Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Writing by Committee.

Pictured above, perhaps our greatest living playwright, David Mamet.

A really good show Sunday afternoon.  Relaxed, in the moment, unharried and a bit quirky.  I had fun.  I think the other actors were 'on,' too.  Tara and I had a few 'what's next' moments in our first date scene, but in a non-panicking sort of way.  We've both settled into the dialogue enough so that a minor misstep doesn't really throw us.

Despite the fact that the houses are nearly full now, the bulk of our core audience has still eluded us, that is to say, the recovery community.  Don't know what, if anything, can be done about that.  We gave a comprehensive push to get the right people in to see the piece on opening weekend; facilitators, administrators, managers, etc. of various recovery centers in and around Los Angeles.  The 'word-of-mouth' element has not really worked yet in that community.  Yes, there are some, a few, every night, and I have no doubt they are espousing the show once they leave.  Many have caught me in the parking lot to tell me so.  But the truth of the matter is, that community will be our legs should the piece hope to enjoy a long run.  Not to say I'm not terribly pleased at the turn-out otherwise.  I am.  And ostensibly, any audience could give the piece legs.  But in the final analysis, the recovery community, tens of thousands strong in LA, will be our bread and butter.  And getting that group in is simply a matter of making them aware of the play's existence.

For many, many years I was simply a hired gun as an actor.  Traveling from New York to whatever regional theatre was next.  Just show up, rehearse, learn the lines, make some choices, get a little, sometimes a lot, excited about whatever I was working on, showing up opening night and voila', add water, shake, and a full house and crowded run.

People like what they know.  Even in the liberal and much-touted world of the constant, liberal theatre-goer, the guy that claims to want to see the 'new' stuff, sometimes marketing the 'new stuff' is a chore.  This is why new play festivals are a gamble, even among the more established theaters.  With the exception of Actor's Theatre in Louisville, The Asolo in Sarasota, and maybe Playwright's Horizon in NY, most theaters are a bit frightened of new work.  The subscription base simply won't support it, despite their protestations otherwise.  It is always safer to mount another Death of a Salesman or Rainmaker or Equus or Wit or Proof or South Pacific than it is to find an exciting new piece, never seen, and hope it flies.

It's the same concept in the restaurant business.  Why do you suppose Houlihan's or Appleby's or even McDonald's keep people coming back?  Because they know what to expect on the menu, that's why.  They know the Big Mac they buy in Spokane will be exactly the same as the one they buy in Jersey City.  They like it that way.  We are creatures of habit.  If we saunter into a McDonald's in Jefferson City we don't want to see flounder in a crusty mustard sauce on the menu.  We want the two all-beef patties with the special sauce.  Even if the flounder in the crusty mustard sauce is a hundred times better.  That's beside the point.

I completely understand this, being a creature of habit myself.  I don't blame people for wanting what they know.  The theaters mentioned above have made a niche for themselves doing new work.  They've based their entire marketing strategy from day one on it.  Their patrons KNOW this is what they do and it's what they've signed on for.

Last Sunday night, following my show, Angie and I saw our friend's Nickella and Jed's new staging of their musical Sick People in Love.  I've blogged about this piece earlier, months ago, in fact.  I'm a fan of it.  It's a quirky little piece with some really fine words and music from Nick and Jed.  They have been incredibly trusting with their creation by constantly putting it in front of people and asking for feedback.  A process that makes me start sweating and shaking even to think about.  Writing by committee has always been one of my worst nightmares.  I hate workshopping.  And I've carefully outlined why in this blog before so I won't go back into it.  Nonetheless, that's what they've done with this piece.

David Mamet once told me this sort of thing would quite possibly kill him if he ever had to do it.  And he meant it literally.  Putting his work out there after months, years of working it, and have a room or theater full of people then tell him how to do it better would make him fall to the floor and die.  I couldn't agree more.  Yet it's done all the time in the theatre and is considered by some the exact proper sequence for creation.  I don't get it.  But, I'm the first to agree, sometimes it works.  Sometimes it's just a huge recipe for disaster.  Most of the time, I'd go so far to say.  But sometimes, every now and then, it actually works.  I don't know if that's the case with this new piece, Sick People in Love, but I have sat a few times, utterly confounded, as these two fine artists have sat and studiously taken notes as the audience nonchalantly pick the piece apart.  And then, a little later, the next staging, I see some of those ideas actually incorporated into the piece.  I am agog.  My silent question is always, "Do they still write with the same amount of passion and certainty as they incorporate someone else's idea?"  I can't imagine that anyone would.  But Nick and Jed are two very open and discerning people.  Very bright and decisive.  Nickella is one of the finest instinctual actresses I've ever had the pleasure of watching.  She did a leading role in my aborted play, From the East to the West, five months ago.  In fact, she may be the only actor I've ever directed that, aside from blocking, I never once felt the need to offer a note.  Her performance was so centered in her gut that to tamper with it would have been sheer lunacy.  A lot of directors I know sometimes direct just to hear themselves directing.  I long ago learned the beauty of the truism, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.  Nick came into that play right on the money.  Any extraneous advice from me would have just muddied her work.

