The Real World – Theater Edition: Imagination as Power

The other day I had the good fortune to join local playwright, Veronica Tjioe, in being interviewed by Jovelyn Richards on her radio program, Jovelyn’s Bistro. We talked about the SF Olympians Festival and the plays we were writing as a part of it. I had a fantastic time being a part of the conversation, which you’ll be able to check out on KPFA’s website, under the Cover to Cover archives.

One of Jovelyn’s questions really got me thinking about our role as writers and creators and the power we have to invent new worlds, new language, new characters, relationships, and modes of being. I’m paraphrasing, but she asked our thoughts on the importance of inventing new language and constructing new narratives in order to respond to what we’re not seeing represented. If I could underline, highlight, put in bold, and make 64 font anything, it’d be this idea. And the heart of it, for me, is within the question Jovelyn asked.

As writers (but honestly this could span to the other roles we play as well), it’s more than just the recognition that we have this ability to see and imagine new worlds and possibilities — I would say we have a responsibility to promote and enact them to the fullest of our capacity. And — good news! — if you are creating, dreaming, and envisioning, you are already doing that. Here’s one step further, if you have articulated this vision to another person or written the idea down, you are already working towards implementation. This is a huge step closer to seeing a new possibility as a reality and creating it.

When I started writing plays some of it was a response to things about the world that I found more nuanced than what the mainstream version of that idea was. I see these unspoken rules that are often hypocritical, yet we’re expected to live by them. For instance, with one of the first full length plays I wrote, It’s All in the Mix, I really just wanted to create a play about DJs because I wanted to see that on stage. Rob Handel of CMU would often tell us to write the play you would go see. But in this world I was seeing these rules and ideas that tended to collide and overpower each other.

Everyone can be a DJ if you learn how and pursue it with passion and skill.

Skill and technique talks.

Okay, well, what about women are they good DJs?

I feel like all I hear is no, but I’m a woman and I like DJing so am I doomed to being bad?

Oh, I saw this DJ who’s a woman and she was really good!

But other male friends didn’t think so? Can’t articulate why?

I don’t get it.

For me in this instance, it starts with this feeling like something I’m experiencing isn’t being represented, or is minimized, shut down, and ignored. So I want to test if this is true. I started with using plays in order to see the characters relate to each other and how it unraveled. I’m using gender in this example, but this extends into race, ethnicity, income level, backgrounds and abilities of all types, who you love, what you look like, how you live your life, and what you believe. There is so much out there beyond what has become a standard for a protagonist or story. We just need to create it and if people aren’t going to make it – then we need to help each other make it.

I think now I’m in a different space with writing – I see gaps in what characters or stories the entertainment world and I’m looking to fill that gap if I can. And if I can’t, I want to support someone (or multiple people!) who can. It starts with the recognition that I can do something. One of my gifts may be writing or storytelling. Others have other gifts or other ways they express those gifts. We can all learn so much from each other as we continue to imagine different worlds than what we’re seeing and support each other in making them real.

Barbara Jwanouskos is a local writer. Blog’s over here. THANATOS, the play she is writing with Julie Jigour and directed by Christine Keating, is being read on October 15 at EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.

Incidentally, if you want to put that imagination into practice – check out the SF Olympians Festival’s call for submissions! The Real World – Theater Edition: Imagination as Power

The Real World – Theater Edition: Back to School! An Interview with Rob Handel

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews a former mentor about the rules of playwrighting.

September (and, over time, August too) are, of course, synonymous with heading back to school. With that idea in mind, when thinking of the next playwright to interview, I had to return to one of my mentors from Carnegie Mellon University, Rob Handel, to check up on how he’s viewing theater and playwriting these days.

It’s fitting that this month for Theater Pub ended up being sort of “break the rules” themed, because initially what was on my mind was a conversation Rob and I had back in April about teaching and how strange it was that you often make these initial “rules” or “principles” to guide a newbie student in the right direction, but over time you start to realize that rules are not needed at all in order to make a great play.

Of course, at CMU, when we’d have workshop, invariably we received feedback from Rob that quoted one of The Rules. Some of us politely nodded, others vehemently defended the opposite position and maybe others played devil’s advocate while the rest of us shrank lower in our seats, fearing being asked to take a side. Clearly, they were a hot topic for the students, but over time, I keep on making more sense of them, and at the same time, there are plenty of great plays that are notable exceptions.

So, in this interview, you’ll get to read as I put Rob to task on what his rules are, why they are, and also – what I thought was interesting, is Rob’s response when I asked if I could ask him about The Rules. He said, “Sure, but I’m actually re-thinking the rules…” What??! Well, I had to hear more about that… And now, so can you!

Rob Handel, Head of Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon University

Rob Handel, Head of Dramatic Writing at Carnegie Mellon University

Barbara: So in class occasionally you’d reference your rules for playwriting. What’s on the list?

Rob: Don’t talk to the audience. Don’t withhold information from the audience. Don’t write “blackout” in the middle of a conversation. (Maybe you remember more of my rules? I feel like I’m forgetting something.)

Barbara: I remember one which was not to have your characters talk about more than one off-stage/not seen character per play.

Rob: I think that offstage character rule is such a good rule that I am charging $30,000 tuition for it.

Barbara: Can you explain the reasons why it might be a good idea to follow these rules?

Rob: “Don’t talk to the audience”: This rule comes out of my experience reading hundreds of plays every year (for admissions, selection committees I’m asked to be on, etc.). 99% of the time, a play that starts with a direct address is going to be a bad play. It suggests that the writer knows where the play is going to end up, and this character, the narrator, is going to talk to us again at the end and tell us what we were supposed to learn. I go to plays to see the exploration of a question, a journey into the unknown — not to be lectured at.

“Don’t withhold information from the audience”: 99% of the time, the withholding of information is being used as a substitute for plot. For example, “at the end of act one, we realize that Paul is actually the same person as Peter.” The problem with this is that “we” is not a character in the play. The way storytelling works is that the audience (like it or not) identifies with a character, and we have the same information as that character (or MORE) but not less, so that when they are surprised, we are surprised WITH them. The great example of this is the screenplay for THE SIXTH SENSE. We have the same information as Bruce Willis, not more and not less, throughout the picture.

