Saturday, October 31, 2020

Process VII

Julie Shuttleworth & Sarah Blubaugh

Last weekend, two of my very favorite actors read my new script in its entirety for a small audience. This is my second foray into the two-person play, my first of any length that is composed of entirely one scene, in real time. That it was able to hold the attention of the assembled (in spite of a few technical glitches) says something about the characters, and their story. 

By the middle of the week I was possessed by dull torpor, a malaise engendered, I believe, by the reading. This reading was a beginning, of course, not an end. God knows how the work will develop. But having drawn three intense writing projects to a close, I was in a period of stasis which left me in discomfort.

This is a thing that happens. My brain was very active, sorting through the plot, character and dialogue of three very different stories, for weeks. Suddenly, it’s all on hold, waiting for criticism. It is a melancholy place for me to be.

Also, the election. The dreary weather. And the subject matter of the play itself, which is so closely inspired by the feelings of isolation and helplessness brought on by our present, global calamity. One participant said, “It was lovely to see a play about the pandemic that was not about the pandemic.”

Mid-week the criticism arrived for my dark fiction assignment and I received many helpful comments regarding some of the elements of the story that I had the most concern about. It could be a straightforward tale of a night where you learn everything you thought you knew was wrong, but I was inspired to include a supernatural element which I either need to make bigger, clearer, more apparent, less subtle, or jettison entirely. Not sure which way I want to go with this, yet.

Tonight we hand out candy, safely, to the children who arrive. And we will create our annual ofrenda, to remember and celebrate those who have gone before. My mother will join them for the first time, and I will make her coffee. She truly loved her weak, instant decaf.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Process VI

"It would seem to me the proposition before the House, and I would put it that way, is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro, or the American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro. Is the question hideously loaded, and then one’s response to that question – one’s reaction to that question – has to depend on effect and, in effect, where you find yourself in the world, what your sense of reality is, what your system of reality is. That is, it depends on assumptions which we hold so deeply so as to be scarcely aware of them." - James Baldwin (1965)
"Lovecraft Country" (HBO)
Education is the pathway to social justice. It is impossible to expose yourself to the history of human experience without (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase, running it thus*) the arc of your mind bending toward justice. 

Watching the first episode of Lovecraft Country (no spoilers, please) I immediately recognized the voice of James Baldwin as the characters Atticus, Lettie and George drove across the highways of America. This would not have been the case only three months ago. I fantasize myself as an enlightened person, but it is impossible to champion equal rights of POC without an education in and understanding of American history from the point of view of POC.

Every time I learn something new, and there is so much I do not know, I despair over how ignorant white America is to the struggle. It sounds like I am patting myself on the back that I “recognized the voice of James Baldwin” but I am also in awe of how I lived so long without having been able to do so. I am ignorant.

Returning to school has reminded me of the importance of education, of life-long education. My life in theater has been one of auto-didacticism. I failed to make strong connections with my mentors, and as a result have flitted from project to project, choosing how far or how deeply to go into any subject. I know an awful lot about very few things.

I can easily quote Shakespeare (*see above.) I cannot quote Baldwin. Whose words would be more relevant in the current moment?

My dark fiction story will be workshopped by the class this week. I need to turn in my Wright vignette, which is also complete. And just this week I have completed my first draft for the playwriting workshop. I have asked a couple of friends to read it out loud this weekend so I can hear it. This is something which should have a full read in class and maybe it’s overdoing it but I don’t want that to be the very first time I hear the entire thing aloud.

Since my childhood I have pushed to get my work out into the public sphere. Creating art for public consumption. There were a few years when I was in elementary school I feverishly created greeting cards. I had no outlet through which to sell them, I never actually used any. But I made them, and a lot of them.

In high school I created editorial cartoons of varying inscrutability, and the immediacy of creation to presentation -- from Tuesday to Friday -- was a high. 

Then there were my editorial experiments which were often disastrous. Often I would use a harsh metaphor to drive home a point, swatting flies with hammers, which earned me disdain for my big mouth and entirely losing the point of whatever argument I had intended to make.

This was always a bad habit of mine, as I was emboldened by a sense of grievance, buttressed by tremendous privilege. Not unfamiliar traits for a straight, white man, I know. 

Today I am hesitant, and overcritical. My protégés believe I am judging them when I take a long time to create an answer. I am just trying to be careful, and restrained.

