Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Beginning and Carrying on as a Playwright

August 2005
Question: How did you get started in Playwriting?
reply: I began devising dramas for my dolls and playmates before I knew that plays
and authors existed.
When I was 5, I saw my first Shakespeare and had some sort of conversion experience. My family accepted that I was "the kid who loves Shakespeare" and indulged me. Around 12 I had a vivid "dedication dream" where my favorite dead playwrights came and "called" me, telling me that I was meant to be of their company. Most everything I wrote while in school got put on by and for my classmates, and a couple were published. I had no idea that play writing was so difficult as to
be impossible for a female until I got to college c.1959 and my professors and textbooks and the theatre department directors told me so. I was daunted for almost a decade after this. I got back into writing in the late 60's when anti-Vietnam and Women's Movement activists needed scripts that expressed feelings outside the Mainstream, and encouraged me to write skits and (more importantly) docudramas for them to perform. I don't really LIKE skits, but it was a dirty job and Somebody had to do it.

2 - In no particular order, who are five of your favorite playwrights (from any time) today?
After Shakespeare, who is above us all and more like a God than a favorite?

Miller's a Monument, commands my respect but doesn't need me to love him. Chekhov is loveable, but I'm not comfortable claiming a writer I know only in translation-- if I were, there'd be Greeks on my list. I am baffled by Fornes, who is clearly a formidable artist but always "feels" to me as if I am hearing her voice through a veil of translation. I love Thornton Wilder, but there's not Enough of him play-wise to make the top of a list. Naomi Wallace and Tony Kushner seem me to me to have tremendous talent which may, with luck and a little institutional support, eventuate in a world-class body of work.
But then I have seldom-produced writer friends about whom I could say the same thing. I say it about myself maybe twice a week. The luck and support is crucial. Ayckbourn seems to me the perfect example. A writer of modest natural talent who rooted himself in a company and an audience and has grown and grown to just below the first rank. I'm fortunate in that a local company, the Lyric Stage (when under Ron Ritchell and Polly Hogan) specialized in Ayckbourn and I got to see samples of his growth on stage regularly.

Nudity on Stage
All I know is that if the entrance exam for being a female actor is to have a body people want to see naked and the willingness to exploit it, the result will be an art form in which aspirants will strive through body building, starvation, surgery and soul shrinking to become such a female, and narratives about Babes (and Hunks) will dominate the stage as well as TV and the movies.
Does this sound like recent history?
It's a terrible thought, isn't it? -- Better parts for women were written in the days when male actors portrayed them.

-- "Has an American written a play with nudity where nudity is not sexual?"

Yes, there are such plays, where the naked actor is old, lumpy, or disfigured. One example is the the 1970s one act comedy about an aging actor desperate for a role who strips in the agent or producer's office: I can't remember the title. I think it's by Anderson, a companion piece to You Know I Can't Hear You When The Water's Running-- it's been a long time since I saw/read it. The current example is "Wit" where the freed soul of the cancer-ridden 50 year old heroine appears naked at her death.
The problem with plays like these is the same as with sexual nudity: the nudity takes me out of the play. I do not see the character. I see the particular individual actor, naked. A body that is the sum of genetic heritage, the effect of aging and experience, and (I fear) surgical alterations that have made that body a more marketable commodity. I rather like seeing naked people, whatever their shapes and ages. And visual art can be constructed out of human bodies, using them as texture and pattern rather than as characters. But on stage nudity just doesn't work, IMHO. Theatrical art should be metaphoric, an imaginative creation that the actor has crafted using elements of his/her persona and/or artifice such as wigs, costume, and make-up.

Too bad we don't have a convention of "body suits".

BYW: in the middle ages the Play of Adam and Eve was part of the Cycle festivals. The script is very clear: the pair is created naked, and cover their nakedness with clothes made out of leaves at the end of the play, after the Fall. So just HOW was this done? Given that only male Guild members performed in the plays?
Drawings and woodcuts of performances show a naked man and woman.

August 2005
---"completed a short play and want to make sure that I'm not infringing on someone else's work..."

How can you infringe on someone else's work that you have never read or seen or even heard of? Ideas can't be copyrighted: nor can plots. If your work is by coincidence similar to another work, that doesn't constitute infringement-- although if the other work is prior to yours
and better it may pre-empt whatever interest there is in the subject. That's a misfortune, not a crime.

Is the recommendation process really like that?
When I was at the Last Frontier in June, one of the well-known play writing teachers running a workshop there said to the room full of writers... "and now you can all put in your cover letters that you've studied with me, and Gary, and Y..." -- and everybody laughed.
You mean this isn't a joke?
I have always assumed that the pool of possible recommenders was
limited to people who have actually seen or read entire substantial works written by the playwright-- and preferably the specific play that the writer wants to submit to theatre X. For students who have been working on that play as part of an ongoing relationship with an academic or developmental program, this shouldn't be too difficult-- if their work is good, it is part of the job description of the people who run the program and are familiar with it to say so. For writers outside that formal process, it's rare to have a name-dropping relationship with a pro. Their schedules are full with reading and seeing the work of their own students and colleagues.

I have also always understood that one should not claim a recommendation unless the person has not only seen or read the particular play, but said the magic open sesame -- "When you send this play out-- or to theatre X-- use my name and tell them I recommend it."
The panel of teachers and dramaturgs who critiqued my play at Last Frontier had nothing but praise for it: I blushed, the talk back was so positive. But none of them said the magic words, so in a cover letter I could say only that my play had a staged reading at LFTC and was singled out by the Alaska News critic as one of the best. I don't believe that this qualifies as a "professional recommendation", so I
would not query a theatre that listed that requirement in their guidelines. Am I deluded about this? Is a looser interpretation of what constitutes a recommendation the norm?