“Elaine May has a wonderful motto: ‘The only safe thing is to take a chance.’ “I think she means that if you stay safe, and don’t take a chance — don’t do something that’s different from the last thing, something that makes you nervous and holds dangers — if you keep trying to do the thing that worked last time, the encrustations of mannerisms begin to take you over. And pretty soon you’re no good at all — and therefore not safe at all. The longer you play it safe, the less interesting is what you do.”
Mike Nichols, the Director’s Art, by Barbara Gelb
NYT Magazine, May 27, 1984
By David Mamet
“The main question in drama, the way I was taught, is always what does the protagonist want. . . . Do we see the protagonist’s wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That’s the structure of drama. . . . People only speak to get something. . . . They may use a language that seems revealing, but if so, it’s just coincidence, because what they’re trying to do is accomplish an objective.”
From the Hilton Als commentary, “True Lies”
The New Yorker, June 29, 2015
Bad Actors II
This is an edited re-post. Click images to enlarge.
Joe Pete, staged by the Baltimore Playwrights Festival in 1999, was my second theatrical attempt to get into the head of the man who, in real life, murdered my favorite first cousin. That man was Phyllis Jean’s husband. In the play, I call him Joe Pete. Since I knew nothing about the real man, the character, except for the crime, is a total fiction. (He is also the same character that was in Cecil Virginia, 1964, my first produced play by the BPF, in August 1985. See Bad Actors I, for details.)
Joe Pete is Kitty’s husband. He’s a working man, inarticulate, violent, someone we come to know through a web of conflicting stories, verbal games played-out among his drinking buddies, and later during interviews with a prison doctor. My goal with this play was to use drama with darkly comedic shadings to deal more directly with the killing of Kitty, to move in for a close-up of Joe Pete, so to speak. And this time, I swore to myself that there would be no off-stage climax.
The following lines are from a scene in a local bar, the afternoon before Joe Pete kills Kitty. The tavern is a hangout for paper-mill workers. Here we find his friends, Ray and Byron, and Jack, the bartender. The first two are waiting for Joe Pete to show up so they can make plans for a hunting trip. The scene begins with a stage direction:
BYRON takes a sip or two, then smacks his half-empty glass down on the bar, splashing beer.
RAY (pointing): I’m writin’ a song about that.
BYRON: My damn beer glass?
RAY: Not just that, no. It’s about a guy drinkin’ in a dim joint in the bright afternoon. Just sittin’ and drinkin’ and talkin’. Maybe playin’ some pool. Bright sunlight outside, dim bar light inside. (pause) All stuff like that.
JACK (working behind the bar): Yeah. Sure.
RAY: Well, I am. (points again) How light reflects off the glass, how pretty that is?—and that bottle! Ever see anythin’ so—
BYRON (overlapping): What’s the song called, Ray?
RAY (mild pride): “She Took My Love and Took Off.” But all I’ve got so far is—
JACK (overlapping): Ha! Shiiiiiiiiiiiiii-IT!
JOE PETE enters.
BYRON (waving): Hey—Joe Pete, old buddie!
JOE PETE (ignores BYRON, ranting): That Todd is one sorry son-of-bitch! Sorriest no-good son-of-a-bitch that ever lived!
RAY (lightly): What’d the bastard do this time?
JOE PETE: Usual sorry-assed shit.
RAY (remaining positive): Todd get you that straight day work yet, like he said?
JOE PETE: Even if he does, he’s still one schemin’ no-good sorry son-of-a—
BYRON (overlapping, gentle): Word at the mill says Todd put you in for a raise, too, an—
JOE PETE (overlapping): Look, if I get it, it’s ‘cause I deserve it. Don’t have to kiss Todd’s ass for what’s rightly mine. (pause) Son-of-a-bitch calls me in his office. Says he’s talked to the big bosses. (reciting) “Told ‘em your situation, Joe Pete, It’s up to you now,” he says. “Can’t protect you no more.” (pause): Ha! Who the fuck needs ‘im?
RAY: The man just wants to know what exactly it is you’re after.
JOE PETE: Ain’t what I want. I don’t care. It’s what Kitty wants.
BYRON (innocent): I’m sure Todd knows what that is. I’m sure he—
JOE PETE (overlapping, suspicious): What’s that?
