Monday, November 28, 2011

Geeking out on Play Development -- 17th Century France

Some paraphrasing from a text by Samuel Chappuzeau, writing around 1673 about 'Reading and Casting a New Play.'

Some of his advice for an unknown playwright:
  • Find an actor who you think is smart to read it and let them decide whether to put it forward to a company. Since actors know best whether a play will work or not, "...better than all the authors and critics together."
  • If the actor says it's no good - give up.
  • If the actor says its good then name a time and a place to assemble and then, "the playwright, without introductory remarks (which the players do not like), reads their play with all the emphasis they are capable of giving."
  • During act breaks the actors listening will discuss where it's boring, too long, lacking zest, crude, too broad - whatever.
  • After the whole play has been read by the playwright, then the actors discuss if the plot has been developed well, and particularly if the denouement works. (Chappuzeau points out that this is the part where most playwrights falter - same in 1673 as it is today.)
  • Then if they decide to do it, they cast it. The play should be cast well - since, "A play well cast succeeds better, and it is in the common interest of the playwright and the company, and even of the spectator, that each player act the part which fits him best."
So, back in 17th century France, when the actors ran the theaters (and the court provided the patronage), this is how it would be decided if your play made it to the stage or not.

Pretty straightforward. All the development lies in the hands of the actors who will ultimately be the ones casting, rehearsing, performing and profiting (or not) from the play.

It's interesting to think about how financial and artistic interests are linked here - and how financial and artistic concerns are linked in new play development today.

How are the institutions and individuals who drive new play development directly impacted? Should they be? Or is the remove better for the playwright? Is it better for the play? Is it better for the American Theatre?

- Kristen Palmer

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Three Kinds Of Impossible

When Gary and I were flying back from Janis and Dustin's wedding in Texas, I was reading through my copy of Outrageous Fortune for blog inspiration.  This book, which investigates the prevailing "dysfunctional" relationship between theaters and playwrights, has lately been a topic of discussion behind the scenes at the blog.  That’s how John Yearley beat me to a post about it last week

Gary and I were stuck in the plane aisle when a woman leaned over her seat and poked at the book in my hand. "I hope you’re not an artistic director," she said.  "That's not gonna cheer you up."  Of course she was right – she turned out to be an artistic director herself.  No one has much of anything nice to say about the status quo in the world of new plays, and almost everyone interviewed takes the opportunity to gripe about it in this detailed study.  But since no one likes listening to me complain, I ultimately chose this passage describing the problem from a writer’s point of view:

"The state of playwriting is healthy, most writers agree, but there's a failure of the imagination on the part of theatres, an inability to make sense of emerging voices and new work.  Theatres, this common critique goes, lack the vision to realize those voices in production, and woefully underestimate their audiences' ability to appreciate challenging material.  At the same time, they fail to educate these audiences about unconventional dramatic forms.  Through the eyes of the playwright, the obstacle of unconventionality is symptomatic of a widespread failure of imagination."

As a producer, I'll admit that I often read plays with a wary eye towards impossible ideas.  By impossible, I mean ideas that are either simply unstageable with our budget or that contribute needlessly to downtown theater’s reputation for being pretentious and/or incomprehensible. Come to think of it, let’s say there are three categories of impossible:
  • BORING AND IMPOSSIBLE: Car chases. Climactic gunfights. Enormous country-style breakfasts.
  • INTRIGUING BUT IMPOSSIBLE: Thermonuclear explosions.  Singing alien plants.  Journeys to the Heaviside Layer.
  • TOTALLY BANANAS AND IMPOSSIBLE: Characters vomiting mythological creatures. Giant thumbs that bleed abstraction. Talking Jewish lobsters.
Does my resistance to unconventional ideas such as these represent a failure of imagination?  Or am I just doing my job?  I want to explore this idea with our commission playwrights:  Won’t you please tell us about a time when your "challenging" and "unconventional" experiment never made it to the stage because some director or producer shut you down?  What happened next?  And who was right?

- Kyle Ancowitz 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Never Tell Me the Odds

“Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is 3,720 to 1!”
“Never tell me the odds.” – C3PO and Han Solo, Star Wars

I’ve never read Todd London’s Outrageous Fortune. This is not because I think it is without value. In fact, I have it on good authority that it’s excellent. I’ve also met Mr. London several times and found him to be a lovely person. He speaks with great passion about playwriting. He has devoted his professional life to helping and nurturing people like me.

