Wednesday, December 28, 2011

On the sixth day...

I finished the first three scenes of Act II.  I can hardly believe it.  It almost feels like this is writing itself.  How I love that groove.  Let's hope it lasts: six days and three scenes to go....

Did I mention I am doing this all while preparing to move to a new apartment on Jan 16th?  It truly is amazing how all these things seem to come at once.  Off I go to look at furniture at the post-xmas sales!

Monday, December 26, 2011

On the fourth day of "write fast!"...

... I finished Act I!  I'm very pleased with myself, especially because the majority of that writing was done on the bus to and from New Hampshire (on which my very pained butt is still sitting as I type this).

I seem to write well while in transit -- even on the subway, even if it is only for 5 or 10 minutes, sometimes I'll find a couple of choice lines or an important turn in a scene.  (This was why I made the out-of-character early purchase of the iPad when it first came out, so I could better take advantage of those fleeting moments.)  I often seem to focus easily while on the move: perhaps the world flitting by me and the mild (or in this case, not-so-mild) physical discomfort provide just enough distraction to keep the rest of my mind busy so that my writing mind can focus.  When I'm home, still and comfy, I think I'm more easily distracted by other things.  Or maybe it's my writing-to-a-deadline in miniature: I know I only have x amount of time to write in this confined space (be it 5 minutes or 4 hours), so I best use it well.

Either way, I am delighted with my progress.  Now, 8 days to finish Act II....

Friday, December 23, 2011

12 days of "write fast!"

(If I were my wit-machine friend and colleague Kat Sherrell, I would surely attempt to write this as a parody if the song "The 12 days of Christmas", one line each day for the next twelve days.  But I am not so clever nor do I want to put in the time to try to be.  But you should check out her blog, currently featuring daily haikus.  It's awesome.)

Once again, I have an insane writing deadline to meet: 12 days to complete this rewrite. I have 5 scenes to revise and 2 scenes left to write.  That's a scene every 1.7 days.  Erp.

This deadline is not an arbitrarily self-imposed one, though.  TRU (Theater Resources Unlimited) - an organization of which I am a member and am also very fond, check them out - has a reading series for new plays with a deadline of January 3rd.  I wanted to submit last year, but didn't feel the play was ready at that point.  So I promised myself I would submit this year.  At the time, I figured it would be done many months in advance.  Funny.

It's actually not entirely my fault that this didn't happen.  Or I guess it was, it just wasn't because I was being lazy.  I did complete a rewrite in the spring where I changed the structure of the play, an important step but definitely a transitional one.  This summer I was busy writing for a short-forms class at ESPA, in which my writing grew so much that it was time well-spent away from this draft.  This fall I enrolled in a rewrite class, confident that I would then have the draft complete by the end of the class in late November.  But then I had to go and take on this show (see my last post), which did not allow me the time or mental focus to work on the play for the last month or so.

So, here I am again, writing on a deadline, one of my favorite past-times.  I'm actually good at it.  It helps focus the mind.  Last night I finished the revisions on scene 1, on to scene 2 this morning.  I'll keep you posted!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Performing as peanut butter

A little background on two points:

1) for the past six weeks, I have been rehearsing then performing a show, Dziewczyna, as the sole actress/singer in this multi-media theater/music piece. A huge project that has taken up so much of my time that I haven't written a blog post since October.

2) in Weight Watchers, we identify foods as red-light, yellow-light, or green-light foods.  Green-light foods are foods that you can easily control without over-indulging (or that have little impact if you do, like vegetables), so you can go for them anytime.  Yellow-light foods are foods that you can control only in certain circumstances -- say if you are out somewhere so you can order a single serving -- so you much approach them with caution.  Red-light foods are foods you can't control, ever.  You don't just consume them, they consume you.  So if you are trying to lose or maintain your weight, you have to avoid those foods altogether. 

Peanut butter is a red light food for me.  If I have peanut butter in my house, I will eat the whole jar with a spoon.  And what that does to me -- the resulting weight gain and feeling crappy about myself -- isn't worth the pleasure I got from eating the peanut butter.  So I don't have it anymore.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that peanut butter is bad for you -- it's actually really good for you.  But it is very high-impact.  If you eat much of that, you can't eat much else all day without gaining weight.  So I found a substitute, this low-fat stuff called "Better 'n Pnut Butter", that I can have 2 full tablespoons of for just one WW point.  It's not as good as peanut butter - nowhere near - so I'm not tempted to eat it with a spoon.  When I need some protein and don't want dairy or meat, it's a great option that I can control and doesn't cause me to sacrifice other things I want.

What does this have to do with performing, you ask?  When I gave up performing, it wasn't because I didn't enjoy it anymore, it was because I didn't like what it was doing to the rest of my life.  I didn't like all the crap that went with it, the sacrifices, the time away from friends and family, the anxiety, the constant stress, the frustration of not being where I wanted to be career-wise.  Performing wasn't inherently bad for me, I just didn't like the trade-offs anymore.  It had become a red-light food for me, so I gave it up altogether.  And eventually I found some substitutes -- writing and teaching.  These things help fill me creatively, and still allow me time and energy to exercise, be with family and friends, and sleep.  These are green-light foods, nourishing, healthy, things I can have while keeping my life in balance.

It is not an entirely fair analogy, though, to equate writing with low-fat peanut butter.  Writing is an incredible art, and it satisfies me creatively in ways that performing never did.  But there is a part of me that is a performer, an actor, that thrives on the stage in front of an audience as if I was born there, as if I was meant to do nothing else.  Therefore nothing else will ever quite entirely take its place, just as fake peanut butter will never be the same as real peanut butter.  Even if I have figured out how to be quite satisfied with the substitute.  Maybe even satisfied enough, given the trade-offs.

And I felt those trade-offs these last six weeks.  Doing this show took me away from finishing my play when I wanted.  My friends were frustrated with my lack of availability.  I wasn't able to put the energy into my teaching studio that I needed to (and since that pays my rent, that is dangerous!).  I got sick, twice.  Fortunately not for the performances, but it reminded me how much I hate hate hate hate hate worrying about getting sick.  And let's not forget exercise and diet -- those things have definitely fallen off track the last several weeks (and I've gained a couple of pounds to prove it). 

Is it worth it?  Is the joy of inhabiting a character, of being present in the moment, of telling a story, moving people, giving people an opportunity to laugh and cry and forget themselves, and, yes, to hear that I'm "amazing" over and over again, worth all the sacrifices?

Can I apply the Weight Watchers advice I have heard (and given) hundreds of times?  That sometimes it is better to have some of the real thing in a controlled, balanced fashion, than to continually try to fill a craving with something that isn't quite what you want?  If you are perpetually unsatisfied eating how you are eating, you will not be able to stick with it.  Sometimes, you just have to eat the real peanut butter.

I did figure out a way to eat peanut butter once in awhile this summer -- it turns out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the only thing I can eat while on 50+ mile bike rides.  Anything else upsets my stomach.  So I get to have them once in awhile, but only on days I'm biking more than three hours.
Can I can pursue performing again while maintaining my other priorities, just as I figured out a way to sneak in a little peanut butter without derailing my weight?  I don't know.   But I think I owe it to myself to try.  It's time to make performing a yellow-light food instead of a red-light food and see if I can handle it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Labor Intensive (or: Playwriting as Therapy, again)

I feel like I just went through labor.  Apologies to all the actual mothers out there - I certainly don't mean to trivialize what you have all gone through - but this scene I just finally finished writing was an intense, prolonged labor.  I have struggled with it all week and it just wouldn't come and wouldn't come, I would only get little bits at a time, and I could scarcely believe last night that after several days of working on it I only had 4 pages.  4 pages I wasn't even sure I could use.  I was wishing there was some pill I could take to induce labor to speed this along, to get this damn thing out of me.

