Higher Education: What’s In A Name

Barbara Jwanouskos is back and better than before.

I am now back in the Bay Area and I am now done with school. So, this blog needs a new name. Over the past year, I’ve tried to describe my experiences as a theater artist in school and what some of the challenges that come up have sparked moments of learning and understanding.

I have mixed feelings about school. On the one hand, I love learning in a formalized classroom with peers and with the mentorship of an instructor. And on the other hand, I feel like some of the lessons that have been most imprinted upon me have been from experiences of navigating through the real world. Maybe the name for this blog series, then, should reflect the ways in which learning is a process that never ends.

As a writer, I know that a well-written title lends weight to a piece and helps to suggest what an audience member might experience. But man, coming up with titles for things is hard…

Some people have a knack for it, like Madeline George’s “The (curious case of the) Watson Intelligence”. Not only is this an intriguing title for a play, but it also just looks cool with those parentheses. Plus, “curious” and “intelligence” are fun sounding words that imply mystery, secrets, and power structures. Then there are titles where you sort of scratch your head and say, “why the hell is it called that?”

Perhaps a good title should be a stand-in metaphor for what the thing is going to be about. I’m totally jealous of Marissa Skudlarek’s blog title, “Hi-Ho: The Glamorous Life” because it’s clever and implies what Marissa likes to write about as well as her personality – and it has an allusion to Sondheim. I’m hoping for a smidge of that in something of my own.

I also sort of subscribe to what Blake Snyder (author of the Save the Cat! screenwriting books) has to say about titles, which is that it’s the one piece of marketing for your play that *potentially* may not change. You really have an opportunity to draw people in with an engaging title.

Ahhh! The pressure!

Well, in the meantime, I’ll be making a never ending list of possible titles and hopefully I’ll be able to come up with a brilliant one by the next time this blog series rolls around.

Til then…

Feel free to add your suggestions too! The more, the merrier.

Higher Education: The Battle Royale – Creative Vs. Critic

Barbara Jwanouskos on a Saturday… because now that school’s out, it’s always Saturday. Plus we just plain forgot to run her column yesterday.

Grades were due today for my graduating students so it was a scramble to the finish line as always as I read seven 41-60 page plays that served as the culmination of their work in my Advanced Playwriting class. It’s interesting reflecting on the structure of that class and thinking to myself, what I would do if given another chance to teach this course? And, what would I, as a student taking this class, want to get out of it?

I read an interesting article by Mike DiMartino, one of the co-creators and executive producers of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “The Legend of Korra” – both fantastic shows that I’m captivated by. DiMartino talks about elements of story and creativity on his blog. The subject most recently was on “Your Inner Creative vs. Your Inner Critic”. The idea being that the creative side of building a new project is freeform, loose, and expansive in its ideas whereas the critical side shapes, orders, and prioritizes what should take precedence. DiMartino points out that both are needed in order to create something, but that too much will kill a project. He then poses the questions:

In your life and work (whatever you consider your work to be), do you tend to be more creative or critical? Is there a way to bring more of one or the other into your process?

I thought about teaching Advanced Playwriting because as I grade I see the creative, but respond with the critical. As I read, I’m thinking about what is it that is still unclear in the script? Did a something that was set-up pay off reasonably well? And do I ever get lost in the story – in a good way – where I’m simply enjoying how the events unfold before me?

It’s interesting to read my students’ writing and then also to look over their feedback on the course evaluations. I asked if given more time, what would you like to have gone over in depth? Many of the respondents said that they would have liked to learn more about types of story structures, which is really interesting. In class, we spent a lot of time doing generative exercises that in my mind were core to what I felt I could offer people who wanted to take their writing to another level. It can be hard sometimes to get out of a prescribed way of thinking of things. As a student learning a new skill, I like to play with my new toys a bit and get comfortable using them before I’m ready to start learning the nuts and bolts of why they work the way they do, but everyone is different.

