Play Full Playwright

Why I (selfishly) Started This Blog

I am a theatre lover, but I not only love to see it and do it, I love to write for it and about it. All my literate life  I have written plays, some of them produced,  many  not. But for a couple of years I wrote a column called "Onstage" for a supplement of the Fort Worth Star Telegram called the "Handley Herald". "They" let me do it because my small but terrific theatre group had renovated a warehouse in Handley, a historical community within the  city limits of Fort Worth, and we were wearing out the boards with our enthusiasm. I knew that "they" thought they were simply providing me with the opportunity to publicize our productions, but once I sat down at the computer, having been handed a ready made audience (readership), I found that I wanted to say so much more. I wrote about so many past productions I had seen. I wrote about iconic theatre groups, such as The Roundabout in New York and the Alley in Houston. I wrote about the effect that theatre has on politics and politicians. I just wore out the keys.

So Here I Go Again.

Violet O'Valle, November 2019.

 

Landmark Lines

Do you have memorable lines from terrific plays swimming around in your consciousness--you know, the ones that sent goose pimples down your spine the first time you heard them? Some are so famous we all know them and wait for them every time we see a new production. "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers," certainly is on that list.

Here is my (partial) list, in no particular order, and please don't be upset if I get one or two a little bit wrong. I am operating from a very large and long memory box.

1. "Attention must be paid." The Death of a Salesman.

2. "Did you say all? All? What? All my pretty chickens and their dam, at one fell swoop." MacBeth.

3. "I've lost him surely, the only Playboy of the Western World." The Playboy of the Western World.

4. "I am cutting  loose one of God's creatures who has come to the end of his rope." The Night of the Iguana.

5. "There's always something left to love." A Raisin in the Sun.

6. "Oh, Jim. I tried so hard." A Long Day's Journey into Night.

7. "Charleston or Boston. Which stinketh the most?" 1776.

8. "Shout that to the world, old friend, but whisper it to me, she loves you not." Cyrano de Bergerac.

9.  "Oh, Gawd, we've plugged one of the women in the 'ouse." The Plough and the Stars.

10. And of course: "If you believe in fairies, clap your hands."  Peter Pan.

Do you have some favorites that ring in your inner ear like old melodies? Send them to me at violet@playfullplaywright.com

Sentimental Violet

Want to write for the theatre?

 One of the surprises awaiting us when my late husband and I launched our small independent theatre group was the number of unpublished, unproduced, and unsolicited scripts that appeared in our mail. We certainly didn't mind, and as a frustrated playwright myself, I totally sympathize and still do. It's really hard to get even a minor producer to read a new, untried play. Most of the unsolicited plays we  receive are obviously  from people who can really write, but do not, at least just yet, write for the theatre.

The most common mistake brand new playwrights make is including elements that just can't be done on a stage.  Sometimes they  forget that a "play"  is meant to be (forgive me for being so obvious) "played." It cannot be static. Many confuse a play with a review of some kind, a series of skits, or some kind of clever dialogue that plays with words, but has no plot. Some rely on a unique "gimmick" or a premise  so outlandish people might watch it  merely for that reason.  Often students expand on playwrighting exercises they have endured in a class or workshop.

I have some memorable examples in mind for each of these categories--but I'll tell you about some of them next time. (A playwright should always make the audience want to return after intermission.)

Pedantic Violet

Writing for the stage means minding the gaps

The most noticeable flaw in the unsolicited scripts I have received over the years is that the unavoidable limitations that come with writing for the live stage are simply ignored. Usually this means that the "play" unfolds by means of little short scenes, such as those we are  accustomed to in the movies. Strangely, these plays are more and more produced anyway, using clever techniques to mitigate the staccato effect, but still, these scripts are native to film and not to stage.

Then there are the over ambitious ones, calling for fires and tempests and automobile accidents. Sometimes these disasters are supposed to be handled through "mixed media," which might work but is usually prohibitively expensive and labor intensive. I received one script, based on a clever premise, that situated all dialogue on the stage,  while wild adventures involving airplanes, horses, and flying saucers played out on a movie screen. It would have cost us a fortune, probably requiring two different directors, and would not have fit on  our small stage.

And the most curious of all: no mindfulness of logistics. Characters suddenly appear in a scene, with no explanation of when they entered or how. There is sometimes a complete lack of regard for the technical tricks that must accompany sudden radical set shifting, or the  limitations involved in costume change.One scene ends with the leading lady dancing in a ballroom; after a brief fade out, fade in, she is quite suddenly standing in the middle  of a thatched hut in her peasant rags. The costume crew, the stage manager, and the tech director are presumably enjoying a group nervous breakdown.

These kinds of practical mistakes are unmistakable signs that the budding playwright has never set foot on a stage. They are also signs that the budding playwright has no sense of drama as a specific literary genre, which it basically is.

Busman Violet

What Thou Seest, Thou Be-ist

That's a quote from St. Augustine, wise guy that he was. So how do I know so much about these basic mistakes? It's because I have made  elemental mistakes myself and sometimes I still slip up, and need a fresh pair of eyes, to  make me see my own transgressions..

I have a historical play that I have been working on for ten years now. It has endured several productions, both here in Fort Worth, and in several small venues in Ireland.  It has been in classrooms and small theatres. It has unfolded (believe it or not)in the Fort Worth Watergardens. It has graced  a church hall, attended by farming folk familiar with the events who gasped and wept over it. It has been read and read and read. Still, I knew there was something not quite "right" about it.

It is the hardest darned thing I've ever tried to write, because after all, it is history, and so it has to be accurate. The research has been overwhelming, and as we  all have learned just lately, history has a way of shifting. My attention was horrendously divided: was I writing a text book or a play?

Finally, thinking it was at last "finished," I sent it to a friend of mine  intimately acquainted with the history, and waited for the congratulations. But my friend is an author herself, and an accomplished editor, and a publisher. Oh dear. I got it back, the pages bleeding.

