When I was in my formative college years, Margaret Edson won the Pulitzer Prize for Wit. There were a lot of unusual things about this. One, she wasn’t a professional playwright. She was a schoolteacher who went back to teaching school after winning the award. I remember watching a television interview with her where she said she had one story to tell, she told it, and then she wanted to do something else. Wow.
What was most striking and unusual to me was how long it took her to get the play produced. Wikipedia doesn’t back me up on this, but I remember her saying that the play was ten years in development. Just think about that: Ten years from conception to production. How could that possibly happen?
Another tidbit: I recently learned that one of my friends from graduate school, Lloyd Suh, who just happens to be a terrific playwright, had a show called A Great Wall Story open at The Denver Center for The Performing Arts. The play is a taut comedy about a trio of reporters who invent a newspaper story in 1896, which eventually leads to the actual Boxer Rebellion. It’s a great, funny show and I’m glad it’s getting a production. Thing is, I remember seeing the first scene of this play when we were in grad school together in 2001. Eleven years for it to make it to the stage.
And, of course, my own experience. I had the joy and relief to finally see my play, White Buffalo, appear on the stage of The Purple Rose Theatre Company this month. I began writing that play in the summer of 2002 – again, a ten year saga.
I’m just glad my references to eBay still held up after ten years. An entire passage glorifying *NSYNC had to go, though. (Just kidding!)
A lot of artists have stories like this. How their masterwork sat and was ignored and rejected for years and years and then, finally, impossibly, broke through. It's almost a cliché at this point, that in order for something to be awesome, it has to be rejected countless times. Even Herman Melville’s Moby Dick sold less than 3,000 copies during his lifetime. (Probably because people thought it was terrible and no one was forcing them to read it.)
It doesn’t always work that way. On occasion you write something and it immediately becomes a smash hit and then stays that way forever. Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven is a good example: within a year of its publication it was anthologized and soon it was required reading for every child, and has stayed on the list ever since. Or suppose you write a fanfiction S&M story based on Twilight and change the main characters' names in order to avoid being sued.
But usually, getting something done is a long, laborious, nearly impossible struggle. There are so many obstacles to getting a major theater to do a production of your play it’s staggering. You have to fight for it, again and again and again. You have to convince people up and down the chain of command – if anyone says no, it’s over. My play went to an intern first, who read it, and passed it on to the literary manager, who passed it on to the artistic director’s wife, who passed it on the artistic director himself. After the artistic director liked it, he had to send it on the Executive Director. And then we did readings for the public to make sure they liked it. And on and on and on… And mind you, this was after the play had been read and rejected by countless other theaters all over the country. For years. (And when I say “theaters” I mean interns or literary managers or artistic director’s husbands, or artistic directors, because they all have the power to quash your show.)
And after all that, after ten years of working on the play, after convincing everyone in the theater to love the play too, after getting the actors and designers together, and rehearsing the play for weeks, and then finally, finally putting in front of an audience, a single bad review can destroy it all.
Is it any wonder so many playwrights became alcoholics?
My point, though, is that it is possible after years of struggle to succeed at this.
One last story to illustrate this point: When I was a teenager, my friend drove a pretty crappy Volkswagon Scirocco. When you’re a teenage male, you have a tendency to try to race any other car that comes close to you – it’s not like we were drag racers – I’m talking about simply starting at a red light and gunning the engine to see who could go the fastest. Now, the Scirocco was never the quickest car out of the gate, but my friend had a philosophy: It’s not who starts the fastest, it’s who’s willing to go the farthest. He’d always be behind, but he never gave up, and when the other car hit 70 or 80 and decided that it was logical to slow down so as not be pulled over or destroy their vehicle, my friend would keep going.
And that’s how you win. You keep going farther than the other guy.
And hope there aren’t any cops watching.
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/
Most beginning writers get told to write whatever they like, in whatever way they like. It’s a very popular idea, to just follow your muse wherever it may go. Creativity über alles, or something like that.
Well. Much as I hate to rain on any given parade, advice of that sort strikes me as wrong-headed and useless. If you’re writing for the stage, you need to understand the considerations of directors and producers. They, plus audiences, make up the market for your work. Sure, you could thumb your nose and choose to write in a total vacuum––ah, yes, the moral high ground, that purity of unsullied artistic vision––but this is a surefire method for keeping your work unproduced.
Heresy, I know. But for the sake of argument, join me, for a moment, in accepting the metaphor of the world at large as an endlessly shifting marketplace of ideas in which your writing must compete. How, then, to proceed? May I suggest hurling yourself into that marketplace river and learning to swim? Sure, your “total artistic freedom” will become suddenly constrained, limited. But limitations (and scarcity, that excellent environmental catchphrase) are the very soul of invention. Definite parameters––in art, in science, even in gardening––give shape to great work.
How do I apply this dangerous philosophy? All sensible considerations aside, I generally allow myself to write five to ten pages of just about anything that pops into my head. No questions asked; no constraints; no internal niggling about cast size or grandiose set requirements.
