Chasing Windmills (a.k.a. “know when to fold ’em)

I recently just gave up. No regrets.

At the start of the new season of the Playwright/Director Unit at the Actors Studio, we were given a writing assignment: create a 10-20 minute play based on a two-word phrase provided by the Unit moderators. The assignment was optional; those who chose to partake could then submit their scripts and have them read in early 2014, and then the best might be produced before the end of the season. I love a good artistic competition, and starting brainstorming ideas. Initially, I had nothing. Weeks went by. Months. Then finally, about a month ago, I had an idea. After letting it percolate for a few days I sat down and wrote a first draft. Took some time away, then revised it. Done!

Only one problem: it wasn’t great. It wasn’t bad; the jokes worked, and it moved along nicely, but the story was flawed. I knew it. My gateway reader (a.k.a. my wife) definitely knew it, and was easy to point it out to me. I pondered rewrites and couldn’t wrap my head around how to fix it. Then I got inspired for a totally new idea based on the initial phrase. I sat down to start again with the new idea, but after a page and a half I had a startling realization: I had already written this play before…as a comedy sketch several years ago. The initial sketch was great, having been produced and performed by two different comedy groups and two different theater companies. My “new” idea was a blatant rip off of that original piece.

So what to do? Rewrite the original piece and hope that the flawed story will be overlooked by the humor of the piece? Or finish the second script, knowing that I would be plagiarizing my 27-year-old self?

I chose door #3: abandon the project.

Hello, my name is Alex G., and I am a quitter.

Quitter

I initially resisted the idea of quitting. After all, the first script isn’t terrible, and with some hard work it might be salvageable. And the second script is a proven winner with four different productions, but no one in my group would know that. And if I do quit, won’t I be frustrated in a few months when I watch scripts by the other writers in my group? Sure, maybe. But is it worth the time? No, not will the other projects I am also currently writing…and in some cases, being paid to write. With a sigh of relief, I slowly backed away from the computer, opened a beer, and reflected on how awesome I was for being self-aware enough to call it a day.

This isn’t the first time I’ve quit a project. Some are just ideas that bubble up, but then vanish into the ether before a word is written. Some have been real time investments: I’ve walked away from multiple  screenplays after writing more than 30 pages, a completed sitcom pilot, and even collaborations with other writers that went on for months before the still incomplete scripts were abandoned.  Do I regret walking away from those projects? If anything, looking back I regret not walking away earlier. Almost all of us have had relationships where we regret not getting out earlier…but do we regret the entire relationship? Not necessarily, because those relationships were learning experiences that hopefully made us better people, and helped us make better choices down the road.

But this isn’t a relationship advice column, unless you want to follow the analogy that I am in a relationship with my script. If so, then fine…I dumped her. She was needy and wrong for me, and it was not a healthy reciprocal relationship. Plus, it was only a brief fling. Farewell, short script, you will not be missed. On to the other projects that deserve my effort and energy…especially the script inspiring the creation of this blog, of course.

FAILURE

One of my other writing projects distracting me from the raison d’etre of this blog is my play Little Black Boxes. This play is a drama about five strangers who all happen to be in the same place at the wrong time. Outside of a casual reading in my apartment, this play had never been heard out loud in public. As a new member of The Actors Studio Playwright/Director Unit, I am allowed to present the first hour of any play. All I need is to connect with a director interested, and then once given a date by the Unit coordinators, the director will cast and rehearse the show. We presented the play this past Monday, the final session of the Unit before it adjourns for the summer.

I can say that this presentation was, to date, the lowest point of my writing career. Worse than rejections from festivals and competitions. Worse than reading the bad reviews that came in minutes apart for my musical Election Day. The absolute worst. It was a failure.

A reading is an experiment. It’s not about presenting a complete, Broadway-ready show. I have watched readings at The Unit that are in varying stages of completion, from near-polished pieces that are ready to be staged, to half-baked thoughts that have no place being read out loud. That said, since this is my first presentation for The Unit, I wanted it to be the best it could be. I found a director who liked the script, and she and I started meeting about it a few months ago. She put together a cast. We rehearsed. But during the rehearsal process, I had a sinking feeling about the script. I was passionate about the subject matter and the characters, but I didn’t know if it was interesting enough. Also, I know the format of the play, which is all monologues without any character interaction, is polarizing in this group, as some members don’t believe it is a proper form of theater. I disagree, but it’s risky to present something that I already know some people will dislike. But I must remain true to the piece.

