Archive for category Playwrighting
I got a call on Tuesday night. One of my plays was going to be performed as a staged reading on Saturday night.
I did some rearranging and on Saturday, I was prepared to go to the theatre.
So, I get in my little car and off I go to Oklahoma City. I have not been to this particular theatre before. There is an element of the unknown on these situations: you don’t know where you are going, or what you are getting into, or what the event will be, or who the people will be, or how the play will be performed.
As a playwright, I put words to paper. I create a story. I build the *start* of each character.
It takes a theatre troupe to make a play happen, and it takes real actors to bring the play to life.
On this night, October 13, 2018, I had the experience of seeing REAL actors, inhabit these characters that I had dreamed up, while they performed my play.
I must confess…I made a total fool of myself, gushing over these actors. I probably gushed at them three times each. It was over the top and it was too much. I am used to limiting my behavior when something is bad (not letting on that I am disappointed, etc, not showing criticism in how a play goes down)…but I need to practice some form of restraint when things are too good.
The event was at Carpenter Square Theatre.
There was a reception at 7:10. They had a large offering of international foods in the lobby. While there, they were having a silent auction. The lobby had a showing from a local artist. Already the evening is off to a good start.
The theatre had reserved table seating for the playwrights. This was something I had not seen before, but to have a seat reserved up front. Wow!
The theatre itself is small. The audience is close to the action. As a result, the audience response is immediate. It is right there. The actors have a feedback to play off of.
Five plays had been selected for this play festival. Out of 45 that were submitted, one of my plays was chosen?!? One of my plays that I have submitted EVERYWHERE and has been rejected EVERYWHERE? It has been rejected so much, that I was starting to get a complex. Maybe it wasn’t any good? Maybe I should shelve it. Maybe it didn’t “Translate”. Maybe it was too depressing.
But part of being an artist (part of being a writer) is to say: I have a voice. I have something to say. There is a story here. Let me tell it!
So, with trepidation…I had submitted this play to Carpenter Square Theatre.
Imagine my surprise when a play that has been rejected dozens of times….finally gets…Accepted? Gulp!
I had made arrangements to be free on Saturday. Saturday rolls around. I don’t want to get out of bed. My stomach is upset. I trundle out to my easy chair and put on a Netflix video so that I don’t have to think about the world.
In general, nerves are not a part of my creative experience. If I am performing, be it musically, singing, acting or emceeing, I don’t get nervous. Try as I might, I don’t understand stage fright. I wish could understand it (to help others who do suffer), but I don’t.
The only things that have made me nervous in show business (so far) are playing music at weddings (I freaking hate weddings!) and…being a playwright. That seems to be such an odd situation. Playwright, nerves? I mean…I am not producing. I am not acting in the play. When we had our play performed in May (which also had great acting – 2018 has been the year of good acting) I didn’t have the nerves. I figured….great! I have conquered that issue. Onto the next issue.
But, nope! All I wanted to do on Saturday was to go hide under the covers.
I didn’t want to gas up the car. Didn’t want to check the tires before the long drive. Didn’t feel like eating. But you need to eat, and then what is that going to do to your stomach? I had one last can of chicken noodle soup and I was panicked thinking I didn’t have any.
But you go. You put on your ritziest outfit and you get your cameras and you go. Because this is what you wanted to do. You wanted to be a playwright, so go be a damn playwright!
Once you are there, in the moment, you get your plate of food, and you sit at your lonely table, apart from the crowd – who all seem to know each other, and you kind of go….”I shouldn’t be here. I’m too small-time. Have I paid enough dues?”
Then people start coming over. This was one of the most welcoming theatre troupes I have experienced. The sense of community in the theatre warms my heart. Because the theatre is not about cliques and exclusion. The theatre is about inclusion.
And…to my extreme surprise…the people in this theatre embraced me. I have spent my whole life as an outsider (mostly by choice). When people include me as a part of them…and welcome me with open arms…THAT is something!
Actor Richard Ridley, Playwright Amanda Ball, Actor Al Bostick.
The play is entitled: The Girl on the Tractor.
My cell phone just rang.
It was a number I didn’t recognize. Since the majority of those are telemarketers, I didn’t pick up. Then the voice mail beeped.
One of my plays has been chosen to be performed this Saturday at Carpenter Square Theatre!
I gotta tell you – this does not get old!!!
Playwrighting is something that we came to late in our creative dreams. Growing up, I wanted to be a 1) country music singer, 2) mystery author 3) actor in major motion pictures 4) movie director….and then at some point after that…then came The Theatre!
