I began writing the play formerly known as Leak (TPFKAL) and currently known as Not There Anymore a couple years ago. I started by bridging together two short plays I’d written over the course of the 31 Plays in 31 Days challenge. 31 Plays in 31 Days is a challenge to write one play each day for the month of August. I’ve done it twice and it’s proven a great time to simply brainstorm little stories, meet some new characters, and sometimes deal with things happening in my life that I normally don’t allow into my plays.
The two plays I chose were: Cathedral and Express. You can read them here. Cathedral was about a woman artist, acting as an assistant to a famous artist on a church mural, asking for assurance that he would tell everyone that she actually had influence on the work, that she wasn’t just an “assistant.” This particular idea remains in Not There Anymore, but the scene as it was written is nowhere to be found in the current draft of the play. Rachel, my main character, is an artist working as an assistant to a more-seasoned artist: Simone. I changed the gender and race of the male famous artist character and came up with something richer than what Cathedral brought to the play.
Express, on the other hand, is very much the heart of Not There Anymore. At least that's how I felt while I was constructing the story of the play. In Express, a young woman stays with her good friend who has just had a baby. There’s no telling how long they’ll be together, but things feel somewhat desperate, as if the two of them desperately need each other in order to survive. This became the main plot of Not There Anymore: Rachel staying with her friend Amber who is about to give birth.
Rachel is a street artist, toying around with graffiti and wanting to make her mark. Amber is pregnant and dealing with the upcoming death of her partner, Emma. In writing the play, I followed my old ways of writing every possible scene that came to mind, letting new characters arrive on the scene and letting plot points develop as I wrote. Then, I took all these scenes together, saw what I had, and then crafted the play as a sort of collage. I saw where the holes in the plot or in the character development were and would add more scenes or specificity accordingly.
The time between deciding that the short play “Express” was the heart of the play and actually writing full scenes for what would become Not There Anymore was about a year. Even knowing what the play was “about,” couldn’t help me find my way in. I would try and think about plot or scenes that came to mind and made lots of notes, but didn’t write any proper scenes. It wasn’t coming together. All these strings and threads wouldn’t connect. But I kept hold of Express, that was my touchstone.
When I finally was able to get scenes together and had enough of an outline to keep moving forward, I began to get stuck at the act break for the story. I never set out and delineate “I’m writing a two-act play” or “I’m writing a 90-minute play without intermission,” but this play felt like there was need for breathing room at some point. A commercial break or some time for the audience to feel time passing, to think about the ramifications of what’s just happened and allow me to move the story forward a bit further without being too jarring. I was having a problem: the place that naturally felt like an act break was causing me trouble when picking up the story later. How much later? I was playing with lots of ways to keep scenes I’d written and follow the new thread of the story, but they didn’t fit anymore. Something new was tugging at me: the 15 year time jump. If I ended the first act at the point that felt natural and then jumped 15 years, I’d have to lose a lot of scenes. One scene in particular was "Express"... I’d have to lose the heart of the play.
So, I did it. I cut that scene (and many others) and started act 2 from scratch, a new character entering the story: Monica, the now 15-year-old daughter of Amber. The dynamic between Monica and Rachel was more than I had expected, and I loved it. I enjoyed writing their scenes and felt as though I’d made the right decision to cut everything I had, even though part of me was looking at the 30-40 pages of material that was cut, hoping I could find some way to bring at least some of it back! I tried and tried, but it stayed cut. There was no way to bring anything back.
At this point, I started having an issue with the ending of the play. I didn’t know how to end it. Plot-wise, I’d gotten the story to a nice end, but thematically, the play felt unfinished. It didn’t feel complete. I kept battling with adding another scene to the end, but nothing was satisfying both the plot and the theme. I spent a day thinking and worrying about it. Then, the idea came to me: “Express. Bring it back and make it the end scene.” I read through "Express" and knew that I couldn’t simply tack it onto the end, especially since the plot had changed a lot since I first considered it part of the play. I found the ideas to keep, essentially the beginning and ending and wrote a lot of new material for it. The scene I considered the be the heart of the play, that I later had to cut, has now become the ending of the play, and I’m glad it’s there.
What scenes could you not let go of in your work? What’s your process? What are you struggling with?
Keep working and, as always, be excellent to each other.
I thought I'd be writing about the finale to Breaking Bad in this post because I found it to be completely inevitable and wonderfully satisfying. It was as perfect as it could be. The word "catharsis" bounces around in my brain when I think of it. It was satisfying. That's all I have to say about it in this particular post.
Instead, this post is about the parts of me that aren't about playwriting and stretching muscles that either haven't been stretched in a long time, or stretching boundaries into new territory.
I attended a tiny Liberal Arts college in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Coe College. It had a student body of about 1,200, which was roughly the size of my high school. It suited me well in size. The focus of a Liberal Arts education is having development in many different areas and subjects; we were meant to be well-rounded. Even thought I was a Directing major, I found myself learning Greek, physics, a class on white-tailed deer populations in Iowa (don't ask), concert choir, 2-D art, Russian Art and Culture in the 40's, Spanish poetry, and more. I was stretched, my mind was stretched, my experiences were stretched. I was concentrated on directing, but not completely.
When I attended the University of Iowa's Playwrights Workshop, I found myself concentrating on playwriting. Only playwriting. It was more akin to a conservatory for music or dance experience, where 9/10 of the experience is focused on your particular concentration. Apart from a few directing experiences peppered in there or an Anthropology class on the Latin@ diaspora, I was a playwright.
