Monthly Archives: January 2013

Hey, Screenwriters and Playwrights: Create Better Characters

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I’ve been teaching at a film school for over five years now, and working with filmmakers has been an eye-opener. I’ve learned a lot, and I hope I’ve helped some filmmakers along the way.

One thing I think screenwriters and playwrights share is the need to create compelling, honest characters, and yet it’s one of the most common areas in which I see scripts fall flat. This can be a real struggle for early career writers.

So: Are your characters boring? Oh, don’t give me that look. You know what I mean. Bland, flavorless characters; characters whose predictability could be spotted by a nine-year-old; characters that are carbon copies of archetypal characters of the past.  They are all too common.

How are memorable, believable, intriguing characters made? While there’s no one right way, I can give you some pointers to help you, early career playwright or screenwriter, find your own process.

1. Imagine your characters as personalities, not as a collection of visuals.

This one is a particular issue for filmmakers. Filmmakers tend to be visual people, and I often see scripts that approach a character from the outside, and stop there. The writer knows what she wants the scene to look like, but hasn’t thought any more deeply about it than that. When you think about your characters, think in more detail about personality traits. Who is this character? Why does he do what he does? What does he want? Which leads me to:

2. Think of your characters as real people with needs and desires.

I often see characters that are treated as nothing but events in the life of the main character. Imagine your characters as real people with goals, hopes, dreams, fears. What does this person want? What does she want from the other character(s) in the scene? What is her opinion about the other character(s) in the scene, what’s happening around them, what might happen, etc? I see this particular “event-in-the-life” type of sloppy writing shine out in its fullest glory when people write women and people of color.

3. Write better women and people of color.

The amount of stereotypical, flat, and unrealistic women and people of color in film and theatre could, if turned into gold, buy every man, woman, and child who ever lived a copy of the latest version of Final Draft. It’s depressing. Even more depressing is the fact that this isn’t the sole province of white male writers. When writing supporting characters that are women or people of color, treat these characters as real people with stories of their own—feelings, opinions, needs, desires—and not just an event in the life of the main character. And here’s a thought: consider writing more pieces with a woman or a person of color AS the main character. I see much more diversity in main characters in theatre than in film, but we could use much more in both. (More stories from more diverse perspectives, please, with extra awesome.) BTW: One more hooker/call girl character and I will scream. Despite what you see in film, 57% of all women between the ages of 18 and 30 are not hookers. Crazy, right? I KNOW. Additionally, I could easily write a 1000-word blog post just about stereotypical writing for people of color. Be better.

4. People are never generic, always specific.

So stop creating generic characters. Stop throwing generic characters into scenes just to advance the narrative and start thinking of characters as essential parts of the equation of storytelling. I promise you that you can, with a little more thought, advance your narrative just as well—actually, better—with an interesting bartender as easily as a generic “bartender.” What’s more, an interesting, complex character can take your narrative in unexpected directions. Allow your characters to be specific people and see where that takes you.

5. The stronger your antagonist, the stronger your protagonist.

This one is more germane to screenwriting than playwriting, but this basic piece of advice should apply to all characters you create, whether they fall into the protagonist/antagonist structure or not. Make sure your antagonist isn’t a total screaming douchebag from the get go. It cheapens your protagonist’s eventual victory (or defeat, if that’s where you’re going). Make your antagonist a worthy opponent and the end will be much more satisfying. At the risk of sounding like a pretentious asshole (SPOILER ALERT: too late) take a tip from Shakespeare—all of his villains have some redeeming qualities, and all of his heroes have some flaws. People are complex, and if you want your characters to be believable, they must reflect that. An antagonist who has a point and makes some sense in his opposition to the protagonist will provide a much more satisfying conclusion.

6. Show, don’t tell.

Yes, I know this is the 100th time you’ve heard this, but it’s really true. Your character doesn’t need to offload sixteen lines of exposition in the first scene. Don’t be afraid of a little ambiguity. Allow the actors some room to create believable characters with your text. Real people are sometimes indirect, are mistaken, lie. People seldom come right out and say precisely what they’re thinking. Show us the character, the relationships, the emotional journey. Don’t feel the need to load it all into the lines.

7. Pay attention to “voice.”

Characters who all sound the same are annoyingly common in scripts. Create specific character voices. Observe the people around you—you’ll encounter interesting character voices every day. Individuals have specific vocabularies, speech patterns, and ways of framing and expressing opinions. Build this in tandem with your characters’ personality traits, as they will inform each other.

My last, and most important word of advice: Follow your heart. Tell the story you need to tell in the way you need to tell it. Only you can tell your stories, so honor those stories by crafting the best scripts you can.

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Playwrights: Not Actually Slaves

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This is a playwright. Playwrights are people. This particular playwright is the awesome Lauren Yee.

Why are so many people surprised to discover that you ALWAYS have to secure the rights to perform a play that’s not in the public domain, whether you’re charging admission or not? Do they think “published” means “public domain”? Do they just think they won’t get caught? Do they think schools, churches, and cafes are magically exempt? I don’t get it.

