finished a scene I didn't know how I was going to write, and am now deep into the meat of the culminating conflict scene of the play: a confrontation between Frank and his daughter Vivian.  I have written to the point where Frank actually apologizes, something I wasn't sure he was ever going to do.  I know it needs more finessing and tweaking, but I think the arguments are solid.  At least I hope so.

I scanned through the whole play today, as I was looking for scenes to have an actress read for me tomorrow.  I was a little scared to do so, as I didn't know how it was going to hang together.  I haven't read the whole thing for quite sometime, so I feared I might have gotten off-track.  I have to say, I think it works.  Some scenes even surprised me -- I had forgotten a few things I had written, and I have to admit I liked them.  I saw a few things that need to be tightened up, worked out a little better, but overall, I really do feel this holds together.

I can't wait to hear this whole thing out loud.  I want to finish this so badly, it is a palpable ache in my chest.  I may not finish it by Friday, but I am hell bent on finishing it by the end of Sunday.  Wish me luck.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Day 187: Water works

Yesterday I accomplished what had initially appeared to be an impossible task: I got Angie to convince her grandfather to come home for Christmas even though he can no longer walk.  When I finally hit upon the argument that tipped him over the edge, I burst out sobbing.  Again.  This seems to be becoming a regular occurrence.  Which leaves me wondering: do other playwrights experience this?  Do moments of emotional truth in their writing leave them in a puddle on the floor?  Or is this something about me and my connection (or dis-connection) to my own emotions?  Have I kept things so bottled up and buried for so long that now they are starting to come out in my writing and thus causing this big reaction in me?  Is this just my own personal catharsis happening?  (see Day 97: Playwriting as Therapy).  Any playwrights out there who can chime in? I really am curious.

The reason Angie's task seemed so impossible (other than the basic fact that I think it would be tough to convince anyone who had just lost the use of his legs to go anywhere) is that Angie wasn't able to convince Frank to go in the previous incarnation of this scene.  It was the second scene/short play that I wrote for these characters, before I ever started the full play.  Angie came to the nursing home to take Frank home for a birthday surprise, only to discover that he couldn't walk anymore.  In that scene, he won't budge and she agrees to stay and celebrate with him there.  But now in the full play, I couldn't leave him there -- he has to come home for Christmas so that he and Vivian can have a huge fight.  But I honestly didn't know how I could make that happen -- Angie not only had to convince Frank to go,  she also had to convince me that her argument was good enough to make someone agree to do something he really didn't want to do.  I honestly didn't know how I was going to do it, and it was not easy.  But somehow I did it; I came up with a series of arguments that escalated, getting stronger every beat, until she hit upon the big whammy that he just couldn't say no to.  It was very exciting and satisfying.  Now let's just hope everyone else finds it believable too.

I wonder how many kleenexes I'll have to go through when I'm writing the big fight scene today and tomorrow....

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day 185: Why?

There are times I really wonder why I do this to myself.  Like last night.

I had cancelled plans with a friend last night in order to be able to write (see Monday's post re: decisions and deadlines).  But between being out very late for my boyfriend's rockin' electronic music show on Tuesday night and the hour and a half long bike ride I did yesterday afternoon between the office and teaching, I was POOPED.  It was 7:45, I had just finished dinner and was staring at the computer, exhausted.  I didn't know how I was going to write in that state.  And I started to wonder, why am I doing this to myself?

Because, verily, no one is making me write this play, and certainly not finish the first draft in the next 7 days.  This insanity is completely self-imposed.  I could have just lain there on my couch/bed last night, watched a few episodes of Veronica Mars (my latest netflix obsession, can't tell you why), and gone to sleep.  No one would have been the wiser, and certainly the world would have kept turning.  Only I would have been mad at myself.

