Edward Albee on Directing

August 3, 2011

Adapted from: Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee?

Joe Levine, Johns Hopkins Magazine, June, 1984

I work in the practical areas of theater because a play is not a theoretical thing — it must be rehearsed, acted, and seen.

I realized there was something to be studied in the craft of directing, so I watched others around the world direct my plays. I learned by osmosis. My teachers were Peter Hall, Ingmar Bergman, Jean Louis Berreault, and Franco Zefirelli — it was a pretty good faculty. They didn’t mind my sitting in. They didn’t know I was going to take their jobs away.

There are only naturalistic plays — even Ionesco is naturalistic, though he may give the impression of being different. If a play does not admit of subtext, then it is either too superficial or too much at odds with itself.

The actor should create subtext. But the director needs to inquire about the actor’s sub-textual choices only if he suspects they may be at cross-purposes with the author’s intentions, and, therefore, hurting the play.

I once declined an offer to direct a revival of Tennessee William’s Sweet Bird of Youth because the second act is atrocious. If I had directed it, I would have had to sit down and have a long talk with Tennessee, and say, “Look here, Tenn . . . ” Well, you just don’t talk that way to the dean of American playwrights.

First of all, I only cut and clarify. I don’t ask anyone to change the nature of a play, although I do sometimes prod them to write about what they really mean to write about, instead of what they they think they mean to write about. Besides, I’m only doing to their plays what I do to one of own when I’m thinking it out in my head. I carry a play around for a long while before I trust it to paper, and at this point, when I bring one into the rehearsal period, it doesn’t need much rewriting. Too many young playwrights rush into print too soon.

When you’re writing a play, you’re attempting the impossible. When You’re directing it, you must do only what is possible, and the impossible must vanish.

As a director I have a rather strong authorial personality. I want to do to others’ plays what I would not permit anyone to do to mine.

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 playwrights (also some not so famous), 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.


Tom Stoppard On Playwriting II

July 20, 2011

Adapted from: The Real Tom Stoppard

By Mel Gussow, The New York Times Magazine, May 1, 1981

I’m not really a very exploratory writer. I don’t pick up a pen and see how things will go. By the time I pick up a pen, I’ve gone through so much work. Once I have the vague idea of a structure, landmark moments occur which fit into the structure. I have an idea of how a scene will end, but I don’t know how to get there. In “The Real Thing,” one of the stimuli has to do with the situation being repeated three times. That gave me two landmarks to head for. One of the comforting things about being a playwright is that a full-length play is not many words. If you run them all together and take out the stage directions, it’s 90 pages at the outside. That’s a short story.

I don’t know if (“The Real Thing”) is autobiographical, but a lot of it is auto-something.

The more you like another writer the more you shy away from using him as a model — because it’s a fatal attraction. I was passionate about Hemingway when I started writing, and the first short stories I wrote were bad Hemingway stories. I think he’s still my favorite American writer. He got his effects by simple statements. The egregious word in Hemingway is very rare. “Egregious” is a word he wouldn’t have used in his life.

“Happiness is equilibrium. Shift your weight.” (A line from “The Real Thing.”) Shift your weight. That’s quite sound. Equilibrium is pragmatic. You have to get everything into proportion. You compensate, re-balance yourself so that you maintain your angle to your world. When the world shifts, you shift.

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.


Tom Stoppard On Playwriting

July 13, 2011

Adapted from: Is ‘The Real Inspector Hound’ a Shaggy Dog Story?

By Angeline Goreau, The New York Times, August 9, 19982

“Hound” is timeless in the truly pejorative sense . . . incapable of change. It doesn’t lend itself to deep scrutiny. It’s an entertainment, just like a mechanical toy. It waves a flag, squeaks and turns a turtle and carries on. It’s a logical structure with a vein of parody going through it. There’s no reason to write a play like that. It’s an enjoyment. And that is what it is. One hopes it will work out all right, because in the nature of theater there’s this interesting transition between the text and the event. The ball can be dropped in many different ways. Or not dropped.

