Monday, August 27, 2007

What's Required to Be a Writer and advice on training) (part 2 of what I might say tomorrow)

Here's some other stuff I'm hoping to tell the kids tomorrow, about being a writer:

What's Required to Be a Writer?

1. You should like to read. A lot. Good writers are good readers. It doesn't really matter what you read, just that you read.

2. Like to write. A lot. Some people want to be writers, but don't actually enjoy writing that much. It's a chore for them. If it's a chore, why not do something like accountanting or manage a grocery store, or something that will actually pay you for doing your chore.

3. Be curious. About the world, history, people, books, language, stories. This cannot be stressed enough.

4. Be determined and persistent. Being a writer requires a lot of practice. And like anything, most people aren't very good at it at first. This creates a lot of rejection as you get started (and even later), and you have to learn to get past that to keep going.

Note that I didn't say that you need talent, or creativity. I think most people already have plenty of innate creativity. It's just part of being human. We have it, and if you let it come out, you'll find it. As for talent, that's not really something to worry about yet.

Advice for students (mostly about training).

If you want to be a playwright (note that this is different from if you want to write books): Do lots of theatre in high school Take writing classes, acting classes, tech classes. Be in plays. Work backstage. Write lots of plays. If you still love theatre when high school is over, study theatre in college. Study everything about theatre. The more you know about theatre, the better plays you'll write. The more involved you are with the theatre community, the more your plays will be produced. Working in theatre is a full-body, total immersion experience. Someone once said about playwriting, "You can't make a living, but you can make a life."

If you want to write books:
In high school: read lots of books, keep a journal, and learn about things that interest you, in depth. Learn to speak another language.

In college: don't major in creative writing, though do take creative writing classes or minor in it. Instead, major in history, economics, biology, architecture. Studying journalism has some big benefits, because it teaches you to ask questions, write quickly and clearly, and explore many different areas of the world. Learn as much as you can about everything, so you actually know something about reality. Become fluent in another language. Travel. Hold odd jobs. Read a lot. Make friends with other writers, especially writers who are better and older than you.

That's it. Any questions?

Why You Might Want to Be a Writer (what I might say to kids tomorrow)

We're out in Colorado all week, visiting family, friends, and getting in a little hiking. (My dad lives in Estes Park and we saw elk right outside the window tonight.)

Tomorrow, I'm supposed to go talk about what it's like to be a writer to one of my sister's classes of 6-8 graders (she's an art teacher who's branching out). Here's some of what I hope to say (hoping not to bore them to tears):

Cool Things About Being A Writer:

1. Writing the first draft of something is like being an explorer. A secret explorer, really, because you're in a world that no one else has ever seen, with people no one has ever met, in a story no one has ever experienced, but you.

I love writing first drafts, because I love living in that world in my head (and on the page). The first draft is just for me--I get to experience the journey, the adventure, and in some ways it's like being able to live in a waking dream world. When my writing day is over, it's not always easy to come out, and sometimes the shadows of it stay with me, the way an intense dream will haunt your morning long after you've woken up.

After the first draft it's like the explorer coming back home and telling everyone what he saw, and drawing the maps, and trying to get everyone to understand what he's seen. That's the tricky part, to communicate it all clearly enough.

2. What Ifs. Being a writer lets you play games with your adventure, with reality, asking "What if?" What if my character met someone who had some weird connection to tornadoes? What if two people fell in love because they both loved to move? What if one of them didn't want to move any more? What if scientists said they'd found two people exactly alike? What if everyone believed them except one person, a reporter? Those are all what ifs that I've used in my work.

Lots of authors ask what if questions, and it's fun. We all do it. My kids ask them all the time. What if our car crashed? What if I died? What if I turned blue?

Being a writer lets you play this game and call if work (on paper, for an audience), and you get to make up the answers you want.

3. You have an excuse to learn about anything, talk to anyone, or ask any question. This is especially good for those of us who can be shy around strangers. Maybe you want to learn about race cars, or rocket ships, or strange diseases. If you write a story or book or play or movie about this stuff, you have an excuse to go to the library. Or to a conference. Or call up a scientist or historian or famous person and ask questions. I went to a conference in California about the history of the Bible for one project, and I went to a conference about tornadoes for another. I traveled to cities to learn about racially integrated neighborhoods. Soon a need to get a look inside a tractor trailer cab and I need to talk to a wood worker. I already researched what it takes to reattach severed fingers and the medical uses for leeches.

I'm someone who wishes he could do just about everything and could live just about anywhere. Being a writer lets me explore all of this, in just one lifetime.

4. Being a writer gives you a good excuse to buy books, to read books which is not the same thing), to watch movies and plays, to go to museums, and it all counts as work.

5. If you're a writer, you also get to use cool pens and notebooks. It sounds trivial, but it's a good perk. I have different kinds of notebooks for different projects, and sometimes I'll buy a new pen when I start a new book. Cheap thrills.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Camera Obscura

When I picked up my daughter from her art class today, I stopped inside the Brookline Arts Center and checked out their new room-sized camera obscura (which means "dark chamber"). I'd never been in one before. Here's how it went:

An old lady is standing outside the black curtain to the room, talking to her husband who is sitting inside. She warns me not to run into him in the dark. I pull back the curtain and step inside a small room, about 10x18 ft, that's been completely blacked out, with the exception of a pencil-sized hole on the exterior side.

