Category Archives: Random

Why Write Plays

We’re nearing one of several points in the year in which most playwrights have just completed a bevy of applications in which they’ve been asked to articulate “why theater?” Why devote a life to writing plays for (relatively) meager financial reward? Though the question is oft-repeated, it’s a vital one. One that, precisely because of the lack of financial reward, sparks a multitude of fascinating responses.

After answering the question on application after application for several years now, I feel like I’m finally able to articulate my compelling case for theater. I’m not promising (or even pretending) my thoughts are unique, but they’re mine, and I like them, so I’ve decided to share them here, where individuals beyond those who will screen my various applications can read them.

My Reasons For Writing Plays

1) Theater is the only art form in which artists are necessarily present to witness their audience receive and respond to the work. I love forging connections between performers and audience, and I want to be present to witness these connections myself.

2) I relish the inherent challenge of telling bold, epic stories theatrically. This requires embracing the relative poverty of theater and using my ingenuity and imagination as well as those of my collaborators to theatrically render stories that are impossible to realize realistically. I love the fact that the relative poverty of theater serves as a catalyst for my most imaginative and inventive storytelling, thereby coaxing the audience into using their own imaginations in concert with the actors, director, and designers. It is this collective imagining that forges the connection between audience and artists that is crucial to the realization of any arresting piece of theater.

3) I aspire to bring disparate groups into a single space in order to cultivate community. I’ve come to understand this desire as one that is deeply rooted my own identity as a multi-ethnic artist living between cultures. Growing up between my mother’s Latina culture and my father’s German-American culture, I never felt completely comfortable in either. To this day, I always have this nagging, uneasy feeling that I am an “other,” that I do not belong no matter where I am. In many ways, my aspirations for my art are an attempt to counteract this feeling. I aspire to create an idealistic space in which different communities can encounter each other and see each other with greater empathy. I aspire to cultivate the rare space in which I feel completely comfortable, completely at home.

How I Work

This (and by “this” I mean LifeHacker‘s ‘How I Work’ series) is my new favorite thing. Tons of great tips about process and ways of thinking about working that I’ve found actionable and have really kick-started my productivity over the past couple days. I’ll definitely be posting in more detail about the specific productivity steps I’ve taken, but I wanted to share the ‘How I Work’ series because it’s amazing.

My good friend, Nathan Green, a wonderful theater artist/renaissance man who has been working with a tech start-up of late, was telling me last week about how fascinated he is by the extent to which people who work in tech development are obsessed with process. This was a fascinating insight to me as a theater artist because I think of a fixation on process as the exclusive provenance of arts. But, of course, many tech developers view their work as art (and with good reason) so it makes sense that they would also fixate on process, albeit with a different lens.

What can we, as artists, learn from the processes of different industries.

What can they learn from us?

Actions You Can’t Fake Onstage

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about liveness in theater and about the simple choices we can make as theater artists to enhance our competitive advantage as a medium (especially in an era when we’re losing so much ground to digital media). I’ve been incredibly fortunate to see a lot of wonderful theater of late that keenly takes advantage of theater’s “competitive advantage” as a medium. Throughout these pieces, I’ve noticed many very simple physical actions or activities that are theatrically breath-taking precisely because they are “real.” They are not faked. They cannot be undone or reversed.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about activities and actions (such as sex and violence) that theater artists attempt to render representationally but only fall flat theatrically precisely because the audience knows the actions they’re witnessing are not “real.” Violence is something I’ve rendered in a lot of my plays, and it’s precisely because I find representational renderings of violence so unsatisfying in the theater that I always try to render violence metaphorically so as to capture the truth of how characters emotionally experience that violence. This is my theatrical attempt to make the violence in my plays more haunting and brutal.

And now I’m working on a play that puts sex and sexuality front and center. I feel similarly about representational renderings of sex onstage as I do about such renderings of violence. So now I’m trying to assemble a list (I started by soliciting contributions on facebook) of actions or activities that you can’t fake onstage. Actions that are, theatrically, the antithesis of representational renderings of sex and violence. I guess it’s my hope that, with this list, I (and whoever reads this) can begin to brainstorm more arresting ways to metaphorically render activities like sex and violence onstage.

Can we replace our representational renderings of sex and violence with metaphorical renderings that employ these activities so as to heighten the sense of danger and immediacy the audience feels? By doing so can we more effectively communicate the emotional truth of the moments of sex and violence we’re rendering onstage?

