Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Rules of Writing...

Welcome to

 GO PRAYING SMALL Clifford Morts' intelligent drama about one man's struggle with alcoholism speaks compellingly of love, loss, the quest for self-forgiveness. An alcoholic named Sam (Morts) with a good job and a loving wife (Tara Lynn Orr) loses both. Filled with rage but unwilling to seek help, he's finally picked up by the police -- and only then does he begin his long, slow climb back to sobriety and self-respect. Relayed in nonlinear flashback, the play rivets our attention through the depth and breadth of the central character, an intrepid, introspective Everyman with a strong sense of irony, who references Thomas Wolfe and repeatedly mulls why it is that one can't go home again. There's humor here, too. The likable Morts delivers a dynamic performance, supported by a strong ensemble that includes Rob Arbogast as Sam's former drinking buddy, a sad fellow who sinks to the dregs of existence and never finds his way out. Designer Lacey Alzec's black, minimalist set comes off as unduly oppressive, while Coby Chasman-Beck's lighting effectively underscores the play's various shifts. Victor Warren directs. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 .p.m.; through July 18. (818) 508-7101, ext. 7. (Deborah Klugman) 

New LA Weekly review in, as you can see above.  Another pretty decent one.  Should be one out by Backstage today, too.

In some ways, although just a relatively short blurb, she nailed something interesting that I hadn't really given a lot of conscience thought to - the repeated short scene in the play and tying it in to the reference to Thomas Wolfe's  famous line, you can't go home again.  It's a tremendously insightful thought.  And again, not one I did, at least I don't think I did, on purpose.

I'm reminded of the reporter that asked Hemingway about The Old Man and the Sea.  After repeatedly trying to get Hemingway to admit to writing a novel about the essential struggle between good and evil, God and the Devil, the author finally blurted out a bit angrily, "It's a novel about a guy who catches a fish and then loses it, God Damn it."

When I read the short blurb last night, however, I began thinking about Ms. Klugman's thesis.  And it does, I have to admit, make perfect sense.  But I also have to admit I didn't have that in mind when I wrote it.  It is one of the questions most often asked about the play, "Why do you repeat that scene and then finally resolve it at the end of the play?"  Ms. Klugman has explained it as well as I ever's Sam's physical enactment of his inability to 'go home again.'   Well, whadaya know.  

John Irving says he has never planned out a novel in his life.  He has a vague idea of where he wants to go and then takes off.  Sometimes he gets there, sometimes he doesn't.  On the other hand, Norman Mailer has said that his novels are very carefully outlined before he writes a word.  Both of those guys are pretty good at what they do, so who's to say.  

Writing for the stage, of course, is a whole lot different than writing prose.  I've done both, actually, written both ways, that is to say.  I've written with an exact goal in mind and have spent the bulk of my keyboard time trying to find a way to get there.  I've also, as in the case of Praying Small, simply sat down and started typing.  Sometimes the intangible and unexplainable muse finds itself into the room and the rest is easy.  And other times the muse doesn't want anything to do with a particular project and I'm on my own.

My favorite playwright, although I think it safe to say he's not the best playwright, but he's damn good, is Lanford Wilson.  I'm told a lot of Fifth of July, one of my favorite plays by Wilson, was written in rehearsal.  He jotted down lines, notes, phrases and elipsi, as the actors improvised.  I can't imagine writing that way.  Nonetheless, Fifth of July turned out okay by it.  One would have to have an unusual amount of trust in the actor's sense of the play.

Arguably one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century, Long Day's Journey Into Night, was almost entirely written over one forty-eight hour, angst-ridden period.   Eugene O'Neill's secretary said he locked himself in his den and every so often would shove a few pages under the door for her to type.  She said she could hear him in the next room pacing and shouting and mumbling and weeping.  At the end of two sleepless days, most of that great play was written.  O'Neill then apparently got blind drunk and slept.

Another seminal play of the twentieth century, Death of a Salesman, was written over a long, long period of time with Arthur Miller carefully editing and re-editing the final version.  The playwright himself didn't have the foggiest idea what he had by the end.  In fact, he's on record in his book Timelines as saying he wasn't even sure it was very good.

Sam Shepard, perhaps the most inconsistent and yet explosively talented of his era, didn't edit anything in his early years, which is readily apparent if one reads anything written before Fool for Love.  And yet when Shepard was really cooking his work is unassailable.  Absolutely brilliant.  

I'm not sure how Mamet works, but I can only imagine it to be really dilligent and thoughtful.  David Mamet is an unbelievably smart guy, usually the smartest guy in the room by a mile or so, so I can only think his work as a playwright leaves nothing to chance.  He is knowledgeable, it seems, on any subject under the sun, which makes his sometimes scatological dialogue a mystery.  Unlike GB Shaw, Mamet isn't interested in showing us how smart he is.  He's only interested in saying the right thing for the character at the right time, regardless how dumb it may make the character or, for that matter, Mamet himself, seem.

And then there's Tennesee Williams.  Williams was never satisfied with a play.  Never.  He was actually re-writing the ending of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the night he died.  There were pieces of notebook paper with new dialogue all about his body.  This, mind you, twenty one years after the play had won The Tony and The Pulitzer Prize.

The gist of all of this is there are no rules to writing.  The only rule, in fact, IS that there are no rules.  

Who knew how Shakespeare approached a play.  We'll never know.  Although I do like the apocryphal story of he and his leading actor, Richard Burbage, getting drunk one night and Burbage, a huge ego, told him, "You can't write a role that I can't play."  The story goes that Shakespeare then wrote Hamlet, the story of a man who can't make up his mind.  The only thing a great actor has trouble playing is indecision.  The very soul of acting is making a choice.   And Shakespeare wrote a four-hour play about Hamlet being unable to do so.  Funny if the story were actually true.

Picking up the script today and looking at the lines.  Have to go into the theatre and help Bonnie do her 'put-in rehearsal' as Susan.  One of those necessary but tedious things that pops up now and again.  She's stepping into the role for a couple of performances next weekend.  

Angie and I have decided to go to the mall today and look at things we can't afford.  That should be depressing, joyous and amusing all at once.

See you tomorrow.

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