Once I close the curtain to the room and my eyes adjust, I can see an image on the white wall across from the pinhole. It's cloudy outside, so it's not particularly bright or colorful, but once I've been in there long enough, I can clearly see the park outside. A large tree dominates, with branches shifting in the breeze. An occasional car drives by, across the top of the image, because the whole scene is upside down.

I stand there, dumbfounded. There's no projector, no computer, no light bulb, just a small hole. It's all about the physics of light and the nature and wonder of the world.

The old lady enters the room, cautiously, and closes the curtain. "Do you see anything yet?" she asks her husband.

"Not yet. I see some shapes, I guess. I don't really get the point."

"I can almost make something out," she says.

"Once your eyes adjust, you'll see more," I say.

But they still don't really get it. In a moment, I step close to the wall, and point out the leaves on the tree. Follow a car driving past with my finger. I remind them that it's all there, but it's upside down. Once I point it out, the whole image starts to come into focus for them. They notice people walking past. She points out the windows and doors on the apartments across the park.

"And it's all coming through that little hole," I say, pointing behind them. They look and are suitably impressed. "We're seeing a entire collection of light, bounced off of just about everything outside, all streaming through that little hole. There's an incredible amount of information about the world stored in the one beam of light, giving a whole slice of the world, just one tiny little piece. It makes for a two dimensional snapshot. The world all together is all those little snapshots, all added together, but this lets us look at just one small piece of it."

We all think about this. There's a lot to look at in this dim image on the wall. "I guess it shows that light is pretty complicated," the old man says.

And I think, I guess it shows the world is pretty complicated.

One dark little room with a tiny hole in a curtain. That's sort of how art works, though, isn't it? When we write a play, it's just one little pinhole on reality and experience, but if the conditions are right, then it can illuminate an entire slice of our existence. And even if we get the play up there, sometimes the audience just doesn't get it, even if it's right there in front of their faces. And sometimes, someone else in the audience will suddenly grasp what's happening and then that understanding flows into the other people. Sometimes.

(check this out for some really cool camera obscura images)

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

White Guy Writing About Race (Part I)

I'm a white guy and an adoptive parent of two black children. I wrote material that dealt with race before we had kids, though after I became a dad it took on a whole new level of interest for me.

Still, it took a long time until I was ready to work on a full-length play that dealt with racial issues. By the time I wrote Pieces of Whitey, I'd already written my novel, Tornado Siren, and my screenplay, The Carrier, both of which deal with race. When I wrote Pieces of Whitey, my family and I had been living for a few years in Roxbury, a predominantly black neighborhood of Boston, and I'd also done a fair amount of research on interracial neighborhoods for a non-fiction book proposal I'd put together (that sadly didn't get published, but that's a story for Part II).

All of this is a long lead-in to saying I wrote this odd comedy about well-meaning white people. A lot of it drew on my own personal racial experience. As the play pulled together into something modestly coherent, I tried pretty hard to avoid the script becoming a white guy writing about black people, a sort of travelogue as comedy. I'd thought a lot about whiteness and I wanted to see if I could write something about it.

I also knew the realities of theatre (or so I thought) and realized that there are a lot of small, all-white theatres out there. I was hopeful that many of them, given the strong liberal tilt among theatre folk, might be interested in doing a play about race, but maybe didn't know any black actors. Theatre tends to be fairly segregated, after all (since people's social networks tend to be monochromatic). So I wanted to make a play about race that could have an all-white cast, so the places that most need to talk about race (the white parts) could have a script that would allow this to happen. The script itself addresses this issue of the whiteness of theatre directly--half the plot is about a white playwright commissioned to write a play about race for an all-white theatre company.

Also, by intentionally making a play about race using all white actors, it avoids the tendency to have racial plays be about black people (rather than about race or whiteness). If everyone you see on stage is a white person, even white people playing black characters, then everything you see about race has been filtered through a white perspective (for better or for worse). If I have a black actor play my white person's concept of a black character, that's something entirely different. The black actor gives some sense of authenticity to my writing, whether it deserves it or not, because he is, after all, a real live black person. In the case of Pieces of Whitey (as intended, anyway), that doesn't happen.

Thanks to my writing group, Rhombus, and workshops from Stage Left (Chicago), Write On (Boston), Attention Span (Baltimore), I came up with a decent script and convinced Rough & Tumble (R&T) and director Dan Milstein in Boston to work on it with me. We developed the script together over quite a few months of meetings and many weeks of rehearsals (this was in 2005). I was pretty (over) confident after the reception in the various readings, that this was a show that would be a big hit and might even be able to tour the following year.

We did have a sense that we were doing something that might get under people's skin a little. The tag line for on our postcards was: " A comedy about race by a bunch of white people. Could be a trainwreck. So you'll want to check that out." (The photo above, of Irene Daly) is from the post card.)

