Public speaking makes me want to pee…
I drove down to Cal State Fullerton last week to speak on a panel at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. I was on a panel with a colleague of mine, Ann-Giselle Spiegler, who is a “first call” director for new plays. She is smart, witty, eloquent, and full of life. It makes perfect sense to me why she would be on a panel. However, why I am asked to sit on panels eludes me. I am always nervous, sweating even, terrified that I will have little if nothing to say. And I always have to pee right before the panel starts, why is that? Plus, I have no witty repartee and nothing that comes out of my mouth is planned, rehearsed, or lets face it, even thought about. It’s not that I don’t want to be there, it’s just that by the time the dreaded day arrives, I have barely had time to eat breakfast that morning, let alone prepare for the panel. On the way down to Fullerton, I am feeling guilt ridden about my perpetual state of unprepared-ness, and I am praying to God to let me get through the panel without incident.
This particular panel was on “directing new plays” which is something that I have a lot of experience doing. However, I have absolutely no idea how to articulate that experience into any kind of cohesive sentence. Thankfully Ann started the conversation, which I was then able to dove-tail off of. As usual, Ann spoke eloquently about directing new plays and working with the writer in the room. She expressed her passion for the work she does, and explained her process with ease.
“There is no way I can do that!” I thought silently to myself. I wonder if this is a common thing? Do other artists have this affliction or is it just me? I find it nearly impossible to explain how I work or what I do in a rehearsal room. Partly because I think it changes depending on the play, the playwright, the cast, the material, etc. The work is almost always instinctual, there is no plan really, no rhyme or reason to the process, but more of a reaction to what is happening in the room. Oh shit! Ann is done speaking and it’s my turn to speak…here goes nothing!
After I stumbled over my words, and recited some sort of basic idea of what a director does in a rehearsal room, Ann suggested that we open up the room to questions for the panel. Ah ha! At last! Questions are good-I can handle those! Then, out of nowhere, a sudden stroke of panic hit me! “What if I don’t know the answers to the questions” I thought to myself. Once again, thank God Ann was there to make the question and answer section go a lot smoother. There was one question however, that resonated with me-it came from an older woman who was having her play produced at the festival for the first time. Her question was rather simple-“How do I get my plays produced?” Hmmmmm, that is a good question. Based on my blank look, Ann jumped in and attempted to answer her, while I was having a sort of surreal flashback…
Post Traumatic Theatre Disorder…
I suddenly flashed to almost 16 years ago when I and some other colleagues founded and ran a small theatre company in the valley dedicated to producing new work. Some of the playwrights that I still work with today were produced in that theatre back in the early 90’s. Talented local writers like Jon Bastian, Tim Toyama, Ken Hanes, Dale Griffiths Stamos, Leon Martel, and more. Despite the risk of producing new work, we supported their work. Our passion kept us going and we pushed through the lean times and made sure those controversial shows were mounted no matter what! We even got good reviews! Eventually The Road Theatre Company grew into one of the best 99 seat theatres in Los Angeles. And then it hit me-could it be true that I have known and worked with these writers for over 15 years now?
I thought about the upcoming production that my current theatre company, The Syzygy Theatre Company, is scheduled to produce. Written by Jon Bastian, Syzygy and the Los Angeles Writers Center have been developing this 6 hour epic for over 2 years now. And then it hit me-could it be true that Jon and I have maintained a relationship for over 15 years? Does that really happen in Hollywood? I mean who does that? Maybe that is what happens when you find your tribe? I quickly realized what the answer to the question might be….
Finding Your Tribe…
When it was my turn to reply, I was able to say without any doubt, “I think it is about the relationships that you form early on in your career that build a firm foundation for friendship, trust, and like mindedness.” The students looked at my blankly. I continued, “In other words, work with people that have an investment in you, in your talent, your friendship, and your success. Playwrights-find a director who believes in your work and let them champion it. After all, it is directors who push new work into production because of their passion for the writer and the piece. Without the director’s passion, new American plays might not get produced!” They looked confused, but my spark was ignited, and now I could not stop talking! “Plays are not to be hung on Museum walls, they should reflect the concerns of the present time!” Even I was shocked by how passionate I was becoming, but now I was on a roll! “Write about what concerns you! Write to discover the truth! Then, find someone who believes the same things you do and partner with them. Find your tribe. You are the future of the American Theatre!” Ok, even I knew I was getting carried away, so I turned the conversation back over to Ann.
After a slight pause, one of the student writers raised his hand and asked “but what if I don’t know any directors?” I thought about this question for a moment and then said with confidence, “Well, now you know us.” After the panel was over, the student came up and asked for my card. I handed it to him knowing that even though I barely have time to eat breakfast, I would read his play.
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTDISTRICT.COM Feb 2009
If you are a theatre director, chances are you have directed new work at some point in your career. I think the director/playwright relationship can be glorious, inspirational, and challenging at times. I really want to work with playwrights who are collaborative, supportive, and who trust me to do my work. But what do playwright’s look for in a director? I asked 7 playwrights what they are looking for in a director and below are their responses:
Playwright #1-Luis Alfaro- A Chicano, born and raised in downtown Los Angeles, he is the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and a resident artist at the Mark Taper Forum, where he is co-director of the Latino Theatre Initiative. CineFestival. He is the winner of the 1998 National Hispanic Playwriting Competition and the 1994 and 1997 Midwest PlayLabs.
