The Five: Shakespeare Smoked Weed, Maybe, Just Go With It.

Anthony R. Miller checks in with…wait, what was I saying?

Hey you guys, in honor of the national stoner holiday of 4/20 (At least it was when I was writing it), were going to decide if William Shakespeare was one of theatre’s first functioning stoners, because 4/20, whatever. Also, this is meant to be silly, let’s not get too worried about details here. What’s important is that I’ve got my reasons, predictably, there are five.

Britain Loved Weed
In the late 1500’s England used hemp for everything, rope, printing bibles and textiles, even a few of Shakespeare’s early plays were written on Hemp paper. Also, social behavior was not as closely monitored, at the time people could pretty much do whatever the fuck they wanted as long as they didn’t murder anybody. Smoking Tobacco was also getting pretty huge at the time. So it’s not crazy to conclude that the far more fun at parties version of hemp was also grown and Willie was smoking a jay by the Thames writing about Magic Fairies making people fall in love.

Finding Shakespeare’s Stash
In 2001, anthropologist Francis Thackeray suggested that a source of Shakespeare’s productivity and creative inspiration came from smoking cannabis. He led a study which analyzed residues from pipes found in his home. Sure enough, the test showed traces of Cannabis. Keep in mind, there’s no proof those were his pipes, he was probably holding them for a friend. Also, according to several Shakespeare biographers, including Rene Weis (Author of 2007’s Shakespeare Revealed”.), Shakespeare suffered from almost crippling back pain and needed help getting around. Could The Bard have been the first medical marijuana patient? Was Avonian Willie using a Sativa during the day to focus and create content and an Indica at night for pain management?

Sonnet 76
The only way to know for sure would be to exhume Shakespeare’s body and sample hair and teeth. Thackeray even considered petitioning the Church of England to let him do exactly that, but decided against it. After all, the guy’s tombstone basically curses anybody who messes with the grave. But the poem that started Thackeray on his quest was Sonnet 76, which features the lines; “And keep invention in a noted weed,” and “To new-found methods and to compounds strange.” Now it’s not quite “passeth the duchie on the hath left handeth side.“ but, Thackeray and others think these are clear references to The Bard of Avon smoking two joints in the morning and thusly, two more at night. Taken with the right context and interpreted the right way, these could clearly be seen as drug references, especially if you’re high. I mean c’mon the poem says “WEED”.

Doobie or Not Doobie
Put a few theatre nerds in the same room, bring up the Hamlet Soliloquy and the proper way to perform it, and you may get a fist fight. So what if this often analyzed, quoted, performed, and debated monologue was just the internal ramblings of a grumpy introverted stoner? What if those famous words were preceded by Hamlet taking a fat bong rip? Taken in that context, is it so crazy the death of his father and the betrayal by his own family has led this moody Dane to wanting to sit in his room , puff blunts, listen to some Depeche Mode and have an existential meltdown? Enjoyeth the Silence indeed.

Rosencheech and Guildenchong
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had one job, get Hamlet to England. But those lovable goofballs screw it all up. (And Die, but let’s not split hairs here.) Whether it’s Harold and Kumar or Bill and Ted, they all owe their existence to Hamlet’s Child hood friends. Two guys with no real responsibilities, who seem happy to just skate through life, aren’t too bright and have no idea and bless their hearts, just can’t do anything right. Their propensity to just back into adventures is another key component for any lovable but not all there duo and it all started with these guys. Even the sincerity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the notion that they truly have no idea how ridiculous they look, is a key component of the naïve nature of camp and silly comedy. Is this all just the result of Shakespeare being short on a lid a of grass and he told his dealers, “Ok, what if I write two characters in my new play based on you, think you can spot me till Friday?”

Anthony R. Miller is a good upstanding contributing member of society and for no reason should be investigated by the DEA. He is also a Writer, Director and Producer, keep up with his work at www.awesometheatre.org.

Everything Is Already Something Week 54: The Most Waiting For Guffman Things That Have Ever Happened To Me

Allison Page is still waiting.

“You’re bastard people. That’s what you are, you’re bastard people!”

Even humans with a passing interest in theatre are probably familiar with the magnificent mockumentary Waiting for Guffman. I saw Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer in conversation with Adam Savage a couple months ago and my brain was squealing with delight the entire time.

97799

In honor of that, and of general shenanigans and absurdity, here are some of the most Waiting for Guffman-esque things that have ever actually happened to me in real life:

1) An actor didn’t show up to a performance because he was playing softball, so I had to go around and tell the audience to go home…luckily I knew all of them. ALL OF THEM. It was dinner theater so they still got to eat some rolls and an iceberg lettuce salad.

