Monday, July 30, 2012


I am delighted to report after my last blog post, that my theory worked!  I got through the part of the scene that was getting me stuck by focusing on what each character's need was, what each character was fighting for.  And this same thought just barreled me through the second part of that scene.  It's a great question to ask myself, every time I am trying to figure out what a character might say, "what does she want?" When what she wants is clear, what she does/says becomes very clear.  This has also barreled me through the next small section.  Onward!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Skip... skip... skip....

Skip skip skip, like a broken record, goes my play.... 

That expression is perhaps less meaningful now than it was 30 years ago when we all had records.  (I can’t possibly be old enough to utter the phrase “30 years ago”, can I?)  But like a scratched record, I seem to be stuck at one point in the middle of my first scene -- I keep going back over it again and again, trying to get it right. It's not that I am trying to figure out what happens - I know that - but I'm trying to figure out exactly how it happens.   How to get the lines right, to get across the right amount of information without it feeling like exposition, how to make the lines feel natural and honest and compelling.  I know I should just move on - skip to the next song as it were - and fix it later, but every time I launch Final Draft and I read what I've read so I can continue from there, I get stuck in the same spot, editing. It's like a scab you can't stop picking or an itch you can't stop scratching even though you know you should leave it alone. 

(For the record - no pun intended - for those of you who might be feeling anxious that I am only on the first scene with only 40 days to go: I have actually written the second scene already.  But you’re not wrong that I have a lot of work to do, and fast).

The irony is that I know the events of the scene are right.  I am confident - ecstatically so - that I have figured out a strong beginning of my play.  In only 2 and 1/2 pages, I have established what the world is, who the main characters are, what the major conflict is and how desperately high the stakes are. But the exact words the characters are using, who says exactly what when, hasn’t quite fallen into place.

This is where morning pages can really prove their worth.  I was journaling about this, trying to figure out why I’m stuck and how to fix it.  I thought about a writing teacher I had last summer at ESPA, Sheri Wilner, and tried to remember what some of her methods were for getting through a scene.  I was about to go back and look at some of my notes from her class when I remembered one of her tricks: figure out the emotional need of each character for the scene, the need behind the literal thing they say they want.  Things like I want to be respected, I want to be loved, I want to feel safe, I want to punish, I want to save, etc.  Write these at the top of the page and make sure each character is really going after that thing with each of their lines.

Upon remembering this, I wrote down what the emotional need for each character is in the scene (to protect, to be respected, to be safe, to be acknowledged).  It resonated so deeply in my gut that I am quite confident that when I approach the scene from this angle, it will come together.  Let’s hope I’m right -- I’ll keep you posted!

In the meantime, if you’re in NYC and free on Friday the 27th at 3pm, I’m acting in a reading of The Carpetbagger’s Children by Horton Foote at Primary Stages.  It’s a beautiful play, and it’s free!  Details and reservations here.

Friday, July 20, 2012


I had all these other posts in mind about having found the beginning of my play, about balancing writing with my new acting gigs, etc etc, but that is not what is on my mind. What is on my mind is that my cat seemed suddenly very sick yesterday.

My Mimi girl, my cat who came into my life just before my divorce and helped get me through it, who was my companion during my time alone, and who has so gracefully transitioned into neither of us being alone (we got her a companion kitten a few weeks ago, and they are fast friends). I don't know what's wrong with her yet - I'm taking her to the vet today - but I was an emotional wreck all day yesterday, crying uncontrollably at times. On the surface of things, such an emotional response was unwarranted. Though she does have early stage kidney disease, to immediately jump to the emotional place as if I had been told she would die tomorrow was a bit excessive.

But I was reminded of my last cat, Susie, who died of kidney disease and with whom I spent 2 very difficult years treating her at home, including several months of force feeding her liquified food three times a day. Her illness and ultimate loss were the most torturous things I've gone through with a pet. So when Mimi started acting sick yesterday, all those old emotions were triggered, and I lost it.

I think such echoes are what make theater (film, TV, etc) so powerful. Why should we ever have an emotional response while watching people we have never met, on a stage so far away sometimes we can't even really see their faces, acting out a story that never really happened (and certainly hasn't happened to us)? Because somehow, the great story tellers are able to trigger those echoes in us, to remind us of experiences we have had that may have been similar or at least where we felt a similar way, and those old emotions come flooding to the surface. Joy or grief, anger or love, indignation or embarrassment - they can all be called forth in an instant. And for some reason, we as people like this, we like to be reminded of these feelings, even the bad ones sometimes. Perhaps because it reminds us that we are alive, that we have lived.