BYRON: I’m sure Todd has the best interests of Kitty an—
JOE PETE (overlapping, cold): How would that sorry shit know what my wife wants?
Trying to write plays, I discovered that if I had an overarching concept, it helped me to proceed without getting too stuck. My vague idea in this case was that the characters Joe Pete, Ray, and Byron each represent distinct stages in the evolution of the human male (primitive, transitional, evolved). In a sense, the characters grew from three parts of my own split self. For me, Ray was the more interesting character. He matures during the course of the play and becomes a thoughtful, creative doubter, who isn’t sure the old “manly” ways stand up even while he’s still attracted to them. Ray is willing to change. He is confused (like me), but that is expressed in a positive form, as a wannabe singer/songwriter, rather than in anger and rage.
Working in theater taught me that collaboration must include tact, something that doesn’t come easily to me. I have a history of getting into scrapes (mostly verbal) with coworkers and others. (My mother liked to say that I was her only son born with his foot in his mouth.) Even now, what little tact I have has accrued over a long life. So when I noticed rehearsal problems with the character-development of Ray, I made an effort to be gentle about getting them resolved. The following is a note that I gave my first-time director.
“I see Ray as a mixture of Joe Pete (lost soul/caveman) and Byron (older/evolved/sweet). Ray, at this age, is still more ‘Joe Pete’ than ‘Byron,’ but at least he’s headed in the right direction. Ray’s tough, but shows softer tendencies as well. I’m not sure I’ve captured this in the text. But if you dig deeply during rehearsals, I think you’ll find places where—through gesture, expression, body language, reading emphasis and clever blocking—you can point up Ray’s humanity and his movement away from the ‘lost soul’ model of Joe Pete.
“When Ray says his wife claims their baby is afraid of him, we need to clearly see real sadness. Another opportunity is Ray’s monologue about throwing their decorated Christmas tree across the room in a rage. At first he talks about the rampage as sort of funny. We need his expression and gestures to show him more sad than amused. There are other places in the script where we can emphasize Ray’s sweeter side. The actor playing Ray is doing a good job, but I would like to see more softness—and have this side of him become stronger as the play proceeds. Let me know if rewrites might help to help achieve this.”
Some critics had problems with Joe Pete’s extreme meanness, and this review from a local paper amounts to damning with faint praise. “‘A man with a rifle is as likely to use it on his wife as on a deer . . .’ (is) basically the attitude toward the male gender in Joe Pete. The titular character even says, ‘A man who ain’t tough with his woman just ain’t a man’ . . . . the playwright’s knack for naturalistic banter proves to be a mixed blessing . . . . the mostly comic bull sessions are meant to incrementally build until the underlying tensions finally explode . . . Joe Pete has a strong theme and solid performances (but) some rewriting could whittle down the redundancies, make the characters more than the sum of a few defining masculine traits, and smooth the transitions.”
On the other hand, one critic said, “The barroom is the classic American dramatic setting for revealing truths . . . where beer is consumed, the talk is aimless and circular, and posturing is elevated to performance art . . . (the playwright) balances the ugly, male swaggering with a rich vein of humor. The oddly catchy language was quoted widely on the sidewalk during intermission (‘available pussy’ seemed to be the favorite). ”
As I wrote the play, I knew I’ve made progress in my own evolution, but also that I still have a way go. For instance, the least perception of unfairness or disrespect can still get a potentially violent rise out of me. It’s happened only a few times, but the fact that I’m still that touchy is troubling. Especially since when it does occur, I also detect, very close to the surface, the icy desire for blood.
I still wonder if I made Ray too goody-goody, sort of over-civilized him. Nevertheless, he is the character with whom I relate the most—not Joe Pete. Perhaps if I had the opportunity to rewrite and re-stage the play (with a different title), I’d make Ray more the focus, since his growth represents the path to a higher plane of behavior toward which I’ve been struggling these many years, albeit with mixed results.
Meanwhile, I remind myself that I could be much worse. The two community theater actor/killers I happen to have known in real life never harmed a stranger, as far as I know, but they brutally murdered people very close to them. (See the Bad Actors I post from 2/28/15). The fact those men resorted to lethal violence suggests to me that, given some extreme situations I’ve been in, I might have gone as far as they did. But I also know that, compared to them—thanks to my still evolving “Ray-like” creative self control—I am very much an amateur.
