Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Self Publishing Plays - A Few Thoughts

Occasionally I read the topics of various "Playwright" message forums on the Social networks and sometimes I will throw my 2 cents (or maybe a nickel) into the comments. Most of the time, there is someone just starting out in the playwright arena who asks a simple question and I feel obliged to reply with an answer. (note - "an" answer, not "the" answer. There are some writers out there who feel there is only One way to do this or that and thankfully, I  didn't apply to that school of thought, because my grades weren't acceptable. )

The most recent question that came up was on the topic of "Self Publishing" - Should you?

There were many responses to the question ranging from "No way! Why would you even think about it!" to "Sure! Why not! I do it." And there was even an inference that "self publishing" was the "lazy man's way".

The "lazy man's way"?  Way of what? Hello?

Anyway, there were a few responses such as "No, you must submit your work to play competitions and publishing houses to really get your work out there."  The theory here is - if you create your own website with "Hello World! Here I am. Here are my plays! Please produce them!" It just won't work. You will have to market yourself and ultimately prove yourself. After all, you want the theatre world at large to find you and believe in you. Doing it yourself just won't work. You need a large established machine (or publishing house)  to do the work.

You do? Really?

I wish someone had give me that advice back in 2000.  (I wouldn't have listened but still...) And thinking back I have to to say, no you're wrong advice giver playwright person  -   I wasn't lazy - the bottom line is that -  I didn't know any better. I had a hand full of comedy murder mystery scripts I had written for a local theatre group and I thought, "Hey! Why not put these out there and see if any other groups may want to do them."  O.K. That'is not exactly what I thought word for word - but for the sake of time - let's go with that.

At the time, I was familiar with some of the big names in play publishing out there such as Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service from seeing their names branded on the scripts that I held in my hand as an actor in High School and elsewhere. I may have considered for a brief second the possibility of farming out my plays to the big guys but checking their websites and reading the terms and conditions and submission guidelines - seemed like too much work. (Oh see there! You admit! Self publishing is the lazy way after all. No. Shut up.)

After considerable thought about a catchy name and checking if the domain names were available, I purchased play-dead.com.  I found a reasonably priced hosting service and set about teaching myself html. I consulted with some folks who knew what they were doing in the on-line world - setting up shopping carts, who to use for on-line transactions, and everything else I could think about related to conducting business on the web. It took time and energy - that is, the time and energy you have available away from your full time job and responsibilities.
 I read articles, books about marketing and sales and blah blah blah - many were not helpful - out of 50 ways to Market Yourself On Line! - maybe 3 of the ways were actually useful. It took a good year to get things rolling. One year, after my self styled website went on line,  a theatre group contacting me about purchasing the rights for one of my plays.  Ha!

Back in the year 2000,  there were not a lot of helpful books or on-line articles aimed at the D.I.Y crowd, let alone advice for th self publishing playwright. Of course, now, the expression is you can't swing a dead cat in a room without hitting someone writing something about self publishing.  Also, in 2000 , there wasn't a strong presence of social networks such as Facebook and Twitter to post news about your plays and ways to market yourself. In the old days,  you needed to actively seek out similar websites and ask if you could exchange links. For me, at the time,  it was very much trial by fire, learn as you go, make mistakes and correct them. Was it worth it?  By all means. Would I recommend self publishing to someone starting out? Yes. Am I really a control freak at heart? No. Not that I will admit to. But the point is when you do it all yourself, the reward is so much sweeter.

I was contacted by major play publisher a few years ago who after some negotiations offered me a pretty sweet deal. They would take over publishing, marketing and order fulfillment and pay me a percentage with royalties. After some thought, I turned down the offer. At that point in my life, I had put a lot of work into getting my name out there and was developing an audience, I wasn't ready to hand the reigns over to someone else. Not to mention, (but I will) as a self publisher, you don't have to settle for a percentage - you get the whole enchilada. Most important, you can be personally accessible and accountable for your work. When people call my phone number they talk to me, not a corporate entity. I can answer questions or offer suggestions. That makes it all worthwhile as well. The human factor.

Is it the lazy man's way, self publishing? No way. It's very difficult and a lot of work. Especially when you don't know any better.

For further reading on my self publishing journey and thoughts on this you can read:

Some Thoughts On Becoming an Indie Playwright

More Thoughts On Being and Indie Playwright and Promotion


Monday, April 13, 2015

Breaking Bad Acting Habits - Be Careful What You "Think" About Acting

If you have been around theatre as long as I have you may have witness some strange performances. Now, I'm not speaking of a particular actor's take on a role, (how he or she performed as a character in a play),  but more specifically, the strange idiosyncrasies or habits a particular actor gave to a character that had nothing really to do with the play or role itself.