This usually leaves me with several possible projects. When one of those won’t let me rest––when the interplay of voices I’ve begun just won’t shut up, including when I’m mowing or helping with homework––that’s the project that earns my trust. That’s the one that I know will hold my attention for as long as it takes.
And that’s when it’s time to ask some hard-nosed stumpers.
Now, picture me in my lonely writer’s garret (actually a very sociable basement, surrounded by my gleaming beer can collection, two desks, and an overstuffed bookshelf). I am sitting down to write the opening of One Over Par. Here are a few of the questions I need to answer––and note that not one of them has to do with the equally important dramatic questions of “What changes?” or “What conflict is at work from the moment my characters appear?” or “Is Stavros’s goal sufficiently ridiculous?”
1) Who am I writing for? An equity theater? A middle school? A touring company whose set and equipment must fit comfortably into the back of a mini-van?
2) When I finally get the script done (in, say, a year), to whom can I send it? My sister? My agent? A high school drama teacher? The literary manager at Steppenwolf?
3) Who is available to help me develop this particular script? My friends? Actual professional actors? A dramaturg I once met over dinner at a conference in…wait, was it Dallas, or Portland?
4) What is the fewest number of actors required to tell this particular story?
The answers I arrive at for the first question, above, will determine a lot about permissible content, and about the set requirements I can reasonably demand. Dare to consider, from the outset, the price tag of the show you’re creating. How deep will your producer’s pockets have to be?
The second question matters more to me with every passing year. My network of contacts constantly shifts as people ebb and flow around me, intersecting here, drifting out of view there. Ten years ago, I cultivated a great relationship with a lit manager at a major theater in New Jersey. He really liked my work. But then he got out of the theater business altogether. At least in the state of New Jersey, I was back to square one.
Frankly, knowing where I’ll send a project helps me no end in the writing. It puts a whip at my back and keeps me dreaming hard enough about the future to dream the dream of the play itself. No small thing, that.
I generally know the answer to my third question: Who will help me develop the script? Unlike the Little Red Hen, I am fortunate in having this ground well prepared in advance. I have access to a department full of skilled undergraduate theater students at the University of Evansville, and I have the department chair’s ongoing blessing to borrow said students for tablework. So I know I can get a first reading, and that I’ll get considered feedback from it. That, too, gives each project a little extra push––a sense that forward momentum is possible. But as to what happens after that? “It’s a mystery.”
The solution to question number four varies from project to project, but so far, the answer has never dropped below three. I enjoy the dramatic tensions that can be created by triangles, by triads of characters in conflict. Two-handers and one-handers leave less room to roam. Call it a fiscal failure on my part, but I like a more crowded stage.
You can say all these are crass commercial considerations if you like, but to me, they’re part of a vital winnowing process, a series of hoops through which each of my starry-eyed, outrageous ideas must pass before I really get down to the brass tacks of writing and the joyous but demanding task of endless revision. Only once these questions are answered (or at least dutifully pondered), can I at last get down to actual artistry––to the play in playwriting.
‘Til next time. Dream hard. Write harder.
Visit Mark's website: http://www.markrigney.net
The Florida State Thespian Festival is the largest high school theater conference in the galaxy. The squirming mass of more than 7000 students, chaperones, educators can be seen from space.
Every state festival is different. Florida’s is like a giant theater swim meet, with competitive events at unnervingly specific times (“Your adjudication starts at 8:47AM.”), and an army of uniformed student volunteers who wear clear plastic earpieces, like they are teenaged Secret Service agents. They also manage the quantum scheduling tangle of mainstage and one-act performances seemingly around the clock, a daily workshop schedule, college and scholarship auditions, and the high emotions of design, tech, acting, and vocal adjudications. Yet it everything seems to just happen. It is an organizational wonder.
For several years I have adjudicated playwriting for Florida with fellow writers Janet Allard and David Nugent. About six weeks out, we each get a refrigerator-sized box of 25-page scripts, which we read, respond to, and rate on a five point scale: Poor – Fair – Good – Excellent – Superior. For the first two days of Festival, we meet with each of the 40-odd playwrights for a 15-minute conversation. On the last day we lead a series of playwriting workshops.
I’ve been so grateful for the consistency of our adjudication team; we’ve become a solid team in terms of our approach to adjudication, which we like to structure as a conversation with the writer. Frequently, we’ll find ourselves giving the same kind of note over and over and over. What we wound up talking about a lot this year was conflict, or more specifically, lack of. So here are a couple of assumptions that we’ve seen playwrights make, and my thoughts in response.
“Conflict is when really bad stuff happens to the characters.”
No, it’s not.