It's a simple scene, really, and of which I have written at least half a dozen previous versions, so I didn't know why it was giving me so much trouble.  Angie is confronting Vivian (her mother) over what to do with Frank (her grandfather) who can no longer live by himself.  Two days ago I realized that there was a big gaping whole in my backstory that I thought might be causing the block in the scene.  Angie was really wanting to fight with Vivian over her handling of this, but I couldn't figure out why.  I knew it had something to do with how Vivian had reacted to Angie's brother's suicide 2 years before, but wasn't sure what. I realized I had never really figured out the full force of the impact that death would have had on them and their relationship.

So I spent most of the day yesterday writing backstory, just free-form writing in Vivian's voice.  I figured out a bunch of stuff, including the source of Angie's anger.  And when I identified Angie's anger, I realized something else: her anger is my own, a deep-seated issue from my childhood.  It's something I am at peace with now (thank you, therapy), but nonetheless it still stirred up a whole bunch of emotions for me.  I think now part of my block for writing the scene was not wanting to stir up that pot. 

One line emerged last night that summed up both her feelings and mine: "I'm the baby of the family but somehow I always have to be the fucking grown-up!" As soon as I wrote that line, the whole scene unblocked, and I was able to finish it today. Still the most painstaking 10 pages of this draft so far, but at least I got to the end of it.   I'm not sure it's good -- I will have to step away from it before I can really tell that -- but I think it is.  (And I hope it is, cause I'd really rather not have to do it all again).

People often ask me if this story is autobiographical.  It's not.  None of these characters are people in my family, none of these events happened to us like this.  But there are definitely parts of it, parts of each of these people and their struggles, that are emotionally autobiographical. This was clearly one of them.

Stronger pitching arm

I pitched this play of mine to 20 producers on Sunday, as part of the TRU writer-producer speed-date I mentioned in my last post. It went extraordinarily well.  Last year when I did this I was incredibly nervous.  And I will admit that I was having some little anxiety attacks the couple of days before this one, too.  But I fully prepared myself, and by the time I arrived at the event, I felt ready and was calm.  And I stayed calm.  My goal for this time was to have an opening and major points I wanted to be sure to hit, but to NOT have a memorized script.  To have it feel like a conversation, to let what I know about my play and what I feel about my play come through more organically.  I feel confident that I achieved this, as evidenced by the fact that I rarely got through my allotted 2 minutes to speak before the producer would start asking me questions.  (The format was for me to speak to a producer for 2 minutes, then for the producer to respond for 2 minutes).  Clearly they were intrigued enough to start asking me questions before I finished my "spiel".   This is a great sign.  And sure enough, I already have a meeting with one producer tomorrow, and two others expressed interest.  It's impossible to know if anything will come of any of it, but to have garnered that amount of interest is definitely a feat in and of itself.

As I mentioned in my last post on synposes (yes, spell-check, I still mean that), I think the main reason these pitches went so much more smoothly this year is that I know my play so much better.  I'm so much more in touch with it, at home with it, I know what I'm trying to do with it.  And I know who I am better too, and where my play is in its development process.  It's not just my play that is growing and changing since its birth last year, I am growing and learning and adapting too.  It's fun to have an occasion like this by which I can actually measure that progress.  Regardless of where this all takes me, I'm happy to be moving forward.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Art of the Synopsis

I'm having one of those moments where I can actually see a measurable sign of growth, both in myself as a writer and in my play.  I had to write a synopsis of Breaking Pairs for a writer-producer "speed date" this weekend where I will be pitching my play to 20 or so different producers. (side note: if you are a theater professional and aren't familiar with TRU, the people who put this on, you should be).  I only just learned I was accepted into this, so I've been a little panicked that I wouldn't have enough time to prepare.  But I sat down to write the synposis this afternoon and it's already done.  That is not what I was expecting.

You see, I've had to write synposes (yes, spell-check, I do mean the plural of synposis) before, and always found them incredibly difficult.  The first one I ever wrote was a veritable disaster - a two page long blow-by-blow of every little moment in the play (for a one-act script it should have been two paragraphs max) that was boring as all heck.  I have since learned a bit more about how to do this crazy thing. The writing of a synopsis is the telling of a good story -- it is not merely a re-hashing of all the events in the play.  In fact many events may actually be glossed over.  What is important is that it is crafted in such a way as to lead the reader on a journey and give a sense of the tone and style of the piece all at the same time.  It's a rather daunting task, actually, and I wouldn't mind if I never had to do one again. 

When I first wrote one for Breaking Pairs (then called All in the Shuffle) last year, its litany of tragedies made a Eugene O'Neill play sound like a light-hearted frolic in comparison.  There was no sense of the humanity and the humor of my play, nothing to make you think you wouldn't need a double dose of prozac after watching it.  With some good advice from my director, I figured out how to change the tone, how to add in a few hints of the hope that is in the story, of the humor that sneaks its way in.  But it took me hours.  Days, actually.  Getting the short one-paragraph version was even harder, and I think that's because I didn't really know what my play was about.  I thought I did, but I didn't.  I know that now, because now I do know what my play is really about.

And here is how I know that.  My first day of class with Josh Hecht, we had to write -- on the fly, right there in class -- three different synposes (yes spell-check, I still mean that): first, all the major events of the play, then a one paragraph summary, then a one sentence "essence" of the play.  I was able to come up with these -- albeit in unpolished form -- right on the spot.  And they were good enough that when I went back and looked at them, I was able to use much of what I wrote when crafting this polished version.  It was almost easy -- well, certainly easier than I expected -- because I have spent so much more time in the last year really deciding what my play is about, really deciding what the story is that needs to be told.  So it was merely a matter of summarizing and re-telling that story in prose instead of with my characters' words.

I don't know if I've written a great synopsis, but I think it's a good one (you can read it here if you're curious).  I'm sure I'll get ever better at them as I keep doing this.  But it's nice to feel the progress, to know that I've really learned something.  Now let's hope a producer or two likes my synopsis as well.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The End of an Era

Note: to get the most out of this post, I recommend you have a glass of prosecco, champagne, or other celebratory beverage in your hand.

I am on a long overdue artist's date tonight. I am at my favorite wine bar, Riposo 46, having dinner and drinks before I see Sons of the Prophet starring Joanna Gleason (one of my favorite actresses of all time). I am also celebrating a little something: the absolute final last little straggly end of a long chapter of my life, and the thing that began this whole process that turned me into a writer. My divorce.

Forgive me for getting personal, but that's kind of what blogs are for, right? Three years and four months ago, I separated from my husband of 11 years. Even though we had no children and it should have been a fairly simple process, somehow it took until now to get the very last piece of paperwork for the financial arrangements settled. But it has finally happened. Except for old photos and memories, and the occasional piece of mis-addressed junk mail, there are no ties of any kind left between us. It is officially, 100%, no questions about it, over.