I don’t trust writer’s who wax confidently about what they do and why they do it. In writing plays, I find that the problems — if that’s what they are — are very mundane, and in a way surface. The wellspring of a play is often curiously uninteresting — it derives from insubstantial stray images and ideas, What it doesn’t arise from at all, I don’t think, is anything like a complete sense of the whole. You know, What am I going to try to achieve here? What is it going to be about underneath?

I seldom worry about underneath. Even when I’m aware that there is an underneath. I tend to try and suppress it further under, because theater is a wonderfully, refreshingly simple event. It’s a storytelling event. The story holds or it doesn’t . . .  The same would be true of a short story or a novel.

The first idea I had was that I’d like to write a play in which the first scene turned out to have been written by a character in the second scene. That was all I started with. There is a strong — not autobiographical element — but a strong editorial element because the man spouts opinions generally which I subscribe to. So in that sense there’s a lot of me in it, more than in most plays, but only by virtue of the fact that the protagonist is a writer in London in 1980-odd.

“Hapgood” has a physicist in it, who talks about physics a bit. But I don’t think that actually is the problem. The intricacies of the spy plot are quite difficult. I think I’m not as good as John le Carré at doing that kind of story. But I find I’m talking about the play as though it failed in some way for me. In fact, I’m interested by it in so far as it succeeded.

One of the built-in ironies of being a playwright at all is that one is constantly trying to put into dramatic form questions and answers that require perhaps an essay, perhaps a book, but are too important and too subtle, really, to have to account for themselves within the limitations of what’s really happening in the theater, which is that the story is being told in dialogue.

(I use) this ill-suited medium (to account for) matters like morality or empire, or the authenticity of romantic love (with the reservation) that failure is almost built into a play if that is its true purpose, its true function. And so one avoids failure if one can, by denying that that is the function of the play. And one says that, no, that was merely an aspect or a sidelight of the play’s function and the primary function is to tell an entertaining story.

My primary delight, which is a good enough word for the fuel that one needs to do any work at all, is in using the language rather than the purpose to which language is put . . . and more than language, I would say theater — the way theater works, through disclosure and surprise.

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.


Do You Love Me Or What?

November 6, 2008

Scene From A Failed Play

There are times when failure is more interesting than success, especially to the person who created the mess—which in this case is me. Of the five plays I’ve written, three have been produced in the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival, but the one I like best—the one that I think is the most original and accomplished—is one of the two that were rejected. The following is a scene from that play.

SETTING: A modern living groom.

CHARACTERS: ALUNA, female; SKILLET, male; and PASSIE, female; all three attractive thirty-something’s.

ALUNA ENTERS with PASSIE close behind. ALUNA pauses to pick up a gift-wrapped package from the coffee table. She opens it and looks at the contents with mild disgust, then drops it in a wastebasket. PASSIE arranges herself on the sofa as ALUNA straightens the magazines on the coffee table, then she goes to the door and peers through the peephole. After a beat ALUNA turns to face PASSIE and speaks.

ALUNA: Damn—you’re still out there!

PASSIE (nods and smiles): Yep.

ALUNA (again looking through the peephole): You’re hugging the wall, trying to blend in with the paint. This lens makes you look all distorted—thin on top, fat in the middle, thin again at your legs and feet. (ALUNA turns to face PASSIE, continuing): And your face is red and puffy like you’ve been crying.

PASSIE (formal): I expect that’s because I’m concerned about the nature of your interest in my husband.

ALUNA: Your husband? Where did you get him—at the Husband Store in the mall? Was he on sale?

PASSIE (quiet, mean): Bitch. Slut. Maggot.

ALUNA: When it comes to men, all I get is the eccentric, half-baked, pussy-whipped, mother-dominated—and/or married.