Say that it’s Festival and your playwriting adjudication is at 8:47 AM on Thursday morning. On Wednesday night you check in to your hotel, which is hosting a convention for golfers, and they practice their putts in the hallways until 5AM, seeing if they can get a chip shot off your door. You oversleep. At 8:13AM, you take the elevator downstairs, but it gets stuck between the 2nd and 3rd floors. Then the cables break and you plummet to the ground, cushioned by someone’s costumes for the junior version of Amadeus, and the door crash open into the lobby. It’s now 8:21AM. Out the glass doors, you see the festival bus pulling away. The driver laughs maniacally and speeds off. You can see your troupe-mates faces pressed up against the windows, screaming. Oh, no! What will that mean for your one-act competition? The troupe has worked so hard on their adaptation of Dante's Inferno, even though it was asterisked for bad language and drug use, and you felt really good about it, especially the mime sections and the teen jazz orchestra. Then, as you’re running toward the convention center, at 8:38AM, you feel like you can just make it, and that’s when you’re attacked by zombies.
This is a bad morning at Festival. But dramatically, is it conflict? No. Bad things happening to your character is not conflict. More bad things happening to your character is not more conflict.
Sometimes the temptation is to keep adding awful events to your play. An abusive family, a car crash, and then a terminal illness, all in 25 pages.
This suggests to me, your playwriting adjudicator, that you don’t really know what your play is about. And also, you watch too many Lifetime Movies of the Week.
Do your characters do terrible things to each other? Yes. Good. This is conflict.
The play emerges when the conflict is urgent, intimate, and immediate. Conflict happens because the decisions that characters make put their relationships at risk. Is the play really about a playwright and a zombie? Great. They need to know each other, want something from each other, and make decisions that betray their weird zombie-human friendship.
The rest is context. And context can be bad. But context isn’t the play. Context is the external. Conflict is the internal. Context is the larger metaphor.
Say there’s a brutal storm outside. So show us the brutal storm raging in this family, at this moment. Say there’s a tornado. Show us the whirling destruction inside a friendship. Say there’s a tsunami. So show us the tidal forces that overwhelm a pair of lovers. In a play, the story is small, and the metaphor is huge. If you write the personal story, the story will provide the larger meaning, it will do the work for you, whether the play is set in the Renaissance, in a mental institution, or on Mars.
“Conflict means the characters hit each other.”
No, it doesn’t.
Physical violence is sometimes an indicator of conflict; more frequently, it indicates that the playwright doesn’t know what the play is about. Physical violence can become an easy out.
A gunshot isn’t de facto conflict. A punch to the face isn’t de facto conflict. Just because “It happens in life” doesn’t mean that the event is earned in the story. It may be that your characters hit each other, or kill each other, at the very moment when you are least certain of their actual conflict. What you might be going for is that characters don’t’ hit each other; they hurt each other. Sometimes, the worst possible thing that can happen is that a person opens their mouth and the exact wrong words come out.
Here’s a conflict: Your playwriting adjudication is at 8:47AM, you come in needing me to give you a Superior; I’m an adjudicator, I need to prove I’m a good judge by not giving out any Superiors whatsoever. We are at odds.
The stakes are high: You feel like a Superior will validate you at school, and if you go back with a Good, or even an Excellent, your reputation may be ruined, your hopes for social and academic advancement dashed. I feel that giving out easy Superiors invalidates my hard-earned experience and long-developed judgment. Maybe last year I was too easy, and this year I have to work hard to save my job.
By 8:49AM you realize that I have no intention of giving you a Superior. Are you going to hit me?
(I mean, will that be your first strategy?)
And will I hit you?
No. The real tension is, what will we say to each other? And then, because a play is based on failure (I try to get what I want and my first strategy fails), what do we do next? Whatever choice we make in terms of strategy, in terms of decision, we have a positive intention. We have a desire, an objective, a need. And if we fail, our life will be ruined. Will we lie? Cheat? That doesn’t work either. So what do we do next? Conflict escalates. The play doesn’t happen to the characters, the characters happen to the play.
You say: You are not only a terrible judge, you are a bad human being. You are beyond mean. You have killed my creative spirit. And I say….
Here’s a go-to list as you write the draft of your play for next year:
- Conflict isn’t when bad stuff happens. Conflict is when your characters happen. Make that the bumper sticker for your Playwriting-mobile.
- Conflict is there even before the beginning of the play – it doesn’t “develop.” Strategies develop. But conflict pre-exists lights up. These characters need their objective before we even meet them – they are in action when they walk through the door.
- Objectives are active, urgent, immediate, and personal. The play happens now, not tomorrow, not last week. It happens because these characters have a powerful, present-moment need.
- Keep your characters in the room together. When you are tempted to let them leave, make them stay. Even a dramatic exit – when a character slams the door! Bam! – can let your characters off the hook.
- Keep your characters talking directly to each other. Be wary of the temptation to have them text instead of talk. Put your characters face to face.
See you next year!
