Monday, July 10, 2006

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Watch and be amazed...

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The Neverending Story...

Same old, same old. Another Sunday night. I'm at home, hiding out in my room from a number of things, not the least of which is my parents. And I'm reflecting on some things that never seem to change.

A couple of different things happened to me last week. Not exactly related, but somehow connected. As I've mentioned, I have a show running. The show opened last Monday, to a rather small house. We've been plagued with small houses; it's what happens to a show in New York, opening at the holidays especially and lacking any names in the production or something super-controversial that brings people out to see it, or a major publicity push. One of the many never-ending stories. Now this show is a bit different from my work in general, in that it's primarily concerned with black people.

I don't, in general, write a lot about black people. Nothing meant by it, it's just the way the world looks to me. For the vast majority of my life, I've been the only black person in any room I'm in. I moved from Brooklyn when I was ten to a very white suburb in New Jersey and have spent most of my time since then in the "mainstream" theatre world, which is overwhelmingly white as well. Somewhat obviously, most of my plays have one black person in the cast, usually in a more "observer" role, outside of the main drama. You write what you know, right?

Anyway, this particular play is different for me in that most of the characters are black and the main part of the story is about a particularly black issue: staying true to your roots. Again, I don't know normally write this kind of thing.

Well, at the party, the director, who is white, Italian from Connecticut, turns to me and asks me "Where your boys at? When they coming to the show?"

A couple of weeks ago, I saw this lame Barbara Walters special and one of the people she interviewed was Kanye West. He said something that really resonated with me, especially after working on this particular script. She asked him how he felt about the N-word and how it was used and if it was ever okay for a white person to use it. And he said that he didn't care so much about it, that it's just a word or whatever, but that he's more offended when white people use incorrect English or throw in a "be" in the middle of the sentence (as in, "He better not be doing that!"). That's something that lands with me, absolutely. It's a more damning thing that using one word. And that's how this guy tends to talk to me. I'm his "black" playwright and that's how "black" people talk. It gets a bit frustrating.

Especially since, in reality, I'm not very "black." I'm just not. I was raised in the suburbs, most of my friends are white, I've only dated white women, I listen to indie rock and pop. That's just how it is for me. And, yeah, it's uncomfortable and awkward sometimes, but it's never worse than when I'm expected to be some kind of stand-in for the black community or something.

Then, I had a meeting with a friend of mine who's an assistant at a major literary agency. She'd read a bunch of my plays and really liked them and is kind of taking me under her wing (which is weird because she's at least three years younger than I am). We had a good chat, but one of the things she said worked in my favor is that I'm a black playwright and right now there's a lot of pressure to diversify in theatre. (You wouldn't think theatre would need diverisification, but boy, does it. More on that later.) But that puts me in the position of being the "black" playwright more and more and wondering if my work is "black" enough. I've, less than consciously, set up my work and my plays to be...kind of color-blind, at least as far as who wrote it goes. I use my first initial, not my full name, or my middle name (which, since I'm a black man born in the early 70s is vaguely Islamic), so you can't really tell if I'm a man or a woman, from the page.

But all of that isn't great for my career. But how much do I want to trade on my skin color? How many times do I have to look awkwardly at my feet when people ask me when I'm bringing in the black folk? I don't know. It never ends, does it?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Long (and only sort of lost) Weekend

It's been wild couple of days. And it's really reinforced my feelings that sometimes, at least, it's either writing or living. That there may not be really room for both. Wordsworth (I think) once described poetry as (and I'm seriously paraphrasing here) intense emotion recalled in absolute stillness. That's surprisingly true. It's not about writing out of the passion of the moment, but there's something about the quiet reflection, the recollection of passionate feelings. So I'm trying to just have passionate feelings.

The wacky Christmas show I was working on opened last night and it went...well. Surprisingly well, I think. The house was distressingly small, but it's that time of year and there certainly isn't a lot of immediate draw to the play (no stars or particularly noteworthy names and it is a Christmas show). But they seemed to enjoy it and the show's tightened up considerably since the first preview. It'll be interesting to see what the reviewers (if any come) say about it. And if we manage to find an audience.