If your school, church, or theatre company needed a pickup truck (don’t we all), would you just take one you liked off the street? So why do you feel entitled to do that with someone’s play?

I don’t want to argue about copyright law. I really don’t.

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So for the purposes of this post, I’m going to limit this to living playwrights.

Living playwrights are people who work hard at a job makin’ stuff. And the stuff they make are PLAYS. It’s hard, thankless, underpaid work. The number of people who actually make a living on nothing but their rights ‘n’ royalties is something like, oh, I don’t know, let’s sayyyyyyyy . . .  12. The rest are teaching, writing for TV and film, processing purchase orders, giving handies in the alley, waiting tables, and all manner of things that aren’t writing plays.

Do you like plays? I do. You do, right? OK, do you like GOOD plays? Show of hands? EXCELLENT. So imagine this: If we PAY playwrights to do the job of writing plays, more of them could quit that job at the Cheesecake Factory and just WRITE. I’m sure you can imagine how difficult it is to create quality writing after a day of being yelled at by people who think service personnel are subhuman servebots who both DESERVE and WELCOME the wrath of a frustrated middle manager failing spectacularly to impress his blind date.

It’s hard enough for playwrights to support themselves with their writing without people stealing their work. While I’m not an idiot (despite what you may have heard) who believes that closing that loophole would result in all playwrights suddenly getting a living wage, a tiara, and a case of Newcastle, making sure they’re paid for their work is a step closer to that ideal.

Let’s review:

1. Yes, it is the law (no matter what you THINK of the law) that you cannot use someone else’s intellectual property without their consent, and any play by a living playwright is that playwright’s intellectual property. It belongs to that playwright, just like her bed, her toothbrush, or her Magic cards. You are not entitled to use her property simply because you can get to it without her seeing you.

2. Playwrights DESERVE to be compensated for their work. Slavery is not actually OK. If a playwright allows you to use her work free of charge, that is a GIFT to you. If you perform her work without paying for it and without her consent, that is theft. You are not ENTITLED to her labor. She is not your slave.

3. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you perform, or what you charge. It matters not if you are the Endor Community Theatre or Patti Lupone Elementary or Our Lady of the Sacred Sound Design Church and ADR Studio. It doesn’t matter if you’re not charging for admission. It doesn’t matter if you’re performing in a cafe, or a park, or your mom’s driveway. HOW YOU PRODUCE THAT WORK doesn’t change the fact that the work is not YOURS to use without consent.

So get the rights, OK? OK.

UPDATE: Playwright Don Zolidis, who knows much more about this than I do, says his estimation is that about 50 playwrights are currently making a living from their plays alone. So more than 12, but not nearly enough.

Also: You can learn more about Lauren Yee here.

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Women Playwrights 2: Electric Boogaloo

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So this happened:

A blog post I thought about 20 people would read has gone viral . . . ish. Or, viral for theatre anyway. (Comparing my stats to the inappropriate cartoon my son made last year and put on reddit, garnering half a million hits in 72 hours, is just going to depress me.)

I’m enormously flattered by all the attention it’s received, and I’ve had a deluge of interesting responses, some here on the blog but most out in the innerwebs.

The response I didn’t expect, but have received more than a few times, was the defensive: But women’s lives ARE like that! Those ARE our stories! Which is a little heartbreaking. I don’t believe that any woman’s life is just waiting around for someone else, talking about someone else, and reacting to the decisions of someone else. Women are so much more than that.

The most curious responses were from people holding up extremely active characters who drive the narrative bus all through the town as examples of reactive central characters (Hamlet was one such example). The most valuable challenge came from the people who made me examine my assumptions about active vs reactive dramaturgical positionality. I’m thankful they gave me the opportunity to evaluate an assumption and deepen my understanding of it.

The best response of the bunch, unsurprisingly, came from the brilliant Lauren Gunderson, who responded to my post with an inspiring, challenging piece of writing that I think you should all check out.

My opinion is, obviously, not definitive. My writing reflects my opinions about my experiences, and of course responses from others will be reflective of their opinions about their experiences. Our responses to anything– writing, theatre, pumpkin muffins, bad traffic, the distressingly continued presence of Uggs– say as much about ourselves as they do about the thing itself. So it’s been a very valuable process for me to examine my own reaction (and imagined responses) to the people who are saying my post is valuable and a worthwhile read as well as to the people who are saying that I’m a “patriarchal tool” whose self-hating gender bias is deluding me into evaluating works of feminine genius as lacking simply because they don’t conform to a “masculine structure.” (Penis-shaped plays, amirite?)

Despite the fact that the response has been overwhelmingly positive, my first reaction to that was to zero in on the negative and think: I AM NEVER WRITING ABOUT GENDER AGAIN. I said, from that moment on, my blog was going to be about pictures of puppies in baskets, cupcakes, and my rack.

