On Friday, I bought the ultimate in wireless technology: A manual typewriter. It is a beautiful Olivetti Studio 44, dating back to 1952.
Isn't it a beauty?
For the past few days, I've been carrying it around, crazily typing out everything from play ideas to promotional materials for "4.48 Psychosis" to my Oscar nomination predictions (more on that later). Writing on a computer is problematic for someone who is as easily distracted as I am, and handwriting gives me too much of a cramp. So this is the perfect way of having a portable writing device with me wherever I go. Plus, hearing the old school sound of "click-click-click-click-click-click-DING!!!" is really quite satisfying.
So, with my new typewriter sitting proudly in the passenger seat of my car, I drove to Costa Mesa on Saturday and strolled into the second week of the eight-week playwriting class that I am taking at South Coast Repertory. The class is being taught by Noah Haidle, who made a splash at SCR when he wrote two brilliant, controversial pieces at the age of 24. One of those pieces is now playing off-Broadway in New York.
There I sat in the SCR Boardroom, staring at the poster of Ed Harris in their 1981 production of "True West" with about a dozen other writers. I was listening as several of the other members of the class were reading my latest play "Orange Alert" out loud. They told me how much they liked the developments from the seemingly normal O.C. world of the first act to the crazy, screwed up world of the second act.
Then Noah leaned forward and stated that he thought the piece felt like two different plays that did not match. He felt cheated when the beauty and realism of one of the storylines in the first act tragically turned out to be pretense in the second act. He wondered about the political themes that are presented.
And then I noticed something unusual happen. Those that were defending the play were now criticizing it. Suddenly, the term "two different plays" was being bounced around the room like a four-square ball. People were seemingly either reaching for things to criticize or they were going against what they had previously said. Could it be that they were agreeing with Noah because he was Noah? Seeing as these individuals were the same ones who spent fifteen minutes in the previous week's class desperately picking at his brain, this does not seem so farfetched.
I walked out of the class remembering why I've always hated the idea of being "taught" playwriting. Two different plays. From the very beginning that's what people said about "American Way", from those that first read it to the reviews of its first production. That tends to be my style. Taking an audience down one road, making them believe something is happening, and then pulling the rug out from under them and showing them what the play is really about. What makes that wrong?
People complained about how some scenes made them uneasy, took unhappy turns or left them with questions. Isn't that what a lot of good plays do? Does every play have to continue down one path to its inevitable conclusion? Isn't surprise an important element of storytelling? And for the love of God, just because someone who makes a living as a playwright disagrees, does that mean you have to betray your own opinions just to agree?
A few days have passed, and I have since rescinded my feeling of hating playwriting classes. I realized that the comments of Noah and those who agree with him, while misunderstanding my intentions, did serve a very useful purpose. They made me realize what I was intending with my play. The sudden shift in tone, and the consequences of these romances turning very, very foul, is representative of the awakening we get in the people and environments around us when we start seeing their faults and dark secrets. Yes, it settles into this leisurely pace in Act One and then suddenly becomes jarring, frantic and somewhat unsettling in the second half. But then again, doesn't life do that to us from time to time?
So thanks Noah and fellow classmates. I can't wait for next Saturday.
On a random topic jump, the Academy Award nominations came out today. Here are the categories I care about:
Good Night, and Good Luck.
George Clooney - Good Night, and Good Luck
Paul Haggis - Crash
Ang Lee - Brokeback Mountain
Bennet Miller - Capote
Steven Spielberg - Munich
Philip Seymour Hoffman - Capote
Terrence Howard - Hustle & Flow
Heath Ledger - Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix - Walk the Line
David Strathairn - Good Night, and Good Luck.