2) Overheard from one of the other actors in a Shakespeare play: “I feel like as long as I get the gist of the line, that’s close enough.”

3) An actor got drunk, put an audience member in a head lock, and then fell through a window. HE FELL THROUGH A WINDOW. An actual window. Glass and everything. We kept going. Also he broke that guy’s glasses.

4) I was Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Romeo broke up with me right before opening night and I shouted, in absolute sincerity, “YOU CAN’T BREAK UP WITH ME I’M FUCKING JULIET!” I mean…I was like 19. So. What do you expect?

Like this Juliet except fatter, with brown hair and lots and lots of anger.

Like this Juliet except fatter, with brown hair and lots and lots of anger.

5) An actor couldn’t remember, like, ANY of his lines. And in the middle of the show I had to crawl across the stage and off to look at the script and mouth the lines to him. (I did this maybe a dozen times) And then I crawled back on again, mumbling about my contact lenses.

6) I ate Little Caesar’s Pizza before the show and threw up offstage several times, then got dizzy and sprained my ankle from running back and forth, meaning the other actor in the scene who started the show alone, had to improvise fake phone conversation until I stumbled in.

7) Cast mate chased me with a knife “in character” because I stole her boyfriend. Listen, I know, WE’RE BOTH WRONG HERE.

8) I owed someone a favor and they decided to cash it in by asking me to do lights for Bye, Bye, Birdie. (Birdie couldn’t sing, BTW) Which I did, and then they demanded that I come down FROM THE LIGHT BOOTH at the end of the show so I could bow and wave at the audience. It’s a fairly large theater, so I had to descend a ladder and run from the back of the room onto the stage.

9) The fog machine set off the smoke alarm and a bunch of firemen arrived with axes so we had to evacuate the theater and stand out on the sidewalk for 30 minutes. I was wearing a blue helmet and dystopian future clothes.

10) Nuns wearing eyeliner and lipstick and having nose piercings.

11) Being 150lbs and saying the line “I’m 106lbs!”

12) Actors literally saying “Peas and carrots, peas and carrots” in the background, probably loud enough that people could understand it.

13) My character was being assaulted onstage and my assailants were supposed to be tearing at my clothes. I was wearing a corseted dress with more layers under it so they could rip my costume off. The problem was that one of the two actors who was supposed to be disrobing me was my boyfriend and he was terrified some bit of flesh would pop out, so the other guy would grab a piece of fabric and pull it, and my boyfriend would put it back on.

14) Older men with bad eyes doing their own stage makeup and applying a LOT of eyeliner. And blush. Lots and lots of blush.

15) The costumer REALLY wanted to be on stage. Every time an actor was a couple minutes late to the theater, she’d start asking if she should get ready because she TOTALLY knew the part — she didn’t, but I guess she thought she could make it up.

16) The only Equity actor in the show is the one who doesn’t know their lines. Extra points because this has happened half a dozen times.

17) Lead actress fell down and chipped a tooth mid-show.

18) I saw a production of Little Shop where Seymour was 17 years old and Audrey was 50 years old. And he didn’t know any of the words to the songs. Made ‘em up.

19) An actor casting actual spells backstage on the actors she didn’t like. Ya know, because she’s a witch.

Wicked_witch

20) A bunch of the actors hanging out in the men’s dressing room with a bag of coke. The women had no idea what was going on. But it made a lot of sense when we heard about it later.

21) Two actors went out drinking the previous night and got in a fist fight so one of them wore sunglasses through the entire next performance because he had two black eyes.

22) The bed backstage broke in the middle of the show with a giant CRRRAAAACK! so when the bedroom scene happened, it was just a mattress on the floor. I guess the Capulets were on a budget.

23) Oberon WOULD NOT stop smoking stogies in rehearsal. Indoors. He also had two girlfriends and they stood around kissing each other and giggling while we all just waited for them to not be doing that so we could start rehearsal.

24) I was playing an 8 year old but I lost my voice and then sounded like Brian Doyle Murray for the duration of the run.

25) There was a trapdoor on an elevated flat in Scrooge’s house, so that the ghosts (I was Christmas Present and Christmas Past) could just “appear” in the middle of the room. But the flat was only raised about a foot off the stage, and the opening was in the center of it, so we had to get down on our bellies and slither like snakes to get there, and then miraculously do a 90 degree backbend in order to go through the opening. Visions of it collapsing in on me attacked my brain as I scraped several layers of skin of my back each night. But at least I didn’t fall through the trapdoor during a blackout. Someone else did that. “AahhhTHUD.”

