Tuesday, October 3, 2017

So You Want To Self Publish Your Plays. OK Go Ahead! No Really.

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. And my mind was open to many possible ways of thinking, not one.  )

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

There were many responses to the question ranging from "No way! Why would you even consider doing it yourself?" to the other side - "Sure! Why not? ."  And for some odd reason, there was even an inference that "self-publishing" was the "lazy man's way".  I'm still trying to wrap my head around that concept. 

The "lazy man's way"?  Way of what? Hello? And buying furniture from IKEA and assembling it all yourself is the lazy man's way. 

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."  You need the blessing of the Sammy French's and Moldy Old guys otherwise you're nothing. 

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 given me that advice back in 2000.  (I wouldn't have listened but still, I wish someone had.)  And thinking back I would have to to say, No! You're wrong oh wise-advice-giver- all -knowing-playwright-person  -   I wasn't lazy - the bottom line is that -  I didn't know any better. (And as I said, no one said anything to me as in, Don't do it! )

 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's 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 to see if the domain name 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 online world - setting up shopping carts, who to use for online 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!  Of which 3 were actually useful. It took a good year to get things rolling. One year, after my self-styled website went online,  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 online articles aimed at the D.I.Y crowd, let alone advice for the 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 of 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 importantly, 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

And what's this below? Self published plays? 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Play Script Format - What Does it Matter?

I have been meaning to add my few cents to the debate about play script formatting. I have read quite a few rants and/or arguments on-line recently in several "playwright" forums about the proper way a play should appear. But before I dig down and get my money out - I need to establish the scenery that shaped my view -so bear with me.
Where I Came From

Before I began writing plays, I was an actor. That is a person who read and studied play scripts for a particular purpose - to create (or give a live representation to) a character on a stage.  In fact, one of the motivations that lead me to toss my hat into the playwright ring, was my experience as an actor - as you know an actor is forever reading scripts, memorizing lines, uncovering subtext etc.. An actor will live, breathe, eat and sleep with a script. As an actor, I knew a script backwards and forward. It was this routine and knowledge of theatrical scripts that created the urge to try writing a play. 

I did not jump immediately into writing, nope - baby steps -I began writing short skits for a comedy sketch group that I was involved in around St. Louis. From short skits, I moved onto one act plays and finally two acts. So, my point is that my formal training was not in playwriting, but in play performing - one could say I came to the craft from the inside out. 

When I started writing plays, I wanted to know some basic information about the technical side. How did it work? What were the do's and don'ts, the rules or laws?  I found many books and articles on content and conflict and character arc and so on - but that's not what I wanted to know. I was interested in how it should look - fonts and type size and margins. The technical stuff.  

Technical Quest 

The funny thing about this technical quest is that I found I was not alone. A few years after I had a few short plays produced, an old college teacher contacted me and asked if I could fill in on a playwriting panel he was hosting at a writing conference. His scheduled playwright called in sick. Yea, sure I guess I could. I mean, I knew a little bit....  So I showed up, trying to look like a playwright - whatever that is. I sat at the head table with another local (well known) playwright and the moderator who was the Chair of the English department. What am I doing here?

We were asked to take 5 minutes and introduce ourselves, I was called to go first - I tried to stretch out my intro to 5 minutes but I think it lasted all of 2. The other playwright began her intro and was very eloquent, she began talking about the beautiful weather and weaved that into the craft of playwriting - the muses and the psychology - the art and blah blah blah -  it was all very nice. And then the moderator opened it up to questions. The first question was simply - "How much stage direction should you write?" followed by "Does it matter much about character description?" "Do you need to specify furniture colors?"   - It dawned on me at that moment - this is what new writers wanted to know. Forget the artsy fartsy crap - give us the details! The nuts and bolts!  

As a side note - I immediately fielded the stage direction question (I drew on knowledge from my acting background, not my writing) It was my experience that most directors ignore stage directions.  All an actor really needs to know (or cares about) is when to enter, where to walk, where to stand and when to exit. 

If a playwright composes a stage direction such as: "Howard enters the 18th Century styled drawing room looking worried. As if the weight of the world rests on his shoulders and the sorrow of humanity reflects in his eyes. His angst rides just below the surface of every breath he takes. 
 A director will tell the actor playing Howard - "Ignore the wordy crap. Just enter on your cue. "

Format Shmormat 

When it comes to format and how a play should look on the printed page - I simply used the format of every play I ever read or performed in and most of the plays came from the large publishing houses like Samuel French or Dramatists - and it looked like this on the page: 

HOWARD: (enters) Hello, everyone. I am worried. The weight of the world is on my shoulders.  