Judi Dench - Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman - Transamerica
Keira Knightley - Pride & Prejudice
Charlize Theron - North Country
Reese Witherspoon - Walk the Line
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
George Clooney - Syriana
Matt Dillon - Crash
Paul Giamatti - Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal - Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt - A History of Violence
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Amy Adams - Junebug
Catherine Keener - Capote
Frances McDormand - North Country
Rachel Weisz - The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams - Brokeback Mountain
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Brokeback Mountain - Larry McMurtry & Diana Ossana
Capote - Dan Futterman
The Constant Gardener - Jeffrey Caine
A History of Violence - Josh Olson
Munich - Tony Kushner and Eric Roth
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Crash - Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco
Good Night, and Good Luck. - George Clooney & Grant Heslov
Match Point - Woody Allen
The Squid and the Whale - Noah Baumbach
Syriana - Stephen Gaghan
A fairly predictable set of nominees for what looks to be a fairly predictable Oscar ceremony. The one big surprise is that "Syriana", which was based on a book by Robert Bahr, is in the Original Screenplay category (since it's been nominated for Adapted Screenplay everywhere else).
And who knows. Maybe "A History of Violence" and "Match Point" will take home screenplay Oscars, despite their unsettling shifts in tone.
Can we stop making names adjectives? Especially authors and playwrights? Every time I see or hear a name being turned into an adjective it makes me want to shove that person off a curb, so that they'll fall onto the pavement with an embarrassing and clumsy thud.
Anything described as "Kafkaesque" usually has nothing to do with Kafka at all. Just because there is a nightmarish situation without any real explanation or solution, that does not mean that it is "Kafkaesque". You know what it is? A fucked up situation.
The only reason I can think of for using a name as an adjective is to show everyone how well-read you are. Otherwise, there is a another way to explain it, a way that will still make you look smart without making you look like a asshole.
In just the past week, I've heard "Beckett-ish" and "Durang-esque" used. The best part is that the "Durang-esque" culprit made sure to note, "I did not coin that word. It's an actual word!" Which only tells me, "I'm not the pretentious ass who thought up this idiotic term. I'm just the pretentious ass that copied it."
I once heard someone say "Tarantino-esque". What the fuck is Tarantino-esque? When did he earn an -esque? Does that mean that the piece is hyperviolent and filled with pop culture references? Or that it stars Uma Thurman? Or that it has a shot from the trunk of a car in it?
The adjective-as-name trend has got me so cheesed that I want to make my writing as diverse as possible so that Gable-esque will never, ever become an adjective.
And now, just to prove that I'm a huge hypocrite, here are occasions in my past writings where I've used the -esque adjective that I've grown to hate:
* "The Ernest Thompson comedy that invites every shaky Hepburn-esque septuagenarian to talk about the loooooons." (09/08/05)
* "And then I watch Brey, who walks around in a way that is almost balletic in its fluidity and Keatonesque in its innocent humor." (03/10/05)
* "...(right down to the 'Hamlet'-esque plot device of a son talking to the ghost of his father)." (10/12/04)
* "I feel like I could at least write a post in this blog that is about something more arresting and profound than this Fellini-esque post about not being able to write anything" (10/08/04)
Further proof. I'm an ass.
A SPEECH MADE TODAY BY PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH, NOW WITH ADDED HECKLING:
Nellie, thank you very much. (Um, Mr. President, my name is Tom) I appreciate the invitation to speak. (Usually I just like to impose) I'm calling from Manhattan, Kansas. (Applause from people who like hearing the name Manhattan, Kansas.) Sounds like you got some good folks from Kansas there. (Applause from people who like to believe they’re “good folk”.) I want to thank everybody there -- if you're from Kansas, or anywhere else in our country (any of the other forty-three states), for your devotion to such a noble cause (the noble cause being my retention of power).
