Based On Real People

February 27, 2013

This is an edited re-post from June 20, 2008

My Sunday “Lonely Guy” activity is to read the New York Times and watch C-Span 2 Book TV, muted. If I glance something interesting on the screen — Christopher Hitchens, say, ranting about why we should be in Iraq — I may bring up the sound. That seldom happens. Most Sundays, only the rustle of newsprint is heard in my living room. Sometimes, though, the thing on TV that catches my eye is the shape of a nose, or a hairstyle, or an odd mouth and I feel a powerful urge to draw it — and the rest of the head. So I open my sketchbook, select a soft pencil from the coffee mug on the table by my chair, and set out to prove once again that I’m not only the world’s worst caricaturist, but should also get a medal for being the slowest. Of course, the nice thing about sketching talking heads on TV is they hold still for long periods, which means I can take all the time I need to get it wrong.

I have no idea why I doodled all that stuff on the sides, or wrote “The Other End” at the bottom, but I do enjoy making those little “drop” shadows under the letters. The thing that drives me mad, though, is that I have no memory of who most of the people are. (Memo to self: Keep better sketchbook notes). All I know for sure is that these folks appeared on C-Span 2 sometime in December, 2006. Also, I’m pretty sure the guy on the top left is a well-known newsman, one of the Kalb brothers, but which one? And the blond woman near the bottom of the left column is an expert on world religions. Interesting face, and I loved the informed talk she gave (I have the sound up while I sketch). Of course, all this assumes that I managed a passing likeness of at least those two.

Copyright © 2013 Jim Sizemore.

Today’s Gag

October 8, 2012
Copyright © 2012 Jim Sizemore.

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Neil Simon On Playwriting IV

July 25, 2012

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

Interviewed by James Lipton

(T)here are various styles and attitudes towards comedy . . . . In Prisoner of Second Avenue you knew there were terrible things tormenting Peter Falk. He sat down on a sofa that had stacks of pillows, like every sofa in the world, and he took one pillow after the other and started throwing them angrily saying, “You pay eight hundred for a sofa and you can’t sit on it because you got ugly little pillows shoved up your back! There is no joke there. Yet, it was an enormous laugh—because the audience identified. That, more or less, is what is funny to me—saying something that’s instantly identifiable to everybody. People come up to you after the show and say, I’ve always thought that, but I never knew anyone else thought it. It’s a shared secret between you and the audience.

I try never to think of jokes as jokes. I confess that in the early days, when I came from television, plays like Come Blow Your Horn would have lines you could lift out that would be funny in themselves. That to me would be a “joke,” which I would try to remove. In The Odd Couple Oscar had a line about Felix, “He’s so panicky he wears his seatbelt at a drive-in movie.” That could be a Bob Hope joke. I left it in because I couldn’t find anything to replace it.

Those quick lines, the one-liners attributed to me for so many years—I think they come purely out of character, rather than out of a joke. Walter Kerr once came to my aid by saying “to be or not to be” is a one-liner. If it’s a dramatic moment no one calls it a one-liner. If it gets a laugh, suddenly it’s a one-liner. I think one of the complaints of critics is that the people in my plays are funnier than they would be in life, but have you ever seen Medea? The characters are a lot more dramatic in that than they are in life.

What I try to do is make dialogue come purely out of character, so that one character could never say the lines that belong to another character. If it’s funny, it’s because I’m telling a story about characters in whom I may find a rich vein of humor. When I started writing plays I was warned by people like Lillian Hellman, “You do not mix comedy with drama.” But my theory was, if it’s mixed in life, why can’t you do it in a play? The very first person I showed Come Blow Your Horn to was Herman Shumlin, the director of Hellman’s The Little Foxes. He said, I like the play, I like the people, but I don’t like the older brother. I said, What’s wrong with him? He said, Well, it’s a comedy. We have to like everybody. I said, In life do we have to like everybody? In the most painful scene in Lost in Yonkers, Bella, who is semiretarded, is trying to tell the family that the boy she wants to marry is also retarded. It’s a poignant situation and yet the information that slowly comes out—and the way the family is third-degreeing her—becomes hilarious because it’s mixed with someone else’s pain. I find that what is most poignant is often most funny.