The reading began, and it felt slow…because it was slow. All the characters speak in monologues and there is no interaction with other characters, so it’s up to the actors to keep the pace going…and the pace died a slow death. I could hear the audience breathe…and possibly snooze. Also, the only real rule about presenting to The Unit is that the excerpt must come in under an hour. We had timed it out to 61 minutes at our last run through, and that was before I made another round of cuts. We’d be fine.

But we weren’t. The pace died and was quickly buried and forgotten about. 20 minutes into the reading I knew we were going to go long. Stuck in the back, I could barely stay in my seat, squirming all the while. Catia, my special guest in attendance (no outsiders allowed, generally) knew, mouthing “pace” to me. The pace. “Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.” I feel ya, MacB. Any other comments, while you are here? “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying Nothing.”

"Is this a mediocre play I see before me?"

“Is this a mediocre play I see before me?”

Harsh. But not far off the mark.

It was slow. And more boring than I feared. And the kiss of death in theater…predictable. I could throw the director and actors under the bus for their transgressions, but in the end the weight and blame has to land squarely on my shoulders. I blew it. And I knew it. And now I had to sit there and take my licks, as time kept slowly ticking. 6o minutes…65 minutes…70 minutes…mercifully, after 73 of the longest minutes of my life, the stage directions reader said “end of selection” as polite applause accompanied the lights coming up. It was over.

I had failed. It was a bad reading.

epic-failure

The group, about 75 people, broke for coffee outside the theater, and to no doubt pre-discuss the slow train wreck they just witnessed. I didn’t have the heart to go out there, staying in my seat in the theater with a very supportive wife who asked if she could do anything (other than quickly and mercifully strangle me, I couldn’t think of anything). Then as people filtered in, I took the stage with my notepad, and waited to be joined by my director and the moderators.

I was surprised to find that the feedback session was much easier to bear. Sure, it was harsh. One moderator asked me “have you ever written a play before?” A fellow playwright commented that she “didn’t like any of the characters at all.” The crowd debated if this was, in fact, theater. But that aside, it was easier for me to sit on stage and take the punches than it was to sit in the audience and watch my play burst into flames and oh, the humanity, burn out. Because the feedback session was other people talking, some positively, about my work…and their words were their opinions and nothing more. The play itself was all me. The feedback session ran longer than most of them, about 45 minutes, and after it a few unit members came up and congratulated me…on keeping my composure. That in itself is a victory.

Yes, I could make the statement that all failures can lead to victory if harnessed correctly. You could tell me that someday I’ll look back on this and be thankful. Well I’m happy to tell you that almost immediately after the feedback session I was thankful, and if that didn’t perk me up, going home and cracking open a bottle of wine did. But even with a little perspective (and more as each day passes) that doesn’t change the fact that I failed. And it was a mess. And awful to sit through. And I wouldn’t wish it on an enemy.

But I’d do it all over again.

Status Report

Another week down, more work done, and more to do. Here’s how I spent the week, in case any reader out there wants to file a report with the productivity police.

I am almost finished with the outline for the script I have been hired to write. The director and I have been working on an outline for a few months, but now it’s my time to polish it, smooth it out, and make it coherent to people other than the two of us. Almost finished is good, but my deadline is tomorrow, so much more work to do.

Because of that, I have not really touched the play that will be presented to The Actors Studio, even though I promised the director I would get her a new draft my June 15th. My priority is on the screenplay right now. However, the changes I want to make are on a low simmer, and I’m thinking about what I need to do, even if I am not doing it yet. That pot should be boiling over by the time I wrap up the outline tomorrow, so I’ll be more than ready to dive in and make changes.

So that leaves the screenplay for the movie that this blog is supposed to be about. As I predicted last week I will be pushing work on that a few weeks, but certainly not abandoning it. So much to do, so little time.

Okay, here’s the truth…

So I have been lying to you.

Want to get it out there, right from the beginning of this post. It’s not a huge hypocritical event, like Eliot Spitzer simultaneously prosecuting hookers while spending time with hookers, but it is a lie nonetheless. So here goes:

In the past few weeks I have not done a single revision to the script.

Spitzer

I’ve claimed in previous posts that “I’m going over my script” and “I’m back in. Ready to work. Opening the file.” Lies.

Wait, don’t click off this page! I can explain! Really! Don’t go!

I have the best excuse in the world for not working on this script:

Because I’m working on other scripts. Two, to be precise. It’s time to be open about my writing habit…I’ve been seeing other scripts.