Now, go home and bite your pillow.

Allison Page is a writer/actor/comedian in San Francisco. She’s currently producing a sketch comedy show written by 8 year olds. Learn more and be afraid, at killingmylobster.com

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Ashland Round Up

Dave Sikula returns from the wild world of Ashland.

The wife and I recently returned from a trip to Ashland. Now, this does certainly not make us unique. I’d venture to say that a good portion of my constant readers (especially those in the Bay Area) have been there, and more than once. This trip was either my third or fifth (depending on how you count). I’ve seen shows there only three times, but auditioned there twice. (It obviously didn’t take – yet. I’m determined to go back, though.) It’s odd that I’ve been there only a few times. I went to grad school in Eugene, only a couple of hours north. I just never made the effort to see anything.

There was no particular reason for this; I mean, I had no enmity against them. In fact, I had great respect for what they do, even (years and years and years ago – before some of you were even born, I’ll wager) sending them a copy of my translation of Chekhov’s The Three Sisters (getting a very encouraging letter from Jerry Turner, the then-Artistic Director).

My experiences at Ashland have been hit-and-miss. A pretty good Hamlet (with a very good central performance), one of the worst Sea Gulls I’ve ever seen (which makes me kind of glad, in retrospect, that nothing ever came of my own translation. Remind me to talk about my theories about Chekhov sometime.) On this trip, though, we were four-for-four. We saw a very good and touching production of Water by the Spoonful, a fast-paced, lively – and actually funny – Comedy of Errors, the great Jack Willis giving a towering performance as Lyndon Johnson in The Great Society, and – the whole reason for going – a damn-near-perfect production of The Cocoanuts.

Here, watch for yourself.

Anyone who knows me will know how much I love the Marx Brothers. The book I’ve read the most is Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo. It’s probably the definitive book on the brothers and their work. In previous installments (if not on the Theatre Pub blog, then certainly on my own blog), I’ve discussed how, prior to the current era of video on demand, moviegoers couldn’t count on ever seeing a film more than once. If it was in the theatre, you went out and saw it. If it was on TV, you made the time to sit and watch; you couldn’t even record it. Many of us combed through the TV Guide (which was essential reading) to check the movie listings and see if anything really good was going to be on. (And if it was, it was almost always at 3:00 in the morning.)

There are six and a half great Marx Brothers movies: the five they made for Paramount (The Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, Monkey Business, Horse Feathers, and Duck Soup), and at MGM the first one (A Night at the Opera) and some of the second one (A Day at the Races). None of the other six are worthless (though The Big Store comes close), but, in Adamson’s words, “they were never in anything as wonderful as they were.” By the early ‘70s, I’d probably seen all of them with two exceptions: Animal Crackers (which was unavailable for legal reasons) and The Cocoanuts. In checking the TV Guide, though, I saw that, after years of waiting, it was finally going to be on. But, as scheduling would have it, it was going to be on in the middle of the afternoon on a school day.

I have no memory of how I did it, but I somehow persuaded my mother to let me come home from school to watch it. I enjoyed the hell out of it (still do), and carry that memory fondly.

By all accounts, the Marxes may have been just about the biggest stars on Broadway in the days when that was the epitome of show business. With a couple of movie-star exceptions (Chaplin and Pickford), you really couldn’t get much bigger. The thing about the brothers was that every performance was apparently barely-controlled chaos and unique from any other: one night Harpo arrived late, forgot to underdress for a quick change and ended up naked on stage; songwriter Harry Ruby marched on stage one night to demand that he be given the bathrobe he’d been promised as a birthday present; ad libs outnumbered actual lines (one night, playwright George S Kaufman was standing backstage and told the person he was talking to “Quiet. I think I just heard one of my original lines”). There was no telling exactly what would happen, but whatever it was would undoubtedly be hysterically funny.

“We’re four of the Three Musketeers”

“We’re four of the Three Musketeers”

The script for both The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers have been available for decades (I own them both), but it’s incredibly rare when someone does them – especially the former (most of Irving Berlin’s score was actually lost until the Ashland production). So when I saw they were doing Animal Crackers in Ashland, I figured I had to see it – and I ended up having one of the best evenings I’ve ever spent in the theatre. It was exactly what I wanted: full of chaos, spontaneity, ad libs, and inspired insanity. It was the next best thing to seeing the actual brothers on stage. And, on top of that, when it was announced that they’d be doing The Cocoanuts this season; well, there was no damn way I was going to miss it.