For example: I had a minor role in a community theatre production of a play called "Night Watch". One of the other actors had the most unusual way of carrying himself around the stage - the best way I can describe it is...  that he looked like marionette, you know, a creepy puppet whose movements were guided by strings. When we were in rehearsals, or in common daily interaction, the guy was quite normal. He walked around with no unusual flair. But when the house lights went down and the stage lights went up - some mystical transformation occurred when he made his entrance.

When he walked from stage left to stage right, it was as if invisible strings were pulling at legs, enabling his movement. It gave him this this faux like marching action as if he were carefully prancing through a mind field.  Why didn't the director didn't say something? Did the role call for this weird gait? Was it a brave performance choice to give his character depth. I have no idea.

I said something to the other actors, such as: "Is it me or does Rick look like crazed marionette performing 'March of the Wooden Soldiers'?"   They all agreed and someone responded, "He just thinks he's acting."

Over the years that phrase,"He just thinks he's acting" has explained a lot of odd ball performances. I had another story I told in my book Basic On Stage-Survival Guide For Amateur Actors that had to do with an actor I crossed paths with at local auditions. No matter what part this actor was auditioning for he would read with a British accent. An audition for Oscar in "The Odd Couple" would sound as if he were Richard Burton reading for "Henry V."  A few directors would actually stop his audition and ask him to read it straight. One director actually stopped him and inquired quite bluntly, "Why are you doing that?".  I wanted to respond out loud, "He just thinks he's acting."

Over the years I encounters many other types who had strange acting habits. Here are a few:

  • Squatters - Several actors I knew who would slightly squat down when speaking a line.  
  • Leaners -   They lean slightly forward when delivering a line as if they are about to bow.
  • Blinkers or Blind acting - those who blink rapidly or completely close their eyes when delivering a line - my theory is-  they are mentally picturing the script and reading their lines. 
  • Look Away - a variation of eye blinking/closers who stare at something off to the left or right or a few feet above your head. 
  • Big Actors (Over The Top style) - Actors who make every word and action very big and overly dramatic. This trait is usually instilled in some actors at an early age, whether beauty pageants refugees or high school theatre directors who keep telling the actors "Make it Bigger! Bigger!"  as if every play is actually a Melodrama and you must command the stage like Ethyl Merman belting out a show stopper. 
  • Iambic Actors - actors who deliver every line with a poetic cadence as if they are reciting a sonnet. 
While many of these traits are bad habits that were learned or taught, many of them are derived from some inner perception of what it is to perform. Unfortunately, this inner perception is actually a misconception. For example the "Iambic Actor" may have Shakespeare as reference or association when it come to theatre and believes that every phrase uttered on the stage must sound exactly like the Bard of Avon's soliloquies. Sure, that is brilliant if you are doing a Shakespeare play but not if you're in a contemporary role.

I had a bad habit of swallowing the end of my lines. My overall volume would drop off near the last few words of a line and honestly, I was unaware that I was doing it. A director stopped me in rehearsal and pointed it out my volume anomaly . From that moment on, I was aware of it and corrected it.

Sometimes it only takes someone, a director or fellow actor to point out a bad habit to correct it. All those years ago if someone would have approached the "marionette" guy and say "Hey, not sure if you were aware, but you're walking very oddly on stage."  If may have helped or it may not have. The actor who used a British accent in every role never changed it.  A few of us mentioned that a British accent didn't work with Tennessee Williams but he never changed it. He could not break the habit. He thought he was acting.

The lesson here is simple - take all the preconceived notions you have about acting and keep them open to change. Most of them may be bad habits or misguided instructions you received early in your career. The mental scripts you have in your mind may not always work for the play scripts you have in your hand. If you stand up straight and deliver a line as opposed to squatting or leaning, won't alter your overall performance. Keep what you "think" is "acting" open to change.  


Monday, September 29, 2014

'S P O I LE R' by Octopus Studios -Trailer

Once again I was honored to be invited to participate in SKITS 2014-Dramanon (So Keep It Short) - play festival in Hyderabad, India by the multi-talented Rahul Reddy. This year I submitted a short skit called "Spoiler" which is a very loose spin on the classic short story (parable) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky called The Grand Inquisitor.

