Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

A choice of forms

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I find I need both forms [the theater and the novel] to satisfy me. Ideas which essentially comment on manners seem to belong in the play form—you need the physical contact with your audience, get them where they can’t miss the direct punch, then let them think about it afterward. Like all forms of satire, it is necessarily unfair, yet quite as fair as the Pollyanna treatment. The form which allows me second thoughts as well as first is the novel—here a character may receive more justice; what he intends to do, what he meant to be, what others think of him are as important as what he does and says; the line he would damn himself with on the stage may be explained by a quick trip through his mind, the novelist’s privilege.

The drama form—far easier and more agreeable to me—appeals to me as achieving its ends more quickly and powerfully. The writer has only to present his one side, the audience and critics do the novelist’s job of filling in, making excuses, seeing the other side, defending whatever characters they feel best equipped to understand. This public willingness to take active part in an artist’s creation seems to make the drama a better medium for social satire. God knows that by the time the various producers, readers, agents, actors, directors, critics, technicians, etc., have gotten a play before an audience the thing practically amounts to a mass movement.

Dawn Powell, in a letter to Barrett Clark

Written by nevalalee

November 12, 2017 at 7:30 am

The variety show

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In this week’s issue of The New York Times Style Magazine, Lin-Manuel Miranda interviews Stephen Sondheim, whom he calls “musical theater’s greatest lyricist.” The two men have known each other for a long time, and Miranda shares a memorable anecdote from their friendship:

Sondheim was one of the first people I told about my idea for a piece about Alexander Hamilton, back in 2008…I’d been hired to write Spanish translations for a Broadway revival of West Side Story, and during our first meeting he asked me what I was working on next. I told him “Alexander Hamilton,” and he threw back his head in laughter and clapped his hands. “That is exactly what you should be doing. No one will expect that from you. How fantastic.” That moment alone, the joy of surprising Sondheim, sustained me through many rough writing nights and missed deadlines. I sent him early drafts of songs over the seven-year development of Hamilton, and his email response was always the same. “Variety, variety, variety, Lin. Don’t let up for a second. Surprise us.”

During their interview, Sondheim expands on the concept of “variety” by describing an Off-Broadway play about “the mad queen of Spain” that he once attended with the playwright Peter Shaffer. When Sondheim wondered why he was so bored by the result, despite its nonstop violence, Shaffer explained: “There’s no surprise.” And Sondheim thought to himself: “Put that on your bathroom mirror.”

“The unexpected, the unexpected, that’s what theater is about,” Sondheim concludes to Miranda. “If you had to patent one thing in the theater, it’s surprise.” This is good advice. Yet when you turn to Sondheim’s own books on the craft of lyric writing, Finishing the Hat and Look I Made a Hat, you find that he doesn’t devote much space to the notions of variety or surprise at all, at least not explicitly. In fact, at first glance, the rules that he famously sets forth in the preface to both books seem closer to the opposite:

There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein’s tutoring, Strunk and White’s huge little book The Elements of Style and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I’ve ever written. In no particular order, and to be inscribed in stone: Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, God Is in the Details, all in the service of Clarity, without which nothing else matters.

Obviously, these guidelines can be perfectly consistent with the virtues of variety and surprise—you could even say that clarity, simplicity, and attention to detail are what enable lyricists to engage in variety without confusing the listener. But it’s still worth asking why Sondheim emphasizes one set of principles here and another when advising Miranda in private.

When you look through Sondheim’s two books of lyrics, the only reference to “variety” in the index is to the show business magazine of the same name, but references to these notions are scattered throughout both volumes. Writing of Sweeney Todd in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim says: “Having taken the project on, I hoped that I’d be able to manage the argot by limiting myself to the British colloquialisms [playwright Christopher] Bond had used, mingled with the few I knew. There weren’t enough, however, to allow for variety of image, variety of humor, and, most important, variety of rhyme.” He criticizes the “fervent lack of surprise” in the lyrics of his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein, and he writes emphatically in his chapter on Gypsy: “Surprise is the lifeblood of the theater, a thought I’ll expand on later.” For his full statement on the subject, however, you have to turn to Look, I Made a Hat. After sharing his anecdote about attending the play with Shaffer, Sondheim continues:

