Saturday, December 26, 2009

'The Play's the Thing'

Christmas was a busy day. Of all things, I did my laundry, went 'dog parking', went to a meeting, and played guitar last night with Rustin for a couple of hours. I am learning a lot from Rustin, he is an accomplished guitar player. Because I have learned to play guitar 'by ear', it is good for me to play with someone who is a stickler for rhythm and form. I have so many bad playing habits, but still, because I learned a certain way, there are some things I do that are original, confounding other guitar players. Rather than play by counting or tapping, I play to much by feel and memorization. I drive drummers crazy, but to me the songs sound exactly as I want them to. I spent to much time playing guitar by myself, however, the last couple of years I'm learning to 'play with others'. Its difficult to undo what I have been doing for years.

With playwriting, I think I have done the same thing. Not that I didn't listen to my teachers, I just wanted to find my own forms, rhythms, and hybrids. I think it may have taken me longer to find my craft, but as I do find it, there are elements in my personal playwriting that I think, are very original. As I have talked about in other entries, the gathering of material for me tends to be a combination of personal experience, the experience of the sub-conscious mind, and of course, delusions of grandeur. Once the material is gathered through notes and journal entries, I try to write to the end of a very rough draft of a play. From there, the second draft is much the same way, only a form begins to gradually appear. The form is always incomplete from here, but then I go on to the third draft, where I begin the process of 'cutting and adding'. (At this state of the play, I feel it is very important that even though the play may not make complete sense, It has to be entertaining from the opening to the final fading of the lights) In this draft, I try to insert elements that will make the story a little more cohesive, and although I want it to tell a story that's understood, I want it to always have the quality of mystery. How do I know that the play will entertain even though the story may be incomplete? I do this by breaking the play down into its 'beats' (or shortest scenes) and make sure that every single 'beat' has either an element of surprise, movement, entrance or exit, or plot point or twist. (The story of the play may not make complete sense, but I can be 90% sure that the audience will at least pay attention) Finally, I set a production date, find a director, (which is usually Kurt or myself), and go into an intense rehearsal. At this point in the process, the writing becomes much more heightened, as there is a certain kind of pressure that evolves towards the opening of the play. In other words, I have always had to have that pressure to get the writing where it needs to go. There are elements in the rehearsal process that you cannot get sitting in front of your computer. The play must get on its feet, so you can see it and find its movement. I think there are probably playwrights out there who can get a play further than I can without rehearsal, but I need that heightened sense of an impending audience. Some plays are easier to get to than others.

Most of the time, in the first production, I cannot hit a finished play. For example, I wrote the first draft of 'Under the Desert' in 1990. It has had three productions, I directed all three, only because I needed to explore the writing and the visual aspects of the play to evolve it. Because it's a two character play, it was necessary for me to completely dismantle the play after the second production, because the story line didn't always make sense. This was tough, because the play has so many 'mystical' elements, I didn't want to write that out of the text. I was fortunate the first two times, in that I had two wonderful actors, (Jere and Brenda, I won't use their last names) so that I could see the difference as the second production evolved with the same two actors. The third time, I used two different actors, one who had difficulty executing it the way I wanted it. Still, it was enough for me to get it to its next stage. So, think about it, (if mounting one production is not enough) I had to go through it three times to get it to its present state, which I re-wrote again after it was through. I am told that it will be produced in Los Angeles in February, (Although I won't believe it until the theatre company gives me a production date), so, I will re-write one more draft before this production gets under way. Now, not including the time it takes to go through the process of writing the play, (pre-production) there are approx. 100 hours in the actual rehearsal of this play. This does not include all the technical aspects of the production, and with 'Under the Desert', although it can be done in a minimal way, I chose to build an entire three dimensional cave with the second and third production. This was as intense of a set as one can imagine, and took another hundred hours to build. Imagine the energy it takes to do all of this- -three times to get yet another draft of the play! I do love this play, however, know every bit of its 'backstory', and think it's a visual feast of both in the language and story. Still, If you were a literary manager reading through it, you might think, "What the hell is this crazy thing?" As fate would have it, however, an actress/producer got a hold of this play in a very strange way in Los Angeles, and claims that she has never read a play that she connected with so fully. She has told me that she will sell her car to do this play. Then the process becomes worth it. Not because there is any money in the project, but because it will be an opportunity to see it as someone else sees it. So, imagine, the process of this play started in 1990, so that's nineteen years in the making, and still, there is no guarantee that it will get done in LA, and there is no guarantee that it will be liked, (although it is one of my own personal favorites and I think LA will like it).

I think that a play and an ensuing production is one of the most time consuming as any of the art forms. Not only is there the time it takes to process it, it also requires that you work with many people at the same time. This is not easy, especially if there are no guarantees, very little money, and the possibility of having some inane critic slaughter the end result, (thinking they are doing a favor to the world of art). Only the strong or the crazy survive. You've heard its lonely at the top? Its even more lonely at the bottom, but if I could only capture and put in a bottle what an amazing and rich experience it brings, I would be rich indeed! Aaah, but there are other lives to lead, and until I 'get there', this is turning out to be a wonderful one!


Gerry said...

I enjoy reading all the details of how you get a play up, let alone 3 versions of one, but I know every one approaches the art of theater in uniquely different ways, especially in experimental theater when there is hardly any limit to the ideas and effects you can try. I just looked at Rustin's scenes in Austin. So now I am getting a better handle on just exactly where you are. I know that creating in the hours you can free up are a boon to a writer. Not time spent on a job, but time miraculously free of expectations and commitment. That is a gift, which you will come to appreciate more and more the older you get. Then is the time to sift through all the dramas you have lived and see if you can distill them into still another form that will find reders. Never fear that what you find to aay won't be of interest.

Tracee Rohde said...

I think "Under The Desert" is the most magical play I have ever read and the process you have gone through to get to the script that I read just a month ago was absolutely worth it. I would sell my car to put the play up, but unfortunately it wouldn't even pay for Ellie's costume...