But what isn't over is the incredible transformation that took place within me as a result of this shattering life change. Almost everything that I love best about my life now -- my writing, my full-time voice studio, my weight loss, my bicycling, my amazing boyfriend -- all came about because of my divorce. The only constants are my relationships with my family and my closest friends, and even these became closer and dearer as a result.

I'm drinking a glass of prosecco in celebration, and as I have no one to toast with here, I toast to all of you. To new beginnings, to remaking oneself at any age, to finding the greatest joy out of the deepest despair. Thank you for following me along this journey - I am loving being on it.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Tell the story, not the backstory (or, the Iceberg Theory)

Thanks in part to the elucidating teachings of Sheri Wilner in my ESPA Short Forms class this summer, I feel I have discovered a major weakness in the previous drafts of my play: I was too concerned with telling the backstory instead of the current story.  When I went back and re-read the draft from last November's "birthday" reading, I could clearly hear myself as the playwright figuring out what had led these people to the point they were in, and trying to share that information with the audience.

Now, it is very important for me to know what the backstory is.  Crucial, in fact.  All that work was vital.  (And don't get me wrong, I wasn't a complete slouch -- I had learned that you can't just have unmotivated exposition, that the backstory has to come out through conflict.  And almost all of it did, which is why the play was already pretty good).   But my need to make sure I explain that backstory to the audience left the draft feeling a bit ponderous at times, because too much of the conflict was about things that happened in the past, rather than about things that were happening between the people on stage RIGHT NOW. 

So in this draft, I am embracing Hemmingway's Iceberg Theory (or the "theory of omission"), which goes something like this: The bulk of a story lies below the surface, as with an iceberg we only see the tip.  But just because we don't see it, doesn't mean it's not there, quite the contrary.  If the writer knows things, really knows them, the writer may omit them and the reader/audience will know them as if the writer had stated them.  (But if the writer omits things because he doesn't know them, it leaves a hole that the reader notices.)  The more you omit, the more people will understand the story because they are filling in the gaps themselves.  When the audience is trying to figure things out, they are more engaged in the story than when everything is spoonfed.  This only works when you know what you are omitting, so that what you are showing on the surface forms a consistent narrative.  The tip of the iceberg must be consistent with the shape of what is underneath, though different people may imagine that shape differently in their minds.  Make sense?

Therefore, this is the thrust for me in this current draft: to keep the conflict current, on stage, to have every scene have a dramatic action to be resolved, to never have the purpose of a scene be to give a sense of the characters' history.  I am leaving a very faint cookie-crumb trail of information about the backstory, which will hopefully be clear enough for everyone to follow me to the end.  I guess we'll find out!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Oh, right, it *is* a great play

(First off, I am delighted to report that I *did* actually get my miracle on Saturday -- the rain never materialized and I had a glorious, glorious bike ride!  It was a beautiful route, 105 miles all told with getting back and forth to the start, and it honestly wasn't nearly as hard as I feared.  I felt great at the end, and wasn't even sore the next day.  I found myself giddy and laughing with pure joy at how much fun it was and how lucky I am to be able to do something like that.  All my training clearly paid off -- I can hardly wait to do the next one!)

After being reminded last week that sometimes I have to keep going even when things aren't as fun, I was then reminded in the last few days that the pay-off for doing that is rediscovering the fun and joy when things start flowing again.  I had two great days of writing after my big day of riding, and deeply reconnected with my play.  I was excited to bring my pages into class at ESPA last night, and they were very well-received.  I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish with the first two scenes, and got some good feedback that will help shape where it goes next.  I can hardly wait to have time to sit down to write again tomorrow!

I received another pleasant little jolt of encouragement after class last night.  I went to the 10-year anniversary party for the Cry Havoc Theatre Company, a great little company whose mission is the development of new plays (in 10 years, they have developed 293 of them I believe).  I was invited by one of the primary company members, a tremendous actress who did an informal reading of Breaking Pairs for me last spring.  Every time she introduced me to someone, she told them about having read for my play and that it was "great", "excellent", "I really loved it", etc.  To hear someone whose talent I greatly respect -- and who I know does not say such things lightly -- speak so highly of my work was deeply gratifying.  It helped me remember that I do actually have a great play here.  It is easy to get bogged down in the rewrite process, to get so focused on what I am trying to fix that I forget what doesn't need fixing.  At its core, I have great characters with a story that wants to be told (and that people seem to want to hear).  I can't wait to finish telling it.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Riding/Writing in the rain

Tomorrow I am riding 100 miles on my bicycle for the first time.  In the rain (unless the weather suddenly takes a turn).  I have been training for this seriously since the spring, biking 100 miles plus each week and consistently increasing my longest rides.  I only began riding in July of 2010 and completed my first 50 mile ride at this time last year, so this is all rather new to me.   I'm a little scared.  And disappointed in the weather -- I so wanted this thing I have worked for so long and hard for to be perfect.  Plus, in the last two weeks things have gotten so much busier for me in the other two main areas of my life -- teaching and writing -- that suddenly this thing I've been looking forward to for so long feels a little like a burden, an obligation, something that I am doing because I said I would and because I want to accomplish it rather than something I really want to do. This makes me a little sad (and I am working very hard on an attitude adjustment).

But I am still going to do it. I am going to feel great when it is done. Hopefully it will still be lots of fun even though I know I will be in a fair amount of pain and discomfort by the end.  

There is a parallel to writing here, I promise. Sometimes, I just don't feel like writing. Sometimes it feels like slogging through the rain.  Sometimes I feel downright uncomfortable because I'm not in the moment, not in the flow, the words don't come easily. But the only way to work through it is to do it, to push myself, to put my fingers on the keys, put my feet on the pedals and ride. I had several days like that this week for writing too.  I want so badly for this rewrite to be great that sometimes I over-think it. Just like I have been so worried about being ready for this cycling century that I haven't just been riding for the fun of it, I've been riding because I know I have to in order to achieve the goals I want. This is necessary, one can't always do things just for the fun of it when you want to achieve certain goals.  If I only rode when the weather was good, I wouldn't get in shape enough to be able to do 100 miles.  If I only wrote when things were feeling good, flowing easily, who knows if I would ever actually finish a play.  But I must also try to remember in those difficult moments, even as I am uncomfortable, even as it feels like pushing, like torture, that I am doing it for the fun of it, that I am getting something out of it, and remind myself that I must ride (or write) through the rain sometimes in order to be able to ride in the sun. 

That said, I still hope the weather miraculously clears up tomorrow.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Dilemma #2 (resolved!)

I have a plan!

Last week, Josh Hecht had us do several exercises in class, which culminated in crafting two sentences about our play: 1) what the play is about (not so much the plot, as the main theme) and 2) the major event of the play.

(In theatrical terms, the "event" is the moment something happens that resolves or changes the conflict that we have been watching. The thing you are waiting to find out. Not a happenstance event, like Annette's death as I discussed in my last post, but something that changes from within the characters.)

I had trouble deciding what my main event was, partly because of the trouble I have had establishing whether the play is Vivian's play or Frank's play. If it is Frank's play, the event would be Frank apologizing, and agreeing to go to a nursing home so that Vivian and Angie can get on with their lives. If it is Vivian's play, then it would be the moment that Vivian decides she is not going to sacrifice for her father anymore and is going to pursue her own dreams instead.