“What a simple and provocative question. I recently had a director come speak to my MFA actors at USC and they asked the director what he wanted in an actor and he said – A Yes actor - someone who wants to play and discover. I want a Yes director. A collaborator that comes to the experience as open to the idea of change and as excited as I am to see a theme, language or image develop into something more surprising and cohesive than I might have imagined. The state of the theatre (and our Country) has made it difficult for artists to spend quality time on just one project. But honestly, I am looking for a director with intellectual curiosity and the time and ability to meditate on it. I want someone to dream with and to be inspired by our mutual understanding of how we can get deep and make the work live on stage. I want someone who understands subtext and believes that it as important as that which is made visible. I am looking for the relationship that can only happen on stage. I am thinking so much lately about depth and the dynamic it needs. Not only a way of thinking, but a way of moving and filling space and watching what happens when it has electricity in a play.”
Playwright #2-Mickey Birnbaum-has been produced at The Boston Court Theatre, The Road Theatre Company, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, The Perishable Theatre, to name a few. He has written several plays for the Virginia Avenue Project, which matches at-risk youth with theatre artists. He was a 2006 Inge Fellow.
“For me I want a director who's not just a traffic cop, but an active collaborator. A director who encourages development of a play even in rehearsal, but knows how to protect a playwright from the sometimes excessive desire to rewrite. A director who is an impermeable buffer zone between the playwright and the producers, who puts the needs of the play before the needs of the theater or the actors. I like directors who are, like me, manically obsessive about how each word falls, and capable of deep textual analysis. I need directors with a strong visual sense, who are willing to tackle ambitious leaps through space and time, which my plays often feature, without grumbling about it.”
Playwright #3-Tom Jacobson-MFA and playwright whose plays include Sperm (Circle X Theatre Company), The Orange Grove (Playwrights Arena), Bunbury, and Ouroboros (The Road Theatre Company). Mr. Jacobson is the co-literary manager at Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena and was a literary manager at Celebration Theatre. He is a founder of Playwrights Ink and is on the board of Cornerstone Theatre Company.
“Playwrights want: to talk through the play with the director at the very beginning to get a feeling for their concept, to be present for casting and rehearsals where they can privately convey their thoughts to the director, weigh in on designers and design elements, to get smart dramaturgical thinking from the director but feel free to make other choices. A creative partnership!”
Playwright #4-Megan Gogerty-Her music-play Love Jerry received its world premiere at Actors Express Theatre in Atlanta. A national finalist of the Alliance Theatre's Graduate Student Playwriting Competition, it was also performed as part of the mainstage season at the University of Texas at Austin, where it earned seven B. Iden Payne Award nominations including Outstanding Original Script and Outstanding Original Score, and five Austin Critic's Table Award nominations including the David Mark Cohen Award for best new play. Megan's ten-minute play Rumple Schmumple premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC as part of the National American College Theatre Festival, where she was the winner of Atlanta's Dad's Garage Theatre Company 10-Minute Play Residency Award. She earned her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin. Megan has been a Playwrights' Center Jerome Fellow and was a grateful recipient of the James A. Michener Playwriting Scholarship and the Ellsworth P. and Virginia Conkle Endowed Scholarship for Drama.
“Clarity. Help me understand what's actually happening in the play and why she's coming to those conclusions. Then I can decide if that perception is my intention. Half the time when developing new work, I don't know what I have on my hands - I've been following my instincts. And so it's helpful to get a sober, cogent, logical analysis of what's actually happening so I can make changes judiciously. The best thing a director has ever given me is perspective on my play.”
Playwright #5-Jon Bastian plays include The Heretics of Alexandra New Century Writer Award Finalist; Noah Johnson had a Whore... at South Coast Repertory, Winner of the SCR California New Plays Prize, and DramaLogue Award Winner for Outstanding Achievement in Playwriting, and a PEN West Literary Award Drama Nominee; Petty Treasons at the Audrey-Skirball Kenis Theatre and The Road Theatre nominated for three Valley Theatre League Awards; Bill & Joan, a Lois and Richard Rosenthal Playwriting Prize Finalist; and A Perfectly Natural Explanation, produced at the Rose Theatre, Theatre/Theater, and other venues. He was awarded a Fellowship to the Chesterfield Writers Film Project, sponsored by Steven Spielberg. His new play Strange Fruit is scheduled for production by the Syzygy Theatre in 2010.
“I want a director who can be a third eye, and show me things I hadn't realized I'd put in the script -- themes, thru-lines, symbolism, etc. -- and then enhance them in production. I want a director who gives the actors freedom to experiment and make different choices in rehearsal. I want a director who remembers there's a reason they call it a "play" and not a "work". It isn't Air Traffic Control. The director not only sets the tone for the production, but for the rehearsal process as well. I want a director who is a team-builder who can create a safe environment in which to experiment, as mentioned above. I want a director who does their research, or is willing to ask me questions when necessary. But you'll impress me more if you explain to the actors some obscure reference in Act II without having asked me what it meant. Especially if you're right”
Playwright #6-William Katt- A personal favorite in his theatre career perhaps was Pippin for video, directed by Bob Fosse. Well known for his work in television and film in such productions as “Carrie”, “Big Wednesday”, and “House”, among many other film and TV projects, but most noticeably his performances in “Greatest American Hero” and “The Perry Mason Specials”. He is a published musician as well as having three screenplays produced. Rachel and Julio is one of three plays currently scheduled for production - being co-produced at the Broward Center for Performing Arts. Feature film directing credits include “The Clean and Narrow”, The Rivers End” and “Pegasus”.