And I will never read his book.

I’m usually a big “The truth will set you free” kinda guy. I’ve always felt I can handle anything if I just know what it is. In a tough situation my mind has usually conjures up something far worse than the truth, so even bad news usually comes with a measure of relief.

Except here.

I don’t want to know the exact figures on how bad the state of the American theatre is. I know it anecdotally. I know it experientially. I know a friend of mine who was paid only $5000 to have his play produced at one of the country’s top regionals. I know several people in their 20s who have never even seen a play. I know how bad it is.

I don’t even want to know the glimmers of hope, whatever bright lights London sees on the horizon. Such news will only make me feel worse, like a girl who tells you how great you are just before she dumps you.
I don’t want to know these things because I need to preserve the safety of my little desk in the basement. At my little desk in the basement, I conjure. I invent people and scenes through my imagination and through words. It is arduous but incredibly rewarding work.

I work to please myself, and I am rarely satisfied. To get the pages to be anywhere near as good as it sounds in my head is hard enough. If I had to imagine my work’s fate out there in an increasingly disinterested world, I would simply cease to function.

I don’t recommend the way I handle this to anyone. I recommend all playwrights, indeed all people who are passionate about the future of the American theatre, to read Outrageous Fortune.

I never will.
- John Yearley

Monday, November 21, 2011

When the Well Runs Dry

Lord have mercy.  I’ve got no idea what to write about for this blog post.  I've been racking my brain for a few days now, trying to pick something, anything to write about.  I want it to be good.  Lots and lots of ideas, all of which have gone nowhere.  Oh, the pain.

When I get like this with a play I’m writing, I put it down.  Sometimes for months.  Go into research mode or something.  Because if I chase it too hard, there’s nothing.

So the solution here I think is to not try to hard to come up with something.  Even if it means I come up with nothing at all.

Happy Thanksgiving Everybody.

- Christine Whitley

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Currently, I have my two most recently completed (drafts of) plays in some form of developmental system. My play, “Our Time Has Come,” is being worked as part of The Actor’s Studio Playwright/Director Workshop and “I Heart Rock N Roll” (both titles, of course, subject to change at some point on their winding path…) is part of the CCP. This is, we’ll say, a bit of a strange feeling. Not unpleasant. Just strange. For me. Personally.

In school, I was told two closely related things: 1.) I would not be ready (not me personally, just the me who, like the others in my class, was about to get an MFA in playwriting) would not be ready to be produced professionally for a looooooong time (I was, after all, a student … a learner, not a doer … a, they should have been reminded, forker over of large sums of money for the privilege) and that 2.) readings were the way to go. Everyone loves readings. And readings will, no doubt, lead to productions once I am, if ever, ready. Become a gear in the developmental machine, they inferred, sit back and wait to feel the teeth…

(I’m actually a bit amused to see how bitter I still come off when I write about this.)

It became too much to be living and working in New York, blindly sending my plays around (which, for the record, were not the finest things ever put to playscript format. But that’s not the point … I’ll explain how that’s not the point … Maybe…) and getting invitations for readings of my friends’ thesis plays, now with their fourth different theater company, I thought (both rightly and wrongly, it turns out) that it was best to go it alone.

And so I didn’t worry about waiting until a script was ready (or even, sometimes, ready-ish) and getting feedback and rewriting and getting feedback and rewriting. I’d just put them up. I would rent the theater before I had begun writing the play. I would cast actors before I’d even written their parts. I would start rehearsal with a half-finished script (again: rightly and wrongly) and it would be the process of figuring out how to get the play to a place where we would be proud (or, at least, proud-ish) to get an audience to come see it was, for me, more instructive on how to write a play than any talkback after a reading had ever been. It was more instructive because I had to make the piece work for – and be exciting to – the artists who were creating the experience and, generally, if you can do that, you’ve got something that you can show people – and it’s a something that has the freshness that comes with not being overworked by the urge to please every opinion in the room.

Was everything brilliant? Probably just brilliant-ish. Or not. But that’s not the point. The point is not to be brilliant. The point is to do your work. To get in your reps. And to figure out how to do it all better.

So, why was my thought – that play development programs, in fact, do the exact opposite – both right and wrong?