I was fortunate enough to have intelligent, engaging students who all have a talent for writing. Earlier today, when I told someone that I’m graduating on Sunday, she observed that Carnegie Mellon is odd in that it is well known for its technology programs as well as its entertainment/arts programs. The two are usually very disparate at other schools. Part of me wonders whether the students’ want for a more academic, structured approach added to a future rendition of this class was out of our desire to satiate the critical side of ourselves with rules and order that make sense. I can understand and appreciate that desire, but I also wonder if having the lexicon of lots of different creative tricks arms them for times when writer’s block looms.

There’s a part of me that can’t really say which one may be “right” because its imbedded in how I approach art and frankly, life in general. If the class is about the creation process as a whole, then maybe there is no real beginning or end. The “final” play that they submitted, in many ways is a first or second draft for many of them. I had no designs that in an elective course that I’d be able to do much more than that, but I did want them all to push towards finishing at least a couple of projects.

For me, the battle between the critic and the creative are really more of a conversation. The creative side starts it off, then the critic molds what is most interesting, then the creative fleshes it out, the critic refines and so on. I don’t think the two need to be adversarial, but they both have distinct functions that are both needed to ultimately get to the finished product.

When talking about ways to bring one side into the other, I think that’s where you end up having to play little games with yourself in order to progress. For instance, when wrapped up in idea generation, it can be easy to become expansive to where you’re somehow completely off the map, but that’s when you bring that critical side in with the map that limits where it is that you can go.

For DiMartino and “Legend of Korra”, the writers are working within the framework of the show and characters that have been established, which is helpful in reducing down the amount of ideas that are viable. One of my favorite writing exercises is simply a free write of whatever comes to mind – Julie Cameron calls it “Morning Pages”, Naomi Iizuka calls it “swimming”, others call it “free association writing”. There are variations, but you basically write whatever pops in your head continuously – stories, character ideas, to do lists, feelings, etc. The trick is that it’s timed and most instructors I know encourage their students to set aside that writing for a couple of days or weeks (or forever) before looking at it again.

In terms of putting the creative into the critical, it’s doing just the opposite – it’s looking at a limit or a barrier and finding a way to subvert it. Another favorite writing exercise Rob Handel likes to give us, is to write the play that you hate. I’ve heard variations on this with regard to scenes, “write what wouldn’t happen next”. For me, this exercise responds to the brain’s attempt to shut down the creative and start evaluating, “well, this wouldn’t happen, he doesn’t even have a horse to get to the next town over. He hates horses!” Then, it turns it into a tool to be used and ultimately it might reveal something interesting. Perhaps a new relationship or a more interesting conflict. Who knows!

Oscillating between the creative and critical side is ultimately what helps us find an end point, whether temporary or permanent. It’s all part of the process that cycles through birth to death to rebirth over and over again.

What other tricks or exercises do you use in your creative or critical processes? Share with us! Because sharing means caring. 😉

Higher Education: School’s Out Forever

Barbara Jwanouskos finishes up an important chapter.

Today is my last day of classes and the last official day of the Dramatic Writing program here at CMU. After this, the graduating class of writers flies out to LA to meet with industry professionals, then back to Pittsburgh for commencement, to New York for more meetings with industry professionals, and then we return to Pittsburgh to get things in order. Then, we leave.

It’s a bittersweet moment where I can’t help but be nostalgic, nervous and excited all at the same time. I went into this program because I wanted to radically improve my craft, and it’s happened, but part of me feels like I’m just barely scratching the surface. There is still so much out there to learn and so many opportunities to grow further. Though my official academic stint is coming to an end, it’s cliché but it’s true, now is when the real learning begins. When does the learning process ever stop after all? Now’s the time to apply all of what I’ve learned here while also trying to make sure that I’m still finding opportunities for production, development, and inspiration.

It can be daunting to stand at the precipice of any big change in your life. Part of us thinks, “well, maybe I could have done more…” Over the last couple of months, my goal has been to make it to the end strong. Now I’m here and I’ve been reflecting over the times where I made mistakes, where maybe I could have gone further. One of the most difficult challenges for me in this moment is recognizing the good work that I’ve done over the past two years and acknowledging that it is worth of celebration. I haven’t come to a solution that instantly takes all the feelings away, but what I have come to is that I can feel proud of my accomplishments, while simultaneously recognizing that there are so many people, places, things, experiences, and memories I am saying goodbye to.