But back to this idea of writing by committee.  It's clearly a staple of television and film.  This is one of a thousand reasons why television and film is so inconsistent.  There are too many writers.  Too many chefs in the kitchen.  I remember seeing a movie, a large, studio picture, a few years back and when the credits got to the 'screenplay by' frame, there were, I kid you not, about fifteen names on the screen.  Not surprisingly, the whole thing was a hot mess.

But, as I mentioned before, sometimes, once in a blue moon, it works.  Look at how many writers are credited for Casablanca.  One of the great films of all time and the writing is unmistakably brilliant.  But a whole bunch of writers, not to mention three directors, had their hands in that one.  My favorite, and funniest, I think, is the screenplay credit for Zefirelli's Romeo and Juliet.  It says, "Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.  With additional dialogue by Sam Taylor."  I'd like to have lunch someday with Sam Taylor.  I've got a few questions for him.

On the other hand, I don't mind sitting around my front room and having a few trusted and smart friends over to read something and then make thoughtful comments.  I've done that many times.  The last time was in December of 09 when I had my friends Jimmy Barbour, John Bader, the wonderful actor John Schuck and Joe Hulser all over to read From the East to the West.  We read it and then sat around and shot the shit.  The upshot being that what I then wrote based on their comments was in fact a superior piece of writing than what I had done alone.  Some of the stuff, of course, I simply ignored politely.  Most of the time they voiced ideas I had long ago thought of and discarded.  But a few of the comments were dead center on the nose and I unapologetically stole them.  That sort of thing never bothers me.  I steal all the time as a writer and actor.  At the end of the day it doesn't say From the East to the West by Clifford Morts with some pretty cool suggestions by John Schuck, John Bader, Jim Barbour and Joe Hulser.  Nope.  It says, "From the East to the West by Clifford Morts.

Reminds me of something Stephen King once said when an interviewer asked him how he felt about what Hollywood had done to his books.  They were apparently sitting in King's library in his home at the time.  He said, "What?  Hollywood hasn't done anything to my books.  There they all are, perfectly fine."  And he pointed to several rows of his books sitting on the shelves, all lined up and looking brand new and ready to read.

Angie and I had to leave after the first act of Sick People in Love because the old 'silent killer' was having it's way with me.  I began to shake and sweat and get dizzy.  Blood sugar decided at that moment to plummet.  The next day, yesterday in fact, I was sitting in the doctor's office once again, trying to balance the medication.

Had something odd happen when I got home Sunday night following the performance of Praying Small.  I had an email from the critic from The LA Weekly.  She told me how much she had enjoyed the play and was asking if she might have a copy of the script to read.  In all my years in this business I have never, not once, heard of a critic contacting a playwright before the review was published.  The request, as it turns out, was completely innocent, absolutely innocuous.  But it was very strange nonetheless.  How she got my email is a mystery.  I have two emails, one for business stuff, that one is easily obtainable, and one private one that only close friends, family and colleagues have.  She had emailed me on my private one.  It's a mystery.

The dreaded bi-product of this old diabetes, insomnia, is plaguing me once again this morning.  A few hours of sleep and then up for the night.  Angie is very concerned about this part of the disease.  As am I.  I mean, I've always been an early riser, but 3:30 is a bit silly even for me.  When it strikes, this insomnia, I mean, there's nothing to do but get up and make some coffee and endure it.  So here it is, 4:22 in the morning and I'm up and open for business.  Heavens to Betsy.

LA Weekly, I'm told, will be online this afternoon.  Keep your eyes peeled.  If the surprising email from the reviewer is any indication, it should be a good one.

See you tomorrow.