Thursday, August 30, 2012

Window Writing Wrap-up

That's me, in the window!
Yesterdays' "Write Out Front" writing-in-the-window experience was both a great success and a bit anti-climactic.

I started getting incredibly nervous the day before when I realized I needed to figure out what scene I was actually going to write for all the world to see.  I wanted to pick something really good, a scene that would seem exciting to passersby who know nothing else about the play.  Fortunately, that question resolved itself the night before, as the writing I did took me up to a sequence of scenes that would include the ultimate conflict of the play.   That ought to get their attention.

The next morning I made myself look pretty (after all, I was going to be in a window), then packed up my computer, power cord, notebooks, speakers (for music to work by), historical reference book, and pretzels and grapes to snack on.   Micheline (the organizer) got me all set up, and I was ready to go by 10:56.  I decided to break my 105 minutes into two halves, allowing a stretch break in between, and set my timer on my phone for 50 minutes. My self-imposed rule was to not stop typing until the timer went off.  With butterflies in my belly and adrenalin pumping through my fingers, I began.

I began typing with the awareness that other people might be seeing it, looking at what I was writing as if someone else was writing it (never helpful). But within 2 or 3 minutes, as I realized that 90+% of the people walking by were paying no attention, I stopped being nervous and just focused on what I was writing.  A half hour in or so, people started gathering in front of the window -- but unfortunately they weren't gathering to watch me, they were waiting for something next door and actually had their BACKS to my window, blocking the view for anyone else who might be passing by.  My initial nervousness at being observed turned to indignation at these rude people who were blocking people from looking at me.  ("Hey, look at me!").  I let it go, and eventually someone from the Drama Book Shop asked them to clear the way.

In the end, not that many people stopped to read.  A few friends stopped by, and two actors with whom I have worked and haven't seen for ages happened by and saw me, which was fun.  But most of the attention I got from doing this project was not from people who actually saw me do it, but from people who read about me doing it on facebook or this blog.  People seem quite impressed with me for doing this, and one person even said I'm an "inspiration".  So that's quite lovely.

More important than any of that, though, is that I WROTE 18 PAGES.  In an hour and 45 minutes.  I am pretty sure that is a personal record for me.  When I left, I could barely even remember what I wrote, and honestly didn't have the faintest clue if it was any good.  But I went back and read it this morning before diving in to write more, and have to admit there is some really good stuff in there.  I can actually see the end of my play from where I stand now, and am completely confident I will be able to finish the first draft by the end of Monday.   Hallelujah.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Adrenalin junky

I'm doing this crazy thing on Wednesday where I will be sitting in a store front window off of Times Square, writing.  What I write will be displayed as I type it on a giant monitor for all the passing world to see. This crazy thing will be happening at the Drama Book Shop at 250 W. 40th St (btw 7/8) from 11am-12:45pm this Wed, August 29.  If you live in New York, swing by on your lunch break and you can get a tiny preview of this play I'm working on!

When I told my best-boyfriend-ever I was doing this, he said something like "that sounds like the most horrific thing ever".  He would hate for anyone to be witness to his creative process when he is composing.  He loves to perform, but to have someone watch while he's trying to create?  Pure torture. I get that -- as a singer, I used to detest for anyone to listen to me practice.  Perform, yes, but to hear me when I'm trying to work things out?  Horrifying.  Surely having people watch me write will be at least as nerve-wracking.

So why am I doing this? 

I could give a big-picture reason: I think the project is truly fantastic, creative, and worthwhile, as it  helps give exposure to playwrights and to give the wider world a window into our creative process*.  Or I could give a practical reason: I love writing under pressure and figure that there is no greater pressure than having people actually watch me write, so I'll be sure to get lots done.  Or a shallow reason: I'm acutely afflicted with "hey look at me" disease (as my boyfriend calls it), and there's nothing like sitting in a store front window on 40th and 7th as a way to get looked at.

But I think the biggest reason is that I have this compulsion - and always have - to do things that scare me.  I'm a different kind of adrenaline junky -- not the bungie jumping/sky-diving/race car driving type, but the kind who constantly pushes myself where I am most vulnerable.  Even as a child and teenager, I competed in as many things as I could from spelling bees to student government to sports to speech and debate to music competitions.  Many of those things I did not succeed at, but I kept doing them anyway.  And when it came time to choose what I was going to be when I grew up, I picked the most difficult thing I could possibly pick, the thing that would force me to constantly put myself out there in the face of rejection and the overwhelming likelihood of failure: becoming an opera singer.  

And boy did I get regular adrenalin fixes with that one: every application, every audition, every performance was another chance to be judged and and to have someone else tell me whether or not I had worth.  

Ah, we artists are such a contradiction that way, such a mix of ego and insecurity.  

