Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Occupational Hazard

So I've been dieting and exercising for the last about 10 months. I've never been much of a physical exertion person, not a sports-playing guy or avid hiker or whatnot. I was an inside kid in a family that was largely made up of inside kids. We read a lot. I write a lot. These are generally sedentary activities. As I slouched through my thirties, it got...well, bad. And last year, I had one of those check-ups where the doctors and nurses give you stern, stern looks about your behavior. Not fun.

So I joined a gym, cleaned up my act, started eating better. All good things, right? Yep. I've lost some weight, I'm feeling fit and connected to my body. All very good. Except...well...I'm a morning writer. And mornings are my only time to get to the gym. I haven't perfected my cloning techniques yet so...I've had to choose. Be healthy. Or write more.

The scales been tipping to the Be Healthy side of late, but now that I want to get more writing done this summer...something's got to give. Why does it seem like you have to choose between being healthy and being a writer? I think, on some level, I stopped going to therapy because it was working too well. I was getting sane and that was getting in the way of the work. That can't be good.

So now I'm trying alternating: one day of gym, one day of writing. Let's see how long this lasts.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Where Ya Been?

To quote one of the great philosophers of our time, it's been a while since I rapped at ya. What gives?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but...a lot. Well, technically, it has something to do with the limits of time and space and my ability to juggle multiple obligations in limited waking hours. Or some such thing. Or maybe, just maybe...I'm a lazy bastard. You make the call.

Okay, "lazy bastard" isn't exactly accurate. I do have a full-time, non-theatre-related day job that I regularly actually show up for and often do work at to the satisfaction of my superiors. I have been a busy little bee over at Parabasis, blogging about TV shows and YouTube videos and the like, and every so often talking about the theatre. I've been seeing a lot of theatre, and doing theatre-y stuff. Plus, I did go away for a while, and that was pretty sweet. So it's not like I've been a lump or a hermit, exactly. But I haven't shown up here. And I haven't done a lot of new writing lately. I've been trying to figure out why.

Well, I kind of know why, though. I'm at a bit of a loss. A few weeks back, a couple of friends of mine asked me about my playwriting and got a bit of an earful from me on the subject (sorry, Clare and Ethan!). See, I've been at this game a while and I'm lucky to be kind of prolific, so I have a whole stack of plays. I'll go out on a limb and say that most of them are pretty good, some are very good, but almost all of them need a bit more work. Generally, though, it's either a full re-working (of older plays that have structural flaws) or the kind of work that happens in a rehearsal room for an extended period of time. Not necessarily a full rehearsal period, but a good workshopping or something. Though a full production probably wouldn't hurt, either. They're well on their way to being better plays, but are near the limits of what I can do, just scribbling away at them.

Plays are weird, sometimes mercurial beasties. Beautiful mansions, made of cards, holding lightning in bottles, built on sand. Like Amish barns, they really need a community to raise them. I've tried working on plays at this stage, on my own, or even with a writers' group, and it often comes to no good. As a writer, you can only hear so much of the play on the page, in your head. Writing in a vacuum, for actors in your head, you push too hard or pull back too much and find yourself pulling out the strand that made the whole thing go and it crashes down on your head. Or you know there's a problem, you know there's something out of whack in there, some crack in the basement wall, some fitting that doesn't quite fit and rattles when the wind blows, something somewhere that's off, but you can't find it on your own. You need a sharp-eyed director or actor to come in with a level, check all the corners and the shelves and show you where you need an extra screw or two.

Okay. That's one metaphor tortured. But you get the picture.

I submitted one of these plays to a developmental opportunity this spring and got rejected (there's been a lot of that this spring). Luckily, I knew the folks involved pretty well and did something I almost never do: I asked why I got rejected. As playwrights, we get trained to just take rejection, rub some dirt on it and walk it off. We don't question or probe...for fear of the dread answer: your play sucked. No one wants to hear that. But this time...I had to know. Was the play a worthless mess? Did my cover letter suck? Why would this play, a play that I rather liked, get rejected for this opportunity, one I thought it was really suited for? I asked and got a good, smart, quick answer: it was too done. For this opportunity, this play was too finished. In the opinion of this company, it just needs to be in rehearsal. Which was nice to hear. Except that no one wanted to put it into rehearsal. what?

