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I dig jazz and single-malt scotch.  I write plays; I direct them too. I love STAR WARS more than is healthy. I walk my dogs every day, unless it's raining or terribly cold.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Letter Rip!

by Kato McNickle
originally posted on Playwright Zoo

When you send an unsolicited query package to a theater you are an unknown quantity. Within the multitude of other packages that arrive each week you are nearly invisible. Invisible in this business means unremarkable.

In a market flush with unknown and undiscovered playwrights, how do you set yourself apart?

First off, it's not really "yourself" sitting in that pile of queries; or is it?

How have you put "yourself" in that great big pile o' manila that's sitting in the literary manager's office? Did you follow the submission instructions? Things like: did you include the requested number of pages; did you include your resume; did you bind or staple or leave free the pages as per request? Did you check the website to make sure you have the most up-to-date information for your package? Did you?

Did you spend time composing your query letter? Is your letter just a functional, nondescript front piece that says here's a list of my plays and phone number, or did you take the time to create a one-page sheet that puts you in the room with the reader.

With the exception of the play itself, the letter you send is the most important piece of paper. Your letter sets the tone, it represents you, it is the first act in an important drama; the struggle for you to get your play read and considered by a real-live-professional-theater-company. Without a strong letter, your play may not be considered.

Does your letter represent you and your play? Does it express why you write for the theater, why you have written this play, and why you have sent it to these kind, passionate people? If it doesn't, or if it does other things - like presenting your credentials or other details that are not pertinent to "this play - this theater - right this minute" then you have some work to do on writing your cover letter.

Your letter is the gateway to your play. It is also the first tool you have to state why you wrote this play for the theater. Don't waste that opportunity. Communicate your passion through that letter-- why is it important right here right now to this theater? That's the work of the letter.  Put it in there.

Organizing your cover letter

You’re sending your play or a query to a theater. What should your letter say?

Here is what your letter is not:
  • Your letter is NOT your resume or bio.
  • Your letter is NOT a synopsis of your play.
  • Your letter is NOT just a place for you to list your contact information.
Starting your letter with, “I am a playwright whose work has been produced all over the world and has received rave reviews in Cleveland…” and continues for a whole paragraph before even mentioning the title of the play is a turn-off. No one cares at this point if you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize. Okay -- maybe if you've got a Pulitzer you can put that at the top. Besides, if you've got a Pulitzer, then you've probably got an agent and the agent sends the letter, and so on. But our story is about an unrepresented playwright who needs to get a play in the door. That's you, BTW.

You have sent a PLAY – put the play – and not your bio – front and center in this letter. Your bio and resume should be included on separate pieces of paper in the package. If they like your letter they’ll continue on and read your bio and resume. If your letter has turned them off right from the get-go, how much attention do you think they’re gonna pay to anything else you’ve sent them?

Let this organizing principle guide you: Every word in this letter should be related to this particular play being sent to this particular theater by you.

Begin simply, with the basics:
"Enclosed is the new one-act play Blah Blah Blah for consideration in your Best of Blah Festival. After deciding that her life is totally blah, a woman finds herself on a beach in the South-Seas and must cast off her shell of blah or die trying. It requires two women, two men, lots of sailor hats and a beach ball."
See? That could be your opening – it can be that simple. Whoever is reading your letter knows immediately whether this play fits their requirements – a one-act with a cast of four – no set – lots of sailor hats. It also includes a one-sentence description – not to be confused with a synopsis – more like a log-line that grounds the reader in time/place/and genre. “Perfect, so far,” says the reader, so they continue on.

What’s next? Remember the organizing principle –
The next paragraph is about the play, but not about the play’s action – it’s about why this play? Why was it written? What is the play’s history?
"This play began as a real-life trip that I took to the South-Seas. After a  life-time in New York working in various art venues including many Off-Broadway, Off-Brodway, and Off-Off-So-far-off-You’re-In-Jersey-Broadway, I needed a vacation. Having a chance to breathe, I began to write…"
"This play began as an exercise for a class at the Best Ever School or University in Existence…"
"This play was written for your festival. When I read about the theme I immediately thought about the impact of Blah on society and how it extinguishes any hope of a fulfilling life. In my many years of playwriting I have always wanted to write a piece exploring Blah, and your festival gave me the perfect platform."
In each example there’s a way to bring who you are into the letter, connected to why you wrote this play. It’s better than a bio, or listing your experience, because it brings you – the human-being – into the room with the human-being reading your letter.

What is unique about you writing this play? If there’s a story to it, put it in the letter. You are, after all, a storyteller. Write the story of why you wrote this play. Why was it important? What did it mark for you as a writer?

Find that thing and put it in your letter.

Why this play/this theater/this writer right now?

That’s the question your letter needs to answer.

Do that, and the folks at the other end will want to read the rest of your play, or they at least will know that your play is not right for them and you will not have wasted their time. Either way, your letter has done its job. It has worked.