“Don’t write ‘blackout’ in the middle of a conversation”: If your characters are stuck, stay stuck with them. One of the things theatre is best at, better than any other form, is claustrophobia — what is it like to be trapped in this apartment, this office, this room, with this other person? In a charged, awkward emotional moment, you must resist the temptation to end the scene on a great line if it robs us of finding out how the characters escape that moment. You can learn a lot about someone by watching how they extricate themselves from an argument.

Barbara: But recently, when chatting you blew my mind when you said the rules were made up and that actually you’re having second thoughts about them! Why teach them if made up? And what are you re-thinking?

Rob: “Don’t talk to the audience”: If I made a list of my top 20 favorite plays, at least 10 of them, probably more, would be plays that use direct address. So something is clearly wrong with my theory. Take How I Learned To Drive by Paula Vogel: the direct address is critical to the play because it lets us know that the play is memory, therefore the heroine will survive. Furthermore, she is telling the story, controlling the narrative — and this creates a safe space to tell a highly charged and deeply uncomfortable story. There are lots of ways to use direct address, and they don’t have to be awful.

“Don’t withhold information from the audience”: This is a pretty good rule. Plays that violate this rule tend to be sadistic and/or condescending. If you’re drawn to that kind of play, maybe you really want to be a magician or a maker of haunted houses? (Great professions, by the way. But not the same as playwright.) On the other hand, not all plays tell stories in the same way. Some plays are made of emotional moments and some are made of mysterious video interludes and some plays don’t have characters at all. There is probably a great play out there, or being created right now, that will prove me wrong.

“Don’t write ‘blackout’…” This is a good rule. I think the main reason I’m trying not to say “This is one of my rules” anymore is that I’ve realized that what keeps me alive as an artist (and as a consumer of art) is my idea of what a play is, or what theatre can be, is constantly being challenged and overturned. Some of the most inspiring plays I’ve seen recently could not possibly be written following even the most basic rules that I used to throw at people. (I’m thinking of Savannah Reich’s Six Monsters, the Rude Mechs’ Stop Hitting Yourself, the Debate Society’s Jacuzzi, Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, and William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.)

Barbara: What do you think are the things someone can do if they want to write better plays?

Rob: Conveniently, there is exactly one way to write better plays: write more. Write every day. Carry a notebook. If you’ve written a 30 page play, rewrite it as a 60 page play. (Then, keep only the good pages.) If you’ve written a three hour play, rewrite it as a ten hour play. Keep going.

Barbara: To submit a play to an opportunity or to DIY a production? And why?

Rob: Both. As with political change, you want to be in the streets AND in the halls of power.

Barbara: Any thoughts on the current state of theater and playwriting– what does it need? Have too much/not enough of? What are you excited to see? And anything that scares you about the future of theater?

Rob: I am thrilled to be a theatre practitioner at this moment. The heated discussions about diversity and representation are not going to go away. People who run their companies the same way they did 30 years ago are going to keep getting called out. We’re going to keep moving forward with inclusiveness, and that means companies will need to create structures that allow them to give tickets away for free. (I just had the privilege of having my play A Maze produced with such a “radical hospitality” structure by Theatre Battery in Kent, Washington.)

Barbara: I love the term radical hospitality and am curious how it worked!

Rob: Here are some links about Radical Hospitality:

http://howlround.com/radical-hospitality-the-artistic-case
http://howlround.com/the-business-case-for-radical-hospitality-at-mixed-blood-theatre

Barbara: Any advice for those who want to write plays?

Rob: I hear the MFA program at Carnegie Mellon is excellent.

Barbara: Any shows we should catch?

Rob: My new play I Want To Destroy You will be produced by Theatre Vertigo in Portland (Oregon) in January: http://www.theatrevertigo.org/. On the East Coast, I’m looking forward to Gardiner Comfort’s solo piece The Elephant in Every Room I Enter: http://lamama.org/the-elephant-in-every-room-i-enter-2/.

Follow Rob Handel on twitter @sailordoghandel for more.

The Real World – Theater Edition: An Interview with Savannah Reich

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews Savannah Reich about her upcoming Bay Area production.

Savannah Reich is the type of playwright that when you read and hear and see her work, you’re like, “I want to do that! That’s so cool! Theater’s so cool!” I met her while in the second year of the MFA Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University, headed by Rob Handel, and was blown away by her humor, theatricality, and the moving moments of human connection and confusion she creates within her writing. So, of course, I was very happy to learn that her play, Six Monsters, A Seven Monster Play was being produced by All Terrain Theater in the summer of 2015.

The show opens next Thursday, July 30th at 8:00 PM and runs on Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays until August 8th at the EXIT Theatre in downtown San Francisco. I had a chance to chat with Savannah about playwriting, the inspiration behind Six Monsters, and her creative impulses.

Savannah Reich, probably driving to California as we speak.

Savannah Reich, probably driving to California as we speak.

Babs: Very excited to interview you!

Savannah: Thank you! I am so excited to be interviewed!

Babs: To begin, could you tell me about your background? How did you get involved with theater and writing?

Savannah: I wrote my first play in the second grade. I’m not sure where I got the idea. My parents were both doing theater when I was a kid, as a prop-master and scenic artist at the Guthrie in Minneapolis, so I’m sure I had already seen plays? I am counting this as “my first play” because it was more elaborate than a show I did with friends in the basement or whatever- it had a typed script, which went through several drafts, and I think I forced my entire second grade class to be in it, although I don’t remember that part.

So as long as I can remember I had this incredibly specific compulsion to write plays. I briefly went to NYU for the undergraduate playwriting program, which I was not really prepared for at eighteen. I dropped out after a year and decided I would never write a play again- I was just going to be wild and free and be in punk bands and experience real life. But then I started writing plays again probably six months after that.

I recently found the script for my first play in a box at my parent’s house; it was about two witches who turn people into chickens and serve them to children at an orphanage, which actually sounds like something that I might be working on now.

Babs: How would you describe your style and what interests you?

Savannah: The way I’m thinking about it these days is that I am interested in taking inexplicable emotional processes and making them into something concrete and mechanical. I am obsessed with the Charlie Kaufman movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” because it does this so nicely- it takes this very gooey personal feeling, the grief about losing a shared past when you end a relationship, and makes it into this action story. It literally ends with a chase scene. So that’s a really nice way to create ways to talk about things that maybe don’t fall into the cultural shorthand.

