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“30/30 and 60/60”

30/30 and 60/60

Cynthia’s Column  April 2007

I have been working to recreate myself as a playwright.  It is an interesting process.  I have written a few plays over the years and stuck them in drawers, until I can afford to live a life in the theatre again.  I declare that the time has come.  My youngest (Molly) will graduate from college in 15 months and, in a way, so will I.   I have said for years, if I could do anything I wanted, I’d write plays.  Well, guess what?  I can do anything I want.  And so can you.  What is your secret wish of your writer’s heart?  Pause and consider giving it voice.  Letting  it sing or take wing.

I started writing a new play this past fall and got a first draft down.  At Thanksgiving, I had my kids, my sister and a visiting friend read it out loud with me so I could hear it.  I rewrote it, then gave it to a couple of trusted writer friends.  Marc Acito, who has lived the theatre life, was particularly brilliant and helpful in his notes.  And then last month, another friend, actor and director Keith Scales, generously loaned me his Arcadia cast who were in rehearsal at Lakewood Theatre Center in Lake O.  They came over and sat around my living room and I stuffed them with finger food and they repaid me by reading my play aloud beautifully.

It’s a scary thing hearing a play read aloud for the first or second time.  It’s somewhat like a Table Read for a film, but with a film, the script has had a development process and you’ve already accommodated the producers’ and director’s notes as well as a star or two.  So while it can be shaky, usually what you hear read aloud a few days before you begin filming is in pretty good shape.

Hearing real actors read my new play last month, my heart was pounding and palms sweating through the first couple of scenes and all I was hearing was writing.  Words I’d written.  Then by about the third scene, I started hearing characters talking to each other and the play came alive and I unclenched my shoulders and jaw and relaxed and let the reading show me how to go to the next step.  The actors were gifted and kind and encouraging and had excellent thoughts.  And their validating what was working was as helpful as their pointing out what was not.  Thank you, actors!  I love you.  We writers love you actors.

I created a graduate playwriting course for myself called “30 Plays in 30 Days” and read a play a day for a month.  It turns out to be easy to do.  You can read a play in 90 minutes.  I went to the library and found many plays on DVDs.  The American Film Theatre has been released on DVD and Broadway Theatre Archives has released a lot of plays as well.  In my living room I have seen Richard Burton’s Hamlet, Geilgud and Richardson in Home, the extraordinary production of O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey starring Katharine Hepburn and Jason Robards.  It has been a fabulous month.

It went so well in fact that I’ve re-upped and I’m on play #45 in the 60 Plays in 60 Days game.  And fantasizing about going for 100.  I check them out of the library.  I buy them from the Lake Oswego Library’s Booktique for 50 cents apiece.  And through the fabulous used book website I have been buying the Best Play collections that new, cost $30 each, and used are only $1.  Life is sweet!

Here is what I’ve learned from this intensive absorption process.

Playwrights are not gods, they are writers.  Some great.  Some skilled.  Some okay.  And I can see myself among them.  It is a world that can be demystified and entered into as one craftsman into a guild of craftsmen.  One artisan into a school of comrades.

Not all of them are good.  I actually read two plays that I thought were bad.  Neil Simon’s Rumors and Horton Foote’s Valentine’s Day.  They’ve both written plenty of wonderful things, so it’s almost reassuring that guys like Doc and Horton have a couple of strikeouts.  Their hits eclipse these.  Lost in Yonkers is wonderful and HF’s screenplay for To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the greats.

What has been happening to me is that I have been learning playwriting by the right brain natural method.  I took playwriting in college and actually learned nothing except how to format the things.  Playwriting is kind of tricky and hard to pin down.  If a screenplay works or doesn’t work, I can tell you exactly why.  I could write a paper on it and I can tell you how to fix it.  How to make it better.  Maybe even how to make it good.

But plays refuse to be analyzed in the same way.  Sometimes a play that should work, just lays there and dies.  And another play that by all rational evaluation should stink, lights up the night sky like a supernova.  I know of two plays so perfectly written and structured that any high school in American can produce them and they are guaranteed to bring the houses down and leave everyone from ten to ninety in tears.  The Diary of Anne Frank and The Miracle Worker are two of these.  Indestructible.

These are rare enough to be categorized as theatrical miracles in their own right.

My favorite living playwright is Tom Stoppard.  He is my idea of a genius.  My two favorites of his are The Real Thing and Arcadia.  He makes me feel like a three finger Heart and Soul player, glancing over at Chopin sitting at the next piano.

But the truly great news is that by reading all these plays, and going to the theatre and checking DVDs of plays out of the library, I am teaching myself.  I am learning this thing.  It is possible to ingest great playwriting, digest it internally and then manifest a better play than you could have written even a month ago.  This is of course true of any kind of writing.  For years I would inundate myself with whatever style of writing I was trying to emulate.  Which is why I own all of Aaron Sorkin’s stuff and have watched it many times.  You don’t have to steal anyone’s words.  But feel free to steal their rhythms.  Learn their tricks and their mad skills.  Learn, baby, learn.  Then we can burn, baby, burn.

Since that living room reading courtesy of the fabulous Arcadians, I have been polishing and polishing and tinkering and three days ago, I declared that until it finds a workshop or a production, this play is finished.  I took it to Kinko’s and made a dozen copies.  Then I began to mail it out.  Then I took that magical next step.  I GOT SERIOUS.  Fired up.  Launched a campaign!

I made a list of all the possible places I could send it.  Over the years I have worked with or known people who may be able to help a young play find its way.  As I wrote out this list, I kept thinking of more and more possibilities.  The two greatest new play venues godfathers of new playwrights are in Louisville, Kentucky and Williamsburg, Virginia.  Louisville only takes solicited submissions, so I called my agent and she submitted it for me.  Williamsburg only takes plays with one setting, four actors or less.  One set, no problem, but I had to make it clear that four actors could play the eight characters in this play.  And off it goes.

I worked with Kevin Spacey on a TV movie and he is now the artistic director of the Old Vic in London, so KS is getting a query letter.

I worked with Ellen Burstyn on three separate projects over the years, one of which was a play for PBS that got us both Emmy nominations.  And now Ellen is co-president of The Actors Studio in NY.  So a letter goes out to Ellen.

We’ve got Portland Center Stage, Artists Rep and Ashland, all local and all fantastic.  I’m submitting it to everyone and let whoever grabs it up first have a go at it.

Years ago when I was in NY City during the month of rehearsals for the Off Broadway production of my play, I walked around with a kind of fire burning inside me.  I feel that now.  That fire that is stoked by passion and vision and all the pages from 45 plays and counting.  Each time I stuff one inside me, the flames burn hotter and higher.

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