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So what did that reaction say about me? To me, it said that the girl who was bullied for years in school still tries to make decisions for the adult she has become, and that’s not OK. It said that I’m still far too willing to give power to the people who want to silence me with their public disapproval. And devaluing your own experience while privileging the experiences of others was EXACTLY what I was trying to get women to stop doing when I wrote the post. So I had to take a seat and give myself a Come to Moradin talk about Having a Blog and Having a Voice.

The answer, of course, is not for me to hide, but to learn instead to take the good with the bad, develop a thicker skin, keep my chin up, keep calm and carry on, and all the other British platitudes you can think of go here.

Thank you all so much, truly.

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Ew, Gross, GET A ROOM

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My handsome husband

Today is my husband’s birthday, and I can’t even begin to say how grateful I am for him. Through all of my surgeries, my chronic pain, my massive neverending self-doubt, my layoff, my ten million rehearsals, he never once wavered in his rock-solid support, love, and encouragement. I am so lucky to have him.

We met as undergrads at Cal State East Bay and dated for a few months. We broke up (entirely my fault) and eventually married other people. We made the kind of predictably poor choices you make when you’re young, and both learned the hard way that when your closest friends and family think you shouldn’t marry someone, THEY ARE RIGHT.

We never completely lost touch. I would run into him from time to time when I was a grad student at Cal and he was working in the scene shop there. (He later told me that when he saw me walking his way on campus, his heart would skip a beat, a story that melts my heart all over again every time I think about it.) A few years later, when I was teaching at CSUEB, he would bring his high school students to our (now long gone) spring Shakespeare Festival. It was at one of these festivals that I asked him to play my Dukes in the CSUEB summer production of As You Like It. I was already crushing on him, of course.

It was during As You Like It performances that we finally got back together, 16 years after our first date. We were married August 15, 2006.

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He’s a wonderful man, sweet and supportive, impossibly attentive, beyond patient. We exacerbate and encourage each other’s nerdiness. He’s working the irresistible combination of tall, smart, funny theatre tech, which is my kryptonite. His faith in me makes me want to be a better person so I can deserve him. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without him. I hope I never have to.

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See that TIE fighter pilot? I’m hitting that.

Happy Birthday, sweetheart. I hope your day is wonderful apart from the fact that you’re working all day and that I scheduled you for rehearsal tonight.

Oh, the show? As You Like It.

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A Common Problem I See In Plays By Women Playwrights. It’s Not What You Think.

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Will Hand and Jeanette Penley Marker in Impact Theatre’s Toil and Trouble by Lauren Gunderson, a fantastic play by a brilliant woman with a kickass female character. Check out EVERY WORD LAUREN’S EVER WRITTEN because you will not regret it. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

My theatre company is in heavy season planning mode, so I’ve recently read dozens of new plays. I’m always reading new plays, but this time of year, I’m reading a lot of plays, all day long. We’re making an effort to find more plays by women playwrights. We get between 300-400 unsolicited submissions each year, as well as submissions from agents and theatre professionals (playwrights, other ADs or LMs). 75% of those plays are by men, without fail. Unsurprisingly, 75% of the plays we’ve done over our 17 seasons have been by men. So we’re making an extra effort to find women playwrights and ask them to submit.

My company does new plays by “emerging” playwrights (I understand the controversy around that term, but this post isn’t about that, so let’s move on), so I’m reading unpublished plays, many (if not most) by early career, relatively inexperienced playwrights. I noticed a trend in the writing style of these early career women writers, a trend that initially confused me.

I’m seeing a significant amount of plays by women with female characters structurally positioned as the central character. However, that female character isn’t driving the narrative– she is, instead, just reactive to whatever the male characters are doing. It’s a woman sitting around wondering what to do about some man in her life, talking to her friends about some man, interacting with some man about his decisions or actions. It’s still a story with a central male character, just told from the woman’s point of view. If it’s a lesbian play, just change that male character to a female character. The structurally central female character is just as reactive.

Here’s the weird part: I ALMOST NEVER SEE PLAYS LIKE THIS FROM MEN. When I get a play by a man, the central character, male or female, almost always drives the narrative and has an active arc.

Ensemble pieces don’t change anything– they work the same way, just in the plural.

So what the effing eff is going on here? I rarely see this from the more experienced, accomplished women playwrights, but it’s shockingly common from early career women writers.

I thought a lot about this, talked about it with friends, got into a lengthy discussion on facebook (of course) about it. Here’s what I think is going on.

Some playwrights, particularly those who are new to it, are drawing heavily from their own lives and are writing central characters that are reflective of themselves. Sometimes they write plays that are about some perceived injustice they suffered (WHY WON’T HE LOVE ME? WHY WILL NO ONE PRODUCE MY PLAYS?) which can put their central character into a reactive position. But the gender difference, I think, can only be explained one way.

As women, we’re taught to be reactive– to pay careful attention to the needs and opinions of others and react immediately to them. Most women become masters of reading body language and gold medalists at empathy. Not all (of course) but most, because we’re taught that being any other way is unacceptable– at home, in the culture, in plays, films, books, TV shows. Men, however, are taught to be active, and are taught that men who aren’t– who are reactive– are not “real men.” We (unfortunately) re-inscribe this into the culture over and over and over.