More concretely, my plays tend to be removed from true-to-life situations- as Sarah Ruhl says, “my characters have no last names.” They are animals or ghosts or subhuman beasts. They tend to be suffering greatly in some neurotic, cyclical way and they all talk on rotary dial telephones.

Also, I am interested in structure because it is the essential relationship between the play and the audience, which for me is at least as interesting as the relationships between the characters.

Babs: I think Six Monsters, A Seven Monster Play has an interesting origin story – do you mind sharing and then how it developed from its inception?

Savannah: Yes! You were there! It was very early on in my first year at CMU, maybe the second or third week, and Rob Handel had us do a writing exercise that involved beginning a 60 page play at nine am and finishing it by midnight. The exercise was so great, but I feel like I don’t want to give it away in case he is going to do it again next year- part of what was great about it for me was the surprise. I had all these ideas for plays that had been percolating for a long time, and I was fussing over them and trying to make them “good”, and then we got this exercise that said, “Okay, forget about all those plays- here’s a prompt, now write this play. Write this play today.” It was totally liberating for me.

Before grad school, I had been writing plays and producing them myself, so I think that I had gotten into this trap of keeping my producer’s hat on while I was writing. I would think about making props affordable, stuff like that. It was dumb. This exercise broke me out of that. The original opening stage direction for “Six Monsters” was something like, “There are six audience members seated on a wooden cart. The wooden cart rolls through an infinite darkness.”

I also think I put a bunch of things that felt really vulnerable and revealing to me in this play, and maybe I wouldn’t have if I had been imagining that it would ever be performed. I write much better when I am able to convince myself that no one I know will ever see it.

After I finished the play, I co-produced a one night workshop performance of it with our fellow MFA writer Dan Giles, with him directing, me as the skeleton, and six amazing CMU undergrad acting students as the chorus, which I will get to brag about when they are all famous in like twenty-five minutes.

Babs: When I last saw this piece, you were actually performing in it as the Skeleton. How do you think performing/not performing in your own work influences how you see the play, what to develop/not develop next?

Savannah Reich as the Skeleton carrying Jeremy Hois as the Baby in the Pittsburgh performance workshop at the Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination directed by Dan Giles in February 2014.

Savannah Reich as the Skeleton carrying Jeremy Hois as the Baby in the Pittsburgh performance workshop at the Irma Freeman Center for the Imagination directed by Dan Giles in February 2014.

Savannah: I’m not sure how I feel about this anymore! I am worrying about it a lot in a neurotic and cyclical way! I have performed in my own work a fair amount, and sometimes I think I don’t want to do it anymore, because probably it would be better with real actors who are good at acting. But then I recently saw the performance artist Dynasty Handbag in New York, and I love her, and I thought that maybe I should always perform my own work. Not that I am a performer like she is- I tend to be visibly thinking on stage in that way that playwrights do when they try to act- but I do think there is something special about seeing someone perform their own words, there is a kind of specificity to it.

But I’m not going to be a performance artist because I love actors so much. They are my favorite thing to look at, especially when they are in my plays being hilarious. It’s great to be a playwright because we get to see all these very attractive people pretending to be us, pretending to have our same anxieties about capitalism or intimacy or whatever, which feels deeply healing in some probably very messed up way. Also good collaboration makes the show better, of course. The actor can see a lot of things about the show that I can’t.

I don’t know that I learn anything much from being in my own plays. I played the part of the skeleton in the workshop mostly because it felt too personal to turn it over to an actor. But now I have a little more distance, and I’m so excited to see what Laura Peterson does with it.

Babs: In the San Francisco production, is there anything that you are most looking forward to seeing or experiencing?

Savannah: I was just talking about how much variability actors bring to the table but of course that’s also very much true of directors. I haven’t worked with Sydney Painter before, and seeing her take on the piece is probably what I’m the most excited about. I haven’t been in town for rehearsals yet, and I’m looking forward to seeing the ways that this crew has interpreted the show in different ways than I would have imagined.

Babs: Any advice for playwrights in creating new work or getting it produced?

Savannah: For me the simplest way to get your play produced is to do it yourself. It is only very recently that other people have wanted to produce my plays, and that is a new and exciting thing, but it’s important to me to always know that I can make my own work, and that I never need to get picked out of the pile or get the grant or win the contest to make my art.

Babs: Any shout-outs for shows, events, or other things going on around the Bay Area that you might check out while you’re here?

Savannah: If you come to Six Monsters; A Seven Monster Play you will also get to see a short play by the fabulous Tracy Held Potter called Texting. And we should probably all get on a plane to New York to see Dan Giles’ play How You Kiss Me is Not How I Like To Be Kissed at the New York Fringe Festival.

Also, this.

Learn more about Savannah Reich, her screenplays, plays, and upcoming artistic projects from her website, http://savannahreich.com/.

The Real World, Theater Edition: Interview with Tracy Held Potter and Julie Jigour

Barbara Jwanouskos interviews some alums from the Higher Education days of her column.

This week I reconnected (well, via email for now at least) with my ole pals from CMU, Tracy Held Potter and Julie Jigour. Both are fabulous playwrights and theater and film makers about town who recently graduated from the program I was a part of last year AND are from the Bay area. I thought it would be nice for this blog series to sort of reflect a little on how far it’s come from starting while I was in school trying to figure shit out to now while I’m out of school trying to figure shit out. So, you see, a lot has changed in the past year.

As Julie and Tracy step out from school into the real world ready to put their training into action, I’m reminded of how I was feeling when graduating this same time last year. I thought it would be lovely to capture this moment, where the future is full of promise and also huge unknowns. Whenever you’re on the precipice of the Next Thing, it can always be a little dizzying, but while I was in school with these two, they showed such strength of character and distinct writing styles, that I thought it would be lovely to hear from them about what this moment in time is like.

For your enjoyment, the interview with Tracy Held Potter and Julie Jigour:

Barbara: What is/was your involvement in Bay Area theater?

