Monday, July 25, 2011

report from Carrboro: Best of 10x10 (is great) (thanks, audience)

I got to see performances of the Best of 10x10 on both Saturday and Sunday and am grateful that I could come here.  (Thanks to ArtsCenter for travel and lodging!)  They've put together what may be one of the best evenings of ten-minute plays I've seen.  If you follow which writers get their work done in short play festivals, you wouldn't be surprised, because the writers included: Mike Folie, Mark Harvey Levine, Babs Linsday, Matt Casarino, Chris Lockheardt, and Doug Reed--all of whom have work that appears regularly across the country.  (It's almost impossible to find a short play festival without a play by Mark Harvey in it.)

The plays tended to be comedies (Matt's play, Green Eggs and Mamet, made me weep with laughter), which made me a little nervous about my play, Ship of Fools, which is an odd drama drama/puzzle about two women stuck in a lifeboat, who entertain each other by pretending to be other people (spoiler: the boat sinks in the end).  Sometimes an audience gets up so much momentum for laughing and having a good time, that they don't have patience for a short play which requires a bit of untangling during the short time it's on stage.

Both nights I saw the play, the audience was large--the venue holds 350, and it was sold out Saturday and close to sold out Sunday at 3pm.  I repeat--they sold probably close to 300 tickets for a 3pm Sunday show of ten-minute plays.)  They were definitely having a good time, thanks to good scripts and very strong performances.  I was worried my play might get swept away.

But it didn't.  (huge relief)  For a couple reasons:  First--strong performances.  The two actresses Jillian Holmquist and Jenny Wales, completely committed to the play and the game they were playing, and gave us a sense of what they were doing, despite only having a bare stage with two chairs.

Also, the sound/music design and performance helped channel the audience momentum and shifted the mood.  Nathan Logan, who designed the music/sound, also performed live on stage during the scene shifts throughout the entire performance--singing and playing electric guitar and keyboard.  I love having live music on stage, and he really knew how to be an unobtrusive presence during the plays (he was onstage the whole time), and then could really play during the shifts to get the audience where it needed to go.  For the lead in to Ship of Fools, he sang a haunting a cappella version of "Sailing" which was initially written and performed by the Sutherland Brothers in 1972--you can listen to it here--and made famous by Rod Stewart.  It worked perfectly.  (Nathan's version of it is still stuck in my head.)

The last factor was the audience itself.  The ArtsCenter 10x10 audience was incredibly engaged.  They were lively and there to have fun, but it was also clear that they loved being there (this wasn't attended out of obligation), they had a relationship with the theatre and the performers, and they wanted to pay attention.  As a playwright, I go to productions for lots of reasons (for fun, to see scripts in production, see good performances, to be moved, tickled, etc.), and one of those reasons is to be with audiences.  They vary as much, night-to-night, as performances.  Maybe more.  I think about audiences a lot--what makes them tick, how they will respond.  As a playwright, maybe I'm a bit of a conniseur of audiences.  I'm always looking for the right match between text, performance, and audience.  That's where the magic of theatre really comes together.

Here at 10x10, they have a kick-ass audience, and it was a treat to be part of it for two nights.

After the show, I talked to several people who said they loved Ship of Fools, and especially that it was a play that made them work, and that it moved them emotionally.  That's pretty much exactly what I wanted.  Very nice.

Thanks to Jeri Lynn Schulke, artistic director, for putting the evening together, to Lyden Harris for starting the festival and keeping it going for so long, to both Lynden and Emily Ranii, for producing my plays at 10x10 in the past.  They've really got a good thing going here.  And thanks to my director, Jerry Davis, and the entire production team for putting together a great show.

Here's a (somewhat blurry, sorry) photo of the audience waiting for the Best of Ten by Ten to start (and there's Nathan getting ready to play guitar).

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Freeman rocks

I've been very much enjoying Matthew Freeman's blog lately, including this post on How to Quit Being a Playwright.  The first point is my favorite, and the hardest part about doing it.  It's actually easy to quit (in theory)--you just stop.  And you don't need to tell anyone.   You don't need to write a furious blog post, there's no paperwork to fill out, no HR person to notify.  You don't get a farewell party.  There's no one who recruited you into playwriting who is likely to be hurt that you're leaving.  You'll be missed by some of your theatre friends, for a while, but not as much as you'd like.

I also very much like his recent post on Day Jobs and Staying an NYC playwright, too.  (Which also connects to a nice essay on the same topic by Barbara Hammond.)

Heading to North Carolina

This weekend, I'll be heading to the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina, to see my play Ship of Fools in the Best of Ten by Ten Festival at The ArtsCenter in Carrboro .  These folks have produced a handful of my plays over the years, and I'm excited to finally have a chance to meet them and see their talents in action.

Any suggestions for good places to eat in Raleigh-Durham (or Carrboro) and/or good farmer's markets (or farms to visit)?

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Thoughts Not to Think. (Don't read this list.)

There are lots of rational reasons to be discouraged and depressed as a writer of plays and novels.  There are 75-100 new MFA playwrights graduating every year, and nowhere near that many new slots for full-length plays on professional stages.  It's harder than ever to find an agent for playwrights, because the money keeps shrinking.  So many books are published every year that it's getting harder and harder for a new book to stand out.  Because it's harder to make money in publishing, publishers are tending to bid on books with clear blockbuster appeal, and the midlist book (and author) is dying a not-so-gradual death. 

Keeping your spirits up in the face of the business climate in our art forms is pretty tough.  I'm a pretty up-beat guy, most of the time, but once I start looking at the climate outlined above, it's easy for other, completely unhelpful thoughts to creep in.

Here are some thoughts that will not help you.  Don’t think them.  Seriously, don’t even read this list.

  • I’m XX years old.  I had my chance, it’s all downhill from here.  I peaked in 19XX.  Writing is a young person’s game
  • My friend K. just got a book deal/production/residency.  For $XXX,000.  But that’s never going to happen to me.  One deal was worth more than I’ve made in my entire career.
  • When I come up with the ideas, they seem great.  But when I finally get them on paper, they always seem to come up short.  Maybe I just don’t have what it takes.
  • I have some talent, but just not quite enough.  I’ve given it my best shot.
  • I’ve been at this for DD years.  If it was going to happen, it would have already happened.

I'm sure you can think of a few more.

One of the aspects that I don't hear much about, in our conversations as writers, is how we manage to keep all this crap at bay and not be drowned by it.  And it gets harder as we get older, as the new sheen of optimism towards attempting a writing career has worn away.

Sometimes I give in and indulge these lines of thought for a while.  It's only human, I guess.  It can help to get together with friends, with fellow writers, especially if there's good news to share.  Mutual whining doesn't help.  The main tactic that succeeds for me is actually sitting my ass in the chair writing.  For a good solid chunk of time, more than one day at a time.  String a few mornings together, and I can start to lose track of the other bullshit and remember that I like writing.  A lot.  The rest doesn't have to matter so much.