I just want to get it right.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Process V

“And there sat in a window a certain young man being fallen into a deep sleep: and as Paul was long preaching, he sunk down with sleep, and fell down from the third loft, and was taken up dead.” - Acts of the Apostles 20:9
This week I turned in my spooky short story. It’s a week early, but I have so many projects spinning all at once I wanted to complete my edit of this, the first draft, and get it out of here so I wouldn’t look at it any more. My vignette written in the manner of Richard Wright is close to where I need it to be for evaluation but I want to keep looking at that one.

Because of these other two classes, it had been a while since I had thought about my playwriting workshop. I had gotten out so far ahead with that I was able to let it sit for a while. My wife is out of town visiting relatives, so I spent the entire day yesterday looking over the script, rearranging the sequence in which things happen. We will read more pages of that tomorrow night.

I was actually a little melancholy yesterday, I made overtures to my kids to spend some time but they were both totally engaged with friends, either online (him) or in person (her). So I just kept diddling with the script, weighing in as one does these days on social media, and crafting a seven foot pipe for the safe distribution of candy on Halloween. It’s really cool, with orange and yellow stripes, like this giant, Tim Burton, Willy Wonka, candy corn colored bendy straw.

This morning was an interesting experiment as I tried to write stage violence into this piece but wasn’t sure what was most appropriate, necessary, and most of all realistic. I can say, however, that I have successfully employed both Chekhov’s letter and Chekhov’s chocolate cake. And if you don’t know what that means, you've not been doing your homework.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Enola Holmes (film)

[Enola looks at the camera.]
Who owns Sherlock Holmes?

The British actor Millie Bobby Brown is only a year and a couple weeks younger than my own daughter. Two years in a row she, my daughter, dressed as the character Eleven from Stranger Things. So watching Brown grow as a person, first in subsequent years of that show, and as the star of the new film adaptation of Nancy Springer’s “Enola Holmes Mysteries” has been like tracking my own daughter’s development, as a person, as an artist.

Last year the two of us watched all of the third season of Stranger Things together on the Fourth of July. And now we have seen Enola Holmes. We had a delightful evening, she, the wife and I, curled up on the couch, watching an inoffensive and charming period mystery. The "woke" touches were welcome, after all. The entire affair is awash with the suggestion of a new and better future for all. One can hope.

It is very much Ms. Brown's project and during the credits my daughter expressed a desire for them to make a sequel. Target audience hit. 

The girl as "Eleven"
Halloween, 2016
The film is subject to yet another lawsuit from the Conan Doyle estate, who are determined to protect their copyright over the few Sherlock Holmes mysteries which have not fallen into the public domain. This recent suit ascertains that the character of Holmes as depicted in the film (Henry Cavill) exhibits a kinder, more sympathetic personality, one which was only evident in those very last works created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

Courts concluded several years ago that all characters for the Holmes stories prior to 1923 are in the public domain. This ruling came after the Conan Doyle estate attempted to litigate that since the character of Sherlock Holmes was not complete until Conan Doyle’s final story, the character himself could not be in the public domain. Since they were unable to win that case in the courts, they have since concentrated on prosecuting any example of Holmes’ character or history derived from the remaining copyrighted works.

Funny, the magazine GQ asked Cavill about the lawsuit, which is like asking a guy on the assembly line about an announced automotive recall. “It’s a character from a page which we worked out from the screenplay,” Cavill explained, with evident patience, adding: “The legal stuff is above my pay grade.” 

I would like to make it clear, I think copyright is important. And I believe things should eventually fall into the public domain. As long as we live in a capitalistic system, artists must reap the benefit of their work. It is also important for other artists to have the opportunity to reshape and reinterpret pre-existing work. Lawyers figure these things out, that is what lawyers do. It is, as the man said, above my pay grade. 

Susan Wokoma, Henry Cavill
Timeless social commentary in "Enola Holmes"
(Netflix, 2020)

I myself have adapted a couple of public domain novels, and created an original story using characters created by Conan Doyle. This has all been done legally, and I am also happy to protect my copyright over my own adaptations and interpretations.

Shortly after the movie premiered on Netflix, playwright Emily McClain (Slaying Holoferenes) posted an hilarious and pointed Twitter rant thread that began, “I need an ‘I Was Tricked Into Watching Enola Holmes Support Group.’”

A lot of my own friends posted positive notices about the film on Facebook, but McClain’s friends were telling her (her words), “Watch this! It’s so you! You could have written this! You’ll love it! It’s right up your alley!”
"Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street"
(Great Lakes Theater, 2020)

Pointing out works by others that we “could have written” is one of those unwittingly irritating things friends of playwrights who aren’t themselves playwrights like to say, along with (my words) “I have a great idea for a play I’d like you to write,” and suggesting, “That’s your next play!” after we report absolutely any trivial thing that has happened to us. 