As a white guy, I was confident that other white people would get it, but I was nervous about the reaction of the minority community. Was the script offensive to black people? (It deals with race as primarily a black/white issue.) We pushed for publicity in the white press, but didn't make an extra effort in the black paper or media. I wrote a grant that paid for a Sunday afternoon series of discussions led by trained facilitators from two social justice groups. We also got a good group sale to the New England Alliance of Multiracial Families (NEAMF). The house, a converted rehearsal room in the spiffy new part of the Boston Center for the Arts, seated only about 50, so it didn't take many patrons to fill a good percentage of the house. (The photo to the left is of Kristin Baker and George Saulnier III.)

So what happened?

In terms of the production, we had very talented actors who were well directed, a production that sometimes ran well and sometimes struggled with pace and rhythm, and a script that was far from perfect but had something it was trying to say and offered up some laughs. The first couple nights were a little rough, as we made more changes and cuts to the script, and we worked out some production bumps (of course this is when the reviewers came).
In terms of audience reaction, this play was unlike any production I've ever had. The reaction of the audience was completely different almost every night. This reaction depended greatly, it seemed, on either the audience's racial composition, or on the amount of experience the audience already had thinking about race and whiteness.

The black people in the audience, the ones we'd most feared offending, totally got the play. The more black people (or other people of color) in the audience, the better the show went (the number rose over the course of the run, thanks to word of mouth). From the back of the house, it was especially interesting to watch the white people sitting near black people. The whites definitely were aware of where the blacks were sitting, and you could see them checking out black folks' reaction to certain scenes. In a sense this is what theatre does best--involve the audience not just with the performance, but also with each other. It was thrilling to watch this in action.

The night with the NEAMF group was a hoot. These people had completely lived parts of this play. And the Sunday afternoons, which tended to sell out, drew people from the social justice groups (coming to be part of the discussion), and they laughed and nodded and clapped. There were times when I said to myself, "This is exactly what I was after."

But when the audience was completely or mostly composed of white theatre goers (or theatre makers, as small theatre audiences often are, especially early in a run), we'd get a whole different vibe. It would seem like the actors were performing in molasses, so little energy would be coming back from the house. These were the nights when I wondered what the hell I was doing writing plays at all.

What about the press?

This is where it got really interesting. I'd originally thought we'd be able to pick up a feature article or two. R&T had been getting some great press for their unique physical performance style. But most of what they'd done was pretty whimsical and now they were taking on a play about race (though a comedy). And how many plays about whiteness come across the news desk? Not many, right? And stories about race show up in the paper every single day. Race is America's obsession, after all. For our show, we didn't get a nibble for a feature, though we did get a couple inches in the Globe theatre column.

And the reviews?

This is tricky, because I don't want to whine about the critics (playwrights do that a lot) or bad reviews. It's okay for them not to like the play (it definitely has problems), or even the production.

However, we clearly pissed them off. The reviews in the major papers weren't just pans, they were attacks (with the exception of the Boston Phoenix). Bristling. Here's where I was most blindsided, because it hadn't occurred to me (idiot) that white people might get mad. What's interesting is that there's a scene in the play where one character (Bill) has just had a racial awakening, and on his way to work, every person discounts what he has to say about race. "No, that's not true," they insist.

We got the same sort of reaction in the reviews, calling the play "pathetically naive", cliched or uninventive. One asked "Isn't it just as racist to stereotype white people from Weston as rich and shallow as it is to stereotype black people from Roxbury as poor and dangerous?" (No.) (Oh, those poor oppressed people of Weston.) Another wished the play had been a drama about a series of grim racial statistics. And was offended by a white family discovering, after genetic testing, that it isn't as white as it thought. One review's reference to the black playwrights of the 60s as having already probed this territory (and In Living Color) was telling--most of those plays and shows were about black people. This play is about white people, but the white reviewers didn't see themselves. The stuff around blacks they saw as cliche, and the stuff around whites they saw as unrealistic. (The Globe took great offense at an adoption agency offering a discount for black babies. Which was right out of my own experience.) The tone of the reviews was clearly intended to keep people away. (The good news is that despite the reviews, we still sold between 85-90% of the seats for the run.)

So what's the point, Pat?

Anyway, the point of this long (overly long, I know) piece (besides a good reminder not to read reviews) is to try to get at something that both interests me and confounds me. To me, it seems that theatre has some very definite ways it wants to deal with race. Plays about black people by black people are good (or by Thomas Gibbons is fine, too). Plays about black people and white people together should play up blacks as victims and whites as oppressors (white guilt). Plays by white people about white people are good, too, as long as they are racial (in that they're about white people--David Mamet, for example) without explicitly talking about race and their own whiteness. (I know there a few exceptions. And I also don't think that Rebecca Gilman's "Spinning Into Butter" counts as one.) In any case, make certain that plays about race are also plays about "them" (whether "they" are black or white) but don't create plays about race that are explicitly plays about "us."

And, what interests me about the POW production was that different audiences clearly experienced the play so differently. (My own white privilege and blindness made me reverse my expectations about who would understand the play.) This gives an interesting answer to many theatres who complain about racial minorities not showing up at their lovely (but all-white productions)--maybe their material isn't as universal as they (or the people writing their reviews) think it is.