PASSIE: Lust is all it is, just animal lust.

ALUNA (laughs): That’s the best fucking reason there is—pun intended. (pause) Can’t help it if a man follows me home, wants and needs what I have. Not my fault the guy only has one brain cell with my name on it.

PASSIE: You lure him. Lure him! (pause) Skillet was raw when I found him, like something that’s been dug out of the ground, some root that when it’s refined you have something wonderful—coffee perhaps, some narcotic even—but first you have to grind it up.

ALUNA: Look, he’s a grown man—mind of his own. I know he’s not mine, but he ain’t yours, either. He’s nobody’s, right? Fair game. Nobody owns nobody.

PASSIE: He’s innocent, like a baby animal in the zoo. No history. (pause, then continuing in dreamy baby-talk) He’s my pumpkin, squeezums, honey cuddles—my duckie, my poopsie. (continuing, adult voice) At night, waking from a deep dream, he’s beside me. Lying there, I nourish him. We drift in and out of sleep. A film of moisture covers our naked flesh. (pause) There’s nothing original in that. We are ancient, repetitive. We could be any two out of millions, billions—even trillions. (pause, defensive) Hey, I don’t kid myself—I know that being a mother is one big vanity, but so what?

SKILLET ENTERS dressed only in trim boxer shorts. He’s carrying a video camera and the women ignore him as he tapes the following action:

PASSIE (continuing): I’m upholding traditional values here—sanctity of the family unit—that sort of thing. It’s my job. Some have to breed, or then what? Zero-population growth—curtains for the human race, right? (pointed, sarcastic) Not every woman is up to it, right?

ALUNA (sarcastic): Never trust a man raised by a woman.

PASSIE lunges and grabs ALUNA by the throat with both hands. They struggle and wind up on the floor, PASSIE’s knees pinning ALUNA’s arms. ALUNA squirms free and they now sit facing each other, glaring.

SKILLET continues taping for a beat but when it’s clear the fight is over he loses interest and EXITS.

ALUNA (fingering her throat): You . . . you tried to kill me! (pause, looks around ) Where’s my mirror? I’ll bet there’s marks. And they’re expecting me to show up at that damn party! (picks up mirror from end table and inspects her neck)

PASSIE (joining ALUNA on sofa, softer) I was a little angry, yes, but in complete control—didn’t mean to hurt you. (smiles) Enjoyed seeing the tip of your tongue, though, between your teeth. (pause) At least we got to know each other a bit better. (laughs) Should be friends, right?—with all we’ve got in common.

ALUNA (pointing to her neck): Look at this! Christ! (pause, then out to audience) Would you look at this?

PASSIE (shifting closer to ALUNA on the sofa): Want some tea?

ALUNA (surprised, shifts away): What?

PASSIE (after a beat, dreamy): There are people I couldn’t stand when I first met them, but now we’re friends. That happens. Loved some others and now they’re mortal enemies. You never know. (sweet smile) Who knows—maybe we’ll become fast friends. (pause) So, can I get you something? Coffee, tea or Coke? I’ve got milk. (she picks up a glass ashtray from the coffee table, distracted) We bought this on our honeymoon at Niagara Falls. (calls upstage) SKILLET! Come here and feel the ashtray! (hands ashtray to ALUNA) Feel it. (ALUNA inspects the ashtray as PASSIE continues): Nice, huh? All smooth and cold like that? Look at the bottom, what it says. (ALUNA turns the ashtray over and PASSIE continues, reciting): “Niagara Falls—Where Love Reigns.” Isn’t that sweet? Touch it to your cheek.

ALUNA (starts to the raise ashtray to her cheek, then checks herself): Just a damn minute—this is MY ashtray! (continues, pointing) MY coffee table! MY magazines! (gestures around living room) All of it! All of it! (points off) MY coffee and tea and milk in the goddamn kitchen!

