Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

a playwright's journey, creating, connecting, and conversing.

Archive for June 2012

Whittling

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..last week I attended S.C.A.M.P., an opening at Gallery Plan b that included the works of friends of mine; each, visual artists. Standing in that gallery I enjoyed their success as much as their work, and felt a cathartic joy at seeing the walls of the space hosting such a diverse and complimentary collection of completed thoughts.

..savoring it I realize: each time I sit at my computer, being a visual artist has compensations no playwright can claim; in hanging a work, it is presented. Even hung in a room of the artist’s home, the work is ‘alive’ and available to be seen and enjoyed.

A play only comes to life after many hours and days, if not (hopefully), weeks of rehearsal; it stands by way of the grip of a collection of professionals, many of whom participate unseen –designers, technicians- all of whom work in phalanx to the director-..Only in the crucible of a performance space can a playwright’s mettle be weighed. Because of this, a work isn’t finished once it is complete; it has merely reached a ‘lodging’ –a drawer, or thumb drive, until it is given full opportunity.

.. this is not a whinge on the unsung plight of playwrights; at our best, we manage the parameters of our genre. It is, in fact, part of the package in our art, this extended (and protracted) climb to true ‘existence’.

..it’s just..the abiding challenge to a playwright is not to ‘create’; but, I believe, to shrewdly ‘construct’. For in some future, in presentation, the work must prove the writer’s intentions, while bearing the weight of interpretation.

For me, it is very much about architecture. Being a ‘good’ playwright is about presciently countering the nuances that will be found in a performance, which might give opportunity to distortion of the work’s dimensions. It is about being aware, and anticipating collaboration.

No matter what I write, I know that it is not going to be onstage in the very strict contours of my thinking; it is going to be breathing through the wit, timing and intelligence of the actors, as well as the impulse and scheme of the director interpreting the whole.

..Pinter is a master architect; his writing is a level of manipulation that only the most adroit and adept can steer by.

It is not about placing non sequiturs in a ratcheting string of emphasis, modulated through strategic ellipses; it is about conscious dimensions of construct, and crawl; a specific psychological stairway. And the actors who must climb this track know to connect the unseen beats, and words, and find the tensile, invisible architecture.

They know to be prepared for challenge, from the moment of reading the words “written by-”.

But the majority of we who write have no such eminence; until our work is brought into the hands of others, the arrow we’ve fashioned only hits its mark in the perfection of our own minds..

-so, when scripts were placed on the table, for the first read through of strawberry dwarfs and other lies, I could only know in the abstract- the dimensions of the piece I had written.

On that Thursday, June 7th, 2012, the voices in my head listened to words finally spoken.

Jack Cutmore-Scott hit the sass and swagger with Painter’s character; Charlie Tirrell gave grounding to Glassman’s comedy; while Charlie Socarides detailed Evan’s calm, into inexorable..

All while Amy Van Nostrand’s Lillian..

-unnerved me; her journey being a descent through two interactions, seemingly nothing more than salacious, but, in truth, hurtling this driven character into a clear contour of desperation..

With the last words spoken, a cloying sense of ickiness draped us at the table; I had to stand, and shake it off, literally!

..and this was just a first read through!

The work given four days rehearsal and full concentration by the artist and its director, Bob Jaffe, stood up in blue wash onstage, leading the audience to laugh, chuckle, and then swallow disconcertedly ..

Sometimes, queasy silence is affirmation of effectiveness, and Lillian’s ebbing stole the breath of those watching..

-until their applause broke with the subsequent dark.

…my father used to quote a phrase of his mother’s: “..you sit by the door of opportunity, sit and wait, but be prepared, because once it opens, you’re going to rush in ready.”

Playwrights may create in a vacuum, but “prepared” is a good password..

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Before rehearsals..

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..walking down Great Barrington’s main street: facing Robbin’s insolently enticing open doors, and straining not to succumb to the perfume of sugar (in incalculable forms), there is a tickle at the back of your neck; facing the itch –you turn to find Tom’s Toy Store.