I believe the above format -Character name followed by the dialogue is called British. Later I began seeing a different format - some called American - it looked like this:

Hello, everyone. I am worried. The weight of the world is on my shoulders.

Which is correct? Well, both. But if you enter plays into competitions or theatres, each may have a format they prefer.  Also, they may have a preferred Font type.  At first, I was told that courier was the preferred format. Others may tell you that   Times New Roman or Palatino is correct.  
Or maybe Arial. 
No, it's Verdana! Definitely Verdana! 
And it should be 12 point. No, it should be 11.   And your top margin should be 0.75 - 
No, it should be 1.00. Your left margin should be 1.0 - no it should be 1.5 and your right margin should be 1.0. What self-respecting playwright would even dream of having a 1.5 left margin?

Each page you write should be considered to be 1  minute of time. No, it should be a minute and a half. But it depends on the amount of white space. And the pace of the scene. And if you have an actor that pauses alot. Do you have a lot of action? Then add 45 seconds. A lot of dialogue? Then subtract 25 seconds.

My 2 Cents 

You get the idea? You can Google "play script format" and find endless theories and rhetoric on the subject. As I said at the beginning before I was a playwright, I was an actor - and as an actor, I can tell you - at the Bottom Line - It really doesn't matter. 

Your fonts and types and margins. Where the characters name goes - No, I am sorry Mr and Mrs Professional MFA in Playwriting -  It doesn't matter.   Actors get the scripts, highlight them, scribble all over them with notes, doodle little graphs, spill coffee on them - how they are formatted has no bearing on anything

Actors memorize the words and toss the scripts aside. The words get spoken on a stage. Actors don't speak the fonts or types or margin dimensions. 

As an actor, I have been in new plays and the scripts have been handwritten on a legal pad. Even pages scribbled on the back of napkins. All I needed to know is what I had to say on stage. Commit it to memory and toss it down. 

While I understand, each art form must have rules and standards - and some will hold play formats in high regard, I get that. People must be able to read and understand a script, I have no objection to that. At the end of a day - a play script is eventually transformed into a living thing on the stage and that is where the art really lies. How you put it together has no bearing on the overall result. If the audience doesn't like your work, the correct format won't change their minds. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Idea Process for Writing - My Long Winded Short Answer

I posted this a while back on my Play-dead.com but thought it would be better served on this page. Essentially, I thought about "writing" one day and here are a few things I thought.

You would really like to write a novel, a short story, a play or something but are really not sure where to start or how to go about it. Well, there are endless "How To" books and some great College Courses you could take to get you started. Some of the books and the classes will have you sit down with a piece of paper and just start writing. Others may have you write a detailed outline before you start. The bottom line is there are countless ways you can learn about writing and the creative process. But one of the first things you need before you sit down and write, or even outline, is an idea.

What's The Big Idea

For example; In order to write on this subject, I had an idea. You see, I write Murder mystery plays and many times, after the productions, people have come up to me and asked questions such as:
"Where do you get your ideas?"
"How did you come up with that?"
Each time I hear those questions, I try to provide an easy answer  - but the truth is, I really don't know how to explain it in an easy way. In the simplest terms, I get ideas and some of them become stories or plays. But to explain the whole process of where my ideas come from, why they pop into my head and then how they get transformed into word on paper, would take a while.

Over the years, the more I heard the question about my ideas, the more I was forced to actually think about the where, why and how.  I've thought about the "where I get ideas" and the "how I get ideas" and the deeper I thought about it, I realized there are probably an infinite number of answers, just as there are an infinite number of "How To" books, blogs and articles written to "teach" you to be creative and how to get ideas.

As a side note, I've also noticed that the same people who posed the "where do you get your ideas?" query, would inevitably go on to tell me about an idea they have for a story or a play, so it was clear they were able to get ideas, in much the same way I did.  So this "where" question is many times an ice breaker that leads further down the rabbit hole.