I pursue each and every one of those goals (and a lot more besides). But as a writer…it is astounding to see your creation -which exists as words on a sheet of paper – come to life in front of you. It is a thrill to see an actor interpret your words. Yes…there are sometimes when you want a scene to play out a certain way. But…I enjoy the thrill of seeing someone find some interpretation in those words that I have not even considered.
Besides which – theatre people are cool! As a collective group: they share: they share their talent with the world. Being an actor means that something inside of you is bursting forth. That takes guts. Theatre people are courageous. Most of us avoid uncomfortable situations – but theatre people will play any situation or any character. Theatre people don’t mind the spotlight, in fact, they welcome it. Theatre people are about inclusion. They are all about embracing our differences and finding some way to be a bridge to human connection.
It is a huge honor to get to be a part of this community!
To the Carpenter Square Theatre troupe – thank you!
When you are a writer, there is nothing quite like having an actor bring your stories to life.
This weekend, we went to the theatre to see our play, “The Stevens Sisters” performed.
The organizations that presented the play festival are the Town & Gown Theatre and Troupe d’Jour in Stillwater, Oklahoma. The proceeds from the festival went to benefit a local charity called Kickin’ Childhood Hunger.
This was the finest acting that I have seen on one of our plays thus far. It’s wonderful to see how talented actors can bring words to life. Before this, the play only existed as black ink on white pages.
Then you see it live and see it embodied. I don’t care how many times you see your work performed…this does not get old.
Theatre people are fun people! It’s fun to get to be around people who “do what we do”. For a couple of hours this weekend, we saw stories come to life in front of our eyes. The outside world drops away. You forget your troubles. You forget your cares.
“The Stevens Sisters” is by Amanda Ball and Karen Ball. This was the first time that Karen has had the opportunity to see one of our works performed live.
As a matter of fact, it was the first time she has been asked for an autograph!
Actor Shelli Aliff, Playwright Amanda Ball, Playwright Karen Ball, Actor/director Sharyl Pickens.
Long live the theatre!
Part of being a creative artist – is receiving rejections. I received this letter earlier in the week:
I hope this finds you well. First, I want to apologize for the delay in getting our feedback to everyone — we were hoping to complete this process much sooner, but, since we don’t send “yes” or “no” form letters, it takes us a good deal longer than most companies to read through submissions and get back to every creative professional with individualized feedback.
In the case of Paula/Poly, we found your story and your characters very compelling. Of course, the story is not brand new, but it seemed as though the heavy use of sociological labels in your piece (“poly[amorous],” “triad,” etc.) — which are socially and ethically challenging concepts to be sure — make the subject matter a little uncomfortable. You call the piece a comedy, but, to be perfectly honest, it didn’t feel like one as we were reading. The emotions that Paula felt came across as very genuine, as did the emotions of the other three principals, and their words were very heartfelt — we genuinely felt badly for the people whose hearts were hurting, and that’s a testament to your strong writing.
Of course, whether it’s a comedy or drama is not really a big issue. The piece could work fine as a drama, or as something in between (like the Netflix series Love, which portrays some very tumultuous relationships). There have certainly been attempts in recent years to portray polyamorous relationships in the performing arts (including a failed recent series on Showtime), but, while the concept of polyamory is by no means new, it is still a challenging issue for the public to grapple with (the way marriage equality still was 8-10 years ago), especially in a relatively conservative state like Kentucky. We also felt that the title, while verbally witty, didn’t really do the piece justice – it just highlighted the controversial nature of the subject matter.
Now, I should note that some stage works, especially those involving music (which seems to transcend many of our artificial barriers), are able to overcome the intrinsic challenge of their subject matter when the music/art is strong enough – Rent is a good example. Unfortunately, we didn’t feel that was the case in this piece. The character of Paula wasn’t developed enough to be someone that we wanted to “root for” – perhaps if she’d had a back story and had experienced some public or professional success, that would invest us in the character enough to want to ride out her challenge with her (sort of akin to the recent PR campaign showing successful public figures saying something to the effect of “Oh, by the way, I’m a Mormon.”). Or, if the music had been truly sensational, it would have carried us beyond the surface level of the challenging words — but in this case, we didn’t have any printed music to look at or sing from, and we found the audio that you provided a little monotonous. Speaking of which, is the female voice in the recording yours? If so, you have a truly beautiful instrument. As a record producer, I would put a voice like that in the studio in a heartbeat. But it does have an unusually low range, and it’s not representative of most female musical theater voices, so it would be difficult for most groups to use this audio as a basis for judging how the music will work for their voices (especially without any printed music). We would humbly recommend, if you’re going to continue sharing audio demos of this work, that you invest in a few singers who have the timbres and ranges that you ultimately envision for these roles. (If you don’t have access to the singer-actors where you are, we might be able to help with that, and I’d be glad to talk further about some sort of recording collaboration if that were of interest to you – we’ve done this with several composers).