After I graduated, I found myself still in the mindset that I was a playwright. And that's it. That was my definition. Even when I directed a couple of operas for Project Opera of Manhattan, I didn't define myself as a "Theatre Artist," I was a playwright who was directing an opera. I'm still battling with this definition of myself. I don't know how other theatre artists define themselves. Is a theatre career closer to a Liberal Arts experience where we have a concentration, such as playwriting, but the understanding is that we are all floaters, moving from one position to another. Are the boundaries more fluid? Or, are we bound to one aspect of theatre and expected to stay there in those boundaries?
I'm in the midst of setting aside my playwright self for a bit while I let my first draft of my most recent play simmer in the back of my mind. I'm playing in the sandbox of other parts of myself. For example, I love drawing. I love cartoons. In fact, I visited California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) with the prospect of becoming a Disney animator. I still wonder if that should have been my path, but "What If" is a sad, unhelpful game to play. BUT! I'm making a pact with myself to draw everyday. Here's a drawing I did yesterday. Be kind; I'm out of practice. Which is the point. What parts of yourself are you stretching lately? What part of yourself has been forgotten for too long?
Last night's episode of Breaking Bad has been all over social media. People have called it "devastating" or have said they still haven't recovered today. I'm guilty of that. Don't worry, I won't be putting any spoilers in here. I want you to have the satisfaction of seeing it firsthand.
I only mention it because of something that's been on my mind lately since reading an article about the people behind the film version of Tracy Lett's August: Osage County talking about changing the ending after a test audience. Bitter Script Reader on Twitter (follow him, seriously) had a great blog post analyzing the trajectory of Breaking Bad in regards to "the necessity of an unhappy ending." [PLEASE DON'T READ THE BLOG POST IF YOU ARE NOT CAUGHT UP ON BREAKING BAD!!] I will quote a bit of it for those who are still Netflixing (a real word, I swear) their ways through it.
It's a familiar story. An early cut of a film is screeened for a test audience. The test audience rejects the dark ending of the story, forcing the filmmakers to scramble and reshoot an ending that will leave everyone feeling good.
This was definitely the case for one of my favorite films: Little Shop of Horrors. For those who don't know, it's a musical about a nerdy guy who ends up getting duped by a blood-eating plant from outer space. It started off on Broadway and had a beautiful, dark ending, which I didn't know about until I bought the script to the play. Here's the reaction from high school me:
"WHAT THE F--!! That's awesome!!" Suffice it to say, the film does not share the same dark ending. People hated it and wanted happy. And that's what they got. The dark ending is now available on the Blu-Ray of Little Shop. I haven't seen the movie version of the ending all the way through yet. I wanted to wait until it was fully restored to get the full effect.
Here's what has been repeated by Frank Oz in various interviews and in the director's commentary of the DVD:
“David Geffen said it right off, you can’t kill your lead characters in a movie,” said Oz. “When you’re in a theater, it’s always a wide shot, no matter where you are. Even when you’re in front, it’s still a wide shot. In a movie, I tell you where to look, and that’s a close up sometimes. A close up registers emotion much, much more. You get sucked in by the characters more. Even though it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and a slight distance...you’re sucked in by that tight shot.”
Is this true? Is it harder to do an unhappy ending in film/TV than in the theatre because of the psychological realization that "those characters are really dead?" Or do you feel more for characters in film than in their theatre counterparts? Did you weep harder in the film or theatre version of Les Mis? Does the fact that the actors come out for a curtain call help a theatre audience adjust to the fact that there's an unhappy ending?
I think that's crap.
Back to the Bitter Script Reader:
Test audiences often have a hard time with downbeat endings. They like to leave the theatre feeling good. Bad test scores often spook studios, and making an ending less depressing is a fairly favored tactic. You know all those alternate endings you see featured on DVDs - that's the shit that either didn't work, or didn't make an audience happy after the first attempt.
We as artists have to know how we want to affect an audience. We have to know exactly how we want them to feel at the end. We make that decision. Are they sad because a character that they love dies? Good, we meant to do that. Are they upset that a villain got away and the good guy lost? Perfect, that's how we wanted you to feel. We have to work with our guts when we manipulate the guts of our audiences. You see, I didn't get that in my early days as a playwright. I didn't quite get it until my final year at my MFA. I remember my play Solamente Una Vez; A Thaw coming up for the workshop. This was the play that i felt the most confident about. Ever. And I knew the ending was right. I knew it. And most of my fellow playwrights hated it. They thought it was a horrible ending. They were so incensed about the decisions of the characters. You know what? That's what I wanted them to feel! Success! When the play had a reading in Atlanta at the Alliance Theatre, Artistic Director Susan V. Booth came up to me and said, "I love that ending."
Here's what I think needs to happen. We need to stop worrying about happy vs. unhappy endings and come to the realization that we want satisfying endings. What does that mean? It means we know where we're taking the audience from the beginning and we deliver them there at the end. Does that mean we can't offer surprises? No. Surprise them! Last night's Breaking Bad was surprising and a half. Surprise, shock, delight, upset, frustrate, it doesn't matter. Make it count. Make it make sense in the world you've created. It's harder with a TV series because you've created such a massive world for so long. (Can you imagine a satisfying Doctor Who series finale?!) Based on everything that's happened so far in the show, the ending to last night's episode was shocking, surprising, disturbing, but, in the end, inevitable. Make your endings inevitable. Necessary. I think that's what it boils down to. Inevitable.
For kicks, I'm doing something I didn't think I'd do: I'm posting the full script of Solamente Una Vez; A Thaw on my site, so that you can see if the ending is satisfying. Inevitable.
What are the most satisfying endings you've experienced? TV, Film, or Theatre?