For another great FREE resource for writing great query letters, check out Write a Great Query Letter available as a downloadable book by literary agent Noah Lukeman. http://www.writeagreatquery.com/

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Window is now OPEN

Not every playwright is in the New York, Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, or any of the major theater-hubs connecting artists, work and ideas.  Hell, no one is in all of these places at the same time either. What we need is a magic window to connect us to the worlds outside of our local spheres. And happy for us there is one.

Localized theater-makers – meet  HowlRound.

From the HowlRound website:
The condition, resulting in a howling noise, when sound from a loudspeader is fed back into the microphone:

Feedback and noise, voices and discourse on the state of new work. Making new plays is a noisy business. HowlRound encourages theater makers to get loud and share the shouting with the field. We invite you to join the conversation as we bring together interviews, opinions, ideas, and innovations.

HowlRound welcomes feedback at any volume.
That window is open NOW. And not only through the online journal and tweets at #newplay – but access to conference talks around the USA via NewPlayTV. Yeah, that’s right, an actual moving-picture window streaming to you from New York, DC, LA and beyond.

What are you waiting for? Open the window.

PS: to hear more about the notion of a theater of the commons, check out this radio interview with HowlRound founder and editor Polly Carl. (The interview starts past the half-way point on the soundbar, after the story about the Wooly Mammoth)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Growing Up Greek: a survival guide for the progeny of heroes

Trouble is brewing.  All around you are signs that things are about to change for the worse.  Your life is being threatened by the new king of Thebes; or your life is being threatened by strangers proposing marriage to your mother while your father is away; or your life is being threatened because your father is proposing marriage to a younger princess; or your life is being threatened because your mother has remarried after she murdered your father; or worst of all—an oracle has placed your family at the top of the cursed list.  If any of these happen to you, and if you are the son or daughter of a famous hero, there are options available to help ensure your living through the crisis, but it is not easy.  With the survival average less than 50% for the progeny of famous persons, how can a youngster defy the odds and grow into adulthood in the household of a hero?

Let us compare several of the sons and daughters of heroes who managed to reach adulthood with several groups who perished as a result of some anger/curse/madness that inundated their parents.  Many of the heroes’ children who outlived their parents did so because their fathers were away for a very long time at Troy.  Nearly all of the surviving progeny included in this survey fall into this group.  As for the ones who did not survive, perhaps escape could have been possible if only they had realized their special peril as the progeny of heroes.


Most famous for surviving his childhood and returning to avenge the murder of his father is Orestes.  This youth managed to survive his childhood because he was stolen away to grow up in a remote location.  He returns at the prompting of an oracle to avenge his father’s murder as described by Sophocles in the opening passages of Electra:
When I went to the god’s oracle at Delphi
To learn how to avenge my father’s murder,

Apollo gave me this advice, “Go alone,

Unaided by arms or soldiers, and snatch by stealth

The lawful vengeance that is yours.”
(Sophocles, Electra, 35-9)
 Orestes has grown into manhood apart from his family, but his return home is in disguise.

When Odysseus visits the spirits of the underworld in The Odyssey he encounters a melancholy Agamemnon who mulls over the events of his premature end:
But my wife—she nevereven let me feast my eyes on my own son:
she killed me first, his father!
(Homer, The Odyssey, XI 512-4)
 While Agamemnon bemoans never seeing his son before his death, had he not died would Orestes have suffered some other fate at the hands of his father?  Agamemnon does have a track record for murdering his children having previously sacrificed one in order to set sail for Troy.  Who knows if Orestes could have survived growing up in the same house with his father?

The story of the feisty return of Orestes is used by a crafty Athene to spur Telemachus toward action to seek his father in The Odyssey:
You must not cling to your boyhood any longer—
It’s time you were a man.  Haven’t you heard
what glory Prince Orestes won throughout the world
when he killed the cunning, murderous Aegisthus,
who’d killed his famous father?And you, my friend—how tall and handsome I see you now—be brave, you too,so men to come will sing your praises down the years.
 (The Odyssey, I 341-7)
 Telemachus thanks the disguised Athene for counseling him “like a father” and decides to depart on his quest to discover the fate of his long missing real father.  Between the campaign at Troy and the decade lost at sea, twenty years have past since Telemachus shared lodging with his father.  While the presence of the suitors has forced him to keep a low profile, he has had the time to grow into manhood, as Athene reminded him.

By the time both Odysseus and Telemachus return to Ithaca the son is within a second or two of proving himself a match for his father when he nearly strings Odysseus’ bow:
…three times his power flagged—but his hopes ran high
he’d string his fathers bow and shoot through every iron
and now struggling with all his might for the fourth time,
he would have strung the bow, but Odysseus shook his head

and stopped him short despite his tense zeal.
(The Odyssey, XXI 145-8)
 Of course, had Telemachus strung the bow it would have ruined Odysseus’ plan.  But had he done it anyway, what peril would Telemachus have been in, not just from the suitors, but from his own father?

