The Trickster in Your Play

One of the pleasures of stealing away to a theatre conference such as  the American Alliance for Theatre in Education’s (AATE) gathering in Lexington, Ky., last week is meeting theatre artists with a distinctly different view of process.

 

Such an artist is Steven Barker, who currently teaches at Camp LeJeune High School in North Carolina. Steven outright rejects the Stanislavskiian “get in touch with your emotions” approach to acting in favor of an analysis based in archetype and inspired by the writings of Frankie Armstrong and Janet Rodgers, co-authors of Acting and Singing with the Archetypes.

 

Reynard the Fox, a classic Trickster

The archetypal figure of the Trickster, or Fool, comes to us not just as  the Joker in a card deck, but in the guise of myriad  characters whose dominant trait is to embrace joy and shake off restraints imposed by society.  Huckleberry Finn comes to mind immediately, as does Pippi Longstocking, and The Cat in the Hat. (Coming off a conference dedicated to theatre for children, I can’t help thinking in terms of childhood literary icons.) And of course we see the Trickster in the cartoon characters of Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and Bart Simpson, as well as in Shakespeare’s Puck and Petruchio.

 

In his workshop at AATE, Steven invited us to get in touch with our inner Trickster—for some that impulse is not buried all the deeply, but for others, the task of awakening him is not so easy. Over the years I’ve grown less inhibited, but not so uninhibited that I don’t balk at kicking off my shoes and strutting around a hotel ballroom clucking like a chicken.

 

The objective to the exercise is to expose drama teachers to the idea that there is a way to assist young actors in analyzing character that does not require them to dig into deeply personal emotional experiences in search of a sense memory that might apply to a key moment in a play. In Steven’s mind that kind of approach can border on exploitation when you are working with impressionable and often vulnerable young people.

 

To me the workshop in archetypes presents fascinating possibilities for exploration of character in the creation of plays.  How refreshing to break free of the psychological mire that informs so much of American storytelling and focus instead on the outline of character that must be filled in by its opposite. For every archetype has its shadow after all. The hero is plagued with bouts of cowardice. The Ruler veers toward the Tyrant. The Innocent Child has a bit of a Brat within. And the Caregiver Mother can devolve into an Obsessive Parent.

 

In charting out the psycho-biographies of new characters I find myself falling into the usual preoccupation with childhood traumas, trivial biographical details and hints of emotional upheavals that must surely inform the present action. How much more interesting might it be to chart character based on the qualities of the archetype. The Magician, for example, is on a quest to transform, but his fear is that he will be transformed in the process. Let us transplant the Magician to a cocktail party in the D.C. suburbs and see how this woman works on the Trickster next to her, whose quest is to enjoy life for its own sake but who fears that he might not really be living at all. What kind of fireworks will fly?

 

Steven informs me that Frankie and Darien will conduct a teacher training workshop next summer on Cape Cod that will incorporate voice, body, and imagination, to explore archetypal journeys and, in their words, “apply the work to text.” Interested parties should contact Janet Rodgers at jrodgers@vcu.edu.

 

 

Steven, a trained chef, will be doing the cooking. Perhaps I’ll see you there?

Playwrights Interview Playwrights: Adam & Me

The prolific Adam Szymkowicz is famously prolific in another way—interviewing other playwrights for his blog–and today he honors me as writer No. 484 on a venerable list that includes, among others–yes I’m bragging, yes I am, so what?–Liz Duffy Adams, Lonnie Carter, Kia Corthron, Julia Jordan, Rajiv Joseph, and of course my lovely and wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton who always greets me with a hug.

 

My new best friend

Yes I am ecstatic to make Adam’s list of people worth talking to. Wouldn’t you be if you’d been slogging away at this as long as I have?

 

So while I’m braggin’ on it, here’s a taste of my own wisdom. Don’t I sound fine?

 

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

 

A:  This advice is borrowed from Ira Glass. Be prepared to suck. Learning to write well requires a long, long apprenticeship. Mastering the form takes literally years and it takes a long time to find your voice and your style.

