Friday, March 19, 2010

The Fog of Rewrites: Rewriting MANIFESTO (A Writing Diary)

Where'd I go? Short answer: down the rabbit hole. But I don't really do short answers, do I? No, I do not.

This Tuesday I had a reading of my play MANIFESTO. I've been flogging the reading here, on Facebook and pestering people over e-mail to come and see it for a couple of weeks now, because...well, that's what you do when you're proud of the work. And I am very, very proud of this play. I've been working on it for the last couple of years and this last draft took a big step forward. So I wanted folks to come and see it. Well, eventually I did. For a while there, though, I was pretty sure it was going to be a huge flaming failure or a tremendous waste of time, if I managed to make it happen at all. Which was seriously in doubt.

Lemme back up. You might need a bit of context.

This play was a commission. I originally got the commission in the fall of 2006 (yikes!) and worked on it through 2007. I set out to write a different kind of play than what I'd been working on, something both more personal and with a bigger scope. I wanted to tackle marriage, middle age, the slide from rebellious youth to content maturity, AND the decline and fall of counter-culture in New York and, by extension, the country, the still-lingering effects of terrorist attacks in a fear-based society, AND both the corporatization of art and the essentially selfish nature of making art, particularly political art. All of that in a two-act comedy originally with four actors, mostly played in a blank space. Yeah, I like a challenge.

I think I've mentioned it before, but Alan Ayckbourn is one of my playwriting idols. One of the things I like particularly admire about his work is his willingness to tie one hand behind his back when writing. Oh, you can call it "formal experimentation" if you want to be all smarty-pants about it, but it's also turning writing a play into an obstacle course. In his play, A Small Family Business, he wanted to show a number of families in a number of homes. What did he do? Not have a bunch of individual sets, or a stripped-down unit set, but one set, one house, but depending on who's in what room, it represents a different house. When he was writing The Norman Conquests, he knew he wanted to write a trilogy, but didn't want the audience to have to see all of them in a particular order. Plus his lead actor had another gig, so he couldn't be in the first scene of the first play because he wouldn't be available for rehearsals. So Sir Ayckbourn wrote around the obstacles.

I aim to do the same for myself. I'm just not as smart. I'd already written a play that took place on an empty set: a beach. Great for cheap producing possibilities, sure, but, it's a bitch to write. So much of what we fill our plays up with is built around props, exits and entrances, objects that become metaphors. And drinks! Don't forget the drinks! It's a tried-and-true lesson from the days of the well-made play and the boulevard comedy: when in doubt, have someone make a drink. It's a good way to get people off-stage. Take all that away, though, and you're left with just talking. Lots of talking. Scary, scary stuff. But, like I said, I like a good obstacle course.

Writing for characters in an empty space and trying to keep it from being just a bunch of blather was my challenge and I thought I hit it. Sort of. But, as these things sometimes happen, the play went into a bit of limbo and I moved onto other things. But it kept nagging at me. I got some great notes on it and decided to pop the hood and give it another whack.

Now here's the part where I admit my failings: I'm an adrenaline junkie. Not in the bungee-jumping, pick a fight with the biggest guy in the room, rob convenience stores and put cigarettes out on my arm way, but more like the I get my best ideas when there's a deadline looming way. So I try to set deadlines for myself, deadlines with an aspect of public humiliation, since blowing off my own deadline is never going to give me the thrill I need. (I've got problems. Anyway.) So I scheduled a reading, as is my way, of a new rewrite of a play I hadn't touched in a couple of years. My sense of honor would never allow me to put up said reading without a rewrite, so that means a rewrite had to happen.

I met with my director, had a great, productive conversation, took notes, started making casting calls, did the prep work and, just when I was settling down to do the rewrite, I realized that my performance date was in, like, three days. I can do some quick writing, but the level of rewrite I wanted to do just couldn't be achieved in that kind of time. I had to postpone. I didn't want to do another reading of an old, flawed draft. I wanted the new hotness. I actually kept my adrenaline junkie in check and moved the date. I'd only told a few people, so it wasn't a huge level of public humiliation. It was all good.