A third surviving son of a hero was able to grow up because his father was fated to die young.  Neoptolemus, the son of Achilleus, also carries a destiny, as he describes the prophecy to Philoktetes:
That now my father is dead, I alone—
Or so say the gods—can win the war at Troy.
(Sophocles, Philoktetes)
 He is compared to his father when he arrives at Troy:
As I walk ashore, the entire army crowds round me,
Shouting greetings and words like: “Achilleus is back!

Achilleus is back from the dead!”

But no, Achilleus is dead, laid out for burial.
 Because his father is dead and because he was able to mature to early manhood separated from his father, Neoptolemus is able to successfully fill the void.  Had Neoptolemus been present at Troy earlier in the saga, would he perhaps have met a fate similar to Patroclus?


A longer list of heroes’ children belongs to those who perished at the hands of their parents.  While the body count is higher than those of the survivors there is a twist in that many of these murdered children are unnamed. 

The most famous slain brothers are the children of Medea.  Their identities are so immersed in the tragic story that their names do not survive.  They are known by the name of their murderer: their mother.  So completely has she taken the story that the name of their famous sire is not what marks them.  History has not call them ‘the boy’s of Jason’ or ‘the children of Jason and Medea’, but only Medea.  Not that there were not plenty of signs that things were going terribly wrong.  First there was the forceful lamentation of their mother:
Accursed children of a hateful mother!Perish with your father!
The whole house be damned!
(Euripides, Medea, 112-4)
 Before long she is sending the boys on a mission to deliver a dress to the new bride of their father.  A faux peace offering that is infused with poisons.  The boys have been goaded into acting as destructive ministers of doom to the young princess.  The dress does its work, the bride and her father die.  All Jason has left are his sons.  By now the boys should realize that they are in grave peril.  Too young to strike out on their own, are caught in this crisis by their proximity to their father, because their mother’s anger is about to strike as close to Jason as possible without actually hitting him.  The boys are a convenient and handy target:
FIRST BOY: (from within) O, what should I do? Where run from mother’s attack?
SECOND BOY: I don’t know dearest brother.  We’re slain!

(Medea, 1271-2)
 The only thing these boys could have done to prevent their deaths would have been to foresee the trouble on the horizon back when dad started fawning over the new princess and then requested to go to private school elsewhere.  There are some very good schools in Athens, after all.

The children of Heracles were also led to slaughter, but in their case they were already prepared and dressed for death, as their execution date had been set. In the play by Euripides, Lycus had usurped power in Thebes while the children’s famous father has been engaged completing his numerous labors, the last of which had him descending into Hades.  Because he suspects Heracles may never return, Lycus intends to eradicate opposition to his rule by liquidating the entire Herculean household. 

The family of Heracles prepares for imminent death as they hope beyond hope for the return of their patriarch in time to save them.  He does return just before the appointed moment of death, saving his family.  But in an ironic turn the goddesses Iris and Lyssa appear on a mission from Hera to initiate a ‘madness’ to overpower Heracles:
…against this man drive, stir upfits of madness, disturbances of mind to kill his children…
his crown of beautiful children, killed in familial murder,

he may recognize what sort Hera’s anger against him

and learn mine.  Otherwise the gods are nowhere

and mortal things will be great, if he doesn’t pay the penalty.
(Euripides, Heracles, 835-42)
 While Hera has imposed this penalty to admonish Heracles, it is his nameless children that will pay with their blood:
…he, thinking it was Eurystheus’
father trembling as suppliant to touch his hand
pushed him away, and prepared his ready quiver
and arrows for his own children…
…Their mother cried out,
“You begot them, what are you doing?
Are you killing your own children? 
(Heracles, 467-75)
 Once again the children become an instrument of vengeance while in the vicinity of their hero father. 

The house of Laius had more than its share of problems.  Cursed before birth, young Oedipus manages to survive the attempt made on his life by his father, much to the chagrin of the entire royal line, not to mention the kingdom of Thebes.  Of course at the time it seemed like a good thing to save the poor exposed babe, but o the woe that it would bring.  Oedipus went on to win fame and fortune by unwittingly murdering his father and marrying his mother.  Along the way he solved an important riddle saving Thebes, but o the woe once his crimes were revealed in the light of day.  The moment that happened he spoke the first part of the curse that will dog his children:
Such disgrace, and you must bare it all!
Who will marry you then?  Not a man on earth.

Your doom is clear: you’ll wither away to nothing,

single, without a child. 
(Sophocles, Oedipus the King, 1642-5)
 Of course, in the next passage he arranges for care of the ‘doomed’ children by their uncle Creon, but the curse has been spoken; no taking it back now.

