Beth Henley On Playwriting

August 10, 2011

Adapted from: Act I: the Pulitzer, Act II: Broadway

By Robert Berkvist, The New York Times, October 25, 1981

I hate the feeling that the play has to be seen as really great, instead of just an enjoyable evening in the theater.

If a play is set in the South, it can be kind of eccentric and people will accept it. The language can be more poetic, too.

I guess (“Crimes of the Heart”) is not an easy play for people to pick up the tone of — to know whether it’s funny or sad.

The feelings are kind of autobiographical, the business of how sisters relate, or bear grudges — things like that. But none of the events depicted in the play ever happened to my family, although some of them were things I had heard of.

Not to denigrate my play or anything, but all this acclaim is just the way the cards happened to fall. Theater is such a business now that it’s got nothing to with art or good work. My kind of writing happens to be salable these days. I’m sure there are a lot of talented people out there who aren’t writing plays but working in factories while they wait for someone to “discover” their stuff.

The theater makes it pretty hard for a writer. People can be real mean about your plays. I don’t blame some writers for turning to Hollywood for money and praise.

I didn’t like the feeling of being at everyone’s mercy, so I decided to do something creative. Of course, everyone in Los Angeles is working on a screenplay, so what I did wasn’t bizarre at all. But no one at the studios would read my screenplay because I didn’t have an agent, so I thought I would write a stage play that might at least get performed in a small theater somewhere. That’s when I wrote “Crimes of the Heart.”

Women’s problems are people’s problems. There are certain subjects I mightn’t get into, simply because I don’t have the necessary knowledge, but I don’t think my being a woman limits my concerns.

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 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.


August Wilson On Playwriting

July 6, 2011

Adapted from: How to Write A Play Like August Wilson

The New York Times, March 10, 1991

When I discovered the word breakfast, and I discovered that it was two words, I think then I decided I wanted to be a writer.

I start — generally I have an idea of something I want to say — but I start with a line of dialogue. I have no idea half the time who’s speaking or what they’re saying. I’ll start with the line, and the more dialogue I write, the better I get to know the characters. For instance, in writing the play “The Piano Lesson,” one of the characters, Bernice, says something to Boy Willie, her brother, and he talks about how “Sutter fell in the well.” Well, this is a surprise to me. I didn’t know that.

Then I say, “Well, who is Sutter?” You see, if you have a character in a play, the character who knows everything, then you won’t have any problem. Whenever you get stuck you ask them a question. I have learned that if you trust them and simply do not even think about what they’re saying, it doesn’t matter. They say things like “Sutter fell in the well.” You just write it down and make it all make sense later. So I use those characters a lot. Anything you want to know you ask the characters.

Part of my process is that I assemble all these things and later try to make sense out of them and sort of plug them in to what is my larger artistic agenda. That agenda is answering James Baldwin when he called for “a profound articulation of the black tradition,” which he defined as “that field of manners and ritual of intercourse that will sustain a man once he’s left his father’s house.”

As for the characters, they are all invented. At the same time they are all made up out of myself, so they’re all me, different aspects of my personality, I guess. But I don’t say, “Oh, I know a guy like this. I’m going to write Joe.” Some people do that. I can’t do that. So I write different parts of myself and I try to invent or discover some other parts.

In terms of influence on my work, I have what I call my four B’s: Romare Bearden (the artist); Imamu Amiri Baraka, the writer; Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine short-story writer; and the biggest B of all: the blues.

In my own work, what I hope to do is to “place” the tradition of black American culture, to demonstrate its ability to sustain us. We have a ground  that is specific, that is peculiarly ours, that we can stand on, which gives us a world view, to look at the world and to comment on it. I’m just trying to place the world of that culture on stage and to demonstrate its existence and maybe also indicate some directions toward which we as a people might possibly move.

In “The Piano Lesson,” where  you have a brother and sister arguing over a piano that is a family heirloom, and each with different ideas of ways to use it, the ending was a very difficult thing because I didn’t want to choose sides.

We had about five different endings to the play. But it was always the same ending: I wanted Boy Willie to demonstrate a willingness to battle with Sutter’s ghost, the ghost of the white man — that lingering idea of him as the master of slaves — which is still in black Americans’ lives and needs to be exorcised.

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.


Peter De Vries On Humorous Writing

June 8, 2011

I write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired at nine o’clock every morning.

I cannot honestly recall or retrace the conception or development of a single comedic idea I ever had or developed. They vanish from memory after they are written out. Don’t ask a cow how to analyze milk. One sits in a corner and secretes the stuff. One— But you see how right Kafka is? You have lured me into using the word “comedic,” which makes me sick.

You can make a sordid thing sound like a brilliant drawing-room comedy. Probably a fear we have of facing up to the real issues. Could you say we were guilty of Noel Cowardice?

The satirist shoots to kill while the humorist brings his prey back alive and eventually releases him again for another chance.

Comedy deals with the portion of our suffering that is exempt from tragedy.