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 V of the Neil Simon series will post next Wednesday.


Lusting for Elvis

April 4, 2012

By Jo-Ann Pilardi

It’s 1957. A guy holding a newspaper goes into his favorite bar.  It’s my Uncle Lando, an ex-boxer in his mid-40s, but still full of vigor and still a performer.  As reported to me later, he’s excited about what he found in the paper:  a letter by one of his favorite nieces—me. “Hey, guys, my niece is in the paper!” He then proceeds to read my letter, a solid right jab in defense of Elvis against the sucker punch that was landed the week before by Spike Wallace, the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph’s music critic.

(Click images for larger views.)

Reading my letter across 50+ years, I concede that its logic is a little shaky, but its passion for Elvis is solid:  “When did you make your first million, Spike?  How many times have thousands of people screamed and yelled with joy over you? You are condemning a boy who is probably less than half your age, yet who has made in approximately one year more money than you could ever hope to see if you lived to be a hundred.”

So what began as an outbreak of teen-aged girls’ lust and hysterics, first infecting myself and my best friend Monica as we watched Elvis on TV that famous Sunday night in 1956, now had a public life.  I was officially an Elvis Fan (though my Elvis Complimentary Fan Club Membership Card was in my wallet long before this).  My printed defense of Elvis would become my first encounter with printer’s ink, something I love now as much as I loved Elvis then.  Elvis + Publication:  a match made in heaven.

But it was only Early Elvis I loved. Not Vegas Elvis. Vegas Elvis (1969 – 1976) was a pathetic nightclub singer, sweating in black leather or squeezed into bejeweled white jumpsuits.   By the time Vegas Elvis emerged, this Elvis Fan had spent the latter half of the 1960s and all of the 1970s as, first, an anti-Vietnam-war protester, then a Women’s Liberation activist and Philosophy teacher—Area of Specialty:  Existentialism.  Among the literati, politicati, and philosophicati, Elvis was gauche.  My lust for Elvis would have been embarrassing if it hadn’t already disappeared, thanks to Vegas Elvis.  (I still love that tender, tremulous voice when I hear it, though; it embodied all that I hoped for in a man. That and his pout.)

Yet an astonishing truth has emerged.  While my own Elvis lust vanished long ago, I’ve encountered another Elvis lust, an odd lusting for my Elvis lust: the passion of my family and friends for my legendary (if now non-existent) Elvis lust.  And that has not only survived but thrived.  Though I beg them to stop, they persist in depositing gaudy Elvis gifts on my English Tudor doorstep.

Herewith an incomplete catalogue of my Elvis gifts: a resin plastic Elvis brooch; a large Elvis neon-blue-light bar clock; Graceland: An Interactive Pop-up Tour (the most remarkable in my extensive collection of Elvis gift books); Elvis birthday cards and note cards; a cartoonist friend’s self-portrait as a guitar-playing Elvis; paper and painted tin posters of Elvis (always with plans of how-to-frame & where-to-hang); The Night of 100 Elvises Live! cd; a bottle of “The King” wine; an Elvis clutch bag and an Elvis umbrella; a framed collage of Elvis-related items ingeniously bordered in red glass lozenges to resemble a theater marquee; and of course, that famous “Elvis with Nixon” photo.  Someone also gave me expensive tickets for the 100 Elvises concert in Baltimore’s Lithuanian Hall last year—unfortunately held on a night when I had “another engagement.” There’s more, but merciful age does bring a level of forgetfulness.