--C. Denby Swanson
C. Denby Swanson is a 2007/2008 NEA/TCG Playwright in Residence with Zachary Scott Theater Center. She graduated from Smith College, the National Theatre Institute, and the University of Texas Michener Center for Writers, and has been a William Inge Playwright in Residence, a Jerome Fellow and a McKnight Advancement Grant recipient. Her work has been commissioned by the Guthrie Theater, 15 Head a Theatre Lab, Macalester College, St. Stephen's High School, and The Drilling Company and featured in the Southern Playwrights Festival, the Women Playwrights Project, the Estro-Genius Festival, and PlayLabs 2002. In 2006, she was in residence at New York Stage & Film (through P73) to develop her play A Brief Narrative Of An Extraordinary Birth Of Rabbits, which was also included in the Writer/Director Lab at the Playwrights Center, and workshopped at Cornell College in Iowa as part of New Plays on Campus grant. Her play The Death Of A Cat received its world premiere at Salvage Vanguard Theater and was subsequently a finalist for the PEN Center Literary Award for Drama. Most recently, her full length adaptation, Atomic Farmgirl, was workshopped at the Culture Projects Impact Festival. She is a Core member of The Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, an alumna of the Lark Theaters Playwrights Week 2005, a former Artistic Director of Austin Script Works, and on the faculty at Southwestern University. Her plays Honour, Governing Alice, Everything So Far, The Atomic Adventures of Nikolai Nikolaevich are published by Playscripts, Inc..
I’m here to talk to you about that script. You know the one. That script you keep saying you’re going to write someday. I know, I know. You’ll write it later, when you have more time, after the kids graduate, when you retire, or whatever excuse you’re making this week.
Let’s be honest. At the rate you’re going, you'll keep putting off writing that story for the rest of your life. Your script doesn’t deserve that. It’s a good idea! Heck, it’s a great idea, and you know that or you wouldn’t keep carrying a torch for it all this time. An idea that is good shouldn’t be hidden away in your head; it should be shared with the world!
Which is what I’m here to talk to you about. That script? It’s time to write it. Forget about your mythical someday. We’re setting a real, concrete deadline, which is exactly what you need to finally get your idea down on paper. You’re writing that script this April.
See, every April, a whole bunch of us all over the world decide we’ve had enough of our own procrastination and take the Script Frenzy script writing challenge. It’s actually pretty simple. When you sign up for Script Frenzy (which those in the know call Screnzy for short), you commit to finishing a script in the month of April, no matter what other distractions you have in your life. That’s it. You get to tap into this huge worldwide community of writers all aiming for at least 100 pages by the end of the month and that international network of writers all focused on the same goal makes for a, well, frenzy of inspiration and camaraderie.
You’ll make some friends. Better yet, you’ll have a finished draft of your script in your hands by May 1st. OK, sure, it’ll be a rough draft that you rushed to finish in 30 days, but you can edit a rough draft. You can’t edit nothing.
And maybe you don’t have that one big epic script idea. Maybe it’s dozens of ideas. Maybe you’re just kicking yourself because you’ve got tons of ideas for short plays or one acts and you know they’d all be great if you just had the time to write them down. Maybe your Screnzy won’t be a single 100 page full length play but rather five twenty minute 1 act plays or some other combination. The April deadline could be just the thing to kick-start your new era in productivity.
Or maybe you’ve been hitting the writer’s block pretty hard and you’re in one of those funks where you feel like you’ll never write ever again. From one writer to another, let me tell you that there is no better cure for writer’s block than staring down a terrifying deadline. There’s just something about knowing you’ve got 100 pages to fill and only 30 days to do it that unshackles your creativity and really lets your imagination fly. When you challenge yourself, your mind steps up in ways that can surprise even us experienced scribblers.
So, come on over and join the Screnzy. It may seem crazy but sometimes amazing things happen when we just buckle down and finally do that thing we’ve been putting off. Sometimes you just have to jump out of your comfort zone and see what happens. Besides, it’s not like you’ll be going into this alone. There will be thousands of us all over the world making this same dash to finish by the end of April.
30 days. 100 pages. April. Are you in?
Hillary DePiano is a fiction and non-fiction author best known for her play, The Love of Three Oranges which has been performed in theaters around the world. For her other plays, books, and published works, please visit HillaryDePiano.com. For tips, advice and more about Script Frenzy, check out her blog Screnzy Pages.
We r the .01 percent of germs surviving the hand sanitizer. A timely microbial tale of love, occupy movements, and fear mongering. @Theatre_Teacher
The real Puck messes with hearts of teens during high school prod of A Midsummer Nights Dream. @rkmallister
Young girl wins a TV singing competition, but to launch her career, her agent says she'll need to create a tabloid scandal. @Theatreaneater
Sweethearts take Course of True Love: zen of snoring, white lies, multitasking, accept shortcomings Profs=historical figures @KennerLeslie
Man writes tweet-pitch that causes all who read to love him. When pitch is rejected, he pursues immune-to-the-charm Lit Director. @Droopy Riser
A journalist meets Hollywood's Eligible Bachelor at a press junket; he thinks hes found the One, she thinks she's found a story. @briannehogan
On the eve of their 1st anniversary, a married couple discovers their life is a sitcom, which has just been canceled. @Benzic
A play about a scientist who makes tween bands that are actually androids...until he falls in love with one of his products. @thespianhero
SOCK FIGHT: Neighbors nor police can stop verbal sparring when a couple argue over folding socks. "The Dozens" on a sugar rush. @thebluelines
Teen vampires infiltrate the jocks and cheerleaders' Spin the Bottle game. @malcoyote
Thank you again to everyone who voted, pitched, and tweeted. We hope that you found this project as fun and inspiring as we did. We're looking forward to announcing the winning pitches and opening the play submissions on Monday, March 5th.
