Sunday, July 26, 2009

Smart Writing

Once upon a time I had a roommate who was a voracious reader. He would devour novel after novel with an intensity that was quite remarkable. One day, he stopped to tell me how much he was enjoying a particular author's style of writing. When I asked him to read me a page from the book he was reading, he proceeded to read it aloud as fast as he could in a completely flat monotone.

I was shocked.

Here was someone who loved to read and yet had no sense of rhythm, of inflection, or of the musicality of language. All he was concerned about was speed and consumption. How could I explain to him that half the fun of reading is the pacing of thoughts, the sounds of particular words, the use of tools like alliteration, and the mellifluous flow of language as it creates images in the brain?

Later, I would discover he was not alone. An acquaintance whose lover had bought him a computer informed me that the mere fact that he had now had access to a word processing program made it likely that he would write a book. "What are you going to write about?" I asked (knowing full well some of his limitations).

"Oh, I dunno, a book about a book, or something," he replied.

Another person in the room sighed and asked "Does he think it's that easy?"

What many people don't understand about writing is that words, sentences, paragraphs, and novels don't just spring forth in perfect form. A great deal of writing involves rewriting -- sculpting phrases, changing words to avoid repetition, and constantly adjusting punctuation so that a thought is properly framed. Depending on the style or subject matter, adding certain words or thoughts can dramatically reshape what a person has already written:
  • Do new words or thoughts contradict previous statements?
  • Do they maintain continuity?
  • Are they written in the same person or tense?
  • Do they adhere to the piece's structure?
All of these (and many more) considerations come under a linguistic microscope when writing for the stage or screen. Creating dialogue that can be spoken by actors is a process which may seem perfectly natural to the playwright, but might not work quite as well in rehearsal. Although a playwright may very clearly hear certain sounds in his head, those words take on a new life when spoken by another person.

There is really only one way to find out if the writing can stand on its own.

Many playwrights participate in dramatic readings, workshops, and "incubators" so that they can see what works -- and what doesn't work -- in front of a live audience. Words that a playwright thought were brilliantly funny may be met by a deadly silence instead of laughter. A literary gimmick might fall flat in front of an audience that doesn't understand what the playwright is thinking.

The Bay area is a hotbed of creativity for many art forms. For aspiring dramatists there are some specific venues in which to hone their craft. The Playwrights' Center of San Francisco has a year-long program of readings, many of which take place at Mama Calizo's Voice Factory. The Playground program is like a theatrical boot camp in which playwrights are regularly assigned a topic and given four days to create a 10-minute play. The best of the submissions are then cast and staged before a live audience (with minimal rehearsal time) so that the playwright can see his work come to life and learn from the process.

Writing a one-act play on short notice is not as easy as one might think. Even if a topic is assigned to the playwright, he must create a small group of characters, have them communicate an idea, build a beginning, middle and end to his narrative, and make the dialogue believable enough to have sufficient dramatic impact.

For playwrights who prefer full-length formats, there are numerous theatre companies that can provide staged readings or workshop productions of a new play. Although a playwright might be asked to work closely with the company's dramaturg (who can offer advice and critical support), seeing and hearing how an audience reacts to a raw script often triggers much-needed rewrites which can help to clarify the action, redefine a character (or characteristic) and tighten a play.

I enjoy attending readings because they allow me to witness a playwright grappling with an idea and hear what his script -- even in its rawest form -- sounds like. It gives me a sense of whether an emerging playwright has an imaginative process that can be used to create a stageworthy vehicle or may just be an extremely pretentious artist with a coterie of friends who keep stroking his ego instead of telling him that his work sucks. There are several curious factors to staged readings:
  • There are no costumes to hide behind, hence no distractions from the writing.
  • Because the actors have had limited rehearsal time they, too, are stretching their artistic muscles and applying their craft in an effort to quickly and intuitively bring new characters to life.
  • Words that may have read one way on the page take on new tones, beats, and cadences when shaped by a human voice (hence, the importance of good casting).
  • Dialogue which might have seemed natural in print can suddenly be revealed as stilted, artificial, or mechanically inept.
It's all a big crapshoot.