Tracy: I had been very active in Bay Area theater before going to grad school. I received an A.A. in Theater Arts with Michael Torres at Laney College, formed my own theater company All Terrain Theater, which had already completed three seasons, ran the playwrights group Play Cafe, co-founded 31 Plays in 31 Days with Rachel Bublitz, was a member of the MondayNight PlayGround Writers Pool, and interned or worked for CalShakes, Marin Theatre Company, and the Playwrights Foundation. I also worked as a writer or director with Masquers Playhouse, Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco, and, of course, Theatre Pub!

Tracy Held Potter. Photo credit: Rob Reeves, wry toast photos

Tracy Held Potter. Photo credit: Rob Reeves, wry toast photos

Julie: When I finished undergrad, some of my fellow classmates and I started a small, do-it-yourself theater company called Cardboard Box Theatre Project. We did productions, staged readings, and workshops over the course of a few years in the South Bay. I also workshopped with the Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and Central Works Writers Workshop.

Julie Jigour

Julie Jigour

Barbara: What’s your style as a writer? What kinds of topics/ideas do you gravitate towards?

Tracy: I’m a mom so a lot of my work deals with feminist issues and parenting. I also love pop culture, science (especially as it relates to the environment), and technology, so those topics feature in a lot of my writing. My goal is always to entertain first and educate second, and when I’m really in the zone I try to present complex situations while advocating for all perspectives. I spend a lot of time trying to understand people who act or think in ways that I disagree with, and I put those scenarios into my work.

Julie: I consider myself a writer of dramas and dark comedies. I’m interested in how people struggle toward intimacy and human connection with the limitations of language and social convention.

Barbara: What was on your mind as you were making the decision to attend a graduate Dramatic Writing program?

Tracy: When I had my first son, I marveled at him and dreamed about what his future would be like. I wanted him to feel like he could do anything that he wanted with his life, and then I knew at the core of my being that I could only help him do this if I pursued my own dreams, too.

I had been jumping around all over the place–both professionally and artistically–and I realized that I was spreading myself too thin and not really mastering anything in particular. Before I took my first acting class, I was researching MBA programs, then I got hooked on theater and suddenly I had identities as an actor, producer, director, and writer. I had a heart to heart with myself and realized that writing had always been a part of my life and if I could become really good at any one thing, that was it.

I love being in school, so grad school was just a thing that I wanted to do at some point. I just needed to choose a focus, and writing seemed like something that I would keep doing and would be easier to pursue with kids than some of my other interests.

Regarding goals, I went to grad school so I could start the path toward mastery of writing and also to make it more possible to work as a writer professionally. I know that lots of people don’t need grad school to accomplish either of these goals. I could probably be one of those people. However, the truth is that I’m a mom, I have a lot of things that I’m responsible for, and I have a lot of disparate interests that compete for my attention. Going to grad school meant that I could stop working and focus just on my kids and my writing. It’s amazing how easy it is to focus on your writing when you’re on the other side of the country and (almost) everyone in your life knows that you can’t take on extra projects or attend certain events so they give you the space to do the work you’re trying to do.

One of the most tangible benefits of grad school is having the piece of paper at the end that says you’re “approved” by some entity. That paper means different things to different people, but at a minimum it shows a commitment to developing the craft, and it also opens a lot of doors to programs or people who only want to work with MFAs or only want to work with certain schools. Through my program, I was handed opportunities to meet with professionals from all areas of theater, film, and television. As you can see from what I was doing before grad school, I don’t have a problem finding opportunities, yet I still sought out this opportunity to join an instant network and I’m really glad I did.

Julie: I wanted to go to grad school for dramatic writing to strengthen my craft and to develop a stronger and more habitual writing practice. I also wanted to be surrounded by like-minded people to help foster my passion.

Barbara: Could you share an anecdote/story about your time at CMU and how it helped you with your writing trajectory?

Tracy: When I signed up for CMU’s Dramatic Writing program, I went in primarily with an interest in sticking with playwriting, but the program is designed to also cover film and television. During my first year of the two-year program, our teacher Rob Handel was working on opera, so he offered us a workshop on writing opera libretti. That turned into writing short commissioned mini-operas for the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and 20-minute collaborations with composers in the MFA composing program.

Sometime during my first year, I decided to focus my energy on writing for television–something about the possibility of paying my bills through writing seemed very appealing to me–and I also developed a love of writing opera, which is amazing considering that until grad school, the only opera I’d seen was Moby Dick at SF Opera.

"Plastic Nest" by Tracy Held Potter at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein

“Plastic Nest” by Tracy Held Potter at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein

Julie: I had a fabulous experience rehearsing my New Works play—the final project for graduating writers—this spring. The process was a wonderful reminder of why I decided to pursue a collaborative art form. Everyone in the rehearsal room helped me make the play better over the course of our time together. I took improvisations the director and actors developed and brought them into the script to the absolute benefit of the text, and the production assistant offered valuable dramaturgical insight that influenced my revisions. I loved the teamwork and dedication that made my initial draft something we could all feel proud of influencing.

Barbara: Now that you’ve graduated, what are you looking to do next? Any fears? Any sources of inspiration?

Tracy: Right now, most of my energy is focused on revising work that I started or developed during my program, which includes a couple of full length plays, a spec for “Masters of Sex,” an original TV pilot, and a commissioned piece that’s due next month.

I’m also working on submitting the work that I’ve already completed, including my web series, Merritt Squad, with Colin Johnson, a short film that I self-produced called “Fashion Foes,” and I’m applying to TV writing fellowships, MondayNight PlayGround in LA, and a musical theater writing program in LA.

I don’t know if I’m really afraid of anything career-wise. I’m going head first into an industry that’s difficult to break into, but I have a game plan and am giving myself the time and space to make it happen.

I’m inspired by the fact that people are making a living being writers–maybe there’s not a lot of them, but they exist and I want to be one of them.

Julie: I plan to move to Los Angeles to try to get into TV writing. I think one of my biggest fears is that I won’t be able to keep up a consistent writing practice outside of school, but I believe that having gone to grad school, I’m better equipped than I was before to manage and overcome that fear. I’ve been inspired by my instructors and classmates to make bold choices and see what happens rather than reigning myself in from the start.

"Winnebago" by Julie Jigour at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein.

“Winnebago” by Julie Jigour at the CMU School of Drama. Photo credit: Louis Stein.

