Friday, November 30, 2007

Actual Writing

All of last week, I was pretty busy with paying gigs, and various other excuses for not doing any writing. But my playwriting group, Rhombus, meets on Monday, and I'm supposed to actually bring something for the actors to read. That's one of the things that I love about our group--each writer (there are six of us) is expected to bring material to every meeting.

Unfortunately, I'm sort of between projects, and most of those are novels, and I've decided not to bring long fiction to the group (if I can help it). I've been feeling rusty about writing plays and didn't have a great burning idea. Luckily, I've been writing plays long enough to cut myself a little slack. I knew I didn't need to come up with anything brilliant. I just needed to come up with something. Two hours of ass-in-the-chair time helped that happen.

I find, when I'm a little stuck, it helps to not try to conjure greatness out of the void. Parameters are my friend. I knew that I need one more short play for my Collected Obsessions collection. I could look at the other plays, and try not to overlap, try to fill in the missing pieces in terms of style. By thinking about it this way, I knew that I wanted a two-woman comedy, that doesn't take place in an office or a house, and that the women couldn't be sisters or neighbors or romantically involved.

Maybe that doesn't conjure the great romantic notion of a writer sitting at his desk and stirring at the pot of genius. That's okay. I just needed the start to a scene, a chance to loosen up my playwriting muscles after a long stretch (I wrote short play over Memorial Day weekend for May Day Play Day, but that's been it for a while) of inactivity.

The good news is that I wrote a three-page start of a pretty goofy short play. I don't really care if it's good yet, but I'm glad to have it started.

have fun and feed the hungry

I know lots of you know about this already, but if you haven't tried it, give it a shot. It's pretty addictive--I just earned 3400 grains of rice, after making it up to level 48 (for a very short while).

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

How to Name Your Plays (Freeman)

Adam pointed this out on his web site. Very funny guide:

The Art of Not Knowing What the Hell You're Doing

I haven't blogged much lately, partly because of the Holidays, kids' birthdays, and life in general. Part of it has been that I've still been looking for work, or waiting to see if my looking has panned out. Some of it has, and I've gotten two small web design and writing jobs--one for my dad and one for a friend. The web stuff is basic, but I want to do a good job, and my skills are almost up to the basic level. I've been working hard at brushing up my html and adding some css knowledge, with a big stack of books on my desk, and a zillion web searches. The writing assignment is a challenge--trying to turn a very long and complicated legal case into something that makes sense to a general audience.

There are people whose greatest desire is to become an expert. They delve deeper and deeper into a topic, getting that PhD and beyond. Sometimes I really want to be one of those people. It sounds comfortable, reassuring, a way of approaching life with a certain confidence and serenity. (Or so it would seem from here.)

Apparently, I'm not one of those people. Instead, it seems like I'm always neck deep in some project that I don't really know how to do and don't know anyone who is likely to show me. I remember my first temp job, 20 years ago--I'd passed the tests by studying from the manuals (they were printed back then), but I'd never used the software on an actual computer. When I got to my first job, it took me half an hour just to figure out how to turn on the machine. (I ended up working there for more than a year.) The tasks that I don't know how to do, and up doing, vary--from being a landlord to repairing century-old double-hung windows, from producing radio dramas to writing novels. The list goes on (this year--coaching soccer, putting together PVC drainage pipes, subbing for a playwriting class...)

I don't know the exact nature of the appeal--the adrenaline, the challenge, the transition from feeling prickly, uncomfortable in my own skin to finally being grounded again. Being a writer fits in perfectly--because there's always a chance to try something that I just don't know how to do, or to write about something that I know nothing about (history of the Bible, Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe).

There are pluses and minuses to having a concerted lack of expertise. On the downside, it's hard to get paid much or often. People usually want to hire someone who is an expert at a given task. Same applies to teaching gigs. And those cool NPR talk shows, where they chat with people who seem to know every obscure detail about the topic at hand--they're not looking for jacks-of-all-trades.

The upside is that I never get bored. Some of the skills I learn end up being useful in tasks farther down the road. And I have a chance to fail, often. This might not sound like a big positive on the surface, but in a way, it's what makes life worth living, isn't it? (Not that the failures don't bring with them a hefty bag full of depression.)

