Monday, August 20, 2012

It's Not Your Mother, It's a Man, Baby!

I just wrapped up a draft of a television pilot script I’ve been developing (read: “in own mind”) for the last few months. Without giving too much away, it takes place in the mid-1970s and deals with professional sports. Great soil for a show: drugs, race, money… great drama. Only one problem: no women.

The way the story developed – and it developed as a strong, multi-character ensemble – I became keenly aware that one of the drawbacks of trying to be authentic in portraying a boy’s world in what was more of a boy’s era than today is the difficulty of finding a place for strong female characters, especially in a pilot where so much focus is just setting up the world – where so much could be developed down the line in that world.

Now, let’s be clear. I have no interest in creating a show driven entirely by male characters. But, in portraying a world that – at least at first gloss – is driven entirely by male characters, I still want the world I create to be authentic. There were plenty of female characters in the first draft of this pilot and I could see many of them developing into strong characters. The problem is that, in a pilot, the suggestion of development has to be there, sure, but there also has to be something already there (since a pilot is generally only ever going to be just a pilot, not a series).

Take Mad Men and its pilot. It also takes place in a different era, in a more male-centric arena, but it’s been able to introduce many fantastic, strong female roles. But what do we get in the pilot? We don’t get Betty yet. We don’t see Don’s home life until the very last scene. We get Joan and Peggy, so there is the hint that they will show us this world from a female perspective – from the savvy, sexy veteran of the gender game and the shy, homlier newbie. Structurally, these characters serve the pilot extremely well, but I’m putting a lot of weight back onto those characters, I think, because of how they end up developing and serving the show. I don’t know if there’s anything beyond a suggestion of that in the pilot and I might only be reading that suggestion in because I know how that it pans out. I think, if the pilot were a one-off, they could easily be seen in the “women in traditional roles” characters, secretaries in a male-driven world.


But here’s where Matthew Weiner made a very smart play. Along with the cigarette account storyline (men dealing with men), he introduces Rachel Menken, the daughter of a long-time department store owner, who wants Sterling-Cooper to modernize their image. She’s an immediate foil and love/sex interest for Don Draper and she seems perfectly authentic – progressive, but believable for 1960. She’s smart enough to not immediately succumb to Don Draper, which frustrates our protagonist, and becomes the resonant suggestion that this show will find room for strong female characters.

So, I looked back at my story. It works (I think). It works fine the way it is. But if I want to portray a world that’s representative of the depth of complexity that is the core of every person, then I’m going to have to tweak my representation of this world. The strongest choice that didn’t involve blowing up the script and redeveloping it with this in mind (which, most likely, would not lead to the greatest end product) was to change the owner of the sports team from a man to a woman. This forced a lot of things in a lot of scenes to change, but it also worked in the same way that Rachel Menken worked in the Mad Men pilot. Marge Schott bought a minority ownership stake in the Cincinnati Reds in 1981, not so far away from the mid-70s of this story. It would be a little progressive for this era, but not so much that it would create a big believability disconnect. In fact, it would likely produce more interesting relationships than keeping the owner a man.

Now, I’m not breaking any big news by announcing that there are places for strong female roles in traditionally male-centric worlds – and I’m not trying to. But sometimes the tension (or even the perceived tension) between authenticity and painting using the whole human pallet can be a challenge. This was just my way in on this one particular project. And there are plenty of other ways in.  There are just... ways in.

With a full human pallet, I will proceed to paint some happy little trees.

- Robert Attenweiler

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

That Weird Sense of Clarity

The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami never intended to be a writer. When he graduated from college, he took out a loan and started a jazz club. The club was a great success. He ran it for 10 years.
One night he was at a baseball game. An American player named Dave Hilton was up to bat. Hilton hit a ball deep into the outfield (it would end up being a double). As the ball sailed through the air, a thought, clear and unadorned, came into Murakami’s head – “I’m going to write a novel.”

He did, a novella called Hear the Wind Sing. It won a prestigious writer’s prize. His second novel was also a success, so he sold his jazz club in order to write full time. More than a dozen books later, with sales in the millions, translated into dozens of languages, Murakami is regularly mentioned as a candidate for the Nobel Prize.

A few weeks ago a somewhat lesser writer (me) was sitting at his writing desk in the basement. Sunlight was pouring in through the small window. My son was napping. I had two unclaimed hours ahead of me. It was time to start work on a new version of the play I’m writing for the Blue Coyote Commission Project.
Some ideas had been swimming around for a while, but thusfar I’d been unable to start the actual writing. That day appeared to be no different. I sat there, staring at the screen. I thought of a few things I could write, but nothing felt compelling.