Yes. True. I couldn’t even make this geography up! Two poles of childhood; one sweet, the other beckoning –with my own name..-and ‘yes’, though the mountains beyond coddle a sluice of other stores and shops and points of interest, that purl through town.. I have to admit to being arrested in my steps, and almost incapable of wandering elsewhere..

I am proud to say that I remained steadfast –almost; I won’t spill the dots on which shop, shopping caused me to forget myself..

..indulgent daily pastimes, which began at breakfast. And Jay Thomas. Jousting at the brink of day.

No matter how early I was downstairs for coffee, Jay was earlier, reading glasses perched on his gaze and focusing fodder to his humor; testing its worth; wrapping it in every garb of joke and anecdote the man had in his arsenal of wit, and lobbing hook after hook at anyone in the room.

Mornings at the Wainwright Inn.. -not exactly for the fainthearted, slow wakening, or easily offended. Jay always had mining choice provocations and unsettling stories on his mind, and was not to be deflected by anyone’s daintiness; actually, any whiff of unease only went to affirm just how perfect his pitch!

Reading from the paper, eyes punctuating every sentence with a glance to see what sticks, Jay’s on a roll: ..man attacked by brother with machete. This looks interesting.

And I should have taken better care than endowing curiosity with a ‘tic’, but the tag of the tale was so odd that it curled  my eyebrow just enough to spur Jay deeper into the story..

..yeah it’s true. It’s right here. And they don’t lie in this paper.. –what is this paper? Yeah, they don’t lie in this paper. Guy came at his brother with a machete. In the kitchen. At 60. 60 years old, and he’s had enough. ‘I’ve had enough’; where’s a guy get a machete in the kitchen? Why would you have a machete in the kitchen? So you have a machete in the kitchen, and now, all of a sudden at 60 –you’ve had enough! “I’ve had enough!” -..Where’s a guy get a machete in the kitchen and at 60 years old even have the anger to raise it? And what’s his brother do?

..at this point I was hooked and let slip ‘what did his brother do’?

He was under the sink. But he had a crowbar. Can you see this: a 60 year old, coming after a 75 year old, under the sink, fixing the pipes with a crowbar..?

 I wasn’t the only one engaged by this rumination; a colleague who was also being platformed in the week’s Gala presentation, Kevin Christopher Snipes, was at breakfast by this point, buttering toast, and felt compelled to say… -oh there’s a play.

-to which, Jay’s eyes already bright, went nova –and he says: yeah!

So, of course, Kevin asks which brother he’d like to play, and Jay doesn’t miss a beat: The one under the sink. Legs sticking out. Totally unaware his insane brother has found the machete, and is coming at him. Can’t you see it? My legs sticking out? That lunatic brother coming at those legs, trying to raise the machete. Oh yeah, I’d be under the sink.

-and by now, sick as it all is, we’re howling! Kevin, several other guests, me –we’re all unable to stem the flow of this tsunami of bad taste..

And Jay can’t let go; -but what’s happened? What’s finally cracked the guy to grab the machete? Did I tell him he was uncoordinated, and he’s decided to prove me wrong? But felt he should wait till I was under the sink? Did he hate the pants I was wearing? Was I wearing pants? Maybe he was just disgusted with seeing my junk hanging out under the sink, and he wanted to teach me a lesson. What do you think?

I couldn’t think; no one could think. We couldn’t stop laughing.

-and then he’d be up and gone!

Two mornings of the four days we were all in Great Barrington, Jay had to drive to Pittsfield, and use a remote studio to do his radio show for Sirius.

I’d like to think our breakfasts geared him up; can’t be sure though.

You don’t prime a force of nature.

[An earlier version of a Jay classic, on Letterman.]

Return to Great Barrington..

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I would say a ‘return to platform’ and the Berkshire Playwrights Lab.. but being able to participate in the BPL Gala is all so much more than that..

..it is the warmth in the feeling, walking along Pope Street into the Wainwright Inn, and up to my room, the same room Marja had selected for my first visit, over 3 years ago now..