Barbara: If there’s anything that you wish you could change in theater what would it be?

Tracy: I would make funding a non-issue. If theater-makers could focus on creating the work and not the fundraising, then I think theater would be more accessible for audiences as well as for artists.

Julie: I wish theater were as popular a medium for art and entertainment as film. People from all communities watch TV and film, which are forms that I love. But theater is often attended by a smaller, more affluent, and older audience. With that and with many ticket prices, I think, comes the idea—and in many ways, the reality—that theater is a medium for the privileged. I wish theater were more accessible to everyone and less associated with class and education than I think it is now.

Barbara: Any words of wisdom for those interested in playwriting and for those thinking about graduate programs – whether applying or soon to be attending?

Tracy: Write a lot. Try to get produced, or self-produce your own work. If you still like writing plays, then talk to people you admire and respect and see which programs or opportunities nourished them and see if it makes sense for you. Not everyone thrives in academic environments. If you can’t stand artificial assignments and deadlines, and you don’t like receiving criticism, then grad school’s not an ideal place to be. However, if like the idea of collaborating with lots of different people and you want to hear advice and criticism from people who (hopefully) know what they’re talking about and you want to have that extra reassurance and structure that a program provides, then grad school may be a great option.

Julie: I feel very confident that my decision to go to grad school was the right choice for me. Grad school gave me the time and space to explore writing and gain confidence in both my writing and in my decision to pursue this field. I do think, however, that you can succeed in dramatic writing without going to grad school. It just depends on what suits your needs best.

Barbara: Any upcoming productions/projects of yours for us to look forward to?

Tracy: Yes! I am writing a full length commissioned play for the new Loud and Unladylike Festival with DivaFest at The EXIT Theatre called “A is for Adeline.” I’ll get two readings on June 25th and July 9th. I’m also producing two shows through my theater company, All Terrain Theater; “Women in Solodarity: Waking Up” which goes up in June and “Six Monsters: A Seven-Monster Play” which goes up July 31-August 15 and will open with a short play that I’m writing.

Julie: Nothing right now, but I’ll keep you posted!

Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area playwright and blogger. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany.

Theater Around The Bay: Year-End Round-Up Act 1

Well, we’ve made it- the end of 2014! It’s been a tremendous year of learning and change, tragedy and triumph, and our eight staff bloggers are here to share with you some of their own highlights from a year of working, writing and watching in the Bay Area Theater scene (and beyond)! Enjoy! We’ll have more highlights from 2014 tomorrow and Wednesday! 

Ashley Cowan’s Top 5 Actors I Met This Year (in random order!)

1) Heather Kellogg: I had seen Heather at auditions in the past but she always intimidated me with her talent, pretty looks, and bangin’ bangs. Luckily for me, I had the chance to meet her at a reading early in the year and I immediately started my campaign to be friends. She also just amazed me in Rat Girl.

2) Justin Gillman: I feel like I saw Justin in more roles than any other actor in 2014 but I was completely blown away by his performance in Pastorella. What I appreciated so much about his time on stage was that underneath an incredible, honest portrayal was an energy that simply longed to be; there’s something so beautiful about watching someone do what they love to do and do it so well.

3) Kitty Torres: I absolutely loved The Crucible at Custom Made and while so many of the actors deserve recognition for their work, I really wanted to commend Kitty for her part in an awesome show. She had to walk the fine line of being captivating, but still and silent, while also not taking attention away from the action and dialogue happening around her in the play’s opening scene. And she nailed it. I met her in person weeks later in person and my goodness, she’s also just delightful.

4) Vince Faso: I knew of Vince but we officially met at a party in February of this year. I enjoyed getting to know him both in person and on stage but it was his roles in Terror-Rama that made me realize that Vince is like a firework; while the sky may be beautiful on its own, when he walks on stage, he naturally lights it up in a new way.

5) Terry Bamberger: I met Terry at an audition and she’s the opposite of someone you’d expect to meet in such an environment. She was incredibly kind, supportive, and while you’re hoping you get into the play, you start to equally root for her to be in it too. And after seeing Terry in Three Tall Women, it’s clear that she’s also someone who deserves to be cast from her range and skills alone.

Barbara Jwanouskos’s Top 5 Moments in Bay Area Theater Where I Admired the Writer

This year has been one of momentous changes. I spent the first five months completing the last semester of the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University and receiving my MFA. I moved back to Bay Area and since then, have tried to become enmeshed in the theater scene once again. I haven’t had the resources to see all the performances I would have liked, but this list puts together the top five moments since being back that I’ve not only enjoyed the performance, but I found myself stuck with an element of the show that made me appreciate what the playwright had put together. In no particular order…

1) The Late Wedding by Christopher Chen at Crowded Fire Theater: Chris is known for his meta-theatrical style and elements – often with great effect. I have admired the intricacy of Chris’s plays and how he is able to weave together a satisfying experience using untraditional narrative structures. While watching The Late Wedding, I found myself at first chuckling at the lines (I’m paraphrasing, but…), “You think to yourself, is this really how the whole play is going to be?” and then finding a deeper meaning beyond what was being said that revolved around the constructs we build around relationships and how we arbitrarily abdicate power to these structures. Then, of course, I noticed that thought and noted, “Man, that was some good writing…”

2) Superheroes by Sean San José at Cutting Ball Theater with Campo Santo: I was talking with another playwright friend once who said, “Sean can take anything and make it good – he’s a phenomenal editor,” and in the back of my head, I wondered what types of plays he would create if behind the wheel as playwright. In Superheroes, there is a moment where the mystery of how the government was involved in the distribution of crack unfolds and you’re suddenly in the druggy, sordid, deep personal space of actual lives affected by these shady undertakings. Seeing the powerlessness against addiction and the yearning to gain some kind of way out – I sat back and was just thinking, “Wow, I want to write with that kind of intense emotional rawness because that is striking.” I left that play with butterflies in my stomach that lasted at least two hours.