Syl Jones is the author of 60-plus plays, including Black No More, produced by the Guthrie Theater and Arena Stage and winner of the Kennedy Center Award for Best New Play of 1998. He is the only playwright to win the Mixed Blood Theater Versus America and the Penumbra Theater Cornerstone awards in the same year. He began his career as a journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio at the age of 14. In 1980, his historic interview with physicist William B. Shockley appeared in Playboy and has since been anthologized in The Best of The Playboy Interviews, Vol. II. Mr. Jones writes an editorial column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and is the author of Rescuing Little Roundhead: A Childhood In Stories, published by Milkweed Editions in 1996. Playscripts, Inc. publishes two collections from Mixed Blood Theatre that contain Mr. Jones's plays Sacrament and Wooden You?.
What inspires you to write (plays)?
I believe that theater has the ability to enchant, to entertain and to teach audiences, and so I write because of the impact I think a good/great play can have on people. The world is starved for insight into the human condition. What we as playwright's do (without actually talking about it) is create situations that allow audiences to gain an understanding of what it means to be human. To me, the greatest drama and the greatest comedy have one thing in common: both show characters attempting to soar beyond the gravity that keeps us rooted to the earth. Whether they succeed or fail -- and how they do so -- determines the level of enjoyment an audience receives from a play. Finally, I write because I truly love it.
Who helped you along the way, as far as your playwriting career?
I learned to write plays by reading plays, especially Shakespeare, Shaw, Brecht, LeRoi Jones, Ed Bullins, and a host of others. I learned about theater as literature before I learned about it as a performance art. I started writing at the age of 14 and had a one-act play produced in high school. At the time, I set a broad goal for myself of writing plays as one form of communication that I would master. I never set out to be just a playwright. Life is too uncertain to set such narrow goals. Then, I had my first play produced professionally in 1972 and since then I've been writing plays for many different venues and audiences. I would not be honest if I ignore the fact that in my lifetime as a playwright I have received many grants, commissions, and awards that contributed to my financial success, which is no small thing in the realm of theater.
What play are you most proud of and why?
I would have to say Black No More which won the Kennedy Center New Play Award. It is an adaptation of an obscure novel but the comic twists and turns in that script were primarily my own and they really moved audiences. It is the play most people remember. But I am also proud of Kirby, Cincinnati Man and Shine! But I'm also working on two new scripts that may be the best I've ever done. We will see!
What advice would you give up and coming playwrights?
My advice is to write constantly and read, too. Storytelling is an art that can be mastered in the doing of it and not by thinking about it. Also, insist on finding a collaborator who is willing to work with you on producing your work. No one is successful alone. We all need partners who believe in us and are eager to help us.
Were you involved in theatre in high school or college?
Yes, I actually thought I was destined to be an actor. I had many great roles in high school and college. But I learned that despite being a reasonably good actor, I often came away from a show saying to myself, "I wish I had written that." When those feelings became strong enough, I began to write steadily and never stopped.
The very funny Tim Kochenderfer is a playwright, comedy writer, and television producer. His plays have been performed across the United States and around the world. A graduate of Michigan State University, Mr. Kochenderfer's work is featured in The Best Stage Scenes of 2006 (Smith & Kraus), Cracked Magazine, various newspapers, and he is a producer for WXYZ, the ABC affiliate in Detroit.
How did you start writing?
I guess you could say I started writing write from the womb. I remember right after delivery I motioned to the nurses for a pen and a pad of paper. “B+ doctor,” I scribbled. “That was a good delivery, but it needs improvement.” He immediately grabbed me, flipped me upside down and smacked me right across the butt. I was terrified to write from that moment on, or provide constructive criticism for that matter.
Eventually I conquered my fears and by age 18 I had mastered most of the alphabet. By college I could brag that I knew well over 100 words. I began writing skits in high school and videotaping them with a group of friends. Because I only had 90% of the alphabet mastered, some of the words didn’t make any sense but people got the point.
In college I had a creative writing assignment to write a story based off of the following line, “My uncle drinks like a fish….” I carried on with, “over time I noticed my uncle also eats like a fish. Eventually I noticed other things, like flippers, gills and a tail. Finally, I realized my uncle was a fish.” This would eventually become my play, The Fish Story, A Young Man’s Search For The Truth published by Playscripts, Inc.. I also wrote my first play, Canned Hamlet in college, a spoof of Shakespeare’s Hamlet (title inspired by David Letterman and canned meats.)