I'm sure if Dostoyevsky were around today, he would not see any correlation between "Spoiler" and his tale but at it's heart, the intent is the same. Here is the trailer for the production.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Life Intimidates Art

When you write murder mysteries... actually make that Comedy murder mysteries, your words tread  a very fine line because,  you are dealing with death in a humorous way.  Realistically, death is not a funny thing, however, at a young age we have been conditioned by cartoons to accept severe injury and catastrophe in a part of our brain that classifies it as non-reality.

Most fictionalized (non-reality) movies, books and plays can deal with death in a humorous way if from the on-set - the plot, characters and action are a bit over the top or portrayed in non realistic fashion. Our brains understand that what we are taking in is not actual and it's quite natural to laugh it off. We get it.

In the past few years however, I have been getting something else and that is that real life can blur over and taint the most innocent of art. Here is one example, when I was a young inspired actor, in 1981 I was an extra in the John Carpenter movie "Escape From New York" - which featured Kurt Russell as Snake Plissken. If you are familiar with the movie, (or even if you are not) it takes place in the future (the future at that time was 1997). The US President's plane crashes in Manhattan, which was now a maximum security prison for criminals and Snake Plissken is sent inside the island to rescue the President.

Plissken flies a small glider over the wall and lands on top of one the Twin Towers (which in 1981 were still a part of the New York Skyline) and makes his way down to street and the adventure ensues - in a purely fictional method.  In a nonfictional  method I don't have to tell you what happened to the Twin Towers in 2001.  And now, in real life, it's disconcerting to watch that movie. Yes I know, 1997 came and went and Manhattan was not transformed into maximum security prison and in '97 the Twin Towers would have been there for Snake Plissken to land upon. I get it. It's not real. The fact is -  that what happened, in real life, now infiltrates the fantasy narrative of that fictional world.  That part of the brain that filters fact from fantasy incurs a slight hiccup when seeing the Towers in the movie.

In past few years, I have noticed the sensitivity trend, or blurring of fact/fantasy extending to others. Many of my murder mystery plays are produced by High Schools and tragedy has been rearing its ugly head in the hallways of many High Schools and the fallout takes many forms.

One of my more popular plays was titled "All Over But The Shooting". Note -was titled.  I received an email from a drama teacher asking if would be all right to change the title of the play, since it was being performed by high school students and many people in the community were a bit sensitive to hearing the words "Shooting" and "High School" in the same sentence - even it was only referring to play. I completely understood. I knew this could be a potential issue with other Schools so I went ahead and re-titled the play "An Audition For A Murder".

But it didn't sop there. Just recently a small theatre group in Oregon purchased the rights for one my other plays. A few days later, about 5 miles from where this group was located, a student walked in his high school and began shooting. I received an email from the group , no they did not have an issue with the title, but there is a comic scene at the end of the play where the narrator of the story gets fed up with a particular audience member who keeps interrupting the play, pulls out a gun and shoots.  They felt that in interest of the community, it may be a bit much right now to keep that ending and requested to alter it to a non violent conclusion. Again, I completely understood and allowed and alternate ending.

I realize that we live in violent society and tragedies will occur all the time. I also know, as I originally stated, that there is a fine line between fiction and real life and sometimes an event may blur or move that line slightly and something from realty will cross over and forever alter it. I do understand. It happened to me and I have been contacted by others who have also experienced the fall out. Since I do understand I am willing to adapt.  It just seems lately, that area of brain that separates or classifies the real and the cartoon is getting thinner. Also it seems I've been asked to understand and adapt quite a lot lately.  


Monday, April 21, 2014

"Basic On Stage Survival Guide For Amateur Actors" - learning the hard way is easy

Spending countless years on the amateur community theatre circuit, I have seen my share of  first time actors with sheer panic in their eyes. You see, one of the nice things about "Community Theatre" is that it is open to anyone and everyone. Experienced or not. Many times the case it not.

And since I had a plethora of productions under my belt, these acting noobies would seek me out with a multitude of questions ranging from; "What does 'Blocking' mean?", "Does stage right from my right or the audiences right?" "Why is it called upstage and where is upstage?" "How in the world do you memorize lines?" et al. Therefore, I would become the self appointed mentor to all first timers.