PASSIE (takes an envelope from her purse and hands it to ALUNA): Snapshots. We’ve traveled all over, Skillet and me. Documented everything. (ALUNA looks at the pictures as PASSIE continues): Shots in front of every vertical object in the world, seems like—statues, fountains, cathedrals—

ALUNA (overlapping): Ha! Towers, smokestacks—a rocket on the launching pad at Cape Kennedy, and—

PASSIE (overlapping): You name it.

ALUNA (continuing): Mosques, the Washington Monu—

PASSIE (overlapping, digging in purse again): We lived in Florida for awhile. Everglades. Did a lot of stuff with gators down there. Got married up here and went down there so Skillet could meet my family of origin. (she pulls some items from her purse and hands them to ALUNA, continuing): Them’s decals from the states we traveled through—Virginia, the Carolinas’, Georgia—check ‘em out.

ALUNA (soft, humoring her): Sure. (she flips through the decals and hands them back, continuing): Nice.

PASSIE: Skillet was fun and full of surprises. He’s kiss me in unexpected places—moving conveyances, mostly. Elevators, helicopters, airport vans. We enjoyed many mutual experiences back in the day, like the time I woke up in a beach house in California, Cheese Whiz squirting from a can into my bellybutton.

ALUNA: Skillet?

PASSIE (sad, distracted): Some friend of his. Some naked woman. She smiled and kissed me. (pause, brighter): I collect state flags, too!

ALUNA (losing patience, mild sarcasm): Wonderful. You may need that memorabilia later—in case you forget who you are.

PASSIE: Exactly! That’s what it’s for. Or I’ll get a tattoo! For purposes of identification—name, rank and serial number on my arm or ankle, or . . . or . . . (trails off, then recovers with false bravado): You know, I’ve decided that unhappiness is inevitable.

ALUNA (soft): Happiness also.

PASSIE: Is that your story, you happy?

ALUNA: Hope to be, some day. Got my hopes up. (the phone rings and PASSIE leans over to answer it but ALUNA clamps her hand over it) This is MY goddamn phone!

PASSIE (freezes) But, but . . . it’s ringing!

ALUNA: So? Don’t have to respond when some stranger—god knows who—rings your goddamn bell.

ALUNA gets up from the sofa and begins to pace like a caged animal, looking at the phone with fear. It keeps ringing throughout the dialogue.

PASSIE: It’s a sin what you’re doing.

ALUNA: Fuck ‘em. They just want me for my luminosity. My goddam luminosity. They need the light. They invite me, they get the benefit. It’s a trick, a goddamn joke. (ALUNA paces for a beat or two more, then continues) Is it snowing out? (pause) If it is, they’re probably canceling the fucking party. (brighter) Hey, that’s it—don’t you think?

PASSIE: It’s summer.

ALUNA: Hurricane?

PASSIE (negative): Huh-uh.

ALUNA: Damn, damn, DAMN! (sad) Do you know what it’s like to enter a room of strangers and wonder who they think you think you are? That moment of dread? You don’t know how to act, what to say, so you stand off to one side, in a corner, back against the wall, watching. A cute guy on his way to the john tells you that you should be out in the middle of things, dancing, out there with the music and bright lights and all. (pause, angry) I hate that, him telling me that, because there’s sights to see and sounds to hear on the edge, also—alone—feelings to feel. (long pause, brighter) So he struts back out of the john, acting confident, but I know better. I know that Truth wears a mask. He’s got this damp spot on his pants leg, near the crotch. (pause) See, right there I know who he really is—just another man. So I relax, smile. He sees my smile and smiles back. ( pause, shrugs) That’s it—boy meets girl.

PASSIE: And you wind up here.

ALUNA: It was romantic. Cold spinach quiche for brunch. (giggles) Never saw the sunrise but I figure they must have had one.

PASSIE (assumes wrestling pose, hands clawing the air in front of her) You’re disgusting!