She immediately saw what I couldn't. The narrative is based on the experiences of the early Irish colonists along the Texas coastal bend who actively participated in the 1836 revolution against the Mexican government. The script covers decades of history presented in thematic rather than chronolgical order. People with no knowledge of Texas history, or of Irish history for that matter, would be considerably confused. I needed transitions. Lighting wouldn't do it. I needed transitions made out of words. (There is that "literary" stuff.)

 The moral is that sometimes our focus is too narrow. We have agonized over this fact, or that character. We have pictured how this or that will look behind a scrim. We revise and revise, thinking that the first act is too long or too short. Our peripheral vision is turned off. Someone else can take a look and see  the whole picture. Don't be afraid of letting a "Friend," ( and I said friend, not foe) see your work before you spend ten years fooling around with it.

Contrite Violet.

Know thyself, and then you won't BS Others

Polonius was a pompous old poop, but he knew what he was talking about here. Over and over we hear the advice,"Write about what you know," and time and again we ignore it. The truth is that when writing anything that is not deliberate fantasy, we must make it at least plausible, and better yet, believable.Even when we are writing fantasy, or in one of the other unrealistic genres, and especially if we are adapting another's work, there must be faithfulness. Ernest Hemingway said that a writer must have "a built in BS detector." If you or I write BS anyway, there will be people in our audiences who will detect it anyway.

I've seen a liftetime of BS, but one  example tops them all. A few years ago I attended a conference in a Midwestern city for Irish culture lovers. The highlight of the week was an "adaptation" of John Millington Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. It was to be set in Appalachia, which is not altogether implausible because that region is heavily peppered with Irish, Scots, and Welsh Americans. But oh my, what a disaster. Who remembers the old television cliche called "Hee Haw," the running joke being those ignorant hillbillies?

Now it so happens that even if the playwright had no respect for the culture or the original masterpiece, some of us in the audience did. My Dad's family migrated to Texas from the Blue Ridge,and as they say, you can take the boy off the mountain, but you can't take the mountain out of the man. Was I alone in my chagrin? Would these  strangers around me understand that cultural and artistic misappropriation is the easy way no matter where found?

As it turns out they did. On my left sat  a woman from Philadelphia whose mother is from Alabama. On my right was a  female grad student at Columbia University, who was from the Blue Ridge herself. "Did you notice," she remarked to me, "that they don't even know what 'nary' means?"

There is a difference between adaptation and parody.   A parody relies on ridicule; an adaptation is a fresh perspective. The play and the production constituted a parody of two cultures and one literary masterpiece. If you want to write parodies,  your best bet is to apply to SNL.

And while you are doing so, somewhere in our country  of a Sunday  the sun will rise on white squirrels romping in the morning mist, while blue waterfalls cascade down green mountains. There will be preachin' in the morning and dinner on the ground. Long about 3 on the clock, some will head to Miz Owen's house for some flat footin'. Others will go back to the church for the Sacred Harp singin'. When the mist begins to thicken, the headin' home will commence. Someone will stoke the pot belly or turn up the space heater and put a pan of water on top of it. Someone  might tell a story. Someone  might read from the Bible. One of the men  could wrap a piece of paper around a comb and produce music. There might even be a small jar  passed around, derived as closely as possible from the ancient poteen. And everyone will talk and talk.

The lowlanders will pity, or they will parody, or they will do the pert thing and mind their own beeswax.  Well, anyway, bless their little ole hearts.

Lettie May

It's a science as well as an art

The most insightful literary criticism we have was written by a man of science. He was a botanist, who examined literary genres perhaps in the same way he examined buds and blossoms. He didn't mean to tell the flowers what they should be like; he meant to find out for himself what they were like. 

His name was Aristotle, and he gave us his scientific observations in the Poetics. He put quite a bit of effort into his examination of "drama," and he listed the six elemental characteristics of a play. He even numbered them in order of importance. The first was absolutely basic: plot.

 Because theatre is witnessed more than is it reflected upon, at least at the time, something must actually happen before our very eyes. It is true that conversation is central to the play, too, and more so than it is in other genres. But conversation can't be the only thing going on. 

The most clever conversationlist ever, Oscar Wilde, nevertheless gave us intriguing plots that the conversation was intended to reveal, not replace. A play cannot be static, no matter how witty, and maintain the interest of a sitting still  audience for hours.

I mention this because sometimes I receive a play in the mail which astonishes because of its deliberate avoidance of having something happen. The most trendy is the "interview" play. A prominent figure of some kind, Carl Jung or George Washington or Harriet Tubman is interviewed by a televsion journalist, or sombody like that, and they sit there and "tell" their story. Sometimes women sit around a table and knit, or stand in a kitchen washing dishes or concocting some dish, while gossiping about stuff.  A new fad, perhaps originating in playwriting class, relies on yoking two completely incongruous people together in a love affair or in some closed up space and making them discuss themselves.

I suspect these "frames" are an instinctive attempt to have something going on, and sometimes in the hands of an actor who is also a skilled story teller, they can work on that level alone, if there is a story there. At their best they are literary  more than theatrical.

But, you will say, what about Samuel Beckett, or Edward Albee? What about Collected Stories by Donald Margulies or Oleanna by David Mamet?What about the one character reminiscence? I will answer, sometimes plot is expressed through a private or philosophical journey of some kind. It is also good fun to play with structure, to experiment with it, to adjust it to subject matter or theme, or emotion. The point is that there must be hills and valleys, there must be tension and release, there could be resolution and reversal. And above all, there should be meaning (what Aristotle called "thought"), even if the meaning is that there is no meaning.

The next time you run across a seemingly plotless play that is still really, really good, get out your microscope, and examine the verbal expression for the elements of plot: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, turning point, falling action, resolution. They may be mocking  you from behind a fence, they may be dancing all around you, but they will be there somehow, somewhere.

Miss Marple

It's Really All Just Childplay

I've heard some young playwrights say that structure is artificial, and not easy to come up with when there are so many other things requiring  concentration. I am out to stifle that notion.

