Breaking the Block, Part 5: The Exploratory Scene

Exploration is not always going to take you where you expect to go.

We’re back with my series on feeling my way through a draft of a new play. How to break through the block? In this installment, I’m looking at laying the foundations for an exploratory scene that might not necessarily make it into the play. This is my play about a man with an amazing memory, whose strange gift turns out to be a liability in the time and place (1930s Soviet Union) in which he lives.

 

In the opening scene that I posted previously, we are introduced to Alexei in the middle of an exchange between his psychologist and the NKVD agent who is questioning her. He enters the space as if he is coming into Natalia’s office at the hospital, rather than into the dingy office where the interrogation is taking place.

 

This introduction to Alexei and Natlia puts us immediately into the thick of their relationship. It also creates the   advantage of a high-stakes scenario for the doctor.

 

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After a Long Absence …

It’s been a month since I posted last. My apologies for my absence.  It was due in part to a family crisis.  My mother-in-law, who had been ill for several years, took a sudden, unexpected turn for the worst on Sept. 23 and died the following Saturday.

 

Doreen was a true lady who grew up amid a great deal of hardship but never saw herself as deprived. She lost her father at an early age, was sent away to Devon as a child to escape the Nazi bombing of London, and came of age at a time of genuine economic privation in post-war Britain. But she took it all in stride.

 

Even during the worst of her illness she never complained. And she slipped away quietly.

 

A rush of activity followed her passing—calling friends, relatives, making arrangements, simply sitting still and holding hands—the initial shock gives way to a grief that is expressed in so many different ways. Not always tears.

 

We struggled with finding the right words to remember her—and this is what we came up with to read at her memorial service on October 8:

 

Doreen Lucy Gregory,  Aug. 4, 1933 – Sept. 29, 2012

Anyone who met Doreen in recent years met a woman who had a great enthusiasm for life even though she was dealing with a debilitating illness.  “Life is sweet,” she said one day, and throughout her life, she found sweetness in many things, large and small—the pleasure of a brisk walk through Wentworth Woods, the excitement of holidays with family and friends, or the  taste of fresh picked raspberries from her own allotment.  Even an experience that was a hardship for many—being evacuated as a child during World War II—was a sweet one for her. She often said the five years she spent in Devon were among the happiest of her life.

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Now, Who Can’t Relate to This?

Sometimes you just have to open the Jack.

Tamara Federici’s production notes show why some playwrights ought to write fiction and be done with it. I particularly liked this one:

 

Regarding pauses: short pauses are short, three seconds or so, like the time it takes to sneak out a little fart, i.e. Lucia’s line “No, I told you to bring me the head of Cornel, not [little fart] Gary.”

 

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/shouts/2012/09/a-few-notes-about-my-play.html#ixzz278otRb00

 

Breaking the Block Part 4: The Worst Case Scenario

Some years ago I came across a funny yet utterly serious book called “Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook” by Joshua Piven—a guidebook on how to survive a series of unlikely disasters—from an avalanche to a shark attack to the crash of a jumbo jet. So I immediately bought a copy for  an artistic director who has suffered through enough near misses over 25 years of running a not-for-profit theatre to write a guidebook of his own. John is also a risk-taker dedicated to new work and has a keen eye  and a lot of good advice for writers.  Early on, his advice to me was that I needed to “raise the stakes” for my characters, another way of saying I needed to put more pressure on them—because it is only under pressure that character is revealed.

 

It is true in life and true in drama that the way we deal with mess says a great deal about who we really are. The same fire that melts the fat hardens the iron—to borrow a borrowed phrase from some advice columnist I used to read religiously like a fool  (she gave a lot of bad advice). But it is also a no brainer to say that any character in desperate pursuit of something is always more interesting than someone who can wait another week or so and won’t suffer for the delay. What audiences want—savages that we are—is to watch someone suffer–intensely. The more agony for the character, the better for the story and the more interested are we in the outcome.