ALUNA (assumes a similar pose, sarcastic) If you wanna be virtuous, it helps if you’re ugly. (they circle for several beats, grabbing and slapping at each other)

PASSIE: Slut! Maggot! Degenerate witch!

ALUNA: Restraint is the enemy of instinct. (she stops, suddenly soothing) That’s just a line in the mind, you know—it can be crossed.

PASSIE: Bitch!

LIGHTS BANG OUT. End of scene.

The Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival assigns five readers to each new play, and they are required to fill out a four page critique to explain the pros and cons of the piece as they perceive them, and then conclude—based on their comments—whether or not the submission should be recommended for a staged reading, and a possible full production in the festival. On the last page of their critique, each reader is asked to summarize their overall opinion of the submitted play; the following are the final comments they made about Do You Love Me Or What?:

“The playwright’s idea has merit, but the piece is disjointed and confusing. Unfortunately, I feel it needs a complete rewrite. Perhaps it should be be expanded into a two act piece with the first act describing the relationship between the husband and wife in order to give insight into the conflicts the author is trying to present.”

“Good dialogue, credible situations, but the through line is not clear.”

“I’m sure the author feels he has written a very profound play. Unfortunately, I found it merely obscure.”

“I am going to score this play as ‘recommended with severe reservations,’ hoping it will be given a hearing with the playwright given the opportunity to prove me wrong.”

“With a bit of line trimming, could be a tour-de-force.”

I sort of understand their reactions, but on the other hand I did clearly say in my play notes that Do You Love Me Or What? was an attempt to tell a conventional triangular love story in an unusual way. I explained that it is a surrealist/absurdist comedy/drama in one act, and that the action takes place in “real” time, as it is perceived by the male character—it’s all in his head. In his confused mind he and the two female characters combine and change to become still other characters. Past, present and future are compressed. There is no exposition, no explanation of who the characters are—we know them only by their behavior. Everything is contained in the action, what the characters say and do. But their words alone cannot be trusted; the characters (and the writer) are all unreliable narrators. The play is pure action. If the audience goes away confused, that’s O. K., as long as they are also entertained. In my notes I said that I believe that confusion, combined with entertainment, will lead the audience to thoughtfulness, and in that way they will be collaborators in the creative process.

All well and good, but upon reading the play after all this time (I wrote it in 1999), I find myself agreeing with the critiques, at least for the most part. So I’m considering a major rewrite and—perhaps—a resubmission to the Baltimore Playwrights’ Festival. Wish me luck.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


Job Description

October 6, 2008

A Dialogue Doodle

Scene: The seafood counter of my local supermarket. I’ve just ordered a fresh trout for dinner and the clerk, a young man, is removing the head and tail.

Characters: Male Seafood Clerk; Female Produce Clerk. The Produce Clerk enters from stage left and speaks first.

Produce Clerk (to Seafood Clerk): Where’s Tishea at?

Seafood Clerk: Oh, she went and got another job—administrative assistant to some bigwig over at the YMCA.

Produce Clerk: Frosty! The girl can proper that.

Seafood Clerk: That’s right.

Produce Clerk: That Tishea—she can proper her act real fast.

The above text is a recreation of a snippet of conversation overheard by Your Faithful Blogger. What intrigued me about the exchange were two words I had not heard used in this way before. It took me a while to figure out that in this case “frosty” was meant as an intensifier, becoming “cool”-squared. And “proper,” an adjective, becomes a verb indicating Tishea’s ability to act out any role she’s given—and doing so in ways my dictionary defines as, “Displaying exaggerated propriety or gentility.” This small slice of grammatical time has been slightly edited and/or expanded, and rendered in script form for your reading pleasure.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


Their First Fight?

September 22, 2008

A Dialogue Doodle

The scene: A park bench, late afternoon. A very young couple (she with a serious expression, he looking distressed) are deep in conversation and oblivious to a man (me) passing by.

