Neil Simon On Playwriting VIII

August 22, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 10

Interviewed by James Lipton

I never thought I spoke the lines until my family told me I did. They said they could walk by and tell if it was going well or not by the rhythm of it. I guess I want to see if I’m repeating words and, because I write primarily for the stage, I want to make sure the words won’t be tripping badly over some tongues.

When I wrote the Sergeant Bilko show my father asked me naively, Do you just write Sergeant Bilko’s lines or do you write the other lines too? When you write a play, maybe even a novel, you become everybody. It may seem like I only write the lines spoken by the character who is like Neil Simon, but in Lost in Yonkers I’m also the grandmother—and Bella. And to do that you have to become that person. That’s the adventure, the joy, the release that allows you to escape from your own boundaries. To be Grandma every other line for a couple of pages takes you into another being. It’s interesting how many people ask, Was this your grandmother? I say, No, I didn’t have a grandmother like that, and they say, Then how do you know her? I know what she sounds like. I know what she feels like. The boys describe it when they say, When you kiss her it’s like kissing a cold prune. I describe her in a stage direction as being a very tall, buxom woman. But she doesn’t necessarily have to be tall and buxom. She just has to appear that way to the boys. You can’t really use that as physical description, but it will convey something to the actress.

(W)hen Come Blow Your Horn was playing, the theater doorman, a black man in his sixties, was standing in the back of the theater, laughing his head off. I went over to him after the play and asked, Why were you laughing so much? He said, That’s my family up there. I don’t write social and political plays, because I’ve always thought the family was the microcosm of what goes on in the world. I write about the small wars that eventually become the big wars. It’s also what I’m most comfortable with. I am a middle-class person, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood. I try now and then to get away from the family play, but it amazes me that I’ve spent the last thirty-one years writing plays primarily about either my family or families very close to it. Maybe the answer is that at some point along the way you discover what it is you do best and writing about the family unit and its extensions is what I do best.

If you’d like to read what people such as Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing for the stage, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

Part IX of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.

My Friend Oscar

February 18, 2009

By Jacquie Roland

It may be too late for me to ever be seated up front in the Academy Awards audience and hear those magical words, ” And the Oscar goes to (insert my name here!).” But you never know. I gave my first Oscar speech when oscar08I was about seven, maybe eight. I figured that one day I’d be called on to thank a long list of people and wanted to be ready. So I rehearsed in front of my mirror again and again. It was important for me to get it right—you see, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up… not a fireman or a policeman or a mommy. When asked, I always said the same thing… “I want to be a ‘walt disney’.” I wanted to be a walt disney and win Oscars, which I thought were made of real gold, nifty little presents they gave you for being a really good walt disney and drawing entertaining movies. People must have found me amusing. I drew my movies on whatever scrap of paper that was available—shirt cardboard was a favorite—then passed the pictures around for the neighbors to see. I even drew my own Oscar once, coloring it with a stubby yellow crayon from the small flat box, (which didn’t include gold), and taped it to my mirror for encouragement as I rehearsed. What I was dreaming of, in those color-deprived days, was becoming an illustrator—although back then I didn’t know what one was.

Later, in real life, the illustrator part of my imaginary movie came true. I didn’t make it to Hollywood, but did work in the graphics field in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and now—as a painter/sculptor—in upstate New York. As I grew older, the Oscar ceremony just became something I watched with everyone else once a year. (Were there really times when, in my childish excitement, I bumped my nose trying to get closer to those gleaming metal statuettes and left tiny grease spots on the TV screen?) Some things are best forgotten… but other things, like the Hollywood dream itself, stayed with me—locked away—and there it rested quietly until not very long ago.