The questions (sometimes) turn from the "creative" Avenue and make a hard left up the "technical" street.
"Do you write in the morning or the evening?"
"Do you use a pencil and paper or a computer?" If I used a pencil was it a Number 2 or did I prefer a pen.
"What kind of pen?" If I used the computer, "what software did I use and which is best?"

I believe every person who starts out writing is eager to know how other writers write. I confess that I asked those same questions and read many books on creative writing. Essentially, novice writers who are just starting out, want to know if they are doing it right.  It doesn't hurt to ask or to read as much as you can but I can tell you, after asking all of the usual questions and reading most of the books - beginning writers will uncover this nugget of wisdom  - there is no "right way".  The bottom line is you simply need to try different methods and find the one in which you are most comfortable.

Example - I found that writing in the early morning is the best time for me. (maybe not for you)
The reason for me - My brain is not overloaded with the crap of the day. My thoughts are just waking up and are still hovering in a dream like state. I'm not thinking about what a lousy day I had at work and the rude guy that cut me off on the highway or I need to call and find out why my cell phone bill went up. I found that when my mind has been active all day, I don't feel very creative.  Writing to me is very much like daydreaming - and early in the morning, I find it easier to daydream.  Now, with that being stated -  maybe the end of the day works for other people. Maybe all the events of the day provide a catalyst for a creative process. Find a time that works for you.

I've read that Marcel Proust had a padded sound proof room that he locked himself away in to write. He had issues with outside interference - such as people or sounds. He needed quiet to remember all things past. On the flip side, I read that Charles Dickens was the complete opposite. If there were a dinner party going on at his home, he would simply bring out his writing table into the room and continue to work while socializing.  Two great writers with two completely separate styles. Again this proves the point, that there is no right way.

On the technical side, I began by writing things down in a notebook. I moved on to use a typewriter and then a word processor and now I use a computer to write most of the time. I don't have a particular brand of software that I use, I've used plain old Word and lately Open Office.  These writing methods are the habits I have developed and that I am comfortable with. Whatever method you develop will become your habit. The possibilities are endless, however, the basic stories you can come up with are not endless. Only the way you tell it.

What Do You Mean?

As far as ideas for stories or plays, it has been proposed that there are a limited number of plots or formulas that a writer has to choose from. Every book, play, movie etc.. is really just a variation of those basic plots. As an example,  a Murder Mystery: someone gets murdered and someone figures out who did it. Pretty straight forward.

Other genres such as romance have the standard boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. And there's the "Hero's Journey" where a common person is suddenly thrust into some type of adventure where maybe he or she has to travel a great distance, over land, sea or even within to overcome obstacles and solve some problem or defeat a force such as evil. Most fantasy/ adventure books and movies use the hero's journey as it's core: Star Wars, Lord of The Rings, Rambo etc...

So when someone asks, "Where do you get your ideas?" it's pretty safe to say, I get them from the formulas that already exist. The trick is taking those ideas and creating a variation - one that is so unique, people won't recognize it right away. An idea - is in essence, a method to reinvent a story that has already been told. It like taking a cliche and wording it so that it sounds brand new at first.  You can bring your horse over to the creek. But if he's not very thirsty, odds are he will just look at the water and probably not drink. (You see what I did there? Spinning an old cliche with extra bits. Writers do that a lot.)

Song Remains The Same

When the TV show "Lost" was running,  I made a joke by saying, "I liked this show the first time when it was called 'Gilligan's Island'". Granted, Lost and Gilligan's Island are completely different TV shows - but the basic formula is the same - take a bunch of different character types , put them through a catastrophic event: shipwreck/plane wreck, throw them onto an island that's cut off from the rest of the world and watch how they interact. Granted, Gilligan never encountered a smoke monster or different time streams - but by adding those plot devices into the 'castaway' scenario - the survival cliche gets hidden below.

Type + Type = Conflict 

Disaster movies also use a formula of throwing different "types" together while having them work toward a common goal - and that is usually survival, finding a way out, devising a way to be rescued etc.. . To make this idea or the plot more interesting,  you add in "Conflict".
 Conflict - is the 'stuff' that moves the story along and makes it interesting. This conflict can be different devices but mainly it will come from characters interacting as they work toward something. One character wants to solve a problem this way, while another wants to do it that way. Conflicting types of characters make it interesting -  for example -let go back to Gilligan, shall we?   The Captain and his first mate. A Millionaire and his wife. A movie star. The Professor and Mary Anne...etc.. A key ingredient of any good story is having different types of characters who will interact, clash and argue. If seven people who were all passive vegetarians were shipwrecked on an island, it would get dull after 5 minutes. They may fight over the last coconut but that's about it. Throw in an aggressive meat eater and you create conflict. The conflict is the substance you use to hide the fact that this plot has probably been used a million times.