As for POW, basically I've written a play originally intended for an all-white cast, in a world where most theatres are run by white people, and many white people don't get the play. Hmm. I guess that's some sort of accomplishment. A black friend wrote me this message after the play opened and the reviews came out:

"you were forcing these so called liberal white folks to take a good hard look at themselves, they don't like the man in the mirror. Thus the reason for the unfavorable reviews. As a Black person watching the play I saw nothing but the truth. Some acts were more powerful then others, I laughed hard because every black person knows a white person that means well but in their heart really believes that all young black males smoke pot, wear hoodies and will rob them by gun point if given a chance. Your audience(quite a few blacks) enjoyed the performance you could tell by the laughter and the times of reflection."

That helped. Though in some ways, this could prove the failure of the play, in that I was able to connect with one part of the audience, but not the entire audience. (Is that a fair goal?) The critics might say that it proves that I was pandering to the black and liberal white audience. But I think they were missing that I was saying in this play, "this is me, this is my experience of race". To them that came across as stereotypical (though I wrote in a character who's a white playwright writing about race--how can I be clearer that this is a personal play?). The other way to look at it is that white culture has a long history of glossing over the racial truth in America, and anyone who wants to pull away the veil is going to get his hand slapped.

It all leaves me wondering: what will happen to this play? (I've sent it out a lot and haven't had even a nibble.) And how do I write about the aspect of race that I know the most about, that seems the most important with regard to race relations, in a way that can be effective for the entire audience? Is that even possible? I'd be lying to say that it's not been discouraging at times, but I hope I'll find a way through it.

In case you're curious--I usually avoid posting full-length plays on-line, but here's a link to Pieces of Whitey, in case you're interested in taking a read. (I probably won't leave it up there for too long.) You can find the reviews on-line, with a little Googling.

Also, to undercut my thesis above a little--I just found a review from the on-line Theatre Mirror, by the late Will Stackman, who seemed to get the piece.

Wouldn't It Be Easier?

Last week there was a bit of discussion around race and theatre on the Binge list. It happened just as my reading of Pieces of Whitey was about to happen, so it was already a topic very much on my mind. I want to look a bit more at this later this week (if my son kicks his cold and actually gets to camp so I have some writing/thinking time), in particular the rather interesting response to Pieces of Whitey's 2005 Boston production.

Here's one question that was put to the Binge list, and my response, which deals a bit with the racial state of theatre (only an entree). It's useful to know that this whole discussion arose when earlier someone protested a call for scripts that said it was especially looking for work written by people of color.

From the point of view of trying to get published or getting the work out, wouldn't it be easier if you were a left-handed gay disabled member of a visible minority? In other words, why do we have to be a member of a special-interests group in order to be heard? If only we lived in a world where merit was all that mattered.

My response:
Would it be easier? In a word, No. If you're a straight white male in America, especially if you're college educated, that's about as easy as it gets. Ever.

In terms of would it make it easier to advance your theatre career, with readings, prizes, productions, and publications, if you were the member of a visible minority, the answer is still No.

Theatre is the most social of art forms--new plays often get done by people who know the author. Directors and producers stage plays written by their playwright friends (except classics). People start theatre companies with their friends. Theatre is, after all, public play, and we play with our friends. For all of us marketing our work, networking is critical.

If you look around, you'll notice that as you move up the theatrical food chain, the population is whiter (and mostly male). And guess what? Most people socialize in fairly racially homogeneous groups. Our social circles are rarely very diverse (this is especially true of whites)--in a large part due to entrenched residential racial discrimination that affects our entire nation.

So, producers either produce scripts by their friends or social contacts, or they produce plays by writers unknown to them whose scripts speak to the producer's experience of the world. In other words, people tend to be drawn to material written about characters familiar to them, in an idiom that's accessible to them. If you're writing a play from a non-white perspective, with language and rhythm from your non-white upbringing, lots of producers aren't going to "get" your script.

And heaven forbid you decide to write characters into your play who are racial minorities. Again, owing to residential segregation, many small theatres in small towns won't have the actors to cast your play. If the theatre is located in part of primarily white suburbia, the producers may be unwilling to cast outside their comfort zone. (This happened to me at a community college in the suburbs of Kansas City. The white producers insisted they wouldn't be able to find any black actors to do the show. I assure you, Kansas City has plenty of black folks.)

Even if you manage to get a brave producer or director to mount your play, the media and critics are mostly white. Your work will probably not be publicly judged by people with any real interracial experience, other than what they've already seen on screen or stage.

Theatre, despite the liberal leanings of many of its practitioners, remains a segregated artform in most venues across America.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Starting out in Hollywood/Making Movies

I liked this post on John August's site--it's the story of a young guy working to get started in Hollywood as a writer/director and details his constant scrambling for jobs. But you can see that he's leapt in both feet first, all the way. The comment discussion is worth looking at, too. Adam's story works great for the young kids fresh out of college, but obviously, that sort of thing is a lot trickier once you've got the wife, kids, and house.

On a similar note, I've been meaning to mention this great post by Malachy Walsh (now a proud papa!) about his new camera and starting to make some movies on his own. He's got me wondering if I should start doing something similar (in all my copious spare time?). Back in college, I had a blast making short films, and they were pretty popular on campus. But there was no outlet beyond that really. Now, with YouTube, there's this odd distribution channel already in place (though with tons of competition).