[Shaffer said that] it had many incidents but no surprise. He didn’t mean surprise plot twists—there were plenty of those—but surprises in character and language. Every action, every moment, every sentence foretold the next one. We, the audience, were consciously or unconsciously a step ahead of the play all evening long, and it was a long evening…[Surprise] comes in many flavors: a plot twist, a passage of dialogue, a character revelation, a note in a melody, a harmonic progression, startling moments in staging, lighting, orchestration, unexpected song cues…all the elements of theater. There are surprises to be had everywhere if you want to spring them, and it behooves you to do so. What’s important is that the play be ahead of the audience, not vice versa. Predictability is the enemy.

So if surprise is “the lifeblood of the theater,” why doesn’t Sondheim include it in the preface as one of his central principles? In his next paragraph, he provides an important clue:

The problem with surprise is that you have to lay out a trail for the audience to follow all the while you’re keeping slightly ahead. You don’t want them to be bored, but neither do you want them to be confused, and unfortunately there are many ways to do both. This applies to songs as well as to plays. You can confuse an audience with language by being overly poetic or verbose, or you can bore them by restating something they know, which inserts a little yawn into the middle of the song. It’s a difficult balancing act.

The only way to achieve this balance is through the principles of simplicity and clarity—which is why Sondheim puts them up front, while saving variety for later. If you advise young writers to go for variety and surprise too soon, you end up with Queen Juana of Castile. It’s only after clarity and all of its boring supporting virtues have been internalized that the writer can tackle variety with discipline and skill. (As T.S. Eliot pointed out, it’s better to imitate Dante than Shakespeare: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.” And Samuel Johnson, let’s not forget, thought that the great excellence of Hamlet was its “variety.”) Miranda had clearly mastered the fundamentals, so Sondheim advised him to focus on something more advanced. It worked—one of the most thrilling things about Hamilton is its effortless juxtaposition of styles and tones—but only because its author had long since figured out the basics. And that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

The third thought

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[Improv teacher Del Close said] to always go to your third thought. Sounds really simple, but when you’re onstage, your first thought is knee-jerk. Your second thought is usually okay, but not great. Del would make you stay in a scene until you found your third thought, which was a little above and beyond what most other teachers would suggest. Basically, he wanted your third thought for your character choice, your third thought for your premise or your scene, your third thought for your heightened move…Another lesson was to always play to the top of your intelligence. If you treat the audience like poets and geniuses, that’s what they will become.

Adam McKay, in an interview with Mike Sacks in Poking a Dead Frog

Written by nevalalee

October 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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You are good in boats not alone from knowledge, but because water is a part of you, you are easy on it, fear it and like it in such equal parts that you work well in a boat without thinking about it and may even be safer because you don’t need to think too much. That is what we mean by instinct and there is no way to explain an instinct for the theatre, although those who have it recognize each other and a bond is formed between them. The need of theatre instinct may be why so many good writers have been such inferior playwrights—the light that a natural dramatist can see on a dark road is simply not there.

Lillian Hellman, Pentimento

Written by nevalalee

October 3, 2017 at 7:30 am

The playboy and the playwright

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In 1948, the playwright and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson spent four months teaching a legendary writing course at the University of Illinois. His lectures were published as The Human Nature of Playwriting, a book that until recently was remarkably difficult to find—I ended up photographing every page of it in the reading room of the Newberry Library. (A digital edition is now available for eight dollars on Kindle, which is a real bargain.) It’s as much about living a meaningful life as it is about becoming a good writer, and my favorite passage is Raphaelson’s praise of those who live by their wits:

I intend to gamble to my dying day on my capacity to provide bread and butter, a roof and an overcoat. That kind of gambling, where you pit yourself against the primary hazards of life, is something I believe in. Not merely for writers, but for everyone. I think security tends to make us timid. You do well at something, you know you can continue doing well at it, and you hesitate about trying anything else. Then you begin to put all your energies into protecting and reinforcing what you have. You become conservative and face all the dangers of conservatism in an age when revolutions, seen and unseen, are occurring every day.

