Monday, June 24, 2013

Shake up the Snowglobe

Sometimes when you're writing a play it all comes out and the characters and story lines that were in your head are flowing to the the page like a fish in water. And then sometimes the play just stops. The story will cease to flow and the characters seem to have no reason to be where they are or doing what they're doing. You just cannnot write anymore and you don't know why. This is what we call writer's block. So what are we supposed to do when that happens. You have to keep writing. You have to keep going or else the play will be dead on arrival. So what do you do?

A play is like a snowglobe. When you're writing it all of the ideas, characters, motivations, and dialogue is swimming around in your head. You just catch them as you go and there always seems to be enough to get you through the next scene.

But then everything settles down suddenly and clumps up. No new ideas or tidbits are flying. Everything is clumping down on the bottom. So what do you do? You have to shake it up. You have to get those little bits flying in the air again. You do this by changing perspective. Turn the play or the character's world upside down and soon things will start flowing again. Here are some ideas for shaking up your story.

  • Look at the story from the perspective of your antagonist. What is their motivation for doing what they do and how do they view the main character?
  • Kill the character that you think you need. How do the other character's respond? How does the story progress or digress?
  • Put two characters together that never would been seen with each other and get them talking.  How do they progress the story.
  • Skip ahead to the ending. A lot of times we get stuck thinking that the play has to be written from start to finish. But if you have a scene or an ending that you keep thinking about write it. Maybe when you have an ending in mind you can see what it takes to get you there.
  • Get your characters drunk.
  • Make them sing whatever they're thinking.
  • Put each and everyone of them through the confessional at church.
You get the idea. All you have to do is worry about turning the play upside down so that you look at it differently. All these ideas might sound funny but they're not supposed to be Pulitzer Prize winning. It just helps you get the draft going. And you're going to rewrite it all anyway right?

Monday, June 17, 2013

MFA Diaries: June 17th

So it's Monday. The first day that the summer session officially starts but I've already had such a great adventure. Last just last wednesday I was on a greyhound bus on the way to New Jersey to see my baby DragynAlly. To some of you that might not seem much but I'd like to add that I am a born and raised southern boy. I've never been north of Louisville or west of the Mississippi. So for someone like that the bus ride up to New Jersey would have been enough of an adventure for the whole summer. I saw Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Atlantic City all from the beautiful vista provided by the windows on that bus.  Just me, my cigar box guitar, and my best friend Magilla (the stuffed gorilla) on the road together to see my baby-cakes.
Me getting comfortable with Dana's baby Star
Now I have a confession to make. I used to say before I saw the north that you could never get the same country feel that the South has. I'm a podunk Metro Jethro. I love wading in the water with a reel in my hand and walking down the city streets in search of the perfect pizza. I love it all. But I never thought that a northern town would ever have the same feel of the country that I was looking for. When we got to DragynAlly's hometown of Mays Landing it was one of the most podunk towns I've ever seen! (And coming from me that's a major compliment). There were fishing holes not half a mile from her place and littles mom and pop diners. And just the feel of it all was very redneck. Nothing will ever replace the South but part of my heart will always be in North now.

She tackle hugged me the minute I got off the bus.
So it's weird to not even have started school and already feel a sense of accomplishment and piece. I already know that if the rest of the summer holds up like this it's going to be one of those years to remember.

My first slice of Northern Pizza. It is the best!
*Important Note: The only affiliation I have with Hollins University is as a student in the Playwrights Lab. They don't pay me to say nice things about them and all of the nice things I say about them are my own.

Creating a Play Submission Lead List

So last week I talked about networking for playwrights. You don't want to be sending out any cold submissions (sending to people that you don't know). The best way to do this is to cultivate a sound network with good business contacts. Like the old adage for employment goes 90% of percent of jobs are made through personal contacts. In the new play industry a majority of your productions at first will come from personal contacts.