I picked up my book and started to read. I always have a book with me when I write. Reading relaxes me, and lets me stay focused on words without having to focus the words I actually have to write. Barry Bonds said hitting is all about relaxed concentration, and that’s the place I try to find when writing.

As I was reading, I started to think about a story a friend had told me the day before. The subject of the story was so directly applicable to the subject of my Blue Coyote play that I knew I would use it in some way. What I didn’t know was how I would integrate it into the other things I wanted to write.Just to get myself going, I started to write a new scene, completely spontaneously, based loosely on that story.
That’s when it started. 

As soon as I began writing, these “characters” started talking to each other. I put “characters” in quotes because I had no idea who these people were. They didn’t have names. They did, however, have a relationship, though not one I had given any conscious thought to. The rhythms of their speech, their in-jokes and points of contention, came out effortlessly. It was like I was taking dictation.

Then something even more extraordinary happened. As I was taking down what these people said to each other, vistas rolled out in front of me. I could see it all with crystalline clarity. Everything I wanted to talk about in this play fit effortlessly into this scene I had begun to write. This wasn’t a scene in my new play. It was my new play.

To give some background - I have spent months trying to write this play. I wrote fifty pages that were read publically and was deeply disappointed by the result. I decided to quit the commission, slowly came back to the idea of writing a new play, procrastinated for more months, and then, all of a sudden, here it was. A two-person play, in real time, on a single late night in an apartment in Queens. 

I’ve never written a two person play. I’ve never written a play that takes place in real time (a full-length, anyway). It didn’t matter. This is the play that presented itself. This is the play I have to write.

I suppose that would be called a “Eureka!” moment, but I didn’t feel like shouting. It was much more mundane, though no less pleasurable for its simplicity. It was more like a, “Huh. Ok. I guess I’ll do that” moment. It wasn’t dramatic, but it was as clear as anything I’ve ever felt.

I can’t know for sure, but I suspect that’s what Murakami felt that day at the baseball stadium. Not a lightning bolt. No need to shout. Just clarity.

“Huh. Ok. I guess I’ll do that”.

Grace doesn’t always feel like we think it will.

- John Yearley

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Who Wrote This?

Every writer can tell a version of this story:

For one reason or another, you are called upon to look at some of your old work. As you go through it, a disquieting feeling arises. Lines are unfamiliar. You look at passages and can no longer remember writing them. The decisions that went into each and every word, decisions that lived in the forefront of your consciousness for months, or even years, are gone like vapor. There is a foreign quality to the whole project. You find yourself asking questions: What was the impetus for this scene? Where did these characters come from? In the end, it all crystalizes into a single, almost existential query:

Who wrote this?

You wrote it. You know that. And yet…it’s different now. The work exists apart from you. Maybe it would be more to the point to say that, now, it simply exists. It is no longer a-thing-becoming. It is a thing.

It is usually impossible to know when this transition happens for me, but not this time. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but I know I finished a draft of my latest play, Another Girl, on August 2nd, 2011. On May 27th, 2012 I went back to look at a scene. Somewhere in those 290 days, Another Girl had gone from being “my play” to being “a play that I happen to have written.”

The transition, however organic, comes with difficulties. The reason I went back to look at my play had to do with a conversation my agent had with a theatre’s Artistic Director. This AD really liked Another Girl, but was taken aback by the language in a particular scene. I don’t usually concern myself too much with problems like that (my work isn’t for everyone, not every theatre is right for my work), but several people I respect had spoken very highly of this woman. She has programmed adventurous work in the past. It was also the third time I had heard a complaint about this scene. I started to wonder - maybe I had missed something. I don’t mind shocking people, but I don’t want shock to be an end in itself. At the very least, it seemed to be worth my while to take a look.

My first response was horror. Not at the scene, but at the unfamiliarity of the whole piece, described above. Once I became acclimated, I started to see the play with new eyes. This is both good and bad. It is good to have perspective, but you don’t want to do too much when you are cut off from the inspiration that drove you to write in the first place. The scene in question, though, was a short one. I found I didn’t need to fully re-immerse myself in the world of the play to look at it critically.

It looked different to me. Part of it was probably the criticism I had heard, but I didn’t feel defensive. I don’t have a  problem disregarding unhelpful notes, but I didn’t feel like disregarding this. I still liked the scene as it was, but also saw the criticism was not without merit. I saw that the criticism wasn’t caused by prudishness, or at least that wasn’t the only cause. Looked at in a different light, I saw that the pathos of the scene might be compromised by the extremity of some of the language.

So I wrote a different version. I was actually surprised by how little I had to change. The arc of the scene, the humor of it, was fundamentally the same. It might even be better now.