When I was in the second grade, our teacher announced that we were all to be cast in the Christmas play, a calvacade of favorite fairy tale characters. Witnessing this outpouring of magic would be a presiding King and  Queen. Oh, how I wanted to be the Queen. Not because it was the lead(it wasn't) but because everyone knew that Val, the most gallant swain ever to grace  the gothic by ways of James Madison Elementary, would be the King. How I (secretly) loved Val!

Alas, I was cast as Snow White. How sorrowful I was, but not for long, for soon Peter Pan entered the picture. Peter Pan was played by Billy.  On opening night Billy showed up in a costume executed by loving hands at home. He wore stockings under a tunic that blossomed out and ended  just above his knees. It was really a dress.  This incongruity awakened the cruelty latent in most seven year old hearts, especially when they are locked together in a ready made mob.

Billy was in tears. My affections quickly shifted. By the end of the evening, I was convinced that my destiny was to one day marry this merry sprite.

I had a diary, and as was my habit, I wrote up this important event. And as was my habit, even way back then, I wrote it up in dialogue, complete with stage directions, as I understood them to be back then.

Without my fretting about it, it contained exposition (the upcoming play, Val's irresistible charm), the inciting incident (I am cast as Snow White, but reluctantly), the rising action with  turning point (Billy shows up in a dress, ensuing disgrace),a clever reversal (the transfer of my affections), and the resolution (my destiny as Peter Pan's wife). There was even some irony, because the title of the play was The Two Lovebirds, but the closing speech announced, "And that is the story of The Three Lovebirds."

The point: story telling is native to us. We know how to do it as soon as we know how to talk, and we recognize it, probably, before that.A play is a story unfolding before our eyes. It's not rocket science. In fact, it is so basic, so natural that it can blossom and vine. But it always has a stem and a root.

Mother Goose

We have nothing to fear except

When I was a drama student at the University of Houston, Helen Hayes breezed into town. The word was out that she didn't like interviews, still her visit generated so much excitement that she agreed to a brief meet and greet in a very small room in one of our department stores.

She sat with her ankles crossed, hands folded in her lap,  twinkling eyes and the smile that signaled kindness. She was tired she said, for she was traveling, presumably to the West Coast, by car and "they" had to drive right through Louisiana without sleeping because  of her two dogs who were not allowed in sleeping quarters there.

She said she knew that the little group--not crowd-gathered in that remote room must be full of aspiring theatricals of various talents, and she wanted to warn us of our greatest enemy. "Fear," she said emphatically, "You simply cannot allow it."

I bring this up because we writer types tend to be the shy guys of the theatre. Most of us have much more instruction in acting and directing than we do in play writing, for that is the way in most university drama departments. And while standing up in front of an audience with no instrument except yourself, as actors do, can be terrifying, so can exposing your  secret self in a cascade of verbiage.

But remember what Helen said. No Fear. 

Dauntless Violet

If not fear, then what?

 The sad news is that some directors, and even more teachers,  believe that intimidation works. Some of them misinterpret what Stanislavsky was writing about, and think that, because "Acting is believing," believe that a complete disconnect with reality must occur in the mind of the actor while he is onstage. Some think  that this can be accomplished through a sort of  smashing of the personal ego. 

There are moments onstage when some actors do slip into the scene so securely that for a few seconds or minutes they seem to themselves to be "possessed" by the character. Some actors like this and strive for it. It happened to me once, and I didn't like it and wouldn't do it again on purpose.

 Years ago, I was part of a Shakespeare group performing a staged reading of Othello. I was Desdemona.  As rehearsals progressed, we discovered that Shakespeare can seem even more obscure when read aloud, so we memorized our lines, although we said them with the book in our hands. When we got to the murder scene, it seemed absurd to even appear to read it, especially when staged, because Othello and I looked as if we were reading in bed. We put away the books entirely and played the thing.

Suddenly, in the middle of murder, I saw my friend Thomas looming over me with a pillow, and I was genuinely terrified. I "really" thought I was about to be killed, and pled for my life with the words provided. After it was over, the other members of the cast thought I was the best they had ever seen me. I felt the worst. It was something I would never let happen to me again. But I know some actors would "feel" the opposite.

The good news is that there is an instructional technique that allows the actor to stay in control, that is based on encouragement and respect , that builds up rather than tears down. I was introduced by a friend several years ago to the Michael Chekhov technique. It is helpful not only to actors, but to directors, and even playwrights, for the  approach it takes to the building of characterization.

If you "felt nothing" when Mr. Carr died, look into it.

Vigilant Violet

A Bouquet

A few years ago The Irish Times in Dublin, Ireland published an op-ed that I wrote encouraging the citizens of that country, who were anticipating the centennial of their 1916 uprising, to take a fresh look at the early plays of Sean O'Casey. O'Casey wrote eloquently about the effects of war on women and children.  He was not opposed to the Republican cause, but he was always more concerned about the fate of the little, the common, the innocent, the poor.

I was frankly surprised when the editor latched onto my essay so quickly.  Later that year, when I  showed up in his city, he gave me a tour of the newspaper.   We  sipped tea on a roof top cafe and watched as in the faint distance a purple / grey cloud  gradually  enveloped the roofs along the River Liffey, one ornamented bridge shyly lit with slivers of winter sunlight. 

"Your essay caught my eye," he said, "because of where it came from. Someone from Texas? Writing about Sean O'Casey? That's unique."

He was fishing. And so I told him the story. It's not a very complex one, at least to other people, but some dramas don't need any sub plots.

I was in my fifth year of teaching in the inner city Houston schools. I was on a double contract, swinging back and forth between English and Drama.  This particular day, I was down in a dank cellar  going through old library  books destined for destruction, looking for some that might be interesting to my urban dwellers, some that they could keep, used up as they were. In a corner was a stack of wet paperbacks, their white covers speckled with mold. The one on top was folded open to  the first page of Act III of Red Roses for Me by Sean O'Casey. The detailed stage directions described a  grey cloud gathering over the Liffey, and a shaft of brilliant sun nudging through, transforming the sad city and the homeless people camped on one of those bridges.I sat on the filthy floor and read to the end. 