The list is below. Thanks to all who shared their thoughts on facebook. Feel free to add any other ideas, thoughts, or reactions in the comments on this post.

Eating

Drinking

Shattering plates

Cooking

Urinating

Kissing

Yelling

Vomiting

Throwing sharp knives and/or saw blades

Squeezing oranges for juice

Food preparation in general

Doing flips and other challenging acrobatic/athletic feats

Painting

Painting a person’s body

Tatooing

Cutting hair

Shaving a head

Holding breath under water

Hurling yourself at the ground

Melting ice

Setting something on fire

Tightrope walking

Painting nails

Building something from scratch (such as hats in Far Away)

Whipping cream by shaking it in a jar

Churning butter

Lighting a match

Ripping up paper

Sledgehammer to the set

Pies to the face

Physiological reactions

Salivating

Sweating

An erection

Letting the audience cut off pieces of a costume (like in Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece)

Rolling dice

Playing games of chance

Building a house of cards

Playing an instrument

Sewing

Knitting

Sculpting

Stringing a guitar

Chemical reactions

Putting together furniture

Putting on/Taking off makeup

 

Enneagram Updates

As promised, I’m writing with updates on my reading about the Enneagram. On Saturday, I checked out two books: The Enneagram by Helen Palmer and The Wisdom Of The Enneagram by Don Richard Riso and Ross Hudson. Completely unbeknownst to me at the time, I’d obtained books from the two major Enneagram schools: The Palmer School and The Riso/Hudson School. I’m so glad I did because there are definite strengths and weaknesses to each.

Let’s start with Palmer. . .

Strengths: I really admire how clinical and level-headed her approach is. She speaks with great specificity about the ways in which psychological research substantiates certain patterns in the different personality types. She provides helpful discussions of how certain Enneagram personality types correlate with different MBTI categories and certain mental health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, narcissism, sociopathy, etc. She also provides ample firsthand accounts of each personality type that allow us a window into the specific cognitive and behavioral patterns that are unique to each type. I love her explanations of how each type might pay attention and intuit. In order to explain this, she uses simple yet evocative visual metaphors for what each type looks for and takes note of upon entering a new environment. Perhaps my favorite part of Palmer’s book is how she maps hypothetical relationship arcs between different types. So, for example, when talking about 2’s, she’ll map out an intimate relationship between a 2 and a 4 and then an authority relationship between a 2 and an 8. As a playwright, I find these (admittedly hypothetical) descriptions incredibly fertile material. She talks about how different cognitive and behavioral patterns can cause different types to meet and miss under different circumstances.

Weaknesses: Palmer tends to focus on the unhealthy cognitive and behavioral patterns of each type to the point that each personality type can start to seem like a pathology from which a person must liberate him or herself. For example, whereas Riso/Hudson call Type 3 “The Achiever” Palmer calls this type “The Performer.” So you can finish her book without a very clear sense of the unique strengths each type might possess when healthy. And while she acknowledges that almost everyone possesses a “wing” type, she doesn’t clearly address how, for example, a 2 with a 3 wing might differ from a 2 with a 1 wing. She also isn’t clear about the specific traits each type adopts from other types when under stress or security. So, while she acknowledges that a 3 might adopt certain attributes of a 6 when feeling particularly secure, she doesn’t clarify which attributes.

Riso/Hudson. . .

Strengths: Riso and Husdon are very specific about how behavioral and cognitive patterns can vary within each type. They are specific about how a 1 with a 2 wing might differ from a 1 with a 9 wing. Riso and Hudson also break each type down into three different instincts. They explain that there are three basic human instincts: self-preservation (obtaining material security), social, and sexual. And they claim that most people privilege one of these three. This leads them to explain how the behavior of a 3 who privileges the self-preservation instinct might differ from that of a 3 who privileges the social instinct. These descriptions allowed me to more easily identify what I believe my type is. Finally, I appreciate how they map out the unhealthy and healthy attributes of each type and exactly which traits each type might adopt when under stress or security. So, for example, I can know exactly how a 3 might behave like a 6 when feeling secure and a 9 when under stress.