Ah, but wait! I had a very enlightening discussion with Steven Yuhasz this morning, the director who took my work under his wing last year and brought the reading to life with such an amazing cast. Rather than either/or, Steven had a crazy idea - perhaps the play does not end with Vivian leaving and Frank going to a nursing home. Perhaps...

Do I tell you how I think the play ends now? Or should I wait? I think I'll wait. But I now have a new major event, and a few twists on the events that will lead us to that moment. I think it is a solid outline and I honestly can't wait to start actually writing - which happens tomorrow!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dilemma #1

I am facing my first big dilemma with this new rewrite, and I haven't even written a word of it yet:

I don't know where to start the play.

Every play has an "inciting incident", or the thing that begins the action, that triggers the series of events we are about to see unfold.  (Hamlet's father's death, or the moment when Romeo and Juliet's eyes meet at the ball, for example).  Sometimes inciting incidents happen before the play starts (Hamlet) or at the beginning of the play (Romeo and Juliet).  I can't decide which mine should be.

My inciting incident is the death of Annette (Frank's wife, Vivian's mom).  It is her death that unravels the status quo and fundamentally changes the relationship between Frank and Vivian.  In the previous drafts, I have started the play when she is still alive, and she dies at the end of the first scene.  This does several things for me: 1) it allows us to meet her while she is alive; 2) it shows what her relationship with Frank was like; and 3) it allows us to see a sweeter and more human side of Frank than we usually see with him and Vivian. 

But there is a fundamental problem with both versions of the first scenes I have written -- nothing happens in them, except her death.  Which isn't really an "event" in the dramatic sense.  It is something that happens, but it is not the resolution or escalation of a conflict currently happening on stage -- it is a random occurrence, not something that is driven by the characters' choices.  So the opening scene is little more than filler, than exposition setting up who these characters are and what their relationships are like.  To be compelling dramatically, that information needs to come out in the course of CONFLICT, not just in the course of daily speech.

So I have two choices.  Either (A) figure out how to make the first scene dramatic (give it a conflict and an event other than Annette's death), or (B) start the play at Annette's funeral.  I think my instincts are telling me to start it at the funeral.  Someone at some point told me a playwriting rule: if you are debating about cutting it, cut it.  I guess I just told myself what I need to do. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Diving back in

I am getting back to what this blog was originally about, the birth of my first full-length play. The play was born last November, and it grew to a toddler with its second draft in April, and now I hope to bring it up to early adolescence, where it will be ready to be shaped and formed by others (actors, directors, producers) the way a teen is molded by her peers. I am eager to document this process again, if for no other reason than to look back on it myself later on to wonder how I actually did it.

I am enrolled in a rewrite class at ESPA with Josh Hecht, a director who works almost exclusively on new plays. I was thrilled with the class tonight; the structure we are going to follow is exactly the kind of class I like, and already in the first night he helped me to discover a number of things about my play that are going to shape and inform the rewrite. Most importantly, I realized that the play is not about what I thought it was about. It is about something that I seem to keep writing about - what may, in fact, be my uber-theme that will permeate much of my writing: when is it ok to be selfish, and when do you sacrifice for other people?

I never would have figured this out if I hadn't taken the Short Forms class this summer, where I discovered that that was the question my short play-cum-tv pilot was asking. So while I was beating myself up a bit for getting distracted by writing other things than this play, I now feel ready to do this rewrite and I know it will be a far better play than it would have been before I took that class.

Take a deep breath, I'm going back in. I hope you'll follow along with me and Frank, Vivian, Angie, Annette, Arnold and Vera as we all grow and develop.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral?

I don't know what I'm writing.  But I am writing, it is pouring out of me, I can't seem to stop it, it just keeps flowing though I have no idea what it is.  Is it back story for a play?  A short story?  A TV show pilot?  A short film?  Or, if it keeps going like this, something longer?

A little background:  I am currently enrolled in a "short forms" class at ESPA, the Primary Stages theater school, with Sheri Wilner.  Sheri gave us a "subtext" exercise a few weeks ago, where each character in the scene had to have a secret.  She gave a list of possible secrets, one of which was very serious, the other was very silly.  I decided to challenge myself and pick two of the silly/absurd secrets, in the hopes of writing something out of my usual family-drama milieu.  After a couple of attempts - and some great input/advice from Sheri - I managed a scene that I actually felt pretty good about.  I knew it needed work, it needed to be deeper, but it was a start of something potentially interesting.

Then last week Sheri gave us another exercise, to help us discover the themes of our plays.  We had to first identify the questions our play is asking, then draw parallels between these questions and our own personal lives.  At first I thought I couldn't possibly apply this exercise to this silly little fantasy play, I would be better off picking the family drama piece I had written the week before.  But then I decided to keep stretching myself and just do it.  After all, isn't fantasy/sci-fi good when it is based on something very real, so we can look at it in this completely different context?  Lo and behold, I discovered that my play was indeed asking a very strong, real-life question that has complete relevance to my life, that is in fact one of the struggles that has been a constant one for me from a very young age.   I even got a little teary about it, all over this "silly" little play.

So I began to write about the character and what this question means to her.   Suddenly pages and pages - 6 full pages of single-spaced prose so far - of back story began to flow out.   I can't stop - I find myself delving deeper and deeper into her, writing details upon details about events that happen many months before my play is set to begin.  I feel like I am writing a book or a movie or I don't know what, but she is so alive in my mind and her experiences -- though completely fantastical -- are very visceral and real to me.

I don't know if I should (there is that word I try not to let myself use) stop writing this back story and get to the play, or just let it keep flowing and see where it goes.  It seems silly to stop a process that is so clearly having abundant creative flow - but I would eventually like to get to the actual writing of the play!  I think, though, that I have to work out the steps that brought her to the moment of the play -  a very intense life or death moment, despite the fantastical trappings of it - to really know where she is in that moment. I think then the scene may well write itself.

So back I go to writing this surprise tome -- this woman's history which probably no one will ever read or see, unless I suddenly turn into a fantasy fiction writer.... (as if I need another distraction...)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Process over Product

I am deploying a new productivity strategy this week.  Inspired by my last post on effort plus the concept of time-management in weekly blocks from the book 168 Hours, I have decided to make a to-do list not of things I must accomplish, but rather of areas into which I want to be putting effort and how much time I will spend in each area.  For example, instead of saying "bike 100 miles this week", I am saying "bike 11 hours this week" (one longer ride and three shorter rides); instead of saying "transfer all automatic payments to new bank account" I am saying "banking: 2 hours".  I think sometimes I don't start a project when I don't think I can finish it, when even putting 30 minutes towards something would certainly be better than endlessly putting it off into the future.  I am hoping that by committing myself to time blocks, regardless of whether or not I finish the task at hand, I will end up accomplishing more overall.

I am hopeful for this new strategy particularly for my writing, as I realized today that it is more like what I used to do when I was pursing my singing career.  "Practicing" has no definable outcome (except perhaps learning the notes of a new piece or translating a new role) -- it is just something you do every day for a certain amount of time.  I would often just grab 30 minutes here or 30 minutes there to practice -- whatever I could fit in.  But with my writing, I have looked at it more like "I have to finish this scene" or "I have to finish this draft by x-date", instead of just spending a certain amount of time writing, regardless of how far I actually get.  So I have decided to start focusing on the process, rather than the product.  After all, the process really is the important part, because in the creative arts, often times the process is all you get.