This is clearly not a new concept - the Greeks wrote about catharsis millennia ago - but it was a good reminder for me. That for me as a writer, it is good to be in touch with my own echoes, so that I can draw on those for my characters. The most memorable moments in our lives are the ones where our emotions were the most intense - good or bad - and that is why those moments are the most compelling in theater. There is an expression we use a lot in both writing and acting: raise the stakes.  If I were writing a story about a woman and her cat, I could write about a cat who acted a little bit sick one day, she took the cat to the vet, the vet said the cat was fine and they went home happily ever after.  It could be a very truthful, honest story, something that would actually happen in real life, but it would be boring.  It would not trigger any echoes.  Or I could write a story about a cat that was gravely ill, where the woman - who was already struggling for money - agonized over how much to spend on vet bills to try to treat her dear companion, where she went to heroic measures at home to try to save the cat, even contemplated having the cat euthanized, but finally, as if by some miracle, the cat pulled through and they had a few more years together.  This would be much more compelling theater, because the stakes are much higher.

But while that would make for a better story, I'm going root for the boring one to actually happen today.  I've already lived through the high stakes version of the story (without the happy ending), and don't need to relive that in order to draw on those echoes whenever I need them.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


I committed myself to spending this weekend working.  Not teaching-working, but work nonetheless: a lot of administrative stuff for my teaching studio, acting prep work for the readings and TV shoot I have coming up, writing work, and few non-work-but-still mandatory personal things.

I lost half of Saturday to some not-previously-on-my-list personal life to-dos (like spending a couple of hours with my dear friend who is due to give birth any minute and whom I will thus not be able to see much of for months), so even though I worked almost incessantly til almost midnight yesterday, I still started off this morning with a to-do list with 14 items on it.  I even set an alarm (which I am loath to do on a Sunday) to make sure I got up in time to tackle this list.  I have a deadline of 10pm - 3 minutes away as I am typing this sentence - because that is when the season premier of Breaking Bad comes on which I am absolutely NOT going to miss (thank goodness for DVRs so I can start it a few minutes late).  

I have had other weekends where I had long lists of to-dos, and haven't gotten a third of them done.  But this weekend, I actually wrote down my list in my calendar - including the personal things like morning pages, yoga, and meditation - to hold myself accountable.  I checked each thing off as I completed it.  When I don't make a list, it is too easy to just let something slide, to say "I need a day off to do nothing" and then spend my entire week frustrated that I didn't get these things done when I had the chance.  I was not willing to let that happen this weekend -- and frankly, I couldn't afford to, literally, as much of the work is part of keeping my teaching business going which is what keeps food on my table.

At the end of the day, as soon as I finish this blog post, I will have two items left on my list uncompleted. Which is actually a pretty good ratio (and I may still get one of those done after Breaking Bad tonight, maybe).  And though I would have liked some downtime napping in one of my zero-gravity lounge chairs in my backyard, I feel much more personally satisfied for having gotten almost everything done on my list.  I will start the week lighter, happier, more focused, and ready to keep working since I don't have to play catch up.  So even though it might seem a bit crazy to commit oneself to working all weekend, I'll be saner this week for having done so.  At least I hope so.  And so does my boyfriend.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

A different kind of downtime

You know that feeling, that feeling you get at the end of the day, when you've finally gotten home, cooked dinner, eaten dinner, cleaned up, and now it's way later than you hoped it would be and you've still got all this work you want to do but all you really want to do is turn on the television and veg?  You know, that feeling?

That feeling has been plaguing me a lot more the last few months than usual.  Perhaps partly because I'm still getting used to the novelty of actually having a television and cable again (after not having had it for over 10 years), but also partly because I just haven't been as focused.  I've been distracted by moving into a new place with my best-boyfriend-ever, by exploring acting, by discovering the joy of gardening, by getting a new kitty....  While all these are wonderful things, and I'm learning a lot and having a lot of fun with all these new things in my life, my mind has also been crying out to me for some time to just be quiet.  Hence the craving for television.

But suddenly in the last few days, I find myself not craving television.  I find myself craving work.  Writing, to be exact.  Itching, aching to get to work on the play.  Part of it is the new deadline, to be sure (my brain definitely likes those looming deadlines to keep myself motivated), but I think there is something else.

The weekend of the writing intensive, I did 30 minutes of yoga and 10 minutes of meditation before I left the house each day.   I also made sure to write in my morning pages journal, to try to get out the clutter from my mind so I would be clearer to work on the play.  Doing these things felt so great, that I told myself I wanted to do them  every morning.  While every morning hasn't quite happened, I have done all these things a lot more, and I am noticing a real difference.  I am suddenly more focused, more disciplined, and I don't find myself feeling that "need" to watch television, that "need" to just do nothing and let my brain veg. I think I am giving my brain some of that quiet time it needs which then allows me to get more work done.  Which makes me happy.  Cause I have a lot of work to do.

Not that watching television is always bad -- believe you me, I am going to be watching the season premier of Breaking Bad this weekend.  No amount of meditation could make me want to miss that.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Oops, I did it again. (or, the art of making deadlines)

At 10:45am this morning, my self-imposed arbitrary Labor Day deadline for the first draft of this new play became no longer arbitrary.  I am now accountable to someone besides myself (and the readers of this blog) to complete it by then.  I just learned that I have been granted a work-study position for a rewrite class at ESPA-Primary Stages in the fall.  A rewrite class.  Which means I need to have a play I have already written so that I can start re-writing it. That class starts September 11.  8 days after my self-imposed Labor Day deadline.  No sweat.