As artists we deal with loss on a continual basis. We work in a collaborative medium that asks us to build relationships with other people and create events that inspire a connection from others still. In the process of creation we need to be able to trust one another and lean into vulnerability. We start to understand the people around us in better ways. And sure, maybe we have our disagreements or our spats, but having this collaborative atmosphere is wonderful because everyone brings so much to the table. Then, when it ends we part ways and go onto other projects. And that’s just the nature of it.

A couple guest artists came recently and spoke to the School of Drama students. What struck me was how they anticipate these feelings and adjust their own artistic schedules and interests to make the transition times easier. Andrea Thome, a playwright, came recently and we talked a bit about her process of collaboration and of making art. She said that she gains a lot of energy by collaboration and so she’s always trying to meet and talk to new people to start new work. Alan Alda said something similar. He told us in a talkback session that as artists it was very important to have interests in something other than just acting (or writing, directing, etc.). He said it was important to have interests in other things because it helps feed you during the times when one project might be over and another isn’t in sight.

Their words of wisdom resonated with me as I try and think what is my next thing? What is on the horizon for me? What are the things I care about and want to develop further? Instantly, my mind is flooded with images of sprinklings of new plays, people I want to re-connect with once I return to the Bay Area (that’s right, I’m coming back!!), my loved ones who I’ve been separated from for so long, and all the other inspiring pieces of life I can’t wait to engage with. Then, I remember the other side of a goodbye and the other side of loss, and that is the beginning that is waiting to happening.

Higher Education: Meeting the Fear Barrier

Barbara Jwanouskos ponders when and why we push ourselves.

Interestingly enough, Howlround posted an article on two theater artists’ journey to create a new play about female boxers this week right as I am also working on a new play with a female martial artist as the protagonist. I found myself relating on many levels as they talked about what it was like to box, what stories from real life to bring into the rehearsal room, and how exactly the story should be told.

When Suli Holum (of Pig Iron Theatre Company) described her experience working with her boxing trainer and being ashamed of crying in front of him, I thought of the times in both training in martial arts and in working on a new play where the same thing has happened. Holum says:

I had to overcome my aversion—which manifested as a wave of nausea—at throwing a right hook to my trainer’s head. And finally I had to be willing to move towards risk, to lean into fear. To box is to be vulnerable, radically vulnerable—it’s an intimate agreement made between two people to push each other to their very limits. It reminds me of acting, until I get punched and then I remember the difference.

I’ve been writing and thinking a lot lately on the need to push yourself. When you spar with someone, there is no way that you cannot address the fear of getting hurt and also hurting someone. As Holum describes, it’s this weird contract you make with your partner that you will hurt one another physically in order to be ready to defend yourself if that ever is called upon. I absolutely can see how to people who don’t train in martial arts or fighting skills, the idea of this is completely masochistic and insane.

The truth is, I am not a violent person. In fact, I find it to be one of the most all-consuming upsetting things about the world we live in. And while I may have fun as I playfully spar with my trusted friends in kung fu classes, there is a difference between that and real violence. Because ultimately both a sparring session and a play are pretend. For the survivors of physical and emotional violence, I think is essential to acknowledge this important distinction because real violence is never agreed upon by both parties.

Like Holum, I find the connection between training to fight and in creating theater. When we put an event on the stage, just like when we square up with our training partners to spar, we have a contract with our audience and ultimately that is an implicit promise that they will get something out of sitting there for an hour or two. The audience trusts that this is going to happen (whether it does is another thing entirely). Everything in theater requires a kind of vulnerability that is so difficult to bear sometimes.