3) Fucked Up Chronicles of CIA Satan and Prison Industry Peter and Never Ending Story by Brit Frazier at the One Minute Play Festival (Playwrights Foundation): Clocking in at under a minute each – these two plays that opened the One Minute Play Festival’s Clump 6 after Intermission were among the most striking images and moments for me of that festival. Brit’s two plays were hard-hitting, pull-no-punches, extremely timely works that I just remember thinking, “Now that is how to tell a whole story in just one minute.” I was talking to a friend about the festival and he said, “Even though they were only a minute, it’s funny how you can tell who really knows how to write.” I totally agree, and the first plays that I thought of when he said that were Brit’s.

4) Millicent Scowlworthy by Rob Handel at 99 Stock Productions:
I was only familiar with Aphrodisiac and 13P on a most basic level when I decided to apply to Carnegie Mellon, but, of course, training with a working playwright and librettist, you can’t help but be curious about his other work. Though I hadn’t read Millicent Scowlworthy, the title alone was something that I figured I’d enjoy. Seeing the production this summer, I had another “So grateful I got to train with this guy” moment as I watched the plot swirl around the looming question that the characters kept on attacking, addressing, backing away from at every moment. The desperate need for the kids to act out the traumatic event from their past and from their community felt so powerfully moving. I understood, but didn’t know why – it was more of a feeling of “I know this. This is somewhere I’ve been.” And to me, what could be a better feeling to inspire out your audience with your writing?

5)
Year of the Rooster by Eric Dufault at Impact Theater: I’d met Eric at a La MaMa E.T.C. playwriting symposium in Italy a number of years ago. We all were working on group projects so you got less of a sense of what types of plays each person wrote and more of their sources of inspiration. I have to say, going to Impact to see Year of the Rooster was probably THE most enjoyable experience I’ve had in theater this year – just everything about it came together: the writing, the directing, the space, the performances… There was pizza and beer… But I was profoundly engaged in the story and also how Eric chose to tell it and it was another moment where I reflected, “where are the moments I can really grab my key audience and give them something meaty and fun?”

Will Leschber’s Top 5 Outlets That Brought You Bay Area Theater (outside of a theater)

5) Kickstarter: The Facebook account of everyone you know who crowd-funded a project this year. Sure, it got old being asked to donate once every other week to another mounting production or budding theater project. BUT, the great news is, with this new avenue of financial backing, many Bay Area theater projects that might have otherwise gone unproduced got their time in the sun. This could be viewed as equally positive or negative… I like to look on the bright side of this phenomenon.

4) Blogging: San Francisco Theater Pub Blog- I know, I know. It’s tacky to include this blog on our own top 5 list. But hey, just remember this isn’t a ranking of importance. It’s just a reminder of how Bay Area theater branches out in ways other than the stage. And I’m proud to say this is a decent example. There, I said it.

3) YouTube: A good number of independent theater performances are recorded for posterity. Theater Pub productions of yesteryear and past Olympians festival readings are no exception. I’d like to highlight Paul Anderson who tirelessly recorded this year’s Olympians Festival: Monsters Ball. Due to his efforts and the efforts of all involved, the wider community can access these readings. For a festival that highlights a springboard-process towards playwriting improvement, that can be a very valuable tool.

2) Hashtags: #Theater, #HowElseWouldWeFollowEachOther, #MyNewPlay, #YourNewPlay, #Hashtags, #KeywordsSellTickets

1) The Born Ready podcast: Each week Rob Ready and Ray Hobbs tear into the San Francisco theater scene with jokes and, dare I say it, thoughtful commentary. Looking for a wide spanning podcast that touches on the myriad levels of theater creation, production, performance and all things in between? Crack a beer and listen up! This is for you.

Charles Lewis III’s Top 5 Invaluable Lessons I Learned

This past year was a wild one; not fully good or bad. I achieved some career milestones AND failed to meet some goals. I got 86’d from some prominent companies AND formed new connections with others. With it all said and done, what have I got to show for it? Well, here are five things that stand out to me:

1) “Be mindful of what I say, but stand by every word.” I said in my very first official column piece that I had no intention of trolling – and I don’t – but when I start calling people “asshole” (no matter how accurate), it can run the risk of personal attack rather than constructive criticism. I’m trying to stick to the latter. And believe me, I have no shortage of criticism.

2) “Lucid dreams are the only way to go.” There are some projects, mostly dream roles, that I now know I’ll never do. What’s occurred to me recently is that I shouldn’t limit the creation of my dream projects to just acting. Lots of venues opened up to me recently, and they’ve set off cavalcade of ideas in my head. They might not be what I originally wanted, but it’s great to know I have more options than I first thought.

3) “It’s only ‘too late’ if you’ve decided to give up.” I don’t believe in destiny (“everything is preordained”), but I do believe in fate (the perfect alignment of seemingly random circumstance). I kinda took it for granted that the chances of me making a living at performance art had passed me by, then this year I was offered several more chances. Which ones I take is still in flux, it’s made me reassess what’s important to me about this art form.

4) “Burn a bridge or two. It’s nice to see a kingdom burn without you.” This year someone (whom I shall call “Hobgoblin”) tried to put a curse on me. Nothing magical, but more along the lines of a “You’ll never work in this town again” kinda curse. Years ago I might have been worried, but I knew his words were just that. Instead I threw back my head, started laughing, and said “Oh, Hobgoblin…”

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5) “If you EVER have the chance to work with Alisha Ehrlich, take it.” If I had to pick a “Person of The Year” for Bay Area Theatre, she’d be it. I acted alongside her in The Crucible this year and when some of us were losing focus, she brought her A-game Every. Single. Night. Most of us can only hope to be as dedicated to our work.

Anthony Miller’s Top 5 People I Loved Working With This Year

There were way more than 5, but I just wanted these people to know how much I appreciated everything they did this year!

1) Colin Johnson: This fucking guy, he was a huge part of my year and the success of Terror-Rama. He’s a fantastic Director, resourceful as hell a never ending source of positivity and enthusiasm and a swell guy .

2) Alandra Hileman: The courageous Production Stage Manager of Terror-Rama. Smart, unafraid to give an opinion or tell an actor, designer director or producer “no”, in fact she’s fantastic at “No”.

3) Brendan West: Brendan is the Composer of Zombie! The Musical!, we had our first conversation about writing the show in 2007. Since then, it’s been produced a few times, but never with live music. Working with Brendan again to finally showcase the score live in concert was incredible.