Being empathetic and reactive aren’t necessarily bad things, but these received narratives of how to “correctly” perform our genders are having an impact on the way some playwrights are writing, and that impact is working against some women playwrights’ ability to tell their stories.

When you structure a play with a central character, you’re writing someone who occupies the same position in your play that you do in your own life, right? Every person is the central character in his or her personal play/film/video game, because your own life is experienced, of necessity, from your point of view. So when a woman sees herself as inhabiting a reactive position in life, she’s likely going to write a central female character as reactive, because that’s how she perceives what living as a woman IS.

When men write central characters– whether that central character is male or female– those characters are almost always reflective of the active position they’re taught to see as “normal.” Men don’t write reactive female central characters because they see an active self-perception as “normal” in general.

This is, obviously, just a guess, but I don’t know how else to explain what I’m seeing, and I’m seeing it over and over.

Plenty of women writers don’t make their central female characters reactive, but I see enough who do to make me think we should be deliberately and consciously teaching women playwrights to CLAIM THEIR OWN STORIES (the way men are taught to do from the cradle by every corner of the culture). Because a reactive central character isn’t as strong or as interesting as an active one, as women develop their voices as playwrights, I see less and less of this in their work. And of course there are some women writers who never do this. But the ones who do need to be taught to value themselves and their stories. BECAUSE THEY ARE VALUABLE.

So let me tell you now, early career women writers: YOUR STORIES ARE INTERESTING. YOUR STORIES ARE IMPORTANT. YOUR EXPERIENCES ARE IMPORTANT. YOU ARE IMPORTANT. You are important to me, to our work, to the theatre community. YOU ARE MORE THAN YOUR REACTIONS TO SOMEONE ELSE. So write that. And send it to me.

(PS to the men out there writing strong, compelling, active roles for women: Thank you. The women actors of the world also thank you. Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have the right to write stories for women because you don’t have “authenticity.” Jesus Timberlake Christ, do they really want there to be FEWER roles for women?)

UPDATE May 2015: For a blog post with only 22K hits, this wins the prize for being the most educational for me as a blogger. One of the most important things I learned from this early post is that the kind of people who will call a stranger an “asshole” or “disgusting” in public for something as small as a relatively unknown blog post are the most likely to be reacting to what they imagine is in the piece rather than what is actually there. I learned that the people who legitimately disagree with the ideas discussed in a post are the least likely to use abusive words. I learned that the people who legitimately disagree with the ideas discussed in a post are awesome, always making me reflect and interrogate my point of view. I learned that engaging with hateful people is always already a lost cause. I learned that I will engage with them anyway. I learned that there are dozens of theatremakers across the country who disagree with some of my ideas and with whom I would dearly love to share a pitcher of beer and an evening of lively discussion.

If you’re here for the first time, I would like to invite you to read some of my newer posts. Click around and see a little more of who I am and what I write. While comments for this one piece are now closed, I approve all comments that are not abusive, so feel free to disagree. Maybe one day we’ll get to share that beer and talk about it in person. Whether you like what you see on Bitter Gertrude or not, I genuinely thank you for being here.

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Young Audience Members: NOT UNICORNS

Impact Theatre's production of Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Joseph Mason, Mike Delaney, Reggie White, Jonah McClellan, and Seth Thygesen. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Impact Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Joseph Mason, Mike Delaney, Reggie White, Jonah McClellan, and Seth Thygesen. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

“THEATRE IS DYING. No young people are going to the theatre! There won’t be ANY AUDIENCE LEFT in a few years when they ALL DIE OUT.”

I hear this all the time, and it’s pharmaceutical grade nonsense.  Young people come to the theatre all the damn time. I wrote this article for Theatre Bay Area in 2011. Click here to see it in its original setting.

(I just got back from my theatre company’s annual season planning retreat, so I’m doing the lazy reblogging dance instead of serving you up a fine handcrafted cold-filtered brand new blog post.  One coming soon.)

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“How do you get so many young people into your theatre? How can we do that?”

I’ve been asked these questions over and over and over. And over. The real answer is: I’m not sure. All I can tell you is what we’ve done, how we’ve done it and what I think you can do to better your chances of attracting the 18-35 audience. Will it work for you? I don’t know. Did it work for us? Yes, indeed.

Bear in mind that you need to do all of these things, all at the same time. This isn’t a pick-and-choose situation.

1. Do the kinds of plays young people want to see.
I am astounded by the fact that some larger theatres seem to believe young people should *always* be willing to translate, and blame self-centeredness, lack of interest in culture, lack of education and general boorishness when the 18-40 crowd don’t turn out in droves for a production of Dinner with Friends or Love Letters. Yet these very same theatres won’t slot a new play by an emerging playwright for fear of their subscribers’ reactions. They expect young people to translate, and heap condemnation upon them when they don’t, but they see older audience members’ potential lack of interest as their due. (P.S. Believe me when I tell you that 65 is the new 35. Many older Bay Area theatergoers are more adventurous than you think. TRUST. Moving on.)