I've been a little disappointed in my ability to bring audiences in for it. I usually can bring them out, but I've found it to be kind of hard of late. I'm not sure why. Part of it is that I'm not attached to a theatre, or a job, so the number of people who feel obligated to attend things, since they're going to have to face me is pretty small. And my family is really, really egregiously terrible about seeing such things. I mean, super bad. Since it does have a bit of a run, we'll see if anyone of them make it before it closes. I'm not holding my breath.

So I'm still on break from doing any writing, and even, it seems from doing writing related things. And that's good. Well, that's not exactly true. I have auditions tonight for the next thing, so we'll see how that goes. So far this has been an interesting process. I'll get into it all in another post, I think. We'll see.

So the okay. Confusing. I'm going to talk in generalities here for a second, but did you ever have something hit you completely out of a blind spot, totally sideways and knock you off course? Something that, sure, you wanted, but certainly wasn't expecting. And now you're hip deep in it and scared and confused? Yeah, that's living. And that's where I am. But I'm pretty psyched to be there. What happens next is anybody's guess.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Existential Crisis vs. Synchronicity

Well, this might be a strange post. I'm in a weird space just this minute. See, here's the story. For the last 12-15 hours, I've been in the grips of something of an existential dilemma. Or something like it. I went to a tech rehearsal for my next show and, well, it was distinctly underwhelming. Really, completely underwhelming. But then, you know, to be honest, I always feel like this. Like "...So...that's it, huh?" after these things. I don't get transported or really touched, I find myself focussing on the little stuff, the flubbed and paraphrased lines, which really drive me crazy. My work is very, very conversational and casual, but very much on purpose, with design. When I hear a "y'know" out of place, it drives me a little nuts, because it screws up the flow of the line, the sound of it. It's a difficult position to be in: trying hard to capture the sound of people talking, but sweeten it up, change it ever so slightly (or not) to make it sound better, different, more...whatever it is that makes it a play and not improv. So there's always that, because, at this level (or probably at any level) there's never enough time to really get this stuff nailed. And that's just it, that's a whole part of the problem: the phrase "at this level".

I've been struggling with this for a while now. I'm an early-career playwright, which means that most of the work I'm doing is done for no money in tiny theatres, and, more likely than not, to an audience made up of friends and family (if not of me, of the other people involved). And that's great and beautiful and I love it and I'm totally, completely sick to death of it. I want to kick up a level, be in a place where I don't have to worry about whether or not my friends like me enough to come see my show. Or maybe you never get to that level. I don't know.

But it all feels so...unfulfilling somehow. Small and kind of empty and it's frustrating, because what are my options, you know. Yesterday, I gave myself off from writing and I felt so relieved and relaxed and I had to wonder, what the hell am I fighting so hard for? What the hell am I killing myself, straining over every line and trying to make it sound right, the way I want it to sound, when actors are just going to say the lines they can remember and fill in the space with whatever comes to mind? When, if I'm lucky, we'll be playing to one real person per show, one person who's not there out of some obligation? When, again, if I'm lucky, I can hope to be not trashed by some online critic somewhere? What the hell am I fighting for all the time?

Being a writer can feel like this plexiglass bubble that stands between you and the world. Like being the Boy In The Bubble: able to see the world and to an extent, interact with it, but always at a remove, at a distance. Which is wonderfully paradoxical, since we're supposed to be living life and interacting and gaining experience to write about. I don't know, I think that somewhere along the line, that myth, the one of the brawling, boozing, passionately living writer, the Henry Miller/Ernest Hemingway ideal, got abandoned, in favor of the cool, dispassionate observer. Somewhere between the New Journalism and the modern, introspective novel, the whole thing turned around. And sometimes I wonder where I really stand in all of that. I admire the idea of hard livin', hard drinkin' and telling tall tales, but that comes with the price: early death. (Personally, I think this is a larger, cultural thing, and, at least in recent years, stems from Kurt Cobain's suicide, as the end of the rock persona and the aggrandizement of hard living (I don't know if I'm using the right word there, but it's a nice one, anyway.).) Early death isn't what I've signed on for.