4) Robin Bradford:  In the last 3 years, when no one believed in me, Robin Bradford believed in me. This year, I was lucky enough to direct staged readings of her plays, The Ghosts of Route 66 (Co-Written by Joe Wolff) and Low Hanging Fruit. I love getting to work with the amazing actors she wrangles and incredible work she trusts me with.

5) Natalie Ashodian: My partner in life, devoted cat mother and so much more, this year, she has been my Producer, Costume Designer, Graphic Designer, Film Crew Supervisor, Zombie Wrangler and Copy Editor. She is the best. The. Best.

Allison Page’s Top 5 Moments That Made Me Love Being A Theater Maker In The Bay Area

1) The Return Of Theater Pub: I just have to say it – I’m thrilled that Theater Pub’s monthly shows are starting up again in January. It’s such a unique theater-going experience and encourages a different type of relationship to theater which is essential to new audience bases who maybe think that it isn’t for them. It infuses life and a casual feel to our beloved dramatics and welcomes any and all to have a beer and take in some art. I look forward to seeing what the new year will bring for TPub and its artistic team! And obviously, we’ll be here with ye olde blog.

2) Adventures At The TBA Conference: That sounds more thrilling and wild than it actually is. What happened is that I found I had a bunch of opinions about things! WHO KNEW?! Opinions about things and shows and companies and ideals and art and the conference itself. Conferences aren’t a perfect thing – never will be, because they’re conferences – but it does shine a light on what it is we’re doing, and that’s a biggie. Also I had a lot of whiskey with some new and old theater faces before the final session so that was cool.

3) The Opening Of The New PianoFight Venue: This is clearly getting a lot of mention from bay area theater people, because it’s exciting. No, it’s not the first theater to open up in the Tenderloin (HEYYYY EXIT Theatre!) but another multi-stage space is really encouraging. This next year will be a big one for them. Any time you’re doing something big and new, that first year is a doozy. Here’s hopin’ people get out to see things in the TL and support this giant venture. I will most definitely be there – both as an audience member and as a theater maker. It’s poised to be a real theatrical hub if enough people get on board. GET SOME!

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4) Seeing The Crucible: Seeing Custom Made’s production of The Crucible was exciting for a bunch of reasons, starting with the fact that I’ve never seen a production of it filled with actors instead of high school students. IT WAS GREAT. Yes, surprise, it’s not a boring old standard. It can be vital and thrilling and new but somehow not new at the same time. It was so full of great performances in both the larger roles and the not so large ones, and it really felt like everyone was invested in this big wrenching story they believed in – thus getting the audience to believe in it, too. Maybe that sounds like it should be common, but it’s not as much as it should be.

5) Everything That Happens At SF Sketchfest: Man, I love Sketchfest. Not just participating in it, but seeing everything I can (you can’t see all the things because there are so many, but I do what I can do). It’s this great combination of local and national stand up, improv, sketch, tributes, talkbacks, and indefinable stuff which takes over the city and points to the bay area as a place able to sustain a gigantic festival of funny people. And audiences go bonkers for the big name acts who come to town. The performers themselves get in prime mingling time with each other – something funny people can be pretty awkward about, but in this case we all know it’s going to be weird and we just go for it.

Dave Sikula’s Five Theatre Events That Defined 2014 for Me

1) Slaughterhouse Five, Custom Made Theatre Company: I’ve previously mentioned the night we had to abort our performance because of an actor injury. (I insisted at the time that it was the first time that it had happened to me in 40 years of doing theatre. I’ve since been informed that, not only had it happened to me before, it happened at the same theatre only two years ago.) Regardless, it marked for me a lesson about the magic, and hazards, of live performance. The idea that, not only can anything happen on stage, but that, if the worst comes to the worst, a company of performers will do all they can to come together and make a show work even in the most altered of circumstances.

2) The Suit, ACT: A touring production, but one that provided an invaluable reminder about simplicity. In the 80s, I’d seen Peter Brook’s nine-hour production of The Mahabrarata, and what struck me at that time was how stunningly simple it was. Brook’s faith and trust in cutting away pretense and bullshit and concentrating on simple storytelling – in a manner that is unique to a live performance; that is to say, acknowledging that we’re in the theatre, and not watching television or a movie, was a lesson in stripping things down to their essence and letting the audience use their imaginations to fill in and intensify the story.

3) The Farnsworth Invention, Palo Alto Players: I’ve written at extreme length about the controversy over our production. I’m not going to rehash it again, but I mention it as another lesson; that, in the best circumstances, theatre should provoke our audiences. Not to anger them, but to challenge and defend their preconceptions; to make them defend and/or change their opinions.

4) The Nance, Century at Tanforan: Something else I’ve written about is my frustration at how, even though we’re finally getting “televised” presentations of plays in movie theatres, they’re almost always from London. I have nothing against British theatre (well, actually, I have plenty against it, but nothing I want to get into here …) I realize American producers don’t want to cut into their profits if they can help it, but not only did film versions of Phantom and Les Mis not seem to hurt their theatrical box office receipts, is there any reason to believe that shows like The Bridges of Madison County or even Side Show wouldn’t have benefitted from either the extra publicity or extra cash that national exposure would have given them? Similarly, would broadcasts of the Patrick Stewart/Ian McKellen Waiting for Godot or the Nathan Lane/Brian Dennehy The Iceman Cometh do any harm? I’ll stipulate they don’t have a lot of title recognition, but did The Nance or Company other than their star leading performers? And let’s not limit it to New York. I’d like to see what’s happening in Chicago or Denver or Ashland or San Diego or Dallas or DC or Atlanta or Charlotte or Louisville or Portland or Seattle or Boston or Cleveland – or even San Francisco. The shortsightedness of producers in not wanting to grow their audiences at the expense of some mythical boost to the road box office (and even that, only in major cities) is nothing short of idiotic.

5) The Cocoanuts, Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Another one I wrote about at the time. One of those frustratingly rare occasions when a production not only met my high expectations, but wildly surpassed them. Hilarious and spontaneous, it was another reminder of why a live theatrical performance is so exciting when the actors are willing to take chances in the moment and do anything and are skilled enough to pull them off.