While it’s always a good thing to have an active interest in the stories of people not in your age group (or ethnic group, or regional group, or religious group, etc), everyone longs to see their own stories, hopes, dreams, fears, realities and fantasies reflected in honest ways. Young people are no different. The key phrase here is “in honest ways.” A play by an older playwright with roles for young actors may or may not speak honestly to your desired potential younger audience members. Some older writers write very well for younger characters. Many do not. Large numbers of young people are not going to spring for tickets to a show that portrays them as mindless, boorish assholes. Find plays that speak honestly about the lives of young people in some way.

But how do I do that, Melissa?

I’m so glad you asked.

There are over 400 theatre companies in the nine-county Bay Area. We do more world premiere plays than almost any other region in the country—last I checked we ranked third. Yet it’s very common that staff from theatres who purport to want young audiences don’t come to world premiere productions at small theatre companies. How many emerging playwrights have you read this year? If the number is under 10, you’re slacking. Impact Theatre, my company, has produced a world premiere by, and/or entirely introduced to the Bay Area, these playwrights: Sheila Callaghan, Steve Yockey, Prince Gomolvilas, Enrique Urueta, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Liz Meriwether, Lauren Yee, Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, Joshua Conkel, Trevor Allen, Jon Tracy. This is a partial list—I stuck to people you’ve probably heard of. Most importantly, we’re a tiny dog on a very, very big block. There are a wagonload of companies doing precisely what we do. Find them. See their shows. Spy on the playwrights they use. Companies like mine are your R&D department.

Find directors who can make classic plays relevant and interesting—because they are. There are directors all over the country who draw loads of younger audience members into theatres to see Shakespeare, and a bunch of them are directing at these aforementioned smaller theatres.

2. Be realistic about your pricing.
It’s always annoying to hear people say, “But they’ll spend $60 on a concert ticket! Why won’t they spend $60 on theatre?” It’s like wondering why someone would drive all the way across country to be with her beloved but not drive just as long in the hope that she will meet a hot stranger in a bar. People drop bucks on concert tickets because they already know and love the artist and have every expectation of seeing a great show and having a great experience. Condemning those people for refusing to drop a similar amount of money on a show they may know little about that will, let’s be honest, likely bore them because it’s aimed entirely at someone else, is a bit much, yes? If you’re going to condemn the under-40 crowd for not dropping $60 on your play about middle-class, middle-aged white people and their midlife crises, you should also condemn Grandma because she’s not stocking her DVD collection with $60 of Robot Chicken.

So keep your ticket prices accessible. Some companies do an under-30 rate, which, quite frankly, I’m not wild about. That 30-40 crowd is young enough to need enticing into your theatre but old enough to be on the brink of having enough money to become donors and subscribers. You want them. They’re routinely ignored and that’s not going to pay off in the long run for your audience building. Make an under-40 rate if you must. Make some performances pay-what-you-will. Make your less attractive seating areas $20 for the first few weekends. Whatever you need to do, do it.

3. Market to young people.
If you’re not active on Facebook and Twitter, you need to be right now. Learn how to use these powerful tools properly. This isn’t a social media marketing post, so I’ll assume you can figure out where to get this info and move on. The blog on your website is going nowhere unless you’re pushing it with Facebook and Twitter, by the way.

Find ways to make your outreach to young people honest and, most importantly, unpretentious. One of the main things keeping young people out of the theatre is that they’re afraid they won’t fit in—they’ll feel awkward and out of place. As my friend’s dad was fond of saying, they’re afraid they’ll “stand out like a sheep turd in a bowl of cream.” You want to make them as comfortable as possible. A big step towards that is to use your marketing to make them feel welcome. Not pretend welcome, as in, “We want to sell you tickets,” but truly welcome, like “Come over and play with us! We just got a new toy!”

Theatre is not medicine. We don’t go because it’s good for us. We go because we think it’ll be awesome. Make sure you’re approaching your marketing properly. “It’ll be awesome” + “You’re totally welcome and will be comfortable” + “We’re not stuffy and pretentious” will go a long way. Make sure you’re delivering those goods onsite as well. Nothing drives someone away from your company forever as efficiently as an undelivered promise.

And that’s pretty much it. This is what I believe has worked for us over the past 15 years. I hope it’s successful for you as well. We all need to work together to build audiences for our future as an artistic community. There’s not a single one of us that exists on an island. We’re all in this together.

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All right, drama queens, here are the ACTUAL 23 executive orders

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I’ve been making the mistake of reading comments on news articles about this. People are going BATSHIT FUCKING LOCO.

Hey, gun-toting crazies: You might want to take a look at these before announcing to the world that the scary Black man is taking away your guns and you’re going to start an armed rebellion, mkay?

Here are the executive orders along with my commentary.

1. “Issue a presidential memorandum to require federal agencies to make relevant data available to the federal background check system.” (BACKGROUND CHECKS. Like we already have, but making sure states actually send in the damn data so we can track their convicted rapists.)