I've just finished getting comments from my readers (thanks, guys!) on my new novel. This is only my second novel, and I definitely don't know what the hell I'm doing. I'm trying a double first-person narrative, scattered over a period of twenty years, in both the present and past tense. It is not brilliant (my readers were kind but firm about this). It might not even quite be good. Yet. I've been working on it for two years, and I'm not sure that I'm ready to launch back into it, or if I need a little break first (my opinion on this changes by the hour). I have an idea for how I might fix it, but I'm not sure that I completely know how. I guess I wouldn't have it any other way.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Price of Sugar

When my friend Dan was out here last week, we got to see a terrific new documentary film, The Price of Sugar, which was edited and co-written by another friend of mine, Peter Rhodes. The film is a powerful look at the sugar plantations in the Dominican Republic and their use of Haitians for near-slave labor. Dan blogs about it very nicely on his blog. The film raises a lot of important questions about injustice, race, and the state of the world's poor. And makes you want to be a lot more thoughtful before you run out to buy sugar. (For the record, I found some fair trade sugar at Whole Foods.) The film also tells the story of a very interesting Catholic priest who is putting his life on the line to try to help the Haitians, in the face of strong opposition from the wealthy family who owns one of the plantations. I've been a critic of the Church for many of its policies, but it seems like they've done some important things for the Haitians in the Dominican Republic.

Don't be surprised to see this on the shortlist for the Academy Awards.

Good News: Lies, Lies, Lies at BCA in 2008

I just found out that CentaStage will produce my short play, Lies, Lies, Lies, at the Boston Center for the Arts, as part of 8 short plays set in bars and restaurants. I don't have all the details yet, but Joe Antoun will direct, and the show will run for 11 performances, opening February 15th.

CentaStage gave me my Boston debut when we moved back here in 2000, with my play Christmas Breaks as part of The Xmas Files. I'm excited to have a chance to work with them again. Lies, Lies, Lies is a funny play for me--it's my most popular play with Brooklyn Publishers--more than 1,200 students have bought copies of the script to use in competition, but it's only had one professional production (last year in Virginia) and I've never seen it on stage.

The other good part about this news is that it gives me something ahead on the schedule. After the Pumpkin Patch show last week, the calendar looked awfully empty. It's reassuring to know I've got something lined up in the not-too-distant future. No many how many productions I get, I always worry that the time is ripe for a big dry spell.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Good News: Pumpkin Patch wins SlamBoston

Tracy and I got out to the Boston Center for the Arts to see Pumpkin Patch in SlamBoston last night (it's nice having a teenager who can babysit for her little brother now). The evening was completely sold out--I had friends who showed up and got on the waiting list and didn't get in. The full house and the slam nature of the event started the night out with a palpable electricity--exactly the sensation that I want from an audience whenever I go to the theatre.

My show went sixth out of eight. The scripts were a mix, in terms of quality, but they were better than the average fare at a short-play festival. The time limit was supposed to be 14 minutes, but at least three of the plays ran over 18-minutes, which was a bit problematic (for them). Pumpkin Patch came in between 8 and 9 minutes, which was appreciated by the audience. Judging was done by five judges from the audience, who rated each play on a scale from 1-10 (they were encouraged to be generous, so the numbers tended to be in the 9s).

The performance was everything I wanted it to be. The audience really hooked into it, especially since the preceding play was pretty low key, without much interaction between the characters. My play is full of conflict. At first, we got a lot more laughs than I expected. Part of it was just the energy of the evening, and part of it was appreciation on the part of the crowd for the absurdity of the conversation between the characters. Then, when the racial undertones bubbled up to the surface, you could hear the crowd catch its breath and lean forward, as they followed the tone shift.

The big explosion of action that happens near the end of the play, when the white woman smashes the pumpkins was totally intense. We had three styrofoam "funkins" that I got at the craft store--they looked great, completely realistic. But we didn't have the budget for a practice smash, so the actress, Eliza Lay, had to try it for the first time live in performance. She smashed the first one easily, and managed to demolish the other two (with a brief scary moment, when one of them started to squirt away). Eliza really let loose. The spurt of onstage action and violence grabbed the audience completely, and the ending felt worked well, with actress Ebony Mills making some strong choices. (Kortney Adams did a great job directing this piece.)

When it was over, it was clear that the piece was one of the stronger one of the evening, but there was tough competition. I particularly liked Linda Suzuki's play, Just Sex, which felt both witty and true, and had a fantastic performance from Philana Gnatowski.

Anyway, when the evening was over, our production squeaked out ahead (and we won glory and cold, hard cash). It was especially rewarding to have my play staged so well for an appreciative audience (I just wish it could run longer). It was one of those nights that reminds me why I do this crazy theatre thing

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why Theatres are Stupid

Earlier this week, I bought a ticket for my wife to go see my play Pumpkin Patch in SlamBoston. $17 ticket, but that's okay (I had a comp for my own seat). However, when I went online to buy the ticket, there was a surcharge of $4.50. (That's more than 25%.) What?

