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Work is Play and Play is Work

Posted on 2015.02.25 at 20:13
Current Mood: amusedamused
There are various people in my life with whom I communicate primarily through this journal. As you can see by the date on my last entry, this is the first thing I’ve posted here this year. As the song goes, “…I been one poor correspondent, and I been too, too hard to find, but it doesn’t mean you ain’t been on my mind…”

Rest assured, I have been writing. A lot of it has been on Facebook, on which I post just about every day, often multiple times per day, plus the comments I leave on other people’s posts. If you and I aren’t Facebook friends, well, that’s a shame. To a lesser extent, I have a presence on Twitter, though my tweets mostly take one of two forms: either I’m commenting about hockey or I’m posting entries in hashtag contests. If you don’t know what a hashtag is, please note: It is NOT a lawn game played with recreational drugs. A hashtag, you see, is a text-based means of tagging content for sorting purposes… oh never mind. I don’t mean to sound condescending, but if you don’t know what they are, you probably don’t want to know. Moving on…

The role this journal serves in my life is very different from the role served by Facebook or Twitter. Those sites are for shorter, more topical, spur-of-the-moment thoughts and ramblings. I’ve tried to reserve LiveJournal for longer, more composed pieces or photo dumps. I haven’t been here much lately because one big thing has been taking up my writing time: I’ve been working on a play. Let me back up a bit and give you a brief history of myself as a playwright:

At various points in my (presumably) adult life, I have taken up my pen and/or keyboard and begun to write a play. When attempting to write an original work, the result was always the same for many years: After several pages, my mind would run dry or I’d hit a dead end that I lacked the inspiration, discipline, or technique to work my way out of.

The one exception to this was the adaptation I wrote in 1989 of the musical Babes in Toyland. That, however, was a special case for several reasons. First of all, it wasn’t an original work; it was an adaptation, which was a great deal easier than wholly inventing something on my own. I was working directly from two sources: The original 1903 script and a much later adaptation written by the late Dr. Joseph French. In fact, it was Dr. French who’d hired me to write the adaptation. We were keeping Victor Herbert’s original score (though I managed to omit the dreadful “Our Castle in Spain”), so I just needed to fashion a new telling of the tale around the existing songs, plus fix a few story problems that cropped up along the way. The other factor that greatly focused my efforts was that I was contracted to make a couple thousand dollars when I was done, plus a couple thousand more in royalties once the production opened. I must admit that money has a wondrous way of focusing my attention and energy.

So Babes was an outlier. The experience of writing it seemed to have no effect on my ability to actually write a play of my own. And so things stood until the middle of the last decade.

One day, my ambitious and talented friend Francesca called. She was putting together a festival of new one-act play readings and was short by two plays. I called her “ambitious” a moment ago and I should clarify – she’s not merely ambitious for herself; she’s ambitious for her friends. She had a pitch for me that day – that I should write two one-act plays for her festival, which was about two months away. Sounds crazy, right? She’s calling someone who’s never written anything of this sort and plopping this opportunity – and responsibility – right into his lap. But the fact is, her outrageous faith in my abilities made me resolve to make this happen.

After admitting to myself that my established writing approach hadn’t been working, I decided to take a leap of faith and change the rules. Primarily, this meant that the goal was not going to be writing a wonderful play; the goal was going to be writing a complete play. If I could work in anything wonderful along the way, so much the better, but the bottom line was that these plays had to be completed.

And it worked… with a few caveats, the main one being that my plays sucked. Now, now, don’t try to put a happy face on this. Those two plays were atrocious. They received their one and only public reading in The Theatre Building on Belmont Avenue and were thereafter consigned to the trash heap of history. And I feel good about that.

You see, I recognized going in that this was my chance to take a class in play writing. I learned a lot by writing those two lousy plays. I thus resolved to move on to better mistakes the next time around.

The next time around happened last year, when I took part in a project called Play For Keeps. It’s a play writing workshop run by Stockyards Theatre Project, one of whose guiding lights is, once again, our friend Francesca. At each session, a group of writers gets together and shares whatever they’ve been working on. The roles are assigned among those present and we read their material aloud. We then talk about what we’ve seen. It’s a simple concept but an effective one. At the end of the process, there is a public reading of selected scenes from the various pieces, each one being cast and directed by local theater folk.

My piece in Play For Keeps was a full-length, two-act science fiction play I’d spent quite a bit of time working on. Though I’d received a lot of encouragement from the group, I ultimately abandoned any thought of finishing it. I reached a point where I no longer believed in its merit. It had some good ideas and a few good scenes, but it wasn’t going to work as a play, so I shelved it.

Once again, I feel good about that. I made much more accomplished and sophisticated mistakes on that piece than I had on my two one-acts, so I’m calling it a Win.

All of which brings me to my latest play. Just like last time, this one involves science fiction and time travel, though in a vastly different manner than before. This time around, I’m feeling as if I’ve cast aside some of the encumbrances and phobias that have slowed me down in the past. Mainly, I’m clearer than ever on the notion of writing to make myself happy. If I were hired to write something, I might not feel so carefree, but the fact is that I’m writing something with almost no chance of ever turning a dime of profit or playing at a theater near you, and I’m not reporting to anyone but myself, so I’d darn well better make myself happy with it.

There is an interesting duality that comes over me when I’m writing this play. One part of me is immersed in the creative process, while another part of me is sitting in the audience watching it – laughing, frowning, being intrigued, being bored, being entertained. It’s that side of my psyche that I’m trying to please.

This philosophy is absolutely bearing fruit. This one has the potential to be a full-length play that I will actually finish writing and be happy with. That would be a wonderful thing. If I can do that, I will then begin to consider whether anyone might possibly wish to produce it, but until then, such thoughts are of no concern to me.

I’ve mentioned some of this to friends who are utterly non-theater people, and their reactions have been amusing. A common response is along the lines of, “Shouldn’t you try to write what the public wants?” I love that response because it neatly delineates the eternal quandary of the professional artist.

The first problem with that question is that it tacitly assumes that anything new and original is a bad thing, that your proper role is to give people more of what they already have. Now that is a perfectly reasonable way to pursue a career, and one may become an accomplished craftsperson by doing so. I’m not dissing that approach. There’s just one distinction that must be made – it’s a career as a skilled craftsperson, not a career as an artist.

Consider that phrase for a moment – “professional artist”. Give each word equal weight. It’s almost a contradiction in terms. If each of those words is to be fully honored, then the task at hand is not to create what the public wants; the task is to create your art and expose it to your potential audience (or the other way around). Maybe some people will like it. Maybe enough people will like it to make you a living. Or maybe your goal isn’t to be liked – hey, you never know with these artistic types.

As for me, I am still in the early stages of development as a playwright. As such, there are a great deal of “professional” considerations that I needn’t trouble myself with anytime soon. For now, the play’s the thing. I’ll keep you posted.


(Anonymous) at 2015-03-17 23:56 (UTC) (Link)

A Play With No Name

An artist can either follow their muse or... not. A more interesting question is: can you actually teach creativity? A couple of decades ago, I thought the idea of classes in creative writing was absurd; either you were creative or you were not. Then I found that there were certain tools that could be applied that could mimic or inspire the creative process. With me, it's about songwriting. With actors, it's typically called "Method Acting". I've also heard it said that everyone has a method; some are more obvious than others.
As for playwriting, the past ten (9 1/2?) years of this blog have yielded many good stories; however, I think that would result in a work closer to Neil Simon than science fiction.

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