My screenwriting career is nearly dormant, but I've been tempted to get involved in making more movies and I know that part of the reason why it's been so hard to get a movie made is that movies are made (a lot like theatre) by people working together with their friends. Trying to just send out queries and scripts through the mail and e-mail, even if you get agent or manager, is banking on the longest of longshots. I've had a couple different agents and a manager, but sooner or later, they fade away, because I'm just a voice on the phone, or characters in an e-mail. I could be wrong, but it seems like if you really want your scripts to get made, you need to be friends with people who are actually making movies.

I don't think that mean that you necessarily have to live in LA, but it's clear why it helps. I'm not leaving Boston for a while, so if I want it to happen, I'm going to have to get to know filmmakers around here.

Making your own movies is the story behind I'm Through With White Girls, which I blogged about earlier. An actress wanted a role for herself, then read a script written by a friend, and saw something she wanted to play. Rather than wait around, she and her sister decided to produce the film themselves. They hired another friend, who was also a young actress and director, to direct. They raised the money and made it happen. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, that's just what it takes. The stories we read in the press about a script getting plucked of the blue are just fantasy fodder.

Tetris World Champ

The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine had this fun story about the new Tetris World Champion yesterday. And the web site actually has a video of her and the Mario champ, too. Check it out. Tracy and I both got a big kick out of it. (And reminisced about past hours spent in arcades.)

And just in case the story leaves you with a strong urge to play Tetris, you can just go here and get your fix.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Do You Live in a Sundown Town?

I'm still working my way through James Loewen's book about Sundown Towns (he's talking about how and why the information about a town's status as a sundown town was often later concealed). Fascinating stuff.

You can visit his web site for a list of American sundown towns, both suspected and confirmed, along with some info about their history. Just click on your state in the map and see if any of the towns on the list look familiar.

It's hard to knw if all his information is super accurate. He lists Brookline, where I live now, as"probably not" and I'd say it's definitely not a current sundown down (not that we don't have racial problems). And I'm not certain that it ever was, though that could just be denial--I'll have to look in the history books. After what I've been reading, I guess it won't surprise me. The Colorado list is much too short. Still, the site is worth a look.

Another town where I've lived that is or was a sundown towns is Mahomet, IL It saddens me to think of Mahomet was sundown, but I suppose it shouldn't completely surprise me. When we lived in Champaign, we heard rumors that Arcola still is (and it shows up on Loewen's list as probable.)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

The Sum of All Fears

So, just for fun, here's one of the scenes that was cut from Pieces of Whitey (not by me) for the reading that I was most sad to see go. (Hmm. What do you need to know? Fred is a white guy who has just moved to Roxbury, a black neighborhood in Boston. In this play, characters wearing black shirts are racially black). This comes on page 75 of a 99 page play.


(Fred enters, walking his dog--which should be one of those invisible dog on a wire kind of things. Fred’s Brain, a woman all in white, walks right behind Fred, as close as possible, step for step. Her costume can be labeled in big red letters: “Fred’s Brain.”)

Man, I’m beat. How can we have so many boxes? Couldn’t we collect something lighter than books or manuscripts? Jesus, I feel like I’m eighty years old.

Good dog. Nice to be out with the dog. Nice night. Safe neighborhood. This is a safe neighborhood. Isn’t it? How do I know? What does that mean, safe? I never wondered about how safe my neighborhood was before moving here. Now that I live near black people I suddenly wonder how safe I am? It’s quiet, people mind their own business.

(A NEIGHBOR, in “black” shirt, carrying a shopping bag, enters and walks across the stage.)



(Neighbor exits.)

Relax. She seems nice enough. A neighbor. Harmless. Harmless? What’s she going to do, stab me? Shout at me to GET THE HELL OUT OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD YOU WHITE GENTRIFYING SCUM! I don’t think so. Probably wonders why I look so nervous.

(He walks past two guys in “black” shirts. They’re standing around talking, smoking, one of them talking on a cell phone.)

Hi. How you going?

That would be “How’s it going?” Nimrod. Or “How are you doing?” Think first, then speak. Jesus, could you clench your fist a little tighter? Like those baggy pants? Think that bulge in the pocket is a gun? Are they my new neighbors? Are they going to hang out and smoke on the stoop every night? And that’s not cigarettes they’re smoking. Oh, sure, white kids never smoke pot. Maybe they’re just getting ready to go out. Out to raise some hell. I’m a racist pig. Yes, my wallet is still in my pocket.

(The two men fall into step behind Fred.)

FRED’S BRAIN (cont’d)
Christ, they are not following me. They are not... Okay, they are following me. How fast can I run? Keep the leash or drop the leash? Think I could take one of them if they catch me? I’ve got my pocket knife. Oh, good, corkscrew them to death. If they ask for my wallet, do I just give it, or do I preserve some sense of honor and say, show me the weapon? Once it’s out someone’s gonna want to use it. They’re just kids, they aren’t interested in me. Stop looking over my shoulder. Oh, good dog. That’s it. Yes, now is a good time to take a dump. Yes. Good dog. No one robs you while your dog is taking a dump, do they?

(The two guys walk past Fred and exit. Fred takes out a plastic bag and picks up after his dog.)

Good dog.