Summertime is often a period when staged readings are open to the public. The Playwrights Foundation has just wrapped up its 32nd annual Bay Area Playwrights Festival out at Fort Mason. Of the three readings I attended, Robert Henry Johnson's three-hour epic entitled
The Othello Papers showed the greatest promise.

In his play, Johnson explores what might happen if all the black characters in Shakespeare's plays refused to participate in future performances. There is great comic wealth (as well as social relevance) to be mined from this idea and Johnson seems well on his way to crafting a viable script which could be of particular interest to Shakespeare festivals around the world.

Staged readings also give audiences a different perspective on their local community of actors. Sometimes watching what an actor can bring to an unfamiliar text can be revelatory and introduce audiences to a talent they'll want to track in the future. Lance Gardner (who took on the role of Caliban) is exactly that kind of actor. Julia Brothers (who has been seen in numerous Bay area productions) demonstrated the kind of insight and wisdom a mature artist can bring to a fresh script during a reading of Christopher Chen's Anomienaulis.

Further down the Peninsula, Theatreworks (which just presented the world premiere of Tinyard Hill) is about to embark on its annual New Works Festival, which will include readings of three new plays and three new musicals:
  • The Sparrow and the Birdman (by Raquel Bitton and Chris Smith)
  • Auctioning The Ainsleys (by Laura Schellhardt)
  • The North Pool (by Rajiv Joseph)
  • Makeover (book and lyrics by Darrah Cloud with music by Kim D. Sherman)
  • Ernest Shackleton Loves Me (book by Joe DiPietro, lyrics by Valerie Vigoda, music by Brendan Milburn)
  • Tales From The Bad Years: A Song Cycle For A New Generation (by Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk.
Two examples of great writing brought to life (on stage and screen) are currently available to Bay area audiences. What sets them apart is not just the specific dramatic medium for which they have been crafted, but the pace at which lines must be delivered. They provide a fascinating contrast in style and technique.

* * * * * * * *
A play which requires only two actors can not only be artistically significant, it can also be quite a moneymaker. Some plays provide a tour de force for two actors taking on numerous roles (such as The Mystery of Irma Vep by the late, great Charles Ludlam or the Greater Tuna series of plays by Jaston Williams and Joe Sears). Other plays -- in which which two people portray only two characters -- can offer ongoing triumphs of casting while providing a sound economic engine for the playwright.

Just like ballroom dancing or a balletic pas de deux, these plays all require great teamwork. The actors must not only be able to shine in their own moments (which may include numerous monologues), but must be attentive listeners when it is their partner's turn to take center stage. Think of the balancing acts seen in these two-character plays
As I stress the partnership that must exist between two actors, let me share the good news that Spare Stage's production of The Unexpected Man has been granted several more weeks of performance at the Exit Theatre. Directed by Stephen Drewes, Yasmina Reza's beautifully-crafted play has been cast with Ken Ruta and Abigail Van Alyn, whose years of acquired theatrical craft glow in a performance of rare tenderness, quality, and sensitivity.

Ruta portrays an aging novelist who is traveling from Paris to Frankfurt by train. A dyspeptic old curmudgeon with an outsized ego, his thoughts reveal a bitterness about growing old and not being regarded with the kind of authority he thinks he deserves from his children, his colleagues, and the rest of the world. Sharing the train compartment with him is a sophisticated Parisian widow who has read all of his books and had a crush on him for years.

Photo by: Peter Prato

As the play progresses, the characters take turns examining their inner thoughts through a series of soliloquies as the audience waits to see which one will step out of his comfort zone and attempt to break the ice. The woman wonders whether she should simply take out her copy of the man's latest novel and start reading it while the man wonders if she reads at all.

Photo by: Peter Prato

Reza's writing is glorious in its seeming simplicity, its natural flow, its wit and humanity. The play is perfectly suited to the artistic goals of Spare Stage:
"Our company produces plays that provide a dynamic balance between actor, director, and playwright. We favor eloquent language and elegant simplicity in staging. We nurture creative ensemble, and invite you to join us in exploring complex ideas on a Spare Stage."
This exquisite production of The Unexpected Man offers Bay area theatergoers the kind of rarified experience in which they yearn for the characters to move forward, yet feel reluctant to disturb the air hovering in the theater for fear of breaking the mood. Stephen Drewes's remarkably subtle staging offers audiences a golden opportunity to watch two mature professionals doing what they do best -- performing in such a naturalistic style that it seems as if they are genuinely living their roles instead of acting them. You can and most definitely should order tickets here.