Dramatic Flashback: Two years ago I sold a painting (not that unusual)… soon after that I had an accident (very unusual). After the accident I was confined to a rehab facility for several months. When you are in one of those places, you become very aware of your own mortality—and your limitations. But I’m a determined little creature. I couldn’t paint, so I started to write. This past summer I wrote my first play, which I entered in a competition in Baltimore. The play “(She Loved Me?) She Loved Me Not,” was produced in November 2008 and, after all this time, an actress walked across a real stage saying words I had written. Meanwhile (as I waited for the play to be produced), I came close to winning an Oscar. Really—well, kind of. One of my paintings (remember the one I sold before the accident?) appeared in the Uma Thurman movie “The Life Before Her Eyes.” The film was released in April 2008 by 2929 Productions. I finally got to see it on DVD, and my small painting appears twice in the film—at 30:05 & 38:41. The director, Vadim Perelman (be still my heart), even mentioned it in his commentary. The painting is of a little girl’s face, its title “Victorian Dreams.” The movie was beautiful, lush even… and artistic… the subject matter was stirring, and with so many Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning names attached to the project, I thought that it was a shoo-in for at LEAST a nomination. I figured that if I couldn’t get a nomination myself, the next best thing would be to be involved—no matter how minutely—in a film that did. I could barely contain myself. Oh, the bragging rights! But, sadly, it wasn’t to be. *Sigh*

The 81st annual Oscars will be broadcast February 22—again, of course, without me. This year Hugh Jackman will do the MC bit. We will not air kiss. I will not be interviewed on Oprah, or by Barbara Walters. Earlier, on the famous red carpet, Joan Rivers will not have asked me inane questions. After someone else is handed “my” Oscar and—watched by millions, maybe billions—I will not have to smile wanly into the camera and say (a tear in my eye), “it was an honor just to have been nominated.”

Sure, I’ll be watching… and I just may get out the glitter and make my own Oscar, as I did many years ago. That little yellow fellow got me through a lot as a child, and he is still a shiny beacon for my darkest days. (Let’s face it, we may ALL need a little bit of economic glitter to get through the next few years.) But for a few hours this Sunday evening, we can forget our troubles and watch the fancy folks, dressed in their tuxes and fabulous gowns and borrowed jewelry, gliding across the wine colored carpet on television. I have to smile… because like the little girl I was many years ago, some of those folks must have dreamed of winning the Oscar when they were eight years old, too. There really isn’t that much difference between us, you know… they just got closer to the stage than I did. Oh, and just for the record—in his lifetime Walt Disney won 26 Oscars. Me: 0. (At least so far.)

Copyright © 2009 Jacquie Roland.

Real Ringers Read

January 30, 2009

For many years I’ve known Jacquie Roland as artist, actress, federal government coworker, cartoonist, playwright, professional clown, writer, etc., etc. I now learn she’s also a “Ringer.” In a short essay below, the clever Ms. Roland explains.


By Jacquie Roland

I’m a “RINGER”. For those unfamiliar with the term, a RINGER is a (huge) fan of the J.R.R. Tolkien saga THE LORD OF THE RINGS. (LOTR). I’ve been reading, and re-reading the books since I was introduced to them in the 1960’s, by an office buddy in the federal government. I like to start each new year with a read, but this year, instead, I reached for my extended dvd’s of the marvelous epic directed by Peter Jackson.

I started 2009, (which due to the state of things promises to be a rather tough year all around) completely immersed in a world of Hobbits, Wizards, Elves and the men of Middle Earth. It was totally satisfying. My affection for, and involvement with, the characters imagined by Professor Tolkien has actually grown over the years, not lessened. Admittedly, this year I have had some help. In February of 2008, I joined a group of like-minded people on the internet, called THE FELLOWSHIP OF MIDDLE EARTH, The Unofficial Site of The LOTR Fan Club Community. This was/is my first foray into the vast resources of the Internet. I have been welcomed into the Fellowship, which is very family friendly, by an amazing group of people, most of whom I know only by their avatars. We share a real love for the books, and now the movies. My avatar is that of one of the Ring-wraiths, or fallen kings of men. Although the Ring-wraith character is male, by adding the “wife” I made it my own.

So the Ringwraith-Wife was born. RWW for short. The photo above is a self portrait I took of RWW in the backyard of ‘her’ new home. People who know me, and remember the Halloween parties that Bernie Wrightson gave in the seventies & eighties in upstate NY, will recognize RWW as an adaptation of another character I dressed as… The Vampire Bride. (Admittedly, I’m also a Halloween junkie, and costume freak.)

