Friday, September 14, 2012

How much history and how much fiction?

My play is a piece of historical fiction. Meaning, I am taking a piece of history and telling a fictionalized account of it, rather than attempting to make a completely factual documentary.  (The phrase "inspired by true events" would be appropriate.)  Though historical fiction is my favorite literary form, I have never before attempted to write such a work.  It has its challenges. Mainly, how much history and how much fiction do I put into the story?

When I am reading a work of historical fiction, I like to believe when I am reading it that pretty much everything that I am reading is true.  And I do believe it is true, unless it is a about an aspect of history I know particularly well (like the movies Amadeus and Immortal Beloved), and can easily spot when creative license is taken. Since very few people will be experts in the piece of history I am telling, this could either absolve me -- who will know? -- or it could mean I have a greater responsibility to tell the story as accurately as I can, since this play (movie?) may be the only exposure most people will ever have to the subject.

My decisions fall into two categories: the events of the play vs. the world of the play.  I have decided that the events of the play can be fictitious -- in fact, they should be, otherwise I would be dealing with rights issues -- while the world should be as factual as possible.  The details must be accurate so that the audience feels that "that could have happened" (even if it didn't).   If the details of the world make people raise their eyebrows -- that city didn't exist then, people didn't talk like that then, a black band couldn't have played in that club then -- then the whole story will be unbelievable.

Thus I found myself in the library this week, looking at issues of Down Beat magazine from 1943 on microfilm.  MICROFILM.  Yes, it still exists.  No, everything in the universe has not been scanned into google.  Alas, because there is no "search" button on a microfilm machine.  All you can do is go through one issue after another, page by page, hoping to find the little tidbit you are looking for.  But this play deserves every bit of time and effort and energy I can put into and more, so I'll be back there next week, going through more microfilm so that the world of my play can have as much history in it as possible.

Friday, September 7, 2012


(ok, just kidding.  I'm not actually going to write a blank blog post titled "speechless", though of course that would be the only correct thing to do since if I can think of anything to write, then clearly I'm not speechless).

Today's reading of my play far exceeded any expectation I had even dared to think.  Honestly, I don't know that I had a single expectation.  Even when I read through the whole play myself yesterday, I didn't know what to think of it.  There were things I liked about it, but I didn't feel like I could see it.  I was so inside it, it was (is!) so fresh, that I couldn't take a step back and see the big picture.  I honestly wasn't even sure if I had told the story I wanted to tell.  I know this world so well now, having read so much about it, having listened to their music, that I had no idea what the story would look like to people who had none of the information in their heads that I have.

But people saw everything I wanted them to see and more.  The overall consensus amongst the actors and directors and writers there was don't touch it, submit this now.   Of course it will be revised in the development process, but no one could believe it was a first draft and they all think it is ready to be workshopped.  One of the actors is already scheming about presenting the idea to companies with whom she has a relationship to see if I can get a reading or workshop there.

Even as I am typing this, tears are coming to my eyes.  This project has been so long in the dreaming (at least 4 years), and so short in the making (just 3 months) that I still can't quite believe I did it.  On top of that, I have to admit I had started to lose faith in my writing.  Having had my first play rejected from so many places -- even places with which I had strong personal connections -- I was starting to wonder if maybe I can't really write.  My biggest fear in approaching this project was that I wasn't going to do it justice.  I believe so strongly in this story, I feel so passionately that it must be told, and I was scared that maybe I wasn't the person to do it.

But tonight confirmed that I am.  I do have the voice to tell this story.  There are no promises, of course, in this crazy world where the almighty dollar is always the bottom line.  But there is reason for that little candle of hope to flicker to life again, the hope that something I create could actually get produced and be seen by the wider world.  My mother -- the first person on the planet to get to read the play other than myself -- even dared utter the mythical words "when you when your Tony" tonight.  Dare I hope.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Making it real

Though I declared my play "born" on Monday, I'm not sure I really believed it, deep down.  But as of 11:47pm tonight, the draft was tidied up and the missing pieces filled in enough for me to actually print it out.  I can now hold my play in my hands, look at it, feel its weight.  (Oddly enough, despite all the snipping and cleaning up and filling in I've done in the last two days, it is still exactly 112 pages.  The same length it was on Monday.  Funny).

It will become even more real on Friday.  I have scheduled a very informal reading so I can hear the whole thing out loud once before I start the rewrite process next week.  (Next week!!)  I have assembled 10 actors, calling upon people I know as well as a number of referrals to people two or three degrees of separation away.  It is weird to think that people I don't even know will get a glimpse of this baby on Friday.  That makes me feel more than a little vulnerable.

But I'm also excited.  Going through it to clean it up and fill in the gaps, I realized there is more there than I thought.  I like a lot of it.  Parts of it make my cry.

But it's also too hard to tell when you are this close.  I need some distance.  I need it to be taken out of my head and held up to the light so I can really see it.  That's what Friday will be.  I'll let you know what I see.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Play #2 is born!

I have been struggling all day with whether or not to say that the first draft of my play is "done".  I mean, what constitutes a completed first draft, exactly?  Does it have to be something you could actually put on stage right this minute, or if you have the beginning, middle, end and all the important structural beats in between, can you call it "done"?

Even when I finished typing up all of my hand-written notes at 5pm today - constituting 112 typed pages - I was reluctant to pat myself on the back.  Several weeks ago, I was still futzing with the second scene (as I had been for far too long) when I decided to switch from typing to writing by hand in order to move forward.  The gist of it was there, I know how I am getting into it and out of it, but I need to flesh out a bit of the middle some.  And there are a couple of connective-tissue scenes later in the play that I realized today I need to fill in.  So there is more work to do.  There will always be more work to do.

Then, a few minutes ago, I remembered something.  One of my best friends had a baby last January.  She was an absolutely perfectly healthy baby, all 10 fingers and toes, everything in order.  One of her ear lobes was a bit of a funny shape, though, nothing too much to be concerned about, but it was noticeable.  Her dad even wondered if they should get her plastic surgery in order to fix it.  But within a week or so, it grew in and looked completely normal.  It just wasn't quite finished growing yet, but the baby had most certainly been born.

Likewise, I now declare my play to be "born".  I can see what it is, and there are lots of clues as to what the final product will look like when it's more grown-up.  It just has a bit of a funny shaped earlobe, and maybe one or two other little things that aren't quite fully-cooked yet.  I'm even going to introduce it to a few people this Friday in a very informal reading so I can hear it out loud and get an even better idea of what I have on my hands.

So here comes the formal announcement:

Welcome to the world, Sweethearts of Swing.  I look forward to watching you grow up.

Saturday, September 1, 2012


I have just three days to complete my play by my self-imposed deadline.  A couple of weeks ago --before I started writing by hand -- I'm not sure I thought it would be possible.  But now I'm almost there.

So here's the plan: today (Saturday) I will write to the end of the play.  I'm almost there, so that should be quite doable even with teaching on my plate.  Then Sunday, I will go type up everything handwritten and see what I've got, what pieces I might be missing (since I haven't written strictly in order).  Then on Monday I will fill in those pieces.

Wish me luck.