That shining shaft of life transformed mine,too. How passing strange that many years later I witnessed for myself O'Casey's brilliant depiction.  I wondered how many times he had witnessed it, too.

Curious Violet. 

 

 

What's in a Name

I've spent many years studying the plays, essays, and memoirs of Sean O'Casey--wrote a thesis and a dissertation about his plays, and I have a finished book languishing on my shelf, longing for a publisher.

But just lately I started thinking about an aspect of his work I had never given much attention to before: his titles. I noticed the fable/folkloric implications of two of his early masterpieces: Juno and the Paycock, and the Plough and the Stars, both of them symbolically yoking the  ordinary and the extraordinary, the reality and the romantic, much as Aesop often did. I noticed the explosion of color in his later titles: The Silver Tassie, Red Roses for Me, The Star Turns Red, Oak Leaves and Lavender, Purple Dust, Behind the Green Curtain.

How did he come up with his titles, I wonder? Did a phrase pop in his mind that required a theme to go with it, or was it the other way around? Is there a pattern that some astute scholar will uncover? I see one: the nod to the British aristocracy in Oak Leaves and Lavender that eventually disintegrates into Purple Dust in his deluge myth.

If we could read the minds of great authors every time we wanted to, some of the  wonder would be spoiled.

Alice in Wonderland.

 

 

 

Actually Everything is in the Name

Sometimes my college students in the basic literature/composition class tell me that they "just can't understand" the stories. Where do I get all those crazy ideas? Lately it has occurred to me that they overlook the title, because most of the time the meaning is right there, at the very, very beginning. What Aristotle called "Thought," close to what we mean by "Theme," is stated either symbolically, as in Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," or literally, but concisely,as in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use."

Look at the title, I now shriek. How can you miss "The Things They Carried," "The Tell Tale Heart," "The Dead"? And it occurs to me, as well, that titles may be even more important for plays than for fiction. Audiences don't like to be disappointed on their evening out. It helps enormously for a title to be meaningful, before they even buy the ticket.

So the question arises, how do authors come up with titles? Does the title inspire a theme, or the other way around. I've been examining the titles of my plays lately, and I find, for me, it can be either way, or something more complicated. 

Remember the old saying, "If you give a dog a bad name, he will be a bad dog"? And if you give a dog a nothing-name, he won't know he's your dog.

Persnickity Violet

My Titles

This discussion about titles inspired me to take a fresh look at some of mine. I've been doing some housework lately, dusting off and sprucing off some plays I have written over the years for specific venues, and therefore deadlines. Except for two of them, they were hurried a bit, and I thought they needed  loving care before I send them back out in the cruel world. 

So I noticed that  one of my titles was suggested by a Texas tradition that one of my friends, who owns several ranches along the border, mentioned to me in passing. She told me of a time when ranchers on this side of the border maintained small cabins for the Mexican families coming across to work for short times. These cabins were furnished with cots, non-perishabale food, water, and heat. But when things got dangerous along that route, the cabins were vandalized, and  the tradition was abandoned. 

Families searching for lodging in a strange land. Little cabins. That idea evolved into my play The Christmas Cabin.

One of my plays was suggested by the title of an article in The Texas Monthly, which I casually read while at the hairdressers: The Sweet Taste of Prickly Pear. It was actually about the making of prickly pear margaritas, but what intrigued me was the paradoxical nature of the prickly pear, beautiful and sweet, yet painful. Kind of like life right?

Over the years I traveled to Ireland and Britain, sometimes during the holiday season, and fell in love with the Panto plays. I had written an adaptation of The King Stag by Carlo Gozzi that I produced several years ago. Maybe it would be a good candidate for a panto play. And maybe it should be reset.And so it became The King Stag of the Fairy Forest (A Panto Play First Performed for the International Association of Doonies by the Most Audacious Commedia D'ell Arte).

And then there are my two Texas/Irish History plays. When I was a child, I often attended events at the Menger Hotel in my hometown of San Antonio. There was a plaque on one of the bedrooms there memoralizing Oscar Wilde's stay  in 1882, so Oscar Wilde and The Rose of San Antone was conceived.

And finally my most revised play, which was inspired by the early Texas Irish colonists who settled along our Texas Coastal Bend. The first title was Little Hill of Refuge, suggested by Nuestra Senora del Rufugio, the Spanish mission where these hearties first hid. After several other titles, it became More Dear Than Gold, a lyric from the  revolutionary songThe Boys of Wexford, apropos because those Wexford people went from one revolution to another.

So I guess titles can come from all kinds of places. The requirement is that they should be memorable and relevant. 

Violette (see?)

The Hardest Job I Ever Loved

 My very first teaching job was in an upper middle class newly built high school, so "fine," that one of my professors at U of Houston suggested that it would be worth my parents moving clear across the city so I would always be closer than the unbearable morning traffic. But no, that was not the hard job, and it wasn't the one I loved, and have loved ever since.

It lasted barely a week, and then I was sent to the docks--literally. On a hot Monday morning I sat in a forlorn excuse for a courtyard, watching what I thought at first were squirrels, until my vision adjusted, and then they were rats. I had just been introduced to my junior high "classroom," a place where paint apparently couldn't stay on the walls. The flexible blackboard unfolded into three pieces forming access to the "cloak room." An exhausted American flag, sooty and wrinkled, hung high from the doorway. In the distance the outline of a tall ship could be hazily discerned. I was in the Harrisburg district, only a whistle away from the inter-coastal canal and the ship channel.

What on earth had I done? Soon my transgression was revealed. The principal of that hall of learning had been searching for a candidate who could teach English while running a "Drama Club." Almost none of his students spoke English at home, and most of them were so desperately poor that they barely had enough nourishment and clothing to get them through the day. He thought that getting to be in a play would inspire them to pick up English quickly, that it would give them a chance to "shine," that a play or two might even attract the parents to "conference night," and that a little joy and fun would be good things to have, too.