Artwork by Annie Yokom, part of the cast of "The Imaginary Opponent"

Artwork by Annie Yokom, part of the cast of “The Imaginary Opponent”

As I head into the last week of rehearsals for my thesis play, “The Imaginary Opponent”, I have to remember not to beat myself up for the times when my own fears have pierced through and caused me to express emotions in a way that I am not usually comfortable doing. This vulnerability of showing something that you’ve created, worked long hours on, and struggled time and time again to understand is why I think we need to be confident, but also humble as artists, as Ashley Cowan grappled with in her article for this week, “A Confidence Question”.

The humbleness, for me, comes from acknowledging that there is intense fear in putting an event on stage, because you never know what is going to happen and how people will react. The confidence goes back to pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. To me, it’s recognizing that “this is something I’m afraid of and uncomfortable with” but still gently telling yourself that whatever happens, it will ultimately be okay. Good, bad, success, failure… it’s all relative. But at some point, it has to be done. A choice has to be made about whether you will continue forward or not – like an on/off switch.

In martial arts we train a fighting technique over and over so that once we spar we can address the attack from our partners. The repetition of it becomes routine. It becomes easier to stay relaxed and not freeze up once the attack comes, and then we learn that we can react quickly in the moment. It’s the repetition that builds up our confidence with squaring up against our training partners. We do the same thing in theater. We rehearse a play over and over again so that it becomes routine. Every move, look, word and feeling is mapped out. We bring in people to watch us during the process so that an audience feels routine. Everything we do helps us feel more comfortable and more confident for the actual performance.

For me, the repetition proves to me that it’s okay to be vulnerable because whatever I’m afraid of, I can handle. It absolutely is a privilege to get to that state and I am consistently impressed by the people around me who demonstrate this quality with fears and experiences much greater than mine. It’s inspiring that I too can meet my fear barrier and, yes, take a foot across.

Higher Education: Grappling for Writers

Barbara Jwanouskos, working on keeping up.

So, last week I talked about the benefits of pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone. And I guess I’m still having feelings about that, so I thought I’d wrestle with them a bit more in this article.

This is the second week of New Works rehearsals where a couple of my fellow Dramatic Writing candidates and I are now seeing these thesis plays launch off the page. It’s been such an interesting process so far. My thesis play is called “The Imaginary Opponent” and deals with how a kung fu school’s community responds when violence breaks out between its students. So, obviously, there’s a lot of martial arts in it and also stage combat/violence.

I’m working with MFA Directing candidate, Quin Gordon, who has stressed from the beginning that because the physicality of the play, it’s important that the we engage in physical activities like running, kung fu and tai chi. Folks who read the Theater Pub blog frequently probably already know that I train in these martial arts disciplines, so that aspect of it, is not a problem. Running, however, is a whole different mental battle.

I’m an active person, but I’ve never been a great runner. When we go out as a group, I am huffing and puffing away, while the others zoom up ahead.

Wait for me, guys!

Wait for me, guys!

My stress over running doesn’t come from a physical standpoint, I get out of breath, but other than that, it doesn’t hurt me to run. In fact, it feels surprisingly great! And it’s not over being competitive. I mean come on, these guys are in their early 20s and are active from sun up to beyond sun down. There’s no need to compete. I’m just happy that I can even DO the route we do.

I think it comes from a place of feeling as if I should be able to do more. AHHH! But there, you see? It’s this whole ego perception thing because I know I’m working hard. I am trying my best. Maybe it’s easily bested by others, but it really is no big deal in the long run because probably the only thing I should be doing is what I already am minus the mental self-flagellation.

I could swim faster if we weren't on land!

I could swim faster if we weren’t on land!

I thought of the mental battle I’m having with running today while in a playwriting workshop with guest artist, Madeleine George. We were doing a lot of intellectual and creative writing/story generation exercises that gave me the same uncomfortable feeling at points that running does. I’d think, “Oh, I can’t write that down, that doesn’t make sense!” And yet, one of the things Madeleine wanted us to work with is not censoring ourselves.

I even feel fairly good at this when it comes to writing. It’s part of how I understand my process. I’ve built it into the way I teach playwriting to undergraduates. My first drafts are messy and don’t really make sense and have way too much stuff in them. But I can let the writing just pour out of me. I’ve been struggling with this a bit more this week however. I spent so long trying to write something new to bring to workshop on Monday, and that really came out was a bunch of non-plays and non-scenes and then about 16 pages of something new.