When I ‘became’ RWW, I started thinking about LOTR on a daily basis, rather than as my annual enjoyable pastime. Because of this, I’ve begun to integrate LOTR into my daily life… really. Almost to the point of WWGD. (What would Gandalf Do) Even to me, it’s a little spooky. But it sure is fun. In May, I felt confident enough to start an online comic, titled RINGER. Due to other real life considerations, I had stopped cartooning years ago, and I missed it. RINGER ‘publishes’ four cartoons a week, all a parody of LOTR and it’s characters. Because it’s on the Internet, I get instant feedback on the weekly gags… I found out quickly what works, and what doesn’t, and just as quickly I adjust. What started out as a small pleasantry, has now become quite a bit more. I fully intend to try for a book sometime this year. (My only cartoon book so far, I Drive People Crazy, Too, was about Pac-Man… I got the biggest kick when another author asked to include my book in her Pac-Man collectible tome… if for no other reason than instead of being thought of as an antique, I’m now officially a collectible.) As a Ringer, I still have friends who marvel at my fascination with LOTR, the books, the movies… and let’s not forget my semi-obsession with the movie’s stars!

My personal favorite, of the actors, from the beginning, has been Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn. -Sigh!- Other Ringer friends are quite enamored with Orlando Bloom, who played Legolas, Elijah Wood as Frodo, and Sean Bean as Boromir. Heroes, all. Nowadays, we need our heroes. (Can you say… OBAMA ? …I hope… I hope… I hope.)

Anyway, all I’m trying to point out here, if my little ramble has a point, is that nothing you do is wasted. It’s all grist for your mill. A book someone casually handed me 40 (!) years ago, has all but taken over my present life… and in such a good way. So if someone tells you that whatever you happen to be doing at the moment… reading a book, painting, writing a play, watching a movie, or simply daydreaming… is a waste of time… know in your heart that it isn’t… one of these days your ‘diversion’ could just end up being the next chapter in your own book.

As for the Ringwraith – Wife photo, my “hobby” used to be taking self portraits… always in costume, with interesting props. I put my camera on a tripod, hit the self timer, and run like the devil to get in place. I lost my favorite set of photos in a move… In them, I dressed as Esmeralda, had made a soft sculpture of Quasimodo, and positioned myself & “Quasi ” on the steps of a gorgeous downtown stone church. When I clicked the timer I ran and wrapped myself in this huge hawser, and laid on the stone steps at “Quasi’s” feet. I called the best photo from that set “She Gave Me Water.” One of these days I hope to redo the “Quasi” series. (Of course, if I don’t get a move on the new photos will be titled “He Gave Her Walker.”) I also have a few humorous LOTR characters, and setups, in mind as well. But as I’m sure you’ve noticed, there are only so many hours in a day.

For now, my character ‘RingWraith Wife’ will have to do… and my cartoons, of course. And the paintings, and plays… Ain’t life grand? But still, this year, already… something’s missing. Before too long I’m going to have to pull my crusty old LOTR volumes down from the shelves. Even with the movies… I miss the books… and you know what they say… “Real Ringers Read The Books.” (They do… they do… they do.) Damn you, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Copyright © 2009 Jacquie Roland.

Audrey’s House

June 16, 2008

Audrey Herman 1920—1999

When my friend Jacquie Roland read a recent “Today’s Pic” caption which mentioned the death of Audrey Herman, founder of Baltimore’s Spotlighter’s Theater (see May 26 post), she was inspired to write another of her epic comments. Of course I recognized Jacquie’s piece for what it was, a neat personal essay about her experiences as a community theater actress which—in addition to cartoonist, clown, painter, writer, etc.,—is another of Jacquie’s creative incarnations. Her memoir appears below, illustrated with several of my “Zorba” rehearsal images. In the photograph above, also taken at that production, I simply asked Audrey to “play to the light,” resulting in a wonderful “drama queen” pose. Behind her hand is a fragment of one of the wallpapered corner “poles” mentioned by Jacquie in her essay.