I’m not sure yet. I want to live with the change awhile before deciding if I want to keep it. But it has been an adventure. You never know what’s going to come up when you go back to look at old work.

- John Yearley

Friday, May 25, 2012


I don’t know if you do the Twitter. I assume you do – or some of you, at least – many of you. It can be fun. I can see what my favorite professional athletes say to people who aren’t me, most of whom I don’t know. Friends, probably. Business partners. Maybe. They say things like “@notgorevidal Totally… totally. See you around. #RockinDowntown” That’s some good stuff right there. And not just the part where we get to know that this guy – we’ll call him pro ball player @RealDarnellValentine (20 bucks to the first person who can tell me who the real Darnell Valentine is … which is to say who Darnell Valentine is) – believes something tweeted at him by his buddy @notgorevidal (who I’m pretty sure is, in fact, not Gore Vidal) in its totality and that they plan to see each other soon or, barring that, at least @RealDarnellValentine is the type of guy who is open to seeing this friend or acquaintance again, even if circumstances never allow that meeting to occur. @RealDarnellValentine believes in pleasantries, as many of us do. So, besides clearly laying our psychologies bare for the entire internet to see (as our tweets will get retweeted and retweeted, ad infinitum ... clearly), we are left with that spec of real invention when it comes to writing for the Twitter. It’s not the 140-character count. That tends to lead to awkward syntax and words spelled with numbers and not enough space to include all those ellipses … I love to … put into … my writing. No, the real chance for writing invention in this forum is that blurred-together phrase following what I always called the “number sign.” Ladies and Gentlemen, the hashtag. Recently, I took on a freelance job that required me writing quite a bit of copy that blah, blah, blah, blah … (fast forward) … and the company (which shall remain nameless) is obsessed with clever hashtags as part of this copy. My brain now annoyingly creates hashtags for things I see while I’m waiting for the subway, having a conversation or, recently (and most unfortunately), while sleeping. The idea of the hashtag is simple. When I tweet something about, say, a new restaurant I just ate at and I follow it with a hashtag, say, #NewRestaurantsNYC, and other people do the same thing, all the tweets and the people tweeting about those things can be found and connected and so forth (I never said I was good at explaining this stuff…). So, you have an AP (actual purpose) hashtag. Then you have FBIART (funny because it’s all run together) and I think a good FBIART is an honest-to-god literary accomplishment. They’re the epigrams of the modern world. They contextualize the tweet and rely on a flexibility and play with language to really stand out. It's the hashtag, not however many characters come before it, that can be something new, if only because of the bizarre rules that define it. Right now, two of the top trending hashtags on Twitter are #schoolmemories (snooooore … I’d have gone with #RememberMeAsIWas … ah, still not even that great) and #YouGettinPunchedIf which, while a little obvious, has its possibilities. Remember, most hashtags are as unexceptional as most things. But some, just like with some of most things, can be freakin’ exciting as hell. (clears throat) So … um … in conclusion… words can still be fun? Sure. I’ll take that as the lesson. FBIART. Excuse me...

- Robert Attenweiler

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

On "Death of a Salesman"

I once heard a talk by the Artistic Director of one of the country’s largest and most respected children’s theatres. One of the great benefits of writing for kids, he said, was the response of the audience. “For children,” he said, “theatre is not an aesthetic experience. It’s just an experience.” 

Those words came to mind after I saw the Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman last month. However great most theatrical experiences are – thrilling or funny or heartbreaking – they usually are, for me, aesthetic experiences. I have an amazing time, leave the theatre elated, and relish it for days afterward. This production of Death of a Salesman, however, felt qualitatively different. It wasn’t like I’d seen something. It was like something had happened to me.

It’s a difficult phenomenon to explain. I think I have failed, for the most part, when describing it to my friends. I attempt to relay the depth of the experience through anecdote, mentioning the two times I had to make a conscious effort to pull myself together so as to not completely dissolve in tears. I don’t think what I say has much impact. Superlatives are thrown around so casually these days (“AMAZING!” “INCREDIBLE!  “BRILLIANT!” “GENIUS!” ) it is nearly impossible to cut through the fog when something truly singular comes along. 

The closest I can get, I suppose, is to simply relate what I felt like leaving the play. It was late on St. Patrick’s Day, my least favorite day of the year in New York City. As I walked from the theater to Penn Station with my wife and my mother, we dodged pools of vomit, loutish men screeching at cowering women, and every other variety of misery that alcohol can inflict on humanity. We barely said a word. There was a kind of shocked silence between us. It’s what happens when experience exceeds the ability to describe it.