One of the students in his class was the young Hugh Hefner, who was twenty-two years old. And the more I think about Hefner’s implausible career, which ended yesterday, the more I suspect that he listened intently to Raphaelson, even if his inner life was shaped less by the stage than by the movies. In Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Gay Talese writes of Hefner’s teenage days working as an usher at the Rockne Theater in Chicago: “As he stood watching in the darkened theater, he often wished that the lights would never turn on, that the story on the screen would continue indefinitely.”

And Hefner’s improbable existence starts to make more sense if see him as at the star of a movie that he was furiously writing in real time. These impulses were central to his personality, as Talese notes:

Not content with merely presenting fantasy, [Hefner] wished to experience it, connect with it, to synthesize his strong visual sense with his physical drives, and to manufacture a mood, a love scene, that he could both feel and observe…He was, and had always been, visually aware of whatever he did as he did it. He was a voyeur of himself. He acted at times in order to watch. Once he allowed himself to be picked up by a homosexual in a bar, more to see than to enjoy sex with a man. During Hefner’s first extramarital affair, he made a film of himself making love to his girlfriend, a 16mm home movie that he keeps with cartons of other personal documents and mementos, photo albums, and notebooks that depict and describe his entire personal life.

Talese observes elsewhere that as Playboy grew in popularity, Hefner dressed the set with the obsessiveness of an experienced stage manager:

The reclusive Hefner was now beginning to reveal himself in his own pages…by inserting evidence of his existence in the backgrounds of nude photographs that were shot exclusively for Playboy. In a picture of a young woman taking a shower, Hefner’s shaving brush and comb appeared on the bathroom sink. His tie was hung near the mirror. Although Hefner was now presenting only the illusion of himself as the lover of the women in the pictures, he foresaw the day when, with the increasing power of his magazine, he would truly possess these women sexually and emotionally; he would be realizing his readers’ dreams, as well as his own, by touching, wooing, and finally penetrating the desirable Playmate of the Month.

“[Hefner] saw himself as a fantasy matchmaker between his male readers and the females who adorned his pages,” Talese writes, and the logical conclusion was to assume this role in reality, as a kind of Prospero composing encounters for real men and women. In The Human Nature of Playwriting, Raphaelson advises:

If you start writing and suddenly it isn’t going where you want it to go, what you expected to happen can’t happen, and you are within five pages of your second-act curtain and you’re stuck, there is a procedure which I have found invaluable. I make a list of my principal characters and check to see if each character has had a major scene with every other character, and by “major” I mean a scene in which they are in conflict and explore each other…I would say a good play, all other things being equal, should have thorough exploration of each other by all the major characters.

Hefner clearly conceived of the Playboy Mansion as a stage where such “thorough exploration” could take place, and its habitués included everyone from Gene Siskel to Shel Silverstein. The Playboy offices also attracted a curious number of science fiction writers, including Ray Russell and my hero, Robert Anton Wilson, who answered the letters in the Playboy Forum as an associate editor for five years. (Wilson writes in Cosmic Trigger: “You all want to know, of course, does Hef really fuck all the Playmates, and is he really homosexual…We have no real inside information—but our impression is that Hef has made love to a lot of the Playmates, though by no means all of them, and that he is not homosexual.”) On September 2, 1962, after participating in a symposium on the future, Robert A. Heinlein attended a party at the mansion, of which he recalled:

This fabulous house illustrated a couple of times in Playboy—and it really is fabulous, with a freeform swimming pool in the basement, a bar under that with a view window into the pool, and all sorts of weird and wonderful fancies…I saw my chum Shel Silverstein…I got into a long, drunken, solemn discussion with Hefner in the bar and stayed until 7:30am—much too late or early, both from health and from standpoint of proper behavior of a guest. I like Hefner very much—my kind of son of a bitch. No swank at all and enjoying his remarkable success.

