Monthly Archives: March 2012

Thesis: “This Is a Real Play.”

On Friday, my first full-length play got its first public reading, and it was one of the most nerve-wracking, coolest experiences of my life.

I’d been nervous about this reading for a long time. Just the thought of it gave me butterflies in my stomach. A week ago, I was on my last day of spring break, sweating to make my self-set deadline of getting the script out to the cast by morning. I finally sent it out at 1:30 and practically collapsed from relief.

But that was just step one. Starting on Wednesday, I ran three separate rehearsals with various members of my cast of thirteen. Also on Wednesday, just after I had finished the a private rehearsal, I got an e-mail from another cast member, telling me she was at home sick and had to drop out of the show. Thankfully, it was easy to re-cast.

Thursday were the big rehearsals. They were the first time I’d heard my play read out loud in over a year, and I was ridiculously nervous. During the first rehearsal, I couldn’t hold anything; pencils and highlighters kept slipping out of my hands and I couldn’t think straight. The nerves ebbed as I listened to some of my actors read the pages. I was really happy with my choices, though one of them, I was thrilled about: my leading actress. I chose her because even though I’d never seen her act, as a freshman, she has a reputation as a great performer. Also, her voice is what I hear in my head when Mary, my main character, speaks. I was not disappointed; she was absolutely perfect for Mary in every way. She was thankfully able to come to both big rehearsals and read with the other actors, all of whom were willing to ask questions and take direction. I was really happy with the cast I’d assembled. Most of them were my friends, actors all, and it was really awesome to hear voices I knew read words I wrote. My friend and roommate played Peter, a role she’s always wanted to play, and it was so fun to see her come alive in the role. It was also amazing to have those words be taken seriously. People weren’t reading them like they were their friends’ words for a project; they read them like they were cast in this show and were at a rehearsal.

During those rehearsals, and especially the second one, I discovered that while I don’t like directing, I was perfectly comfortable giving my actors notes on how to tweak their performance, or how to keep it exactly how they had done it. Also, amusingly, I found out that I apparently have parts of scenes memorized, because I kept mouthing the words.

The next day was the actual reading. I didn’t know who would be in the audience. My thesis class was required to be there for the first hour, but much of my class was in the reading. I had visions of the three classmates not in the reading, my two professors, and the director in the audience. To my surprise, the audience was sizeable for my apathetic university. The actor playing Hook brought three friends, none of whom I knew, and a bunch of people from the department came, too.

I sat in a desk against the far wall while the reading went on and, as my advisor had suggested, did not have the script in front of me, only a notebook in which to jot things down. This forced me to focus on actually hearing what was being said, not what was written on the page. The cool thing about hearing your words read by actors who know what they’re doing is that you can see how those words will be interpreted should it ever be done again. You see where you might need to put a stage direction in or where the language is stilted. And best of all, when you have an audience, you get to hear their reactions. I was amazed at what I heard. Earlier this year, I talked to my academic advisor (who’s also the head of the theatre department) about this play very briefly. He didn’t say much about it, but labeled it a “historical feminist comedy.” I was surprised to hear this, since I look at the play as a drama, but on Friday, I found out that the play is a lot funnier than I ever thought. Mary is pretty snarky throughout the play, and a lot of people liked that, as well as the slightly awkward proposal scene, and the ever-loving Lost Boy Tootles, among other things. But my favorite reaction of the entire reading was when a teenage Captain Hook kisses Mary and someone in the audience gasped.

After the reading, we had a talkback. For those not ensconced in the world of theatre as I am, a talkback is what happens after the performance of a play when the audience can ask questions of the actors, the director, or, in this case, the playwright. The actors sat with the rest of the audience while my advisor and I sat in front of everyone. Afterward, my roommate said, “When you two were sitting up there, I just thought, ‘He’s like a proud papa bird showing you off, like, “Look what she’s done!”‘ You’re like his protegee.” I would give a few million dollars to be considered my advisor’s protegee, since he’s amazingly awesome. During the reading’s intermission, we were talking about the plans for the talkback with my thesis professor and my advisor said, “We’re not going to let you ask questions of them because if you ask for negativity, you’ll get it. I’m not going to let anyone tear down your play!” His reasoning for this was not necessarily to protect my feelings, but that many of the people in the audience, even if they were actors, don’t know the process of writing a play, so their suggestions might be negative and also, not helpful to a playwright. “They’re not going to write your play for you,” he said.

With that guidance, it was a pretty useful talkback. Any criticism had to be phrased as a question, and those are going to be helpful in examining some things in the play. Overall, though, people really liked the play, and I’m really excited to look at it again with their comments in mind. There’s definitely a lot of work to be done, most of which won’t even be done before the next reading, but I’m excited to get back to work.