You believe, as I do (*COUGH, COUGH*), that every human life has value (except for those 2200 guys in Iraq. Who needs ‘em?), that the strong have a duty to protect the weak (much in the way that a school bully “protects” a kid’s lunch money), and that the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence apply to everyone, not just to those considered healthy or wanted or convenient (Warning: Declaration of Independence does not apply to minorities and the middle- to lower-class). These principles call us to defend the sick and the dying (unless we were the ones who made you sick or dying), persons with disabilities and birth defects (unless we were the ones who made you disabled or defective), all who are weak and vulnerable (unless we were the ones who made you weak or vulnerable), especially unborn children. (Applause from metal coat hanger manufacturers.)
We're making good progress in defending these principles, Nellie (The name’s still Tom), and you and I are working together, along with others, to build what I've called a culture of life (and it moves us all, through despair and hope, through faith and love). One of my first acts as the President was to ban the use of taxpayer money on programs that promote abortion overseas. (Applause from people who like hearing the words “money” and “promote”.) I want to thank you all for getting that ban on partial-birth abortion to my desk, a bill I was proud to sign -- (applause from people who like the name Bill) -- and a law which we are going to defend -- and are defending (and have defended -- and will defend -- and put on the side of the defensive) -- vigorously in our courts (I AM THE LAW!!!). Because we acted (in a high school production of “Harvey”), infants who are born despite an attempted abortion are now protected by law (unless they’re a minority or poor). Thanks to "Laci and Conner's Law," (note to self: send them a Valentine’s Day card) prosecutors can now charge ($37.50 plus shipping and handling) those who harm or kill a pregnant woman with harming or killing her unborn child, as well. (Applause from people who like to clap.)
We're vigorously promoting parental notification laws (Sir, ma’am, I’m here to notify you that you’re a parent), adoption (which I’m told is nothing like “Oliver!”), teen abstinence (we have armed officers at local makeout points all over the country), crisis pregnancy programs, and the vital work of our faith-based groups (Hi God, are you there? It’s me, fetus!). We're sending a clear message to any woman facing a crisis pregnancy (your choice and your life mean dick to us): We love you (not), we love your child (less), and we're here to help you (and by help you we mean take away your rights).
There's more work to be done (I’m still trying to figure out how to get oil out of birth canals). The House has passed a bill (who is only a bill, and he’s sittin’ there on Capitol Hill) to ensure that state parental involvement laws are not circumvented (looked that word up just this morning) by those who take minors across state lines to have abortions (Nevada, I’m looking at you). And the United States Senate needs to pass this bill so I can sign it into law. (Applause from people who just saved money on their car insurance.)
We also must respect human life and dignity (for once) when advancing (or suppressing) medical science, and we're making progress here, as well (We’re firing scientists nationwide). Last month, I signed a pro-life bill supporting ethical treatment and research using stem cells from umbilical cord blood (and all while eating spaghetti). I also renew my call for Congress to ban all forms of human cloning (I call it the Michael Keaton’s “Multiplicity” Act). Because human life is a gift from our Creator (Neo?) and should never be used as a means to an end (or “el fin” as the French would call it), we will not sanction the creation of life only to destroy it (at least not until you’re recruitment age).
By changing laws we can change our culture (and by change I mean destroy). And your persistence and prayers, Nellie (or Tom. Whichever), and the folks there with you, are making a real difference (Who, us? Oh, we’re just here for the free pizza). We, of course, seek common ground where possible (and then we go for full invasion); we're working to persuade more of our fellow Americans of the rightness of our cause (remember, America...we’re WATCHING yooooou...). And this is a cause that appeals to the conscience of our citizens (just like “Desperate Housewives”), and is rooted in America's deepest principles (do you mean the OLD principles of freedom and equality, or the NEW principles of greed and conformity?) -- and history tells us that with such a cause, we will prevail (because if there’s anyone who needs their rights taken away, it’s these crazy women! Take off those business shoes and make me some macaroni!!!).
Again, Nellie (whatever), thank you for letting me come to speak to you (if you start hearing a clicking on your phone, don’t be alarmed). Tell everybody there that I ask for God's blessings on them and their families (unless they don’t believe in God, in which case ask them to prepare for the cleansing), and, of course, may God continue to bless our grand country (because Lord knows someone has to look out for its well-being).