What inspires you to write?
The fact that I don’t always like what I read. Like Shakespeare for example. That guy thinks he’s so great. Well if he’s so great, he would have noticed his glaring lack of vampires and mob bosses in Romeo & Juliet. I took the liberty of adding them in my play Romeo, You Idiot. Also, killing off the main characters? Please. I had them escape that fate and then I killed everybody in the play. And Macbeth? Didn’t Shakespeare realize this play would have been better set in a Southern American fast food chain. That’s what I did in my play, Old Macbeth had a Farm. And Othello should have been set in a boy band, that’s all I’m saying. I’m sure he’d give the lame excuse that no such organization existed at the time of his writing. Whatever.
Did you write or act in plays in high school?
I had a creative writing class in which the assignment was to write a series of comedy skits. This was in the mid-90’s, a time in which if you wanted something printed you had to wait 3-10 days next to an excruciatingly loud dot-matrix printer. Valuing my time and hearing, I hand wrote my book of sketches. My assignment was marked down to a B for penmanship! What does penmanship have to do with creative writing?! I wrote my teacher a terse letter complaining about the injustice, but she couldn’t read it.
I also acted in a play in which I played Gepetto. For some reason, my character was forced to wear tights. This traumatized me, although I would have to say that it made my legs look sleek.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten in regards to your writing?
Don’t write while running away from an angry grizzly bear. ONLY focus on escaping from the bear. I mean this literally. There is no deeper meaning to it.
The other best piece of advice I’ve gotten was that the next line, the rest of the story, the answer to your problem is out there, you just have to devote the time and energy to find it.
What advice would you give high school students in one of your plays?
My first piece of advice has to do with comedic acting. My personal theory is that comedy is most effective when acted as a drama. Many directors may disagree with me about this, but comedy is a balance of realism and exaggeration. I would argue the more exaggerated the script, the more realism you add to the acting, the more hilarious it is. Consider the movie Airplane. Leslie Nielson is the perfect comedic actor in this film. When someone says to him, “Surely you can’t be serious?” He responds, “I am serious, and stop calling me Shirley!” He delivers that line with offense and anger, as one would in a drama, and it is hilarious because you believe he actually believes he’s being called ‘Shirley.’ Consider too, how ineffective this line would have been if he would have goofily replied, “Stop calling me Shirley.”
I would also advise to really think and pay attention to the lines you’re delivering and how you’re delivering them. Sure you need to project and you want inflection, but don’t let that get in the way of believability.
Are you working on anything now?
I just finished a very short play titled If Bob Cratchit Was A Kiss-Up. It’s a quick retelling of how A Christmas Carol would have been dramatically different if Bob Cratchit was a sycophant.
I’ve worn a lot of theatrical hats over the years: actor, director, playwright, assistant to the assistant stage manager (I just wanted to go to the cast party), and one disastrous turn as prop designer. (Side note: I saw that car crash coming from miles away. Why didn’t anyone stop me from trying to build a phone instead of buying a phone?) But one thing stays the same: opening night is always a nerve-wracking, stomach-churning joy.
I say joy because I’ve been pretty lucky over the years. I’ve been involved in nearly a hundred opening nights now, and I don’t think I’ve ever had one be a complete disaster. Sure, there have been times when I’ve forgotten my lines as an actor, or we skipped five pages of the script on accident (which completely eliminated one person’s part – not fun!), or the bicycle we were supposed to ride zoomed off the stage and landed in the first row, but after every opening night, I still felt that mixture of relief and joy. I guess there’s a surge of dopamine in your brain that causes you to forget all the mistakes you’ve made, but overall, the worst case scenario never occurred.
As tough as it is to be an actor or the director, I think the playwright has it the worst. I recently attended the professional opening of my newest play, Current Economic Conditions, at the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, and it was pretty great, (if I do say so myself), but it was also just like every other opening night: a smorgasbord of neuroses.
I say “professional” as if it makes a difference. It really doesn’t. I felt the same way I felt when I was opening a show at the middle school, or in college. It goes like this:
First, I try to sit next to people who don’t know I’m the playwright. I don’t sit with friends. I try not to acknowledge people who wave at me and say, “if the show sucks, I’m blaming you!” (They actually say this. They are trying to be funny, but they say this! I usually want to respond with, “If the audience sucks, I blame you!” but I hold my tongue.) Now, if you’ve read this blog before, you realize that I’m an egotistical schmuck, but before the opening, I want to be anonymous. This allows me to hear honest opinions from people sitting next to me, and to escape unnoticed in the event of disaster. Really, though, it’s an act of bravery. Your friends and family will always tell you they like it (unless they’re my Dad – thanks Dad!), but random strangers will let you know if the play is actually any good.