No. 484, circa 1896

As for me, I would say the earlier you start, the better, but no matter when you start, give yourself five years before you write anything worth showing to a theatre. Don’t try to get your stuff produced right away. Join a group or hire a tutor and write crappy plays. Write a lot of them, keep a journal, develop a keen eye for human foibles and a keen ear for natural language. Don’t underestimate the power of your own story, but don’t make playwriting your avenue for revenge or personal therapy. Nobody gives a s**it what happened to you as a kid. Your job is to write plays so stunning that when I come to see them, I can’t get them out of my head; so make me stop and take a deep breath and think twice about something I never doubted before. Whether I laugh or cry, make me pay attention and never, never let me off the hook. You are not writing to make me feel good, you are writing to reveal the world to me in a way I never saw it before. You can’t do that unless you are willing to go there yourself and bleed along with your characters.

 

Not that I follow my advice, mind you.

 

For the full interview, now that I know you’re fascinated, click here.

The Birth of Cute

And now for something completely different.

Word origins, always of interest to me, might be of interest to you as well. The Hairpin explains  the birth of cute.

Maybe I’ve just been spending too much time thinking about cute guys I used to know ….

 

So Produce a Different Play Already!

In the annals of theatrical chutzpah, this latest missive has to rank fairly high.

 

A theatre that shall remain nameless booked several performances of Radium Girls for the coming fall. Okay, cool. I’m excited, because this one looks to be a professional company, even though it’s only a single weekend run. Then comes this request, sent to me via my publisher: Would I approve some cuts to the script? Attached is a file containing a heart-stopping number of red scratch-outs.

 

Now, I’m accustomed to approving cuttings for competition. Radium Girls has been presented in a truncated form multiple times and won awards for the schools involved. I don’t mind; it’s clear in the context that the students are presenting excerpts from a larger work, and that’s fine. In fact, a lot of those competitions have generated subsequent full productions by other schools.

 

In this case, though, the theatre would be presenting a radically pared down version of my play for paying audiences. When I asked for the reasoning behind these cuts, what I got back was a doozy:

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The Subject of Study

“The strength of Gregory’s characterization of Judy is that she does not allow disability to become an all-encompassing character trait that merely paints Judy as either bitter or heroic. …  In short, by using disability as a dramaturgical device rather than a metaphor, a stereotype, or an all-encompassing world-view, Gregory has made the play and Judy’s disability more accessible and approachable to a mainstream audience without diminishing the reality of disabled life for Judy.

— Bradley Stephenson, Ph.D. candidate in theatre, the University of Columbia, Mo.

 

 

It is an odd sensation to find oneself the subject of study—and even stranger to discover that the examination will be shared at an academic conference. But let me wish Bradley Stephenson the best with his paper “Reclaiming Wholeness: The Dramaturgy of Disability in D.W. Gregory’s Dirty Pictures,” which he will present at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) Conference in Washington, D.C., Aug. 2-4. This is a project he’s been working on for several months—a final paper for a course he was taking at Mizzou on Women’s Dramatic Traditions—and I imagine it’s a pretty high stakes event for him, to present his work to his peers and superiors in this way. Most of the people in the audience are sitting where he aspires to, being university professors of theatre.

 

Staged reading of the play in NYC, funded in part by Montgomery County, Md. Arts and Humanities Council.

Speaking as someone who spent years making a living by writing about other people, I find it frankly kind of weird to read about my work through someone else’s eyes. But I’ve read the paper and I think Bradley has nailed it. I’m especially flattered by his conclusion that Dirty Pictures is “subversive.” That’s a word that applies very well to a play that presents a story in the familiar frame of sex comedy but goes on to upend the audience’s expectations of the characters. One actress who worked on an early reading said the play “explodes stereotypes.” I certainly hope so. So Bradley, I embrace your assessment of Dirty Pictures and I plan to use “subversive” in my elevator speech from now on.

 

Now, if nothing else, this episode  reveals to me how critical it is to embrace serendipity in our work and lives, because Brad’s enthusiasm for my plays dates back several years, to when he was a high school teacher/director in search of projects for his students. He originally had pitched Radium Girls as play for his school, and while it was not selected, he was enough of a fan to use the play as a basis for a class project once he got to Mizzou—and to talk it up with his professors, along with some of my other work.

 

Our conversations about his current project began with this email in February:

 

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Unexpected Impacts

Trolling through Google with coffee in hand is a favored Saturday morning time-waster, but this morning I came across a stunning discovery — Google images, more than 100, of various productions of Radium Girls.