Age and experience have helped me gain a bit more control over my addiction, though.  Since giving up my opera career, I've come to recognize the value of contentment in life and now allow myself to devote time to things that don't require someone else's stamp of approval, like cycling, cooking, gardening, and even watching Breaking Bad with my sweetie.

But clearly I still need a hit from time to time.  Which is why I'll be writing in the window on Wednesday.  11am-12:45pm on 40th between 7th and 8th.  Hey, look at me.  

*if you think this project is as awesome as I do, or even just a little bit awesome, consider donating a few bucks to the organizers to help them cover their costs!

Monday, August 20, 2012

Experiment in productivity redux

(also known as the shortest time between two posts I've ever written on this blog, I'm pretty sure).

I can scarcely believe what I accomplished tonight.  I am almost in tears.  I have felt so stuck, so blocked on this piece -- incomprehensibly so, since I love this story so much and want so badly to tell it.  But I've been feeling like I've been spinning my wheels, that what I was writing wasn't any good, and was starting to wonder if I should just give up and focus on my acting since I'd been getting some traction with that lately.

But tonight, oh tonight! The magic of writing by hand! Of setting a timer, being out of the house!  Of having figured out who my characters are, of having done more research this weekend (since its an historical piece).  Tonight in just 3 hours, I wrote 30 pages by hand. 3 entire scenes, 2 of which I had no idea I was going to write.  The scenes are rough and will definitely need some editing, but they are there.  And it is so much clearer to me now where I am in this story, who these people are, what their journey is.  Specifically what Rosie's journey is, my main character's. I know her now. I love her.  She's definitely more than a little bit me.  She's definitely NOT me in any kind of literal sense, but there is something in her essence that is very much me.

I am in love with my play again.  I am in love with writing again.  I am so happy right now I could cry.  I don't know if this experiment will work this well every time I do it, but I will be doing a version of this every day day this week, for whatever amount of time my schedule allows.  Huzzah.

An experiment In productivity

I am trying a three-part experiment tonight to increase the rate of my writing output.  I keep not getting as much done as I need to be.  I am melding together three different techniques I have found to be useful in the past and am seeing what happens when I put them all together:

1) Leave the house

I often get more done when I don't have distractions of home (especially now that I live with my best-boyfriend-ever).  So I left the house at 6pm tonight, to give him space to work on music without me and to give myself space to write.

2) Write by hand

This is a new technique for me, that I was just introduced to by Winter Miller.  I noticed that I edited way less when writing by hand, so I am trying that tonight since telling myself to "stop editing!" when I'm on the computer hasn't been working. This will also make it much harder for me to get distracted by things like Facebook or email, since I don't even have my computer and the iPad I'm typing on will be stowed away and powered off in my bag.

3) Set a timer

I am going to set a timer for an hour, three times tonight, and write solid for that hour without stopping. No email breaks, hopefully no potty breaks, no self-editing breaks, just write. At the end of those three writing sprees, we'll see if I have another one in me.

I'll let you know how it went tomorrow!

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Characters vs plot, or the art of listening

I'm approaching the writing of this play completely differently from how I wrote my last play.  With my last play, I had no idea what the story was I was going to tell -  I just let my characters "speak" to me, intuiting how each scene flowed to the next, discovering the story and the plot as I went along.  When I finally wrote to the end, I then went back and made adjustments to give it more structure.  I thought this would be how I would always write plays, as I love the discovery process and the feeling of just being in the flow.

But with this play, I know the story I want to tell, and I had an outline for the whole play several weeks ago.  So now the process of writing is giving those plot points dialogue, rather than writing dialogue to discover the plot points.  While this process definitely has its advantages, I'm also discovering it has its own pitfalls, or at least one major pitfall for me:

When I write from the characters first, and not from the plot, I am writing from what they want, what they need, and then discovering how they act because of that.  When I know how they already act, I don't automatically get in touch with why they act that way, and the dialogue ends up being stilted and a clumsy way of telling the story.  The characters can feel shallow, like cardboard cutouts of people instead of real people.

I first became aware of this problem when I was stuck in the middle of the first scene and realized it was because I didn't really know what the emotional need was for each character.  While thinking about their needs definitely helped, and I did get through that first scene, I still wasn't quite happy with it.  And I find that as I go forward into other scenes, I am running up against the same problem again: I am too focused on the plot points and not enough on what is really driving the characters to act the way they do.

The root of the problem is that I don't know my characters well enough.  When I write without a story line, I have nothing to go on except who my characters are.  I have to wait and listen to them to tell me what they are going to do, and in so doing, I discover more about them.  It feels as if they are already fully formed people I am simply uncovering.  But when I write from the plot first, it's easy to skip over that listening/discovering phase.  I mean, heck, if I already know what they do, then I must know who they are, right?