I have blocked out a total of 10 hours this week for writing, including 2 for this blog, so you'll be seeing me again very soon!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

It's the effort that matters

I did a killer bike ride yesterday.  While only 46 miles (no longer a big distance for me), it was incredibly hilly, climbing over 4100 feet.  There is one particularly nasty hill that is a full mile long and very steep, as well as many other less-evil-but-still-tiring hills.  It is the only ride in my repertoire that actually scares me.  I have done it twice now -- I went 10 miles further this time than the last -- and neither time was entirely sure how I was going to make it.  But I did.

My boyfriend doesn't find this route nearly so challenging.  At one point in the latter part of the ride as I was huffing and puffing and struggling to barely go 6 miles an hour up a hill, I uttered something self-pitying and silly about how he must see me, how ridiculous I must look struggling so hard to do something that is so easy for him.  And he said: "I see someone trying very hard to do something.  And I think that's great.  It's the effort that matters.  Which do you respect more in your students?  Someone who is a natural at singing or someone who really works hard at it?"  Touche. 

I wish I knew why that is so easy for me to see and respect in other people, but not in myself.  I don't give myself credit for how hard I try at something unless I actually succeed at it.  Because if I don't succeed, then clearly I have not tried hard enough, right?  Well, maybe not.  There are so many other factors that come into play (not the least of which is how one actually defines success).  Maybe my body can only take me so far in cycling, maybe I just never quite got the lucky break as a singer. 

I am not currently succeeding at the goal I set for myself in June to write in this blog three times a week.  I seem to be in a mode right now where my priority is my body.  I am spending a lot of time on my cycling, I have added yoga into my routine as a counter balance to that (for which my muscles are very grateful), I have decided to lower my Weight Watchers goal weight by a few pounds.  All of that takes more hours in the week and more mental focus, which is leaving me less time and mental energy for writing.  But I haven't given it up entirely, I am still trying.

I can't hear the word "trying" and not think of yoda's "do or do not, there is no try".  Well, in this case, I'm going to count the trying as the doing.  I am writing, just not as much as I would like; I am riding, just not as fast or as far as I would like, yet.  I'm pretty confident I'll get there, but either way, I am putting in the effort.

See you again soon, I hope, even if not quite three times a week.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Spinning wheels

In the creative arts, where almost all measures of improvement and success are subjective and external (e.g. someone else hiring you for a role or choosing to produce your play), it is easy sometimes to feel like all the hard work you are doing to improve your craft and get ahead is getting you nowhere, that you are just spinning your wheels.

I literally spun my wheels yesterday, pedaling my bicycle for 5 hours and 30 minutes, traveling 69 miles. This was the mileage I needed to hit for June as part of my training regimen to build up to a 100 mile ride this September. In addition to gradually increasing my distances (each month I need to add at least 10 miles to the longest ride I do), I've also been working to increase my speed and hill strength. This I gauge by how fast I can do laps in Central Park (I've so far cut my time by about 5 minutes a lap from last year). This is one of the things I love about cycling - there are quantifiable ways to measure how much you are growing and improving, numbers you can look at and say "hey, I did that!"

But despite looking at all those numbers and seeing that I can go longer and harder and faster, I haven't really felt like I've been improving. The hills in Central Park still feel incredibly laborious. I still hate riding into the wind. I still feel incredibly slow next to my boyfriend (who has a bit of an advantage on me since he has been riding seriously pretty much since he could walk). Because the change is gradual, it isn't as noticeable.

But yesterday-- yesterday was one of those moments when suddenly the change was palpable. This was the longest, hardest ride I've done to date (other riders referred to the numerous hills as "brutal"), and yet it was the easiest long ride I've ever done. I had no stressful up-hill climbs where I was cursing and grunting the entire way, nor any complete blood-sugar meltdowns that cause me to crash both physically and emotionally (I have finally learned how to fuel myself for this kind of exercise). In short, this was the most funI have had on a long distance ride. Who cares about the numbers in terms of miles, elevation, average speed, calories burned, I felt great. And that is how I now know in my gut, regardless of what the numbers were saying, that I truly have improved.

So how do we apply this to the arts? Without the equivalent of a bicycle computer that tells us our average speed or how many miles we've done, how do we know we are growing as artists? The one measure we have - other people hiring us or producing our works - is so subjective and elusive as to be almost meaningless in day-to-day life, especially given how little (unfortunately) it can have to do with actual talent and skill.

I say, go for the joy. We do the arts, after all, because we enjoy it (and if we don't then we should get the hell out). I say you will know you are improving when you enjoy it more, because the better you get at your chosen pursuit, the more facile you will be with your craft, and thus more able to actually do the things you want to be able to do. To shoot only for the "job", or only for the distance or speed, is to miss the experience part of the process.

I write because I love the process of discovering a character's story. I love bringing actors in to the sphere to bring my characters to life. I love hearing what a director thinks and can bring out of my work. I love hearing an audience, how ever large or small, react to my words. While I sincerely hope to have plays produced and win a Tony someday - just as I am shooting for that 100 miles in September - I have learned the hard lesson that to do something only for that goal is absurd. The 100 miles is meaningful only if I'm having fun doing it. That's not to say I won't still hate the hills sometimes, or hate it when I am trying to write and can't seem to find the right line, but I have promised myself that I will only continue to write as long as it is bringing me joy in the balance.

For all of you who are attempting a career of some sort in the arts, I challenge you to go for the joy. If that joy also comes with lots of jobs and productions and external measures of success, that is fantastic. But if it doesn't, at least you will know you haven't just been spinning your wheels.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The art of want

I saw All's Well That Ends Well at Shakespeare in the Park last night.  It is really quite a lovely production, excellently directed and with some very strong actors (including John Cullum, who just has to be in my play Breaking Pairs someday).  It is probably one of the more simplistic plots of the Shakespeare canon, with the characters not nearly as complicated and/or intriguing as say in Midsummer Night's Dream or Macbeth.  And yet is has something that makes it live on, that makes it satisfying and enjoyable to watch: in pretty much every scene, it is very clear that each major character in that scene WANTS something, and they either get it or they don't by the end of the scene.  Most of these little wants build up towards the major "want" of the play (Helena wants Bertram to love her); some of them are subplots (the soldiers' desire to humiliate Parolles, the "clown" of the play) -- but each of them is a little nugget that helps you follow what is going on and feel the satisfaction of something being completed.  Characters who want something specific are far more interesting to watch than characters who don't (or who might but it is not clear).  I never noticed this before about Shakespeare, but now that I have, I would not be at all surprised to find this true of all of his popular plays.  I am sure that has a lot to do with why they are still done hundreds of years later and the stories retold over and over.

The presence of a character's want (or "action", as it is often referred to in theater) is something I have been noticing a lot lately.  Or rather, its absence.  I have seen a lot of theater in the last couple of weeks, from readings of brand new plays to small-scale productions of existing plays to short plays to Shakespeare, and every time one of them leaves me unsatisfied I notice the same reason: I am watching the play and not engaged and not caring about the characters because I don't know what they want from each other.  I don't really care about watching two characters talking about global politics -- as interesting as that conversation might be -- if I don't know what they are trying to get from each other by having that conversation.  It seems like such a simple thing, really, to set up what your characters want and have them fight for it during the scene, but yet it isn't always so easy to make it happen as a writer.  I have been guilty myself of not being clear on this, for sure, though I always strive for it.  But I honestly think a lot of current writers aren't even aware of this and thus aren't striving for it.