I deduce, then, that by some as yet unnamed law of the physical or psychological universe, my own Elvis lust has morphed into a troubling addiction to Elvis products by people whom I love and about whose mental health I care deeply (along with my own).  So once more I’m sending out a “Stop!” plea—this time with some help from The King: “Don’t be cruel—Love me tender.  If not, you ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.  And I swear on Old Shep’s grave, if it continues I’m gonna . . . Return to sender.

Copyright © 2012 Jo-Ann Pilardi.

Jo-Ann Pilardi is retired from Towson University where she taught Philosophy and Women’s Studies for 38 years.  A working class Italian from Pittsburgh, she moved to Baltimore in 1969 and was active in women’s movement groups through the 1970s. Currently, she teaches for TU’s Osher Institute, reads and writes, gardens, travels, and studies jazz piano (with a few segues into old Elvis tunes).


Arthur Miller On Playwriting IV

January 25, 2012

Adapted from Paris Review: The Art of Theater No. 2

Interviewed by Olga Carlisle and Rose Styron

The director of a play is nailed to words. He can interpret them a little differently, but he has limits: you can only inflect a sentence in two or three different ways, but you can inflect an image on the screen in an infinite number of ways. You can make one character practically fall out of the frame; you can shoot it where you don’t even see his face. Two people can be talking, and the man talking cannot be seen, so the emphasis is on the reaction to the speech rather than on the speech itself.

I don’t think there is anything that approaches the theater. The sheer presence of a living person is always stronger than his image. But there’s no reason why TV shouldn’t be a terrific medium. The problem is that the audience watching TV shows is always separated. My feeling is that people in a group, en masse, watching something, react differently, and perhaps more profoundly, than they do when they’re alone in their living rooms. Yet it’s not a hurdle that couldn’t be jumped by the right kind of material. Simply, it’s hard to get good movies, it’s hard to get good novels, it’s hard to get good poetry—it’s impossible to get good television because in addition to the indigenous difficulties there’s the whole question of it being a medium that’s controlled by big business. It took TV seventeen years to do Death of a Salesman here. It’s been done on TV in every country in the world at least once, but it’s critical of the business world and the content is downbeat.

We had twenty-eight and a half minutes to tell a whole story in a radio play, and you had to concentrate on the words because you couldn’t see anything. You were playing in a dark closet, in fact. So the economy of words in a good radio play was everything. It drove you more and more to realize what the power of a good sentence was, and the right phrase could save you a page you would otherwise be wasting. I was always sorry radio didn’t last long enough for contemporary poetic movements to take advantage of it, because it’s a natural medium for poets. It’s pure voice, pure words. Words and silence; a marvelous medium.

I often write speeches in verse, and then break them down. Much of Death of a Salesman was originally written in verse, and The Crucible was all written in verse, but I broke it up. I was frightened that the actors would take an attitude toward the material that would destroy its vitality. I didn’t want anyone standing up there making speeches. You see, we have no tradition of verse, and as soon as an American actor sees something printed like verse, he immediately puts one foot in front of the other—or else he mutters.

You see, in The Crucible I was completely freed by the period I was writing about—over three centuries ago. It was a different diction, a different age. I had great joy writing that, more than with almost any other play I’ve written. I learned about how writers felt in the past when they were dealing almost constantly with historical material. A dramatist writing history could finish a play Monday and start another Wednesday, and go right on. Because the stories are all prepared for him. Inventing the story is what takes all the time. It takes a year to invent the story. The historical dramatist doesn’t have to invent anything, except his language, and his characterizations . . . . basically if you’ve got the story, you’re a year ahead.

There’s no country I’ve been to where people, when you come into a room and sit down with them, so often ask you, “What do you do?” And, being American, many’s the time I’ve almost asked that question, then realized it’s good for my soul not to know. For a while! Just to let the evening wear on and see what I think of this person without knowing what he does and how successful he is, or what a failure. We’re ranking everybody every minute of the day.

This is one in a series that will post on Wednesdays. If you’d like to read more of 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. (Arthur Miller On Playwriting part V will post next Wednesday.)