The hospitality of the Inn remains all about ‘sanctuary’, and the enjoyment of conversations with like minded travelers, who are never strangers, as we all have Marja, Robert and the Wainwright Inn in common, and instantly fall into mapping the connections and journeys that have brought us there this time.

..the summer had not settled into the surrounding hills as yet; fog started the mornings; mid-day, piercing blue held the sun; by afternoon, scrums of roiling clouds tumbled over the skies, and unleashed torrential rains that then vanished, to leave the tarmac smoking wet..

And night –night was luscious, quiet, dense, and perfect sleeping..

Four days of this; it was far more than a treat, it was an invaluable pause and opportunity to rejuvenate..

And with this calm came nurturing; the engagement of the Berkshire Playwrights Lab is a all encompassing cradle of creativity and facilitation; in three days of rehearsal, 5 plays are raised and ready for presentation.

This year the format combined them with a video “welcome” by Joe Mantegna, followed by a presentation of a film ‘short’, called Food for Thought, which is going to be part of Mr. Mantegna’s series, for KCET TV LA, called Quick Bites. The short was directed by BPL Artistic Director, Joe Cacaci..

..and here, is one of many bisections, in the connection to BPL; Joe Cacaci first introduced me to Berkshire audiences in 2009, when he directed a week’s workshop and reading of my play The Orion. We’ve been angling to bring Reconstruction (the 3rd ‘panel’ of the triptych of plays, that start with The Orion) to similar opportunity..

And that’s some of what we spoke of, on the ride up to the Berkshires, this past Wednesday; some –of what we spoke of. As we also spoke about the short, Food For Thought, which Joe had written and directed, at the behest of Joe Mantegna. Now leading Joe Cacaci to think of further short bits for filming ..and compiling a series of piquant, visual narratives..

Plots, plans, and possibilities were woven in that drive up the Taconic, woven while weaving through thunder, wet, and rainbows.. And I got to hear the back story on the filming of his piece.. and the subsequent synergy of opportunity, which led Joe to ask Joe to ‘open’ this year’s BPL Gala with a “welcome”, leading into a first view of Food For Thought, and the evening’s presentations..

Film, theatre –and then an offering from NYU, Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program; three snippets of musicals ‘in-the-works’; then closing the Gala with a monologue, written by Richard Dresser, and given by Treat Williams.

Heady stuff..

Oh yes –and something from David Mamet as well; something written for Elizabeth Franz.

All this, in three days of rehearsal; faultlessly scheduled through moments of respite.. in the boughs of Great Barrington.. in walking distance to the Gypsy Joint Cafe, a wild den of tasteful ‘hippie’ vision and fare –food so beautifully healthy –so ‘edibly’ simple –in a space reminiscent of stoked brownies, cigarette haze, beads and bands and bargaining.. none of which in this incarnation, but in homage and resonance.. so seamlessly flavored with the past, without any of the infractions.

..across the street from another indulgence –Robbins Candy Store; ..yeah, don’t get me started.. every item out of childhood cavities; every sweet, sour, tooth shattering, filling sucking, insolently delicious candy in memory.. and then some..!

..I’d like to say I remained an adult, and walked past that shop, unswayed, unimpressed..

-yes; I’d like to say that.. but..

-so many things I’d like, to be able to say: such as.. I didn’t really slop my own glass of Margaux on the kitchen floor of our BPL hosts, in the first evening’s “company dinner”..

-but I did, and they were so wonderfully unphased by it, as though they were used to having uncoordinated artists in their homes all the time..

My first night there, straight out of Joe’s car and the trip from New York –which had been straight off the train and the trip up from DC –which had been straight out of the school year’s closing presentation, at the WNO studios, in Takoma Park..

..yes; last Wednesday had been a long day..

But it was all so worth it.. From the morning’s enjoyment of seeing all our schools and students, showing one another their creations.. to the rush to NY, and Great Barrington..

A day across all my worlds of endeavor and engagement..

-returning to Great Barrington: more to digest; more to relate..

More soon.