This is a very traditional view of theater I have, and I am sure many people would say it is old-fashioned and that there are great new forms of experimental theater that don't require this basic building block.  I say have at it, to those people, if they enjoy that kind of theater.  Personally, I don't.  Or very rarely.  Even Waiting for Godot -- which is supposed to be a play that breaks all these conventions because "nothing happens" -- has a very, very strong want at its core: they want to see Godot. 

My dramaturge pointed out this problem -- the lack of clear action -- with the first scene of my recent rewrite of my play, and I am especially eager now to go back and fix it.  Because I do honestly believe that this is what makes theater compelling to watch.  After all, isn't that so much of what life is?  Don't we as people always want something, even if it is as simple as "I want to eat ice cream"?  There can be a whole little drama in that moment, one of internal conflict if you are watching your weight or lactose intolerant so perhaps ice cream isn't the best choice, or external conflict if the ice cream you want is currently being consumed by someone else who wants that ice cream as much or more than you do.  

Damn it, now I want ice cream.   But it's only 10am and I already over-indulged last night on cheese.... Will I have it?  Stay tuned to find out.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Battle with Battlestar

A recent struggle between my contentment dame and my ambition brat distilled itself down to one simple question:

"Do I want to watch more Battlestar Galactica or take a writing class?" 

When worded that way, a seemingly dramatic dilemma -- swirling with weighty questions like "what kind of life do I want to be living?", "how much I want to be pushing myself?", "how much do I allow myself to relax?", "do I really want to be pursuing a writing career?" -- suddenly had a very clear answer.  Of course I want to be the person who would chose taking a writing class over watching BSG.

That said, Battlestar Galactica is an amazing show, honestly one of the best things I've seen on television (ranking up there with Buffy and Breaking Bad for my favorite series ever).  I only just discovered it, and have already managed to devour the entire first two seasons. It feels a little like a drug - pulling me, calling me, teasing me with "what happens next?" And thanks to Netflix "watch instantly", I can have a hit any time I want. So when trying to answer the question of whether or not to leave my time more unstructured this summer, I looked at how I've been spending my free time lately and feared that I wouldn't use it all to rewrite my play, to research the next play I want to write, to write some short plays, to start writing my blog again.  Nope.  If recent past was indicator of future, I was going to use too much of it watching BSG.

Now, there is nothing wrong with a little television now and then. We all need a little brain candy sometimes. But I've discovered that I don't do so well when I have free time.  The busier I am, the more stuff I manage to squeeze in.  While I manage to accomplish a hell of a lot that way, the trade off is that I can end up incredibly stressed and sleep-deprived.  But now that my work life is streamlined down to just one job that requires significantly fewer (but more intense) hours, I am sincerely hoping I can actually strike that magical, beautiful balance between getting things done and remaining (mostly) sane.

So thus begins a new phase in the continuing growth and development of Natalie Wilson, playwright/voice teacher.  After allowing myself several months of slowing down and demanding less of myself creatively, I am recommitting to my writing and to using my time more productively.  Last week I began writing in my morning pages journal every day again (which is already making a huge difference in my outlook).  I started a new writing class last night, Short Forms with Sheri Wilner at ESPA Primary Stages.  I am, obviously, writing in my blog again (hello!), with a goal of 3 posts per week.  I am tracking my time this week to see how I'm spending it (ala 168 Hours, great book if you aren't familiar) and am determined to be able to fit in 20 hours of writing per week (including class time) as well as the 15 hours of bike riding per week I have been doing.  I know the time is there if I just choose to use it well.

But don't worry, BSG, I haven't given you up for good.  It's just going to take me a little longer to get through all of you.  Which means I'll actually get to enjoy you for that much longer.

It feels good to be back.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Of Contentment and Ambition

My, my how time flies when you are having fun.  And fun I have been having, in small and big doses.  My absence from my blog has, for once, not been due to stress.  I've just been doing other things with my life: teaching, exercising, spending time with my boyfriend and family, traveling with my bestest friend to Madrid.  (Why Madrid?  Just 'cause).   It's been grand.

I realized recently that I am truly content for the first time.  Ever.  In my whole 39 years.  The transition I made to teaching voice full-time out of my own studio has brought me a level of satisfaction and joy that I couldn't have anticipated.  While I did spend several years in San Francisco working just as a teacher, then it was just a way to make some money as I was doggedly pursuing my opera career; I didn't look on it as my career.  I always looked forward to the day when I could stop teaching.  Now, it is my career, and I feel incredibly blessed and grateful to live such a life.

Turns out, though, that contentment seems to dull the fire of ambition a bit.  I'm not as driven to write all the time now, perhaps because I'm not sitting at a desk 20-30 hours a week feeling my soul drain out of me.  I'm getting creative satisfaction from working with my students.  I don't have a pressing need for more; I don't have to figure out a way to make money as a writer because I'm actually making money in a way that makes me happy.  Do I still want to win a Tony?  Absolutely.  Am I going to kill myself to try to make that happen?  Absolutely not.  Which means I probably won't, but I'm ok with that.  Mostly.

The good news is, through the power of the magical self-imposed deadline, I have rediscovered the joy of my play and am frantically finishing the full-scale rewrite in time for a small table read next Friday. I've been getting up at 7am to write before teaching, and choosing writing over exercise some days.  I am so excited about where it is going and how it is all coming together.  Yesterday as I was looking for a new Angie (my other actresses weren't available), I was reminded of how much I adore the process of bringing together actors and making things happen.  So I'm definitely not done as a writer, I'm just probably going to move a bit more slowly.

For once, I actually think I'm ok with that.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Crossing a great divide

The racial divide, that is.  I'll explain.

This week's assignment for my Libretto 1 class at ESPA is to write a musical scene incorporating a pop song, where the characters sing the song as part of the story (jukebox musical style, think "Mama Mia" or "Jersey Boys").  She gave us a list of songs to chose from.  Given that I never listen to pop music, the only song on the list I was familiar with was Cee Lo Green's F*ck You.  I happen to think that is a great song, and really wanted to use it, but didn't think I could -- how can lily-white me write a scene with black characters?  But after listening to all the other songs on the list, I really couldn't stand any of them, and also decided that, heck, this is just an assignment for class.  Class is the perfect place to stretch myself and go outside my comfort zone. So I decided to try.

You may be wondering why I feel that a scene incorporating that song has to use black characters.  It's not because Cee Lo Green is black, it's because the song contains a certain "n" word that white people don't say unless they are the sort who like to wear pointy white hats.  That's a line I certainly am not interested in trying to cross.

But here's the thing.  Writing for black characters makes me nervous.  I'm afraid of coming off as racist.  (Heck,  I feel nervous even writing this blog post, that just expressing the fact that I feel nervous writing black characters sounds racist.)  Will it seem racist if my characters fall into any black stereotypes?   When there is a line like "I lie and beg and cheat and steal" in the song, is it ok to have a character who tried to steal something to impress his girlfriend?  Can I use black slang (I kinda figure any characters using that "n" word would probably also use other slang terms)?  Or if I try so hard to stay away from any stereotypes that my characters don't seem black at all, will that be it's own kind of racism because I'm denying the black experience? 

(I feel a compulsion to try to defend why I am not racist, but to avoid the "some of my best friends are black people" cliche, I will refrain and hope that I am not misinterpreted.)