2. “Address unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that may prevent states from making information available to the background check system.” (More about making the background checks work better)

3. “Improve incentives for states to share information with the background check system.” (Even MORE about making the background checks better– this time with 33% MOAR BRIBERY for recalcitrant red states)

4. “Direct the attorney general to review categories of individuals prohibited from having a gun to make sure dangerous people are not slipping through the cracks.” (Hey, maybe we should make sure convicted rapists can’t buy guns in all 50 states.)

5. “Propose rulemaking to give law enforcement the ability to run a full background check on an individual before returning a seized gun.” (When the cops take your gun away from you because you were starting shit at Applebee’s on a Friday night, now they get to run a background check on you to make sure you’re legally allowed to possess it. Sorry, Rapey McFelony! Everyone else– as you were.)

6. “Publish a letter from ATF to federally licensed gun dealers providing guidance on how to run background checks for private sellers.” (A letter?!?! About BACKGROUND CHECKS?!?! FASCISM AT WORK.)

7. “Launch a national safe and responsible gun ownership campaign.” (Hi. I’m Adrienne Barbeau, and I’m here to talk to you about guns)

8. “Review safety standards for gun locks and gun safes (Consumer Product Safety Commission).” (How do we make gun locks and gun safes better? ASKING THIS IS AN OUTRAGE!!11!)

9. “Issue a presidential Memorandum to require federal law enforcement to trace guns recovered in criminal investigations.” (Wait, they don’t already do this? The hell?)

10. “Release a DOJ report analyzing information on lost and stolen guns and make it widely available to law enforcement.” (Writing and releasing a report. Yeah, I agree with conservatives: sounds like CIVIL WAR TIME TO ME! NO REPORTS. And no glossy report covers, either! Those are for the gays and the libruls, right, boys?)

11. “Nominate an ATF director.” (This doesn’t count! You were supposed to do this ALREADY. What, is your laundry #19?)

12. “Provide law enforcement, first responders, and school officials with proper training for active shooter situations.” (I can see how properly trained cops, firefighters, and teachers would piss off conservatives. UNION THUGS.)

13. “Maximize enforcement efforts to prevent gun violence and prosecute gun crime.” (OK, enforce the laws we already have, got it)

14. “Issue a presidential memorandum directing the Centers for Disease Control to research the causes and prevention of gun violence.” (MEMORANDUM!?!? About RESEARCH? That’s almost as bad as a REPORT! GET MAH RAHFLE.)

15. “Direct the attorney general to issue a report on the availability and most effective use of new gun safety technologies and challenge the private sector to develop innovative technologies.” (HOLY SHIT A THIRD REPORT. Seriously, this is getting SCARY. Someone block off the Office Depot paper section, STAT.)

16. “Clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes.” (Um, just writing that sentence does that, so, check.)

17. “Release a letter to health care providers clarifying that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement authorities.” (THE FUCK. Now we’re up to three reports, two memos, and a letter? TYRANNY. Don’t clarify existing law for doctors! YOU MIGHT AS WELL JUST SHRED THE CONSTITUTION AND WIPE YOUR ASS WITH IT, LIBTARDS.)

18. “Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers.” (Wait, isn’t this what conservatives wanted? They’ve been screaming about it nonstop since Sandy Hook.)

19. “Develop model emergency response plans for schools, houses of worship and institutions of higher education.” (Emergency response training? AGAIN WITH THE TYRANNY.)

20. “Release a letter to state health officials clarifying the scope of mental health services that Medicaid plans must cover.” (ANOTHER letter? MORE clarification of existing law? THE AMERICAN EAGLE SHEDS A SINGLE TEAR FOR THE DEATH OF LIBERTY.)

21. “Finalize regulations clarifying essential health benefits and parity requirements within ACA exchanges.” (Weren’t you supposed to do this already? I don’t see how this counts. This one, along with the one about appointing the head of the ATF, are just filler, aren’t they? Was there a word count minimum for this?)

22. “Commit to finalizing mental health parity regulations.” (Ahem. See 21.)

23. “Launch a national dialogue led by Secretaries Sebelius and Duncan on mental health.” (Not a dialogue! Talking is TYRANNY and SOCIALISM and requires THINKING.)

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Hey, Guess What? If You Think Women Are People, You’re a Feminist

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So facebook, amirite? Facebook. It’s a roiling sea of poorly-thought-out opinions, my own included. In the middle of a discussion about women playwrights (blog post coming soon), someone said that she’s not a feminist because women are “different,” and that we are “not equal” to men.

After I found my eyeballs and put them back into their sockets like a Tex Avery cartoon, I wondered if maybe she and I are just defining the term “equal” differently. What is “equal”? And can difference preclude that? Sure, there are ways in which difference can create inequality. Almost every human on the planet is a better athlete than I am. They are better; I am inferior; there is undeniable inequality there.

