Tom Minter's Off The Stoop Blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘playwriting

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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Philip Rose

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there are no rules about leaping into the new, because no one has ever been there before..

That was my high school yearbook quote, and remains something of a deep belief.

Guidelines are not the same as rules, though –and often, serendipity is a way of affirming direction.

Though separated by several years, two instances of particular chance are linked to the opportunities, and hopes, I have for the triptych.

The middle ‘panel’, called Breathing Ash, cuts close to the bone, touching issues of race, culture and politics.

In 2002, when the play was being seen at the end of an intense series of workshops, it had an especially powerful resonance, as some of the references to government surveillance and domestic military apparatus, were sensitive subjects to a present so immediately post 9/11 – the action of the play takes place in 2006, and is instigated by a Republican President down in his pole numbers, who sees the re-ratification of the Voting Rights Act as an opportunity to get the  Senate to self destruct…

At the heart of the work is the story of a young black man who is caught in a series of disconnected suspicious incidents, judged without pity by the minister of his own community- and the life of a black junior congressman from New York, tasting his own unexpected power, not concerned of being low pawn on the political chess board in DC.

I’d written the play in 2000, and knew it to be politically hard hitting. But I also felt the interior terrain of Ash, looking at schisms in American black culture, was a fresh view of a potent issue, and was reminiscent of Lorraine Hansberry’s fresh view of such issues in A Raisin In The Sun.

One week before the presentation, as I walked through Borders Bookstore on M Street, NW, my glance caught sight of a hardcover book, stood upright in the middle of a small cafeteria table, as if its reader, finished with browsing, had forgotten to replace it on its shelf. The cover was facing me. I remember reading it and laughing outright as I walked over to the table to pick it up – the title being: You Can’t Do That On Broadway!

My chuckles melted to an awed silence as I read the book’s liner. This book was a memoir. And it was written by Philip Rose, the producer, against all kinds of odds, of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin In The Sun.

I didn’t put it down; I bought it, and read it in an evening.

Lessons and incidents of overt racism, poured out across almost every page in the telling of bringing the play from a living room reading, to the stage. But what struck me most was the unshakable belief that Philip Rose had, in the rightness of the work, the unregistered talent of Lorraine Hansberry, and the need to have the play presented –and, most especially, the note throughout, never to let someone tell you ‘no’.

I was so moved and provoked by the passion of Philip Rose’s commitment, and the words of his expression of events in facing the bigotry, hardships of financing and closed mentality of the ‘dinosaurs at the gates’ of theatre, that meant to impede bringing this piece to the stage, that I found myself determined to meet this man, and closing the book at its last words, I dialed information and asked for the phone number of Philip Rose, at the address he (surprisingly) admitted to living at, in NY.

..in the memoir, he had also admitted to being fond of taking chances, and enjoyed those who walked through the open door of opportunity.. For some reason, I didn’t think twice at taking him at his word.

We spoke.

..I can’t say the words came out of my mouth with any sense to them, but he seemed to grasp that I had just read his book, and had been moved. We wound up speaking for twenty minutes. And then, he invited me to visit with him when I was next in New York. –..as serendipity would have it once more, I was in NY two days later, and took him up on the visit, taking him out for tea at a restaurant around the corner from his home.

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We spoke theatre; he went into other details of the journey with Raisin, as well as Purlie. He encouraged me to speak of my own writing, and I found myself finding words of frustration and anxiousness in describing my efforts with  Breathing Ash, its challenging landscape of race and politics, as well as its ambitious visual narrative. He listened, nodded, understood, and I felt honest enough, with my uncertainties, to ask if he’d come see the presentation.

He did. Was engaged by it, and told me to keep pushing.

The second piece of serendipity connected to the triptych occurred in September of 2008..

mastering the dance

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Getting the writing out, having it make sense and engage, these are particular hazards of the profession. The step that comes thereafter, well.. that’s the dance.

There is no surfeit of names of talent, who have had their work rejected, or thrashed across several desks as being unintelligible.

But Playwrights, as a breed, are driven to persevere, as a play is not finished just because it is written. Without actors to portray characters, and an audience to react to what they see and hear, the work is without witness, and incomplete..

…perhaps for this very reason, playwrights will also maul themselves, to fit whatever crevice of opportunity they see dangling on offer, making the assessment that apertures are rare sightings, and far too precious not to lose a bit of blood for..

The blood, however, tends to come from the guts of their work.

At a point in an artist’s development, there has to be a moment: when the integrity of a work must stand in front of the gate of opportunity, and be judged, in its proper dimensions, as to whether or not it can fit, or should be taken to some other portal.

I believe it is the artist who has to take responsibility for the call.

The catch is: they can only do so when they are in full awareness of their voice and particular talent, and whether or not the work on offer is actually a work of true dimension, perhaps unintelligible to any company, because it is a new work, and the group has no template to judge -despite its deliberate suggestions that a good whittle here and there will set the thing right.

But this internal step of integrity is a dangerous part of the dance. It might be ill judged, or pushed in some intransigent haughty manner worthy of an enfant terrible –which, in some cases, becomes the package.

In London, when I first started writing, it was under the nurturing supervision of the New Playwright’s Trust, which was under the directorship of Polly Thomas. The Trust gave me the support I needed, and the room to grow, allowing me to test my skills in any direction I chose.

When I emerged from that group, I considered myself a playwright; my first piece was performed by the Trust, at the Theatre Museum, Covent Garden. From that presentation, I was asked to submit a work to the London New Play Festival. Opportunity seemed to be a straight path, leading from one instance to the next.

The play I submitted made it past the first round of judging, and was vetted for the Festival, but then I received a phone call from the Dramaturge of the company, lauding the play, but suggesting, in unalloyed opinion, that there were bits of it that could be clearer.