Because of my commitments to Slaughterhouse Five, we were unable to head north until the end of October. Looking at the schedule, I saw that that would be the last week of the run – and the season – so I decided we had to see the final performance, figuring that, if any performance would go off the rails (in the best way), it’d be this one. It indeed did; it was just one of those performances where I had a big stupid grin on my face for nearly three hours, just drinking in the brilliance of the writing and performances. It was one of those rare times when I went into a show with the highest of expectations and hopes, and not only where they met, but everything went to 11.

“The skies will all be blue/When my dreams come true” – and they did.

The thing I most came away with from that weekend, though, was getting a sense of Ashland. It was the first extended period I’d spent in the town, and I could really see how it’s all focused on the festival (for good reason, but still …). Everything downtown seems to have some relation to what’s going on at the theatres; that the people in town have seen the productions and can talk about them intelligently; that the stores are doing more than selling books and tchotchkes that have a “Ye Olde” vibe. There’s a real sense of pride as to what the Festival means – and does – that I’ve never felt in another city, not even Stratford-Upon-Avon. It’s a real theatre-based town and economy that made me want to work there and become part of that experience.

Downtown Ashland

Downtown Ashland

It’s something I can’t imagine in another town or city. Theatre is either a minor or nonexistent part of most peoples’ lives in the Bay Area. The people I work with don’t go (they barely go to movies, let alone live non-musical performances), and certainly wouldn’t recognize names like Sarah Ruhl or Theresa Rebeck, let alone Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams. (Hell, they barely know movies or television shows that are more than five years old.)

Now, I hasten to add, I don’t think these people are stupid or poorly educated – at least, in areas that don’t relate to the arts. It’s just that so many of our communities ignore the arts – performing and visual – that to say they ignore them is a vast minimization. They don’t know them in the way they don’t know what the best bakery in Montevideo is; it just doesn’t exist for them. That’s what was so exhilarating about being in Ashland. There was a sense that not only is everyone aware of, and pulling for, what’s happening with the Festival; it’s that it matters to them.

And realizing that was simultaneously frustrating, sad – and inspiring.

Everything Is Already Something Week 35: Caution, Contents May Explode

Stop reading about the film version of “Into The Woods” and read this instead- it’s Allison Page! 

My big problem now isn’t inspiration, it’s dread of content. Let’s say you’ve got the ingredients for two pie recipes – one is for a Chocolate French Silk pie and one is for a Personal Fears And Worst Parts Of Yourself Plus Chocolate Shavings pie. They both contain some chocolate, but the first one sounds less painful to make, right? That’s what’s going on with me right now. I’m keenly aware of what I should be working on. I have 75% of a draft of a play that’s really important to me and is filled with lots of real shit. And it’s been 75% done for months. I haven’t touched it since February. I NEED a completed draft this month, and it currently has no ending. A play should probably have an ending, so they tell me. And then I have this other play. I have a fully completed draft, I’ve had a reading of it, and I don’t *need* to make the necessary revisions until fall. But I’d much rather work on that, than the more pressing script. Who wouldn’t choose a juvenile horror comedy with a mythical beast to work on over something that so closely relates to their own demons, and the demons of people who have been close to them?

Wait, it's not going to write itself? BUT PEOPLE SAY THAT ALL THE TIME.

Wait, it’s not going to write itself? BUT PEOPLE SAY THAT ALL THE TIME.

Overall I think it’s a cop-out to say that you can’t write anything unless you’re in the mood or feeling inspired. Maybe I say that so that I can convince myself not to wait for inspiration, knowing that I’m so lazy I might never get around to feeling inspired. (I enjoy playing tricks on myself to force myself to work. I do it all the time. Just setting bear traps around my apartment to create a sense of urgency. You know, regular stuff.) But dreading the content isn’t much different from “not feeling inspired” if the end result is the same – not getting shit done. I’ve been primarily writing comedy for the last several years, which is obviously fun. Even when it’s hard, it’s fun. You know what’s not always fun? Writing a character that you love who is completely sabotaging their own potential for happiness. UGHHHHH, RIGHT?!?

YOU CAN'T TELL BUT I'M HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE!

YOU CAN’T TELL BUT I’M HAVING THE TIME OF MY LIFE!