Marissa Skudlarek’s Top 5 Design Moments in Bay Area Theater

1) Liz Ryder’s sound design for The Crucible at Custom Made Theatre Company: Mixing Baroque harpsichord sounds with the frightening laughter of teenage girls, it created an appropriately spooky atmosphere. The friend who I saw The Crucible with went from “What does a sound designer do, anyway?” to “Now I see what sound design can do!” thanks to this show. I also want to honor Liz for the work she did on my own show, Pleiades, composing delicate finger-picked guitar music for scene transitions and putting together a rockin’ pre-show/intermission mix.

2) The Time magazine prop in The Pain and the Itch at Custom Made Theatre Company:

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This play takes place on Thanksgiving 2006, and the subtle but real differences between 2006 and 2014 can be tricky to convey (after all, clothing and furniture haven’t changed much in these eight years). But the November 6, 2006 issue of Time, with President Bush on the cover, takes you right back to the middle of the last decade. Even better, actor Peter Townley flipped through the magazine and paused at an article about Borat. Since Townley’s character was dating a broadly accented, bigoted Russian, it felt just too perfect.

3) Eric Sinkkonen’s set design for Wittenberg at the Aurora Theatre: This clever comedy takes place in the 1500s, but features puns and allusions of a more recent vintage. The set design perfectly captured the play’s tone: sure, Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the church door, but the door’s already covered with flyers advertising lute lessons, meetings of Wittenberg University’s Fencing Club, etc. — just like any bulletin board at any contemporary university.

4) The whirring fan in Hir, at the Magic Theatre: I am, somewhat notoriously, on record as disliking this show. But the holidays are a time for generosity, so let me highlight an element of Hir that I found very effective: at the start of the play, the sound design incorporates a whirring fan. (The monstrous mother, Paige, runs the air conditioning constantly because her disabled husband hates it.) You don’t necessarily notice the white noise at first, but the whole tone of the play changes when another character turns the AC off at a dramatic moment.

5) Whitehands’ costume in Tristan and Yseult, at Berkeley Rep:

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Technically, I saw this show in late 2013, but it ran into 2014, so I’m including it. Whitehands (played by Carly Bawden) is Tristan’s other, less-famous lover. Her little white gloves were a clever nod to her name – and, crooning “Perfidia” in a yellow Fifties suit, pillbox hat, cat-eye sunglasses, and handbag hanging perfectly in the crook of her arm, she made heartbreak look impossibly chic.

What are your top choices, picks, experiences from the last year? Let us know! 

The Real World, Theater Edition: Final Girl

Barbara Jwanouskos, determined to survive the night.

So, you know that ole trope in horror movies where there’s one final young woman who has to confront the killer and tell the story? Lately, what with all the playwright deadlines and opportunities, I’ve been feeling like that person – well, that is, I’m actually not sure if I’m the Final Girl or, maybe more likely, perhaps I’m the Penultimate Girl. What a way to go! You’re in the last 15 to 20 minutes of the film and then bam. Axe. In your brain. Awh, man!

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There was a great article I read recently about one playwright’s attempt to analyze all the rejection letters he had received over the years. By including a stamped postcard to the theaters he submitted his work to asking them to complete a postcard-sized survey and send it back, he found that:

“The likelihood that your unsolicited script will be rejected or totally ignored by a theater is 99.57 percent. That means no production, no showcase, no staged readings. Zip.”

-“How The World’s Most Frequently Rejected Playwright Survives” by Donald Drake

Granted, from a scientific perspective, there are a couple things with his methodology for data gleaning that are bit problematic, but even using this informal way of tracking play submissions, how dismal is that? It’s probably comparable to your odds of surviving a serial killer in a horror movie if you’ve had sex somewhere else in the film.

Like many other writers and artists of all kinds, I spend most of my days sending stuff off, crossing my fingers, and hearing, “No”. It can be a daunting task to continually pick yourself back up after each rejection, and if I could figure out a way to be a productive person without facing rejection or humiliation, I would choose that path. Unfortunately, with the odds ever not in my favor, I actually end up buying into the whole competitive spirit that maybe, just maybe this time, it’s gonna happen. Maybe it’s the drive for artistic survival?

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I will say that once it has been determined that I’ve received an opportunity, an award, or been accepted somehow by someone else, there’s a whole big element of my personality that finds that success hard to deal with and wants to discount the work I put in to do it. When I don’t get something it’s “But I worked so hard!” and when I do get something, it’s “WTF?! I guess I must have been lucky!” This is actually a whole phenomenon apparently, called “Impostor Syndrome”.

Impostor Syndrome basically says that you’re may be a highly successful/high achieving person, but you’re feelings around your achievements don’t match – that there’s an element of low self-esteem that makes you question whether you are “worthy” or “deserving” of receiving such accolades. I encountered this recently when I learned that I was accepted into Just Theater’s New Play Lab for 2014-2015. I saw the posts going up on people’s walls about a rejection and was able to put two and two together that there must have been some crossover with the news I had just received. I mean this is a local theater company I greatly respect who has produced playwrights that I look up to and want to emulate like Anne Washburn, Rob Handel, Erin Bregman, and Glen Berger to name just a few. Why would they want to work with me? And immediately the only reason I could justify it is that I must be good at proposal-writing (not playwriting) since I’ve made a career for myself in that.

It’s so not nearly like this because I would never want to diminish the suffering of another person who has gone through such trauma, but I think of the guilt survivors of horrible events feel that they alone are left standing. I look around at my playwriting buddies and feel a little guilty that I’ve been fortunate to be given an opportunity. But then this amazing thing happened that made me think, “Yes, this is what a community of artists is all about!” I got so many personal messages from people that were genuinely happy that I had been chosen for this role. I did that thing where you post your accomplishment on facebook and twitter, but those messages I received meant a lot. It was if it was saying, it’s okay to have a moment of success every so often.

If you’re gonna be the Final Girl, you might as well try and honor the people who didn’t make it this time around. Because more often we’re the Penultimate Girls and Boys. We’re close, but no cigar. We’re way off the mark. We’re the rejects. And we’re a community where both individual success and failure is completely okay, because as a group we’re still moving things forward.

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Barbara Jwanouskos is a Bay Area based playwright who was recently welcomed to the Just Theater 2014-15 New Play Lab. She is a graduate of the Dramatic Writing program at Carnegie Mellon University under Rob Handel’s direction. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany.

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. 😉