So how do you keep track of all of your contacts? Well when I worked at Vector Marketing one of the greatest tools I learned was the lead book. A lead book is the names and numbers of every business contact that you've ever made.  Want to know how to make one? Well get out a spiral notebook and start making a list of these people...

  • Every director that you know.
  • Every professor that you know.
  • The literary department of every theatre you've ever been to.
  • Every actor that you know.
  • Non-Profit organizations that you volunteer at.
  • Causes that you donate too.
  • Churches that you know.
  • Every person that you ever met at a networking event or a convention.
  • Your playwright colleagues
  • Festivals and submissions that your colleagues submit to.
  • Festivals and contests that your colleagues and mentors sit on the board for.
  • Festivals, submissions, theaters, and fellowships that a mentor or professor has worked with before or told you about in class. 
  • Any place where a colleague has been published.
You should have a list that spans a couple of pages right about now. When you have wracked your brain until it starts smoking take a minute or two and start marking them into these kinda categories....

  • Gimmees: If you ask them they would do it no matter what. Or an opportunity that has little competition.
  • Career-makers: I might be a long shot that you ever get a production with this company or win this contest but if you ever did get selected it could be a great high mark on your resume. 
  • Maybes: You submit to them because you've heard a lot of great things about them and it would be great to work with them in the future.
  • Lines in the water: Most of the people in this list would be the actors and directors that you know. You keep your connections with them and you work with them. They won't be the ones to give you a production but they're always the ones that will give you a good recommendation where they work or will tell you about any opportunities that they know about. 
Start breaking up your list into pages that work for you. For an hour a day or anytime that you have downtime handy spend some time on the computer researching these people and updating their contact info. Keep some notes off to the side about what kind of plays they do or any wonky requirements they have. Always update and always keep your ears to the ground. If you keep stressing personal contacts and a network of real people and real business relationships your work is bound to go far!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Character Development 101

DragynAlly here. Hostilely taking over the Lounge. Fear me! Ok don't fear me but join me in my attempt to teach you how to write. As a screenwriter, I am always working on creating new characters. And working on finding a way to say that and not sound pretentious. Below are some tips and tricks I've learned to help me create interesting characters. Use what works for you. Throw out what doesn't.

  1. Create a character playlist: Whether it's music, movies or TV shows your character indulges in something. Make a list and watch or play them. Then ask yourself "what person listens to Lady Gaga and Nine Inch Nails?" Or whatever combo of music you chose. You might get a glimpse into your character's psyche.
  2. Interview your character: Make a list of questions, like James Lipton, and ask your character. Where were you born? What is your first childhood memory? Etc.Write the answers as your character. You may find you have a lot of story to work with.
  3. Journal as your character: Imagine waking up each day as your character. What would you do? Where would you go? Write all of that down in a journal and refer to it as needed.
  4. Trap 2 of your characters in a room together: The key here is getting them talking and interacting with one another. Do they like each other? Are they friends, enemies, or frienemies? Would they save each other if they were drowning? All of this is good info.
  5. Put your character in an impossible situation: It is in moments of crisis that we reveal our true selves. Your character is no different. If a building is falling down what does your character do? How about if your character is being chased by a killer? Put your character in the weirdest or scariest place ever and find out who they really are.
I hope this helps jump start your writer brain. Do you have any tips on character development? Want me to write more tips? Let me know.
Speaking of "characters"...


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

MFA Diaries Tuesday June 11

*Important note: I am only affiliated with Hollins University as a student. They don't pay me for all the neat things I say about them. I gladly do it for free and my opinions are my own!

As of right this moment I'm hot, sweaty, and my mind is all in a tizzy. I'm leaving for Atlantic City to see DragynAlly tomorrow at 11 and then we're going to drive to grad school from there. I have a million things left to do before I leave and now I'm doing a kind of triage in my head about what really needs to get done and what can be left for my brother to do. (Brothers, gotta love em!)