I have found out over the years that I can work on two scripts simultaneously, as long as I separate the time between them. I have often worked on a script in the morning, then after a lengthy break of working out, lunch, meetings (or sitting on the couch watching the new season of Arrested Development) I can sit down on an entirely different project without mixing the broths. Once I figured that out, I was able to make it a good habit: one script in the morning, another in the afternoon and evening. And I have two very good reasons why these two scripts are taking precedence:

1. Money. Yep, that’s right. Someone is paying me to write a script. And as anyone in this business (umm…any business) knows, a money job takes priority over a non-money job. The contract has been signed, days have been spent working on the outline, and script writing begins very soon. There is a timetable, a great story, and momentum. And, lest you already forgot the beginning of this paragraph, money.

2. A deadline. I am a new member of The Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit, and I have received a date for a reading of one of my new plays: July 15th. I have a director. She is assembling a cast. And I have a deadline: by June 15th revisions need to be finished. While I will likely continue to revise up until the reading, at the very least I need to give the director and actors a script that I am confident to present, and I’m almost there.

This post isn’t a complaint about working. It’s not a humblebrag. It’s just me telling the world that I have been lying about working on the reason for this blog’s existence, and I will need a few more weeks off before I can jump in.

I will not be taking a hiatus from this blog. Forward progression continues, as my writing constantly gets better the more I do, so this particular project will improve as well, right? At least, that’s what I believe. So keep coming back here, and I’ll keep updating.

And hopefully, but the third week of June, I’ll be an honest man again.

Until then, consider this a working vacation.

Spitzer 2

Catherine the Great, Community Theater, child pornography, and the Congo

Full disclosure: this post has very little to do with anything listed in the title. I was going to call this post “Learning while Observing” but that title makes me want to yawn. That said, I’m not outright lying to you. The elements in the title are all here.

I was fortunate to spend last week as an audience member, nearly full time. I saw two readings and two full productions. I am going to go against instinct, which would be to critique each show, but rather I will discuss what I learned from each piece specifically and how it will help me in my writing. There is far too much critique out there, anyway, and most of those doing the critiquing are more qualified to do so than I am. Plus, since the two readings are in progress, a critique is extremely premature. It’s like calling a baby fat because the expectant mother is showing more weight than normal in her second trimester.

Monday night: The Actors Studio West’s weekly reading series. As a member of the playwright/director unit I attend weekly readings and critique session. Playwrights are allowed to present an hour of their script, then after a break for coffee, water and occasionally cookies, we reconvene for the critique. They are generally rowdy events, with people not holding back on their opinions. This particular night the play was difficult to digest. Basically, a number of historical figures convene at the end of the world to discuss the decline of civilization. Moses, Joan of Arc and Catherine the Great (I told you I wasn’t lying about incorporating the title) among others gather at the behest of some unknown host (other than his name Jes, we know nothing about him) and talk, talk, talk.

Catherine has a lot to say

Catherine has a lot to say

The conversations are heady. The post-reading discussion debated if this is even a play. Whether it is or is not is irrelevant to me, but the lesson is very important. LESSON LEARNED: Film, plays, TV all revolve around conflict. If there is no conflict, there is no story. Also, always have cookies.

Wednesday night: I attended a table read of a friend’s new web series. She and her writing partners are proven funny people, and they had written the entire series, ten episodes ranging from 4 to 7 minutes long. This was a laid back event in a beautiful house in Sherman Oaks overlooking the Valley, and there was plenty of wine and food which make any reading better. The scripts were about a community theater gearing up for a new production, and had a good story, good characters, and was very funny. This was a private table read, so it was all about assistance in improving the script, which will remain private. They have work to do, but the ideas are all there and they are off to a great start. LESSON LEARNED: when dealing with comedy, details are extremely important. Jokes that are general will not land as well. Also, when you don’t have cookies, wine will do nicely.

Thursday night: My friend John and I went to The Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City and saw the excellent play The Nether by Jennifer Haley. A biting look at a near future where everyone spends most of their time in a virtual world.

Adam Haas Hunter (as Woodnut) and Brighid Fleming (as Iris) are wonderfully creepy in Jennifer Haley's play.

Adam Haas Hunter (as Woodnut) and Brighid Fleming (as Iris) are wonderfully creepy.

The idea is not shocking or new (the idea wasn’t new when we all took the red pill in The Matrix) but what captivated me was the condensed world we were viewing. Focusing on just a few people allowed us to view the world as a whole without getting caught up in an epic story. Just a few people, their lives, and some dabbling in child pornography. LESSON LEARNED: Okay, when dealing with everything, details are important. Also, never forget visual imagery.   The way a young girl gently and briefly caressed the arm of her older companion was shocking, disturbing and only lasted a split second. But truly moving. Also, don’t eat too heavily before watching a play about child pornography.

