Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Severe Clarity!

 “If criticism is meant to speak to the successful clarity of what was INTENDED, as Mr. Adamo suggests, what is the helpful way to speak of a work in process that is still brewing, still deciding what it is supposed to be?”  - Stephen Speights
The topic of constructive criticism is an excellent one.  I love Stephen’s post and the question he poses in it.  I’m also completely blown away by the phrase ‘severe clarity’ as a way to describe the aim of an artist.  I’ve never heard that before, but am now adding it to my bag of references as a reminder of what I’m after when things seem lost.

Readings are an invaluable part of the writing process for me, as they probably are for every playwright.  I had two in January for plays that are in two very different places.  One is finished and has had a production already, the other is the piece I’m working on for Blue Coyote, which is in the early, fifty-pages stage.  The two projects feed into each other plotwise, so it’s good fortune to have to work on them at the same time. 

The first play is in pretty good shape - it is a total and complete play.  A director and I are working on it together and the informal reading marked the real beginning of our collaborative process.  Going in, there was a section that didn’t feel quite right to me during the play’s production in 2011, and I knew I wanted to look at it during this reading.  The director had his questions too as this was the first time he was hearing it out loud.  We were lucky to have wonderful actors, some rehearsal and a great audience.  All in all, questions were answered and the director came away with some notes, four to be precise.  They took me forever to understand, but in the end were insightful and spot on.  I can… now hold on to your hats people… I can be very defensive when receiving notes.  It’s definitely much better than it was, but I tend to have a terrible “oh no” feeling right before, like perhaps it’s going to be a big battle or I’m really going to disagree or be upset.  I’ve had to learn how to really listen through my nerves and consistently seek to understand what’s being said to me.  In this particular case, I can see in hindsight (after reading Stephen’s post) that what the director was aiming for in his notes, and why I appreciated them so much, was to aid towards that ‘severe clarity’ of what’s intended.  His notes were constructive.

The second piece for the CCP is not a play yet.  The reading I had for it had no audience – just the actors and myself.  It was the first time it was going to be heard at all, which I find to be a very tender time.  At the earliest stages, such readings are for my ears only and not open to criticism.  It’s just a baby, after all.  Plus, my main question going in to these first-read-of-pages things is - does this suck or not?  Not suck to anyone else, but to me?  After getting over that hurdle, I can ask the great, smart actors who graciously read for me questions about this or that, if they got certain elements, do they want to know what happens, etc.  It offers me incredible clarity on what’s next, what works and doesn’t, a general sense of the gathering storm of a complete play. 

When I began writing the finished play mentioned earlier, I would attend a weekly actors group that invited writers to bring pages in they wanted heard.  I had done this for the first play I’d written and found it helpful, so it made sense to do the same with this one.  But the voice, the intention for that first play was very loud and strong right off the bat, so even though it was difficult to hear comments (I was just learning!), I could take them or leave them.  But the second play was different.  It didn’t start as sure as the first and it had an unconventional structure.  As a result, the un-moderated comments, hard to take to begin with, were not at all constructive.  They tended to be in the vein of what should be instead of what was, an ‘it’s not going to work if you do it this way’ type of thing.  And I remember reacting very, very badly.  Everyone involved meant well, but it became clear that if I was going to listen to my own voice in writing the play, there could be no outside voices for a time.  Not until it had a real shape, a real, solid intention.  So I stopped going to the class and asked actors to read for me when the need to hear it came.  And that play has ended up doing well for itself - I’m proud of it. 

So, if it’s still brewing, if I still don’t know quite what it is, there is no criticism that will be constructive.  It just ends up offending me, which is ridiculous.  Therefore I’ve found it best not to open up that part of the process.  There are a few trusted people who look at pages early on, but that’s it.  For me, criticism is only actually constructive once what is intended is firmly set.  Then it’s vital.

- Christine Whitley

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Beginnings are hard. Middles are hard. But endings are hard.

When something is good, a book, a play, anything, my usual thought, my subconscious drumbeat, is “please stay good, please stay good." There are just so many ways to start well, and – in my estimation – only one way good to finish: The ending should feel both unexpected and inevitable.

That is, I want to feel a gasp or surprise and pleasure...but when I look back over the play I should, for a moment, believe it couldn’t have ended any other way. It should fulfill some promise that has been made to me, but in a way I wouldn’t have thought of myself. All of which is to say, I don’t know how to end my play.

Cause again, they can feel like verdicts: so this is what actually happened. This is the author’s point of view on the characters, the ideas. If an ending is too pat, the play wafts away. But if it feels too opaque, it leaves me grumbly and cranky and unsatisfied.

There are some canonical plays that I would offer disappoint deeply at the end and everyone knows it (I’ll offer my nominations over drinks if you like). And there are plays that muddle along until the last 10 minutes, and only then become thrilling and thus become hits (again, ask me over booze).

