John Guare On Playwriting VI

May 23, 2012

Adapted From Paris Review, The Art of Theater No. 9

Interviewed by Anne Cattaneo

A TV network gave money and movie cameras to Yale so playwrights could learn how to make movies. Sam Shepard, Ken Brown, who wrote The Brig, Barbara Garson, who wrote MacBird, Megan Terry, and I were the first group. What a remarkable year! Robert Lowell was in residence. Jonathan Miller. Irene Worth. Arnold Weinstein. André Gregory. Ron Leibman. Linda Lavin. Bill Bolcom. I wrote Muzeeka about all those undergraduates I saw around me, so free and happy but wondering what in adult life would allow them to keep their spirit and freedom? How do we keep any ideals in this particular society? Vietnam was starting to become a specter that wouldn’t go away.

The first act (House of Blue Leaves) was written in one sitting, but it took me nearly five years to write the second act. I knew what the events would be, but I lacked the technical skill to handle nine people onstage, to make the material do what I wanted it to do . . . . A friend . . . John Lahr, told me about a director from the Guthrie Theater named Mel Shapiro. I saw his work at Lincoln Center on a Vaclav Havel play; I loved it. We got a wonderful cast, went into rehearsal. Blue Leaves was a success. We won the Obie and the New York Drama Critics prize, and my picture was on the cover of the Saturday Review of Literature. Then Joe Papp asked Mel to direct Two Gentlemen of Verona. The production toured around the city parks on a truck in the summer of 1971. Because of the work we had done on farce structure for Blue Leaves, Mel asked me if I would cut and shape Two Gentlemen into ninety minutes . . . . By the time we opened, we had a musical that became a great success and moved from Central Park to Broadway, where it won the Tony Award. So I had a play and a musical on at the same time in New York. I was asked to do more musicals . . . . I didn’t know quite what to do. I was in a panic.

(A) few of us . . . moved up to Nantucket and started a theater where we did Marco Polo Sings a Solo. I wrote fifteen drafts of that play. Then I realized that I shouldn’t spend so much time trying to make something perfect.

Garson Kanin once said, Isn’t it funny that not many people know how to write a play but everybody knows how to rewrite a play. That’s what you have to be careful about: to whom you listen and whom you close out. And also, strangely, how to keep the radar open just in case somebody, some stranger, does throw something good at you. Answers are easy. Formulating the problem—that’s the art. But finally you have to realize there are certain times when, as Valéry says, a work of art isn’t finished, it’s just abandoned. You have to cut bait and move on to the next work.

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 VII of the John Guare series will post next Wednesday.

Sam Shepard On Playwriting

April 27, 2011

Adapted from: Silent Tongues

By Carol Rosen, The Village Voice, August 4, 1992

I’m interested in effects only to the extent that they serve some purpose of emotional terrain. Developing a new style of theater is not something I’m interested in.

I don’t see where these distinctions lie, really, between so-called realism and super-realism and naturalism and surrealism and absurd-ism.

The ancient meaning of myth is that it served a purpose in our life. The purpose had to do with being able to trace ourselves back through time and follow our emotional self. Myth served as a story in which people could connect themselves in time to the past. And thereby connect themselves to the present and the future. Because they were hooked up with the lineage of myth. It was so powerful and so strong that it acted as a thread in culture. And that’s been destroyed. Myth in its truest form has been demolished. It doesn’t exist anymore. All we have is fantasies about it. Or ideas that just speak to some lame notions about the past. But they don’t connect with anything. We’ve lost touch with the essence of myth.

I don’t think character really has anything to do with personality. I think character and personality are two entirely different animals . . . . character is something that can’t be helped . . . like destiny. And maybe it includes personality, but personality is something so frivolous compared with character they’re not even in the same ballpark. . . . . Character is an essential tendency. It can be covered up, it can be messed with, it can be screwed around with, but it can’t be ultimately changed. It’s like the structure of our bones, the blood that runs through our veins.

I guess when you start something, you always kind of have a half-baked notion about what you hope it to be. But it may not go in that direction at all. It may go somewhere completely different, which isn’t to say that you failed, it’s just that it turns and becomes something . . . But I think one of the thrills about writing is to remain open to all its possibilities, and not to try to put a bridle on it and squeeze it down into what your notion of it is. Not to say that you lose control, but I think you have to remain open.