’m hoping this is one of those situations that I’ll later look back on and say “That was really hard but SO WORTH IT.” and not “That was just really hard. Pass the bourbon, stranger.” I feel bad even talking about it, somehow or other people write way more exhausting/personal/tragic/depressing/catastrophic stories than the one I’m working on. I recently saw a production of The Crucible (while in the middle of pondering this topic) and thought “Yowza. Imagine writing all that misery.”

Arthur Miller: Bucket Of Fun And Smiles.

Arthur Miller: Bucket Of Fun And Smiles.

Or Titus Andronicus…that couldn’t have been a good headspace for Shakespeare to live in. Ah, to be a fly on the wall of those therapy sessions. I guess that’s part of the toil of being a playwright – not always wanting to live in the world you’re building, and worrying that it’ll take you somewhere you’re afraid you’ll never be able to leave. This isn’t just a problem writers face, but something actors can get stuck in too, obviously. I’ve done some heavy actor-brooding in the past. Antigone wasn’t exactly a giggle-fest.

That probably sounded pretty grim. In actuality, I’m really excited about this play – it’s just not easy. There is plenty of humor in it, but I’ve got that part down. It’s the other icky-sticky-dark-murky stuff that needs my attention.

PS. If you see me looking forlorn, staring down at the sidewalk…buy me a cookie.

Allison Page is an actor/writer/director/whatever and you can follow her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage.

It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: You Can’t Buy Publicity Like This

Dave Sikula, back in the here and now. 

For the past few weeks, I’ve been in rehearsal for my production of Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention” at Palo Alto Players. It seems like just days ago that I had my auditions, but here we are, finally on stage, with our opening next week. It’s been an interesting process (but aren’t they all?), mainly for two reasons.

The first is dealing with the usual mix-n-match collection of actor conflicts, up to and including losing one of my lead actors to something as trivial as an anniversary trip to Hawaii (how dare he have gotten married all those years ago!).

The second was the not-unusual differences between the rehearsal space and the actual theatre. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of working at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, let me describe it briefly. It was built in the 30s (as a WPA project, I believe), and – in spite of the desperate need (IMHO) for a renovation, it’s a lovely space to work in: good sightlines and acoustics (once you’re downstage of the proscenium, that is), pleasant and professional staff, reasonably comfortable accommodations for actors.

The problem is, the rehearsal room in the back is much smaller than the stage itself. In my previous productions there, there had been an extension that made that stage much closer to the actual one used in performance. That extension was taken away some time in the recent past, so that while there’s plenty of depth, there’s not quite as much as we’d actually be using – not to mention the issues of the various platforms and levels in the set design. “Don’t worry; it’s all going to change” became my mantra to the cast, who looked suspiciously at the close quarters and tightness of the blocking.

Not our show, but you get the idea.

Not our show, but you get the idea.

Sure enough, Wednesday night was got on stage, and all of their fears – well, most of them – were addressed. “Oh, now I get it!” was the response. We spent the evening restaging a good portion of the first act, and everything I had in my head, but wasn’t able to convey, became clear to all of us.

(In all honesty, I think it’s going to be a dynamite production – especially when we add the tech elements. They’re going to make for a long cue-to-cue and 10-out-of-12 day, but they should be more than worth it.)

Tangentially, I might mention that this production has become the center of a bit of controversy. The play’s plot deals with how electronic television was invented by Philo T. Farnsworth, and how the process of who would control TV was tied up for years by David Sarnoff, the head of both RCA and NBC.

Even though Philo won every legal battle over the patents, Sorkin has him lose and kind of brushes it off with a monologue by Sarnoff. I understand why he did it dramaturgically – it sets up the final scenes – but I have no idea why he felt so compelled to distort the truth that way. And neither does a fellow in Tennessee who runs a website called farnovision.com, which is rightly dedicated to making sure people are aware of what Farnsworth did.

Philo Farnsworth and his eponymous invention.

Philo Farnsworth and his eponymous invention.

Well, somehow this fellow found out we were doing the show (not that it’s a secret), and began a letter-writing campaign more or less demanding that we rewrite the play to give Philo the victory.

Now, let it be noted, I’m very much in the pro-Farnsworth camp. We even have his nephew coming to two talkbacks to give the audience the real scoop on what happened, and I’ve been in contact with other members of the family, soliciting their participation. But this guy in Tennessee keeps complaining – to the point where the Mercury News is doing a story on the controversy

I have no idea of what the outcome of this whole thing is going to be, but I look forward to its resolution.

Anyway, being so close to opening, I was put in mind of the beginning of the process, and came across a blog entry I’d written during auditions. It follows below, in edited form. It’s mainly some of my thoughts on the whole audition process.

