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The C-Word

Once we believe in ourselves, we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight, or any experience that reveals the human spirit. – E.E. Cummings

I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident.

My fellow playwriting cohorts and I are currently taking a course with Gary Garrison about political plays and the ten minute play structure. This week we met an hour earlier with Gary, we do this from time to time to ask him question about the business, but our meeting this week was different. Instead of us asking him questions, he asked us.

Being an internal processor, the whole being called upon in class to answer these kind of questions on the spot terrify me. Internal processors are people who need time alone to think through their ideas. External processors are people who like to think and talk their ideas out loud. And of course, I, as we all, have to practice the fluidity of being both internal and external, but internal is my preference. I am a playwright after all…

Gary’s questions were simple, but carried a lot of heft behind them. They required on the spot self evaluation and of course, they required me to be an external processor. One of the questions in particular really stood out, and I’d like to share it with you.

“In terms of your playwriting, what are your strengths?”

I can’t remember what answer I gave. Some sort of word vomit that I tried to make sound intelligent. Again…internal processor. So walking away, I’m not really thinking about my answer. What I am thinking about is how difficult I found it to come up with an answer. And if I’m honest with myself, it’s not just because I was forced to externally process.

Growing up as female identifying person in the bible belt of America, I was encouraged to be a number of things, but above all: pure, positive, and humble. Confidence in the Lord was highly encouraged, but confidence in one’s self by one’s self outside of God was looked down upon.

I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident.

Confidence: having or showing assurance and self-reliance (Merriam-Webster)

“What are my strengths…” Am I allowed to think about that? 

How do we practice confidence without being arrogant? How do we believe in ourselves without living in denial? How do we advocate for self without being selfish?

I don’t really know yet. I’m still figuring it out. I know it’s possible and there’s probably some TED, TEDex talk out there in the Youtube-verse that we could watch.

I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident. I will be confident.

What I am taking away from this meeting with Gary is this… the value of self reflection. It’s a crucial practice to have as an artist and I want to invite you to bring such a practice into the flow of your process. Internal processors, maybe you want to grab your journal and a cup of something warm to reflect on your answer. External processors, borrow the ear of a close friend and a cup of something warm to find your answer.

And if you’re like me, and for whatever reason, struggle with the c-word. Here are some practical things we can do as artist in our day to day life that might grow confidence.

  • Dress to express
  • Meditate for ten minutes
  • Write a list of self affirmations
  • Speak those affirmations out loud
  • Embrace your insecurities
  • Extend kindness to another human being
  • Set small, achievable goals for your day
  • Know who you are
  • Love who you are
  • Be kind to yourself

We will be confident. We will be confident. We will be confident. We will be confident.

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The Joy of Getting Stuck

All writers struggle with writers’ block. Or revision block, or feeling frustrated with a current draft. Rather than viewing this natural frustration as a terrible obstacle, let’s consider it as a signal that we could be having more fun. Writers’ block means the writer needs to allow more joy into the work. Try the unexpected—the thing you’d try if there were no rules—the thing that makes you laugh at its unruliness.

Allowing oneself to try the wild and unusual thing can be the key to loving writing challenges instead of hating them. I hope to share some strategies to work past (or rather sidestep/cartwheel around) writer’s block, a few fun and simple tasks that writers can try when they find themselves at a seeming “dead end.”

Big things:

*Experiment with genre / let yourself honor your likes— if you like soap operas, LET them secretly be twins and one of them had facial reconstruction surgery. If you like sci-fi movies, LET the alien shed its skin and take over the facility. If you like mysteries, LET the dead body be found in scene two.

*Experiment with form — allow yourself to write the way you think. If you love realism, cool. If you love quick quick scenes with visual images in between them in stage directions that will give your lighting designer a headache, cool. Don’t be ashamed of what you want to put on the page. Rules are only useful as tools. They don’t own you. (…That said, if you find yourself stuck in one form only, try a new one every once in a while. It’ll expand your brain even if you decide you hate it.)

And here are a few more specific strategies:

If you have an idea but are staring at a blank page: What is the version of the scene that you absolutely do NOT want to write? Write the bad version. The trite, cliche, gross, disgusting version. Write it and then tear it up into little tiny pieces. Or burn it. Whatever you want. That bad version of the play is what’s scaring you so much, right? That it’ll be bad? So just spit it out so that it doesn’t take up space in your brain anymore.

If you have a first draft and don’t know how to revise: Take the draft that’s driving you nuts and cut it to its bare bones. No one repeats anything, no one asks a circular question, literally only new lines/information allowed. See what you’ve got. It’ll be shorter than the original. That’s okay! And if there are things you miss… well, you can put ‘em back in. But if there are things you completely forget about the second you delete them, then they were probably just in your way.