Of course, when I moved the date, I reset the clock on rewrites. So I had another conversation, did some new casting, more new prep work (i.e. daydreaming about the play while I ride the subway), and just when I was about to actually get to rewriting...the theatre had to move the reading date. The clock is reset again. More chats, more thinking, more casting, more thinking, more BIG THINKING! New ideas! New characters! Whole new plot points and issues! Better jokes! In my head, this thing is going gangbusters. It's a house afire. On the page...not so much. Yet.

I'm a slow burner of a writer. I think and think and re-think and re-consider and re-think in my head before I sit down to write. Not every single line of dialogue or plot point is laid out in advance...but most of them are. When I sit down to write, there isn't a lot of rewriting, honestly. I usually write my first draft in a rush, then nibble at the edges for a while, then do a big, fat rewrite. Then that's it. I don't have a lot of research pages or notes. I just think about the thing for a while and when it's all baked in my head (or at least three-quarters baked), I write it down. I like to tell myself I do this out of love of Mother Earth and to conserve, but, honestly, it's just how I do it. Your results may vary.

So finally, new date set, casting progressing, all things in place, I sit down to write. And get promptly stuck. On the first scene. For, like, two weeks. Beginnings are super-important to me. I'm a bit of a formalist, so, for me, the first line of a play asks a question that the rest of the play sets out to answer. It's got to be right, otherwise the rest of the play is askew. So I'm reworking the first ten pages of the play over and over, not getting to the big things in the end that need addressing, because I can't address those without knowing the question this play is trying to answer. The days are ticking by, my director is kindly, patiently, but sort of insistently wondering when we're going to see pages and, you know, rehearse. I've invited everyone I know, so now public humiliation is in play. I've cast a bunch of bang-up actors, some of whom I've never worked with before, and they don't have a script. One of them doesn't even have a part yet. Oh, yeah, I decided to write a new part, for someone who doesn't show up in the first act at all. Since I'm stuck on the first ten pages, yeah, I haven't even written that part.

That's the point the rabbit hole opens up and I fall in it. E-mails go unheeded, barely read. Long-standing plans are forgotten. Family, friends, everyone is just an obstacle between me and my computer. Oh, I'm going to work, having conversations, continuing to make plans that I will invariably bail on, but in my head, I'm in an empty apartment with a bunch of imaginary people, trying desperately to make these people do something interesting. They are, currently, resistant. This is not good.

Then the panic sets in. My director is starting to leave his patience behind and getting a bit more insistent about when he's getting his pages. My actors are getting a bit fidgety about what they're going to be doing on a stage in front of people in just a few days. The whole ball of wax is starting to melt into an unsightly lump in my hand. And then...BAM. Break-through. I chuck what I've been working on, go back a draft to my first version, my first impulses. I re-connect to why I wanted to write this play, tell this story. The afterburners kick in, the nose levels out, and I can see the sky again. I have a great first scene! I'm on my way!

Of course, this all happens about 36 hours before the reading.

Did I mention I'm an adrenaline junkie?

I floor it and tear through the rest of the script. Here's the part where this helps make better plays: I don't have time for deliberation, for preciousness. I don't have time to parse dialogue and fret over words. I write from the gut, write from passion and instinct and move on. Some things don't wind up working, but on the balance, it does. Once it's done, it's printed. Once it's printed, we're in rehearsal. Six hours later, we're in front of an audience. Two hours after that, it's all done.

Three days later, I'm picking up the threads I dropped, returning the phone calls and e-mails I need to return. But also torn: on one hand there's the pull back into the script to fix those naggling things that drive a playwright crazy, the lines that refer to beats that have been cut, the transpositions and typos, the two page stretch where that one character doesn't actually say anything, the missed opportunities for better jokes; on the other hand, there are new scripts to be written, new stories to tell. This one? Old hat. Been there, done that. Time to hit the dusty trail.

Or I take the middle path. And write about writing for a while. And watch TV. My DVR is plenty full. And see actual people in the real world. Refill the old gas tank before heading back out on the road. Sounds like a good idea.

My friend Jane always says that, after a reading, a writer needs time to gloat. I'm coming off my gloating phase. It's almost time to get back to work. Almost.

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