When we’re talking about gender equality, though, we’re talking about cultural equality and civil rights, where “equal” means “equal under the law” and “of equal worth.” Of course we’re not fully there yet; I know that. In a world where women still make 81 cents when a man in the same position makes a dollar, where 81% of all male faculty in the US are tenure-track or tenured as opposed to a measly 68% of female faculty (fully 32% of female faculty are lecturers– academic temps), where a woman CEO of a major corporation is as rare as the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field (NEVER TELL ME THE ODDS), we clearly have yet to achieve cultural equality. And when everyone down at the courthouse barely had a single fuck to give when my husband and I picked up our marriage license, but would have rung the HOMO ALARM had my betrothed been female, we have some progress to make regarding gender under the law. And pause for a moment to remember just how privileged cisgendered women are, despite our struggles.
But we ARE making progress.

I suppose it’s no surprise that a woman whose mother subscribed to Ms Magazine in the 70s and taught her who Gloria Steinem and Angela Davis were before she could walk has no problem proclaiming herself a feminist. The surprise to me is why YOU DON’T, people.

If it's good enough for Captain Picard . . .

If it’s good enough for Captain Picard . . .

Sure, women are different, I guess, in the aggregate. And there are plenty of things about me that conform to the stereotypical woman’s role. I loved being pregnant. I love to bake. I take pride in making seder. I also love to be in charge of shit and, honestly, I’m damn good at it. I don’t usually wear make up, I spend way too much of my free time on the xbox, I swear like 100 sailors, and I would rather listen to five hours of jackhammering than watch fourteen seconds of Sex and the City.

But “different” doesn’t mean “unequal.” When you say “I am a feminist,” what you’re saying is “I believe women should be treated equally, both under the law and culturally: That women should earn as much as men; that women’s stories are as important as men’s; that women should be considered equally for jobs and promotions.”

The tenure thing expressly pisses me off, yes, partly because I’ve been a dramatically underemployed lecturer for eleventy scrotillion years while watching men with less education and experience get tenure, but mostly because the gender breakdown of underpaid, overworked academic temps known as lecturers (who make less than the people working at the campus Starbucks) weighs heavily to WOMEN, while the gender breakdown of the people with tenured positions making twice what we make (to start) weighs heavily to MEN. Bear in mind that women earn 52% of the PhDs awarded each year, corresponding neatly to our percentage of the population. And yet we’re still largely held down into temp positions while the men around us land tenure-track positions in numbers that far outweigh their representation in the population.

But I digress.

YES, women are different than men, sometimes. Maybe most of the time. I’m interested in the neurology about gender. I still find babies miraculous and pregnant women enthralling and special. But women are not BETTER than men, nor are men BETTER than women, and if you think so, it’s a matter of opinion. Also, you are awful.

So what is a “feminist”? I gave it away in the headline, so if you made it this far, I SALUTE YOU. I hope you don’t feel cheated.

“Feminism” is the belief that women are people, and, as people, are as important as men, regardless of any differences, and deserve equal protection under the law. (Recommended reading: The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.)

YOU ARE A FEMINIST. Boom. What? BOOM.

worthyvoice

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What Playwrights Should Know, Part 1

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Ah, the theatre.
(Stacz Sadowski in Impact Theatre’s Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs)

So I read a lot of plays. A LOT. And I have a ton of work to do today; I have to read about 20 more plays in the next, oh, 30 or so hours, plus teach a class, shower, and engage my husband in some light badinage to let him know that, Yes, although I am SCREAMINGLY busy, I still remember he exists and appreciate that existence.

So.

I don’t have the time to do a full post about the submission process. IOU a real post about it. Pinkie swear. But today, after reading +/-10 plays so far, I have a short series of pet peeves to unload, and a short series of high fives to give out.

PET PEEVES:

1. SMOKING. For starters, it’s illegal to smoke indoors in California, and faked smoking always looks asstacular. Additionally, it’s almost always a boring, lazy choice. Yeah, I’ve seen it used well in new plays on occasion, but for the most part, it’s just a lazy way of tagging a character with a certain characteristic– nervousness being the most popular. Come on, you wrote a whole play! Surely you can come up with a better way to express a characteristic, right?

2. NO CHARACTER LIST. If you managed to include a page with quotes from Lao Tzu, Pliny the Elder, and Chaka Khan, surely you can include a page with a character list. We need it.

3. ONSTAGE SEX WITHOUT COVERS. I produce in a two-sided thrust that seats 59. I read fully 5 plays today that included this. How in the chocolate-covered fuck am I going to stage that believably? My front row is close enough to make the scene a sneeze away from an eleven-way. Also, the narrative stops when the sex begins. The amount of time it takes for the action of start-to-finish onstage sex is far too long for the information “they had sex.” It’s not porn; we can’t show anything good. So it’s just actors awkwardly groping each other while the audience sits there awkwardly waiting for the action to recommence. If you must, AT LEAST GIVE ME A BLANKET TO WORK WITH. Help a sister out.

HIGH FIVES:

1. STRONG, INTERESTING FEMALE CHARACTERS WHO DO NOT DIE AND WHO HAVE A NARRATIVE ARC THAT IS NOT ALL ABOUT A HUSBAND AND/OR A BABY. Thank you. You know who you are.