After a time the girls Antigone and Ismene go off helping their father while the two boys Eteocles and Polynices remain in Thebes to work out a shared kingship.  The boys are occupied with their own affairs, estranged from their self-blinded, shameful father.  It is not until Polynices, the older of the male brace, requires his father’s blessing in order to regain the throne, that he seeks out his wandering father.  He finds him near Thebes at the altar of the Furies.  His impassioned pleas glean only malice from the bitter and timeworn Oedipus:
And so the eyes of fate look down upon you now,
but not yet with the lightning that will strike
if those armies are really marching hard on Thebes.
Impossible—you’ll never tear that city down.  No,

you’ll fall first, red with your brother’s blood

and he stained with yours—equals, twins in blood.

Such were the curses I hurled against you long ago

and now, again, I call them up to fight beside me!
(Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, 1551-8)
 The great irony of this curse is that it not only dooms his sons, it binds his dear Antigone to their fate as well.  She tries to get her brother to see reason:
Don’t you see?
You carry out our father’s prophecies to the finish!
Didn’t he cry aloud you’d kill each other,

fighting hand-in-hand?
(Oedipus at Colonus, 1614-7)
 As much as Oedipus was known for his reason, as when he solved the riddle of the sphinx, much of his family’s history plays out the way it does because they are so unreasonable.

Soon after the death of Oedipus at Colonus the fulfillment of his curse is realized; Eteocles and Polynices kill each other outside of the gates of Thebes.  Both Antigone and Ismene have returned to their home city after declining an invitation from Theseus to remain in Athens.  Antigone is bound by the shared family fate, and so she defies Creon’s order by determining to bury her brother Polynices, even though he has been declared a traitor for deploying an attack upon the city.  Antigone’s ties to her brother are strong, and reasoning by neither her sister Ismene or her uncle Creon will dissuade her from her actions.  She recounts the family traumas before she is led to her sentence is imposed:
…the worst pain
the worst anguish!  Raking up the grief for father
three times over, for all the doomthat’s struck us down, the brilliant house of Laius.
O mother, your marriage-bed

the coiling horrors, the coupling there—

with your own son, my father—doom
struck mother!
Such, such were my parents, and I their wretched child.
I go to them now, cursed, unwed, to share their home—

I am a stranger!  O dear brother doomed

in your marriage—your marriage murders mine,

your dying drags me down to death alive! 
(Sophocles, Antigone, 947-58)
 What is unclear from this passage is whether she is evoking her slain brother Polynices in lines 56-7 or her ‘brother’ Oedipus—or both.  The ambiguity of the text reflects the tangled nature of the familial relationships in the house of Laius.  Either way she has sealed her doom and will be taken to be walled-up in a cave where she will take her own life by hanging herself rather than lingering in the dark with meager provisions;  thus ending her life the same way queen Jocasta, her mother, had ended her own at the beginning of the revelations of disasters. 

But what if Antigone had never returned to Thebes?  What if she had stayed in Athens or gone to live with the Amazons or something equally fantastic?  And what of Ismene?  At the end of the great saga she is not mentioned, her whereabouts unknown, her story a mystery. 

Oimoi!  What to do?

Living at home seems problematic for all of these sons and daughters of heroes.  While it offers security and access to fine clothes, food, and education, it also leaves one vulnerable to attack.  Most successful progeny of heroes survive because they spend a great deal of their formative years far away from home, or at least far away from their fathers.  If only the children of Medea had gone to school in Athens, maybe we’d know their names?  If only Antigone had run off to learn martial arts from the Amazons, she could have been a classic-day Boudicca taking Thebes by force and restoring honor to her fallen brothers. Or maybe they would have all slipped into obscurity and their names would not still live with us; as was the choice Achilleus made to live a short life, but full of glory for the ages.  Not that Orestes, Telemachus, or Neoptolemus had it easy.  They lived their lives in peril, chased by furies, murderous gentry, and waging war.  But, they lived their lives.  Danger is always waiting for the sons and daughters of the heroes, whether they live or die they are going to get bloodied.  Oimoi!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

You've got an audition; now you need an acting resume

A map is not the territory it represents, but if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness. - Alfred Korzybski
Your resume is a lot like a map; it renders a representation of you through a clear and focused list of your accomplishments.  Jam it full of too much detail and it becomes indiscernible, too little and it is useless.  How do you create a concise document that creates a useful and detailed "map" of you as a student actor? Begin as soon as possible.

In her article 
Respect, Create, Learn: setting the stage in a new theatre classroom (Dramatics Magazine) author and educator Gai Jones describes directing her students to track their theatrical accomplishments by logging details into a "“conflated” résumé":

Students often forget their past accomplishments until they are required to list them. This résumé should include every theatre performance, monologue, scene, original work, dance recital, and vocal performance they have completed in their lifetime in order from the most distant to the most current. They should also list every bit of theatre training they have undergone, every festival they have attended, and every honor and award bestowed upon them, no matter how mundane. This includes best smile, most improved, best runner, speller of the week, and so on. Encourage the students to type up a special skills section, specifying whether they are at the beginning, intermediate, or advanced level, and tell them to round out the résumé with accents, novelty talents, and athletic skills. Now they have a résumé that they can add to or hone down depending on their needs.