So, Madeleine’s exercise took a bit of mental grappling for me to stick to task. I found myself asking questions that I would know the answer to had I been leading others in writing. In the moment, I started to feel self-doubt creeping up on me. All the questions really centered around self-consciousness.

Am I doing it right?

Yep. There’s no wrong way.

The more that I pushed myself to keep going with the writing exercises, you could feel things changing and growing. That’s what I’m starting to really dig about running. For me, there are a lot of moments where I feel physically uncomfortable, but ultimately, I get into a groove while I’m doing it, and things just start to flow. It’s the same with writing by working with ideas and strategies beyond my comfort level. I come across pieces of my brain I never knew about.

And that can sometimes be really beautiful.

Where will this path lead?

Where will this path lead?

Higher Education: A Sense of Finality

Barbara Jwanouskos is approaching the end.

Thursday at 11:59 PM marked the submission of our screenplays to the Sloan Foundation competition. It’s the culmination of about eight hardcore months of training, polishing, and crafting scripts that take on a science or technology component and explore it dramatically. And while I am so glad to be able to put this aside for now (even though I’m still at my computer, still writing…) I can’t but help feeling a bit nostalgic and sad that this part of my time here is coming to an end.

Earlier in the week, the three other second year dramatic writers in my program (Laci Corridor, Jonah Eisenstock and Josh Ginsburg) and I all went to get our caps and gowns for the commencement ceremony in May. We met with the design and production team for our thesis plays, which begin rehearsal next week. More and more it feels like we’re checking things off the list and counting down til… DUN DUN DUN!

We actually have to leave school.

Gasp!

Don’t get me wrong. One of the reasons I chose this program was because it promised that you’d be out in two years. I said, “well that’s for me! I need to be back in the real world!” I was looking forward to working hard in school, honing my craft, and then getting back to the Bay Area to keep on working on new plays already! At the time, it sounded easy to do, but now, with everything coming to an end, I’m finding it difficult to not get swept with emotion over Every. Little. Thing.

Just like everything in life, we have to come to terms with the fact that, yes, things do end. We move on. People move on. The world changes, shifts, grows and deteriorates. It can be hard not to treat everything as precious when you see that end point in sight. That’s what I’m trying not to do right now, but it is hard.

Maybe it comes back to managing your expectations about a particular outcome. As if suddenly, once I’m done with this program this magical spark will be endowed upon me and I will be A WRITER. Like all caps, even. I think it’s helpful to look back and see how far you’ve come, but the end hasn’t ended yet, so there’s still more pushing to do before it’s over. That’s where some really key growth can happen.

I was doing all this google-fu the other day as per usual because I had to make a decision about whether to push myself to write more even though I was tired or if I should just recuperate and start fresh the next day. And somewhere in hopping from page to page in trying to find the answer I wanted (go to bed), I read an interesting perspective. That sometimes when you give up or stop when it gets really hard and you don’t think you can go on, you’re missing out on some a breakthroughs that can develop.

Certainly I have experienced that. I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t pushed hard in many ways. It comes up a lot for me in a visceral sense when practicing martial arts. There’s this whole idea I’ve been working with lately of not being afraid to get punched hard and not being afraid to punch hard. What’s interesting is that it’s actually currently harder for me to dish it out than to take it. At least from a psychological fear perspective. But in this type of training, even just stepping an inch beyond your comfort zone is a dramatic shift because it moves your fear barrier out one inch. Slowly it grows and grows.

I’m almost on the other side of the bridge and I have a moment now to look back at where I’ve came and to look at the surroundings. I don’t exactly know what the end point is or what that looks like and what my life will be like once I reach it. For now, I’m just taking stock in the passing scenery and trying to value it for what it’s worth. Then, it’s on to keep pushing.