So...what the fuck, right? What does it mean? I don't know. But here's what happened. Today, which despite clear, beautiful skies and bounty of winter sunlight, despite having gone to the doctor to get the results of some (minor) bloodwork and got a much cleaner bill of health than I expected, despite that, I'm in a crappy mood and want to crawl back in bed, pull the sheets over my head and wake up living in San Francisco. I'm sitting here, listeing to a random assortment of music and just as I started this post, a Wilco song came on: "A Shot in the Arm" with the refrain, "maybe all I need is a shot in the arm". Despite my existential leanings, I'm a believer in synchronicity, in signs and wonders and the simple, frightening truth that the universe gives us exactly what we ask for. And I can't think of anything that displays that more than a song which perfectly sums up my subtext and which includes in it a little sliver of hope. That maybe all I need is a shot in the arm.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Confession time

Okay. Here it is: I don't feel like writing right now. I just don't want to do it. I woke up early this morning to try to get some work in and I looked at my computer and couldn't think of anything I wanted to do less than sit at my computer and make things up. I just can't do it. I want to do things, talk to people, people from other walks of life, who do other things than work in theatre. It gets like this, this small, tiny world, talking about these little things like they're actually important and sometimes I can't stand it. One of the biggest problems with theatre right now is that it's a closed circle. Plays that are produced are produced to satisfy one of two audiences: people with enough money to pay the exorbitant ticket prices (old, white folk, natch) or other theatre people who've gotten free tickets. And we think we're doing something. We think we're saying things. Sometimes it's all just too much.

And sometimes, too, it's just too much inside of my own head. Sometimes it's just too much. I want to get out of it, get out of my head and do things, regular things with regular people and not think about writing, not think about plays, not dissect what I do so much, personally or professionally.

Y'know, I think this is coming out of having spent yesterday basically alone, with the only interaction I had with a playwriting group. And not an especially collegial one. Not like friends sitting around talking about plays. So...I guess that's part of it. But sometimes I just get fed up with being a writer and feeling like less of a "doer", you know. It gets to me sometimes. And this is one of those times. And there's nothing to do but throw in the towel and walk away for a while. Really. Fighting against it just makes it worse.

So I'm taking today off. Hell, the rest of the week. Why not? Gotta let the fields lay a little fallow.

Still Trying to Get Going...

But getting there. Sort of. Did a little bit of work today. It's having all of this time on my hands that's the hard part part. My wacky little Christmas show is in the home stretch, so it's at that point when I don't really need to be there. In fact, there's the point in every show when it's best for the playwright to be nowhere near by. The thing is a mess, it's all come apart, the actors look terrible, sound terrible, the whole thing is tettering on the edge of utter failure and it does nothing but make the playwright feel like they should have never written a word or ever, ever gotten out of bed. It's an excruciating feeling. And it's better to just show up for the final dress and feel that feeling like "Wow." That feeling that it's all of a sudden a show. You want to feel that theatrical magic again.

But of course, you want to be the good team player and stick with it, stick with the group as you come around the stretch. I hate that feeling of abandoning the ship, but it's for the best, really.

So now I get set to turn my attention to the next thing. Whatever that is. Actually, I know what I'm looking at. I have a workshop coming up of a new play. Which will be an exciting thing (I hope). And I am supposed to be working on a "commission" (the quotes mean I haven't seen a penny for it) due in the spring. So the dance card is looking pretty full. Which of course means I ain't doing what I'm supposed to be doing until I absolutely, postively have to do it. Hence it's 12:14 a.m., I'm blogging away, and watching highlights of games I don't care about on SportsCenter. Who's got the life?

Monday, December 05, 2005

What Am I Writing?