“a playwright wants a director to ask questions that will compel them to think in ways that they didn't think before.”
Playwright #7-Levy Lee Simon-is an award winning playwright & screenwriter. His play The Bow Wow Club made its West Coast Premiere at the Stella Adler Theatre/LA in the fall of 2006 and was featured in the North Carolina Black Theatre Festival 2007 and is the winner of the 1998/9 Lorraine Hansberry Award for, ‘Best Full Length Play’ awarded by ACTF and the Kennedy Center. For the Love of Freedom trilogy co-produced by Danny Glover’s Robey Theatre and the Greenway Arts Alliance in Los Angeles. The trilogy, Toussaint – the Soul – Rise and Revolution, Dessalines – the Heart – Blood and Liberation, Christophe – the Spirit – Passion and Glory was nominated for several NAACP and Ovation Awards including three “Best Playwright’ nominations
“First I think that the director and playwright need to be on the same page. For me I want to know that the director has read the work, has a good understanding of the playwrights' vision and is passionate about the work. Along the same lines, the director should completely understand the story, plot, characters and through lines of the characters and the play. With an original script I feel the director and playwright should agree on casting which is half the battle at least. Also, with an original script I think the director should try to deliver the playwright's vision of the play however the playwright should also be open to the director's vision. Hopefully the two are not too far apart. “
...Interviews compiled by Che'Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM March 2006
I have been hearing a lot of horror stories from playwrights lately about their bad experiences with directors.
Much like Salieri in Amadeus, could the fear of mediocrity scare artists into panic mode which then leads to destructive behavior? True, artists make rash decisions all the time-I have heard stories about maverick playwrights such as Sam Sheppard who allegedly pulled a production of "True West" due to the bold casting choice of two women instead of two men; or Lee Blessing allegedly pulling a production of "Chesapeake" (which I directed the West Coast Premiere of) due to the mediocre reviews it received at NY Stage and Film where it premiered. Does the playwright have the power and the right to do such things? Yes. Can the power be misused or abused? Absolutely.
So what determines the professional (or unprofessional) behavior of an artist? I think it has a lot to do with their early training combined with their experience and a little bit of upbringing thrown in. My early theatre training began at the Mark Taper Forum where my very first assignment as an intern was on the writing workshop of Pulitzer Prize winning "Angels In America, Part II-Perestroika" by Tony Kushner. The gospel according to the Taper staff was to honor and respect the playwright above all others. Tony Kushner was a bit of an unknown writer at the time, but the respect for him in the room was enormous. He sat in on every rehearsal, and in some cases had been developing the play with the same actors, such as Ellen McLaughlin and Stephen Spinella, for years. Despite the two award winning and critically acclaimed directors in the room, Tony Taccone and Oscar Eustis, the writer truly had final say and it was clear that the workshop was for his benefit. This early training built the foundation for which I have developed new work for over fifteen years.
"Angels..." was one of the first new plays that I watched a playwright develop in a rehearsal room with the help of an artistic team of actors, directors, producers and dramaturges. Since then, I have worked on several new plays and have watched some of the best Regional Theatre artists interact with each other. Playwrights such as Tony Kushner, Peter Parnell, Alice Tuan, Han Ong, Jon Bastian, Tim Toyama and John DiFusco among others. Although my experience working with playwrights has spanned over seventeen years, the playwright/director relationship still eludes me. Has anyone read the book How to Get Along With An Over Dramatic, Controlling, A Personality Director? Or how about What To Do When A Playwright Really Wants To Direct? No such luck. Rule books on these types of things just don’t exist. I am afraid that we must rely on our experience to be our only guide.
What is the protocol when it comes to the playwright/director relationship? Although there has never been an official rule book written, here are some thoughts that might make the production experience a lot more enjoyable for both:
Step #1-Choose a director/playwright that you trust and respect
Before you choose a director/playwright to work with, be sure it is someone who has supported you in the past or has an investment in your future. If that is not possible then try to see their work, read their reviews, or ask around about them before you make the commitment. It is essential that you are absolutely confident in each others work and are eager to work together.
For example, most of the new plays that I direct are plays that I have developed with writers in my workshops. The relationship from dramaturge to director is a natural one, since I know the play so well and care for its well being and execution. The writers are secure with both my knowledge of the script and my emotional connection to their piece. This kind of relationship makes sense, since both the playwright and I have the same goals in mind for the production.
Step #2-Get on the same page
I believe that it is the director’s job to fulfill the playwright’s vision so be brave, honest and fair with each other regarding your intentions from the beginning. Sit down over a cup of coffee and talk about the play-what you like and don’t like, how and when it moves you, and any conceptual elements that you feel you want to enhance or experiment with. This initial conversation is crucial to determining whether or not you are both on the same page which is mandatory in order for the production process to work.