Artistic Director & Conductor
The Bluegrass Opera
So, um, yeah. June 29, I complete the finalization of the last musical, code named P/P.
And as I blogged about last time, I was worn out, used up, gutted, and unable to stand vertical. The project was that big. It took that much out of me.
And what do I need to do next? Rest. Take a Break. Recharge.
What do I actually do next?
Well…it’s been in the back of my mind, that I am perhaps a bit uncomfortable with not having more musicals planned, in my head, waiting to come out. When P/P got finished, we had 2, which is still quite an accomplishment, but…
So, what if we conduct an experiment? Take existing songs from the catalog (I have composed over 400. There’s plenty of material there to work with.)…and build a musical around it.
But this last one took the stuffing out of me. So, why not try for a one-act. Maybe 3 songs, and just 25 pages or so, and write TO whatever songs I chose – which are already composed?
I mention this to my writing parter, as an experiment, and which songs do we pick?
She came back with a novelty song, we had composed some time back.
And immediately inspiration kicks in. And I compose 2 new songs, to go with the 1 existing one.
My next segment of days off from the day job, and without prior planning or thinking it up, or anything at all—I write the damn musical. In its entirety. I went slow and would do a scene, then walk around and think and come back to it. And the thing just…was there.
I am AMAZED when that happens. The first new song, I could remember all week. And I’d go to the piano and just sing the living daylights out of it. It’s one of those that is super fun to sing and perform. Some songs are like that–they just soar out of your soul.
But, problem. I could not remember the music for the second new song.
When I compose at the piano, I have a procedure I have used for years. I write the lyrics on paper, and I sing and play into a cassette. Then you have to have some sort of cataloging system to be able to go back and find them. But this is a chronological thing.
If the time comes when I compose in a digital realm, and have to store these on a hard drive, I think I’d go mad. Yes, the work eventually ends up digitized. But my system works and I can’t deviate from it.
So, when I can’t remember the tune, that isn’t a problem, because I have an initial composing and notes in the cassette.
But it baffles me that I have these lyrics and I can’t remember the tune. So…finally I get to my days off again. I edit the manuscript. I need to record demos. I go to the cassette: which has NO MUSIC on it. I didn’t WRITE the music in the first place. Just the lyrics.
So, I compose music, which happened rather quickly and then that gels around in my head for a couple of days, and boom! I lay down demos. Boom, I finalize the manuscript. And…
BOOM! Another project is done.
17 days, start to finish.
This is #23.
23 plays in our catalog. Some I solo wrote. Some I co-wrote.
Why do I keep doing this?
Beacuse, of all the aspects of creativity in which I work: Playwrighting is the most open. There are so many opportunities to submit your work and places to be heard.
All the other aspects of creativity:
Screenwriting: damn hard to break into
Songwriting: the corporate controlled music business has taken the ‘soul’ of an artist out of the equation. They have killed anything “human” from the music, and it’s all about hook, groove, beats, vocal manipulation, etc
Try as I might, I can find no wedge to break in. Not to mention the fact that my music has soul. My music touches people. That is the opposite of what is happening in the current music environment.
Poetry: Yes, there are opportunities, but, really, if you are a poet, how much of a future can you build out of your art? I love poetry and love being a poet. But it isn’t a life that can sustain itself.
Filmmaking: This one is tough. Yes, there are tons of opportunities. If you make films, there are so many places to send them, share them, etc. But, at the present time of my life, I can’t seem to pull that off. I can’t seem to have a day job and make a film at the same time. When I make a film, it needs to be the ONLY thing I have going. And for now, that isn’t an option. But, there was a time, when I could not write a book and have a day job. If I was writing a book for however many months, I could not have split focus. Well, I built up the…whatever, and now I can have a day job. I can write on my days off. I can write on a day when I actually work day job, but on off duty hours. So, I agonize that I am not making films, enough. We do one, maybe two small projects a year. I just try not to drive myself crazy with the ‘waiting for the time to come’ when I can make more.
Acting: Acting is a passive business. As an actor, you do your best to build and hone your craft. But, ultimately, you are the one waiting for the phone to ring. Someone else makes a decision about whether to hire you or not. As an actor, I get 1 or 2 gigs a year. I enjoy it.