(Applause from people who follow an agenda that pleads to spare the lives of unborn fetuses while neglecting to shed a tear for those who die either in misguided wars or from poverty caused by a dwindling economy. Oh, did I say that out loud?)
TEN RANDOM OBSERVATIONS:
1). Jonathan Rhys-Meyers was miscast in "Match Point". There should be a lot of tension surrounding that character as his cheating, lies and manipulations are weighing him down, and I don't think he was up to the challenge. Everything else about the movie was great, though.
2). Sad songs are generally longer than happy ones. I think it's because we want to linger on sad thoughts more than we want to indulge feelings of joy. I was making two mix CD's today - one with downbeat songs, one with upbeat songs. There is only a seven-second difference between the CD's and yet the upbeat CD has 23 tracks, while the downbeat CD has only 16.
3). Perhaps the reason the video game character Mario is so famous in our pop culture is that he is an underdog. Rather than being a strapping knight with a horse and a sword, he's an overweight plumber with a thick Italian accent. And yet, because of his knowledge of the underground piping systems, he ends up being the only person who can save a beautiful princess from a fire-breathing dragon. Maybe we all wish we could be like Mario, and that's why we play the games. Or maybe it's because they're fun.
4). Both Franz Kafka and Sarah Kane had issues with their body. Not so much in vain sense of feeling fat or being scrawny, but in the sense of feeling like their minds and souls were better fitted in different vessels, whether it be another body, another era or another species.
5). Sometimes you can be too friendly and too charismatic with your customer service, to the point where you become off-putting, awkward and almost creepy (especially when you not only make physical contact with a woman, but question the gender and sexuality of a man).
6). "Transamerica" will apparently never open up in Orange County. At this point, it's not even in Los Angeles. Felicity Huffman will surely get an Oscar nomination, and so people will hear about and desire to see the movie eventually (especially "Desperate Housewives" fans). Century Stadium 25 cannot hold out on me much longer. They're going to have to show it soon enough.
7). Directing an actress who operates on the same wavelength that you do is a thing that not only pleases, but invigorates. Only two rehearsals in, I'm finding that Jessica and I see eye to eye on nearly everything.
8). I'm surprisingly not nervous about starting playwriting classes at South Coast Repertory that will be taught by rising playwright Noah Haidle. Perhaps it is because I have so many things going on in my life, and this latest development happened so quickly and so suddenly. I will probably be unable to let it fully set in until I finally there.
9). Mention was made to me today about the upcoming O.C. Weekly Theater Awards (the Tony's of Orange County). I get way too much pleasure out of predicting awards shows, and this one is particularly fun to research considering that I actually know some of these people.
10). I wish I were at the Sundance Film Festival. A snowball fight with Zooey Deschanel and Michel Gondry sounds really good right about now.
Last night was the first rehearsal of "4.48 Psychosis", the Sarah Kane play that I have been pestering the Hunger Artists Theatre Company to let me direct for over a year. I pulled into the parking lot and took a couple of deep breaths, reminding myself that I have good people on my side. That I'm a talented guy who knows what he's doing. That I'm not curing cancer, just putting on a show, and if it fails, the world will continue turning.
As I walked into the theatre, two of the theatre's founding members, who also happen to be two of my best friends, walked out on their way to a social gathering in Los Angeles. They wished me well and left. I walk up to the theatre to see Jessica Topliff, the insanely talented actress who is my one and only cast member, having a smoke outside the front door. We are the only two people there. That's when I fully realized that I am The Director. The one calling the shots. I am naturally someone who not only shies away from any sort of managerial position, but has trouble making decisions on what fast food restaurant Brey and I should eat at. And yet I am the captain of this ship. I say, "Let's do this," and we head into the theatre.