Okay, that’s enough walking for tonight. Dog needs walking every night. Every night, Fred... Welcome to the neighborhood.

(Fred and his Brain exit. End of scene.)

Friday, August 17, 2007

The reading went fine.

The reading of Pieces of Whitey in Cambridge went fine last night. I didn’t have a chance to talk to (or chew out) the director. He was busy beforehand, and then left early.

There were about a dozen people in attendance, mostly white, but it was a mixed race crowd. As usual with this play, the people of color laughed the hardest (especially at the brochure entitled “shit that might happen to you now that you’re colored.”) I got some nice compliments afterwards and the audience stuck with it. The actors were mixed in their level of experience, but they all gave it their best. It was a mixed-race cast, and that seemed to work fine with this play, which is intriguing to me. (I'd love to see it done with an all black cast.)

It’s a pretty tough piece to do as a fully staged reading, but the director did a decent job of trying to give a sense of it. It's interesting to see that some plays can work well as a sit down reading or as a full-production, but an actual staged reading bumps into some important limitations, theatrically.

The whole cutting issue that had me so riled didn’t end up being a huge disaster. (Though I think the cutting for time with a bullshit excuse, to be honest.) The library didn’t close until 9, which meant we could easily have run the show until 8:30. The cuts that were made were entire scenes (the play has about 30 short scenes), rather than small bits, which was good, and only several were cut. Though one scene was cut in half--the first half is all physical, and that didn't work at all. Trying to take out some of the fairly visual/physical scenes makes sense, in a way, for a fully staged reading (since you can't read stage directions), but you end up losing important bits of the play (in this case, mostly character development). If it had been up to me to choose cuts for time, I would have chosen some of the same scenes to take out, but not all (and I would have cut some others). (Some of you know the play--Betty's Safari and Chicken at Chet's were cut and so was the Fred's Brain scene, Sum of All Fears. I was especially sad to lose this one). Oddly enough, he kept the initial dumbshow at the start of I’m Not Racist But, which made no sense whatsoever. The audience had no clue about what was happening.

The fact that the cuts didn't result in an absolute fiasco doesn't, of course, justify making them, and especially making them without consulting me. That was just wrong, any way you look at it.

It was useful for me to see the reading and hear the audience respond. I don't know if or when I'll ever get a chance to revisit this play, but I hope I will someday. There's been a big discussion about going on at the Binge list, so this reading came at a good time for me. I actually plan to blog more (soon) about Pieces of Whitey, race, and my thoughts around the audience and critical response to the Boston production. (But now I need to sleep.)

Thursday, August 16, 2007

12 Ways to Really Piss Me Off (if you're a director)

A primer for how a director of a staged reading for one of my plays can piss me off:

1. Make changes to my play without consulting me, after I've made it very clear that I don't want you to cut or change the script without my permission.

2. When you call me for the first time, make sure the first thing out of your mouth are things you think should be changed in the script. Even though I don't know you and have never met or talked to you before.

3. Ask me to change lines/jokes because they're not funny to you. Even though you've never heard the play in front of an audience, and I've had three workshops/readings and a full-production of the script.

4. Learn that the time slot for the reading is only 90 minutes, when the play runs about two hours. Find this out a few weeks before the reading, but don't tell me. Cut the play to fit the slot, without telling me.

5. When you call to talk to me about the script or schedule, be sure to use a cell phone with poor reception.

6. Whenever you call, make sure you don't schedule a time first. It's much better to ambush me when I'm at the grocery story with my son.

7. Invite me to a rehearsal, but wait to do it until about an hour or two before rehearsal starts.

8. When you start to worry that I might not react well to unauthorized cuts, call one of my director friends to see if there's a good way to butter me up.

9. When you call me, sheepishly, to confess that you have perhaps, "screwed the pooch", by making changes without my permission, wait to do so until just a day or two before the reading, so that the actors have already spent time working on the piece and the event has been publicized. In other words, if the reading gets canceled, make sure I'm the one who comes across as the bad guy.

10. When you semi-apologize, make sure you also insist that it's really my fault this happened, because I initially refused to let you make even small changes. Suggest that I clearly wasn't interested in being a good collaborator.

11. Use the phrase, "It's better to seek forgiveness rather than ask permission." I might remind you that you were already explicitly denied permission, so your cliche doesn't apply, and even my children know it's wrong to go ahead and do something after dad says No.

12. If you're going to do all this, make sure you do it with a play that's incredibly personal to me and that deals with a touchy subject, like race. Even better, make sure it's a play that's had some workshops and a strong production that was blasted in the press. Oh, and do it in my home town, so I might have wanted to invite friends and colleagues.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What I'm Reading: Sundown Towns

I'm not through with this one yet (I'm about a third of the way done), but it's really affecting me. Sundown Towns by James Loewen is a thorough chronicle of the creation of America's racial landscape. (Sundown towns are towns where non-whites needed to be out of town by sundown.) It's a difficult book, because it makes me think so consciously about the most horrible aspects of our racial history (and our present condition).

Some of the ideas and concepts were presented in Loewen's fantastic, Lies My Teacher Told Me, but here we're getting more detail about this particular issue. Basically, anytime you see an all-white town, county, neighborhood, or suburb, it didn't get that way by accident.