My discomfort is not only about appearing racist; this is also just something that is outside the realm of my personal experience (and it is always easiest to write what you know).   If I were writing something for mass consumption with black characters (as is the case with the full musical I want to write), I would certainly have someone on my creative team who could help authenticate those characters.  But for now, I will just have to hope my class of white women and one Asian man aren't offended, or that at least it can spark an interesting conversation.

I wish it were easier to have an honest, open dialogue about black-white race issues in this country.  I wonder how long it will be before we get there.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Writing lyrics is HARD

This week I began my libretto writing class at Primary Stages ESPA.  Why?  Why aren't I just focusing on the rewrite of BREAKING PAIRS?  Why dive into a whole new realm? (I keep asking myself these questions).   The main reason is this: musical theater is the art form that has most excited my passions ever since I saw Patti LuPone perform Evita when I was 7 years old.  As a musician, a singer, and now a writer, it would seem a shame not to try my hand at this most challenging and yet ultimately transcendent art form where I can put all of those skills to use.  I also have an idea for a musical which I think is a pretty great one, but don't really have any idea how to begin writing it.  So, here I am, studying the basics of  writing a libretto with Kait Kerrigan, a woman who has already (at age 30) reached the highly enviable position of making her living as a musical book and lyric writer. 

We had an assignment before the class even began, to turn something we had previously written into a musical scene (complete with lyrics, if possible).  The only lyrics I had ever written before were a few lines of parody lyrics for my cabaret shows.  I was more than a little intimidated, but I wanted to give it a try.  After all, the point was for the teacher to see where we were starting from, so who cares if it sucked?

While the lyrics were no great shakes, the scene didn't completely suck.  I knew a few things instinctively -- there is a lot less talking in musicals than in plays, so I had to severely condense the dialogue (a great exercise in economy of language, which is important in playwriting too).   Also, the most impassioned, important parts of the scene need to go into the song -- after all, whatever they are singing about has to be important enough that merely saying it didn't suffice.  This is an even more extreme exercise in economy of language, as you have to get at the crux of what the character wants/feels in just a few short lines, while following a rhythmic structure and (ideally) making them rhyme.   I didn't get to the rhyming part yet, but I did manage to keep the lyrics in a rhythmic structure, thanks to the insipid little tune that popped into my head as I began writing them.  (Next time, I will try what was apparently Oscar Hammerstein's trick: using the tune of an existing song as the structure for a new set of lyrics, just not telling the composer what that song was.  At least then I'd have an interesting song in my head.)

It was much, much harder and took much longer to put the characters' thoughts into lyric form, and I'm not sure I'm great at it.  But while I did find it very frustrating, I also found it kind of fun -- I like working within constraints; I think it can foster more creativity when you have to make something work within a given set of parameters rather than just being free to do whatever.  Perhaps as I learn more about this, I'll get better at it so I can enjoy it more. 

We shall see where this takes me.  I just hope I can organize my time such that I can complete the homework for this class and get my rewrite of my play done by the end of April.  Wish me luck!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Short Form vs Long Form

When I first started my full-length play last year, I was a little nervous about the prospect of writing in long form.  All the plays I'd written thus far had been 10-page shorts for my play-writing class; a form I had grown to know and understand pretty well.  The idea of writing something 10 times that long was more than a little daunting.  But I embraced it and grew to love having the time to develop the characters and to let their backstories creep in, little by little, throughout the scenes. 

This week when I undertook a 10-page writing assignment to submit for the new "Detention" series at ESPA, I discovered that I have gotten so used to having time to explore and develop characters, that I was having trouble getting to the real action of the scene in just 10 pages.  I mean, I was just barely introducing who these people are!  And they don't even really know themselves yet!  I wrote too many pages, and had to cut out a lot of things that I really liked, but that only showed character and didn't move the story ahead.  In the end, I think I was able to condense most of what I wanted into the 10 pages, by careful choosing words and letting go of things that were fun but not integral.  If I had another week, I would streamline it even more, but alas it was due at noon today so I had to submit it as is.

This process has made me realize that I'd like to get back to the short play form -- I think it is a very important writing exercise, to get to the crux of the conflict instantly, to be able to reveal who your characters are in as few words as possible. Plus there are countless places to submit short plays to for festivals and such, and I feel I'm a much stronger writer now than I was a year ago.  I need some new material so I can take advantage of some of those opportunities.

And thus I add another goal to my list for the year: to write 4 new short plays this year (one per season).  Now I just need some subject matter....

Thursday, February 3, 2011


I just had one of those moments: one of those moments when I realized how incredibly wonderful my life is.

This evening sent out an email blast to my mailing list about all the various events I have coming up in February, including an all-new kind of performance for me on an electronic music concert, two different singing classes I'm teaching, and my new writing venture with my upcoming libretto-writing class at Primary Stages ESPA.  Within less than five minutes, two people had emailed me back, one saying:

"Congratulations! You sound wonderful" 

and the other

"I think you are wonderful." 

This coincidence made me pause and go back and re-read my email.  Just glancing at it, I noticed the three section headings: performing, teaching and writing.  And I realized, my entire life is in the arts.  I may not be famous, I may not be making my living writing or performing, but I am living my life as an artist, completely.  I'm getting to use all the artistic sides of myself, my teaching, my singing, and my writing -- how incredibly wonderful is that?

If you'd like to share with me in any of these aspects, please come to my performance next Tues the 8th at the Parkside, or check out my free singing seminar on the 16th, or keep reading my blog (and pass it on to your friends) to hear about my writing ventures.  Thank you for being part of this journey -- it's truly wonderful to share it with you.  

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Unexpected bright spot

So here I was after my demon battle last week, resolute but sad to not submit my play to this reading festival for which I'd been given a personal invitation from the producer.   Just to do a dummy check about my instincts on this, I emailed my director and asked if he thought it was worth submitting the script in its current incarnation, or if I was right to think I shouldn't enter it since I know it needs some work.  His reply was not at all what I expected:

"Yes, I would send the play.  It's a great play and a work in progress."

I guess I had gotten so caught up in processing all the feedback after the reading and subsequently so focused on all the things that need to be fixed, that I forgot that at its core it's a great play.  And one of the main purposes of reading series is to help develop works in progress.  So, even though I am not going to get a rewrite done, I still get to submit my play.  Whether or not she selects it, the producer will see that I can write.  And that can only be a good thing.

Funny, is that whistling I hear?  I turn and see my demon strolling off towards his favorite demon-watering hole, whistling a jaunty tune to himself.  Even he seems content with this turn of events. 

Never fear, I'm sure he'll be back to hound me soon enough.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Playwriting meets Buffy (or, my battle with a demon)

Sunday evening, a mere few hours after I wrote my last blog post, I battled a demon.  It wasn't nearly as glamorous and exciting a showdown as those between Buffy (the Vampire Slayer) and Spike (the Vampire), but my relationship with my demon does have some parallels:  he appeared early on in my development and keeps coming back, over and over again; we fight viciously most every time we meet, though now and then in a fit of uncontrolled passion we have a good roll in the hay instead. But either way we both always walk away a little battered and bruised, and I can never seem to actually kill him (or him me).

My demon isn't nearly as sexy as Spike, though he can be very alluring.  He makes promises of success, fame, fortune, untold doors opening, endless possibilities that might come within my reach if I would only take his hand and tango.  But I know this demon and I know the toll he almost always exacts from me if I follow, and thus I must fight him.  Again. And again.  And again. 