I spend about ten minutes staring at the program. I don’t know why. I adjust my coat. I sit up unusually straight. My stomach creates an extraordinary amount of gurgling noises. Sometimes my head starts tingling – (I’m not sure if this like spiderman’s danger sense, or if I used the wrong shampoo, or it’s the feeling of my hair falling out – maybe all three.) At this point, I usually distract myself by counting audience members. I try to see if they’re already having a good time. I pray there’s a “big laugher” out there somewhere – (the “big laugher” is the second-best person you can have in the audience next to the rare and beautiful “weird laugher” who makes everyone else laugh because their laugh is strange).
The worst thing about being the playwright on opening night is that you have no control over anything that is about to happen. It’s like being strapped onto a rocket and told that it’s going to launch somewhere, but not being told where the actual destination is. At least as an actor, you can try to cover for someone if they forget their lines, or a director can give a pep talk at intermission, or the props guy can (well, okay, there’s nothing the props guy can do), but you have some tiny measure of influence over whether the night is a triumph or a disaster. As playwright, you just watch. And believe me, when an actor forgets his lines, and there’s a one minute pause on stage where nothing at all happens, the playwright suffers more than the actor. Mostly you think: Why didn’t I write a more memorable line!? What is wrong with me? Why am I so terrible!?
Anyway, the show begins and the actors can relax a bit while they perform. The playwright continues to suffer. It gets worse, because now, if I laugh at a particular joke and no one else does, I look like a total moron who laughs uproariously at their own jokes. On the other hand, if I don’t laugh, then I’m part of the reason the show is dying a slow death.
You would think the best part of the night is the applause at the end, but even then, there are things to be neurotic about. Is the audience clapping loudly enough? Are there enough people putting their hands over the heads and clapping? How many people are standing up? Why aren’t they standing up? Why is the reviewer leaving so quickly? Why can’t I stop worrying?
It’s like being Woody Allen for a night.
But then there’s joy. And relief. It’s over.
Until the second night.
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/
I was in a supermarket the other day and was shocked to learn that once again, I was not named People magazine’s sexiest man alive. How many times do I have to go through this? In any event, I plan to use this snub to fuel my creative process for years until that magazine comes to their senses and realizes that my sultry brown eyes and prominent forehead are every bit as attractive as that guy from The Hangover.
I’ve failed a lot in my life. A lot.
Anyone who tries to do something artistic, or something difficult, or something challenging, is going to face a lot of failure. If it were easy, everyone would do it. And the people who succeed are the people who allow failure to fuel them, rather than destroy them.
At this point, it’s easy to wander off into clichés. Such as:
Never give up. Ever. Even after you are dead. Especially not then.
I think we can all take a page from Hamlet’s father and realize that if he had given up after he had been poisoned and buried, he never would have gotten his hollow revenge from beyond the grave.
But clichés become clichés because they’re often true.
There are so many examples from my own life – here are a few:
- In college, I signed up to be in a short story writing class, and I was not even allowed to be enrolled in the class because my story was deemed to be too bad. (Who knew that a story about a talking bagel being attacked by a pigeon wouldn’t strike the fancy of the professor?) Now, I am a creative writing professor and I yearn for the day when someone writes a talking bagel story for me.
- I got rejected from every grad school I applied to. (except one.) In fact, one day I received a rejection letter from a school I really wanted to go to, and when I set it down, I realized I had also gotten a second rejection letter at the same time. I was so upset that I threw the opened letter as hard as I could against the wall. (Do you know what happens when you try to throw paper really hard? Yeah. A whole lot of stupid.)
- Every year my college gave out an award for the best humorous writing to a graduating senior. The year I entered, for the first time in a decade, no award was given because “no one was deemed worthy.” Yeah. That one stung.
I could go on and on. Now it’s not like I think about these perceived slights every day (only most days), but because the artistic life is so difficult, you need something to keep you going. And believe me, the desire to “show `em” is a pretty strong motivator. I still fantasize about those people who rejected me looking in the newspaper and cursing themselves as I win my fourth-consecutive Pulitzer Prize and, almost unimaginably, my second Nobel. Hopefully, they’ll all still be alive and will have just enough faculties left to rend their hair and wail piteously as I make yet another acceptance speech.
I want to make one other point, one that is perhaps less clichéd than my first point. Most of the time, the reason you fail isn’t because of other people not believing in you, it’s because you simply aren’t good enough at what you’re doing. I probably didn’t get into that short story writing class because my story was actually pretty bad, and I didn’t get into grad schools because my play wasn’t very good.
Happily for me, I got better. And the reason I got better is that instead of blaming everyone else (I blamed them a little bit), I also blamed myself. And while that can lead to lots of sad nights, it can also help you learn and improve. You can’t learn anything if you give up.
So – embrace failure. Learn from it. And show `em.
Darn you Bradley Cooper and your piercing blue eyes and boyish grin! (Notice, however, that we have an equal amount of scruff. Hmm.)
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/
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In 2003, an ambitious group of 13 young playwrights began a grand experiment. Weary of readings and developmental workshops that doomed new plays to a short and unfulfilling life below the radar of the theater world at large, they banded together to form a collective that actually makes plays happen. And so 13P was born. Their motto says it all: "We don't develop plays. We do them."