And By God, he was right. We had opening school and closing of school programs. We had talent shows. We had paint the set Saturdays. We had duet scenes, and poety readings, and went to "speech contests."

But then, the big time beckoned. The junior high school speech teachers formed a junior high school interscholastic league featuring a one act play contest, based on the biggie sponsored by the University of Texas that high schools across the state were required to participate in. Our replica, instead of being divided by wealth, location, and size would include all the junior high schools in Houston. Could we compete? Would we even dare?

Act II, after a short intermission.

Cecil B. De Mille

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

We had to strike out before daylight that Saturday, and drive many miles. Nervous parents delivered their sacred children into my hands that dark morning,  before cell phones and texting provided ways to keep track. My husband drove our Mercury, my loyal Mom  at the wheel of her Pontiac.  After an hour or so, we were in another world. "Look," said the kids. "Some houses take up a whole block!"  When the sun came up, the paper bags with tamales and tacos were opened up, fuel for the coming frey.

A little mite at the door handed out the schedules. A few weeks earlier, we teachers had met and drawn for places on the program. I had drawn third place, pretty good, because the kids wouldn't be exhausted by then, and they could relax for the lunchbreak right after that. All was to be over by four, making it possible for us to be home before dark.

"But wait," I said to little mite. "Where is Edison Junior High?"    Little mite said she didn't answer questions. That was for the big guys. 

"Oh," said  Biggest Guy. " Here you are. On the back."

And there we were, all right. Dead last. "But I drew third," I stuttered. ( I was 21 years old.)

" We had formal requests from some of the other schools who wanted to be through early," Biggest Guy said. "Besides, we didn't really think you'd come all the way over here. And your names are long," he perceptively added. "They took up more space."

 So okay. We would wait it out. The day dragged on as other schools, who "could not make it" to the scheduled rehearsals, practiced on the stage--right before they performed.

Lunch  break. A barbecue joint, thank goodness. Supper break. Hamburger joint, thank goodness. And always on my mind: those parents waiting in far away Harrisburg.  No phones in those homes at all. By 7:00 I was  frantically calling the principal from a pay phone. Finally at 8:00, after we had been waiting for over 12 hours, we took the stage.

This story even has a moral. If you cheat, you might as well do a good job. Halfway cheating is a sign of incompetence, which shows up, especially when contrasted with excellence. The clever devils had given us an entire page of our own on the program. We were special somehow, and anticpated. They had also handed us the strongest position in any contest--dead last, the one the judge would be watching with relief, the one he would most remember.

And besides we were professionals, remember?

The next day the shout heard round the school, when our happy, smart principal announced over the P. A.: Becky,Best Actress, for the whole darned day. Norberto, Second Place, Supporting Actor, his new shoes danced around all the competition. And Honorable Mention for Sound Composition: Edward and Wei, who handled that tape recorder as if it held the gold from the Seven Cities of Cibolo.

Becky, Edward, Julie, Leticia, Norberto, Robert, and Wei.  Real professionals.

Merry Christmas.

The Nut and the Apple

John Millington Synge once wrote, "In a good play, every speech should be as fully flavored as a nut or apple." Then he also said, "In countries where the imagination of the people, and the language they use, is rich and living, it is possible for a writer to be rich and copious in his words, and at the same time to give the reality, which is the root of all poetry, in a comprehensive and natural form."

He was speaking of  Ireland, of course. And he would know. Although he was Anglo -Irish by lineage and culture, a city-dweller in an agrarian country, and a world traveler, in order to capture the soul of the native Irish, he would spend much of his time in the Aran Islands, eavesdropping, just to gather the nuts and apples. 

Sean O'Casey, born John Cassidy, set out to do the same for the Dubliners. He didn't have to move to any obscure place; he lived within it, and his Dublin dialect, like Synge's Western one, was sheer poetry. "I'm telling you, Joxer, th' whole worl's in a terrible state o'chassis!", says Jack Boyle. And it has never been said better.

There has long been a sort of squabble in the theatre, sometimes blamed on, or traced back to, Ibsen. It is a contest between the poetry of the Romantic and the nakedness of the "Real." But here were two masters insisting that in a vital culture the two cannot be separated. Poetry lifts  the mundane into the sublime. Life is both plough and stars--and at the same time.

So should a playwright be a poet? For a play to last through the centuries, for it to traverse the world, Yes, I think so. It is being said that right now we are again in a kind of golden age of playwrighting. But many plays are written and produced based on personal attitude, rather than on transcendent truths. There can be many reasons for this, predictable television, the silly internet, but, most of all, it might have much to do with the fact that we are so besmirched with petty politics.

Listen to the words that Synge puts in the mouth of the dying Deidre: "It's heartbreak to the wise that it's for a short space we have the same things only....Death should be a poor, untidy thing, though it's a queen that dies."

 In O'Casey's masterpiece The Plough and the Stars,a young couple in love, Nora and Jack Clitheroe, sit on a couch as a deadly revolution is brewing in the streets of Dublin. It is to be their last conversation. O'Casey often put his poetry into song, and so Jack sings to his pretty bride:

"The violets are scenting the woods, Nora,

Displaying their charms to the bee,

When I first said I loved only you, Nora,

And ye said ye loved only me.

The birds, bees and trees sang a song, Nora,

Of happier transports to be,

When I first said I loved only you, Nora,

And ye said ye loved only me."

Yours truly,

Bill Shakespeare

 

Does Perfect always mean Best

 My late husband loved opera, a preference I didn't share. I loved ballet, a preference he didn't share. So we agreed that I would sit through opera without complaining, and he would sit quietly through ballet, without whispering, "Didn't they just do that???"

Then he took me to New York to see a production at the Met. La Boheme, which I had seen before--but not like that. I was sold.

What had happened? Well, it was obvious. I had seen opera as it was meant to be done. I had witnessed something as close to perfection as we human beings can create.