• If you can’t figure out what a character should say: What is the most terrible thing your character could say? What’s the one sentence that shouldn’t come out of their mouth, if they want to conserve their relationship/life/job? Make them say it. Let one character be joyfully destructive.

If you’re feeling like you need to get to know a character better: Grab a box or hat or whatever can hold objects. Go around your room/apartment and find objects that relate to your play or one of your characters. Your character likes Milky Ways? Grab one. They hate their Uncle Bob? In goes that stupid Christmas card you got from a relative you don’t like. And it can get abstract, too: if your character is terrified of conflict, put scissors into your box as a reminder that things do get sharp sometimes. After you have your box, if you ever get stuck, pull out an object and remind yourself of who this character is.

If you’re just plain stuck: Forget about the play for a sec and just write a stream-of-consciousness monologue for one of the characters. Don’t worry about it making sense. You’re getting to know them. Let them go on and on about, I don’t know, bagels, or mini-golf, literally ANYTHING. Just make them talk and don’t let them stop until you’ve got about a page of words.

If you’re still stuck: Imagine that your character wakes up in the middle of the night. What pulls your character from sleep? Actually talk out loud to yourself, potentially recording yourself on your phone if that’s helpful to catch any good things you spit out by accident. Repeat the following phrases over and over: “I wake up. …I can’t go back to sleep.” Then, as it comes to you, let your character reveal WHY: “I wake up… I can’t stop thinking about…” and the “about” will reveal to you what you need to know.

None of these strategies are magical solutions. But the key isn’t this one problem that you’re trying to solve with this one draft. The key is realizing that being stuck is actually an important signal. So, instead of banging your head against the same wall over and over again… why not free yourself up to have more fun and try a new angle?

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Trendy, Edgy, Innovative, WOW!

Recently for Dramaturgy class, I took a look at Lee Devin’s article “Spectacle and Music.”

The article is rather short and concise but covers huge ideas. It parallels how Spectacle and Music receive the least amount of attention out of Aristotle’s Six Qualities of Tragedy (Plot and Character get the most), but also cannot be ignored to have experienced a play.

First – this expands what I initially thought Aristotle meant when he talks about Spectacle and Music. It’s not simply the specific imagery or specific sound cues that drive the plot – but really everything you see and hear, the visual and aural experience that comes with drama put on a stage. In theatre today, it’s not just the flashy design elements that distract audiences from a simple plot, plotholes, or two-dimensional characters (I’m thinking of musical theatre stereotypes here, I guess) but the theatre’s architecture, the other audience members coming in to see the show, the environment that is set up before, during, and after the show.

And Second – it is because of spectacle and music that a text becomes theatre, and not a novel, or a film, or a radio piece, or a smartphone app (unless we are considering technology as the same kind of spectacle…..another article on that). I have been using this as a guidepost as I work on numerous projects and ideas- a devised piece, a silent film, a staged farce that used to be a radio play, a playscript, a festival……What is the goal of the project, or what story are we telling, and why specifically through theatre are we doing it? What can be accomplished because we have live bodies on stage? What can’t be accomplished because of live bodies on stage? Do we mix mediums and media to do more? Technological advancement is certainly helping the globalization of culture, but is it also globalizing and unifying how audiences make and receive art? Might we be heading in a state where 10 second videos and memes become the strongest form of communication and expression, and thus the most accessible and common form of artmaking?

I am sure there will always be a love to revisit the traditional form (retro, vintage, authentic, revival….trends change in circles right?), the authentic experience of Spectacle and Music as Aristotle originally intended, and thus theatre doesn’t die no matter how many times people say it will/is/has.  But is there a limit to the form of artmaking before it is no longer art you are making? As we expand the possibilities of experience, is there a point where theatre is no longer theatre?

 

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If You Liked This Album, Check Out This Playwright! Pt 3

And we’re back . . .

If you liked Marry Me by St. Vincent . . .

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. . . . check out Jen Silverman!

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I was introduced to St. Vincent on a 2016 mixtape made by a dear friend. I would listen to ‘Actor Out Of Work’ while driving my mom’s truck through the backwoods of Massachusetts. I was intrigued and a little freaked out by her aesthetic: her sweet, melodic vocals, and her complex, sometimes overwhelming arrangement. Her songs on Marry Me pop up in a plethora of my playwriting playlists, especially for the ones about really fucked up content (ok, you got me, most of my plays are about really fucked up content).