All my brothers and sisters in the Playwright's Lab
I've been going to grad school at Hollins University's Playwright's Lab for three years now so I should be used to the dreaded "day before the leave". The first year I was panicked. I had never been to a new city all by myself, not knowing anybody or where anything was. I knew that grad school was going to be different and I was fresh out of undergrad. Just four weeks previous I had just graduated from Undergrad at Austin Peay State University. Boy I was nervous. I was always wondering if I was going to be good enough. What if I was just a talentless hack with no future as a playwright? What if I had learned to do everything the wrong way in undergrad and I was hopelessly unprepared for grad?

That soon dissipated quickly. The one thing I love about the Playwright's Lab and it's environment is that it's non-competitive and laid back. You're learning from powerhouses of the theatre world like Mac Wellman and Mead Hunter and have great guest professors like Bob Moss, Ruth Margraff and John Bergman. If you're a die hard playwright and love to hone your craft the Playwright's Lab is less like a school and more like a getaway, an intense retreat where all you have to do is pursue your craft and hone your skills and do what you love with other people that love what they do. (And on top of that you get graded for it!)

Me and my babycakes!
If you had asked me that first year I would never have told you that a place other than Clarksville would be home. But today as I'm sitting here at the computer, literally 24 hours away from stepping on the bus, I just feel that nervous anticipation of someone knowing that they're going home again. I'm going to be seeing my extended theatre family again and be with DragynAlly for the most glorious seven weeks ever.

Yeah...I'm going home.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Does submitting to Contests Actually Help my Play?

So you've seen me talk on more than one occasion about my opinions on playwrights mailing their scripts out to contests or requests from open submissions. Let me revise that.  I never cared about people mailing out their scripts. Submitting to contests and fellowships and theaters and the like is a great way to get your name out there. Here's the problem that I have with the idea. That playwrights take it too literally. I have so many colleagues out there googling submissions and festivals online and just mailing their plays away hoping that someone will write back. That's not a good business plan for you if you want to make any money or get any recognition in the business.

Personally I think submitting plays is a great part of your business plan. But it should never be your only business plan. And here's the worst part about only mailing out scripts...people don't know who you are yet. You have no name or history with these people. All you know is their address and that they were looking for plays and all they know is that you're one play among the millions of other plays that they have.

So how do you combat this? How do you do this smarter than the other playwrights out there. One of the greatest things that I learned in grad school is what I call the Trick or Treat rule. Only submit to people that you know and have an established relationship with. If you don't have an established relationship with them find an environment like a convention or a networking event to get to know them. That way you're just not another face or name when they get a script from you. Here are some other pointers.

  • Have business cards and lots of them.  Make sure that your picture and accurate info is on them.
  • Go see productions at a theatre that you want to submit to. Meet and greet people at the reception and hand your business card out.
  • Go to the conventions. Hand out your business cards to anyone you talk to at the mixer. 
  • Volunteer at regional theaters or other organizations. It's always good to have a few references.
  • When you're at an event never eat lunch on your own. Be bold and offer your booth to someone else. 
  • If you give a business card take a business card. Write some small notes about them on the back. You should have a file of important info of every meaningful connection that you've made.
  • Before you pitch to anyone just focus on having a good conversation with them. If you've had a good talking to them they'll probably ask for your card before you offer it. 
You may have notice I said the world "business card a lot". They're a worthwhile investment. On top of that remember that your business is about making good connections. It's quality over quantity.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Business Profile: Independent Playwrights

1. How did you get into what you do?

I work as the Director of New Play Development for a small Chicago based theater company. Through my work with playwrights, it has become increasingly clear to me that unpublished writers need a better way to have their work read. There are lots of great plays out there that never get performed because there is no way for directors to find and read them- we’re hoping to change that!

2. What education have you received and how has it helped you do what you do?

I studied theater at Dartmouth College. The great thing about the theater department at Dartmouth is that the professors and administrators are really committed to being mentors and friends to their students. They were always encouraging me to do more. Peter Hackett, who was the chair of the department while I was there, is tremendously good at developing new work and new voices. He was, and is, a fantastic role model and was one of the first people we sent the Independent Play(w)rights business plan to.

