Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Reading

It has been at least a decade since I've attended a play reading. And today a group of actors got together to read a play. A play that I had written.

Oftentimes I have emotions that I don't know I'm having, but I usually have a sense that something is going on when I can't sleep. Last night I couldn't sleep. I drifted off sometime around five in the morning and tossed and turned until nearly eight. Then I got up and raced around the house, trying to get ready for everyone who was arriving. Arriving to read my play.

I have been working on this script off and on for the better part of a year. Sometimes getting nothing more than three or four lines of dialogue down at a time. The bulk of the work happened over the summer, in July and August. In the middle of August I began to feel my energy wane and I knew I needed a deadline. I set a reading date and began to think of actors I wanted to read to me.

I was lucky. With only one exception, I got the initial actors I asked to read. And in the one case where I was turned down, the actor had been given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that nothing could interrupt, and my second choice wasn't really settling for a second choice at all. She was just someone different, who did a brilliant job handling some of the most difficult material in the script. But having the six actors agree to read these roles crystallized things for me. One character made a radical transformation -- for the better -- simply because I had a face for the character. And having six very talented and smart actors agreeing to read my script really required me to turn out my best effort. I've written a number of small pieces, but this is the first time I've written something that I really feel proud of. There is almost nothing of my personal story in this play, and yet hearing it today I could suddenly see myself all over it.

As the cast began to read, I was nervous. It took every ounce of control I had not to ask them to stop, thank them for coming and tear up each copy of the script. I heard very little of the first two pages because I kept thinking to myself, "Who do you think you are? You have no business telling a story." Then practicality kicked in and I began to time the script. I had to trust that the actors could carry it.

The first ten pages, which probably accounts for the first fifteen minutes, I decided were terrible as they were being read. It wasn't the actors' fault. They had brittle dialogue in an overly dramatic story. It creaked with exposition. I could hear clunker lines that didn't fit. There were phrases that were painfully over-written and the first half is riddled with redundancies.

And then one of the actors read a line, and it was right. There was emotion connected to it. And not just an actor indicating an emotion that she felt should be part of the line. It was the bud of an actual emotion. And suddenly actors who had never met before today connected and I could see the relationship. And they laughed. The actors laughed where I intended laughs and found laughs that I didn't know were there.

And when we finished, I fed them. And then we spent more than an hour talking about the play. And I listened. I asked a few questions. I'm grateful that I didn't have to explain too much, but these smart, talented actors confirmed my own opinions on a lot of points, pointed out a couple of crucial areas that need attention, and they talked like actors. I loved it.

Today was one of the best days of the year, and I have to thank Julia Maish, Nina O'Keefe, Sally Eames, Chad Ramsey, Shaun Baer, and Nat Swift for working for the price of a taco and providing me the input I needed to finish this play. I wish I had the opportunity to work with these actors to put this play up on the stage. It can never happen. Lives and professional obligations simply will never allow me to work with this collection of actors on this script, but I am incredibly grateful that I got to work with them for an afternoon. Incredibly grateful.

The finish line isn't nearly as far away as I feared it might be, and not as close as I'd like. But now I am ready for the hard work. And because of today I now feel like I have the right to tell this story.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Creative Process

Right now, it's all about the words for me. Except for paying gigs, I haven't touched my camera in weeks, but I find I'm not thinking in images right now. I'm thinking in words and concepts. I'm hoping that one cycle informs the other. I think that it will.

The Void Dance is resting right now. The latest draft was finished about two weeks ago and I have eight copies printed, ready for the reading next Saturday. I have sworn not to touch it until I hear it. I'm very lucky that I have six very smart, talented actors coming over to read this script to me. They've had electronic copies for about two weeks and I've not heard a word from any of them. I'm hoping that doesn't mean they're all trying to figure out graceful ways to back out. Or that they've taken one look at the script and then immediately went blind from the horror I've perpetrated on the page. It probably just means that none of them have read it yet.

But if all goes well, there won't be too much revision to the structure of the play and if there is anything major that needs to be done, it's simply style and word choice. I know there are two major chunks that I want to take a particular look at once the reading is over.

So far one person has read it and provided sparse, stoic feedback. "Good play. Strong characters." And she identified one of the sections I also feel needs attention. But she's insanely busy and I'm taking the fact that she started it, finished it, and was able to provide four words of comment as a good thing. I hope it's a good thing. I want this script to be better than good.

So, to distract myself I've started on another script. Eleven characters. While it is in no way biographical, details from my past are informing how it's flowing. Void had a very clear structure even before I started writing. This one...not so much. I'm sort of feeling very Kaufman and Hart, but I don't think that a modern, three-hour comedy will sell today. Still keeping the Chicago non-Equity theatre in mind, so for me it's critical that all eleven characters are compelling and dynamic so that good actors will want to play them. Technical requirements to a minimum. Focus on the text and the actor -- the cheapest commodities in Chicago Theatre.

But I can begin to feel the pull back to the camera. I have two projects cued up, and I'd like to get them both shot, if not edited, before the end of November. The end of November feels both a life time and twenty minutes away.

OK. Back to work.