But what if you need to compile your resume for a task right away?

Begin by sitting down and listing what you've been doing in the theater.  Start with roles and plays, note where and when they were performed, and who directed them if noteworthy (Ms. Carter in 4th grade may have been very nice, but wracking your brain over her name and researching the play in which you played an owl won't win you any admiration).

As a high school student it is best to include any roles you have performed with your school program, classes held at the school that you have taken, and perhaps reach back to middle-school productions if necessary, but your grammar-school work is best left off of the listings unless there is something exceptionally notable.

If you have performed any work with community or other groups outside of your school programs, these should be listed along with making note about where and when these events occurred.  They serve to illustrate your willingness to pursue your goals as a theater artist beyond the easy reach of school programs.

Do you sing in a choir? Perform in other ways like public speaking? Are there other places that you have worked or volunteered in a public forum? These are all possibilities for inclusion on your resume.

Make several lists of the various categories that your work could be organized under.  Examples include School Productions, Classwork, Community Productions, Professional Productions, Technical Theater, Volunteer Work, Awards, or other choices particular to your experiences.

The website 
Ace Your Audition lists several examples of beginner and student resumes, and has this to say about composing your page:
Keep it simple.  You'll notice there's a lot of white space. That's okay. Just make sure it's well formatted and attractive to the eye. Make it look professional.  [...] [A]nyexperience is experience. Were you a spear holder in Hamlet at your high school? Were you Joseph in your church's Nativity play? Done any children's theatre? Put it all on your actor resume. Had any training? Write it down. Put it in bold so that it draws the eye. Training shows that you're serious. And there's always the chance that your auditors know your teachers.
You've made your lists, now look at the information and begin to organize it.  What is the most important information you want the reviewers of your work to know?  That goes near the top.  Think about that map: what is the important information that is needed to include.  You don't need to represent every tree on the road, you need to sort out the best information and make it concise but clear.

In his book 
The Actors Audition (Vintage Original, 1990) theater director David Black describes the goal of a clear and well-organized resume:
The most important function of your résumé is to support the opinion of someone who has taken an interest in you. [...] If you do not have enough credits to fill up a résumé, list what you have done under the heading "Representative Roles." This allows you to put down parts you have performed in college, school, camp, and so on. Even roles you have studied or wish to perform can be listed under this heading. (pp. 94-5)
He cautions against excessive padding, or listing false credentials, "What may seem , in a moment of poetic license, to be harmless padding can come back to haunt you and might even cost you a job rather than get you one." (p. 94)

Remember that you are drawing a map -- creating an easy to follow, informative representation of your history in theater.  That history will indicate your intent as a theater artist and serve to point toward your continued goals.  Remember that the people requesting your resume are interested in learning more about you.  Make that process as simple and straight-forward as possible.

Make a map that the people interested in your work can follow, a map that represents your experience, your common-sense, and your accomplishments thus far as a theater artist.


For more information and samples online check out these resources:

Ace Your Audition
Respect, Create, Learn: setting the stage in a new theatre classroom by Gai Jones

Or get some books:

The Actors Audition by David Black
I GOT IN! The ultimate Guide for Acting and Musical Theatre! by Mary Anna Dennard

PS:  for a story about what not to do with your resume and college interview, see Bad Resume; Worse Excuse right here on Puzzlewit.

this post originally appeared in Das Drama Coach

Simple as a cup of tea

Bread and water can so easily be toast and tea. 

To prepare for the auditions for the upcoming show, I asked students to find and rehearse a monologue.  It could be as short as half a minute, or up to 3 minutes.  They could be from plays, television, film, or of their own creation.  Almost all of them took the initiative and either found interesting work, or created their own.  Most also managed to memorize their pieces, with only a few stumbling through under-rehearsed readings from crumpled papers.

We all sat on the stage together, at the edge of the lit circle.  One by one the auditioneers were called into the light to share their prepared works.

Each would enact the monologue once, with all of the nervousness and fear near the surface.  Some were unsure what to do with their bodies in space, using their hands and gestures to telegraph the literal meanings of their words.  Many would step backward while they spoke, like shy ponies skitting away from their shadows.

After this initial run I would change something, give them a chair, assign a partner, hand them a prop, have them roll around the floor - something that came from the monologue they had chosen to reinforce it, but also to unlock their relationship to the space they inhabit.

For one of the teens it was sitting her down with a tea cup.  The tea cup gave her focus, it gave a center to the play-world she was presenting, it unlocked nuance and understanding of the spoken word in ways that only examining the words would never reveal.  She knocked it out of the park the second time around, all thanks to a real cup and imaginary tea.

this post originally appeared in Das Drama Coach


Go back, I said, he needs you--
Go back--
To who?
What did you say?
Go back--
What are you talking about?
His eyes--
Oh.  Why?
They turned into birds--
He needs them--
And what did you do?
Go back, I said, he needs you...