After a little pep talk with my boyfriend, I decided to give myself 20 minutes in legs-up-the-wall pose to see if that would help me revive enough to write (I've been told 20 minutes in this pose is the equivalent of 2 hours of sleep, and it has worked wonders for me in the past).  As I lay there, I thought through why it is I am doing this to myself.  I mean, do I really need to have this done by the 30th?  What if I don't?  Then I won't be able to meet with my playwriting teacher before he goes, and (more importantly) I won't be able to have a reading in August.  So, what happens if I don't do that?  Then it's going to be hard to get rewrites done in time to submit the play in September to a company I know.  So, what if I don't do that?  That would be a missed opportunity.  But even if I were to let that go, I still want to have a solid script (which means with rewrites) by October. I have been talking this all up for so long to so many people, and now have a number of possibly-important people who really want to read this play.  On its public birthday in October, I want to introduce to the world a really solid version of the play, not a half-formed premie.  It will still need rewrites, I'm not naive, but I want it to be really good.  That means rewrites.  That means having readings so I can hear what's working.  That means finishing this bloody first draft stat.

So I got up from my 20 minutes and felt like a new woman (seriously, you should try it). I made some popcorn and poured myself some diet rootbeer (please, body, forgive the chemicals, but I just couldn't bear to have the sugar of the real stuff), and sat down at my table -- not on my bed -- to write.  I spent a solid two hours going over the material I had been writing on the fly the previous two days, sculpting it into stuff that flowed.  I didn't get a lot of new material down, but it was important work that had to be done.  I am into the meat of the scene that I am writing now, where Angie has to somehow talk her grandfather into coming home for Christmas dinner even though he can no longer walk.  This is not going to be easy, but it's a good challenge.

In the end, I feel so much better that I wrote.  I feel so much better about myself, about my project, about doing something that is important to me.  Even though it's hard and tiring and frustrating and difficult and sometimes makes me feel like I'm crazy, I do this to myself because it makes me happy.  That's why.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Day 182: Monday Progress Report: 10...9...8...

The end is in sight.  I actually know now how my play is going to end, at least in this first draft.  I only have 3 more scenes to write and - if it hangs together - I will have a completed first draft.  I can almost taste it, and I am so excited that I am carrying around my iPad with me everywhere I go, writing snippets on the subway, on the bus, sitting on some steps on a street corner when I have a few extra minutes.  I so want to have this story told.

I now have a penultimate deadline of July 30th for a first draft to be done, to allow time for rewrites before the public reading I am planning for this play's "birthday" in October.  July 30th also coincides with my playwriting teacher's schedule: my last chance to have a private session with him to get guidance for my rewrites is August 1st, and he needs the play a couple of days in advance in order to read it before we meet.  Which means--

I have 10 days to finish the first draft of my play.


Though they can be a little intimidating, one of the things I like about deadlines is that they make decisions so much simpler.  Do I go out and be social or stay in and write?  With only 10 days to finish the play, easy answer.  (My friends will have to forgive me, please).  Do I veg in front of the TV to give myself some downtime or keep working?  Easy answer.  No guilt, no wasted energy trying to make decisions.  For the next 10 days, my choices are clear.  After that I can start agonizing over them again.

Now that you know where I'm headed, I suppose I should tell you where I've been this week.  I wrote in small spurts rather than in one big push, as half of my energies this weekend went towards the pursuit of another, personal goal: to buy myself a bicycle and begin training for my first ever organized athletic event.  Exercise is an area of my life that has not been getting enough focused attention, and it occurred to me that perhaps I should set myself a specific goal and deadline the way I do with my writing to help keep me on track.  The goal?   Ride 65 miles on September 25 with the Escape New York bike race.  I'm very excited -- and a little bit scared -- about doing this.  (Of course, the trouble will come when my two goals conflict with each other, but what else is new.)

What I observed in the process of writing in shorter spurts is that I censor less.  When I don't have a lot of time, I just write down whatever comes to mind.  When I have a whole day in front of me, I mull over each thought or line, debate about whether or not it will work before I write it.  I craft a lot more.  That's important, too, but sometimes it's really great to just let stuff flow and not worry about whether or not it works; to write it down even if you know it's not the right line, but it is the right feeling, and go back and sculpt the words later.  I think it will be useful for me going forward to remember this, and not feel that I need to wait for a day when I have all day to write, but rather take advantage of even those fleeting moments.  I don't have much of a choice these next 10 days if I'm get this done!