The source of the production’s greatness is manifold, but I think top kudos go to Mike Nichols. Until I saw this, I had been of the thought that Nichols has been trading on past glory for years. While his accomplishments are unassailable (The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), the number of completely anonymous projects he has put his name on in the last 20 years (Closer, Wolf, Regarding Henry) is legion. 

Let me take this opportunity to remove my foot from my mouth and officially withdraw any statements I may have made questioning Mr. Nichols’ talent. I don’t pretend to know what he did to achieve what he achieved in this production of Salesman, but he somehow got the naked, bleeding, awful, compassionate heart of the play out on to that stage. It’s an astonishing piece of work. 

The actors are amazing as well. Linda Emond is, as always, extraordinary. And Philip Seymour Hoffman is truly magnificent in the iconic lead role. 

I make no bones about my partisanship for Hoffman. I have seen him onstage and onscreen, in large roles and small, in comedy and drama, for almost 20 years. He is the best I have ever seen. But my particular affection and admiration for him come not just from his virtuoso talent, or the marvelous way he has managed his career. There is something incredibly generous about Philip Seymour Hoffman as an actor. Some actors are amazing craftspeople, but they keep  you at a slight, almost unnoticeable remove. Hoffman is guileless. Seeing him play Willy is not watching a Great Actor play a Great Role. Instead, you watch a hapless, somewhat dim man make mistake after mistake and completely destroy his life. People offer him help but he cannot take it. In the end all he really wants is his son’s love. When Willy says, just before killing himself, “Biff likes me! Isn’t that a remarkable thing?” it is almost too much to bear.

I won’t go on at any greater length for fear of becoming one of those overpraisers I mentioned earlier. I will just say what should be the only line of any review of this show – GO SEE IT. You can’t know what you’re missing if you don’t.

- John Yearley

Friday, April 27, 2012

Good Advice From The Guy Who Just Dumped You

I wanted to drop in a block quote from my recent reading - Christian Parker's article, "The Art of the Breakup" at The article, it seems to me, is a call for clearer communication between playwrights and the literary managers at institutional theaters. I recommend a full read, but these lines caught my attention:
"I am so tired of having lunches, drinks, and meetings with playwrights who cannot decipher the messages they are getting from theaters, and show me copies of endlessly nit-picky and detailed letters offering critical dramaturgical feedback from people they don’t know, and who, in most cases presumably don’t like their work enough to advance it. Playwrights need to solicit and accept feedback only from those people that they respect, trust, and rely on.
I know I've been a party to similar exchanges from the literary manager's side, although that isn't my title. I will confess that there were times when I declined to work on a play because we didn't have the resources to produce it, and I will allow that there were other instances when a lack of resources was a convenient excuse for declining a play I didn't really believe in.  To console myself for causing a disappointment, I may have offered some suggestions.  The cloud of confusion that Parker describes is generally the result.

Parker wishes these professional disappointments could be like the best possible romantic disappointments: "Rejections," he writes, "as in 'real life,' should be gracious, clean, and quick. Of course, I don't remember any disappointments like that from my real life.  What a delightful idea, though!

Commission playwrights: do you have any stories to share about the mixed messages and unwanted advice you've received when shopping your plays?

- Kyle Ancowitz

Friday, April 20, 2012

Magic/Bird and the Myth of the "New Theater Audience"

I had the opportunity to see Magic/Bird on Broadway last week and I'm still shaking my head a little.

I'm not even shaking my head at the show so much - which I like just a tiny bit more than I thought I would or knew I should (though I will be the first to admit that I am a sucker for much of what was enjoyable about the show, even as I recognize that "liking" something means very little to any project's artistic aspirations, had artistic aspirations rated highly enough to have even been given a schwag bag at this particular party).

I'm not against popular entertainments. I'm a sports fan, for god's sake. And I'm not entirely against empty popular entertainments. I'm a Cleveland sports fan, for god's sake. But there does seem to be some back-patting on the part of the show's producers about how they are attracting "non-traditional" fans to the theater.

Now, I will admit that the crowd at the show I saw was hands-down the most diverse crowd I've ever seen at a play. But, those people who will go see Magic/Bird will very likely not rush out to see Venus In Fur the following weekend because - you know, that theater thing's got something interesting going on.

These "new theater goers" then are little more than dollar signs invented by the producers. They have figured out a way to get people to the theater who wouldn't normally go - but they are not people who will likely go back - and the people who would normally go don't really see the point in this project so they won't go ... and it's a whole cycle that they hope can be sustained just long enough to justify itself.

So, bravo to the producers of Magic/Bird for figuring out a way to (possibly) make money. Good work. But let's call it that. Let's not call it theater.

Theater as we know, is about figuring out a way to (probably) lose money.

- Robert Attenweiler