I had my first round of auditions today, and was pleasantly surprised by the turnout. Not that I wasn’t expecting good actors – I got them in spades, even the people I didn’t call back – but that I wasn’t expecting so many men or how, consequently, tough the casting choices are going to be.

What it didn't look like, but was the best image I could come up with.

What it didn’t look like, but was the best image I could come up with.

One of the things about “The Farnsworth Invention” is that it has, by my count, 93 speaking roles in 43 scenes, so – short of casting 93 actors – there’s going to be a lot of doubling, tripling, and quadrupling – or more. I’ve broken down the casting at least five times (my initial spreadsheet was nine pages; I’ve gotten it down to one or two, depending …), and while I think I’ve got the final version, it’s still subject to change dependent on what happens in rehearsal. (This also applies to blocking; I have a feeling that I may well stage a scene, look at it, and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Let’s try it this way.” Fortunately, I’ve (finally!) got a long-enough rehearsal period that I have the luxury of being able to do that.)

Probably the right-size cast for "Farnsworth."

Probably the right-size cast for “Farnsworth.”

You never know what you’re going to get in an open audition. I’ve seen brilliant monologues and I’ve seen cringe-worthy stuff. My favorite example of the latter was in 1983. I was working the desk, checking people in for the Equity auditions for the Grove Shakespeare Festival. The festival itself was in Garden Grove – the heart of Orange County – but the auditions were at Santa Ana College. A fellow with a “European” accent – it wasn’t Spanish, French, German, Russian, or any identifiable-to-me dialect; it was “European” – came in asked where the bathroom was. It was a warm day and he’d driven down from Los Angeles, so I assumed he needed to either use the facilities or just “refresh” himself.

The Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove.

The Festival Amphitheatre in Garden Grove.

He’d been in the bathroom a few minutes, and I went in to either use the facilities myself or get him.

He was wearing a toga.

Not recommended audition wear.

Not recommended audition wear.

I mentally rolled my eyes and rushed into the theatre to warn the producer and the directors, “There’s a guy in a toga in the bathroom.” They visibly rolled their eyes, and I went out to usher this actor into the lion’s den. The producer said, “Ah, I see you’re doing something modern.”

The actor muttered some humorous reply, climbed the stairs to the stage, and launched into a very bad version of “Franz, romance, countrymans” (sounding, in memory. like a bad Schwarzenegger impression). He finished and the producer went up on stage, put a friendly arm around his shoulder, and explained to him why his choices may not have been the best.

This was also the series of auditions where, in the non-Equity call, a kid (just out of high school) did some Shakespearean scene that had elaborate blocking and miming of props and other characters. It was astounding in its awful meticulousness. When he finished (after what seemed like about an hour), he thanked us and left, and we all turned to one another and asked, “What the hell was that?” (The punchline here is that he came back the next year and did it again. I wasn’t present to see that one, though.)

Even Will was appalled.

Even Will was appalled.

After seeing those, I’ve learned to both expect anything at an audition and that I’ll never see anything that quit matches those heights.

Though a boy can dream, can’t he?

Working Title: Expecting the Dark Prince

This week Will takes a look at the perils of writing familiar characters.

OK writers, it’s writing activity time. Take out your #2 pencils and pick your favorite literary character. Got it? Good. Go! Put yourself in the mindset of this person and then write a new scene or scenario or sequel. Don’t worry about originality. Just write. Get those juices flowing! Back before the turn of the millennium, Mr. Smith, my senior English teacher, said something similar as he charged me with the task of creating a series of journal entries for a character in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I’d like to think I was tapping into the civilized nature of Ralph, the novel’s protagonist, but I might have just been channeling cheeseburgers and speaking as Piggy. Who knows. It’s been awhile. The point is writing in this way allows one to connect to a character and engage in an alternate, personalized way. Instead of being passive readers, we are now active co-owners of the story. This is all good for students, but when does it become an activity for professional writers?

The Aurora Theatre recently mounted David Davalos’ Wittenberg, which tells the story of prince Hamlet (yes, that Hamlet) and his final fall semester at university before returning to Elsinore castle after news of his father’s death. The two sides of his budding mind are molded by the religious, theological teachings of Professor Martin Luther and the seeking philosophy of Doctor Faust. This creates a wonderful stage to hit back and forth the ideas which Hamlet anguishes over in the famous play. Davalos uses our familiarity with the Bard’s work to comedic ends. Famous lines are thrown around in new ways. (Faust: “To be or nor o be” / Hamlet: “Is that the question?”) This is very entertaining on the surface. The inherent problem is that the very thing that gets people in the door also creates a very high bar to live up to. Most comedies set against Hamlet seem trite. It’s a blessing and curse. Wittenberg is aware of that fact and has fun with these weighty characters while still playing with weighty themes. That’s the blessing. I enjoyed ideas and source material more than the overall production. That’s the curse of adaptation.