This week should be a fruitful one -- I will keep you posted!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Day 178: Memories

When I was writing in my morning pages yesterday and wrote down the date, July 14th, I realized it was Bastille Day.  Which instantly brought me to a memory from my childhood, when my family was in Paris on Bastille Day.  It's one of those travel memories you never forget. 

It was 1984, I was 12. it was the first time any of our family had been in Europe, and we were on one of those 23 cities-in-14-days kind of tours.  The half day we were given in Paris happened to be Bastille Day (bad planning).  In the early evening, we decided to take a boat ride on the River Seine, not knowing that we would get an extra special treat: the boat stopped in view of the Eiffel Tower to watch a spectacular fireworks display.  That was the good part.

The bad part was, we hadn't eaten dinner yet, and by the time the boat let us off, we had trouble finding any place open to eat.  (You'd think this wouldn't be an issue in France).  By the time we ate at a place that would serve us only things they already had prepped in the kitchen, like soup and salad, it was almost 2 in the morning.  We headed to the subway to return to our hotel.  Turns out on Bastille Day, Paris' normally 24-hour metro service also stops running.  By now it had also started raining.  So here we were, a bunch of clueless Americans tourists who spoke no French, stranded in the middle of Paris at 2am on Bastille Day, in the rain.  A bunch of punk teenagers (I mean that in the literal sense -- dressed in black with spiky hair and dog collars), found us highly amusing and began throwing firecrackers at us.  I was afraid my umbrella was going to catch on fire.  No taxis would stop for us, until we finally saw that the word "taxi" was painted in a square in the middle of the road: the taxi stop was in the middle of the street and you had to stand there to get picked up.  When a taxi finally stopped, the driver wouldn't let the 4 of us share a cab, insisting that the front seat was "only for dogs" (I swear that is what he said).  So we had to split up into separate taxis (which terrified me, to be separated in that situation), but finally made it back to our hotel.  That experience ruined me on big cities for many years.  Thank god I got over that.

After this memory flooded my mind yesterday morning, I was filled with a sense of sadness, thinking of how much of my life I don't remember at all.  There are these moments, these highlights, these memories that stand out that you keep reliving, leaving the other ones to languish and be forgotten completely.  I don't have a great memory for events as it is (I can memorize a 3 hour opera in a foreign language, no problem, but ask me what happened 2 weeks ago, forget it!).  For a moment, I wished there were some way to recapture all that, to sit down and watch the DVD of my life, to remember all those moments I can't remember anymore.  If I don't remember the things in my life, it's as if they didn't happen, right?  What's the point of experiencing something if you don't remember it? 

Ah, but I think not.  Living is, after all, the present moment, this exact moment you are living now.  That is the only moment that we actually have.  Whether I remember an experience or not, I experienced it in that moment; I lived it, and either enjoyed it or (hopefully) learned from it.  Even if no one is there to hear the tree fall in the forest, the tree still falls.  Those experiences, remembered or not, bring you to the moment you are living.  Memories remind you of how you got here and give you clues as to where you want (or don't want) to go in the future.  I'm guessing that most of the memories that do stick are of moments where we changed direction, however slightly.  The moments when we took that left turn at Albuquerque (or didn't), whether we chose to or it was chosen for us. The endless hours in the car going the same direction meld into one another and fade away.   The pivotal moments are the ones we remember.

How does all this relate to playwriting, you ask?  It does, I swear!  That is what theater is, a stringing together of the pivotal points in a character's story.  To quote a friend, "theater is life, with the boring parts cut out."  No one wants to watch 2 hours of people sitting in a car, sipping a soda and listening to bad songs on the radio.  We want to see when the car breaks down, or they take an exit and end up lost in a town overrun by zombies, or they miss their exit and end up driving straight into the path of an approaching tornado.  I have written a few scenes for my play that I thought were important because they showed some aspect of a character's life, gave some texture for what it was like to be that person.  But the scenes didn't work because nothing happened in them.  Each scene has to show something happening to the character, or the character changing in some way in order for it to be interesting.  (Unless, of course, you are Sam Beckett and can absolutely brilliantly break that rule, as in Waiting for Godot).  The kinds of moments people usually remember are also the moments they want to watch on stage.  Imagine that.