For example, when I went into production for Blaine Teamer’s "Pandora’s Trunk" at LATC, my concept was to personify the main character’s alter ego. The playwright’s original intention was to have it be a one woman show, a tour de force for some lucky local actress. When he discovered that I planned on putting another actress onstage as the character’s alter ego instead of using a voice over, he was not happy. After a long passionate email exchange we came to a compromise. I would show him what the show would look like, and if he still did not like the work that we were doing, then I would change it. Thank God he liked it, because it would have been hell to re-stage the show! In this case, the playwright was willing to be open minded and give my concept a try. However, in the end, he had final say and was ultimately in control of the show’s destiny.
Step #3-Trust each other to do their work
Just as a writer has a process in writing their play, the director has a process in directing it. Although you might not understand each others process, try to respect it and trust it. For example, I know from my experience as an Assistant Director to Tom Hulce on the Pulitzer Prize winning "The Cider House Rules", that it can often be painful for me to watch the director’s process. It may seem foreign to me, or ineffective or sometimes just too passive. For example, Tom used to give the actors line readings which were brilliant and fascinating to watch.But these things can be confusing to actors. Does the director want you to imitate them or did they want the actor to make it their own? Despite the director’s approach with the actors, rest assured, a good director has a plan and it is usually related to getting the performances they want out of the actors.
Similarly the playwright also has their own process which may seem unusual to the director. I have seen writers like Tony Kusher use improvisation with the actors to help solve some problems that he may be having with the text. He would often write scenes at night and bring them in the next day to be “tried” out with the actors. This kind of interaction with the actors is what seemed to help him most in creating "Angels..." Playwright Peter Parnell had a lot of behind the scenes input on "The Cider House Rules", from the two directors, Tom Hulce and Jane Jones, and from production dramaturge, Kurt Beattie. Jane and Tom were also the originators of the piece which was born out of Jane’s company Book-It Repertory Theatre, which adapts plays from literature. Due to Jane and Tom’s background and investment in the piece, they had very specific ideas of what the text should be and how it should be executed. Therefore Peter spent a lot of time with the directors discussing the text and structure. This type of interaction and development process is obviously very different than the one used by Tony Kushner who was more hands-on with the actors. Regardless, every playwright has their own way of working that is very specific to them and their projects. Accept each others process, don’t judge it or analyze it too much.
Step #4-Allow there to be one voice in the room
It can be confusing to the actors to hear more than one voice guiding them through the process, especially if those voices are in conflict with one another. For example, I worked on a project which starred the writer. Although he had asked me to direct the project, he himself is a critically acclaimed, award winning director who had very specific ideas for the piece. Considering all of these givens, you can imagine that he had a lot of ideas and information to share with the cast. Although it may seem natural for him to share with the actors, it from time to time would confuse them to hear from the playwright instead of the director. He and I eventually came to the agreement that all notes would be passed through me first which substantially eased the actor’s minds.
Believe me, the last thing you want for your production is unhappy actors! Keeping one voice in the room will keep the actors happy, on the right track, and focused on what they need to be doing. All of the writer’s ideas and character thoughts for the actors are best if communicated through the director. A good director will take the writer’s notes and try to implement them in a way that will not be too disruptive to the cast.
Step #5-Schedule note sessions with each other
It can be very distracting and confusing to have a writer whisper in my ear while I am working. On the other hand, it is also frustrating for a writer not to be heard by the director. Therefore, I suggest scheduling time with each other to share ideas and concerns (if any) any time other than during rehearsal.
Besides the occasional coffee meeting, a good time for the playwright to give his or her first set of notes to the director is after the first invited stumble thru, which is usually set aside for the designers. A separate meeting should be set up between the writer and the director in order to ensure that the director and the playwright are on the same page before any information is released to the designers, actors, producers, etc to avoid confusion.
The second private note session could be after the first dress rehearsal. This gives the director and the cast time to gel the changes that the playwright might have wanted and allows them time to work on them in a manner that is suitable for viewing.
The third private note session could be given after the final dress rehearsal or first preview. This proves helpful because by that time an audience will have attended and based on their reaction to things, the playwright and the director will know if certain aspects of the play work or not.
Step #6-Be Cool
The best playwright/director formula for success all comes down to mutual respect, communication, and trust. After all, no one knows the play like the writer, and by the same token, no one can find the nuances in a script like a director. In other words, you need each other, so be cool with each other and look out for one another.
Above all else, remember that it is only a play. We are not performing brain surgery or saving the world from mass destruction. Put your emotions about each other in check and in perspective when dealing with each other. As my high school boyfriend used to say “don’t be lame”.
Step #7-The worth of the work
Congratulations! Now that your show has opened, got great reviews, and was a hit, other theaters want to produce it! How do you proceed with your relationship to each other? What if you don’t ever want to work with each other again? What if you only want to work with each other on every single project from here to eternity?
Well, if the playwright liked the director, then they are in luck. Most directors that are members of their union, The Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, are mandated to have a first right of refusal clause in their original contract. Therefore, if the writer and producer like the original staging, then the contract has been put into place to keep that original director.