But it can be dangerous when a man creates a dream, walks into it, and invites the rest of us to follow. Hefner sometimes reminds me of John Updike—another aspiring cartoonist who took the exploration of extramartial sex as his artistic territory—but he’s also uncomfortably reminiscent of another famous figure. Talese writes: “Although there were numerous men who were far wealthier than Hefner, the public was either unaware or unenvious of them since they rarely appeared on television and never called attention to the fact that they were enjoying themselves.” It’s hard to read these words now without thinking at once of Donald Trump, whose victory over Ted Cruz in the primaries Hefner hailed as “a sexual revolution in the Republican Party.” Like Trump, Hefner became a caricature of himself over time, perhaps failing to heed Raphaelson’s warning: “When you make money and are known as being a competent and well-heeled fellow, it’s natural to accept yourself at that value and to be horrified at the thought that you should ever again be broke—that is, that anyone should know of it.” And Talese’s description of Hefner in the sixties carries a new resonance today:

Hugh Hefner saw himself as the embodiment of the masculine dream, the creator of a corporate utopia, the focal point of a big-budget home movie that continuously enlarged upon its narcissistic theme month after month in his mind—a film of unfolding romance and drama in which he was simultaneously the producer, the director, the writer, the casting agent, the set designer, and the matinee idol and lover of each desirable new starlet who appeared on cue to enhance, but never upstage, his preferred position on the edge of satiation.

This sounds a lot like our current president. Trump had a long association with Playboy, and while we may never know how much of his personality was shaped in some way by Hefner, I suspect that it was just as profound as it was for countless other American males of his generation. It might seem a stretch to draw the line from Raphaelson to Hefner to Trump—but we’re all part of the play now. And the curtain hasn’t fallen yet.

Dancing in a box

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In her book The Creative Habit, the choreographer Twyla Tharp devotes an entire chapter to a cardboard box. Before I get to it, though, I wanted to highlight another anecdote that she shares. When she was developing the idea for what became the musical Movin’ Out, Tharp put together a twenty-minute videotape of dancers performing to the music of Billy Joel—at her own expense—as a proof of concept. Only then did she tell Joel himself what she had in mind. Tharp explains:

The tape was a critical piece of preparation and vital to selling the idea to the two people who could make or break the project. The first person was me: I had to see that Billy’s music could “dance.” The tape was visual evidence of something I felt. The second person, of course, was Billy. That’s why I called him the moment I was sure. I have learned over the years that you should never save for two meetings what you can accomplish in one. The usual routine for selling an idea is that you set up a first meeting to explain it and then a second meeting to show it. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Who knew if I would ever get a second meeting? When busy people are involved, a lot of things can happen to foul up even well intentioned plans, so I decided to go for it all in one shot and invested my time and money into producing and editing the twenty-minute tape.

Much of Tharp’s book alternates between inspiring bromides and useful advice, but this paragraph is the real deal. Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes of such meetings in The Black Swan: “I am sometimes shocked at how little people realize that these opportunities do not grow on trees.” He’s right. When you pitch a project to someone in a position to make it happen, you give it everything you’ve got. Even if you’re Twyla Tharp.

As soon as Tharp and Joel had a handshake deal to make the musical, Tharp began to prepare the box that she uses for all her projects, which she describes as a cardboard carton of the kind that you can pick up in bulk at Office Depot. She writes:

I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.

In short, it’s a place to put ideas—which I’ve elsewhere identified as an essential creative tool—and Tharp prefers the humble banker’s box for its sheer practicality: “They’re easy to buy, and they’re cheap…They’re one hundred percent functional; they do exactly what I want them to do: hold stuff.” For Movin’ Out, the first thing that went into the box was the twenty-minute videotape, followed by two blue index cards on which Tharp wrote her objectives for the show, which in this case were “Tell a story” and “Make dance pay for the dancers.” (These statements of purpose remain there throughout the process, even if you can’t see them: “They sit there as I write this, covered by months of research, like an anchor keeping me connected to my original impulse.” I’ll return to this point later on.) Other items included notebooks, news clippings, movies like Full Metal Jacket and The Wild One, the green beret once worn by her military adviser, and photographs of location research. Ultimately, that one box grew to twelve. And in the end, it paid off—Movin’ Out broke out of the jukebox musical mold to run for three years on Broadway and win Tony Awards for both Tharp and Joel.

