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.