But what if you never want to work with the director again? Rest assured, there are ways to arrange that as well. There is also a clause in every SSDC contract to “buy out” the director so the production can be remounted by someone else. It is usually a flat rate buy out which essentially pays the original director off so that the writer and producers don’t have to work with them again. Another scenario that the playwright might encounter is that they like the original staging but they don’t want to work with the original director again. In this case, sometimes a fee can be negotiated so that the staging can be used but remounted by an assistant or stage manger who is familiar with the production.
In any case, the original director receives written credit for the original staging no matter how many directors continue on with the production. The playwright is of course always attached to the piece, and should have final say in choosing the director and final casting approval as well.
The future of American Theatre depends upon directors and playwrights being able to work with each other. You never know when the next Pulitzer Prize winning play will be written and who is going to write it. As the notorious producer Diana Gibson used to say “Playwrights have to come from somewhere”. So, find a director/playwright you trust, get on the same page with them, trust each other to do your work, and above all, be cool. A sense of humor goes a long way in the stressful, fast paced, sometimes wacky world of theatre.
...Che’Rae Adams is the Producing Artistic Director of the LA Writers Center
The process of new play development can sometimes feel akin to having a baby. The conception phase is all of the years that you have the idea in your head but have never been able to put it on down on paper. Then comes the pregnancy stage where you finally start to put your ideas onto paper and you have nine months to prepare for the “big day” when the rough draft is finally delivered. The final stage is the development of your brain child, The Script, and as they say, it takes a village to nurture it and bring it into fruition.
When you first have an idea for a play, it is like planting your seed. It is scary at first-(after all commitment always is). But once you make the decision, buckle up and go on the ride! Take the ideas you have in your head and put them onto paper. The best way to do this is stream of consciousness, in other words, do not edit yourself. Not yet-that will come later. Just let your ideas free flow and don’t have any judgment about them or your work.
If you have a hard time disciplining yourself to do this, then I suggest scheduling a set time everyday to spend an hour with pen and paper. The other way to ensure this step is to sign up for a writing workshop where you are expected to bring at least ten pages a week. This is guaranteed to give you the kick you need! If a writing workshop is not possible, then schedule a time each week to read your pages to trusted friends and family in order to get feedback on your work. Be sure that you are getting feedback from someone who has an invested in your career and who cares about your work. Their notes will be the driving force for your rewrites, so be careful when choosing this person and make sure that they are someone you can trust.
During the first trimester your script is developing all of the basics for it’s sustainability in the world. This is where you will ask yourself what the concept for the script is, why you are writing the script, and what value does the script have in the world at this time. Has the story been told before? If so, then how are you telling it differently?
The second trimester sees a lot of growth and fine tuning of the earlier work. As you attend the writing workshop or share your pages with friends, you will go back and incorporate their notes into the work you have already done. This process is painstaking and tedious but necessary for the development of your story.
The third trimester prepares your script for birth which is the delivery of the first draft. This is where the contractions come in-the painful process of objectively looking at your script as a whole and asking yourself some hard questions. For example, do your characters have strong arcs? Does the story itself have an arc?
The day has finally come when you have a rough draft of your script and it is time to share it with the rest of the world. A rough draft is exactly what it seems-a rough version of an eventual polished script. So, although you have gone through a painful yet rewarding birth process, you still have a ways to go before the script is finished.
The first step in this process is to schedule an informal play reading. This first reading should be for an invited audience only, or what I call your “warm fuzzy people”. In other words, people who have an investment in you, i.e. your family, friends, colleagues, etc. Once you get their supportive feedback, you can go back into rewrites based on the notes that you have been given. I have seen some damage occur to writers who skip this stage and go straight to a public play reading. Believe me, when you first give birth to your play, you are not ready to hear criticism from strangers. Instead, you should be getting supportive comments from your tribe.
The second step in the birthing process after going into rewrites from the warm fuzzy reading, is to schedule a public reading. This the best way to introduce your piece to a team of artists including a director, dramaturge, actors and of course the audience. This will allow you to get feedback from the general public, sometimes complete strangers. This objective criticism is critical to your script’s development. An objective audience can help you to see any inconsistencies or contradictions in the script which you may not have seen before. Once you go through this process, you can then go back into rewrites based on the feedback you received.
Letting The Baby Go
Once you have gone through both readings and two sets of rewrites, you now have an official first draft of your script. It is now ready to go out into the world and be optioned, sold, or produced. Although you may be involved in the production process, you still have to give your script over to a director to interpret. Be sure to give it to a director you trust that perceives the script the same as you do, so that you will be happy with the outcome of the production.
Although there will most likely be rewrites during the production process, you are very close to seeing your baby fully realized.
The incredible feeling that you will have watching the first production of your script will be an invaluable and emotionally moving experience. Everything you went through from conception, pregnancy, birth, and rearing will have been worth it in the end.
So what are you waiting for? Go get knocked up!
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM August 2009
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I hate to admit it, but I think my standards were unwillingly lowered while working for Cirque du Soleil.