 

James Stewart’s manically lovesick detective in Vertigo comes to mind—it is part of what makes that improbable (and creaky) ghost story so watchable 60 years later. Nobody suffers better than James Stewart, but most of us are not going to get a Jimmy Stewart to play our leading man, so what we lack in spectacular acting talent we have to make up in a riveting script.  (Not that Vertigo isn’t riveting, but you have to admit it does defy logic. Why, for example, would anyone cook up such a convoluted murder plot that hangs on such an unpredictable element—the detective’s inability to overcome his fear of heights? Scotty conveniently falters on the bell tower stairs, but he could just as easily have closed his eyes and charged ahead, at which point the whole plot would unravel. And then there is the murderer’s great good luck in escaping the bell tower undetected—apparently because no one without vertigo bothered to go up the tower steps to investigate what actually caused the victim to fall.)

 

But plot weaknesses aside, Vertigo is a terrific example of a character under extreme pressure. The woman Scotty thinks he adores is actually someone else, hired to use him as a pawn in a plot to fake a suicide as a cover for murder.  And once the real Madelyn dies, clueless Scotty is skinned alive during the inquest that follows, as an investigator coldly concludes that his cowardice was a greater cause of Madelyn’s demise than the mysterious emotional upset that sent her up the tower. Who wouldn’t end up catatonic in a nursing home after that?

 

We have to admit—when it comes to scenarios for losing your sweetheart, this has to be one of the worst case scenarios of all time—as well as one of the more original.

 

This, then is a useful question to keep in mind when sketching out the scenario for your play. Aside from the obvious–have we ever seen this before?–we need to ask ourselves how we can crank up the pressure on our characters.

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Salvation Road at NYU

Salvation Road opens at New York University’s Black Box Theatre on Oct. 26. Tickets are now on sale and can be obtained online at www.nyu.edu/ticketcentral/calendar, or by calling 212-352-3101. Admission is $15 for general admission and $5 for students and seniors.

The show runs from Oct. 26 through the following weekend with performances at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday.

 

More details can be found here.

Where Does a Song Come From?

While I’m off on a holiday, I get by with a little help from my friends. One is Mike Diehm, a songwriter and poet who accomplishes what I can only dream of—he writes music.  As someone who has no musical talent, I stand amazed by anyone who can pull a few chords together, let alone write a six-minute ballad that lingers in my mind for days. So I asked Mike how he does that, and this is his answer.  Be sure to click on the links below for clips from two of the songs he discusses. D.W.G.

Songwriting Process

The following is from my favorite poet, H.W. Longfellow:

 

Before a blazing fire of wood

Erect a rapt musician stood;

And ever and anon he bent

His head upon his instrument,

And seemed to listen till he caught

Confessions of its secret thought

 

 

From “The Musicians Tale; Prelude; The Wayside Inn”

By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

 

The songwriting process for me is very cathartic. I know I’m not the only songwriter to say that I write songs because there is some inner turmoil going on. I guess that’s why I’ve written so MANY songs, lyrics and poems. I am currently compiling a complete collection of my poetry, short prose and lyric poems. This process has been very therapeutic, something that I need right now. As I go through and do some edits I am realizing that I have been searching for a long, long time for a certain something. That certain something, I now believe, after almost 35 years of writing, has been a search for my SELF. I know myself much better these days, and I like it.

 

For me (as I’m sure a lot of songwriters will tell you) a song does not always begin in the same way. Sometimes I first come up with lyrics, sometimes a particular chord progression or even just one chord or, in some cases, just one NOTE. Other times a song will start with a melody stuck in my head. But no matter how a song comes to me if it feels “labored,” if I have to think too much about it, it will invariably be tossed, ripped up or otherwise discarded. The sixty or seventy songs that remain to this day are all songs that came quite naturally.

 

Mike Diehm, on the guitar

Feeling the muse

A lot of my songs and poetry do not even tell a “story,” instead there are more like moments in time, sometimes down to feelings that come and go in seconds or minutes. As a music lover and intense “listener,” I know I’m not alone in this. It’s like a piece of visual art. Everyone who views (or listens to) a piece of art will get a different feeling. That’s because the song CAME FROM a feeling that might have been very fleeting.