Higher Education: Win Some Lose Some

This has been an incredible week over in the halls of Purnell. Very affirming, in many ways, but also it feels as if a door (or doors) are opening. Maybe it’s because the snow is melting a bit more (though the corner business has up twinkly x-mas lights again) or maybe a piece of learning is turning into understanding…

Cue the orchestra for me to now express myself in song.

Does Bette Midler ever need a caption? No.

Does Bette Midler ever need a caption? No.

*Ahem*

It can be tiring to try to progress as an artist. Some days it feels like nothing is working. I could totally relate to Claire Rice’s efforts to break through her writer’s block. These whole last couple of weeks has been like pulling teeth with regards to writing. I’m working on three huge projects: a full-length screenplay about hackers, my thesis play exploring violence at a kung fu studio, and a new play that’s a family drama intercepted by a has-been motivational speaker.

All three things have very real deadlines. Time is running out. I can no longer dilly-dally. Every time I sit down to write, I think, “these pages have to matter”.

omg_hamster copy

But you know what? Sometimes the only reason they matter is because you directing your energy into the projects you’re working on.

And it’s hard. I know it’s hard. It’s hard to come up with ideas. It’s hard to execute the ideas well. It’s hard to bring people together to hear your shitty ideas. It’s hard to be told your ideas are shitty. It’s hard to go back to your ideas and incorporate “feedback”. It’s hard to rally the troops once more (for between one and forever years), hear more feedback. Rinse, repeat. And then it’s hard to get people together to make your shitty idea a reality. And to get the money to do so. And for the performance to come out well. And to get people to come see it. And understand it. And hope they actually like it. And by extension you.

And feelings.

My play makes me feel all of this!

My play makes me feel all of this!

It’s like they say, “if it were easy, everyone would do it”. We don’t get paid well a lot of the times. Or at all. Or sometimes we end up paying in order to pursue our artistic passions. A lot. But if we were in it purely for the money, wouldn’t it just be easier to do something that actually gives us more of a “return on our investment”?

Guys! I’m sure you all know, but you will never make the money back that you put in to pursuing a life in the theater. So, that means you do it cuz you love it. And love is a hard thing. Sometimes, you know… love hurts. It’s sort of like art-being-hard is a person continually punching you in the face and after a while you’re thinking, “any time you want to stop would be just peachy”.

I am just as cynical as the next person and that’s why any win I get, I stick to like a needy cat covered in caramel sauce.

Don't ever leave me, wall!

Don’t ever leave me, wall!

This week’s wins all concerned validation. A guest artist from the land of TV, Aurorae Khoo, gave me a great compliment that since last year, my visual writing had dramatically improved (just the kind of improvement you hope for in a Dramatic Writing program…). My instructor, Rob Handel, came as a guest speaker to the Advanced Playwriting class because I had assigned them “A Maze” to read (three more chances to check it out!) and gave us some great advice about focusing on specificity in our writing. And my one-act play, “Sad Karaoke”, was performed in the Theater Lab class today and was so exciting to see on it’s feet (yay to my director, Kyle Wilson, and cast, Cameron Spencer, Veladya Chapman and Erron Crawford!!!).

And as great as all these wins were, there’s still work to do. Compliments don’t win competitions. I’m not trying to compete with anyone else necessarily. It’s more like being in competition with myself. Is this work I can be proud of? Did I spend my day focusing on the things I really needed to focus on? Am I taking active steps towards personal and artistic growth.

Absolutely.

But that is also still the case even when I feel as though I’ve experienced multiple loses. Maybe I got passed up for an opportunity, perhaps I was slighted, perhaps people didn’t understand what my play was about, whatever. At the end of the day, who cares? I guarantee as the person experiencing the loss or win, you feel it more than anyone else. And the sooner we get over our losses AND our wins, the sooner we can get back to work and keep at it.

No one has reached perfection, which can sound depressing, but it’s actually affirming, because if we do it because we love it, that means we can still keep doing it because “it” isn’t done yet. Nothing ever really is.

I firmly believe that you have to be in perpetual motion in order to succeed. It doesn’t matter how much, just that it’s happening.

Good luck to you (and may the odds be ever in your favor).

game_over