Then I smiled.  She got to someplace new with the line - at last.

"What did I do wrong?" She asked.

"Wrong?  Not 'wrong' - incomplete."

The lines were being spoken because they were the instructions on the page.  The emotions being referenced and reinforcing the lines was the same as at the first read-thru.  This is a high school production of Sara Ruhl's EURYDICE, and it's a tough play for anybody to get their head around and their heart into. My student was stuck in the obvious choices, the choices laying on the surface of the words.  This barrage of questioning was employed to get a little deeper, or form a heightened perspective.

This was just one moment - but all will need to be questioned, cracked open, revealed, understood, explored, and then from those many options a choice will be made.  We seek what is hidden.  The gift we will deliver in performance will be the culmination of the understanding rehearsal brings.

this post originally appeared in Das Drama Coach 


A week or two ago I got to see a play by National Theater Institute alum Sara Farrington, "Mickey and Sage". Afterward there was an energetic talk-balk with the 30 NTI students and the cast and writer of this small, travelling show (worth seeing, BTW). During this talk back all of the actors and the playwright/director talked about the power of saying "yes" throughout the process.  Each had said "yes" to involvement in the project. There was no money, no glitz, no real hook, other than the excitement of doing the work.

Accepting the invitation is an important part of the process.  If you can say "Yes" to something - say "YES" and see where it takes you.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The "BANG" lesson

Sound is emotion in theatrical terms.

We react to the sound of a word before we understand its logic. There's a little lag time. The sound makes us jump, or sweat, or reel. That's why we love the big show-stopper. Listen to it build. just listen.

I had an epiphany about sound while watching a staged reading of a play. There were no props and very little tech. At one point a character turned around with a "gun" (his pointed finger) and he hollered "BANG!"

We all jumped. The other character died. It was theatrically truthful and real.

In fact, it was better that way than if a "real" prop gun had been fired.

It worked. It got to us. We believed it.

Sound is something to study and become better attuned to.

A Fictional Address to The New York Opera Society asking them to consider the performance traditions of India

Opera is BIG.  Opera is grand.  The word “opera” entails scale and scope that is rife with sight and sound.  Seeing and hearing are essential components of the opera experience, even when the actual words used are not sung in a common language to the observer.  Being in the presence of the performer encompassed by the production and accompanied by the music is astonishing.  Just like experiencing a grand opera, experiencing many of the artistic endeavors in India are related to the relationship of sight and sound—the observer and the thing observed.
            As a lover of opera, you are aware of its history simply by experiencing the diverse range of performances.  Your ear is attuned to the types of sounds distinctive to the period a particular opera was created.  You are steeped in the history of the pieces whenever you hear the works performed.  Likewise, there are distinctions within music styles throughout India.  And just as opera is in peril of its artists seeking more lucrative careers in other more contemporary musical forms, the ways artists are trained in classical styles of India is changing due to current social structures and economic realities.[1]  Older artists cite younger artists and audiences desire for faster rhythms, fusion with Western sounds, or simply seeking greater variety as reasons for the decline of traditional forms, as classical tabla player Swapan Chaudhuri states in an interview:
All the young tabla players are so concerned with speed.  Nowadays I am concentrating on teaching the old compositions—from one hundred years ago.  I know that it will take students a lot of time and patience to work on them.  But at least this old style will not die, it will not vanish.  In those days, the players did not play that fast like the players are doing today. […] From my judgment, in the older time they were simpler—they were looking for the beauty—and we are not doing that.  The young players, they are into making fun out of it.  But it’s not.  You cannot make fun out of music.  You have to surrender yourself, you have to learn, you have to pay the proper respect.  Then you get the music.  Otherwise you’re playing only the beat—noise—to please the audience—you are nor playing music.  If you get that music, then there is something new, something beautiful, every time.  Balance, clarity, mood…right into your heart.[2]