But back to me and HUNTERS AND THIEVES. Like all plays in progress, I suppose I’ll just have to write and write and write different versions of the ending. Read one by reading the whole draft, then read the whole draft with a different version. Curl up in ball and throw all the pages out. Wait for a deadline and write another version. Do it badly. Rewrite. Hope that one day I have a shock of understanding and do it right.

- David Zellnik

Monday, February 13, 2012

Learning to Fall in Love (with yourself) Again...

I'm in the process of preparing a four-year old script for publication.

The New York Theater Experience's IndieTheaterNow is publishing highlights of the FRIGID New York Festival's 5-year run to celebrate that anniversary and my 2007 play The Butterfield Tones is among those lights.

But how am I supposed to feel about this thing that I wrote five years ago and haven't touched since?

Should I find it precious? Antiquated? Dated? Beneath my current mastery of the dramatic arts? Should I be jealous of it? Should I hate it?

We've probably all felt some version of these things about old things that we've written and, probably, the conventional wisdom holds that I should feel something between the love and the hate ends of the spectrum. It's wrong to really like something that far behind me, isn't it?

But I really like this play.

It's not perfect, by any stretch. It's short. And it's, ultimately, an experiment. But it does some fun theatrical things that I haven't done since and reminds me of a time when, in many respects, I took myself less seriously. It's play is, perhaps, what I still like so much about it.

But what does this say about my going forward as a writer?

Well, the short answer is "everything is fine." It would really suck to look back on previous projects and think them amateurish and terrible, to not see what made me excited to be working on them when that's what I was working on.

And, I guess, that's the point. If I can still get the sniffles from the bug whose infestation led to Project X then I'm still in that same arena ... it's just now a more crowded arena filled now with more varied projects, more kinds of writing - but all things that are authentic to me.

Every word I put down is not precious - it is not gold (despite, very much, those exact claims in this blog) - but maintaining the general writing head-space from project-that-excites-me to project-that-excites-me is, I think, what, at the end of the day, will be the measure of that work to me.

Oh, and it's okay to like the work you've done, no matter how far removed. Go ahead and think that poem you wrote in the 4th grade contains some truly unique imagery. Secretly think that the short story you wrote in college has some of the better sentences written in the last-half of the 20th Century. Laugh at your own jokes.

Better that option than the other...

- Robert Attenweiler

Friday, February 10, 2012

Constructive Criticism

I was in the audience at two different work-in-progress presentations these past weeks. I’ll start with the second experience, as it helped me to pinpoint my feelings on the first.

THE ART OF THE ARIA was a master class led by the composer/librettist Mark Adamo. Working with a small group of hand-picked writers and musicians (friend and collaborator David Johnston among them), Mr. Adamo invited us to sit in as he, along with his students, critiqued the arias created for the class.

Mr. Adamo started with rules-of-the-road regarding their evaluating comments. I’m paraphrasing from memory, but what struck me most went something like this:

  1. Avoid using the phrase “I LIKED THIS”. Avoid “THAT DIDN’T WORK.” Something is SUCCESSFUL when something INTENDED OCCURS, and occurs with clarity. 
  2. In your critique, speak descriptively about what you SAW and HEARD, then let that lead to comments of what you experienced. Let your opinion about the work/scene/moment follow from how successfully the work expressed what was INTENDED. 
  3. The goal of the artist is SEVERE CLARITY. And the work should limit, rather than expand, the possibilities of its presentation. As the artist you guide us to what you want it to be.

These guidelines were revelatory to me, and made me wish I could have bent space and time to switch Mr. Adamo’s class with the invited staged reading I had attended a couple of weeks prior: John Yearley’s first fifty pages or so of CLEAR HISTORY, the script he is working on as part of the Coyote Commission Project.

John mentioned in introducing the event that what we were to hear/see was still unformed in its structure (there were a couple of scenes, in fact, that he simply had the actors read at the end, still not knowing where they should go, or if he’d even keep them), and indeterminate of tone (did he want this to be a romantic comedy, something more serious, or a combo of both? John didn’t yet know…). His introduction made clear that the script was not yet at a stage to be judged or critiqued.

Nonetheless, as one of the producers of the CCP, I took John up on his request for feedback, hoping that my impressions and comments would help him clarify where he wanted to go with CLEAR HISTORY. I saw it as my-end-of-the-deal to let him know what I thought.

So I wrote him an email, insisting that he discard, out-of-hand and immediately, any of my comments that seemed to miss the mark or that he disagreed with. Then I told him what I thought worked and what didn’t. I pointed to where the story surprised me, where I thought it would go, where I thought it SHOULD go.
He emailed a response the next day — prompt and appreciative — addressing my comments and offering his own about what the reading had revealed. He thanked me for my thoughts and assured me that they had helped to clarify for him several aspects of CLEAR HISTORY.