Wittenberg copy

Similarly, genre films can create this same curse of expectation. Jim Jarmusch’s new film Only Lovers Left Alive is a vampire movie. The beauty is that the film exceptionally more than that. Even though Lovers isn’t working with a specific character that most audiences are familiar with, it is working with a certain breed of character. This particular bloody breed is fraught with expectation. Everyone has an idea of what a vampire should be. Just as most theater goers have expectations of the Bard’s dark Danish Prince should be. There is much to be said overall about the quality of this film but for now I’m interested in how it stacks up against audience expectation of the vampire. Jarmusch brings the vampire story back to a place that holds a mirror to humanity instead of existing apart from it.

Jim_Jarmusch copy

My vampiric expectations look something more like Interview with the Vampire rather than Twilight. However all of these stories are playing with similar genre expectations: immortality, sensuality, danger, outsider mentality, super-human power, empowerment, longevity, inspiration, violence, the trappings of existence. The difference here is that Jarmusch takes these tools and turns them into lenses over the human condition. What does it mean to be near-immortal? Do the weight of years enhance our ability to see beauty in the world or only make existence feel all the more heavy? Is creativity richer when you are restricted to the outside fringe of society? How does anger and separation heighten allure? The methodical atmosphere of Lovers rolls over these themes and allows Jarmusch’s characters to appear as tangible and as alive as any human counter part. The film adds up to more than the drawn lines of it’s genre. This is what it looks like when adaptation transcends.

Only_Lovers_Left_Alive copy

Adaptation is an essential aspect of artistic creation. It has been and will remain so as long as we continue to create. Occasionally, it seems greater or lesser value is assigned to the discussion of adaptation versus original creation. Which is harder? Which is more important? Ultimately, it’s a fruitless non-discussion. They are different creative endeavors. Black and white rules don’t apply here. (Do they anywhere?) Taking a set of characters and creating a new story around them is just as hard as starting with an entirely blank slate. I’m sure certain sides of this activity come more easily to one writer or another. In the end, do I care whether Hamlet as derived from Amleth or ur-Hamlet? No. The quality of a new creation speaks for itself. With any art, when the piece edges upon transcendence, the familiar can reach into the universal.

Citation

Allen, David. Wittenberg. Digital image. http://www.auroratheatre.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.

Jim Jarmusch. Digital image. http://www.imdb.com ;N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.

Only Lovers Left Alive. Digital image. http://www.imdb.com ;N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2014.

Hi-Ho, The Glamorous Life: I Don’t Want to Wait

Marissa Skudlarek gives us her longest blog ever, because she’s got a lot to think about. 

As Allison Page noted here last week, self-producing is a hot topic among theater-makers right now. On Facebook, the group “The Official Playwrights of Facebook” frequently plays host to conversations about best practices for self-producing, and last week, HowlRound led a Twitter conversation on the topic.

In these discussions and conversations, there always seems to be someone (or multiple someones) offering advice along the lines of “Before you even think about self-producing a play, make sure you’ve done tons of drafts and multiple readings and workshops.”

Here’s why I think that that may be dangerous advice.

(Caveat emptor: I haven’t self-produced a play before, though I am planning to do so this year. Therefore, I may be writing this column from a place of naïve ignorance. If the play I self-produce this year goes disastrously, and I end 2014 moaning “Oh, if only I’d listened to the advice of my betters, if only I had revised and workshopped the play more before I produced it,” I will write a follow-up piece lamenting my folly. But these are my beliefs as they stand now.)

Now, I want to be clear that I don’t think playwrights should slap their raw, unedited first drafts onstage. My plays have definitely benefited from table reads, staged readings, and thoughtful revision. What I am taking aim at, though, is the idea that a playwright must spend years revising and workshopping a single script before it can even be considered stageworthy.

The standard counter-example to the idea of “every play needs tons and tons of revision” is Shakespeare. While we know very little about Shakespeare’s life or his writing process, consider this: he wrote about forty plays in twenty years, at a time when writing was much slower and more difficult than it is today. And he had a day job, too: he acted in and helped run a theater company. So it’s doubtful that he had the time to do multiple revisions and workshops of each of his plays!