After the Civil War, free blacks emerged from the South and settled all across the country, especially in small towns and rural areas (ours was an agrarian society and most of them had experience in agriculture). However, Reconstruction came crashing to an end, and from 1890-1930, we experienced our worst period of race relations. During this time, racism surged throughout the country, and racial minorities were forced out of small towns and the countryside across the country, in a wave of ethnic cleansing, the results of which still linger to this day.

(Did you know that in 1870 Chinese made up nearly a third of the population of Idaho. By 1910, they were almost all gone. This happened all across the West.)

Even later, as the suburbs began to be developed, blacks and other minorities were consciously excluded again. "Every community in America founded after 1890 and before 1960 by a single developer or owner--kept out African American from its beginnings."

Loewen is from Illinois, where I also grew up. And he's found 474 towns that are or were sundown towns. When we lived in Champaign a few years ago, I heard about little farm towns that were still sundown towns. It's the kind of information that spreads by word of mouth (and it's important information when you're the parent of black children). It makes me sick to think of the history behind these towns. (Wait until you see the chart of Indiana showing sundown counties. Though perhaps it's not a shock, since the state elected a klansman governor in 1924.)

Basically, in the North, Midwest, and Western states, blacks were burned, shot and lynched out of small towns and communities, and forced to live in large urban slums.

It's a big book, and I've got a long way to go. I'm learning a lot (and stuff that I really need for me and my kids to know), and it's not easy to stomach.

Thank you, Mr. Cheney

(Here's a break from our regularly scheduled arts programming)

Check out this clip where Mr. Cheney makes it clear why it wasn't a good idea to go into Baghdad and get Saddam Hussein (in 1994).

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Good News: Tightly Bound (and Great Short Plays Volume 1)

It's always nice to be able to report a little good news. After a fair amount of wrangling, Brooklyn Publishers has published Tightly Bound, which is a collection of eight of my short plays for women performers. The idea is that the group of plays works together to make an entire evening of theatre, with a flexible cast size of 4-18 women. It just went on sale last week, so we'll see how it goes. Some of the plays have done extremely well on their own (Insomnia, Stop Rain, Ship of Fools), and we'll just have to see if they can pick up even more productions as a group. (Fingers crossed.) It's a nice set, in that it works pretty well both for students and for theatre companies.

Also, Playscripts has decided to bundle my short play, Christmas Breaks, as part of Great Short Plays, Volume 1. It just went on sale this week (and sold at least one copy today). I'm in good company, with other plays by Stephen Belber, Brooke Berman, Judy GeBauer, Barry Hall, J. Holtham, David Riedy, D. Tucker Smith, John Walch, and Sheri Wilner. This is a good experiment, to see if this is a more productive way to sell short plays. I hope it is.

Opus and me

Those of you who enjoyed my play, Pieces of Whitey, will get a kick out of this Opus strip that ran on July 22. It's practically a scene right out of the play (not exactly. But it's the basic notion. I don't mean that Breathed stole it, just that great minds think alike) (wouldn't I like to be as funny every day as Berkeley Breathed).

Friday, August 10, 2007

Playwright vs. Novelist (the party edition)

As my writing career has broadened and shifted to include writing novels as well as plays, I've thought a lot about the pros/cons of writing for each medium. These are, of course, high minded interior dialogues about art, as well down and dirty thoughts about different business models. Both are good ways to work really hard and earn very little money. But what about the social side--if I'm at a party or meeting someone for the first time, is it better to say "I'm a novelist" or "I'm a playwright"?

Let's see:

1) Nobody's ever heard of my work. Both types of writing face the inherent disadvantage that the next question will be: "Oh, what have you written?" If you claim to be a playwright, sometimes people will ask "What movie did you write?" or just look at you blankly (What's a playwright?). Whether I claim Playwright or Novelist, since I'm not a Broadway success or a bestselling author, I'm forced to give them a title or two, with the immediate disclaimer, "But you've probably never heard of it." However, if I've got a play or reading coming up, then Playwright gets a big bonus, because I can plug the event. It also helps whenever I have something coming up in New York, because that sounds impressive (even if it's just a one-act). I've been pulling that stunt lately, with Den of Iniquity about to run at EATFest in October. However, with Novelist, I can give them the title of my book (Tornado Siren) and tell them that they can order it from Amazon or their book store (it's unlikely to be in stock) or even get it from the library. Sometimes they actually do. This is a big plus for books, because they're so much more easily accessible. (I'd say Novelist gets a slight edge here.)

2) The next question is always, "Do you make a living?" For Novelist, the answer is No, but there is always the possibility, so I can say, "Not yet, but maybe my next novel will push me over the edge." There actually are people who make a living writing novels. Hundreds at least. For Playwright, this is a downer. The answer is No, but I suppose I can use the excuse "But almost nobody does." But that doesn't really help. (Edge to Novelist)

3) Playwright gets a huge edge when I meet someone more than once. I've written a ton of plays, and I probably get a dozen productions or readings every year. So if I see someone whom I haven't seen for a while, and I claim Playwright, well, then I have something new happening (even though I might not have actually written a new play for a long time). And I can say something like, "We have auditions in a few weeks." or "The actress is really great." For Novelist, when they ask "What's up?" I say, "Oh, I'm still revising my new novel." But I've been revising the darn novel for about a year and still have more to go. The process is so slow that it's impossibly dull for party talk. (Edge to Playwright.)