A few years ago the idea crossed my mind to document all the basic bits of information a first time actor would need to know to feel comfortable on the stage. A literal "Survival Guide" for the novice actor.
So I began writing what would become "The Basic On Stage Survival Guide For Amateur Actors".
As I began writing down items such as what to expect at an audition and how the rehearsal process can be a very tedious event as well putting a halt to any social life you may have had - it also occurred to me that there are many "rules" of theatre an actor must learn a long the way. Yes rules. I must say that I as an evolving stage actor learned many of the rules the hard way. Example, I recall getting a 15 minute lecture from a director because in a particular scene, a pencil rolled off a desk and remained on the stage until the act break. "If it falls, pick it up!"  There is a strange psychological dynamic with audiences - if something falls on the stage, a button pops off an actors coat and lays there, a feather from a boa floats to the floor, a pencil rolls off a desk, the eyes of the audience will focus on the thing laying on the floor until someone picks it up. Many virgin actors believe it they don't acknowledge or look at something laying on the stage, no one else will see it. Not true! Trust me. Save yourself the 15 minute lecture. If something falls, it is perfectly natural to pick it up. Don't ignore it.

There are also rules about upstaging your fellow actors; literally by standing in front of them or metaphorically by stealing focus by waving to your mom from the stage. There are rules about not turning your back and not standing in a straight line and so on and so forth. As I said, I learned these rules the hard way. When you are a brand new participant in a stage production, there isn't a rule book handed to you nor is there much time to go over everything you should know. Many directors will assume you have some basic knowledge since you are showing at the auditions but that is not always the case.

I wrote this book with all of this mind. I have to provide the most basic nuggets of information any first timer would need to know if they choose to venture into theatre. In some cases, I have worked with so called season professionals that could use some of this information. Anyway, if you are interested trying out for a local production and would like a head start in the theatre essentials - check out my book. And remember if you purchase and drop it on the floor. Pick it up!

Here is the link on Amazon Basic On Stage Survival Guide

Friday, September 27, 2013

Best Original Script -Somewhere else not here

Follow up to my previous post about entering a short script (12 min) into a competition in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh India.  Well through social media and Skype I talked to the actors to find out how it was going - and then learned that our play did not make it to the Finals. Oh well....

But apparently that was not the end of the road. The scripts themselves had a second life - yes, some were chosen to be judged simply on writing and were submitted to a category for best Original script.  I received a message from one of the actors in the play, Shashank Karmarkar : 

 " I just returned from watching the Finals and am writing to tell you that you just WON FOR BEST ORIGINAL SCRIPT!!! Congratulations!! I knew it was a winner when I first read it agreed to do the part!! Apparently, all 22 participating scripts were sent for judging to various writers in Bombay and Bangalore, none of whom actually watched the shows in Hyderabad, so their verdict was unbiased, and based purely on the merit of the scripts!! "

There is a variation of Luke 4:24 (" And he said, Truly I say to you, No prophet is accepted in his own country." ) - that states an artist is never recognized (for talent etc.. ) in his/her own town and must travel away from home to be discovered. E.G. - T.S Eliot, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs etc.. all had to leave Saint Louis to be recognized for something - OK I am not lumping myself in that crowd, I am just saying that the old twisting of Luke is correct. In this case, I had to go to India. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Short Play Rises Again - On the Other Side of The World

Long before I became known (if I am known - who knows?) for the Comedy Murder mystery plays over on Play Dead -  I wrote music reviews for a local entertainment newspaper as well as comedy sketches for a local improv/comedy group that I was a part of.  (yea, I know that was a preposition)

I eventually evolved into trying my hand and words at something a bit longer - such as a one act play. I tinkered around with it for a few months and cranked out something called " In Between Days" - which was about a few arty college grads who realized they had useless degrees.  Through the generous guidance of college professor who taught playwriting - my one act was produced and staged for a writing conference. What a better way to learn than to see your play and hear your words in front of a live audience.

Fast forward a year, I entered another one act called "The Favor" - about a suicidal man seeking his own demise and death in a bad neighborhood - into a One Act Play contest in St Louis. The Favor was picked as the one the finalist - hence produced and staged in front of a live audience. I also received a nice review in the local paper.

Here is where I somehow jumped the shark as it were -  on a whim or a bet - I wrote a murder mystery for a local group and well - the rest is a cliche.  I became known as a murder mystery playwright. (In some eyes this is NOT a real playwright. The kind that Adam Szymkowicz  would never even ask to interview for his "I interview Playwrights thing.  Whatever. It's fine. )

Rahul Reddy - an actor from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh in India -( who had appeared in one of my Murder Mysteries over there) - contacted me and asked if I would like to submit a work into short play contest held by Dramanon Hyderabad .   A short work? You mean a Real work... not a murder mystery? But an honest to goodness real play - the sort of play I started out writing? Before the shark jump? The kind that I have kept on working on even though the whole..


Ok. Yes, I would very much like to submit something. I did. It was accepted and it is called "The Thing That Happened."  And here is a short trailer for it.