When the talkback ended, my thesis professor, my advisor, and my director were all waiting with their pads of paper, but while I love all of them, I was so exhausted that I didn’t want to discuss anything in depth. Apparently, stressing yourself out is pretty draining; I was about to fall over. Thankfully, all three of them said they needed to think things over and would e-mail me. I told my director that there were a few actors from this reading that I would really like in the public reading, but didn’t say who. To my delight, when he e-mailed me later with a proposed cast list, most of the people I loved from my reading were on his list- including my wonderful Mary and my roommate (though sadly, not in the role of Peter, since the director thinks it’s important that Peter be played by a guy. However, he liked her so much that he wanted to cast her somehow.)

As I walked one cast member back to his car, he said to me, “Thank you for letting me be a part of this. This is a real play.” So many of the other cast members were equally as gracious, sending me thank-you texts, even though it was them who had done me the favor.

So now I have two weeks to revise before I give the cast the script. I’ll conference with my professor and advisor this week and probably be completely overwhelmed by everything they tell me. But I’m really happy to have taken this step and that it was a success!

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Young Adult Fiction Can Change Lives

Yes, I, Rachel am back being the advocate for young adult fiction, something I will always be and do my entire life. Thankfully, I’m not doing it alone. One of my favorite authors, Maureen Johnson, spoke to The Guardian about why YA is beneficial. I love her.

Some choice quotes from the interview:

“The reason [YA] has taken off so much is that it’s good. I think it’s as simple as that. It’s exciting.”

“These books change lives in a very positive way, an almost universally positive way.”

“It has its detractors and its detractors generally don’t know much about it. [They] tend to cherry-pick five books, half-read them, and say ‘All of this is nonsense.’ It’s not nonsense, it’s good stuff.”

It should be noted that Johnson’s books have been banned from several school libraries by the aforementioned detractors. As Johnson stated, they half-read her books. The biggest one in question (and also my favorite of hers) is The Bermudez Triangle, which is about three girls that have been best friends since they were very young and what happens when two of those friends begin to date each other. The red flag instantly went up as soon as the word “gay” was sighted, but the parents that fought against this book claimed it was obscene because of (gay) sex scenes. There are no sex scenes in the book, between either the two girls or the third friend and her boyfriend. There is nothing beyond kissing, but the parents were desperate to have such a book banned from their children’s lives. This kind of thing makes me sad.

But interviews like this make me happy. Rock on, Maureen!

(Also, you should check out Maureen’s blog. She doesn’t update super often, but it’s one of the funniest things you’ll ever read. I was actually introduced to her books through her blog; I read it for a good eight months before I read any of her books. While her blog posts are great, her books are even better.)

We Are Versatile Bloggers!

One of our most avid readers and commenters, MikeReverb, has nominated us for the Versatile Blogger Award! Look how pretty it is!

Thanks, Mike, for both the nomination and your constant support of this blog! Here are the rules of receiving the nomination:
1. Thank the award-givers and link back to them in your post.

2. Share 7 things about yourself.

3. Pass this award along 15 or 20 fellow bloggers.

4. Contact your chosen bloggers to let them know about the award.

 

NUMBER ONE: Check

 

NUMBER TWO: SEVEN THINGS ABOUT US!

1) We met when we were thirteen years old through mutual friends. A few months into our friendship, Stuart invited Rachel to audition for a film he was writing with his film company. These days, Rachel is also a member and the company goes by the name Enscribe Studios.

2) Stuart studies black holes.

3) Rachel eats her food strangely (this one was suggested by Stuart, who has witnessed this.) For example, when we were compiling this list, she was eating the layer of skin inside a clementine’s rind. Rachel’s mother often begs her not to eat in public, for fear of family shame.

4) Stuart knows Middle English and read The Canterbury Tales in the original language.

5) Rachel lived in London for five months in the beginning of 2011, had two of her short plays produced while she was there, and appeared in an off-West End show.

6) Stuart has studied Jidokwan.

7) While she is very good with words, Rachel’s dyscalculia gives her the mathematical prowess of a third grader.

 

NUMBER THREE: SPREADING THE LOVE

Hm… I don’t think we know that many bloggers, and Mike has already been nominated. But we shall nominate all that we know! In no particular order of awesomeness:

The Canary Review

Aspire

Conjugating Irregular Verbs

Tired of London, Tired of Life

Frankie Diane Mallis

 

NUMBER FOUR: Check.

 

Thanks again, Mike!

Review of Pretty Theft

I picked up Adam Szymkowicz’s Pretty Theft at one of my favorite places in New York City, the Drama Bookshop. It was on display and it had a blurry picture of a ballet dancer on the cover. I’ve already explained my fascination with ballet, so of course I picked it up. It sounded intriguing, so I bought it.