This master artist, who began his training at the age of five,[3] is commenting not only on the changes associated with the teacher-student relationship, but also the expectations and demands of artist and audience.  In the world of Western arts this could be seen as the difference between opera and musical theater.  The training for an opera singer is much longer, rigorous, and demanding than the musical theater artist, and there is more limited interest in opera.  The dedication required for proper vocal technique is similar to the dedication required for any of the classical music arts in India.  To train as an Indian classical musician an artist must dedicate himself (and in modern times, herself) to a teacher or guru.  In the old system a student would be bound to a guru or teacher.  The student would be financially dependent on the guru, and in return for care and teaching, the student would work for the teacher, living in his house, and attending to affairs on behalf of the teacher.[4]  Lessons were taught by oral or auditory repetition.[5]  The day-to-day practice of the instrument is called raz.[6]  George Ruckert explains the development of raz as a student becomes a guru, “Years and years of raz add up to sadhana, which is “spiritual practice,” and the word carries additional connotations of realization and fulfillment that are worthy of great respect.  A younger musician might be praised for his raz, in that he devotes long hours to honing his skills; but an older musician would be respected for his sadhana, which would include his lifework in music—one who spent many years teaching, performing, and in raz.”[7]  As illustrated by the musician’s concept of sadhana, the devotional aspects of artistic practice in India cannot be underscored enough.  Almost all arts have at their center some aspect of devotion attached to their performance.
            The devotional aspect is not so alien a concept as it may first seem.  Even opera has its roots in devotional performance.  Opera itself grew from a desire to explore the relationship between rediscovered ancient Greek music and its relationship to drama as exemplified by Greek tragedy.[8]  The tragedy itself was a form composed as a devotional offering to the god Dionysos.  By entwining the scope of tragedy with high musical concepts, the heart of opera is the reinvestigation of this devotional form.  In India, this goes a step further, as all aspects of sound contain an element of the divine, and have the potential of evoking the divine aspects of other objects or beings.[9]  There exists a direct relationship between a thing enacted and a thing spoken or sung, “In India language is not something with which you name something; it is something with which you do something.”[10]  Harold Coward and David Goa explore the relationship of sound to devotional practice in their book Mantra:
In India all sound is perceived as being divine in origin, since it all arises from the one sacred source.  Some sounds, however, are more powerful in evoking the divine within and around oneself than are others, sound intrinsically bears the power of the sacred in India. In the Hindu hierarchy of scripture it is the Sruti, the heard text, which is preserved in oral tradition, that is the highest manifestation of the creative word.[11]

Comprehending the words of the thing being sung is not as relevant as being in the presence of—or the recitation of—the sound itself.[12]   While this practice is a devotional one, it can be likened to a person listening to a great opera that is sung in a language not understood by the listener, but fully enjoyed nonetheless because of the beauty and meaning intrinsic to the sound.  Or a performer who learns a libretto by rote, who still is able to perform the richly orchestrated score well because the sound carries meaning. 
            Opulent sets, dynamic voices, full orchestras led by a maestro—opera is a Western art form that has developed over four and a half centuries.  It initially was an experiment to reconnect high theatrical art with the ancient original theater of the Greeks.  The ties to the original Greek theater had been severed by the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christian Church in Europe.  The European Church began curtailing Christian participation in theatrical practices as early as the 4th century by forbidding the sacrament to actors and excommunication for anyone attending a performance.[13]  The “rediscovery” during the Italian Renaissance of the plays of the Greeks and Aristotle’s Poetics  gave rise to a reinvestigation of these ancient forms.[14]  
           Now imagine a performative heritage that had not been severed, but had remained intact and practiced since its formalization a millennia-and-a-half ago.  To experience a rich, diverse, and uninterrupted ancient tradition, one needs look no further than the traditional theaters of India.  The Sanskrit dramas, like Kalidasa’s Sakuntala, were performed on a scale similar to modern opera.  Kalidasa is considered a legendary poet and playwright whose six surviving works attributed to him, of which Sakuntala is often considered the masterwork, place the author within the Gupta court of Vakata during the reign of Candragupta II in the late 4th century.[15] 
            Attention to performance craft, stage craft, and playwriting was established for many centuries by the time the classic age flowered during the Gupta Empire from 320 to 550 CE.[16]  Favorite subjects of many of these plays were tales of epic love, as Sakuntala exemplifies.  Barbara Stoler Miller explains the paradigm of heroic romance in her introduction to her translation of Sakuntala in her book Theater of Memory:
Indian heroic romances represent human emotions in a theatrical universe of symbolically charged characters and events in order to lead the audience into a state of extraordinary pleasure and insight.  The goal of Sanskrit drama is to reestablish emotional harmony in the microcosm of the audience by exploring the deeper relations that bind apparent conflicts of existence.  The manifestation of these relations produces the intense experience called rasa.  All Kalidasa’s plays focus on the critical tension between desire and duty that is aesthetically manifest in the relation of the erotic sentiment (srngararasa) to the heroic (virasarasa).[17]