Copyright © 2015 Jim Sizemore.
Bad Actors I
This is an edited re-post. Click images to enlarge.
Cecil, Virginia, 1964, was the second play I wrote and the first one produced by the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival, in August, 1985. The story was based on the murder of my maternal first-cousin, Phyllis Jean. While there are positive things to say about the production, it failed my own expectations. I had hoped that writing it would somehow deepen my insight into the murderer, help me understand what drove Phyllis Jean’s husband to kill her. I was convinced that a fictionalized version of the deed would free me from thinking about it—or him—ever again. But some critics said that the play was too much a portrait of life in a small town, rather than of the murderer and his motivations. The reviews, good and bad, only compounded the emotional confusion I still felt.
In a case of tragic serendipity (cosmic joke?) the actor cast to play Joe Pete, the wife-killer, would murder his real-life wife a few years later. And in an even stranger alignment of dark stars, the woman he killed was a co-worker/friend of mine, her office no more than a hundred yards from my own. His wife was no tomboy like Phyllis Jean, and she didn’t have my cousin’s red hair and freckles, but she was vivacious and witty and fun to be around. And she had a lovely smile. In those ways, and in her fate, she came to remind me very much of Phyllis.
Cecil is an ensemble play with nine speaking roles. The character of Kitty, Joe Pete’s wife, is based on Phyllis Jean; Asher, the editor of the local paper, represents me. The story is told from Asher’s point of view and the first scene in his office is designed to define the relationship of those two friends since childhood, and to foreshadow the tragedy to come. In the complete scene we also learn that Asher had been hired by Kitty’s guardian to keep an eye on her on the school bus, in the same way that my grandmother paid me to spy on Phyllis Jean. But that’s pretty much where the resemblance to real life ends. The Baltimore Sun critic wrote that “Watching (the play) is like looking at a cut-away version of a small town.”
Here are a few lines from Act One, Scene One, beginning with a stage direction.
We hear a typewriter. Lights up in the office of the Cecil Herald. ASHER, who has a small town businessman look about him, is using his index fingers to tap out a story. After a few beats KITTY struts in. She is a small woman, pretty, light makeup, flowing red hair, the toned body of a dancer.
KITTY (after a long beat watching ASHER work, teasing): It’s O.K., Asher, don’t pay me no mind. Just pretend I ain’t here at all. (ASHER finishes the line he’s typing and looks up. KITTY, still teasing, snatches the typewriter paper and reads the headline): “Country Man Is Charged With Murder” (she glances at him, then continues.) “Four children have lost their mother and may lose their father for some time as the result of a long gun slaying at 7:30 last night in the Blue Run area of Cecil.”
ASHER (mock-stern): Kitty, give it.
KITTY: Lordy, what is this?
ASHER: Guy shot his wife over in—
KITTY (curious): What for you reckon?
ASHER (ignoring the question): Kitty, please, I’ve got this deadline—and a headache.
Many who saw the play agreed that my female characters were well-written, “for a man.” Any skill I may have for writing from the female POV is likely because as a young boy I spent a lot of time listening to women in all kinds of settings. My favorite half-sister ran a beauty parlor, and when she had to baby-sit me on a workday I’d tag along. I loved to watch and hear the women sitting under the hairdryers, flipping through Look and Life and Collier’s, gabbing about this and that, appearing at once cute and serious and silly in hair curlers—talking, talking, talking.
Aside from the reviews (brickbats included), the fun of hearing actors say my words, and experiencing how a play is staged, the BPF production was my reward for months of hard work. But the nagging fact remained that the murder, as written and staged, happened out of the audience’s sight and was, as one critic said, “. . . the off-stage fulfillment of (an) ominous promise (and) so perfunctory we are cheated of pathos. Perhaps the playwright wanted us to see the play’s climactic event as just another news item in the Cecil Herald. Still, murder is not a subtle crime. It calls for more than suggestion.” That critic had me pegged.
While the play was an OK first effort, I came to agree that Phyllis Jean’s death needed to be—deserved to be—dealt with directly. And, because of my inability (unwillingness?) to face it at the time, I had hidden it off-stage. As serendipity would have it, though, I’d get a chance to try again.
More about that soon, when I post Bad Actors II . . .
Copyright © 2015, Jim Sizemore