So, one of my  theories is that some performing arts absolutely need to be excellent, or not bothered with at all. I think opera falls into that category, and so does ballet, which my husband continued to merely tolerate--maybe because I never took him to the Royal Ballet.

But I don't feel that way about theatre. I love excellence there when I see it, of course. But I also love second graders acting our fairy tales. I love to hear Shakespeare recited in a Texas Drawl. I love it when I spot an amateur actor upstaging the star, in a perfectly innocent, and totally unintentional moment.

I have been criticized for that attitude, and yet to me the theatre sort of lends itelf to mass participation. There is no such thing, I don't think, as real Community Opera. There is of course ballet school recital, but no Community Ballet Theatre. Those arts depend heavily on exactness, on perfection, on a discipline that amateurs, in spite of their well-known amore, cannot  muster up.Spontaneity is discouraged because one mistake can be disastrous, and audiences are select.There is, therefore, an exclusiveness inherent these two genres.

Some of my fondest memories of our old building in Handley are of our Christmas celebrations. Anyone who wanted to could tell a story, recite a poem, sing a song. We flung open our overhead door so that anyone passing by could see  and join us. We baked hot dogs in the parking lot, and Santa Claus showed up, not with reindeer, but with the old German Shepherd who guarded the neighboring building. He always thought he was an understudy. If we forgot to close the back door, he would wander onto the stage.

And then there was that train. It whizzed by right behind us at 9:00 sharp,every performance, blowing its horn and clacking away. Sometimes our clever actors incorporated it into the conversation. Sometimes all they could do was shut up.

We were not the National Theatre. But, My God, did we have fun.

I love opera and I love ballet. But I don't think they are exactly "fun." Playful is a characteristic of that god who invented theatre. Dionysus is such a card.

Violet, the Cable Guy.

Let the memories begin

I am at the age where I have a kitchen cabinet of them, and  I guess the intent, at least partly, of all this blogging is to get them out on the dining room table. Not only do I have a list of memorable lines; I also have a list of productions I have never even halfway forgotten--not mine, which of course I never forget.

Just a few, organized not in any order except where I was when I saw them:

1. Sharon's Grave, by John B. Keane, Gate Theatre, 1995, Dublin, Ireland. The shivery keening scene, the beautiful language, and especially the last scene where a gaggle of romping fairies part, and we see the lovely, quite naked, Celtic Goddess riding off on the shoulders of the simple, but romantic, farmhand. 

2. Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen, same city, Abbey Theatre. This was advertised as  an  "Irish adaptation,"  but all I could pick up of the Irish is that the maid was named Bridget. However, the intricate dialogue, the tension between the incurably romantic Hedda and her dull reality, and the difficult suicide scene were perfectly executed.

3. Long Day's Journey into Night, Eugene O'Neil, New York City, Broadway. Starred Vanessa Redgrave. At the box office they asked us if we wanted ear phones. The actors were going raw, without amplification, and this was bound to bother some in the modern audience. We refused and witnessed what old-fashioned projection sounded like in a large house: absolutely unstrained and inflected to perfection.

4. Juno and the Paycock, Sean O'Casey, Irish Repertory Theatre, New York City, part of the O'Casey festival 2019. This was at the end of a whole day of productions of O'Casey's Dublin trilogy, the energetic actors playing in repertory. All three productions were excellent, but Juno won the heavily contested prize. We couldn't possibly hate the selfish old bloke. In fact his casa was our casa.

I have so many more--and some that I had something to do with. If you have a memorable production, send it to me at violet@playfullplaywright.com.

No Place Like Home

Still rummaging through my basket for favorite productions, I have to mention some that happened right in my theatre, but not of my doing.

1. The Darling, an adaptation of Chehov's short story, performed as a one woman monologue by Lisa Dalton, produced by the Michael Chekhov Association of Tarrant County. Imagine, an hour of one person talking Chekhov, and it was riveting. When my husband and I first founded Pantagleize Theatre Co., our resolve was to do international plays that would ordinarily be considered "too hard," or even "too boring," and do them so they weren't either. And here was our ideal right in front of me, and with little or no effort from  me. One of those evenings that you relive possibly forever.

2. When We Dead Awaken, by Henrik Ibsen. We had already produced Ibsen's  Little Eyolf, and thereby obtained some positive notice from the Ibsen Association in Oslo. And so, the reasoning went, why not do the really risky one, the flawed one, the one the critics couldn't stand, but gave a grudging e for effort to. "It just doesn't work," they have screamed forever.

I turned the directing duties over to our most enthusiastic youngster, Kami Rogers, who dug in like a bulldog. But she ran into a casting dilemma. She had two actresses who were equally excellent; she just couldn't decide between them.  Then it came to her in a light bulb, she said. There is a time progression in that play and one of the actresses was  slightly more mature than the other. And so we had the early leading lady, and the later leading lady. And OMG. For maybe the first time  in a long time, the play worked. D magazine sent a Dallas critic, who gave us a rave and an A, a much needed pat on the back for us, by the way.  Sometimes a simple adjustment can turn a dilemma of a play into the masterpiece it intended to be.

3. To Love the Earth, conceived and performed by master story teller, De Cee Cornish. And here is the sticky wicket. This threatened to be the kind of interview play that I usually pass up. The frame is that George Washington Carver is telling his life to a fascinated student, an endeavor that could become static. But De Cee, a nationally recognized professional story teller, knows about hills and valleys, about tension and release, and on top of that is an accomplished actor. Instead of just giving us a biography, he compiled the stories surrounding Carver, and turned the evening into the unfolding of a legend.  It was one of those evenings that you don't want to be over. 

So, Lisa, Kami, and De Cee--unforgettable is what you are, to me. (You can read more about DeCee at www.DeCee Cornish.com

Violet

The Critic As Colleague?

A theatre troupe is very much like a family, and this  is something everyone knows. We all have a role to play around the table, and sometimes the wise aunt  unexpectedly shows up to provide a much needed objective viewpoint. Sometimes, however,  in walks the drunk uncle, or the bitter old maid.