13P consists of playwrights Sheila Callaghan, Erin Courtney, Madeleine George, Rob Handel, Ann Marie Healy, Julia Jarcho, Young Jean Lee, Winter Miller, Sarah Ruhl, Kate E. Ryan, Lucy Thurber, Anne Washburn, and Gary Winter. When each playwright's production slot comes up, she or he acts as the company's Artistic Director throughout the production process until 13P has a fully realized production on its hands. Since its inception, 13P has won much critical acclaim as well as an OBIE in 2005 for their bold and inventive new model of play production.
Nine years and 11 plays later, 13P is ready to dissolve. The playwrights knew from the beginning that their lofty endeavor was a finite project. The collective recently announced its upcoming ImPlosion Season, where it will produce its final 2 shows and then disband. This February, 13P will launch Erin Courtney's A Map of Virtue at the 4th Street Theatre, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll. The 13th and final show will be a premiere by Sarah Ruhl, to be presented in summer 2012. The ImPlosion Season will also feature A People's History of 13P, a video archive available at 13P.org and the ImPlosion Party—one final bash for the group to go out with a bang.
With the imminent "ImPlosion" of 13P, we at Playscripts thought we'd look back at the infancy of this cutting-edge organization. Playscripts has the honor of publishing the first two plays ever produced by 13P. Check out the inaugural 13P production: The Internationalist by Anne Washburn (P#1). The company kicked off its experiment with this provocative tale of an American man on a business trip abroad who is thrust into a world that feels like living in a foreign film without subtitles. Premiering in New York City in April 2004, The Internationalist continues to enjoy success today, as with its current run at the convergence-continuum theater in Ohio. The playwright has also recently updated the play — contact Playscripts for more details on the updated version.
We also had the chance to catch up with Anne Washburn to discuss the evolution of 13P over the years:
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What most inspired you to help form a group like 13P?
AW: There are now more opportunities for playwrights to have a production of their work in a smaller space, or with a smaller company. And I think there's a little more discussion now about new and alternative aesthetics and voices, and how these can be understood and supported. At the time it felt as though theaters didn't quite know what to do with a lot of the new work which was going around; they'd be attracted to a play, pick it up and worry it through their fingers for a while, finally drop it; another theater would pick it up, finger it all over—finally the piece was shopworn and no one wanted it. There were also a few examples of interesting plays being picked up by big theaters, given the wrong kind of director, dramaturged in an unfortunate way, and failing in a bad public manner. People would talk these stories over in bars and become excitable.
As P#1, how did it feel to have your play act as the inaugural production for the company?
AW: It was great fun. Everyone involved in the production—the director, actors, designers, techs, interns—felt like they were involved in a larger project which they personally wanted to support, so the mood of the whole thing was lovely.
How has 13P helped you grow as a playwright?
AW: It helped my career a ton. My 13P play, The Internationalist, has a lot of made-up language, an elliptical story structure. It's hard to make sense of on the page and is exactly the kind of play which theaters would have been intrigued by but never, ever done. The Vineyard came to see it, and then produced it in its own season a few years later. That led to other productions of that and other plays.
Now that 13P's "ImPlosion" is imminent, how do you feel the company has grown since its inception in 2003? Do you see other companies taking inspiration from 13P's production model?
AW: When we had the first meeting I think the only person who thought we'd actually complete even one production was Rob. So our sense of confidence has increased. Operationally, of course, it's much smoother, as we've been lucky enough to attract terrific volunteers. In important ways it hasn't changed and can't change: 13 playwrights, order determined at the start, each playwright given free range to choose their material—our core goal was just to get the plays up, which is exactly what we've done, and continue to do.
I do know of some companies inspired by the 13P model, it's a great thing, and we hope that our implosion will inspire even more.
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13P's second production, The Penetration Play by Winter Miller (P#2) ran at the Mint Theater from November-December 2004, and is also a standout member of the Playscripts catalog. This dark comedy focuses on a trio of women steeped in desire during the last weekend of summer on the Jersey Shore. Take some time to read through the free script sample on the Playscripts website of the play The New York Times called "Cracklingly funny. An erotically charged comedy about the flexibility of sexual identity."
For more from the innovative minds of the 13P playwrights, take a look at their many other original works featured in the Playscripts catalog. Sheila Callaghan's Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), Madeleine George's The Most Massive Woman Wins, Erin Courtney's Demon Baby, Lucy Thurber's Liberal Arts College, and Ann Marie Healy's Dearest Eugenia Haggis are all sure to provoke and challenge.
Though 13P will soon be no more, Playscripts looks forward to other groups of playwrights taking inspiration from this visionary organization. Why not take the 13P challenge and follow in their footsteps to continue creating fresh, new plays for the modern theater?
--Erin Salvi, Playscripts Customer Service Associate and Freelance Editor