But…for all the warmth and respect of our exchange, it felt, in my gut, somehow inappropriate for me to have evaluated his still-forming work. It occurs to me that he may feel, and rightly so, the same way I feel when someone comments on my work when it is cooking — outwardly appreciative of someone’s well-intended comments, and inwardly peeved.

Of course I fail the artist when I reflect back to him or her information that is unhelpful—my personal taste. My job, instead, is to honestly reflect back to them whether or not what I have seen is what they want me to see—not to suggest a different direction in the plot, say, or a different setting, or different characteristics in the characters I’ve witnessed. In this, I now understand, I misapprehended my role in my notes to John.

If criticism is meant to speak to the successful clarity of what was INTENDED, as Mr. Adamo suggests, what is the helpful way to speak of a work in process that is still brewing, still deciding what it is supposed to be?

Given that public readings for works-in-progress seem destined to remain a part of the playwright’s process these days, I would love for the CCP participants, and any other playwrights out there, to comment on the lessons I took away from these two experiences as audience member / feedback giver. What kinds of observations are helpful to you, and what kinds of observations serve only to derail you and infuriate?

- Stephen Speights

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Soul Hungers for Beauty

I have a friend. It doesn’t matter what her name is. Let’s call her “Erma Duricko.”
Erma likes quotes. Lots and lots of quotes. She has quotes tagging the end of her emails. She posts them every day on Facebook. These quotes are usually of an inspirational nature. They are usually on the subject of how beauty and art and love conquer all.

I roll my eyes a lot around Erma. She encourages it. Truth be told, she loves it. We were at a conference together once when a student came up to tell me how Erma had encouraged her to look into her past lives to help her write her new play. I was about to explode in total exasperation when I looked up to see Erma hiding behind a potted plant, laughing her head off. She had set me up.

I was in a place. It doesn’t matter what place it was. Let’s call it “Montgomery, Alabama.”

I have it on good authority from a friend that there are lovely nooks and crannies to Montgomery. She spoke of eccentric farmer’s markets and creative yoga studios. I have no doubt that she told the truth. It was not, however, a truth that did much for a man charged with entertaining a 3 year old.

My experience of the town of Montgomery was different than my friend’s. I found the place to be horrendous, an endless flat expanse of concrete and chain stores and malls. Arid and soulless on a good day, it had been ravaged by the recession. Driving past the endless run of closed down strip malls, it was all I could do not to stick a gun in my mouth.

One night, with my son was asleep in the next room, I watched a movie. It was Steve McQueen’s Hunger, a 2008 film about the Irish hunger strikers. Netflix had sent it to me a while ago. I’d heard wonderful things about it, but the subject matter put me off. How many evenings do you do you say to yourself, “I’d like to watch someone starve themselves to death tonight”?

That night, I watched it. It was as bad as I feared. Worse. You see the deterioration of the body in horrifying detail: the festering sores, the incontinence, the mind slowly slipping off the rails. What happens to a body when it is denied food is that it essentially eats itself. It is an awful thing to witness.

The genius of Hunger, however, is that it is also beautiful. McQueen was a well-known visual artist before turning to film, and his mastery shows in every frame. However bleak the scene, he always frames and shoots it so that you can’t look away. Images from the film  a pair of bruised, bloody hands being washed in a basin, a shaken man smoking a cigarette alone in a snowstorm, the red sores of shoulder blades beginning to stick through skin in an otherwise pristine white room – are lodged in my mind. They may well be there for as long as I have a mind.

One image in particular stuck out. There is a visual theme in the film linking the first hunger striker, Bobby Sands, with some birds nestled in a tree. When Sands finally dies, the birds fly away all at once. They are black against a deep purple sky. They squawk and rustle and fly away into silence. The moment was so staggeringly beautiful I audibly gasped.

After I did, a thought appeared in my mind – “The soul hungers for beauty.” I say that because I think I gasped not just from the force of the image. I gasped because I was starving. After two weeks in Montgomery, I was desperate for beauty. I felt so grateful for it.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who says things like, “The soul hungers for beauty.” Reflecting on it now, it sounds stupid. A romantic, childlike fantasy. Christ, it sounds like something Erma would say.

But here’s the thing about me and Erma - we’re collaborators, and damn good ones. I’m a playwright. She’s a director. She’s as good as anyone I’ve ever worked with (and I’ve worked with some good ones).

Perhaps our sensibilities aren’t so different after all. Maybe we’re not as far apart as the roles we play to the world would indicate. Perhaps inside herself Erma’s rolls her eyes all the time. Maybe inside I long for love and beauty and hope. We are a fine yin-and-yang, as all collaborators should be.

So in her honor, with no eye roll, I say it:

The soul hungers for beauty.

- John Yearley