There be folks would say I'm nuts.  Why on earth would I sign up for a rewrite class when I have barely started writing the play?  Or why would I schedule a reading and book actors for a draft I have yet to complete?  Or why would I book a performance for a cabaret show my performing partner and I have yet to put together?  There seems to be a trend here.  This is something I do a lot -- at least in the last 4 years since I started creating and producing my own works -- and I must say I find this tactic extremely useful (if at times nail-biting and stress-inducing).

The predominant benefit for me of this (perhaps more than) slightly nutty practice is that it helps me make choices on a daily basis.  When confronted with choices for how to spend my non-teaching time - do I do this audition?  Do I go for a bike ride? Do I take a nap?  Write in my journal?  Write in this blog? Practice, do research, do laundry or go grocery shopping?  -- when I have a limited amount of time and too many things that *need* to be done, having a deadline like this makes prioritizing much simpler.  Like today, I chose to stay home and start transcribing the scenes I wrote during the writing intensive instead of going to the library before I started teaching.  The library is something that must also get done, but I'll do it later today.  For now, I need to feel myself getting work done, now that I know that finishing the play by Labor Day is no longer optional.

So if you're a procrastinator who has trouble self-motivating, I recommend you try this trick sometime.  Sign yourself up for something where you are accountable to an outside force, to force you to get the thing done that you want to get done.  You might surprise yourself with how much you can get done when you have to risk disappointing someone other than just yourself.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Other End of the Pen

Tonight I'm doing something I haven't ever done before: acting in a short play.  I'm very excited about this.  It is part of ESPA-Primary Stages' "Detention" series: monthly performances of short works written, directed, and performed by students of ESPA.  Tonight's show is especially fun: short plays set in the worlds of classic board games.  I play Ayn Rand trying to win at Pictionary in order to earn a chance to get reincarnated.  Very fun.  (Show info here if you want to come check it out!).

After half a life-time performing works other people wrote, I first stepped behind the pen in 2009 to write a show that I also performed (Nat & Kat's Adventures with the Time-Traveling Piano).  But that's the only time I've done that -- I quickly transitioned to writing works for other people to perform, and have never since performed anything that I wrote.  In fact I thought maybe I was done performing.  Then last December, a playwright I know asked me to star in a work she had written, and suddenly I was back performing again.  And - for the most part - loving it.

Since that work was mostly acting (75 minutes of monologue, to be exact), it inspired me to try doing some "straight" acting instead of singing.  In the last couple of months, I've done some auditions, and have been fortunate to actually land several things (including my first TV show -- more on that after it shoots!).  It's fun to look at things from both sides again.  I am learning a lot about writing (largely because I am reading so many plays searching for audition material) and getting exposed to a whole new network of people which is both fun and also good for all aspects of my life.

I often wonder how realistic it is to try to both perform and write.  Is it possible to do both well, and to achieve any "success" (read: make any money) doing both, or am I spreading myself too thin?  While I don't know the answer to this, I've also kind of decided I don't care.  Acting is fun, and it is satisfying to use this part of myself, especially in a new way.  I don't want to miss out on that opportunity for joy because I am afraid it will detract from my writing.  And I don't want to give up on my writing either, especially not while I have some stories in my mind that I really want to tell.  And who knows, maybe some day I'll hold a pen from both ends and act in something I wrote again.

Monday, July 2, 2012

All Shook Up

I'm still a little woozy from this weekend's writing intensive at ESPA.  Winter Miller, the instructor, completely blew open my creative process.  I feel like I was put in a martini shaker with a bunch of different ingredients, shaken up, and poured back out.  The end result is still a beverage, but it looks and tastes very different.

Winter constructed the weekend in such a way that I wasn't allowed to do anything the way I would normally do it. For example, we weren't allowed to use computers the first day -- and I was so intrigued by the difference I felt writing by hand that I decided to write by hand for the entire weekend (god help me if I lose that notebook). But she also didn't have us just start at the beginning and write.  We played games where we inhabited our characters; we built sculptures; we made lists of random things and then wrote scenes inspired from those things -- often scenes that we would never expect to write (most notably, the list of the thing that absolutely would never happen in your play, then of course we had to write a scene where that thing happened).

I'm almost not even sure what happened this weekend, it's all such a crazy blur.  All I know is that I walked in Friday evening with some background information in my head (since my play is an historical piece), ideas about the main character and one other, and a handful of plot points that did not add up to a full narrative.  I walked out Sunday evening with an outline for the entire story from beginning to end, very clear ideas of the 6 main characters who are in it, and several rough scenes constructed.  This play is so clear in my mind now, if I didn't have to teach and rehearse and perform, I honestly think I could pound out a first draft in the next week or two at the most.

I think I need to shake up my writing process like this more often.  'Cause this rocks.