3. What's your biggest achievement?

Launching our website was a pretty great moment for all of us. There was so much time, paperwork and effort invested in it that seeing the final project come together was pretty exciting.

4. What is your biggest goal?

The way we see it, plays get produced because of people. People who love plays. Our biggest goal is to provide a platform where people who love plays can find amazing work to produce.
5. If you were a piece of furniture what would you be and why?

A nightstand. Mostly because mine is broken and I’ve come to realize how necessary they are.

6. What are you reading right now?

Lots of fantastic plays for Independent Play(w)rights and The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman.

7. Who was your biggest mentor?

Peter Hackett, former Artistic Director of the Cleveland Playhouse and a professor at Dartmouth College. No one encourages, mentors, and teaches like Peter does. He got me my first job out of college, interning with the National Theatre in Budapest, Hungary- pretty great!

8. What's your next big project?

We have a few things coming up: first, creating a stronger networking component for the website, second, developing a playwriting class to help writer’s hone their skills and third, bringing a few bloggers on staff to contribute more great content to our blog.

9. If you could give a tip to anyone in your field what would it be?

Every play has something pretty great in it. Read to discover what those great things are!

10. If I gave you a thousand dollars and told you to do anything today to better your business what would you do and why?

We want to start creating a community of directors and writers who are working together to produce new work. Our next big project is to develop a networking part of the site that will allow producer, writers and directors to make connections and collaborate.

11. What is your strength in this business?

Our playwrights! We work with really talented writers who are truly pushing the boundaries of what’s being done on stage. We’re continually drawing inspiration from the great writers we work with. And the support and encouragement they have given us has been completely amazing. We are very appreciative of the fantastic group of people we've brought together.

12. What makes you unlike all of your competitors?

At Independent Play(w)rights, we want to give new writers a chance. We don’t care whether or not your work has been performed or workshopped to death. If you’ve written a great play we want to help you get it performed. We have an open submission policy, we receive scores of great plays, and we read every single one of them. The one and only thing we take into account is the play. We care about our writers and are constantly trying to create opportunities to promote their work

13. What can you do for playwrights that they can't do for themselves?

Exposure and development opportunities. We’re working to create a great platform for unpublished writers to share their work so they can reach a wider audience. As our business expands, we’ll be adding classes, more opportunities to participate in the community, and development events in some major US cities.

14. What is "good theatre"?

Good theatre makes you say “I’ve been that person, I’ve had those feelings, I see myself in this play.”

15. Where do you feel you have been "innovators"?

We’re trying to change the way people make connections and find projects. As a student, I was always interested in directing new work but didn’t know where to go to find pieces to work on. In the future, we hope producers will be able to visit our site and find the perfect project for them. We’re developing directors, writers and new work. We are also working to meet the playwrights individual needs, rather then forcing them to conform to ours.

16. Where do you see the business going in ten years?

Ideally, we’d love to have created a strong community of artists who are working together to produce and share their work on both a global and a local level.

To get in touch with Independent Playwrights find them at their website here.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

How to Write a Play Part One

So I talk a lot about writing playwriting and playwright problems but I've never tried to teach my dear readers how to write a play. Now this won't be the equivalent of taking some serious writing classes in a school or something but it will show you how to use the Playwright's Primal Blueprint that I keep talking about to get a draft out in a matter of weeks. So like every good class let's talk about the syllabus.

What's Required?

  • An unhealthy love of crazy ideas.
  • A pen and paper.
  • Time
  • A sense of what a good story is.
  • Things that irk you.
  • Something to talk about.

How's it going to work?

  • Each week we talk about the next step in writing a play. Each week will feed into the next. 
  • I give some examples and practical applications of the theory.
  • Then I give you some homework to write about the next week. This will come into two basic components: A journal type assignment and a scene or creative assignment. 

So what am I getting out of this?