It’s right because, yes, production, if one can be critical and honest with one’s self, is arguably (but nearly not so) the most useful process a playwright can take part in. It just is. And, yes, there is not enough money available to produce all the plays that get written- not even enough for all the plays that warrant production on some level, no matter how small. And, yes, readings and development too often seem like a lackluster way to fill up space on the calendar page.

But my thought is also wrong. It’s wrong mainly, out of the fact that I do not, it turns out, know all there is to know about all things. It turns out, that what benefits me is not always to everyone else’s benefit. It turns out, it turns out, that it is not all about me at all. Plus, barring the money to produce everything they want, theater companies still want to foster relationships with writers telling stories that excite them. And, mainly, it turns out that all I was doing by circling the wagons, so to speak, was finding the community who could most help my work to *ahem* develop to the point where I could tell stories that excited these people and that I might even be able to seek out, identify, or be identified by other communities who are, again, so to speak, in my wheelhouse.

To repeat: strange, not unpleasant, just strange, for me, personally. Not about me. And repeat...

- Robert Attenweiler

Thursday, November 10, 2011


I hate reading plays.

There’s no excuse for it. I’m a playwright. I have to read plays. But I hate it. A friend of mine, Paul Meshejian, is the artistic director of PlayPenn. He is taking the 100 semi-finalists for the 2012 conference with him on his winter sojourn to Puerto Rico. He’s going to read them all down there. I told him it sounds like torture.

There are good reasons for a difficulty in reading plays. Most plays are bad (though that’s also true of most fiction, non-fiction, etc.). More importantly, plays aren’t meant to be read. They’re meant to be performed and seen. These are the good reasons for not liking to read plays. They are not, however, my reasons. I get confused. I can’t remember who’s who. God forbid there are more than twoo people talking at any one time. Then I’m totally lost.

Still, sometimes I read plays. Sometimes I even buy plays, as I did recently when I bought a collection by Sarah Ruhl, The Clean House and Other Plays. I bought this collection for two reasons:
  1. I saw Ruhl’s play Eurydice a few years ago and really liked it.
  2. I never get to see anything because of commitments to job and small child. She is the most acclaimed playwright of the day, so I wanted to see what she’s been up to.
When people gush about art that they love in print, my eyes tend to glaze over. It is usually an avalanche of laudatory adjectives (“brilliant”, “searing”) that lose all meaning being by bunched up and lumped together. So I will just say about The Clean House that there is in it some combination of gentleness and tragedy, a mix of effortless comedy and life-or-death stakes, that absolutely blew me open.

There is a moment near the end of the play that was particularly resonant to me. One of the characters is dying of cancer. Her lover, a doctor, flies off to the Alaskan forest because he believes the sap from one of the trees there can save her life. While he’s gone, the woman suffering from cancer says, “He wants to be a hero, but what I need is a nurse.” Later, her lover the doctor misses the moment of her death trying to get the tree he has brought back from Alaska through her front door.

I’m not sure how much of the impact that moment had on me has to do with my own personal psychology. I feel like many times in my life I have performed a grand, futile gesture rather than attend to the simple, practical task at hand. I suspect that I am not alone in this, that it is an impulse common to men, which can be baffling and frustrating to women. But that may just be my projection.

Whatever the reason, the comedy and tragedy of watching that man trying to get that tree through the door as his wife dies felt like the distilled essence of the play. It is also something else. It is incredibly theatrical. Part of the power of reading that moment was in how easy it was to visualize - the huge tree, the little door, the desperate man struggling. It must be a special moment onstage. I look forward to seeing it someday. 

Why, you may ask, have I spent my whole Blue Coyote Commission blog post talking about somebody else’s play rather than my own? I think one of the points of this project is for the writer’s to open up about what inspires us. Sarah Ruhl, and The Clean House, inspires the hell out of me. And not just to be a writer, either. To be a writer of plays.

In my hectic little life, I spend every spare moment I can find reading books. Given that, and my aforementioned distaste for reading plays, I occasionally wonder why I have turned my talents (such as they are) to playwriting. The Clean House reminded me why.