But that isn’t the box that I want to talk about today. Several years after the critical and commercial triumph of Movin’ Out, Tharp tried again, this time with the music of Bob Dylan—and the result, The Times They Are A-Changin’, was such a resounding flop that I don’t even remember it, even though I was living in New York at the time. And there’s no reason to think that Tharp’s process had changed. She began working with Dylan around two years after The Creative Habit was published, and the preparatory phrase, if anything, was even more intense, as Tharp relates: “The Times They Are A-Changin’ was the product of one year of research and preparation and another year and a half of casting, rehearsing, and workshops.” Tharp surely put together a wonderful box, just as she did with Joel, but the result seems to have underwhelmed nearly everyone who saw it. (The critic Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times: “When a genius goes down in flames, everybody feels the burn.”) Like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, it serves as a cautionary tale for what happens when everything looks the same on paper, down to the dropped “g” in the title, but lightning fails to strike twice. In her subsequent book The Collaborative Habit, Tharp pins part of the blame on “Dylan’s possessive fan base,” who didn’t like the liberties that she took with the material: “I did not prepare them for the fact that my Dylan might not be theirs.” Another red flag was the fact that Dylan approached Tharp, not the other way around:   

Bob Dylan is charming, smart, funny—and, like Billy Joel, very busy. When he called to suggest that we collaborate on a dance musical, it was clear that I would be filling in most of the dotted lines. And that was a blinking yellow light, for Dylan’s catalog is massive. Before I started looking through it in search of a dramatic thread, I thought to prove to myself—and to reassure us both—that his songs were danceable.

At first, this seems like another reminder that success in art has as much to do with luck as with skill, and perhaps Tharp was simply due for a regression to the mean. But there’s another explanation, and it comes back down to that box. Tharp remembers:

When I first started working with Dylan’s music, I had an idea that really appealed to me—to use only Dylan’s love songs. Those songs aren’t what most of us think of when we list our favorite Dylan music, and Dylan’s greatest hits were very important to the producers. We’re used to hearing him angry and accusing, exhorting us to protest, scorning a friend who has betrayed him. But the fact is, he’s also written a sheaf of gorgeous love songs and it was the sentiment in these that made me want to dance. To have used them and dramatized the relationship they suggest might have produced a show I could feel more intensely. But I had walked away from my original instinct—thus violating another of my cardinal rules—and instead, created an evening rich in pageantry and metaphor, a kind of Fellini circus.

I can picture Tharp writing “Dylan love songs” on a blue index card, putting it in the box—only to have it covered up by clippings, photographs, and sketches of circuses. It was there, but it got buried. (After the show folded, Tharp worked through her grief by dancing in her apartment to Dylan’s music: “That is, to the music I would have used had I not veered off my original path—to the love songs.”) The box evidently has its risks, as well as its rewards. But it can also have a surprising afterlife. Tharp writes of the cardboard cartons for her old projects: “I may have put the box away on a shelf, but I know it’s there. The project name on the box in bold black lettering is a constant reminder that I had an idea once and may come back to it very soon.” And just last week, ten years after her first attempt failed, she presented a new show for the current season of Twyla Tharp Dance. It’s called “Dylan Love Songs.” She held onto the box.

The roughest part of a play

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I have come to the roughest part of a new play, assembling the scattered papers and getting ready to prepare a last draft of it. This is always a nightmare to me, for while I am working I toss papers right and left, at the end of each day I gather them helter-skelter and pile them together. So that the ultimate arrangement is a colossal job, which I do with actual groans and muttered curses, sitting on the floor with papers all about me, gradually going into little separate stacks, some order finally emerging, but not until I have died a thousand deaths. I am sure it is worse than childbirth. Reading through it after the assembly is worse still. In fact I usually don’t do it, that is why such odd incongruities and contradictions occur in my scripts. Writing is not a happy profession.

Tennessee Williams, in a letter to Donald Windham and Sandy Campbell

Written by nevalalee

September 24, 2017 at 7:30 am

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