I need to spend some time really listening to my characters, the way I did in my first play.  A great way to do this is through free writing, where I write as if I am the charcter writing in a journal, telling my/her story.  I started with Rosie, my main character, and I've already discovered a couple of major things about her that will have a huge impact on the first two scenes (though, in the interests of moving forward, for now I am simply going to make note of them and wait til later to actually rewrite them).  I can't wait to hear what else she has to tell me.

Friday, August 10, 2012

A bear of a tale

My best-boyfriend-ever and I have been camping in the Adirondacks all week.  It's been lovely, exploring a part of the country I've never seen before.  It's also been quite an adventure, from an oil leak on the motorcycle to having almost no phone/Internet access to getting caught in a couple of heavy downpours to having a bear attack our campsite.

Yup, that's right, a bear.  At Lake Eaton campground near Long Lake deep in the heart of the Adirondacks.  We were warned that the park sometimes has bears, but the ranger also said "there haven't been any incidents".  So we did what we've done before - since we have no car in which to put food - stored the trash in the luggage on the back of the motorcycle (harder to get at that way), pulled the soft sided cooler next to the tent (figuring animals will be less likely to approach that close to a tent) and kept the dry goods inside the tent with us (cause certainly they won't actually try to get IN the tent with us in it).

We were right about one of those things.  The bear didn't try to get the food in our tent (thank god).  But she had no qualms about grabbing the cooler that was just a few inches from my feet and dragging it to the lake to rip it open and eat the yogurt, butter and salad dressing that was inside (the beer and watermelon were apparently too much trouble).  Getting at the garbage on the back of the bike was a bit harder, but she easily solved that problem by knocking the 550lb motorcycle over on its side to get the luggage off the rack and drag it into the woods where she could eat her prize in peace.

We were blissfully unaware of all this until I awoke for a quick bathroom trip and discovered the bike on its side and the the cooler and luggage missing.  I don't know how we didn't hear the bike get knocked over, but it's probably good that we didn't since there wouldn't have been a thing to do about it.  Fortunately the cooler is cheap and easily replaced, and the bike suffered mostly cosmetic damage which, while not cheap, doesn't keep the bike from running.  And we managed to find the luggage which - other than a couple of teeth marks - miraculously survived its ordeal unscathed.  If that bag could talk....

What does all this have to do with writing my play? Not a whole lot, but it's a great story.  When I told me dad about it, he replied "you will have a story to share for years." And that's true, we will. These extraordinary moments, these are the moments we tell stories about and are the stories we want to hear.  This is why one of the most important rules of playwriting is to answer the question "what is different about today?". Cause if it's not different, it's not interesting. At least not enough for theater.

The other take away for me from this is that part of what makes this a great story - for me - is that it could have been tragic, but wasn't.  There was danger, great risk, the consequences of our foolishness were potentially life-threatening (or at least severely life-crimping, if the bike had been severely damaged we would have been screwed).  Don't get me wrong, I love dark stories - that's what I both write and act best - but I always long for there to be a glimmer of something good in the end.  I find tragedy averted, or tragedy overcome, to be far more satisfying than straight up tragedy.  Those are the stories I want to hear and tell.

Which is one of the things I have been struggling to work out about my new play.  The true ending of the story (since it's an historical piece) isn't happy.  While I don't want to rewrite history, I have to make sure there is hope for the future, a glimmer of what can be in the way I chose to tell this tale. I don't want the bear to eat the people in my play.   I feel even more strongly about that now.  I have an idea for how to make that work - we'll see if I'm right!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

My play, his play, her play, whose play?

Turns out that it is hard to both write my own play and perform someone else's play at the same time.  Huh.

Acting, as you may or may not know, actually takes a lot of work.  Even for these readings I've been doing at Primary Stages, where I haven't had to memorize the script, there is still a lot of background work to be done, figuring out what makes your character tick and why they say the things they say. This takes hours.  Many hours.  Plus rehearsing actually saying the lines, of course.

So I've found myself having to dedicate time I would have spent writing my play to preparing these plays that somebody else wrote.  It's a great problem to have, and I'm learning a lot about writing while I'm at it.  I'm still trying to figure out how it is Horton Foote managed to write a play consisting entirely of many-pages-long story-telling monologues into a compelling piece of theater.  The Carpetbagger's Children - which I performed last week - breaks a bunch of major "rules" of playwriting, and yet it works.  Beautifully.  And Daisy Foote's play Bhutan feels so natural, the way the characters speak --  they all feel like real people (extremely unhappy people, but real people).   I admire this and really want the characters in my play to feel the same.  (not the unhappy part, the real part).

In the balance, it has been good for me to do these things.  I'm really enjoying acting, and the response I am getting would indicate I'm not bad at it.  But I also need to focus on getting this play done.  So I just turned away from looking at more casting notices to writing this blog post, and I need to continue to do that until I finish this play.  Remind me of that, ok?