- John Yearley

Monday, November 7, 2011


The other week, I got to see Radiohead play NYC’s Roseland Ballroom. It was my third time seeing the band with Rebecca Benhayon (who was on Radiohead concert no. 6) and, regardless of your feelings on how this band may or may not suck relative to how much some other musical jewel in your eye “rules,” I think it’s fair to say that it’s always a cool thing to see one of the bigger rock bands of the last decade-plus play a comparatively small venue.

So, standing room it was and I was shoulder to shoulder with the throng about 40 feet back from the stage and, generally, the 5 inches I have on Rebecca make for a pretty clear view of the stage. Until, that is, the band actually goes on. Then, my view – and I have to assume most everyone else’s – gets blocked as people find every available free space to hold up their phones to take pictures and videos of the show.

I get it, okay? It’s important to note that I get it. This was a hot ticket, a much anticipated show. People wanted to document and maybe get a personal bootleg video of a song … or seven. Hell, I would have even probably tried to snap a shot if I wasn’t busy already working myself up about everyone’s screen blocking my view (and enjoying the show … also important to note … still enjoyed the show mucho). But, the crowd was arguably more subdued (or maybe just more subdued than I would have liked … let’s keep in mind, this is a guy who’s been in a Pantera pit or two in his day) because … well … they had to hold still to get a good video.

While I don’t want to sound too much like a crag and talk about the destruction of the live moment, I would say that the whole “digital documenting and sharing” compulsion bummed me out a little bit. It bummed me out because, I suspect, our culture is moving further away from valuing what cannot be captured. Why else watch Radiohead perform their set through the crappy screen on your phone rather than the much higher res (depending on your eyeglass prescription, I suppose) version in front of you? Is it better to be able to watch them play the version of “Karma Police” from the show you saw over and over again – or to pay attention to the experience as it’s happening? If an experience can’t be captured, it reasons, it cannot be shared. If it cannot be shared, it is of limited social use.

This is particularly troubling when thinking about theater, of course, because the main thing that was always said about live theater is that it offers an experience that can only be viewed once. But what if that argument is holding less and less water – or that the water is less and less a thirst quencher? All this while theater makers (myself included) are trying to find the way(s) that our now-everyday technology and networking can work to increase awareness and excitement about all the amazing stuff we do. The Radiohead show reminded me of when Neil LaBute’s “reasons to be pretty” was on Broadway recently and encouraged people to text during the show. Totally see what would make them want to try that out. Totally see how terrible it would be to be in a Broadway show (or, for that matter, a Broadway audience) where people are being encouraged to not completely engage with the show. But “reasons” will not be the last show to think this is a good idea.

I’ve never been particularly interested in “Is Theater Dead?” conversations – and I’m not bringing this up with the intention of having one now. I don’t think, however, that it’s an incredible stretch to say that people’s relationship with the live moment is an ever-evolving thing in our culture and that, as peddlers of live moments, it’s something to be aware of.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some YouTube bootlegs of Radiohead’s Roseland show to watch…

- Robert Attenweiler

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The First Room

[for the full experience, listen to this while you read...]

I used to write out everything long-hand. When I started. Everything was just piles of words in a notebook with no rhyme or reason. I'd fill up a notebook and then put it in a drawer. Then, sometime when the mood would strike me I would go searching in the notebooks for something. If that 'something' struck me, I would fold the corner of the page.

Then put the notebook away.

Then, much later, I was around a bunch of people who wrote things and read them aloud together and I wanted to play too. I wanted to join in. Then I remembered. I have these notebooks. These notebooks are full of words, and some of them are on dog-eared pages. I will type up those dog-eared pages.

So, I typed them up. But not just typed because there were people in mind. There were people I would read this to, so I fiddled this word, arranged this thought, made this image stand out, threw in this memory or that, something I would want them to know. These became poems and stories and random prose - eventually I found a notebook that was all dog-eared that seemed like it had voices in it, that became a play. My first play. The one I don't talk about or show, but I love it. Because the three voices became three characters and the three characters demanded a stage, a stage with microphones and over-sized furniture and papers falling from the sky. And they had all these words and stories that they wanted to say in front of people and they had all these things they wanted to do in front of people and I put it down into a script and we did it. Me and those people who were reading things together, just put it up in front of people.

And I'm so grateful for those people in a room reading things they wrote to one another.

And I'm so grateful that in my life there has continued to be so many rooms where people read things they wrote to each other.

But the first one. That's the one that was necessary.

- Kristen Palmer