We recently had auditions for the staged reading of my play Books & Bridges at CATCO. One of the scenes we had chosen as a side was a scene that included all 3 characters in a climactic argument. Julia, Dane, Betsy all in full force. It seemed like one of the best scenes to get an idea of character dynamics, but then I realized something… During the first run of the scene, I noticed that Julia had no more lines after the first third of the scene! It felt like a mistake at first, but it turned out to be exactly what was needed. It helped us see and not just hear Julia.
Not only were there no lines for Julia, there were no stage directions in the scene. AT ALL. I don’t write too many stage directions in my plays. I want them to be minimal and necessary. I want them to show behavior and not interpretation. I try to allow for collaboration with the actors and director. If I don’t open the play to them, how can it really be a collaboration? I’ve seen a lot of playwrights try to direct the play through their stage directions, putting in every possible thing to make sure their “ original vision” is crystal clear. I used to think that way; I used to write that way. I used to put parentheticals for tons of lines, insisting an interpretation on an actor.
That’s not to say that I don’t use parenthetical descriptions of line intentions, but they have to be necessary. Sometimes it’s not clear if a line is said by the character as a joke or is supposed to be sarcastic (Because it's so hard to tell if someone's being sarcastic in written text). The distinction between something being said seriously or sarcastically can change the meaning of a single line and could alter the course of a play entirely. There is one line in Books & Bridges in particular that I had to make sure the actors and director knew it was said as a joke or else it had the possibility that they and audience could make the wrong assumptions.
Back to the auditions. There were 3 actresses we were considering for the role of Julia and, honestly, we could have cast any of them and had a great Julia. With Julia having no lines and with no stage directions to dictate action, each actor had to make specific choices. What is Julia doing? How is she interacting with each character? Each choice she makes in movement, stage position creates a new interpretation of her relationships with the other characters.
One actress continually stood between Dane and Betsy, trying to get Dane to stop talking. Another stood behind Dane, staring down Betsy. Another removed herself from the situation almost entirely. These were not the sole choices each actress made; all three continually tried new things based on who their Danes or Betsys were and what choices Dane and Betsy made. It proved to me that the actors have such power and can reveal parts of characters that I hadn’t considered. This was the first time I had heard this particular scene out loud, and it continually shifted in meaning each time a different trio stepped onstage. When one actress turned on Dane and put her hand up to shut him up, the wheels in my head started spinning. Is Julia turning on Dane? What does it mean that she’s siding with Betsy in this moment? When the actress stood behind Dane, it shifted the play entirely. When Julia stepped away from the fight and sat on the edge of the stage, completely distant and removed from Dane and Betsy as their fight continued, there was a massive light that switched on. All three felt right. As Sam Mendes said, "There is no right and wrong, there is only interesting, and less interesting.”
I was so impressed with all the performances and with all the choices the 3 Julia’s made. I’m glad that I had given them the space to make choices and find new moments each and every time they went through the scene. Now, I have to revisit my new play in progress (Woman Studies) and make sure I’ve given the same space for the actors to inhabit.
How about you? What do your stage directions sound/look like? Do they come from character decisions? Are they necessary? Are they essential? Do they show behavior? Do they give clues or do they solve the mysteries?
As always, have fun, fellow theatre-makers. Be excellent to each other.
I'm currently home from work on a 10-day vacation which I've dubbed my “loose ends vacation” in which I can take care of all the things I’ve been letting slide and haven’t gotten done, you know, like writing a blog post. I've done a lot of thinking about what I wanted to say in this blog post, and the topic that has continued to come up for me is “investment.” When I say investment, I'm not only talking about money, I'm also talking about how we spend time and energy and effort.
Part of the reason that investment has been on my mind lately has been the blessing of the CATCO and Greater Arts Council Playwright Fellowship. I'll have, as a coworker at my day job so crudely put it, “five G’s” to use to further my playwriting career. So, how can I make best use of this blessing? What does $5000 buy? What do I invest in?
In wondering about that, I've also been wondering the hierarchy of where time and effort and money should go in reference to my various selves. At my day job they often talk about “Work/Life balance,” which says that in order to be a functioning human being, you have to take time away from work to have a life. That life can be whatever you define it to be whether it's exercising or driving fast cars or sitting down and watching Archer or doing gardening or spending time with your family. The hierarchy of my life has my priorities in a very delicate balance. As a husband, father, and, of course, playwright, I find it difficult to juggle all the needs that emanate from each “self.” Oh, and forget that I'm also a worker bee in my day job. When I'm a father, I can't necessarily be a husband. When I'm a playwright, I can't necessarily be a father. When I’m at my day job, I can’t be a playwright. At any given point, I can only be one self. Now, I know that some people would argue that being a father and being a husband can happen simultaneously, and I do agree with that on some level, but, really, there are some things in being a husband that you can’t do while your child is watching. And I don't just mean that thing that you just thought I was talking about. I mean other things, too.