Should the theatre critic be considered "family" or not.  Is he or she the fountain of wisdom and encouragement--or not? The Good Critic, like the Good Wife,  can make  such a positive difference that she becomes indispensable. I have a little list of conjugal duties.

1. The good critic always shows up in a state of alertness. This means sober, awake, and informed.

2.  Good critics do not review theatre companies that they are supporting financially, or any that are in competition with them.

3.  A good critic works through the management of the theatre, always announcing his coming, appearing only during acceptable times (not at a preview or rehearsal), and never at the behest of a rogue actor or playwright.

4. Good critics make an effort to review more than the acting. The technicians, the director, the playwright are also  worth more than a nod.

5. A good critic loves the theatre, loves the people in the theatre, and appreciates the devotion and  labor that goes into the birthing of a production.

So what is the opposite of the critic as colleague and consort? The critic as curmudgeon, of course. These creatures are thankfully rare, but when they  emerge they are especially deadly, thereby attracting much attention to themselves, which they thrive on, like vultures on carrion.

Jonathan Swift

 

Don't You Just Hate Learning Experiences?

Combine my long life with my impulsive nature and you have one long learning experience. Running a theatre, teaching drama and literature for long stretches, have definitely made me a sadder and wiser woman. One of the lessons that should have been easy to learn, for me anyway, has stayed with me simply because it was basically a matter of common courtesy, and common integrity, too.

Respect the playwright, so simple, and yet how often violated. It is true, of course that a good director can  light up a script with innovation and imagination. My critic friend in Philadelphia just wrote a review of The Playboy of the Western World now playing in a small independent theatre up there. At the end of the play we get to see Playboy and Papa departing to America. A nice touch that Synge, I think, would be delighted with.

The key, I think, is to enchance the script without tampering with it. An over-controlling director can distort in ways that he (she) does not see, until he (she) stops doing it, and notices how much better the original really is. Tinkering with the language of a play is  most destructive, because the language sets the rhythm, which in turn determines the timing.

One of my most embarrasing, and most valuable learning experiences, had to do with that very thing.

Next page.

Shogun Violet.

I tinker with W.B. Yeats

Yes, I did. For years I had wanted to produce or direct "The Only Jealousy of Emer," one of Yeats' plays "for dancers." Derived from the Cuchulain myths, it is a dream play in more ways than one, combining mystery, music, and Japanese theatre to recreate an old, old story. It was hard.

The opportunities for visual spectacle were great, but the language, well the word "turgid" came to mind. And then there were the directions that the actors had to move in a kind of beat to it. So, just how would my Texans  take to that?

 I confess. I modernized the language, so we could all "understand it better," and ignored  the fact that the verse parts of the play were supposed to be set to some kind of ancient musical accompaniment. It went well, but only barely.

Then we got an invitation to perform it at the Gerard Manley Hopkins Literary Festival in Monsterevan, Ireland. There would be academics and artists and poets from all over Europe there. There would be genuine Irish people, too. Would they notice, or appreciate, my innovation? Well, of course not. I put it back the way it was, turgid langguage and all. And told one of our musicians that yes indeed that verse needed some music behind it. But the "dancer" part I still ignored.

And guess what. The verse provided a clearly discernible "beat," once the music was there. And guess what? The actors responded accordingly, moving in accord with that established beat even when the music was not there. 

I consider that performance in Monsterevan our most beautiful one . Too bad we didn't give that to our Texans as well.

Guess W. B. knew what he was doing, you think?

Humble Pie

Speaking of beautiful

When I was a wee lass my Gran took me to see a production of The Vagabond King in the amphitheatre just below the Japanese Tea Garden in San Antonio. (I can't remember the name of it.) Of course I did not get the plot, but I was astonished at the beauty. The women in those cone hats with the scarves flowing behind. The men in colorful tights and tunics,  magnificently handsome. The glorious music. I acted it all out for weeks, Clancy my loyal bulldog both critic and audience. It was my first lesson in the power of the beautiful.

I have held onto it all my life. I have noticed that the greatest playwrights, even when writing about trouble and tragedy do not abandon beauty. I have noticed, too, how mediocre playwrights ignore it, often on purpose.

A Streetcar Named Desire, depicting the destruction of a sensitive soul, is beautiful at its core. The Death of a Salesman is one of my favorites, my Dad a traveling salesman for most of his career. What a sad, but beautiful depiction of decency, nobility, and disaster. A Raisin in the Sun, anchored in poetry and the sheer beauty of hope and humanity.

I am fascinated by the resiliency of beauty, its omnipresence and omnipotence. Remember the academy award winning movie Life is Beautiful, I think was the title? Beauty in a nazi concentration camp. Beauty is outside of all flesh, although it is alive within us.

(Isn't paradox beautiful?)

Just Violet.

Beauty can be kind of weird

The proof that beauty is not flesh bound, and is not merely visual, is found in music. Music is audible beauty, but also illustrates the mental and spiritiual nature of it. We all know what it is to have a tune playing in our minds--and I mean mind, not head--sometimes not even remembering when we last heard it.

Shortly after my husband passed, I awoke in the middle of the night, hearing his voice singing "My Heart Stood Still," a ditty that I had not heard since Bing Crosby sang it long ago. The heart in the song stood still  upon seeing the beloved the first time, but the fact that it stood still carried additional implications  under my circumtances.

Sometimes I wonder if  lovely melodies, and their lyrics, linger all around, just below our conscious awareness, somewhat like the radio signals that fly right past us, right through us, without our awareness. Maybe sometimes we become antennas?

Weird experience: Around 1980, I began having a strange dream. I was immersed in Irish literature at the time, and I started dreaming that I was living in a small cottage along a coast line. I had a husband named Michael who was taken away by some soldiers. I called out his name as he was taken away. I visited him in prison and he told me to take care of our children, to raise them "right."