Well hopefully you gain some valuable knowledge about what comes into writing a play but you if you follow along and do the homework you'll have a rough draft of a thirty minute play (we call them one-acts). Then having written a play you can finally call yourself a playwright! So stay tuned next week where the fun begins!

Monday, June 3, 2013

What if Dogme 95 came to Theatre?

So one of my favorite points of research has been digital video creation. One of my favorite books on the subject is "Extreme DV at Used-Car Prices". I've quoted it once before on the blog. And one of the things that Rick Schmidt plugs in the book is a great style called "the Dogme 95 Vow of Chastity".

Theatre folks can think of it as the film version of Grotowski's "Poor Theatre" which shuns the over stylized lights and sets of the stage and focuses just on characters and the story. Dogme 95 goes a bit farther and calls for a "vow of chastity" with hard rules that filmmakers have to follow.  So what does a vow of chastity do for you? It keeps you focused on the stuff that really matters in the story and not to rely on flashy effects, elaborate set pieces, etc. It gets you to focus on just telling a story using the basic building blocks: characters, dialogue, and motivation.
A picture from Rick Schmidt's Dogme 95 movie. Borrowed from LightVideo

So without further ado I've adapted the Dogme rules into my own theatre vow of chastity that I want to stick to whenever I'm developing a show in a lab setting or such like. Maybe for the next show or production that you do you'll want to try it out too and see what it does for your story telling style.

The Fronkensteen Vow of Theatre Chastity

  1. Low Tech: You must spend more than ten hours building sets, props, lights, and costumes for your show. No more than $200 shall be budgeted for tech.  You shall spend no more than 5 hours setting up.
  2. No fake sound: Sound must not be piped in through a sound system or through artificial means. Only sound effects that occur live onstage are acceptable. Only live music or music that would be normally heard on a radio or television in the play will be acceptable.
  3. No fixed audience-actor relationship: The standard proscenium style of seating is prohibited. Explore new ways for the audience to interface with the art.
  4. No special lighting: Practical lighting onstage is acceptable. Shining stage lights at the actors are acceptable. No special lighting affects or devices may be used. 
  5. No special effects.
  6. The Play must be from the artists heart. There must be no derivatives, rip offs, or cliche's. 
  7. The Play takes place here and now.
  8. No Genres: Make people fall in love but don't make it a "romance". Put people in space but don't make it a "science fiction." It should be a story springing out of your individual soul.
  9. You must pay your actors and everyone associated with the play in money or a service that is meaningful to them and their lives. We're all trying to make a living. If the art can't help support us we shouldn't be doing it.
  10. Everyone is acknowledged: The actors can bow at the end but the tech, director, playwright, ticket takers, janitors, etc. must get recognition too.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Best for Under $10: MayblogChallenge

So today I want to tell you about one of the greatest used bookstores in Tennessee if not the world! McKay is a bookstore that I came to kinda reluctantly. I was coming down from Borders being closed (my go to place back in the day) and when my grandmother said she found a new place I thought that no place could ever give me exactly what I wanted.

But when I walked in I was overwhelmed! It's a two level store filled with used books of all different styles and genres. I like a lot of different styles and go through books very quickly. That being said I don't want to shell out a lot of money for books I can read cover to cover in a week.

That's why I was really shocked by their prices. Some of my favorite novelists, John Sandford, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy... their paperbacks were five cents apiece and still in good condition. In most stores the only plays and theatre texts that I can find are the usual highschool fodder. But not only did I find a cheap complete works of Shakespeare I found Moliere, Checkhov, Mamet...even some Stephen Adly Guirgis!

At the end of my latest trip there I ended up pulling out at least twenty-five books out of the store. You think they cost me a pretty penny? Nope! I only paid $9.25 for all of them. And when you count that I snagged four more out of the "Free Boxes" that they have I would say that I came back home with a pretty good haul. Nowadays I only make one or two trips a year and I can get enough books to fill my reading list for under twenty bucks. Bet you can't do that at a Barnes and Noble!