4) Plays are easier to summarize than novels. And even a play that's currently under construction benefits from trying to talk about it. Theatrical storytelling for an audience is what makes plays and parties both work. Novels, even simple ones, are hard to sum up. And for some reason, it ends up not being particularly helpful to talk about them while they're in process (especially since the listener won't be able to buy a copy for years to come). (Edge Playwright)

5) The process is of developing and producing plays is socially vibrant. There are meetings with producers and directors and designers. Networking at parties and shows and award dinners. Actors and actresses are awfully entertaining to hang out with. There are readings, workshops, auditions, rehearsals, previews, productions, more parties. Applause. Critics. Playwrights in any city all know and despise the local press and will gladly consume vast amounts of time and oxygen bitching about them. Alas, the poor novelist--sits at home and writes for a few hours every day. Writes some more. Writes more pages. Gives it to a few readers, gets feedback (often over cookies and coffee). Then revises. Revises some more. This goes on for years. Tries to find an agent. Maybe does. More revision (at home, alone). Maybe gets it published. Galleys arrive, which leads to proofreading and exhaustion. A release party (with lots of other novelists but no actresses or directors). Book readings and signings (sometimes fun, sometimes humiliating--on your own). Then it's rinse and repeat. (Edge Playwright)

Hmm. Maybe I'll just say I'm a secret agent. Or a race car driver. Or...

(For now, though, I'd better get back to work on revising my new novel.)

I'm Spoiled (in a good way)

This past weekend extremely generous friends hosted our playwright's group at their house on Cape Cod for a mini-writer's retreat. This is the third year they've had us out to their comfortable home that overlooks a vast salt marsh. Their hospitality is such a gift--we each receive quiet time and space in which to write. In past years, I've chosen to go out on the deck to write, but this time I just holed up in my room with my notes and laptop and worked away at revising more chapters (while listening to the birds and sighing of the wind in the pines and marsh grass).

Just when we'd need a break, they'd cook gourmet meals for us, along with some fine wine and lively conversation. Then they wouldn't even let us do the dishes.

A little more than 24 hours of pampering and writing go a long way to restoring my creative energy. Sometimes I think about those well-known writer's retreats, where you have to go for a month. I'm sure they're fantastic, but they never seem practical--how do people fit them into their lives, especially if they have kids or a job? For me, this past weekend was the perfect gift.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Theory of Compound Procrastination

There are, as we all know, a nearly infinite number of chores to complete at any given moment. (C=number of chores). Unfortunately, one's Motivation for completing these chores (M) decreases inversely to C.

M= 1/(C*I)

Complicating the ability to complete chores is the Intertia of Procrastination (I). I rises as the usefulness (U) of the task undertaken to avoid actual work decreases. For example, playing GameCube has a U of 0.1, which in an undamped state will lead to a I value of nearly 9.7. (Reading blogs has a U of 0.3) The less useful the task currently underway, the harder it is to emerge from a state of non-action and do work (or writing).

In seeking to overcome procrastination paralysis (a condition commonly observed among writers), one tactic is to employ Compound Procrastination. In this case, the writer begins several important projects simultaneously. When Motivation begins to lag on one project, the writer can begin to work on a different project. This allows the writer to procrastinate, while at the same time actually accomplishing something useful.

One other way to improve one's M score is to accumulate procrastination tasks in one central location. For example, in the case of one subject (P. Gabridge), he would dutifully clear all papers and publications from his desk every day and empty them into a large milk crate, intending to sort, file, and respond to these items at a later date. As this crate begins to fill, the Procrastinational Gravity of the pile rises. This allows the subject to complete tasks which might normally be put off (blogging, folding laundry, cleaning the cat litter box). The law of Conservation of Procrastination allows for these chores to be finished, while maintaining a steady nagging feeling that the participant isn't really doing what he's supposed to.

(Excerpted from p.56 of Your Life by the Numbers (Why Dissertations Take Forever to Finish and Other Answers to Everyday Questions) by Professor P.M. Gabridge

(Now what am I going to do to keep from cleaning out this box?)

Thursday, August 2, 2007

I'm Through With White Girls

Just got back from the Roxbury Film Festival's opening night feature, I'm Through With White Girls. The romantic comedy, directed by Jennifer Sharp, showed to a packed house at the Museum of Fine Arts theatre, must have been about 500 people. It's been a long time since I've been to a movie where I missed hearing lines, because the audience was laughing so hard. When it was over the filmmakers and cast received a standing ovation.

If you're in the Boston area, you can see the film at 2pm on Sunday, at the Mass. College of Art. If you don't, then who knows if you'll get the chance. It's a low-budget film, without any "name" actors (though the two leads, Lia Johnson and Anthony Montgomery, are terrific, with great chemistry). And it's about black people. Who don't live in the 'hood. Who aren't all stereotypes. I know the filmmakers are still looking for theatrical distribution, but it could be a tough sell to the white guys wearing suits. Damn shame, because there aren't that many funny romantic comedies anymore that aren't just stupid.