He: What can I say? I don’t know how to respond when you—

She (interrupting): Look, rather than have you guessing about what I’m thinking, I’d rather be up front and honest and tell you straight out what I’m observing about your behavior.

He: What? What did I do that was so—

She (interrupting): You know what I’m talking about. You do it all the time. Constantly. Constantly.

He: Huh?

The above text is a recreation of a snippet of conversation overheard on the fly. I find it intriguing because it suggests what may have gone before and what may follow. This slice of time has been slightly edited and/or expanded and put in script form for (I hope) your reading pleasure. Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.


Marginalia

August 27, 2008

This Doodling Life

If you’re at all like me you love to write in the margins of books, or doodle there, or both. (And what’s the difference?) And if you are really, really like me, the marginal writing and/or doodling may or may not have anything to do with the text printed on that particular page, or in the book generally. Our mad jottings may be provoked by what the author has written, but in many cases—especially when it comes to the visual doodles—the connection, if any, will be all but undetectable. While reading the fascinating essays in The Writing Life, pictured here (click for a larger view), in addition to the usual underlinings and asterisk-starring, I found myself in some sort of creative zone and doing an instant doodle on five different pages. These quick images, thematically connected, will lead off the series in which I’ll present full pages of text on which I’ve sketched and/or written something, plus I’ll add speculative comments about what I think the image may or may not mean. I’ll also include comments on, and quotes from, the essay I was reading; a sort of short essay about the essay. And of course, as always, you’ll be encouraged to comment and make of it all what you will. The first Marginalia begins below.

The Dance Story

The ecstatic cartoon guy above may visually represent the feeling a man has while he’s in the “dance zone” at a wedding reception, fully in that happy moment and in sync with his partner and the music—or it may simply show him home alone and transported by rock and roll on the radio. If either situation is true, though, you may ask what it has to do with Jonathan Raban’s essay “Notes From The Road,” on the final page of which we find the image? Why did the essay reader (me) choose to doodle that particular figure in that particular spot? Or was it a conscious choice at all?

The Raban essay, collected in The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think and Work, has not one word to say about dance, dancers or dancing. The essay is, for the most part, simply about making notes. Specifically, it’s about the obsessive note-taking done by many “serious” writers. For example, here is Raban on the writer as he dines alone: “So it’s scribble, scribble, scribble all through dinner. Into the notebook go long descriptions of landscape and character; some fuzzy intellection; scraps of conversation; diagrammatic drawings; paras from the local paper; weather notes; shopping lists; inventories of interiors (the sad cafe gets grimly itemized); skeletal anecdotes; names of birds, trees and plants, culled from the wonderfully useful Peterson guides; phone numbers of people whom I’ll never call; the daily target-practice of a dozen or so experimental similes.”

That last bit is so good it deserves repeating: ” . . . the daily target-practice of a dozen or so experimental similes.” Any of us who write know how true that is, how we struggle to find just the right word or phrase, and how it just comes to us sometimes from we know not where. So of course the essay is also very much about the act of writing, which often feeds off, if not directly from, those random notes. Later in his text Raban ties the note-taking habit in with writing a particular book, but comes at that issue from an interesting angle. He says: ” . . . the act of writing itself unlocks the memory-bank, and discovers things that are neither in the notebooks nor to be found in the writer’s conscious memory.” Then he goes on, quoting the painter Jean Francois Millet: “‘One man may paint a picture from a careful drawing made on the spot, and another may paint the same scene from memory, from a brief but strong impression; and the last may succeed better in giving the character, the physiognomy of the place, though all the details may be inexact.'”

In his essay Jonathan Raban appears to be saying that the best writing, or at least the best parts of a writer’s output—especially its most creative aspect—is free-form, intuitive and impressionistic. If that is what he means, I agree. And with my small impressionistic doodle above, I claim that it’s exactly the same for a guy (or gal) on a dance floor.

Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.