So I called the box office number instead, so I could buy my ticket by phone. The woman said they'd charge me the same surcharge. If I came down to the box office in person, then I could buy the ticket for the straight $17. She told me that there were plenty of tickets left, so it'd probably be okay to wait. (Luckily we didn't wait--since the show sold out completely and not everyone on the waiting list got seats.)

This is stupid.

On-line box office services are very exciting, especially for small theatres, because they reduce labor costs, they enable small theaters to accept credit card purchases, and they reduce no-shows. In the old days, when we used to have reservation lines on our answering machines, patrons would reserve seats but not pay. No-shows, depending on the weather, might range from 30-50% for small companies. With on-line box office set ups, patrons buy tickets ahead of time and companies don't lose money on no-shows. This is using technology to improve the method of doing business. Ticketing is more accurate (rather than notes scribbled on the back of envelopes). Tracking is possible. The company can start building a mailing list. All very cool. Theatres want patrons to buy their tickets online.

Unfortunately, they don't act that way. Instead they penalize the behavior that they're seeking. Companies need to train their patrons to buy online, pay ahead, and show up for shows. Music promoters have long understood how to train their audiences--tickets are cheaper in advance, more expensive at the door.

This is basic stuff. I know that venues sometimes force the use of the in-house box office and tack on large fees. On-line services, like TheatreMania, can take a couple bucks per ticket. But that's part of the cost of doing business. It costs more to have no-shows, or to drive people away from theatre because they don't want to pay surcharges and don't want to risk showing up without a reservation or ticket.

Technological innovations are supposed to make processes more efficient and cheaper, folks. Theatres, especially small theatres, need to pay attention.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Typing Tundra

Late last night I got it into my head that I wanted to submit my radio play Tundra Games for an opp that seemed the perfect match. I looked everywhere, but there was clearly no script on my computer—I lost it and Love and Lightning a few years ago in a hard drive crash, and I’ve needed to enter them ever since.

I finally found a copy in a published book from MRTW (Midwest Radio Theatre Workshop) from 1993 (yes, I've been writing scripts for a very long time). Surprisingly, it was great fun typing up the play. It’s a brutal and funny script—the conflict and back and forth is so clear. There’s no finesse, but it’s really a sharp piece—very crisp. It’s still good to go, after almost 15 years. I just wish there were more places that might be interested, but there’s no market for radio drama. Too bad.

I wonder if sometimes I’m at my best writing for radio—it’s pure ear, and that’s one of my strengths—but I turned away from it long ago, because there was nothing to do with the stuff. The money was worse than theatre, and it had only a small audience, though the stuff I did write has been produced and broadcast a few times. Now, with podcasts, it might all come back. I only ever wrote four radio plays, but I learned it fast, because the for the very first one, I won a grant to produce my play and scripts by three of my friends. I had no idea what I was doing, but I learned the hard way, and producing taught me clearly what works and what doesn't on radio. It was a great example of how the hands on stuff is so important for writers. I found the same thing was true for theatre--self-producing my first full-length play off-off Broadway was more valuable than a handful of classes.

Tundra Games got sent out this morning. Maybe it'll find a new life.

(Summary: Two professional killers lose the evidence of their hit and their improvisation gets ugly. A dark, dark comedy of snowmobiles, severed fingers, and revenge served ice cold.)

SlamBoston on Tuesday

Pumpkin Patch will be part of SlamBoston on Tuesday, 8pm, at the BCA (Boston Center for the Arts) at 8pm. I'm pretty excited--Kortney Adams is directing a cast that I really like. Should be fun. You can buy tickets online at the BCA site. ($17) Should be a fun evening. Fellow Boston theatre blogger, Art Hennessey is directing one of the shows. It's a one-night only show, so I hope it turns out well. It's a competition of some sort--I can't remember exactly how the judging works. I figure we've got a small chance, because we're a drama. Comedies tend to get a big reaction in short fests like these, so it's hard to compete with them.

The pumpkins are always an issue with this play, but I found some really good looking ones. We'll just have to see how they perform on stage.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Good News: Best Ten-Minute Plays and Bulgaria

It's an odd phenomenon that rejections and acceptances seem to come in waves/heaps/piles/puddles. I just found out that two of my short plays, Den of Iniquity (which was just in NYC in EATFest and in Chicago) and Measuring Matthew, will be included in Smith & Kraus's upcoming anthology, Best Ten-Minute Plays 2008, 3 or More Actors. It's a thrill to be included (I had two plays in the 2007, 2-actor version, too).