Neil Simon On Playwriting

August 24, 2011

Adapted from: The Craft of the Playwright

The New York Times, May 26, 1985

I grew up in New York and worked in radio and in television for 10 years. Then I said, “If I don’t start to write a play and start to get out soon, I’ll be writing ‘My Three Sons’ for the rest of my life,” which I did not want to do.

There will never be any satisfaction for me unless I can write what I feel I want to say. And I wrote that first play (“Come Blow Your Horn”) — and it was a matter of life and death for me.

Mike Nichols and I were doing “Plaza Suite” in Boston many years ago, and the first act was too long — it wasn’t that it was too long, we were getting too many laughs in a scene that we thought was basically serious. So Mike and I started to cut out all of the laugh lines, and they started to laugh at other lines that they had never laughed at. They just wanted to laugh!

I’ll write a scene that is really funny, and then I try to switch it quickly, because I think that happens in life a lot. You know, in the middle of some wonderful moment you get a phone call with tragic news. There have been a few occasions in plays when I’ve done that, and the audience is really thrown by it. Sometimes it works, and sometimes they resent it. They feel that they’ve been taken or had a little bit.

My experience has been that if you write a situation well enough, the tension is so great that the audience will laugh whether you provide it or not. But many times when it’s either laugh or cry, a lot of them don’t want to cry. And they will pick out a moment — a line, a gesture, whatever it is — to laugh at. It becomes part of the play after a while. I expect it night after night — never having intended it in the beginning. There’s just so much that they can handle. You force the audience to deal with a great deal in the theater.

The thing I think most about when I’m writing is what goes on in the bedroom between the husband and wife. I don’t mean the obvious, but what they really say to each other.

I know when my unconscious is doing the writing, because when my conscious is doing it, it seems familiar to me when I see it later on. Let’s say I haven’t seen the play in eight weeks or something, and I go and watch it. I say, “I didn’t write that. That has nothing to do with me. That came out of somebody else.” I know that’s the unconscious writing. And that’s where the surprises come from. And that’s like mercury. You just grab that if you can; it’s really hard. I can’t pin it down, but I know it’s probably very important to my psyche — that bit of information. I say, “That’s what I’ve been keeping hidden.” It’s a dangerous game. If you don’t grab it, then you don’t have it anymore. But it’s also the most exhilarating. I can get up and go, “What? That was terrific! You just caught a great long fly ball.”

“Brighton Beach Memoirs” took nine years from the inception of the idea. I let it sit for six years. It just kept going in my mind. I would think about it, and six years later I wrote 35 pages. I said, “This is good, but I don’t know how to write the play.” I’d never written a play like that — sort of a tapestry, where everybody’s story is very important. I generally had written plays about two characters and the peripheral characters and how they are involved in it. And it took a long time — another three years. And then I sat down and went right through the play. But the unconscious is doing the work. It’s typing away.

I don’t know what it’s like not to write. I don’t do it every day of the year, and I do take time off, but I feel empty if I don’t have something to work on. The trick is not  to get caught up in something that’s not working just for the sake of working. But I feel very happy when I can say I’ve got an idea for something that I think is worth doing. And then I can leave it alone and not work at all — it can just do its own work there while I go to the beach or play some tennis.

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.


Hip Shots

November 12, 2010

Attraction

By Whyndham Standing

(Click images for larger views.)

The “Hip Shots” series of Doodlemeister.com photographs will feature images that were grabbed “on the fly” with little or no regard for framing and focus. The object of the exercise being to create dynamic pictures, not perfect ones. With this ” shoot-from-the-hip” method, the more frames  exposed, the better the chances are that you’ll come up with something interesting—a related series that can be arranged as a post. If you’d like additional tips for using the technique, or to submit your own pictures, drop a question or note in the “Leave a Comment” section, below. Meanwhile, click on these images for a larger view, and click the “Hip Shots” tag above for more examples. For another post in the series, tune in next Friday.

Copyright © 2010 Whyndham Standing.