My daughter got elbowed in the face on the playing field the other night. "That's your next play!"

McClain admits she does like to write plays about “plucky female characters subverting social expectations” but was brought short on the romantic subplot of the Eola Holmes movie, which appears nowhere in Spinger’s novels. The adapted screenplay, it should be noted, was written by a man.

Hot London Action
"Enola Holmes" (Netflix, 2020)
This was a particular concern of mine when putting together Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street. I wanted a female narrator, but under no circumstances did I want any romance in the script. I also knew having Young Vicky appear at Holmes’ flat unattended might be ahistorical, and that adults watching with children may be made uncomfortable.

So I just acknowledged it, making a big deal out of the door being left open and that Mrs. Hudson was always listening to their conversation. Moving on.

The new, full-length piece I am currently working on is a two-hander, between two women. Do you know how many scenarios I have imagined to create tension and conflict that involve men? All of them. And I’m choosing something different. 

As the young woman says, "The future is up to us."

Many thanks to Emily McClain for allowing me to quote her Twitter feed! You can learn more about her work here.

Henry Cavill on playing Sherlock with emotions and returning as Superman by Stuart McGurk, GQ Magazine (9/24/2020)

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Process IV

Question: How do you write in the style of an author whose work is intimately woven with life as they had experienced it in these United States when their life’s journey is not merely different from your own, but different as a direct result of the social structure that created the difference between theirs and yours?

To put it another way, their point of view made their writing what it is. For me to emulate that I should, what? I cannot pretend to be him. And I cannot write from my point of view simply emulating those elements of style which make his work unique; use of color, description of space, expanding of time, sense of alienation, anxiety, existential dread.

I cannot do this because the most important element, for him, his reason for writing, was protest. Expressing his walk of life, or mine, was not enough. The reader needs to be aroused, outraged, and moved to action.

Last Wednesday my professor asked the class how our writing was going, present progressive tense, as though it had already begun and is in process. I had not yet written a word. It’s an eight-page vignette that is due in a little over two weeks. But I have been engaging myself in these questions and finally arrived at a scenario, which I storyboarded yesterday and wrote the first pages this morning.

I may even use some of this post in my artist’s statement for that story.

The work on the play continues, just this week I had something of a revelation. Every piece, the play, the gothic short story, the protest vignette, has its own agenda. They each, however, require tension. For the play script I continue to be haunted by the observation of Joe Barnes, "It is hard to write a compelling play about two characters who are basically decent." They are decent, a mother-daughter duo who have (generally) open avenues of communication.

How to create conflict that does not involve men, men with a capital M. That it does not involve father, or boyfriend, or lover, that their struggle, if there is a struggle (there has to be a struggle) is between them, and not some other person. If you do not understand why this is important, you haven’t been paying attention.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Ben Is Dead (magazine)

How to explain to future generations what it was like not to have all your lifetime memories at your fingertips. What was it like to have a conversation and not to be able to find out immediately the name of that actor, the title of a movie, the correct lyrics of any given song?

For twenty-five years, I had the memory of a song, one I knew from a few weeks spent abroad in 1984. It was played often enough at that time that I could remember a series of notes that were whistled (or were at least, a whistle-like sound) as part of the chorus. I was pretty sure it was a song about breakdancing (there were actually several popular songs about breakdancing that summer) that it was an American song, though never a hit in America. I had lost it.

In 2009 I reconnected with members of the team that I had journeyed with a quarter-century prior (via Facebook, of course) and asked if anyone could help with this song, which was still stuck in the recesses of my mind. They could not, but it occurred to me then to do a Google search of “dance hits Spain 1984” or something along those lines and found it. Street Dance by Break Machine.

Not only did I find it, I immediately bought it on iTunes. And I can honestly say that the word I would use to describe this discovery is relief.

"Fraidy Cat" (ABC 1975)
Life is terrifying. You will die.

The thing about childhood memories is that it used to be that unless they were somehow recreated in the form of a period film or television program, you just forgot them. Or they were there somewhere, but memory is fluid and they could change drastically. Maybe you'd doubt they ever existed as you remember them.

Was there really a Saturday morning cartoon about an alley cat on his “ninth life” who was terrified of death, and constantly haunted by his previous eight incarnations?

Yes, that was Fraidy Cat which had eighteen episodes on ABC in late 1975. I was seven. It was really terrible. But you can watch the entire thing right now on YouTube.

Personally, I had quashed a great deal of my childhood memory as I grew into adolescence. The youngest of three boys, my brothers were a constant reminder that my interests were childish (I was a child) and there was also the cultural pressure to discard the old and embrace the new. Disco is crap, buy this New Wave album.