I noticed it a few weeks ago when I went with my friends, Dom and Chris, to see “Dream Girls” at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. Both of my friends are avid musical theatre guys, not only versed in what they were seeing, but experienced performers as well. Per usual when I see theatre with my friends, we thanked our ticket donor profusely with smiles and hugs, and then talked bluntly about what we saw once we got in the car.
Dom was very passionate about the show, especially after seeing it on Broadway. And having been in “Titanic” on Broadway himself, his standards are very high. He went on about how after seeing Jennifer Holiday in the role of Effie on Broadway, he just can’t imagine anyone else singing the role. He made me promise to go immediately home and find Ms. Holiday on UTube so he could prove his point. Honestly, I have never seen Dom be so passionate about anything before.
Soon after, Chris chimed in about how bad he thought the acting in the show was. Dom agreed, and in fact added that he did not “believe” any of the actors from this production except for Chester Gregory who played James "Thunder" Early (who we all agreed was the best actor in the show). Granted, Dom was a theatre major at Northwestern University, and Chris got his Masters in acting from Columbia University, so these boys know from which they speak. The scary part for me was that I didn’t think the show was that bad, and found myself defending it. Then it hit me, hard. Somehow my standards have been lowered!
Seriously, I have always been a hard ass when it came to analysis of any theatre production. Don’t get me wrong, I am very supportive of my fellow artists and have great respect for them, but honestly, I rarely enjoy theatre in Los Angeles. The quality can often be low, especially when actors get together and do “showcase” theatre which tends to be narcissistic and self serving. But I have found that since I have been back in Los Angeles, I have liked a lot of theatre. Could my standards have been lowered while I was in Las Vegas working on Cirque du Soleil’s “Viva Elvis”?
Afterall, I spent several months rehearsing one show, which over a course of several weeks, changed drastically. I watched as scenes, monologues and characters that I thought were valuable to the show were cut. Eventually, the entire story line was eliminated, and the show turned into more of a tribute show to Elvis. I think that this process effected me psychologically, in that the kind of art that I felt was valuable, was disregarded. At the time, I thought-“…this is Cirque, so they must know what they are doing….Right?”
You will be happy to hear that I have gotten my standards back. It was a tough six months, but after reading “Angels in America” and "Strange Fruit" (two of my favorite plays) over and over again, I am now back to where I was before. Phew! Special thanks to Tony Kushner and Jon Bastian for reminding me what good writing is!
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM April 2010
What is Drama? I could spend hours answering that question. The dictionary defines drama as “any situation or series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, or striking interest or results.” True, but no one says it better than famed American author, David Mamet. Author of historic, clever, dialogue driven plays such as Speed-the-Plow, Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna, American Buffalo, and political thought provoking screenplays such as The Untouchables, The Verdict, and Wag the Dog happens to also be a television producer. His TV series, “The Unit” was cancelled in 2009, yet someone has recently unearthed some pearls of wisdom that he sent in the form of a memo to his staff writers. Below is the memo he wrote and it could not be more accurate. I felt compelled to share it with you-it is truly the most powerful prose that I have read about story development in a long time. (Warning the language is strong and rated PG13)
TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT
AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.
THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN *DRAMA* AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.
EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF *INFORMATION* INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.
OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE *INFORMATION* AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.
BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDNT, I WOULDNT. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.
SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.
1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DONT GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?
THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.
IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.
THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. *YOU* THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE *EVERY* SCENE IS DRAMATIC.
THIS MEANS ALL THE LITTLE EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.
IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT *WILL* BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WERE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.
SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE THE SCENE DRAMATIC. IT IS NOT THE ACTORS JOB (THE ACTORS JOB IS TO BE TRUTHFUL). IT IS NOT THE DIRECTORS JOB. HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST. IT IS *YOUR* JOB.
EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.
THIS NEED IS WHY THEY *CAME*. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET *WILL* LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO *FAILURE* THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS *OVER*. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE *NEXT* SCENE.
ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE *PLOT*.
ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.
YES BUT YES BUT YES BUT, YOU SAY: WHAT ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF WRITING IN ALL THAT INFORMATION?
AND I RESPOND *FIGURE IT OUT* ANY DICKHEAD WITH A BLUESUIT CAN BE (AND IS) TAUGHT TO SAY MAKE IT CLEARER, AND I WANT TO KNOW MORE *ABOUT* HIM.
WHEN YOUVE MADE IT SO CLEAR THAT EVEN THIS BLUESUITED PENGUIN IS HAPPY, BOTH YOU AND HE OR SHE *WILL* BE OUT OF A JOB.
THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. *NOT* TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR TO*SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
ANY DICKHEAD, AS ABOVE, CAN WRITE, BUT, JIM, IF WE DONT ASSASSINATE THE PRIME MINISTER IN THE NEXT SCENE, ALL EUROPE WILL BE ENGULFED IN FLAME
WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID TO *REALIZE* THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS THIS INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT SCENE, BUT TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE THE SCENE BEFORE US SUCH THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL BE INTERESTED IN WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.
YES BUT, YES BUT YES *BUT* YOU REITERATE.
AND I RESPOND *FIGURE IT OUT*.