Of course I leapt at the chance to make the piece better. She offered her services to help with the task, and we set to work.

After much effort and limb reduction, I put the play before the judges of the Festival –and had it summarily rejected. The feedback being that it was nothing like the piece I had originally submitted –less original, and weaker..

Now there had been a little voice in my head during the whole chopping up of the work, disparaging the notions of the dramaturge, and questioning my willingness to maul, beyond recognition, something I felt to be decent. But I was fresh, and it seemed that the title of Dramaturge alone was sufficient moniker of superior knowledge, as to ultimately turn my inner voice down to a mote of insignificant volume.

There was no one to blame in the outcome –except, really, myself; I wanted the chance, the platform, and I was fresh enough to jump any hoop presented, as long as it was facing the opportunity.

Out of that experience I came to recognize that my writing had a particular voice –my voice- and that it was my responsibility to understand it better, to better protect it when I should, and as I could, so that the real urge to find platform didn’t wind up stripping a piece bare, or neutering originality to something banal and uncharacteristic.

It was a valuable lesson: mastering the dance is not just about ably stepping into various arms, but, more importantly, about keeping the precarious balance between ego and purpose…

Because it will always be hard to say ‘no, thank you’ when you’re asked to dance.

some of many parts

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I come from a musical family. At the beginning of their careers, my mother was a singer, and my father was a pianist, who often accompanied her. Music, especially classical and jazz, was a constant in the household.

The music of opera was part of that mix; my mother would sing pieces by Handel, Puccini, Bach.. But my first real concept of what opera was, and how a ‘composer’ crafted such stories to music, came with the title “Aida”, and the name Giuseppe Verdi.

My father’s story of this was that, when I was seven, while riding in the car with him, I heard a bit of the Triumphal March on the radio and was excited by it. Being the educator he was, soon after he brought home a recording of Aida, with Leontyne Price, Jon Vickers and George Solti conducting. My father showed me the libretto, explained how, on the left the language was in Italian, but I could follow along on the right, in English, and understand what the characters were singing.

My father always insisted that I planted myself between the living room speakers, and remained in that position for almost 3 hours, following the libretto, and absorbing the opera from beginning to end. I remember none of that particular event, but I know that there was a point in my life when I realized that opera was a form of incredible imagination, and aural painting.

I remain, first and foremost, an ardent Verdian; his attempts, throughout his career, to allow the drama of a particular situation to drive the music, rather than stay to a less realistic form of bel canto (pretty singing), was a decision which not only changed opera entirely, but was a lesson of an artist’s belief in staying true to a value of theatricality, which seemed seamlessly to fashion my own concept of the drive for true storytelling, and not just story dressing.

When I first came to investigate my own creativity, I will admit, I consulted Verdi, and always questioned if what I was writing was in the vein of the true story, or if I was just conjuring draping, for something wholly unnecessary to the moment.

The guidance of gifted mentors is not something to ignore, whether those teachers are present or past. Their struggles, creative or ideological, seem to be relevant to any time.

In focusing my writing to playwriting, early on I gravitated to other writers who looked to create characters to speak truths they found lacking from the stage.

Writers such as James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, had as much influence on me, in terms of writing characters, as did the construct of Rod Serling, and reruns of Playhouse 90, which plat-formed some of America’s great writers of the 40’s and 50’s, and presented episodes of concise characterization and themes of often challenging social, racial and political commentary.

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I find that many genres are fused in the weave of my writing, but the underpinning detail, is always to find the character that can lead a journey.

the black box

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I left America to become a writer, because I did not want to write what America felt my color gave me credentials to speak of: blackness. I wanted more opportunity than that ledge.

Reading the BBC Gomp/arts blog [Is Britain best for new playwrights?], Ms Hall says she went to London because “America was too conservative. Theatre there relied on formula and revivals and established writers.” An observation I agree with, as I said in my previous entry.

However, I find myself wondering; subtext, to the language of the piece, resonates with the photo of Ms Hall, who is black. In this day and age I find it surprising that the word “race” never actually made it into the article, but there is something else America does, when it mainstreams; it follows lines of ethnicity.

When I was at the truth, in my life, that I wanted to be a playwright, it was the America of the 80’s, and I felt that if I attempted this ambition here the dream would be cropped. As a black writer, the system had you trained to aim at a black audience –the “natural” [read: easiest] opportunity. I, though, wanted all manner of dimensions in my writing.

To learn how to accomplish that with the freedom of curiosity and the guidance of open mindedness, as well as already having absorbed the guiding works of Baldwin, Hansberry and Hurston, I determined that England, land of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Pinter, Hare and many others –a culture that treated the class of “writer” with respect and attention- would teach me more about what could be done in the ‘black box’ of the stage, than America, where delving into the whole maelstrom of conditions and castes of human possibilities, only seemed acceptable if you weren’t black.

Nurtured by the experience in theatre abroad, I am a playwright, who is black, who believes in turning the envelope inside out.

My ethic for the ‘black box’ is that it is a place where myriad forms of storytelling must be used to engage the youth and audiences of this millennium; my drive is in creating a form of narrative that utilizes visual image, non-verbal communication, and live stage action, to weave a multi-layered story and theatre experience.

Constructs of social class, family dynamics, politics, race, religion, humor, and the daily negotiating with the lies we tell ourselves, to be able to get out of bed in the morning, are all subjects I explore.

It was never in my mind to ignore these subjects; I wanted to find the palette which allowed characters of many aspects, and presented the chance at getting through the static noise of conformity, or social and racial knee jerk rhetoric, to connect with a diverse audience willing to journey.