Photography: Fun to do. Amazing to work with. And there is a future in it. But I haven’t taken the time to invest in turning it into a profit. You only have so many hours in a day. And photography seems to be a creative hobby, rather than a full-focus opportunity.
Fiction novelist: So yeah, this is where I’ve had the most success. And it’s a solo gig, which means I can write on my own time without having to adjust to the time management needs of others. So, writing is where I seem to be spending the most of my creative time as of late. And I’ve been lucky, that people have found my books and the ebbs and flows are still working. But it’s really easy for things to go the opposite way: to put all the effort into a project, and it just sits there. You can’t make a person read a book. They have to want to.
So, to recharge the recharge? Here we are again. 17 days later, and I have poured my soul into a project, and what is left, but an empty shell?
And as difficult as it is to “get thru” that gutted phase of a project…
What is even more difficult? Not having a front burner.
I had thought about moving a video project to front burner.
But it’s 100* out. I can’t work outdoors (not since the heat stroke a few years back). I cna’t take the heat. Even by 9 am, it’s too hot to be outdoors, and to try to film? Yeah, we could film indoors, but lighting sucks, and we don’t exactly have a studio set up as we need. And my garage and my parter’s shed, both of which we have used for filming in the past, are not air conditioned. And I would really hate to subject other actors to working conditions that I, myself, cannot tolerate.
I don’t know that I have enough “umph” or whatever you call it to go to the recording studio. It, too, takes “insides” and mine are kinda jumbled and depleted at the moment.
Oh well, the next project will leap to the forefront.
In a way, the not knowing is rather amazing (and scary), but you never know where this journey will take you.
I am but a vessel, floating along on the shifting currents of the universe’s ocean tide.
The musical, which I have referred to as P/P is finished! This was a relatively short gestation period, perhaps 2 years.
I got the initial draft and composing done in February (where it just poured out of me in one of those miracle things where you say “All I had to do was to hold the pen!” …which, these days is a metaphor, because it’s more about the computer keyboard LOL.)
Then, once the initial draft is done, I ‘put it away’, and let it gel. Then you come back to it with fresh eyes, and evaluate.
So, in this last week, I have worked and fixed things and recorded and evaluated and built.
I hoped to be finished by June 30. When this happened, it happened quickly.
So, all week, I ‘shored up’ demos that needed ‘more’. There were so many steps, I can’t seem to even remember them all.
I pulled an all-nighter night before last, just working the steps, but I actually got the musical DONE. Who knew?
This one is complex. The story isn’t just told in dialog. The songs add to the story, advance the story and tell the story.
The project feels fairly tight to me. 15 songs – 13 of which were newly written specifically for this project. 2 I had already written in my catalog and were able to be incorporated.
This musical has 4 main cast members, 2 male and 2 female. Each role must be a true singer (and actor and dancer) (The men especially on the dance part). The scene settings are house/bar/house/bar/house/bar. So, I envision a lot of visible, on-stage quick scene changes, where people carry in tables and chairs and we wheel in a bar, and boom! The scene change has happened.
This one will be fun to see. You can dream up these shows in your head, but when it comes to staging them, the possibilities of what you can do – are endless.
I spoke to an acquaintance yesterday, who asked me what the musical was about. It’s a grown-up subject matter. And while I have completed the musical – the writing and composing; I have not completed the ‘sales’ things you need -, the synopsis, the character description, the descriptions you need in order to ‘pitch’ it.
What’s next? I have no idea.
That statement works on two levels: What’s next for the musical? I have no idea where it goes next. I will pitch it, and pitch it, and pitch it. As with our last major stageplay, my plan is to “Wallpaper the universe” with it = send it every place that I can.
What’s next on the creative forefront? I have no idea? Honestly I didn’t expect this musical to be ‘done’ so quickly. I am ahead of the game time-wise, and I have no idea which project will come to the forefront next.
One thing’s for sure: I have expelled so much creative energy (and gone without sleep) I can barely stand up straight. Pushing that much of your own life force into a creative project, in order to bring it to life, it takes the stuffing out of a human. I need to recharge.
I’ve been in studio the past few days, (my home studio, not the real one), working on demos for this musical I’m writing. The whole project has happened very quickly. It seems like the universe delivered this project to me–as if it were fully formed and ready to be presented.
I am a pianist. I do most of my composing at the piano. I do most of my “work out how the songs go…” at the piano. And I do my singing, by accompanying myself at the piano.
But, for a musical, which has…you know…actual music…you need…representations of that music.
So, with trepidation, considering my software issues and lack of recording engineer skills, I fire up my recording studio, roll up my (figurative) shirt sleeves and dive in.