At the same time, I also received some positive responses to queries I sent about a book proposal, a request from a community theatre for a script of Tightly Bound, and an e-mail from an actress/producer/agent in Bulgaria (yes, Bulgaria) with an offer to translate my full-length play, Hearing Voices, into Bulgarian (of course) and represent it, in the Bulgarian theatre scene.

Now I'm feeling greedy, of course, and I'm still checking my e-mail box, hoping this little spurt of good fortune hasn't petered out quite yet. We'll see.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Long Tail (and writing plays and books)

I recently read the book, The Long Tail (Why the future of Business is Selling Less of More) by Chris Anderson (editor and founder of Wired magazine). Basically, it's about how technology (especially the internet) is changing the way markets work (including or especially cultural markets) by 1) democratizing the tools of production, 2) democratizing the tools of distribution, and 3) connecting supply and demand.

The first element means more and more types of products to be created. The second means that more of them can be more easily offered to the public. And the third makes it possible for the public to find and get what they want. By doing this, business ends up needed to rely less on having huge "hits" when they have a product and can make a good chunk of their money by providing products for niche markets. Think of Amazon, Netflix, eBay, Rhapsody, iTunes.

Ah, but what does any of this have to do about writing?

Lots, actually.

First off, look at how modern technology has affected the means of producing written works. Not long ago, it was pretty laborious to write a novel or play. Working with a typewriter is painstaking work, and even the old word processors took a fair bit of effort. Then the submission process to agents, publishers, or theatres took hard work and patience, even to handle the physical aspects. There were no e-mail submissions. You had to photocopy everything, not just run off copies on your laser printer. (Anderson talks a lot in the book about how easy it is for people to make short films or recorded music.) All of this provided a barrier to the creation of new written works. It wasn't a huge barrier, but definitely restricted supply. Now, however, it's easier than ever to write and send manuscripts. As it gets easier, more and more people are able and interested in doing it. Not only that, but in terms of publishing a novel, there are huge opportunities for self and POD publishing and distribution.

The good part of this is that more people are able to express themselves creatively than ever before. The bad news for writers who want to make a living at writing, is that there is a glut of material and people who are writing. Book publishers and play producers have less incentive to make good deals with writers than ever before, and less incentive to treat professional writers fairly.

Unfortunately, in his book, Anderson doesn't at all talk about the impact of the Long Tail on the creators of products. If companies shift to selling fewer copies of more items, it means that workers end up making less. Now writers need to write more, because niche marketing is going to demand more creations, each of which will have a limited market.

The possible upside for writers comes from his point #2, democratization of distribution. If, rather than relying on large publishing companies to select which books (or plays) most people are likely to consume, effective filters (through recommendations, search engines, social networking) are what drive sales, then creators can come out ahead, because even though they'll reach smaller audiences, they'll get a larger percentage of each sale. At the moment, that's not happening, because publishers are taking most of the money out of the middle of the sales chain (much of it for production). In the future, if more writers end up selling completely directly to readers, then that's a whole different ballgame.

The whole Long Tail effect seems pretty clear on book publishing, but I'm still trying to understand better how it relates to plays. I see its effect with regard to play publishers (look at the rise of publishers like, with their strong online interface), but in the actual realm of producing plays, the long tail doesn't seem to come into play. Though technology allows for more plays to be written, it doesn't allow for more of them to actually be physically be produced. This bottleneck is harmful to playwrights (and there's not much we can do about it). Basically, it's a reminder to write plays if you love to write them, but understand that your chances of getting productions, especially decently paying productions, will continue to decline.

Indeed, the economics of producing plays is fairly dismal. It still takes the same number of people to put on a play now (basically) as it did a hundred years ago. There's precious little room for increased efficiency in the process. You can only reach so many people at a time in one small space. And although ticket prices for theatre have risen, but there's constant competition with mass mediums, that can operate more efficiently. As was pointed out in a recent issue of The Dramatist, royalty rates paid by theatres to produce published plays have scarcely risen in a generation. But playwrights have to pay rents, food prices and healthcare costs that have all skyrocketed in the past 30 years. And all of this has happened while public funding for the arts and artists has dropped dramatically. Remember when the NEA actually gave grants directly to playwrights? Big grants, ones that might help you live for a year or two. Playwriting isn't dying, there are plenty of people interested in writing plays, but the days of people making their living from it are over. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that's a great thing for theatre, because it takes a lot of time spent both writing at home and rewriting in rehearsal, to mold great playwrights, and I think we'll see less ultimately development of professional craftsmanship with writers of theatre.