 

My best songs and poetry just “happen.” My best lyrics usually come out, literally, in minutes. The musical part of it can come quickly too, but in a song some arranging is necessary. It’s sort of a mathematical process. Finding a progression that is pleasing to the ear or at least makes sense mathematically.

 

Here are some examples. I’ll start with collaborations:

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Playwriting: Breaking the Block Part 3

Last week I wrote about an exercise from Michael Dixon to help raise the stakes in a scene. And here it is again:

 

1. Put two characters who share something in common in a place neither can leave. Write a scene in which the obstacles and stakes are high and clearly presented.

 

Working on my play about the man with the phenomenal memory, (working title: A Hero of the Revolution) I have decided that because the  patient can leave the doctor’s office if he wishes, there is more mileage to be gained from another, less expected scenario. What I come up with is a scene between an interrogator and his prisoner–in this case, the psychiatrist who is treating our guy. For the sake of the exercise (if not the play), the doctor is a woman, Natalia; the patient is Alexei, and the interrogator a tough character named Kreplev.  What Natalia and Kreplev share is a seething hatred for this man:

 

"Tsar Nicholas II"

The wrong guy at the wrong time

 

Tsar Nicholas II, an inept and bloodthirsty ruler of a nation struggling to emerge from feudalism at the end of the 19th century.

 

If ever there were a nation in need of a revolution it was Russia in 1917 — but ultimately what emerged was a government even more oppressive and bloody than the monarchy it replaced. In the Birth of the Modern, World Society 1815-1830, Historian Paul Johnson explains why, in a nation in which the concept of individual rights did not exist,  Russia’s fate could have been no different.

 

All of that is by way of prologue. For our purposes, we fast forward to the 1930s, when Stalin’s paranoia has kicked into high gear, and here we open our scene:

 

 

 

A HERO OF THE REVOLUTION, SCENE ONE

Lights rise on a drab office with sick green walls and a window overlooking a brick wall that sports an enormous banner picture of Stalin. Only a quarter of Stalin’s face is visible, an eternally staring eye. Kreplev, a government official, sits at a desk and Natalia leans against the wall opposite.

 

Kreplev has several files, which he taps on the tabletop. Each time he taps the files, the sound is like a rifleshot. Tap — tap — tap. Tap — and last tap, a light flashes outside the window — as if a gun has been fired, and the report of the rifle report echoing, echoing, echoing, gone. Natalia reacts to this by moving away from the window, but Kreplev does not respond to the sound. It is as if he so accustomed to the sound of gunfire that he can no longer react.

 

KREPLEV: Now then. I have very little time today, comrade doctor. And I imagine you too have pressing business.

 

Beat

 

KREPLEV: I do my best to keep things cordial. Please never let it be said that I have no respect for your profession.

 

NATALIA: Of all the things on my mind this morning, comrade, that … that is not something I have been troubled by …

 

KREPLEV: I will consider that a humorous rejoinder comrade doctor and not make a record of it.

 

NATALIA: Does it matter? Surely someone is taking notes.

 

KREPLEV: It is always possible. But if we have nothing to hide—then we have nothing to fear.

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Playwriting: Breaking the Block, Part 2

I have a play in my head that has frightened me for a long time because it will require considerable research to write authentically—and the stack of books I’ve accumulated to begin the work is a bit intimidating. Not that I can’t read; I figured that out when I was six, but there is a gap between book knowledge and lived experience—and what will be required ultimately, is an avenue into the lived experience of  individuals who struggle under constant scrutiny from the state. Now I have a great resource that I will talk about in future posts, but for now, let’s return to this fun little exercise:

 

Last week I wrote about Marsha Norman’s five sentences, in which you can get  at the arc of a story by filling in these blanks:

 

  1. This is a play about _____.
  2. It takes place _____.
  3. The main character wants _____ but _____
  4. It starts when __________
  5. It ends when __________.