That's the question that really terrifies me. When I'm out at a party (like I was last night) and I'm talking to someone (usually a female type someone) and they ask me what I'm working on. And that makes me pull up. I'm a bit of a superstitious person, so that's part of it. Plus you never want to give away a good idea, let someone else know your secrets. But there's another part of it. Part of the process is the gestation period, letting things percolate and bubble. Telling someone about it is forcing the idea out too soon, before it's ready. That can kill it. So I keep it close, as best I can.

Not that there has been too much writing going on of late. Weekends are both great for writing and bad. It's nice to have the kind of time that weekend's provide, but the temptations are greater, too. And it's hard to have discipline (at least for me). So I go out on a Saturday and have a good time, and most of Sunday is shot.

Still, the (slightly) larger issue is the lack of deadlines, the out at sea feeling of working on something with no end in sight. That leaves me feeling like the work can just go on and on.

I'm still a bit frazzled, so I'm signing off, but tomorrow I want to blog about more good theatre I saw.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

What to say today?

Isn't that always the question?

Under the threat of minor embarrassment, I did get some writing in today. On something I've been kicking around in my head for a while. That's how I start. (Yeah, I'll talk about that for a while.)

For me, a play starts with an idea. Not really a story per se, but not exactly an image. An idea of a play. A phrase will hit my ear in a certain way, even an ordinary, everyday phrase will just suddenly ping. The way a fair better (and infinitely more famous) writer than I am once described looking at the word "house" and thinking you've never seen those letters in that particular order ever before. (For the curious, here's the writer and here's the play.) That's kind of what it can be like, though sometimes it's with more unusual phrases. Of course these usually turn out to be titles, but often they get discarded for better titles.

Sometimes, though, it's an image. Something that I see in real life somewhere, or a picture of something. Sometimes that image will wind up in the play, sometimes not.

And sometimes I read something, a newspaper story, or see something on the news, someone and that starts the ball rolling. Again, only a faint remnant will wind up in their in the end...sometimes.

This thing can roll around in my head for months, even years at a time. I honestly believe that there are stories that you're not ready to write. The idea is so big, or so complicated, or personal that the skills you have now aren't sufficient to tell it. It's like being a kid and wanting desperately to run across the room, but you've only managed walking, and you can't go any faster. The mind races ahead of the body. Usually when you try to run, you fall down. If you try to write something before you as a writer are ready, you'll fall down. You might be able to get down the basics or even more of the idea, but it won't match what's in your head. I've done this myself. Tried to force something to come out of me when I wasn't ready. It hasn't been pleasant. I've learned to wait it out.

Oh, I take notes, scribble down ideas. My Palm Pilot has probably a few dozen notes in it on plays, movies, even novels I'd like to write someday. Some of them I just might. Some may never happen. Who knows? But I let them stew and percolate. And then one day, I have a deadline.

Deadlines are integral to the writing process. I think for all writers, but also very much for me. And they really need to be true deadlines with the threat of at least mild embarrassment and shaming. Because once you're committed, you can let pride force your hand. I dislike missing deadline and assignments, certainly for new things. So I put the title of something down as what I'm bringing in and I get to work.

Once I do get to work, it can be a quick and easy process. I say "easy" but it never really is. At least it can be quick. This fall, I probably did my quickest major writing ever. I finished two full length plays in about six weeks. Granted, I'd already done the first half of each, but even the writing the first half had been quick. However, both ideas had been sitting in my head for months, if not years before. Of course, as an idea sits in your head, it morphs, grows, changes. Because it's not just sitting there. What I'm doing is writing it and rewriting it, just not writing it down. I will eschew any sense of modesty right here and compare myself with Einstein (there ought to be a law about that, like Godwin's Law). Like Einstein, I turn the problem of a play over and over in my mind before I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard, in reality). Sure, I haven't come up with e=mc squared yet, but that's not for lack of trying.

So when I do start writing, it can come quickly. I'll still be rewriting and there will still be things I haven't thought of, or rather things that I thought out better before I started writing, but mostly it goes quickly. Everything after the writing is what takes so damn much time.