Why should we be anchored to these notions of Eugene O’Neill and all this burden of having your character be believable from the outside in terms of the artist saying, well, he really is in a living room serving tea to his mother. And he’s really talking the way he would be talking in real life. What the hell is that? Why doesn’t he pour the tea on her head and start screaming and carrying on, climbing walls, and then come back and sit down and . . . You know what I mean? . . . . And I think a lot back then had to do with incredible frustration, the straitjacket of that kind of theater that we had been told was great theater.

I don’t hang out with playwrights. I can’t say I dislike them, but for the most part theater doesn’t interest me. I like writing plays because they have so much movement, there’s so much possibility of movement, and language moves. But I’m not a theater buff. Most theater bores the hell out of me. But I do like the possibilities. I think of all the forms that we’ve got now, probably theater has more possibilities than anything else. Really. Of real experimentation and real surprise and real emotional contact with an audience.

Writers are isolated individuals, for good reason . . . . That’s what writing is, an act of isolation. You either accept it or you don’t. I don’t think there’s any complaining about it.

I hate endings. You have to end it somehow. I like beginnings. Middles are tough, but endings are just a pain in the ass. It’s very hard to end stuff . . . . Because the temptation always is a sense that you’re supposed to wrap it up somehow. You’re supposed to culminate it in something fruitful. And it always feels so phony when you try to wrap it all up.

This is one in a series that will post  on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more about what people like Sam Shepard, Harold Pinter, Joyce Carol Oates and other famous — and not so famous — playwrights have to say about the art and craft of writing and directing plays, type “On Playwriting” into the small sidebar window and tap the “Search” button.

The Gag Process

March 9, 2009

How To Draw A “Gag” Cartoon

When meeting someone for the first time I’ve noticed that a quick way to dampen—or drown—any hope of a conversation is to answer their question, “What do you do?” by admitting that I’m a cartoonist. Blurting it out that way is usually followed by deep silence, or at most a single comment such as, “Gee, I’ve never met one of those before.” Most folks do not have a followup when they hear what I do. Occasionally, though, they ask questions such as “How do you get your ideas?” or “Which comes first, the caption or the drawing?” or “How long does it take to draw a cartoon?” Kids, I have found, get right to the point—they want to know: “How much money to you make for a cartoon?”

Even when I’m with someone who has known me for years, talking about the uncommon thing I do for a living can be awkward for both parties. For example, each year when I go for my eye exam the doctor asks, after checking my folder for clues as to my interests, “Still drawing your little cartoons?” I answer in the affirmative even while being slightly offended by the rote way he asks. Then the good doc changes the subject by telling me a story I’ve heard many times before about his experiences as a Flight Surgeon in the U.S. Air Force, and I’m relieved to not have to talk about my trade.

The fact is, I do like to talk about what I do with people who are sincerely interested, so I’ve decided to use this post to answer some of the questions people might want to know about the craft of gag cartooning, things they can use to help them come up with queries of their own the next time they run into a cartoonist at a cocktail party on in a redneck bar.

So, using the gag cartoon I did just last week, here is a short primer on how I approach my “little” craft.

1. Rough Sketch


This is an example of a first attempt to get the idea down, the so-called “thinking with a pencil” phase. These days I do all my hand-drawing, start to finish, in blue pencil on 9″ X 12″ tracing paper. And if there’s a caption, I’m still rewriting it, too.

2. Second Draft & Shading Test


After tracing over the first draft to clean it up a bit, I like to play around with possible shading ideas. And I’m still fiddling with the caption.

3. Inked Line Draft


Using another sheet of tracing paper, I ink the lines I want to have in the final art. (Sometimes I don’t use ink at all and settle for the pencil lines.) I can afford to be pretty sloppy at this point because I know everything I do is subject to change later on in the process, after I’ve scanned the image.

4. Inked & Shaded Draft


Still using my trusty blue pencil, and the second draft as a guide, I shade in the areas selected. Now I’m ready to scan the image into Photoshop.

5. Comprehensive Draft


Once I have a high resolution copy in my computer, I switch from color mode to gray scale and adjust the “levels”—the value scale from white to black—keeping as many of the grays as possible. Then it’s just a matter of making scores of small and large adjustments to come to a satisfactory final image, hopefully one that retains the feeling of being completely hand-drawn. I call this combination of hand and computer work “pencil painting.” Then I add the final version of the caption, upload the image to in London, and post a copy here on DoodleMeister. (You may want to compare the comprehensive draft above with the final art, below.)

6. Final Art


If you have questions about my gag cartooning process, or about cartooning in general, add a comment below. I’ll be happy to answer even if I have to make something up. (The original March 6 post featuring this cartoon may be seen directly below.)

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.