 

 

For purposes of the exercise, as well as this new play, I have filled in the blanks as follows:

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Why a Play? Are Some Topics Too Hot for Stage?

An invitation arrives in my email to consider writing a new play about  a topic so current that taking it on at all seems  to be almost irreverent, given the anguish that many of the players still feel.  But I am not about to pass up an opportunity to work with the theatre in question, so I sit down to think about the challenge.

 

How do you write about recent tragedies that have shaken a community to its core? The pain is too new for black comedy and seems almost too raw for drama.

 

Dottie Sandusky Couldn't Go There

Dottie just couldn’t go there.

Consider the events that unfolded in State College, Pa., over   the last year. The trial and subsequent conviction of former Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky on child sex abuse charges–and the vindication of his victims in a scathing report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh–are the stuff of TV police procedurals and movie melodramas.

 

What can theatre bring to the cultural conversation about this almost Olympian tragedy that a TV show or a film could not?

 

Why a play at all?

 

 

A torn-from-the headlines treatment might reduce the story to a straight-line mystery in which the open question is not whether the coach  will be caught and convicted, but exactly how he gets his comeuppance. It would wrap up in 90 minutes, and we could be satisfied that the wheels of justice turn quickly and neatly—with conveniently timed commercial breaks so we can tear away from the drama for another trip to the fridge.

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Playwrights Interview Playwrights: Me and Jackie

The wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton has included me in her series on women playwrights in D.C.

My newest best friend

You can check out the interview here.

Thank you Jackie for thinking of me and including me in such illustrious company as  Laura Zam, Karen Zacarias, Renee Calarco, and Jennifer Nelson.

And you can check out Jackie  here.

And do check her out because she is one cool cat. She would be cool even if she didn’t write about me.

Playwriting: Breaking the Block, Part I

Typewriter? For Playwriting?

This is how they used to do it.

 

Eric Barker asks us to consider whether we are more creative when forced to work – or whether we ought to wait until inspiration strikes.

 

Citing Daniel Akst’s book Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess, he concludes that pressure to produce actually results in productivity.

 

No surprise to me—I’ve long known that setting a specific schedule to write almost always ensures that I, in fact, write. The trick is making writing a priority over all other competing interests—some of them compelling interests, such as the need to  go to my day job and actually earn the living that supports my playwriting habit.

 

But what to do when the juices don’t flow? Stare at a blank piece of paper?

 

As a founding member of The Playwrights Gymnasium, a process oriented workshop in Washington, D.C., I assure you there are many ways around writer’s block. And in this weekly feature, I intend to share some of those tricks with you.

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The Drama in Drink, or Vice Versa

Barking Up a Wrong Tree is one of my favorite blogs and here is why:

 

Eric Barker routinely compiles fascinating observations about all aspects of human nature and experience, with the stated purpose of learning to live life to its full awesomeness.  But me being me, which means predisposed to moments of dark ruminations, or in more pedestrian terms, a moody crank, I take perverse comfort from posts like these, in which Eric assures us that the crazy times just might be the best, at least when it comes to literary output.

 

Dionysius was the god of theatre for a reason.

Citing the Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottschall, Eric tells us that:

 

 

In studies of deceased writers— based on their letters, medical records, and published biographies— and in studies of talented living writers, mental illness is prevalent. For example, fiction writers are fully ten times more likely to be bipolar than the general population, and poets are an amazing forty times more likely to struggle with the disorder. Based on statistics like these, psychologist Daniel Nettle writes, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that most of the canon of Western culture was produced by people with a touch of madness.” Essayist Brooke Allen does Nettle one better: ‘The Western literary tradition, it seems, has been dominated by a sorry collection of alcoholics, compulsive gamblers, manic-depressives, sexual predators, and various unfortunate combinations of two, three, or even all of the above.

 

Well that’s no surprise to readers of literary biographies, but what should we conclude?

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