Weaknesses: I find the tone a little more precious and less level-headed, especially in the book’s introductory sections. I appreciate Palmer’s more sober stance. Also, Riso/Hudson include far fewer first-person accounts. Because of that, while Riso/Hudson paint a more varied portrait of each type, I find their portraits lack the depth and vividness of Palmer’s portraits. Palmer’s portraits might seem more twisted and pathological, but most compelling drama traffics in people who are relatively insecure and unhealthy.

Overal, though, I find each book a wonderful resource, and I plan to add each to my collection. I’m so glad I followed my impulse to begin reading about the Enneagram even if it has meant not doing much writing this week. It’s been an eye-opening experience to say the least–one I’m certain will yield tangible benefits in my future writing. Fictional characters whom I had found incredibly compelling yet enigmatic in the past suddenly make sense to me. I have a specific sense of how their environment has shaped their cognitive patterns, what emotional needs drive their behavior, and how those needs manifest in the different idiosyncrasies and tensions present in their behavior. For example, Palmer’s description of a 3 has really helped me understand Don Draper and her picture of an 8 allows me an insight to how Roy Cohn behaves in Angels in America.

It’s also been really eye-opening how some of my most vivid and compelling characters hew closely to particular types. Here are the characters of mine whose types I’ve been able to identify thus far. . .

Edward Moreno (White Tie Ball): 1 with a 2 wing

Margaret Spencer (White Tie Ball): 2 with a 3 wing

Renzo Rafaeli (The Making Of A Modern Folk Hero): 3

Julian Flores (The Solid Sand Below): 6

Each book states openly at the outset that its goal is to foster empathy and compassion between people of different types. They have definitely done so for me. Each books feels like a glimpse into the cognitive and behavioral patterns of people whose backgrounds and viewpoints are radically different from my own. I feel like my reading has the potential to greatly broaden the kinds of characters who might populate my writing while allowing me to render each character with greater nuance and empathy.

Enneagram & Maslow

So I was at a reading of another Jerome Fellow’s plays this afternoon when one of the actors was discussing the Enneagram as a way of comprehending his character before the reading began. If you’re not familiar with the Enneagram, it is (according to Wikipedia) a “model of human personality.” The most popular model of human personality (at least in my experience) is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which breaks people down into two different types along four different scales (Extroversion v. Introversion, Sensing v. Intuition, Thinking v. Feeling, Judging v. Perceiving). Based on where you fall along each scale, the MBTI then assigns you a particular personality type. I tend to vary between an INFP and INTJ based on the circumstances of my life at a particular moment. I have heard from several people whose judgment I trust in these matters that the Enneagram is a far more complex and comprehensive model of human personality than the MBTI and, spurred by this particular actor’s comments, I decided to read up about the Enneagram. I’m always looking for ways to more firmly grasp the characters in my plays (story tends to be my strong suit as a writer while character is more of a challenge) so I thought I’d do a little digging into the Enneagram. From what I’ve read so far, I’m incredibly impressed. My initial impression has nothing to do with my sense of the Enneagram as some effective measure of personality (I have zero grounds on which to make such claims) but rather with my sense of its potential as a guide for crafting characters in dramatic writing. The way the Enneagram describes how certain types default to certain emotions (shame, anxiety, anger) and engage in certain behaviors as a reaction to feeling those default emotions feels incredibly dramatic to me. I also find it incredibly exciting that the Enneagram accounts for the ways in which environment can shape our personality type and how we respond emotionally to certain challenges. All of this feels like rich material for understanding why and how a character might respond to adversity. And isn’t that what dramatic writing is? Understanding your characters’ emotional needs, how each character goes about satisfying those needs, and what happens when your characters’ efforts are inevitably stymied?  My initial reading about the Enneagram reminds me a great deal of when I first encountered Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs in a non-major psych class in undergrad. I still find Maslow’s Hierarchy to be an incredibly relevant resource for nailing down my characters’ often complex motivations. Only time will tell if the Enneagram will prove as influential to my writing as Maslow’s Hierarchy has, but thus far, it looks promising.

CultureBot Article About ‘Art In The Age Of Digital Reproduction’

http://www.culturebot.net/2012/11/15042/art-in-the-age-of-digital-reproduction-and-distribution/

Above is a link to an article I absolutely can’t get out of my head. It touches on how thinking creatively about intellectual property and the use of technology in theater can foment audience investment and even create structures in which audiences collaboratively author content with theater-makers.

I hope you find it as insightful and stimulating as I have!