St. Vincent is a master at riffing on well established structures, mixing in a bunch of crazy instruments (on this album she played the organ, Moog, synthesizer, clavieta, xylophone, vibraphone, duleimer and triangle), and turning the typical intent of the song on its head. She’ll sing about her attempts to magically entice someone, and then throw in the James Bond tune when she’s ready to go in for the kill. If you fell for her familiar yet eerie ballads, then prepare yo’ body for the theatrical ECSTASY that is Jen Silverman.

Lemme just throw a couple sentence-long summaries for you:

 

A family reunion after a war is interrupted by a woman who declares that since they killed her family, they’re going to replace her family.

 

A queer thriller set in Austen-era England.

 

A group of Betty Boops discovering their vaginas while staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

These just begin to scratch the surface of Jen Silverman’s oeuvre, and her stories cover an even greater terrain. Both St. Vincent and Silverman trekked for much of their life. St. Vincent worked as a roadie for her aunt and uncle in her teen years; Silverman grew up all over the world, and speaks four languages. An unsettled, otherworldly quality inhabits all their work, sucking you in with all the questions swirling around.

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The Moors at Duke and 42nd Street Theater

Structurally, St. Vincent will take melody of a waltz, and write about the ghost of a soldier seeing Paris burning, with a nursery rhyme chorus in the middle. Jen Silverman will take the structure of a Bronte novel, and lock the patriarch in the attic, only keeping him alive for his semen. There’s an understated violence, reminiscent of Pinter’s menace, lurking beneath the surface.

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Collective Rage at the Wooly Mammoth

And at the same time, they’re funny as hell! St. Vincent lets you know her sense of humor through the ephemeral line in the title song of the album: “Let’s do what Mary and Joseph do . . . without the kid.” Silverman has a play called Collective Rage: A Play in Five Boops: In Essence, A Queer and Occasionally Hazardous Exploration: Do You Remember When You Were In Middle School and How He Explored The Arctic? Imagine The Arctic As A Pussy and It’s Sort of Like That. 

If you’re looking for some queer-positive, women-centered sinister-ass art, my millennial crumpet, you have come to the right place.

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It Takes a Village

It takes a village. I recently rediscovered this phrase in an meeting discussing a project I am working on for the Spring that incorporates both Hearing and Deaf actors. My advisor told me that the one of the key pieces of Dramaturgy is when to relinquish your power. Yes, I had an idea. Yes, I have poured myself into making it happen. Yes, I have been asking every question I can possibly think of to address the effectiveness of this process. Yes, I have been doing copious research, interviews online, staying up to date with Deaf Culture etiquette. But I am Hearing. And my perspective can only take me so far.

I want this project to be successful, I want to make theatre more representative of reality, of real people who come from every spectrum and cultural background. But sometimes the best intentions of an ignorant person have a negative effect they are unaware of. And after looking at a handful of HowlRound Theatre Articles on Deaf and Hearing World Collaboration, I see the flaws of my process reflected in each article.

I was blinded because I thought I could do it alone. But I can’t, I needed Deaf Theatre Artists to be apart of this from the start.

I am taking the proper steps to re-structure this piece, I don’t know what will happen yet but I do know that the next time I do any work that lives outside the realm of my own experience, I will immediately call up a co-collaborator who can better voice their own personal artistry.

It takes a village.

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The Dramaturg As Conceptual Artist

The more I work as a dramaturg, the more I find myself exercising the part of my brain that belongs to a conceptual artist.

There is a place for essays, concordances, glossaries, and histories. In fact, so far, I have always started with those things. I have to start with those things to write my way, feel my way, to the core of what a project/production needs. And this can be a bit tricky because all those things need time and sometimes, suddenly, I’ve written fifty pages that nobody needs and nobody reads (worst case scenario). But either way they ground me. More often than not, they guide me to the best way to prevent information for use. And more often than not, the best way for me to present information morphs off of the page into some sort of conceptual art mutation.

Some people like to call these mutations “arts and crafts.” To the outside eye, it probably looks like “arts and crafts,” when I’ve spread paper and glue and tacks and paint and mod-podge and my own body over several square feet of the 4th floor (or wherever).

 

Public Service Announcement: It’s not arts and crafts.

 

To Illustrate my point, I’ll use my most recent “craft project,” a “timeline” for These Three Sisters.

Identifying a need for this artifact began during the reading/research/counter-text gathering/creation process, and became clear over our first two weeks in the rehearsal room. In comparing our adapted text to Chekhov’s original text, it’s clear that both space and time function differently in our world. Not only this, but throughout our show, the characters make specific reference to temporal events that occur in the original text, but are not shown in ours. After several questions about order of events, etc. in the original text I knew we would need an “original text timeline.”

Then, as we began to refine the rules of our own world (this is also a devising process) we made the discovery that time in this world moves cyclically. So, for clarity’s sake, it would be helpful to identify the big events in our text on a circular plane. A “time circle.”