First goal: Create demos that don’t make me cringe.
Now – that is a huge, HUGE dividing line. I’m not even talking about approaching any realm that could be named ‘good’. I’m talking about the realm of ‘barely adequate’.
The first demos I did were…maybe, barely adequate. And the musical has a whole bunch of songs, so this is a big project. So big–in fact, that it almost seems paralysing to think of trying to accomplish such a thing.
Not to mention..on this…there’s just me. When you divide yourself up between recording engineer and musician/singer…your abilities are halved. When you just engineer, you can focus all your efforts on the engineering. When you just play and sing, you can focus 100% of your being on the music.
But, when you record yourself, you are half engineer and half musician. It diminishes the quality and…unfortunately…it shows.
And, in my studio, with just me there, and with the (not top of the line) components I have, you record one thing at a time. One line. One instrument. One track. So…I worked, diligently, and assembled multiple tracks–just like putting puzzle pieces together.
(And that doesn’t just refer to building ONE song demo, but the puzzle analogy works on another level, since all of these demos and manuscript and actors and story and orchestration, etc…it all is a giant puzzle that (hopefully) comes together to create an entertaining musical.)
Hence, we arrive at the subject line for the blog post: Technical Perfection vs. emotion
When I wrote the musical…I was not at the piano (I started there, but ended up working ALL on the computer.) So I had written out lyrics and I had sung them into a cassette recorder. So, I needed to figure out each song and work them out and tweak. But, when that happened, for ALL of the songs of this project, it ‘did’ something to me. The emotional content of these songs, together, which build into an entire story…wow. I sang the musical, in its entirety, for four consecutive days.
Then I had the songs ‘down’ enough…to start recording. And you want, you need, you have this insane wish, for the demos to be good enough to let them go out into the world. The general public won’t ever hear them, but the musical producers, the artists, the actors…they will. They have to hear them, to know how the songs, go. Right?
So, I’m fighting these problems, and building things with the ‘technical’ side more to the top of the scale, and the ‘performance’ side, more to the bottom of the scale.
And yesterday, I’m about done for the day (recording, I mean). And I think “to hell with it”, and I just clicked record on the software and played the piano and sang the song–at the same time. This means, major bleed. You can’t mix. You have severely limited your post production options.
But, in this instance, I performed the song, as if I was sitting at my piano. Performed. Sang the living daylights out of it.
And on these last two tracks…I captured…something. The emotion was there. The technical stuff…(I’m shaking my head as I write this paragraph, because I just don’t…know…) The technical part of those two demos is soooo – what’s the word–lacking? Non-existent?
But…to capture the emotion. Not once, but twice. In the moment, performing those two songs, on ‘tape’, just as if I had performed them live…it captured something.
So…where do you draw the line? Are people going to listen to these and cringe at the (obvious) technical issues? Or will people respond to the ’emotion’, and that’ll be the ‘hook’ that ensnares them into the project?
[If the latter is the case–then I’m really screwed…because these demos are at the END of the musical. If I had the emotion, or the ‘whatever’…to _hook_ them into the project–at the beginning (something to make them keep reading, keep listening…to want them coming back for more)…then that’d be ideal. But alas–the emotional content comes at the end…at least in terms of what I’ve recorded so far…]
The manuscript–the basis for the musical, is…done. I mean…it should be the most difficult thing, right? Pulling a book/story/screenplay/stageplay – out of a human, that takes a huge toll. (By comparison–the last project we completed (me and a co-writer) took five years. FIVE YEARS. And it was just words. No music. And it was AGONIZING trying to get it accomplished and get it right.)
Back to the musical…
On this…it was just _there_. Now, I need to find a way to represent the music–so that people can hear it and learn how it goes. To put this in perspective:
My recorded, released catalog of tracks (both solo artist and band) is 17 singles. And that took the better part of a decade to compile.
This musical: 15 songs. There’s no way I can reserve all of these to go to the real recording studio and output in such a short amount of time. I can probably do a few there. But…
As composer you need to be able to communicate what’s in your head. Other people need to know how to represent and present a song that you, as composer, wrote. So, I need to find a way to get what’s inside my head…out to the world.
I have so many thoughts. Orchestrations; arrangements; harmonies. Ways to ‘perform’ these roles; ways to present the play. Staging. Blocking. Lighting.
You create this whole world, yet other people are going to be the ones to present it as entertainment. Does it work? Does it not? As playwright, you are working in a vacuum. You don’t know if a project will ‘hook and capture’ an audience, until it’s already set and locked and performed.
To use the phrase “flying blind” is an understatement.