Saturday night: Catia and I returned to Culver City (a theatrical mecca in L.A.?) for Heart of Darkness, a one-man interpretation of the famed Joseph Conrad story, at The Actors’ Gang. For much of the 90 minutes I was fidgety and impatient. The actor was certainly capable, and there was great source material and a great story. The audience was into it. But by the time Marlow goes up the Congo I was already checking my watch. So what went wrong for me? It took a few days to figure it out, but it was the nature of the show itself. While it may have remained true to the book, I wasn’t fully engaged. The actor played a number of characters capably, but his protagonist was a nearly passive observer. LESSON LEARNED: Character growth is as important as story development.

It was a pleasure to get out of my head and away from my own story, and witness visual storytelling. Seeing the end result as an audience member allows me to add an outside prospective to my own work. How will an audience view this? Will they be engaged? And if not, will there be cookies or wine?

The only two words a writer needs to know

Another week. 57 pages in the vault. Still aiming for my arbitrary March 15th deadline.

I never get writers block (and by never, I mean rarely, I don’t want to jinx myself). When a script is outlined properly or the characters are strong enough, there is always something to do or say. Another great way to keep the block at bay is to make a point to see creative work. It could be in or out of my discipline: live theater, movies, art museums. The catch is that I have to make an effort to go see it. There is plenty of amazing quality and artistically exciting work on television (I am currently juggling season one of Game of Thrones and season two of Homeland) but it takes no effort to sit on the couch and watch TV. Going somewhere makes it an experience, and that shared experience with others keeps you more engaged.

I had two experiences this week that led to the title of this post. Last night I attended my first meeting as a member of The Actors Studio Playwright/Director Unit. Member requirements in the Unit are simple: (1) show up to once a week staged readings by other members, (2) take a break for coffee, (3) return and critique the work. Then, when you are ready, present your work. The critique last night was rousing to say the least. Opinions flew, inappropriate stories were shared (inappropriate mostly because they were completely unrelated to the play on display), and disagreements were vehemently shouted at each other while the playwright observed like a tennis fan. While some of the critique was unhelpful (and occasionally downright wrong) I walked away with a reminder of a valuable lesson. One word which should drive all creative writing:

CONFLICT

The play seemed a bit slow at times, and one of the other members of the unit pointed out a simple detail the writer either overlooked: there needs to be more conflict, and more conflict earlier in the script. There were very compelling characters, and the story was relevant and one that I have not seen explored, but it felt slow because the conflict was either not there, or buried under the surface.

We enjoy stories that have a conflict.

The other word stems from a trip we took this past week to Disneyland with our niece. Gabi is two and a half. She loves Minnie Mouse. That afternoon she got to meet her idol:

Gabi and Minnie

This has nothing to do with this blog post, but it’s freaking adorable.

What is relevant is that we got to see the parade down Main Street U.S.A. We were lucky to catch it, as it probably only happens seventy times a day. If you haven’t been to a Disney park (then you are evil) allow me to set the stage: Main Street U.S.A., clogged with olde tymie shops selling new tymie, modern pricey Disney memorabilia. The cobblestone street is shut down as a Mardi Gras style parade (with 100% less boobs) proceeds down the street. Most Disney characters get their own float. There’s an Aladdin float, a Little Mermaid float, a Mary Poppins float, and many of the princesses are relegated to one float, sort of like a greatest hits mix CD. They dance, they sing (lip synch) and they wave to the crowd. And the crowd LOVES it. It’s hard not to love it, unless you are legally dead. It’s an exuberant display of joy. It’s pure ENTERTAINMENT.

And that got me thinking. Standing there, waving at the Lion King, I was reminded that whenever I am writing a script, no matter how personal, small in size, or small in genre it is, it has to be entertaining. Not necessarily as broad as a parade down Main Street U.S.A., but at it’s core, has to entertain one very important person:

Me.

If I am not entertaining myself in the story, then how can I expect to entertain others? If I can’t write a script without saying “I’d watch that movie” then there is no way I can get others on board. Even so-called high art, whether it’s an all black painting on a wall or making eye contact with Marina Abramovic, is all a form of entertainment. If people are going to congregate in a room and stare at something, you have to give them something thought provoking to see.

These are very important words to keep in mind while I am at this stage of the writing process. Is there conflict? Is it entertaining? Everything else comes later.