Magazines, toys, posters, even records were sold at garage sales and clothes were given away. In my rush to be an adult I married too soon and bought a house. Twenty-five years ago, in 1995, I turned twenty-seven. I had lost the wife but kept the house, and my new girlfriend moved in. And together we began to rediscover childhood.

Art by Jared Lee

This was the era of Generation X nostalgia. We were all indulging in the trappings of the mid-to-late 70s. In Pulp Fiction a drug dealer eats from a box of Fruit Brute. Schoolhouse Rock was back on television. The Saturday Morning Cartoons album was released, featuring covers of TV theme songs by popular artists; this is where the Ramones doing Spider-Man comes from.

The thing is, these things weren’t in here, on our computers. Few had email in 1995, far fewer access to the “world wide web” or AOL. These things were out there, in the world, and we had to find them.

One of the valuable treasures I found, just as we began work creating the first Night Kitchen play Bummer (a collection of short plays about being a kid in the year 1980) were the “Retro Hell” issues of the magazine Ben Is Dead. The cover captured my attention at the local bookstore because the logo for that issue emulated the Scholastic magazine Dynamite.

Dynamite was an eagerly awaited item for me in every shipment of Scholastic books at Glenview Elementary because it was not only a fun activity book but was also a connection to popular culture, with interviews and features about TV and pop stars written for kids. It also included a regular single-panel cartoon called "Bummers" which was the inspiration for the title of our production in the Night Kitchen.

Ben Is Dead
was a 90s, L.A.-based zine-turned-magazine that indulged in confessional essays by twenty-somethings (primarily written by the creator, Deborah "Darby" Romeo) as well as reviews, interviews and pop culture items. Each issue was based around a central theme. Retro Hell was originally intended to be two issues, which blossomed into three, and finally the book, Retro Hell: Life in the '70s and '80s, From Afros to Zotz (1997).

The first issue of this series alone (BID #25: 146 pages!) included personal reflections on Teen Idols (e.g., Brandon Cruz, Adam Rich) an interview with Debbie Harry, instructions on how to make a bubblegum wrapper wristband, recipes from the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery, memories of a 1980s teenage lesbian, how to make a slam book and a cootie catcher, a list of incorrectly heard lyrics, a long list of games you can play with your hands (cheek pop, hand horn, vagina hole) and creepy LPs intended for children ... and so much more!

Also, the margins included a variety of long-forgotten catchphrases and put-downs like, “You think you’re hot shit in a champagne glass, but you’re really cold diarrhea in a Dixie cup.”
Editorial by Darby

Sensations can bring you back … Sometimes smells do it. There’s this one smell, of clammy hands and tar, that brings me right back to the elementary school auditorium where I was square dancing partners with Jimmy (I forget his last name now) - total babe. 

The idea is that you can control this. These feelings don’t have to be random or accidental. They don’t have to be sentimental or emotional. They are a part of you forever and can be accessed on demand. You don’t need to be naïve or immature or go out with a person half your age to feel the force of youth … I guess it all depends on whether you’re going to utilize your past or just wallow in it.
Now these memories can literally be accessed on demand. At the time it wasn’t so easy, so having these volumes was extremely joyful. And shocking. It didn’t make me want to relive my past, but to better understand it. And believe me, I have utilized it.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Process III

“One of the best pieces of advice he had ever received as a rookie was to treat your station as one table. Check all the tables, see how they are, and then go get whatever they need all together. Be smart, save time.” - from Carl’s Last Night
My evenings are spent treating my graduate school work as one table. I keep track of time, reading for all three classes in equal measure, taking notes, and writing. Lots of writing.

This weekend I completed the first draft of a short story for my “gothic fiction” class which will be workshopped in a couple weeks. That one was heavily plotted, which is why I was able to bang it out so fast. There are stories in my head which have rolled around so long that, given the opportunity to actually write them down, I don’t need to think about what happens, and only need to concentrate on the words to share it accurately. This was one of those occasions.

My playwriting workshop will be reading twenty pages this week, twenty pages from the full length script I am writing for that class. That one is coming to me in bits and pieces. I have characters, and setting, but no obvious plot. But that works too, as our professor keeps reminding us, writing means quantity over quality. Don’t worry so much about writing the thing, just make sure you keep writing, and write a lot.

That third class, dedicated to the works of three prominent African American, male authors of the mid-twentieth century, has required a considerable amount of reading. An entire novel every two weeks. The writing for that one has not yet commenced, but will involve emulating the style of one of these authors, and not only their style, but their approach to social beliefs (but the emphasis is on the former.)

It is this assignment which is most challenging, and therefore most exciting.