Building ideas Outside the Building

So, I maintain that the key to creative writing isn't so much in your idea but how you present the idea. Here is an example of my spin on the murder mystery formula:

I wrote a play called "I'm Getting Murdered In The Morning" and the setting was a wedding reception. I got the idea when I was at a friends wedding reception. I wrote another mystery play called "Stay As Dead As You Are" that was set at a High School Reunion. Any guesses where I got that idea? Ideas are easy.

My Process

For most of the murder mystery plays I write, I get an idea for the "setting" first. The setting can be also thought of as - a plot of land in which I'm going to build a house. The play - is my house and I need somewhere, some land to build it on: a wedding reception, a corporate meeting, a talk show and so on. Next, I need to fill the house with people to live there - these are the characters.
 I then think about what kind of characters would be in this place?
Well, a wedding reception, of course, would have the bride and groom, the best man and maid of honor and so forth. Since it will be a murder mystery, it follows that someone will have to be murdered. The goal for the characters will be to figure it out or solve the mystery. In this case, my A to B to C is pretty much laid out in advance. You can read Sherlock Holmes or any Agatha Christie and find that formula already set in stone.   My goal is to take that formula - the A to B to C and make the journey creative so that it's a little different or creative. The use an analogy - there is a set route you have to drive to work or your local store. But if you wanted to, you could take a side street or another way and still arrive at these places. It may take longer but you can get creative with the way you arrive there.  Same idea.

So, my answer to the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" would be, I take standard formulas and rework them into something that appears different. But then the question that would follow, or at least one I would ask is, how do you do that?
 How do you take something that has been done a million times and mold into something that appears brand new?

Stuck in the Muck

To that question, I will use an old cliche and that is "free your mind". I will explain, a friend of mine reads every vampire book that comes out. He is a fan of every TV show and movie related to Vampires. He knows all you can know about the subject. He writes stories and screenplays all about vampires, which is fine because right now, there is a huge market for vampire related stuff. Problem is, he knows nothing else.

His mind is totally and utterly locked into the Vampire genre. Unfortunately, in the vampire genre of story-telling,  (as of this writing) it is so hot and since there are so many stories, movies etc.. all the really good "spins" are being taken and beaten into the ground. Now, since that is all he reads and watches, his chances for creating something new are getting smaller and smaller every day.

So what should he do? Move onto Zombie related stuff? No! I suggest he read or watch something other than vampire related material. Something completely 180 degrees the other way.
 Because,  new and inventive ideas are applied to all genres: drama, comedies, action adventure, romance, sci-fi and so forth. As strange as it may sound, even though I write murder mysteries, I do not read or watch that much material related to murder mysteries.

Long ago, I learned to open the creative side of my mind up to all possible sources of input. I became a fan of everything. I rarely watch prime time television or mainstream movies. Instead, I watch old foreign films: French, Italian, Swedish, Japanese etc.. New foreign films. Documentaries. I don't listen to popular music. I listen to classical, Jazz, Blues, World Beat, Alternative, experimental.

The basic idea is to absorb everything that is out there that is left of center. (Meaning not hot right now) Because everything that is out there -  is doing the same thing over and over. They are taking a cliche idea and reinventing them into something different. If you remain open to all forms of stories, films, music, whatever, you open channels to new and different possibilities.

Same Old Song and Dance

I remember enjoying the movie "The Magnificent Seven" when I was a kid. I took a film course in college and saw the Akira Kurosawa film, "Shichinin No Samurai" (Seven Samurai) and realized that the "Magnificent Seven" was actually a remake of that film.
I went on to learn that another Kurosawa film called "Yojimbo" was remade 3 years later as a "Spaghetti Western" called "Per Un Pugno Di Dollari" or "A FistFul Of Dollars" with Clint Eastwood. And then in 1996, it was re-made yet again as "Last Man Standing".

