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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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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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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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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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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Doors & Windows

Let us consider a simple mystery.

 

A man at a party lights a cigarette; from ten feet away, at the end of a narrow hallway, a woman observes him. The next room buzzes with talk and laughter, the rattle of glasses over a Patsy Cline record in full croon. But she sees only him.  For months he has been the focus of her fascination, moving at the edge of her circle of friends, chatty and charming, always clever, usually evasive, never alone.

 

And now there he is: by himself, striking a match with one determinedly casual stroke, a movement so sleek that she wonders if he had practiced it before a mirror. She smiles at this idea, and as she does, she catches his eye. This time, she holds his gaze. Continue reading

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