2. PLAYS SENT TO ME AS PDFs. I really do appreciate that little courtesy.

3. PLAYS THAT KNOW THEY ARE PLAYS AND NOT FILMS. When I see work by playwrights who understand what is unique about theatre and explore that in some way, I am DELIGHTED.

OK, back to work for me.

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Things Not To Do At TBA Generals Or Really Any Audition Ever

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Well, the first day of the annual Theatre Bay Area General Auditions is under our belts, and I’m seeing too many actors sabotage what would otherwise be an excellent audition with easily avoided mistakes. Here’s what NOT to do at TBAs (or at any audition). Strap in.

1. RUSHING. I would *much* rather you get cut off than have you rush through your pieces trying to play Beat the Clock. When you rush your pieces, your shaping, diction, and choices go straight to hell, and all I’m left with is the knowledge that you can say a lot of words very quickly. Your punchlines do not land. Your beautifully crafted emotional moments speed by and make as much impression as a poem written on the side of a runaway freight train. Cut your pieces down to manageable sizes and rehearse them TIMED.

2. BLAND CHOICES. I get that you don’t want to be pigeonholed into one particular “type” and miss opportunities to be called in for other types of roles, but speaking emphatically is not acting. I’ve seen dozens of monologues where the actors made choices I thought were misguided or downright awful, but at least I could see that they were able to make bold choices. That skill is worth a callback. I’d rather have you swing the bat and miss than never pick up the bat at all.

3. SINGING WHEN YOU CAN’T SING. It’s not helpful. Sing if you’re a singer. Sing if you are hoping to be cast in musicals. Do not sing because you’re doing a monologue about a guy who sings all the time. Two minutes of listening to singing done by a guy who can’t sing is not putting me in a callback frame of mind. What’s worse is that the singing in such a case is all too often taking the place of solid acting choices. Do not sing because you can kind of sing and think you might be cast in a “play with music.” Most people can’t sing and that’s FINE. If that’s you, just act. It’s enough, I promise.

4. POOR CHOICE OF MONOLOGUE. Non-linear, experimental, poetic monologues are the very worst choices you can make for audition monologues in a general audition. Almost all of us are casting for linear narrative projects. If there’s no narrative in your monologue, I can’t see how you shape narrative. If there’ s no discrete character, I can’t see how you make character choices. In the end, all I have is you speaking emphatically (again). Monologues that are sexist, racist, or insane are also poor choices. I covered that point in my earlier audition tips post.

5. UNDERREHEARSED. My heart bled for a kid who went up during his Macbeth monologue today. This is not something you want happening to you at TBAs. Only do pieces you know as well as I know the layout of Solitude in Skyrim. Which is to say: PERFECTLY.

6. SONGS WITHOUT RANGE. BLUES SONGS. ROCK SONGS. If you’re singing a song with a four-note range, I have no idea how well you can sing. If you’re taking the trouble to sing at an audition, show me what you can do! Blues songs and rock songs are just beside the point of most musical theatre. While you may be rocking the cast-iron fuck out of that song, we still have no idea how you handle musical theatre songs, which are, let’s face it, the vast majority of musical theatre out there. Even “rock musicals” are (mostly) using musical theatre-style voices, and most musical theatre songs are technically more difficult and demanding, with wider ranges, than most blues and rock songs. They just don’t give me the information I need.

7. WEARING A SHORT SKIRT AND SITTING IN A CHAIR ON A RAISED STAGE. This one needs no explanation. Hello, nurse!

8. TRYING TO CRAM 4+ PIECES INTO YOUR TWO-MINUTE SLOT. This is never a good idea. You’re not showing virtuosity. You’re not giving us enough time to understand why you’ve made the choices you’ve made. It’s unfocused and always ends up being a parade of caricatures. Two pieces are plenty. We don’t need to see everything you’ve ever done.

9. DOING A MONOLOGUE WRITTEN FOR A PERSON OF COLOR WHEN YOU ARE NOT A PERSON OF COLOR. Remember, most of us have no idea who you are and have no way to ascertain if you’re making this choice on purpose (although to what end, I would have to wonder). This will only result in every auditor assuming you haven’t read the play. And if you *are* making this a deliberate choice, bear in mind that this is an incredibly controversial action that would be perceived as naive at best and racist at worst by most of the people in the room capable of giving you a job.

10. YELLING, SHOUTING, OR SCREAMING. Yes, I understand that on occasion volume can be a powerful choice. On the rare occasion. Like, very rare. Easily 99 times out of 100, yelling, shouting, or screaming is the easiest, cheapest, and most boring choice you can make. Pick something more interesting. Any fool can say words loudly. McKayla is not impressed. When you feel the urge to use volume in a monologue, put your thinking cap on and come up with a few different choices to try in that moment. You’ll be glad you did because WE’LL be glad you did.

Auditions are bizarre. WE KNOW THAT. It’s extremely difficult to truly showcase your talent and skill in two minutes. So do yourself a favor and craft that audition to show yourself to your best advantage. We’re all out there rooting for you, honestly.

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