* * * * * * * *

Whereas Reza's writing often has the delicacy of a souffle, the screenplay written by Simon Blackwell, Tony Roche and Jesse Armstrong for Armando Iannucci's wildly hilarious and politically incorrect farce, In The Loop, requires sharply-defined characters who can deliver tongue-twisting tirades at a lightning pace. The further we get from the idiocy of the Bush administration, the more insane it looks in retrospect -- especially the scenes in which a barely wet-behind-the-ears bureaucratic (whose father was obviously a big Republican donor) tries to include I Heart Huckabees on the list of DVDs recommended for viewing by the troops in Iraq. The main characters include:
  • Simon Foster (Tom Hollander), the short and fairly incompetent British Minister of International Development who clumsily utters an on-air reference to a war that has not yet even been started in the Middle East.
  • Toby Wright (Chris Addison), his new aide who has just arrived in the middle of an erupting crisis.
  • Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), the weary Assistant Secretary of Diplomacy for the Bush administration who, among other problems, is having severe troubles with bleeding gums.
  • Linton Barwick (David Rasche), a neoconservative American politician who, in addition to being a good Christian, may have formed a secret committee to plan ways in which the United States can launch a war in the Middle East.
  • Lieutenant General George Miller (James Gandolfini), a powerful Pentagon bureaucrat who is a long-time friend of Karen Clarke's.
  • Malcolm Tucker, (Peter Capaldi), the British Prime Minister's venomous Director of Communications.
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison

In order to appreciate the genius of Capaldi's characterization, first take a look at how it reads on paper in this memo that was posted on the film's blog:
Dear lovely people of DFID.
As you know your esteemed boss went on the radio and announced that there would definitely not be a war. Which seemed strange considering: (a) he was meant to be talking about your hard work combating malaria, malnutrition, AIDS, global poverty, all human suffering, etc. and (b) he was explicitly told not to express an opinion on war unless he wanted his cock chopped, minced and fed back to him as a kind of bloody taramasalata.
In his defence he was being interviewed by Eddie Maier - Radio 4's fiercest attack dog after Sandi Toksvig. I am, of course, being massively sarcastic.
So. What have we learnt?
1. Simon Foster on the radio is a worse idea than giving Russell Brand and Joseph fucking Fritzel the breakfast show on Heart.
2. Simon has special educational needs.
What should be done about this? In the medium term he will have his cock minced and fed back to him as a kind of bloody taramasalata. In the shorter term steps must be taken to prevent a repeat of this twattery.
What will you do? You will not let Simon out of your sight. You will not let Simon out full stop. You will keep him away from windows. You will sit on his fucking face.
You know the game Simon Says? This is like that. Only it's called Simon Doesn't Say Because He's Had His Tongue Cut Out And Minced And Fed Back To Him As A Kind Of Tonguey Taramasalata.
As you also know we have some important American guests arriving in town. It is imperative that your Minister does not spurt his unwanted emissions at them or near them. I don't want him saying anything remotely controversial. I don't want him saying anything uncontroversial. Not even : 'James fucking Corden's everywhere at the moment'. NOTHING. I want him as quiet as a very timid mime artist who's been bound and gagged and murdered. Underwater.
Do I make myself understood? The answer is yes.
Thank you for your attention. I look forward to not hearing from you again.
Thank you for your attention.VB, Malcolm."
How do you transfer that kind of writing to the screen so that it practically jumps out at the audience? Watch this clip:

If you want to see (and hear) the British equivalent of Rahm Emanuel (just taller and with all of his fingers intact), you won't want to miss In The Loop. Iannucci's film is a wild romp through the underbellies of London and Washington that will leave you breathless with amazement at the political backstabbing, genuine inepititude, misplaced priorities and outrageous egos of the movers, shakers, and fixers who think they make the trains run on time.

One word of caution: Due to the rapid-fire patter of some of the Brits onscreen, you may not be able to catch every word if the audience around you is laughing too loudly (count on it). A second viewing of the film is highly recommended. Here's the trailer:

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