I've been lucky and worked hard and have had five readings of four different plays in the last 12 months or so. Largely, though, these have been readings I've put together with the help of directors and friends. Believe me, I'm not complaining. But it is a bit of work, finding actors, juggling schedules, especially for a non-paying reading which takes fairly low priority (as it should), managing rehearsal space, doing all of that, in addition to trying to rewrite, so it's a useful experience, and hustle up an audience, and all of it. Others are doing more and I salute them. I kicked around the idea of self-producing, but, ultimately, it may not be the right thing for me right now, for a lot of reasons.

So where does that leave me? With a bunch of plays that don't seem to have homes. So the next thinking was start some new plays, just write for writing's sake, and who cares about the end result. Hence the New Play Project here. Which was cool and all. But got derailed to prep for readings. And when I went to go heart wasn't in it. It's hard for me to start a new play right now because I can't stop thinking about what happens when it's done. I write a play, I work on it for three months, six months, whatever, get that first draft done and feel good about it. Feel great. I do a reading, get some actors together, put it up in front of an audience. And that goes great. Great, grand, beautiful. And then...what? Chances are, it's going on the pile, with all the other plays to wait for an opportunity to come along.

The readings I've had have been well-attended and have, as far as I could tell, gone well. People coming like the work. People involved like working on it. It seems like a good time is had by all. And at the end of it, I have a whole raft of notes and ideas, rewrites and changes to make, to think about. Again, all good. But then what comes next? I've had official type people come from theatres to these readings and give very good, very kind and often very smart notes. And, even when they don't mean to, the implication is always: if you just made these changes, we'll like your script more. At the end of the day, that's what you're aiming for: someone to like your script enough to produce it. And that just didn't seem to be happening.

I've stood in this crossroads for a few months now. On one hand, I have a few very good, pretty "marketable" plays that need some work. On the other hand, I could be writing new plays that are better, striking while the iron is hot. Do I set aside the old plays and throw myself into something new or keep working at the old stuff to get it perfect and let the new work lay fallow for a while? I couldn't decide. So I did neither.

Add to that my own rising frustration with the entrenched ways and issues of theatre that seemed to actually get worse and more intractable every season, as you can see from perusing the archives here, and you get someone who kind of wants to break up with theatre, but can't figure out if it's the right thing to do. Isaac and I have a joke about theatre being like the Manic Pixie Dream Girl of indie film fame and how we're both trying to get over her with varying degrees of success. I'm (obviously) still wallowing in the self-pity party part of it all.

I know a lot of this is self-pity and a reaction to a couple of stinging rejections this spring. But it's also a dilemma that I can't seem to find any help or advice with. When I've mentioned it to people lately, I generally get some nice comforting words, or a pat on the shoulder and encouragement. All very lovely and much appreciated. But this is a bit of an existential dilemma for me, this particular trough. Sure, it's shot through with doubt and confidence issues, but mainly it's a "What the hell do I do now?" kind of thing. I can write new plays. I can dedicate myself to rewriting one play until it's perfect. I can junk the whole endeavor and get an MBA. Or I can stand here at the crossroads of all of these things and watch people who know what they want pass me by. That's the least fun, least productive, least useful option. But it's the one I feel stuck in.

I keep hoping for some kind of jolt to the system, some definitive sign pointing somewhere. Something to show me a path out of this thicket. But not much is coming along. Or I'm ignoring it. Something. I've gotten involved in some film projects, started trying my hand at some TV writing to see if there's a way to more fulfillment, both career-wise and artistically, that way. We'll see.

And I've thought a lot about this blog. Since I've been writing over at Parabasis, that's been my main focus for a while. This place, which I associated with theatre and with my own playwriting mainly, has languished, since neither of those have exactly been on the front burner of late. But maybe it's time for a comeback?

I don't feel any more inspired or excited about theatre right now. Don't get me wrong. I've seen some terrific plays and a lot of awesome people are working their asses off out there. I just don't know how I fit in at this party right now. But I miss making plays. I miss rehearsing and writing and telling stories for the stage. I want to find my way back.

So. Okay. I think I'll be coming back here and writing more about writing, about my plays, about where my mind is at. Really try to use this place, this blog, to keep me on track and focus on the simple things: waking up, writing down words and images, and seeing where they take me. I'll leave the pop culture, politics, theatre rants and ravings to Parabasis. 99 Seats will be about the writing.

I chose the video clip* at the top because...well, Dinosaur, Jr is awesome. And it's a fun song. Of course, it comes from an album that gives this post its title. But the title of the song too is appropriate: Start choppin'. I know I'm in the tall grass, in the brambles, in the weeds, and I can't find a path out. So...maybe I make one? Just start choppin'.

*In case you couldn't see it, here's another version of the same song.