Having moved away from Baltimore a long time ago, I was unaware of Audrey Herman’s passing. People like Audrey, and John Waters’ “Edie the Egg Lady” and “Divine,” still represent Baltimore for me. Audrey kept her theater going through thick and thin, and sometimes—the thin times—there would be more actors on stage than out front. Once, we went on for an audience of three, but I also remember people doing the damnedest things to get in to see a show. During the “Zorba” production, for instance, an older Greek gentleman came to see the play who didn’t speak much English. Tom Karras, our director, and Greek himself, went out front to explain—in Greek—that we had no seats left. “Ahh,” the old fellow said, and nodded. He went away and in a few minutes he was back, all smiles, carrying one of those plastic and chrome kitchen chairs from the fifties. Tom placed the chair as close as he could to the stage without it being in the actors way, but for the rest of that performance we all had to “cheat”—that is, fudge our moves—around it.

Audrey was phenomenal as the older woman in “Zorba.” I remember another thing about her—the PERFUME. In the small Spotlighter’s theater we didn’t need to see her coming—her scent preceded her. One evening, when told that a newspaper reporter wanted a backstage interview with photos, Audrey said “sure Hon.” Without checking her hair, or adding more lipstick, she just splashed on more perfume.

The Spotlighter’s was a real theater with real actors who gave their all—and without pay. We had our stars, and some were as accomplished as any you’d find on Broadway, and sometimes as temperamental. Sharon Weaver rehearsing a song for the Spotlighter\'s production of \But if you had one of them in your show you knew you’d draw an audience for every performance. Joe Ciminio in “Zorba” or the “The Night of the Iguana,” his wife Audrey Ciminio in “The King and I,” Sharon Auerbach Weaver (pictured at right and below, rehearsing her featured song from Zorba) in any damned thing. More than a few went to bigger things in theater and film. Just three examples: Bess Armstrong worked in movies with actors like Alan Alda and Tom Selleck. Howard E. Rollins, Jr., starred in the films “Ragtime” and “A Soldier’s Story.” Josh Charles was in “Hair Spray,” “Dead Poets Society” and is currently working in a hit television show with Gabe Byrne. We always had two shows at a time at “Spots,” one in rehearsal and one running. The rehearsing show had the theater during the week and the latest production owned the weekend. Also on the weekend were auditions for upcoming shows (early afternoons only). Once or twice I was in a show, rehearsing for a show, and auditioning for another show—all in the same week. I also had a day job and worked as a freelance cartoonist on the side. For ten years I barely went home. When not rehearsing or performing, we all hung out in the local watering holes. A favorite spot in Baltimore’s Mount Vernon area was called “The Great American Melting Pot,” or “Gampy’s,” and we’d often share that space with local TV people. Like Oprah, for instance. During her years in Baltimore Oprah was a regular at Gampy’s after her evening TV weather spot. The casts of other shows would sometimes meet at the “Hippo,” a gay bar in Mount Vernon, or at a disco called “Girard’s,” which some claimed looked just like “Studio 54.” Once at Girard’s Oprah was a judge and I was her pick for the final costume parade. I was dressed as a naked transvestite dwarf wizard. (Don’t ask. Anyhow, I came in second.) Oprah even picked my music—”Da Ya Think I’m Sexy,” by Rod Stewart. Add to all that activity the cast parties, birthday, Christmas, Thanksgiving and Halloween parties, and dining in the Inner Harbor area of South Baltimore, it’s no wonder I got the idea the term “party animals” was coined for us.

When we weren’t hanging out, or visiting each others shows, we were cementing our relationships by attending everything theatrical that came to Baltimore (we had season tickets). Trips to New York to see the “pros” act, were somehow sandwiched in. When a Spotlighter’s show closed you felt as if some part of you was lost forever. And sometimes it was. We all performed at other theaters, but the “Spot’s” was home. We were like each others family. (Wait, a minute—did that make Audrey the MOM?!! That sexy lady of a certain age would have hated to think so.)

We say that Spotlighter’s is a theater “in the round.” That’s a misnomer. The stage is actually square, with square, weight-bearing pillars—we called them “poles”—at each corner. Those poles were an integral part of the theater not just because they held up the roof. We walked around them, stood beside them, made them part of the decor. They were wallpapered, sanded, painted and tiled. They were stained from years of actors grabbing them to keep from falling off the stage, and blood stained at times from actors tearing into them at full force during dark entrances and exits. In one play Joe Cimino ran into a pole during a fast exit but no one in the audience knew because the lights were out. When Joe burst through the curtains backstage, however, his face was covered in blood. He had a cut over his eyebrow, and it bled like a—well, let’s just say it bled a lot. But, as some dingbat once said, “the show must go on,” and it did.