Words fashioned with somewhat over precise diction are like shapes turned out by a cookie cutter.

Nonsense is such a difficult art!

I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.



Sam Shepard On Playwriting V

June 1, 2011

Adapted from: Sam Shepard, Story Teller

By Ben Brantley, The New York Times, Arts & Leisure, November 13, 1994

All good writing comes out of aloneness. And you’re not too likely to be interrupted driving along an Interstate. You have to do it on an open highway. You wouldn’t want to do it in New York City. But on Highway 40 West or some of those big open highways, you can hold the wheel with one hand and write with the other. It’s good discipline, because sometimes you can only write two or three words at a time before you have to look back at the road, so those three words have to count. The problem is whether you can read the damn thing by the time you reach your destination.

I think most writers, in a sense, have a desire to disappear, to be absolutely anonymous, to be removed in some way: that comes out of the need to be a writer.

For one thing, (theater) allows you to explore language, which film doesn’t. Film is anti-language . . . Theater combines everything for me, anyway . . . It’s like you pick up a saxophone and you play a saxophone and that’s it. It’s a partnership. I feel at home with it . . . All the unspoken structures of playwriting are very close to music.

It’s a funny thing about freedom with actors. You invite them into certain scary territory; then it becomes a question of how far you let them go into that territory before you start shaping it. I’m a firm believer that so-called blocking doesn’t come out of the director. If the actor has any kind of chops at all, he’s going to find his way around the stage and find the impulses. To order actors around the stage like a general is not my idea of a director.

One of the things that’s become apparent to me over a long time is that no matter how you cut it, plays are about storytelling. You know, in the 60’s everybody was down on it. It became an old-fashioned, archaic structure. There was a huge breakaway with those European writers like Beckett and Ionesco and Arabel . . . I think you need to include all these notions that at one time you rejected as being part of the established order of things. There’s no reason, uh, to shoot yourself in the foot.

The odd thing to me is I think all of those relationships are inside other relationships. Two friends can have a father-son relationship or a brother relationship. Those things aren’t necessarily expressed by external character. There are these territories inside all of us, like a child or a father or the whole man, and that’s what interests me more than anything: where those territories lie. I mean, you have these assumptions about somebody and all of a sudden this other thing appears. Where is that coming from? That’s the mystery. That’s what’s so fascinating.

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.


Turning Green

April 21, 2009

31bus

By Susan Middaugh

I believe in taking public transportation to work instead of driving.
As a card-carrying member of the Sierra Club and the Mountain Club of Maryland, I’d like to say my primary motive is energy conservation. It’s not. I want to save money on gas and parking and to extend the life of Takeshi, my Japanese car, whose odometer has passed the 180,000-mile mark.

There are other advantages I hadn’t anticipated. I love walking down the hill in the morning from my house to the bus stop. Being outside in the fresh air fills my spirit in a way that driving with the windows rolled up or down fails to do. The exercise is healthy and the world seems bigger, with a greater sense of possibility.

The 45-minute bus ride is found time, great for reading the newspaper, daydreaming, or unwinding after a day’s work. Traveling in a 30 mile an hour zone through city streets instead of bebopping down the highway at 65 mph helps me slow down my life, a good thing.

I’ve also made new acquaintances at the bus stop that I never would have met behind the wheel of my car. One of them, a middle-aged man in a baseball cap and a camouflage jacket, asked the driver to wait one day when I was late. My new young friend, Eric, who is in high school, is looking for a part-time job. Forrest, a former nurse, tells me about his interest in archeology. An African-American woman in her 40s describes her life after a stroke. Such conversations help me feel connected to other people in my community.

There have also been some surprises. On a crowded city bus, I’ve seen men of different ages offer their seats to women of other races, women who are old, pregnant, or juggling strollers and young children. These moments of civility have restored my faith in human nature.

Drawbacks to riding instead of driving? Sure. On a good day, riding the bus takes three times longer than it does for me to drive the eight miles to my office. Walking to and from my stop can add up to 40 minutes to my daily commute. If the driver is late, a one-way trip can become a journey. If the bus is early, as sometimes happens, this grandmother runs for it or waits for the next one. If I were punching a clock or had to be at a daycare center by a set time, the unpredictability could be a problem.

Walking up the hill to my house each evening can also be a chore, especially if it’s hot or raining or I’m tired. As a distraction, I listen for the tinkle of wind chimes on my neighbors’ porches, breathe in the cooking smells that float into the street, and wonder what the people in my town are having for dinner.

Overall, I feel fortunate to have a choice of transportation. On days when I want to bag the bus, I drive a few miles to light rail….for the same price. Either way, I feel like I’m turning green, staying fit and saving money.

Copyright © 2009 Susan Middaugh.

Susan Middaugh is a business writer in Baltimore who writes the occasional personal essay. Her essays have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Baltimore Sun and New-Works.org. Susan is also a playwright with short and full length works produced in the United States, Canada and England. The One Act Play Depot in Canada has published her short play, Such Good Neighbors. Oh, and she’s also a very good dancer.

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.