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!