Unrealistic expectations.

I had set myself a very, very ambitious goal before the new year of finishing a rewrite of my play by Feb 15th.  (I was invited by a producer to submit my play for a reading series she is curating, and that is the due date.)  My original plan was to start that immediately after the new year, which would have given me 6 weeks to do it.  Highly highly ambitious, but not actually impossible.  I was on track -- I met with my playwriting coach on January 3rd, walked away with a whole new vision for how to address the main problem with the play, and was ready to dive in.

But then... life happened.   Between work I had to do for my voice studio and being horribly sick, by the time I was ready to start writing, I was faced with a ludicrously unrealistic deadline of completing a full-scale rewrite in just three weeks.  Rather than feeling motivated to get cracking, I found myself resisting writing at all.  I was at a standstill, neither moving forward nor content with taking a break.  It was time for a showdown between me and my expectations.  It went a little something like this.

Me: It's just not possible.  There is no way I can finish a rewrite in just 3 weeks.

Demon: Of course it's possible, if you just devote every waking minute and many of those minutes you waste sleeping to it.  What happened to the woman who got up at 6 am to write before going to the gym before going to work?  

Me: That woman burned herself out pretty badly -- remember how sick I've been for the last few weeks?  That's what happens when I go long stretches -- like a whole YEAR -- without enough sleep.  I can't do that again, at least not yet.  I'm still recovering.

Demon: You're lazy.  You clearly don't want this. 

Me: Yes I do. I just have other things I want too, like--

Demon:  If you really wanted this, you wouldn't be wasting time on other things.  This is a big producer, she likes you for some strange reason, she is interested in your work, how can you possibly miss this opportunity to send her your play?  

Me: Even if I do what you say and I somehow manage to finish a draft, I won't have time to hear it out loud to make sure it really works; to polish it and make sure I'm sending her something good.  I don't want to ruin this opportunity by sending her something that isn't ready.  

Demon: Now you're just making excuses.

Me: No I'm not!  Part of being professional in this business is knowing when your work is ready to be seen.  She'll respect that and I'm sure there will be another chance.

Then my demon leans in close and whispers in my ear, his fangs piercing the skin just above my jugular:

Demon: You're sure, are you?  What if this is your one shot?  What if this was the universe opening a magic door for you that you were supposed to walk through, and if you don't, it will close forever and you will never get to be a real playwright and you won't even know what your life could have been if you had only--


Because at this point my demon has reduced me to a self-deprecating, depressed, pathetic puddle of inadequacy, "shut up" is about the sharpest rebuttal I can come up with.  He's a little startled by my sudden adolescent outburst, and steps back, long enough for me to get behind a barrier and regroup.  I hold a cloth to my neck to staunch the blood flow, gather what little bit of strength I have left, and look him wearily in the eyes.

Me: Then I guess that's just the chance I'm going to have to take.  I'm only human, unlike you, and there is only so much I can do.

I walk away, wounded, weary, and not entirely sure even I believe myself.  I look back over my shoulder and see the demon following me, but he keeps his distance.  He looks a little dejected himself -- perhaps he doesn't like it when I remind him he's not human.  Or maybe he just feels sorry for me.

With the demon temporarily off my back, I was actually able to face the blank page without a well of anxiety filling within me that I'd never finish in time.  Thus it was that Sunday night and Monday, I completed an outline of the next draft of my play, and sent it off to my coach for feedback.  I like some of the discoveries I made, and I think the rewrite will actually flow pretty quickly once I begin writing it.  I'm also left with room now for seizing other opportunities, like writing a 10-page play incorporating a Grimm Fairy Tale for a cooperative project at my new writing school, ESPA.  If selected, I'll get to work with actors and directors from the school, and my writing will actually be seen by people at a real theater company.  I've already chosen a fairy tale, have the 4 characters named and pictured in my head and have a basic idea of the outline of the story.  I'm really looking forward to writing something completely new for a bit.

I slyly pick up a rock and quickly turn and hurl it at my demon.  See?  There will be other opportunities.

The demon catches the rock.  You haven't been selected yet. Heck, you haven't even written it yet. 

And we both trudge on into the night.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Human again

After 2 solid weeks of being sick, I finally feel like myself today. My boyfriend and I were able to go out to eat last night, and I even put on makeup, fixed my hair and dressed in something other than jeans. I'd almost forgotten what it felt like to want to do that. Then, for the first time since I got sick, I was able to sleep through the night without medication and without being propped up on a princess-and-the-pea-worthy stack of pillows. So, today I hope that, along with feeling like myself again physically, I will also feel like myself again motivationally, and can get my ass to work on my rewrite.

First it's off to the gym (again for the first time in awhile) and then to the grocery store to pick up some provisions for the week. My new self-imposed schedule is to use Sundays as my day off and errand day, so that Mondays can be entirely devoted to writing without having to leave the house for anything. I think it's important to structure my own time now that less structure is imposed from the outside. So that's my plan. I'll report back after tomorrow and let you know how it's working for me.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Missing: Drive, maniacal. Last seen 11-2-2010 in the vicinity of my brain.

Well hello, blog.   Sorry I haven't stopped by in awhile.  I've been a little preoccupied settling into my new self-employed life, and dealing with a whopper of a respiratory infection the last week and a half.  My immune system apparently decided to relax a bit along with the rest of me -- and I guess I can't really blame it.  I managed to make it through most of the last insane year without really getting sick, for which I am very grateful.  Though I'm ready to be better now.  Any day now.  Yes, please.

I am looking at 2011 and wondering what is in store for me.  I don't feel nearly as focused as I did at this point last year, when I had just begun this project and was blogging almost every day.  But I do have some goals for 2011, and since I find that publicly stating goals helps me stick to them, here there are:
  • finish a rewrite of Breaking Pairs by Feb 15th (if possible!)
  • grow my studio by at least 5 more regular students
  • write one or two new short plays to submit to festivals
  • explore the idea I have for a musical
  • train for and complete a 100 mile bike ride next fall
I've set a few things in motion already: I met with my playwriting coach and I have a clear idea of where I want to go with my rewrite; I have workshops and free seminars scheduled for my voice studio;  I've signed up for a Libretto 1 class at Primary Stages to help teach me how to get started on writing the book for a musical; I applied to two artist residencies for the summer; I'm exercising regularly (when I'm not sick) to keep in shape until the weather warms up enough to bike again.  So I know I'm on the right track.  And yet....

Where is my drive?  That crazy the drive I felt all last year, the drive that got me out of bed at 6am to write for an hour before going to work, that kept me up til 1 or 2 am writing many nights, that wouldn't let me turn on something on netflix instead of being creative.  It, like my immune system, seems to have gone on vacation.  I miss it.  I want it back.  My boyfriend assures me I haven't lost it, that I'm still just recovering from the craziness of last year, that I'm still exhaling from holding my breath for so long.  I sincerely hope he's right.  Otherwise I'm going to find myself in the position of having to figure out how to do the thing that so many people assume I do all the time: kick my own ass.  But the reality is, I rarely have to kick my own ass.  It's historically a much bigger challenge for me to slow down than it is for me to gear up.

So, here I go.  I begin with this humble blog post, and hope to slowly ramp up to full drive-mode over the next few days as I finally recover from this stupid cold.  I'll keep you posted.