But, you might say, Shakespeare was a genius and, anyway, he lived 400 years ago. Still, think of some examples closer to our own time. Well-known American playwrights such as Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson got their start by writing and producing lots of plays at the Caffe Cino: fast, cheap, and dirty. Not all of their early plays stand the test of time, but they got these writers noticed, taught them valuable lessons about the craft of playwriting, and are still being read and produced today.

Moreover, why are playwrights told to spend years workshopping and revising, when we do not expect the same of screenwriters? Woody Allen writes and directs a film a year, pretty much, and he claims that he doesn’t do multiple drafts of his screenplays—he just writes a script and then shoots it. And he has more Oscar wins and nominations for screenwriting than anyone else! Or, as you know, we are living in a Golden Age of television, and a typical TV episode is written, shot, and edited within a span of weeks or months. Some of the most brilliant dramatic writing of the 21st century has appeared on TV, and none of it comes from writers who spent years revising and workshopping a single script.

We playwrights may not earn as much money as Hollywood screenwriters, but historically, we’ve consoled ourselves by saying “Well, at least our plays do not get stuck in ‘development hell’ the way that screenplays do!” Yet now, people are advising us that for “the good of the play,” we need to get stuck in a development hell of our own making. We hear that our work is so precious, so special, so flawed, so fussy, so hard to get right, that it needs years of tender loving care before it’s ready to go out into the cruel world.

Actually, here’s a metaphor for you. You’ve probably heard people compare writing a play to having or raising a child. And, in the olden days of high infant mortality, parents would have lots of children and then try not to get too attached to them, for fear that the child would die. Discipline was severe, and parents expected their kids to grow up fast. Nowadays, people plan for their children carefully, have just one or two kids, lavish them with attention, and overthink every aspect of parenting. Likewise, in the olden days, playwrights expected to write plays at a steady pace, have them produced regularly, and then move on to their next play. But, nowadays, we are encouraged to write fewer plays, and become “helicopter parents” to the plays we have written.

I don’t want to return to an era of Dickensian cruelty and high infant mortality, nor do I want to live in a world where every play is produced right after the playwright completes the first draft. Still, there’s evidence that helicopter parenting is harmful to children, and I think it can be harmful to plays as well.

Consider this: if every new play needs to be workshopped for years before production, this will ensure that the theater always lags a few years behind the rest of culture. One of the theater’s advantages has always been its immediacy and flexibility. But as the rest of the culture speeds up (blogs, Twitter, the 24-hour news cycle), we’re encouraging playwriting to slow down and take its time. Also, if you do too many drafts, there’s a risk that you will grow bored with your own play and that it will lose its initial freshness and liveliness. You may even extinguish the creative spark that caused you to write it in the first place.

And if you want to do a dozen drafts and three workshops of your play in the hopes that you can iron out all of its flaws and make it critic-proof… sorry, honey, that’s not going to happen. No play is ever “critic-proof,” because no work of art can ever appeal to everyone’s tastes. Moreover, I remember reading a line in Chad Jones’ SF Chronicle review of American Dream, by Brad Erickson, that pulled me up short: “For a new play, American Dream is in remarkably good shape, though, as with any new work, there is still room for editing.” I never saw American Dream and therefore cannot say whether it had “room for editing” or not — what bothers me here is Jones’ cavalier implication that every new play needs editing and that it’s rare to find a new play that is in “good shape.” It suggested that critics approach new plays with the assumption that they are always flawed in some way. And if a critic goes into your play with that attitude, no amount of revision will help your cause.

A culture that encourages “five years of revisions” encourages writers to operate from a mentality of fear and scarcity, rather than a mentality of joy and abundance. It suggests that the financial, emotional, and reputational damage accrued from producing a less-than-perfect play will be far more consequential than any lessons you might learn from producing that play. (And everyone says that producing a play teaches you a lot and will make you a better writer the next time around.) It encourages black-and-white thinking: it suggests that unless your play is perfect, it is worthless.

Maybe some people do benefit from this advice. Maybe there are brash, over-confident people who bang out a play in two weeks, refuse to revise it, and insist on producing it “as is.” But I’m a fearful, neurotic person who has struggled with perfectionism for my whole life. So I can say with some authority that, for people like me, it is dangerous to tell us to wait and revise and make sure everything is perfect. Because we will wait, oh yes. We will wait forever.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s gearing up to self-produce a full-length play later this year. For more, visit marissabidilla.blogspot.com or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.