The funny thing about this is that the original story of "Yojimbo" was taken from a novel called "Red Harvest" by Dashiell Hammett.
So, here is a case where an old detective novel was read by a great Japanese Filmmaker who reworked the basic idea into a Samurai film. Granted, Kurosawa has made many Samurai films, but the point is the source for this film had nothing to do with Samurai material.
Seven Samurai was seen by another great filmmaker from Italy named Sergio Leone. Leone reworked the Samurai idea into a Western. Eventually, the American director Walter Hill reworked the Western idea into a gangster movie.
The same idea spun three different ways into something new. If Akira Kurosawa hadn't opened himself to other ideas or literature beyond his Japanese heritage and found an American Crime Novel called "Red Harvest", "Yojimbo" would never have been born. And if Sergio Leone had only stuck with traditional Italian cinema, he never would have seen "Yojimbo" and we may never have heard the term "Spaghetti Western".

Bottom Line: Don't limit your imagination by limiting your mind.

Working the Cliche

I have found that many people don't recognize the Cliche factor of most stories until you point it out. Cliches aren't obvious because the public's disbelief has been suspended so deeply, it resides in a fog somewhere in the back of their minds.

I have this "bit" I do with a friend of mine that's based on a line I heard from a local stand-up comedian. The comedian said he was watching a rerun of "Three's Company" the other night. "It was the one where there was a major misunderstanding."

We took the premise of the joke and found we could apply it to almost any TV show. At parties or other social functions, as we are standing around interacting with people, one of us will start the bit:

"Hey you know, I was watching an old Don Knotts movie the other night. It was great!"
"Really? Which one was it?"
"It was the one where he got real nervous and scared."
"Oh yea. I saw that one! "
"And then I saw an old "Leave It To Beaver" the other day, maybe you'll remember it. It was the one where Beaver does something he wasn't supposed to do because his friends talked him into it. Then Ward finds out and has a talk with Beaver that has a moral lesson."
"Oh Right! That's my favorite episode! Speaking of which, did you ever see that one "Gilligan's Island", where they almost get rescued but Gilligan somehow messes it up at the end?"

As we go on with our bit, the light of recognition comes on in the eyes of people around us and someone will finally say, "But, that's EVERY episode!"
My point exactly. Sometimes you can take the cliche and reuse it over and over and no one will realize it. Some people make a living doing that. Andy Warhol became famous for painting ordinary objects: Brillo Pad boxes, Tomato Soup Cans etc.. Common objects we see every day but presented in a new and different way.

Once you are aware of the cliches and the basic plot lines, the "creativity" comes in by trying to dress the cliches in new clothes, maybe a new hairstyle and see if you can sneak them into the party without anyone noticing. It's similar to the old saying that you have to "know the rules before you break them." If we take the old "romance" plot of "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back" and twist the ending where suddenly the boy really doesn't want the girl back - or "doesn't give a damn" - you have "Gone With The Wind".

If you take a few standard plots, one about a washed up prize fighter who is supposed "throw the fight" but really doesn't want to. Then take a sub-plot about two bad guys who are hunting down a stolen briefcase for a crime boss. Mix in a little romance and weave a few threads that connect all the stories together, you may have something.
But maybe not.
Perhaps the public has already seen it. But what if you chop up the stories? Take the beginning of the story and put it at the end. Take the ending and move it to the middle. Take the middle and use it at the beginning. That way, no one will notice the cliches but even if they do, the way in which they are presented seem completely original. Then you have "Pulp Fiction".

Again, once you recognize the cliches and become aware of them, they are much easier to manipulate. So, this my short answer of how, where and why I get my ideas.

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 witnessed 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 a 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 faux like marching action as if he were carefully prancing through a mind field.  Why didn't the director 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 oddball 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 encountered 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 showstopper. 
  • 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 comes 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 or how 9/11 messed up some Science Fiction

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 or re-wired by slap-stick and cartoons to accept severe injury and catastrophe in a part of our brain that classifies it as non-reality. When we see Moe poke Curly in the eyes, Wile E Coyote fall from a cliff or Elmer Fudd shoot himself in the face with his own twisted gun, we don't associate shock and horror of tragic proportions. We know it's fiction.   

Most fictionalized (non-reality) movies, books, and plays can deal with death in a humorous way -  if from the onset - 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 incur 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 stop 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 the 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 an 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 reality 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 fallout. Since I do understand I am willing to adapt.  It just seems lately, that area of the 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 along 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 actor's 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 rulebook 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 in 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