As a team, we knew it would be helpful to show both of these time charts in relation to one another. Given this information, a simple mock-up of the proposed artifact looked like this:

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However, soon we realized that the interconnectedness of these events and the events in the original text had an impact on the character’s “personal dramaturgy” or emotional topography/trajectory. Thus, a slightly altered version of the artifact was conceived, in order to emphasize intersection between the two texts.

Putting this vision into practice has been slightly trickier than originally thought. Here are some of the bigger challenges and vulnerabilities I have been grappling with as I create the artifact:

Synthesizing Chekhov’s original text into a progression of “events.”: You may have heard some version of the assertion that “nothing happens” in Chekhov’s plays. While I disagree with this on principle, the “big” things that happen in his plays have more to do with the internal topography (character) than the external topography (plot) of the show. Sometimes this means that an “event” has to exist off the progression of the timeline, simply somewhere in space.

Example: “Andrey gives up on his dreams.” I don’t know precisely when THAT happened…but I know it did. Thus, the item is placed above the line.

Stylistic and Linguistic dissonance: Sometimes a connection between two events is not immediately clear because of the stylistic and linguistic differences between the two texts, and so connections have to be teased out and re-examined.

Example: Right now, I’m struggling with where in our text the Baron’s death impacts Irina, and how to connect that event in the original text to a moment in our text, as the event is felt but never directly voiced.

Skills and Resources: I don’t always have the technical skills to achieve what I see in my mind. Sometimes when I do have the skills, I do not have the resources. This is really just a moment of vulnerability that I think is important to share. As I continue to work, my skill continues to develop, both technically and in my ability to advocate for the resources I desire. Still, it’s a very real aspect of thinking big about how to ideally present information. It just doesn’t always work out, and often times thinking creatively to “pick up the pieces” and present the concept successfully is a dramaturgical exercise in itself.

Example: Despite much proof-reading, the text of the time artifact is not exactly how I want it, now that I look at it as a whole. However, I don’t have the resources (time or otherwise) to dismantle and remount parts of the artifact, so I need to think strategically about how to address the dissonance.

Here is the Artifact as it exists now, nearing completion:

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Since the process is not concluded, and the artifact is still in flux, I don’t have a neat little conclusion. What I do have is that hope that this blog post might serve as a treatise that highlights the depths of dramatrurgical conceptual art (however small the piece) and reframes how we label those pieces.

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Prewriting in spite of traumatic topics

In Kirsten Greenidge’s Playwrighting I class, the semester culminates in a project where students complete a one act. I’ve been stewing on an idea for over two years now, and when this project that was longer than a 10 minute play was introduced, I decided it was time to begin.

The play is going to adapt a series of text messages I have that span over a year, when I was best friends with a person who was emotionally abusive and manipulative. I’m going to be turning this 5,331 page PDF into a play.

Since the friendship took place just over five years ago now, my memory is unreliable. Meaning that the best, most efficient, most accurate way to wrought this play is to go through the text messages and create an objective timeline. A few months after I got out of the friendship, I became obsessed with having proof of what happened (in the hopes of reporting the individual, not that anyone ever took me seriously.) This lead to me purchasing software that led to me being able to export my text messages to create the 5,331 page PDF–and I am eternally grateful to Old Me.

This play is a lot of firsts for me. It’s the first time I’m not writing a comedy. It’s the first time I know I’m going to do multiple drafts. It’s the first time I’m doing any outlining or prewriting of any kind.It’s the first time I’m really diving into dissecting this relationship since it happened. For all of these reasons, it’s been a very painful process.

The prewriting, for this project, is absolutely the most essential part. It is painful to relive these memories practically in real time, but I can’t find another way. I’ve tried to get outside opinions and ideas, but I’ve felt unsatisfied with all of the other options. I need to do this right, because I don’t have it in me to wrought this play more than once.

 

I’ve just begun seriously getting to work on the project this week, because I’ve been too terrified to launch up until now. But I’ve been working for two days–I feel like I should get a chip of some kind for being able to get through two days of work– and have gotten through roughly a hundred pages of the texts. This project is due December 1st, so needless to say, I am in panic mode (even though Kirsten has kindly reiterated that the due date is for a draft of an arc of the play, and not a production-ready draft.)

 

This whole post is just a roundabout way of saying that never in my life have I wished to have a dramaturg more. I am desperate for outside counsel and support, I need a person to help me create this timeline who I can trust to do it right, because it is so essential to writing the play itself.

But all I have is me. Dramaturging for myself is hard, and doesn’t seem possible to do while practicing “perfect” self-care. But it will have to do.