I used to think that playwriting classes and programs were mildly immoral, because they were teaching people to do something at which they could no longer make a living. However, part of this book got me thinking about revising that opinion. It's a good thing that lots of people want to pursue their passion and write plays. Good for them. I still don't think it's a good thing to charge them tens of thousands of dollars for MFAs, but I think it is actually a decent act to help people learn to write plays. Hell, maybe I'll even teach a class. Because I know why they want to do it. But I know (and have known) better than to expect to earn my bread from writing plays anymore.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Craft Work

Yesterday, I went to an open house of the North Bennet Street School, to do some research for my new novel. The school teaches a whole variety of classes in fine craftsmanship-- bookbinding, jewelry making, violin making and repair, piano making, but I was mostly interested in cabinet and furniture making. In the full-time program, a handful of students spend two years learning to make handmade furniture, in a tradition that reaches back for centuries. The students I talked to had come from all walks of life--computer programmers, a coffin maker, a high school student, a stay-at-home mom--to dedicate themselves to making objects out of wood that are both practical and beautiful. They were happy to show me their tools and talk about what it takes to cut 140 dovetail joints by hand for a single piece, or to explain how hot sand shading works for inlay.

Usually, when I see cool stuff like this, I'm left feeling, "wow, that's really cool, I want to do that." And I already like working with wood--I've finished basements and rooms and have made bookcases and shelves and other pieces. But talking to these folks, I understood how it was a deep calling for them. And, what was interesting to me, I understood that I already have my calling. I'm lucky that way. Crafting a novel is not at all unlike someone building a carved chest or an intricate kneehole desk--each involved a detailed series of fine steps, steps that cannot be abridged. Mistakes are made and corrected. In the end, the final result is always imperfect, but perfection was never the goal.

Talking to the students and feeling their passion for their work inspired me to rededicate myself to mastering every aspect of my writing. And I appreciate the philosophy at North Bennet Street of fully understanding each step in the process. First semester students spend the first few weeks learning about wood, how to choose it and how it behaves. They also learn how to sharpen their tools. Hour after hour of sharpening.

Sometimes I think that I have approached my learning to write too haphazardly. I need to spend more time understanding the classics, as well as finding more books that I love and taking the time to disassemble them, to that I completely understand how and why they work.

The students talked about how time spent in the shop disappears while they're working. One of them said that's how he knows he's made the right choice. I feel the same way about my work.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

what writing life?

"Hey, Pat," you might say, "isn't this the Writing Life x3 blog? Where the stuff about writing?"

Fair enough. Yeah, yeah, the social justice stuff, Iraq war, blah, blah blah, is clogging up the works. The truth is that October was a very, very slow month for me, in terms of getting actual writing done. Partly this is because I finished a draft of the new novel at the end of September, then gave it to two readers, plus my wife, Tracy, to get their feedback, so I'm sort of waiting to hear from them before I get back to rewrites.

Couldn't you work on something else? What about the next novel (#3)? (Insidious influence note: this format shows that clearly I've been affected by Laura Axelrod's recent posts.)

I was thinking about that. But then I'd get started, and have to go back to revise #2 and lose my momentum on on #3. Or else have trouble going back and finishing #2 (which I really need to do by the end of the year or die trying.) I was going to work on doing some fill-in research on #2, but didn't really get to it.

How about something smaller? Like a short play? What did you do besides watch Daily Show clips all day?

Well, I guess I got sidetracked by this whole looking for a paying job thing. It's amazing how much time it takes, and that as much as I want to be go-go-go about it, there's a certain amount of waiting and patience required. I applied to a ton of different gigs and companies and sent in proposals. I did a bunch of work around the house, too. Oh, and I had productions in New York (which I got to attend and they did a good job) and Chicago. And I read a bunch of books, too, which was very helpful.

But in November?

Ah. Good question. Looks like more job hunting (but I'm getting some interviews and meetings now, which is cool). And tomorrow I'm actually taking a research field trip for novel #2 to a woodworking studio, which hopefully will inspire me to get off my ass and finish the rest of my research. And I should hear from my readers in a couple weeks and then start another round of revisions (I'm not planning on them saying, "Oh, Pat, it's brilliant, don't change a word, just send it to agents now." I know better.) (Not that deep, deep down inside, that isn't my secret fantasy.)

Sometimes a fallow month, writing-wise, is awfully helpful, despite being painful. I've got a lot of ideas kicking around in my head now, and I'm itching to get back to writing my novels again. I'm sure my family is ready for me to start rewriting and writing, because I get a little nuts when I'm not writing. I think I'll be back to normal soon. Really.