When I was getting my MFA, I had a different balancing act to do. I had classes, I had rehearsals late at night, I had reading assignments my theater classes, I had books to read for an anthropology class that I thought would be awesome (And it was, but very difficult and work-intensive), and I still had to find time to write plays, be a husband, and have some semblance of a social life. To get through it, I had to constantly assess what I was getting out of each activity. What was I getting out of the Anthropology reading and assignments that would be worth the time? But at that time, there was not a genuine hierarchy; everything was on the same level of importance, so what I was really worried about was scheduling. I was charting every single hour of my day, that was the only way that I could keep things straight. I didn't pencil in any social life or husband life or anything like that, but I was able to figure out everything else. And that's probably why the social life and the husband life took a backseat to being a student, writer, and my part-time day job. So, the process worked: I finished all my work, I wrote two plays each year, I had a reading or a production each year, and I was able to see lots of great theater from my colleagues. But now, outside of school, the balancing act that existed has intensified. Now the job is full-time, I don't have the same support group of fellow MFA students, and I'm still trying to write plays. However, I can see the hierarchy. I know now that there are things that are more important than others and that their respective importance can shift at any point.
I’ve started using an app called Clear that keeps track of all my “personal projects.” These “personal projects” are anything from doing dishes to submitting a play to cleaning the bathroom to charting what plays I want to write later on to crafting far away and long-term goals that I've given myself creatively. This is not an ad for Clear, I’m not getting any money from them, I’m giving you a tactic that I’ve been using. With Clear, I can simply hold and drag and change positions of which tasks are more important by moving them higher up in my list to the things that are less important by putting them lower on the list. I’m able to very quickly shift my priorities day by day or hour by hour. These are the projects that I have on tap for my days that are my own, when I'm myself, not when I'm a father, not when I am at the day job, not when I'm a husband, but me as a writer or as the guy who cleans the bathroom and does leaves in the yard.
That’s how I prioritize and handle the hierarchy of my life, let’s return to my “self” specifically as a playwright. The Fellowship has given me a lot to think about in terms of what will do the most good for me. Printer toner was very important to me, getting new report covers for submissions is great.. But what else? I've given myself part of the fellowship to have the week away from work before the reading of my play, Books & Bridges in June, so that's one thing. I've also booked a trip to Los Angeles to work on a screenplay with my friend and writing partner, Ryan Lacen, because it takes us forever to get our scripts finished because we’re each dealing with shifting hierarchies and responsibilities. This takes all those things completely out of the way for 5 days!
As playwrights and writers we have to figure out what we need to survive. We have to invest money in things such as a website (with a personal domain, too?!). We have to invest time in maintaining social media if need be. We have to do research for different submissions and take the time to follow the rules of each submission. We also might have to pay for memberships such as the Playwrights’ Center or the Dramatists Guild. Do these memberships do anything for us (Not to imply that they don't)? I've read through the benefits of both the Playwrights’ Center and the Dramatists Guild countless times, wondering what I would do with those memberships and whether the money I would pay for the membership (and their benefits) would be worth investing in, would be enough of a payout so to speak. I mean, we’re spending money on postage, paper, all these things take time and money, and how do we know if we are investing in the right things? Are we putting quarters, dimes, dollars into slot machines that will eventually payout? Or are we throwing money into the abyss where it won't amount to anything? These are the things I think about when I have enough time to think about them. Most times I'm just grabbing for those scraps of time to actually write.
As you can see from my list above, right now my priority is writing this blog post. After that, I'm finally going to revise my resume, and then I'll use the 63° weather to blow leaves that are in our backyard and have been in our backyard since Thanksgiving because of the various travels to visit my mom and dad for Thanksgiving in Albuquerque, to visit my mother in the hospital in Denver, and then to visit my mother’s grave in Santa Fe, the leaves just didn't seem important. I suppose that's the thing, you have to decide what's important at every given moment. When my son is home, It's important for me to sit with him and play with him and maybe teach him a new body part. Last night, he learned fingers, toes, and arms. He can identify the letters A, B, and C. Elmo, Ernie, Big Bird, or his favorite, Abby Cadabby, can’t teach him everything, nor do I want them to. My writing, again, is a very important part of who I am, but it's no longer the one thing that defines me. I know that I struggle with this shifting or priorities and doubt that I’m investing in the right things money wise and time wise, and I'm sure other people are struggling with it. What do you invest in? What are your priorities? What are those things that you have that are completely necessary that are non-negotiable?
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think the leaves have just moved up on the list…