*HOW* DOES ONE STRIKE THE BALANCE BETWEEN WITHHOLDING AND VOUCHSAFING INFORMATION? *THAT* IS THE ESSENTIAL TASK OF THE DRAMATIST. AND THE ABILITY TO *DO* THAT IS WHAT SEPARATES YOU FROM THE LESSER SPECIES IN THEIR BLUE SUITS.
FIGURE IT OUT.
START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE *SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC*. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.
LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING BOB AND SUE DISCUSS IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.
PLEASE NOTE THAT OUR OUTLINES ARE, GENERALLY, SPECTACULAR. THE DRAMA FLOWS OUT BETWEEN THE OUTLINE AND THE FIRST DRAFT.
THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, *YOU* ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE, THEY WILL SHOOT.
HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.
ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER AS YOU KNOW, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.
DO *NOT* WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR *AND* HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.
REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. *MOST* TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE *RADIO*. THE *CAMERA* CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU. *LET* IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS *DOING* -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY *SEEING*.
IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.
IF YOU DEPRIVE YOURSELF OF THE CRUTCH OF NARRATION, EXPOSITION,INDEED, OF *SPEECH*. YOU WILL BE FORGED TO WORK IN A NEW MEDIUM - TELLING THE STORY IN PICTURES (ALSO KNOWN AS SCREENWRITING)
THIS IS A NEW SKILL. NO ONE DOES IT NATURALLY. YOU CAN TRAIN YOURSELVES TO DO IT, BUT YOU NEED TO *START*.
I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE *SCENE* AND ASK YOURSELF IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT *ESSENTIAL*? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?
IF THE ANSWER IS NO WRITE IT AGAIN OR THROW IT OUT. IF YOUVE GOT ANY QUESTIONS, CALL ME UP.
LOVE, DAVE MAMET
SANTA MONICA 19 OCTO 05
(IT IS *NOT* YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW THE ANSWERS, BUT IT IS YOUR, AND MY, RESPONSIBILITY TO KNOW AND TO *ASK THE RIGHT Questions* OVER AND OVER. UNTIL IT BECOMES SECOND NATURE. I BELIEVE THEY ARE LISTED ABOVE.)
Compiled by Che'Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM March 2010
This past Friday, my friend Ken and I drove almost 300 miles to attend the premiere of “Viva Elvis” which is Cirque du Soleil’s newest show in Las Vegas. It was a star-studded event, with Hollywood notables such as Chris Noth, Gene Simons, and Chris Angel posing on the blue carpet. That’s right, the red carpet was blue, a tribute to Elvis’ hit song “Blue Suede Shoes”.
Did I mention that my friend Ken hates Vegas? He insisted on leaving the next day after the premiere, which I agreed to reluctantly. Well, he ended up having such a good time, that Ken broke his “24 hour rule” and we stayed two nights in Sin City-a first for him! As a native Los Angelino, I was unimpressed by the stars, but wanted to support my friends in the cast. As some of you know, I was part of the development process for six months before my character was cut two weeks before the show previewed. I was proud of the performers work, and astonished at how much talent, energy, and good will goes into each and every show.
The show is very celebratory and high energy, sporting a sort of Disney feel. I think this was on purpose, in order to appeal to audiences of all ages. It is a hybrid of singing, dancing, and acrobats, sort of a tribute to Elvis’ music and work in the film industry. But I could not help but think that was something was missing. As Randy Lewis from the LA Times said “Cirque du Soleil clearly loves Elvis tender, but in the end "Viva Elvis" never lets him step off the mystery train.” My friend Ken put it very well when he said “the choreography could have been for any song-there was nothing that was specifically Elvis”.
Although the character of Colonel Parker, who was Elvis’ manager for many years, narrates the show via three monologues about Elvis’ life-the dialogue is very “Wikipedia”, meaning factual but devoid of emotion or opinion. Unfortunately, this result is a lack of connection on the audiences’ part to the piece as a whole. With Viva Elvis, Cirque du Soleil has attempted a traditional Strip spectacular — and in doing so, have sacrificed warming the hearts of the audience or telling Elvis’ personal story.
David McKee from Las Vegas CityLife says “About the best that can be said for this patronizing “tribute” is it’ll make you want to watch some Presley movies. Audiences should stamp Viva Elvis: “Return to sender.” Ouch-that is harsh-I would not go that far. But it does bring up the question “what makes theatre good?” For me, it is an emotional connection to the show. But does that guarantee a hit show? I guess if we knew the answer to that, we would all be millionaires! Viva Las Vegas! Viva Elvis!
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTDISTRICT.COM Feb 2010
The other day, I went out for coffee with a student and friend of mine in the darling up-and-coming neighborhood of South Pasadena. As I slowly sipped on my Chai Latte (decaf, skinny, nonfat of course) and devoured my delicious double chocolate brownie, she began to pick my brain about self-producing. Suddenly, it hit me hard that I am really back in LA.
Self-producing is an LA Theatre Scene epidemic. You can’t throw a stone here without hitting a solo show where an actor wants to be discovered and given a sit-com. Often the actor writes, directs and produces the show themselves, which is a lot of hats to wear. This over abundance of roles often leads to schlocky productions where under-directed actors whine about how hard it is to make it in Hollywood. How did this town end up this way?