I never forgot that recurring dream, and many years later, while visiting Ireland I heard a group singing "The Fields of Anthenry." I was not familiar with the tune, but the plot was almost identical with my recurring dream. I learned that the song had been released about 1979.

So what had happened? 1. I heard the song on the radio somehow, buried it, and then resurrected it in my dream?

2. The plot was a common one, with events that were rather usual during the Irish famine. My dream had nothing to do with the song, but with historical events I had read about ?

3. The lovely lyrics reached my American sensibility, traveling through a common spiritual field that we all share. The composer of the lyrics was picking up on the same poetic beauty that surronded both of us and all of us?

Most will choose the first possiblity. Some will choose the second. Few will choose the third. 

 

 

Your right to like it--or not

Something in me despises a reading list, although I have forced hundreds of them on suspecting students.

Just recently, our PBS stations magnanimously sponsored a contest to determine  THE American novel. The basic problem, besides the subtle arrogance of the project, was that it was not clear whether we would be dictating the greatest, or the most agreeable, or the most unique.

Greatest seemed unlikely, though, because the experts at PBS provided us with the basic list already screened just for us, and many greats were missing. Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner was missing, as was early American genius Nathaniel Hawthorne. Pioneer Pearl Buck wasn't there. Mark Twain was there, but he was represented by a children's classic, Tom Sawyer. This in spite of the fact that Ernest Hemingway designated Hucklberry Finn as the book that originated "all of modern American literature."

There were others on the list that most Americans have never even heard of, and some that were very good, but only slightly familiar. No, what we were looking for was " most agreeable." And of course we found it. 

I love To Kill a Mockingbird, too. And yes we all do. Will it stand the test of time. I doubt it. It is too agreeable. In some literary ways, it is even inferior to its maligned counterpart, Gone With the Wind, because that book is a prime example of dramatic irony, illustrating a rather unique oxymoron, honest romanticism. It is a stirring example of the magic think that Twain believed contributed to the Civil War. Pretty clever of Margaret Mitchell, wasn't it, to begin her saga with "It was a land of Cavaliers." She was telling the  truth, for our southeast coast was liberally settled by refugees running  from, or tansported by, Oliver Cromwell, and  honest to goodness Cavaliers, loyal to King Charles, were among them.

We are living in an era of  vast opinion, which our undereducated, highly susceptible youth believe is more truthful than fact. Little modernists that they are, their magic think is that truth is only a matter of taste.  And so the opinionated people with the widest audience are powerful in ways we don't even think about. What has this to do with theatre? Lots, but right now, I'm about to tell you all about Majorie Morningstar.

And I will defend to the death, my right to like it, and to say so.

Violet Voltaire.

Marjorie Morningstar

When my friend Judy and I were in high school, we stage struck little sillies absolutely surrounded ourselves with anything theatrical. We tucked the monthly Theatre Arts magazine into our notebooks during Study Period in the library. We sat up in bed on Friday nights and read the scripts of newly produced plays on Broadway, which were the main feature of that publication (wouldn't it be great if it were still in publication?).

When Marjorie Morningstar, a much anticipated novel,  finally came out, we each  obtained our own book, read it every spare moment, then discussed our observations over the phone, just as if we were professional critics. 

Marjorie was stage struck like we were, and had the good fortune to live in New York city where opportunity abounded. The story is narrated by a would-be suitor, who sort of knew all the way through the story that Marjorie would not make it. Like so many, she loved the theatre, and yet was unremarkable in the particular way that art form requires. She was virginal, lady like, un-tough, and could neither project nor radiate, someone who was destined to become someone's cherished Jewish wife. She did, and by middle age had forgotten all about her foolish fancy. 

Oh how we pitied her--well, maybe not. She got a nice Jewish husband as a consolation prize, but the narrator never got that second kiss from Marjorie underneath the  cherry blossoms (that's a paraphrase of the vaguely remembered curtain line).

Now, this book rarely makes it--well, never makes it--onto any "list" any more. In fact, it is considered something of an embarrassement, because it--such a chick thing--was written by distinguished author Herman Wouk, who also wrote a zinger of the times: The Caine Mutiny.

So what's wrong with writing just a damned good read? Lots of snooties wish they could!

Aphra Behn

 

The Importance of Gesture

Sean O'Casey once said that play writing appealed to him because it was so economical. Much of what a play becomes depends on the innovations of the rest of the production team, and of course, actors are probably the most important. Being heard is the first rule. It matters not what he feels deep inside, or even what sublte nuance she brings to the line. A cultivated, unstrained voice, and natural but clear diction is basic. 

But beyond that,  the body language is more important than many people realize. An untrained actor is most noticeable by  a careless posture, an awkward presence, and either a collection of nervous pointless gestures or a stiff standing there. One clear, graceful, meaningful gesture can be worth more than a thousand words.

This lesson was brought home to me many years ago when I was the Drama Director of a large urban high school. My energetic students were not much for the spoken word, so I formed a pantomime troupe. It was an instant hit and soon we found ourselves in demand.

One Christmas season, we were invited to perform at a group home. It turned out that the residents were all children operating at levels far below their chronological age. Oh, no, I thought. This is cruel. They will never understand.

Our troupe formed a Christmas Tree--and yes it is possible. One tall boy sat down next to it, his arms and legs stretched out, like a teddy bear. From the back of the room, a little girl who appeared to be almost unconscious, suddently "came to," climbed down from a lap and began crawling down the aisle. When she reached that teddy bear, she climbed on his lap, snuggled to his chest, and went back to sleep.

Later, the nurses who had been paralyzed with amazement, and then reduced to tears, spoke with me. This was the first time the little girl had indicated any awareness of her environment.

What was the catalyst for the transformation, they wondered. Was it the festive atmosphere, the bright lights, the joyous music? No, we concluded. It was those loving arms.

The great actor and inspired teacher Michael Chekhov taught what he named "psychological gesture." There is an association right here in North Texas that promotes and imparts his theories and technique. For a full understanding of what constitutes the complete actor, look them up.

Winnie the Pooh.