We sit in the front row of the audience, looking at the set for "Twelfth Night". The two shows could not be more different. "Twelfth Night" boasts a large, colorful set, a cast of seventeen (which for that space is enormous), disco musical numbers and the feel of innocence and love. "4.48 Psychosis", on the other hand, is spare and stark, using one actress, one table and two chairs. It is filled with loneliness, desperation and betrayal, both internal and external. Jessica and I are both in the cast of "Twelfth Night" and we note the contrast.
Then, we get to work. Jessica opens up the script and reads it out loud, stopping only for the occasional question. As she read, I remembered why I have chosen to direct this piece, and why I cast Jessica without audition or second thought. She is fearless, diving into the material without hesitation. The piece, often thought brutal and depressing, is in many places beautiful and funny. And like how Laurence Olivier spoke Shakespeare, William H. Macy speaks David Mamet and I speak Jason Lindner, so Jessica's voice the perfect vessel for Sarah Kane's words.
She reaches the end of the script and quietly closes it. I am pleased, both at the realization that Jessica is 80% of the way there and at the thought of pulling the other 20% out of her (I don't want this process to be too easy). For the next couple of hours, we sit and talk about what we want this show to be, what we don't want it to be (no "Goodbye to clocks ticking" in this piece) and what could drive someone to make the journey that the character in this show does.
Then, the conversation turns inward, and we start talking about our personal experiences with the emotions present in the script. We start talking about our ideas of theatre and our motives behind it. And in the midst of the conversation, I come to several observations:
* I do theatre not to earn fame and fortune. What I seek on the stage is a connection to the audience. Too often overpriced tickets, oversized budgets and overinflated egos create a distance between audience and performer, creating instead an "event" that the crowd can only observe. Even in distinguished theatres like the Mark Taper Forum and South Coast Repertory I've been able to have that connection between participant and observer.
* All the years I grew up playing nothing but chorus members in Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre gave me an ensemble mentality. Rather than stealing the spotlight, I try to step back and let others have their moment. That could be what interests me about Hunger Artists. We seem to be a company of chorus members. People that strive to work as an ensemble, rather than a group of scene-stealers.
* My many years of loneliness and awkwardness around women has affected me much more than I let on. The effects of growing up with such a low self-esteem makes me tend to shy away from overly flirtatious women. In fact, when a woman flirts with me, I turn awkward and weird, not because of any desire for her, but because of my bewilderment that she is even bothering.
* I am truly lucky to have Brey in my life. People from time to time have criticized her, saying that she is mean to me simply because she calls me names. However, EVERYBODY calls me names, from my best friends to my own family. It's all in jest, and I never take it seriously. However, those accusations are unfair, mainly because those people do not realize just how much Brey has done for me. She came at a time when my longtime depression toward my loneliness had turned into cold indifference, and she showed me that not only was I a person worth liking, I was a person worth loving (something I had all but given up on at that point).
* I believe that we all have evil in our heads. Inside of us, we all have fucked-up voices that tell us things that we don't want to hear and showing us images we do not want to see. We all find different ways of dealing with these voices. These ways vary from working on cars to playing sports to murdering someone to committing suicide. I believe that this is why I have so many different little talents that I've learned, like piano, juggling, mime, tap dancing, etc. I learned these activities during my lonely teenage years and practiced them just so that I wasn't left alone with those voices.
As I was driving home, it was nice having such a revealing conversation. I suddenly had the urge to make more revelations, come to more conclusions, make more observations. I wanted to know everything about myself. I wanted to learn everything there was to know.
I got home and was talking to Brey. I wished out loud that I could do everything that I need in my life. Cook good meals, do my taxes, work on my car, etc. Brey replied with, "But if you did that, there would be no room to learn anything. And you wouldn't be able to appreciate those other people that do the things that you can't." Once again, she was keeping me in check, one of the many reasons that I'm in love with her.
With the contrast of Jessica helping me explore the clouds and Brey helping to keep me on the ground, I think that "4.48 Psychosis" is going to be a really rewarding process.