Accidents happen, problems occur, but for whatever reason theater people seem more adaptable than most. They can also be more volatile. Joe Cimino, for instance. In “Zorba” he was one intense, focused actor—he WAS Zorba. For one scene in that production Tom Karras hired, out of his own pocket, a real belly dancer to tempt Joe’s character. She performed barefoot, and in the preceding scene, Zorba smashes an old style vinyl record. The prop record had been preset—carefully broken into three pieces—then glued back together. At the scene change I was one of two women singing to, and taunting Zorba. Part of our job was remove the three pieces of vinyl from the stage floor so the belly dancer could come on and safely do her moves. No problem, until one night Joe—so into the moment—smashes the record into not three but what seemed like a thousand pieces. We were in big trouble, with no way to clear the shards before the barefoot belly dancer’s cue. I turned to the other Zorba “taunter” and said, “whatever I do, go with it.” When our song began I twirled straight to Joe, grabbed him and suggestively slid down his front. I spent the rest of my impromptu and self-assigned, “star turn” singing and “tempting” and at the same time sweeping the entire stage with my glittery net gown. I rocked, rolled and writhed, and swept the shards off the apron. Tom didn’t know WHAT it was all about until he got backstage and the crew told him. (Until that point, he thought I had lost my mind.)

Once I saw a Broadway play starring Carol Channing and Christopher Reeve. Carol’s part made her out to be meticulous in her person and fanatically clean in her home. At some point, a piece of crumpled paper not in the script had fallen on the stage. Channing and Reeve spent the entire scene kicking it out of their way and walking around it, which only pulled focus and made the audience stare at it. Neither of them would “break character” long enough to get rid of the damned thing. They were too “professional.” Well, that ruined the play for me. At the Audery Herman’s Spotlighter’s, we’d have picked it up with our teeth, if need be. We’d have made Audrey “Mom” Herman proud.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.

Family, Friends, and Neighbors

June 9, 2008

Jacquie&?September 16, 1982

This is a picture of my friend Jacquie Roland, on the right, in a scene from one of her many community theater acting gigs. (In this case the play was a Baltimore Playwright’s production of “The Gathered Rose,” by Kathleen Barber, another friend.) When I composed the image I was interested in the relationship between the two characters at this particular moment in the play when Nora Meyer, on the left, was dominate—if memory serves she was delivering a monologue—so I went for an angle that would visually represent the fact by foregrounding her in the frame. (Sometimes photos do lie—Jacquie was the star of the show and the two women were actually very nearly the same height.)  Nora Roberts was once a co-worker of mine at the Social Security Administration. Baltimore, it turns out, is a very small town . . .

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore

Today’s Pic

May 26, 2008

January 16, 1977

In this photograph my old friend Jacquie Roland (cartoonist, artist, actress, writer, etc.), on the right, is feeding lines to local actor Joe Cimino, who played the title character of “Zorba” in the Baltimore Spotlighter’s Theater production of that Broadway musical. Jacquie is the person I have to thank for introducing me to Baltimore community theater. In this case, she also introduced me to the Zorba director, who was kind enough to allow me to photograph his rehearsal process as part of my research into the mysteries of theatrical production. At the time I was teaching myself—with the help of a bunch of books, museum visits, and one pro friend—to produce photographic images, so this was an opportunity to combine two of my top interests. Technical note: the “starburst” effect of the light between Joe and Jacquie is pure photographic artifice, created with a filter which screws onto the camera lens. The clear glass filter has an inlaid grid of thin wires which creates the flare effect by, I assume, bending the light rays. The amount of flare can be adjusted by simply rotating the filter a bit this way or that. In the image above it appears that I had the filter set for the greatest possible dramatic effect. This smaller image is an example of a shot made during the same rehearsals but on a different day and without the filter. Except for the lively (and sexy) acting of Joe Cimino and Audrey Herman, Spotlighter’s founder, this image lacks sparkle, huh? Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.