Before I attempt to answer that loaded question, let me share with you a brief history of this thing we call a solo show. The first documented solo performance was in 1901 by a woman named Beatrice Herford, who simply performed impressions of her neighbors in order to facilitate peace between the feuding community. From there, it sort of evolved slowly, and then in the 1990’s, seemed to have exploded. Solo shows have taken many shapes, forms and a whole lot of diverse structures. For example, performers such as John Leguizamo, Eric Bogosian, Anna Deavere Smith, Charlayne Woodard and Lily Tomlin tell their stories by embodying various characters, usually switching back and forth from the characters to themselves to achieve the narrative.
Then there are the performers such as Lenny Bruce, Eddie Izzard, Sandra Bernhard and the late Andy Kaufman who present their shows like a stand-up comedy routine, using little to no set, lights or costumes. Along those lines, there are performers that only tell a narrative story, (sometimes abstract and non-linear) and are considered performance artists because they often combine music and movement to get the job done. This group includes the late Spalding Gray, Tim Miller, Laurie Anderson, Roger Guinevere Smith and Elaine Stritch to name a few.
In addition, there is the rare play that has not been written for a particular solo actor, but instead for many performers over many years to perform. I Am My Own Wife by Douglas Wright, The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler, and Chesapeake by Lee Blessing are a few examples.
As you can see, there are many ways to tell a story, and solo artists over the years have found some very inventive ways. Having said that, Los Angeles has a long history of actors doing plays in order to showcase themselves. In fact, the Equity Waiver System was invented for Los Angeles actors (it does not exist in any other city in the United States) so that they could affordably produce theatre that would showcase them or shed light on them in a certain way.
So, back to my friend’s dilemma at Starbucks. She shared with me that after two years in Los Angeles, she has yet to be able to do the work she wants to do. After speaking to her about her options in this town, I realized that the reason actors self produce is because they are left to feel powerless by casting directors and producers in this town. Don’t get me wrong, it is not the show biz big shot’s fault, it is just the nature of the beast. So by writing her own show, and getting it up, she could feel the sense of empowerment that she has been longing for. And if it works, and is seen by the right people, she could potentially get a sit-com or a film deal.
After all, there were many that have forged their way before her, making it easier for her to succeed. Kevin Smith made “Clerks” by selling his comic book collection, Robert Rodriguez made “El Mariachi” for $7,000.00 and Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson made “Bottle Rocket” together. These were not studio films, they were self produced and independently made. Sure, they were picked up for distribution after they were made, but these film makers took the risk themselves. On the same note, many solos shows and comic routines were seen by the right people and turned into films and TV shows. Some examples are My Big Fat Greek Wedding by Nia Vardalos, the stand-up comedy of Jerry Seinfeld which morphed into the beloved Seinfeld series, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell whose NY success paved the way for a film by the same name. So if Nina, Jerry and John can do it, then why not my friend? After all, LA is a place where fairytales come true, and it can happen to you. Forgive me for quoting Disney, that was uncalled for.
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM Jan 2010
After 6 months in Las Vegas working for Cirque du Soleil, playing Gladys Presley in the new “Viva Elvis” show, Cirque decided (two weeks before previews) to let the actors go. Even the actor playing Elvis was cut out of the show. Yes, that’s right, the Elvis show has no Elvis. I know what you are thinking-what are these circus people doing? I have been thinking the same thing…
I was trained in theatre arts most of my life, earning a BA in theatre from CSUN and ultimately an MFA in directing from the University of Cincinnati, College Conservatory of Music. Theatre training is a very specific thing, and most professional and college theatres have sort of a code of ethics that they follow. This code of ethics allows us all to move from theatre to theatre able to work smoothly, effortlessly, without much conflict. Well, needless to say, the circus does not follow any of these codes. For example, instead of developing a show on paper with writers and dramaturges like we do in the theatre, they throw everything up on stage, see what works, and cut what doesn’t. Unfortunately, when you work that way, there are a lot of casualties.
I was just one of those casualties, there were many others. Suffice it to say, hardly nothing remains from the original show that we rehearsed for six months in Canada and Vegas. Key creative people were let go, artists were cut, and millions of dollars in sets and costumes were thrown out. According to the producers of the show, the “higher ups” were afraid that having scenes and monologues in the show felt too much like a play, which could make the audience “think and feel”. This is not a formula that they believe will sell in Vegas.
To date, none of their other shows have stories, which is the formula that works best for them. And…there is no need to fix what isn’t broken right? In fact, the LA Times recent review of “Kooza” encourages Cirque to return to their roots. Writer David Ng states “ If there's anything surprising about the show, it's that it represents a return to simplicity for Cirque. Those who are familiar with the company's mega-productions in Las Vegas and elsewhere will no doubt feel the absence of high-tech waterworks and other stage effects. But in the case of "Kooza," less is more -- a lot more.” Could this review have added to the Cirque’s fear to finally try something new?
I’ve been back in Los Angeles for two weeks now, and it all feels like a dream. Lewis Carroll once said “In a Wonderland they lie, Dreaming as the days go by, Dreaming as the summers die; Ever drifting down the stream--Lingering in the golden gleam--Life, what is it but a dream?” Indeed.
Written by Che’Rae Adams for NOHOARTSDISTRICT.COM Nov 2009