To wit:

Radium Girls, Boston University

This visually arresting production, directed by Elaine Vaan Hogue at Boston University, was one I had the privilege to see.

But there are many others, some obviously more successful in the design and execution. The play has not made a big impression in professional theatre — but in universities, high schools, and now community productions, the story is told and retold. Fascinating to see how different and yet how consistent the interpretations seem to be.

 

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The Long Shadow, Part Two

My mother and her brother in 1937

The death of his mother as a complication of his own birth meant that Jack Collins would be raised by relatives, not all of them vitally interested in his welfare. In his infancy, his care was left largely to his father’s much younger sister, Margaret, then a winsome and cheerful 16-year-old; as he grew older,  he spent more and more time with his mother’s mother, Ida Finch,  and it was to Ida that he fled when his stepmother’s rages became too much to bear.

 

Jack was 15 months younger than my mother, and she described him sometimes as a “pesky little brother” who stole her roller skates and used the wheels to make a skateboard. Her tone of voice betrayed affection, though; I could see that she had loved him.  Generally, she said little of Jack, and we had only a few snapshots to anchor him in our imaginations: Jack at age six, blond and sweet, squinting into the sun as he grasps a croquet mallet; Jack at 14, gazing whimsically at the camera, as if daring the photographer not to laugh; Jack at 17, standing stiffly on a cold Easter morning, his best blue suit not quite fitting as it used to, his hair slicked back in the fashion of the day, his expression no longer so eager nor sweet. The boy who once put on such a good front was by now already grappling with the demons that would eventually destroy him. His attitude seems grim, resigned.

 

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The Alchemy of Collaboration

Working on a new play is always a challenge in isolation. After successive drafts, you reach a point where you lose the path forward—or worse, where the path splits into a dozen different trails and there is no clear indication which one is the right one to follow. That is the point, for me, when I need to hear the script aloud. A fascinating alchemy occurs when an actor takes my words and breathes life into them.

 

Sometimes the result is a great leap forward in the development of the script.

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Membership in a Lie

In the summer of 1974, over the objections of my parents, my sister G. and her friend D. set off on a long bicycle trip to New England.  Their ambition was adventure and a much needed change of scenery from the dead-end job she had been working in central Pennsylvania.

 

My parents feared for two 19-year-old girls out on the road alone, and with more reason than any of us could imagine at the time. Of course the obvious danger for any young women traveling alone was to encounter a man with ill intentions; this was probably what my father feared most. He could not have imagined the real dangers that waited for them at a festival in a park in Amherst, Mass., one sunny summer day.

 

The Celebration of Life seemed like a hippie fest—free food, free drink, and a message of love and acceptance for anyone who cared to stay and hear. D., the worldly skeptic, had no great attraction to the raggedy kids who preached the gospel of love and peace that day; G. was a different story.

 

“They all seemed so happy,” G. told me later. “I had to find out why.”

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The Long Shadow, Part One

Late in September 1920, a notice appeared in the Springfield, Ohio, newspaper that the young wife of Bill Collins had died. The cause was edema, a complication of pregnancy that she might have survived had her caregivers not put her to bed—and thus ensured the onset of the pneumonia that took her life. The fluid that swelled her legs also filled her lungs. Feverish and weak, she passed away within a month of giving birth to her only son, my uncle Jack.

 

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The Soul of the Drama

Plays have to be lived to be written. This much I know.

 

If a character’s heart is broken, the playwright’s heart must be the first to go.  So be willing to live and relive the struggle and loss and hope that drama is made on, because if you refuse to feel these things, you can never write authentically.

 

Dare to suffer.

 

Dare to endure.

 

Endure the sense of inadequacy that comes from slogging through scenes that aren’t working and can’t work and won’t work. Choke back the panic of not knowing how to get started or how to stop, or how to fix that dreadful scene or how to fall out of love with those six lines you know just cannot stay and yet you need them, surely you need them, at least for now.

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I Get Letters

Tempting as it is to believe my labors are all for naught, I am occasionally confronted with a different reality. This time it is a note card from the exhausted but grateful and excited cast and crew of RADIUM GIRLS at The Shea Theater in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. Director  Robert Freedman kindly forwarded  a review from the local press (quite positive), a copy of the program, a DVD of production photos, and a card full of love. Witness:

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