Note the term rasa.  Rasa—which can be translated as mood, sentiment, or literally “taste”[18]—is at the heart of any artistic endeavor in India.  It is a concept that is difficult to translate, but it is the intent of the performance to assemble several parts that combine, like spices combine with food to create a new flavor, so that the parts combine in the observer through the senses and create a new, deeper experience.[19]  That is rasa.  Through the enactment of emotions by an actor, the witness is engaged, and the emotions convey the rasa experience.  That is part of the delight entailed by the performance.
            The tension between the erotic rasa and the heroic rasa drives the action of Sakuntala, when a king, after falling in love with the title character Sakuntala, loses his memory of her due to a curse that can only be broken by return of his ring that has been lost.  The story of the king and Sakuntala falling in love comprises the action of the first four acts, with their separation followed by lasting reunion contained in the final three acts.  For each character, but especially the king, the question of love and duty are placed at odds in the final half of the play until the breaking of the curse followed by recognition brings resolution.  The rasa is not a product of suspense caused by surprising incidents, as the story is an old one and the events predictable.  Instead, the rasa is conveyed by the connection made between the actors portraying the characters, expressing their love, the pain caused by losing the love, and the restoration of their love.  These representations of the various states of love, and of the interplay the varied states have on the characters, compel the viewer by presenting an accumulation of states of emotion, resulting in the experience of rasa.[20]
            This tension between the duty of a king to his subjects conflicting with his personal love for his wife is also at the center of one of India’s greatest epics, the Ramayana.    Prince Rama must fight a war to recover is beloved wife Sita after she is abducted by the ten-headed demon Ravana, king of Lanka.  The story spans many years, from the birth of Rama and his brothers, to his winning of Sita, through the war fought for Sita’s return, to Rama’s long reign as king.  In India there are many diverse versions and traditions that elaborate and often reinvent the story.  The sets of characters, geographies, and basic story elements serve many forms of story-telling, from songs to poems to enactments to film and television depictions.[21]  As an epic that spans the lifetime of its central character and is featured in many reiterations, no one production or telling could ever satisfy all of the forms, but a performance tradition does exist that attempts to incorporate many aspects of the story, which in itself is an epic undertaking.  Called the Ramlila, these performances take place in many parts of North India, usually in September or October, and can performed over the course of several consecutive days or over the course of a month or more.[22]  Essayist and university professor in religious studies Linda Hess describes the experience of attending a month-long Ramlila and the relationship of observer as participant:
To be vigorously and devotedly involved in the Ramlila for one month is to take an excursion out of ordinary space and time.  The Ramcharitmanas, along with mainstream devotional Hinduism, teaches that the universe is lila, or play, which in Sanskrit as in English means both “drama” and “game.”  The idea of lila is closely akin to that of maya, which we may say here refers to the transient and illusory world of forms.  I believe that the Ramlila is constructed in such a way as to produce an actual experience of the world as lila or maya.  The participant not only sees the drama but finds himself acting in it.  […] The large space of the Ramlila is extended to a semblance of infinity by the fact that the “play” is set in the “real world.”  Our stage embraces town, village, field, forest, lake.  Our floor is the earth, our roof is the sky, often awesome during the moments of transition between day and night, in the season of transition between the rains and autumn.[23]

The event being described takes place in many locations, and the audience travels with the characters through the terrain over weeks, following the story to its end.  This is an act of devotion tied to the production of the play.  Later in the account of witnessing the lila, Hess describes many of the participants’ regard for the experience:
Total love for Ram and his lila is a condition of their understanding.  Believing in a personality rather than an abstraction, loving a play rather than an idea, they run the risk of suffering when the forms of person and play are withdrawn.  But with poignancy of both love and suffering drives them to deeper understanding.[24]

Through this artificial construct—this staging of a story, this witnessing of the event, and the conviction that this expression through art matterscomes a deeper understanding of something universal that is larger than the play, the performers, the music, or the audience.
            There is also this potential in the performance of opera.  It is an assemblage of distinctive elements—song, music, performers, musicians, costumes, stage-design, the opera-house itself—that communicates something deeper and more profound than any one component.  The singing of an entire text is completely artificial, unapologetically constructed, and yet it contains truth.  And you, someone who has been moved by opera, who loves being in its presence, who is transported by it—I believe you have experienced rasa.  Somewhere in the communication of the performance on the stage to you in the seats, a mixing of the ingredients occurred, and something profound and delightful was delivered.  And that is why you return, to be in its presence.

[1] G. Ruckert, Music in North India, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 82.
[2] Ibid. pp. 82-83.
[3] The Artistry of Tabla, Swapan Chaudhuri, http://www.swapanchaudhuri.com/ (accessed 5/4/09)
[4] Ruckert, pp. 34-35.
[5] Ibid. p. 35.
[6] Ibid. p. 27.
[7] Ibid. loc. cit.
[8] O. G. Brocket, History of the Theatre, 7th ed., (Boston: Simon & Schuster, 1995), p. 128.
[9] H. Coward and D. Goa, Mantra: Hearing the Divine in India and America, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 2.
[10] Ibid. p. 35.
[11] Ibid. p. 2.
[12] Ibid. p. 13.
[13] Brockett, p. 71.
[14] Ibid. p. 128.
[15] B. S. Miller, Theater of Memory, The Plays of Kalidasa, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), p. 11.
[16] B. Avari, India: The Ancient Past, (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 155.
[17] Miller, p. 14.
[18] Ibid. loc cit.
[19] Bharata, The Natyasastra, Trans. A. Rangacharya (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 1996), p. 55.
[20] Ibid. loc. cit.
[21] P.Richman, Ed., Many Ramayanas, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991.), p. 8.
[22] L. Hess, ‘An Open-Air Ramayana: Ramlila, the Audience Experience’, The Life of Hinduism, John Stratton Hawley and Vasuda Narayanan, Eds., (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), p. 115.
[23] Ibid. p.125.
[24] Ibid. p. 136.