The play is about an eighteen year-old girl named Allegra, who, with the help of high school acquaintance Suzy, gets a job at a mental hospital before she starts at Dartmouth. She wants to be a therapist, and after the first day, she’s already being commended on her skill with the patients, particularly one named Joe. Joe is a high-functioning autistic, placed into the home in his early twenties because his mother didn’t know how to deal with him after his father’s death. Allegra is the only one who can get Joe to do anything, and he soon develops an innocent crush on her. Suzy grows jealous that Allegra has proved to have such skills, and casually ruins a few things in Allegra’s life. Upset by her father’s death and Suzy’s destruction, Allegra agrees to run away from her problems with Suzy. After a few nights on the road, the girls stop into a diner, where a man named Marco has been charming the solitary waitress for the entirety of the play. However, he immediately shifts his attention to the two high school girls and, when they tell him that they don’t have any place to stay, offers them a night in his motel room. Things go as you might expect: Marco turns out to be a creep who drugs both of the girls and takes Polaroids of them while they’re unconscious. Once Allegra returns home, she tries to pick up the pieces of the life she left behind.

The word I would attribute to this play is weird. It’s very weird, in good and bad ways. The show opens with two ballet dancers pirouetting around the stage, Allegra clumsily trying to imitate them. These dancers appear throughout the play, speaking only occasionally and sometimes taking on other roles. They stem from Joe’s love of ballerinas and watching ballet on TV, but I didn’t quite understand their function in the play. I’m sure it’s something deep about showing how beautiful life could be against the messes that are these characters’ lives, but it didn’t entirely work for me. The scene in which Allegra visits her dying father in the hospital and delivers a monologue to him is touching and real- she ranges from dutifully sharing her daily activities to rage that he never paid attention to her to sadness over his impending death- but I wish she had had at least another scene with him and taken those emotions more slowly so she (and we) could feel them even more.

I very much enjoyed the scene where Suzy goes to the movies with Allegra’s boyfriend, Bobby. Suzy makes every attempt to get Bobby to kiss her, but he says no every time. When asked why, he tells her, “If I kissed you, you’d never be the same. My kiss is devastating.” Suzy scoffs at this, so finally, Bobby kisses her, only to be laughed at by Suzy. “Did someone tell you you were a good kisser?… You’re kind of bad. You can’t just stick your tongue in and not move it.” “You have to let the experience wash over you,” Bobby deadpans.

As cliché and predictable as the assault scene with Marco might seem, I actually didn’t expect it, which either means that Szymkowicz did a good job of constructing the character in a non-creepy way, or that I should not be around men in a diner by myself because the same thing will happen to me. It was shocking and scary, and the fact that it’s not lingered upon makes it even more so.

Another way the word “weird” figures into the story is that Allegra sees herself as such. The play opens with her speaking, but no one listening. “I’m talking too much, aren’t I?” she asks the non-listener worriedly. “I’m sorry about that. It’s just that I feel invisible. Even in my nightmares lately, I’m conspicuously absent. What does it mean when you no longer play a prominent role in your own dreams? I guess I’m just not good enough.” We see Allegra assert herself more and maybe, possibly grow as a person in the scene with her dying father, when she confronts him (as much as she can confront an unconscious man) about ignoring her as a child. It’s unclear if this assertion is personal growth or just a fleeting moment, as she backs down and apologizes moments later and is timid again for much of the play. After the debacle in Marco’s motel room, she scares him away by shouting at him, but is again reticent and selfish in the final scene with Joe.

Joe’s story is possibly the saddest of the play: while his mother was horrified at his being born autistic, his father was determined to treat him as any other little boy. When the father discovers that baby Joe can repair an engine without anyone teaching him, Joe’s father proudly incorporates his son into the family business. But when Joe’s father dies suddenly, his mother is overwhelmed with the task of caring for an autistic son, even one who is an adult, and sends him to a mental institution. The scene in which he thinks about his past is very sad and touching, and all of his monologues throughout are much the same. It’s obvious that Joe is extremely intelligent, but both his autism and people’s inability to see him as a person despite it keep him from reaching his full potential.

I’m still on the fence about how I feel about Pretty Theft. I know that I think it’s not done yet- I think it could use another revision. But then again, perhaps that’s because that’s where I am in my life…

Review of In Zanesville

I am supposed to be on a recreational reading hiatus, since I still have an act of Children’s Hour lines to memorize, but as I exited my school library this week, a book caught my eye: In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard. Upon reading the synopsis, I immediately checked it out, hoping it would help me with my thesis. While I was the age of my main character- and the main character of this novel- not too long ago, certain authors have a way of expressing the same adolescent thoughts I had in ways I’ve never dreamed of. I was not disappointed by Jo Ann Beard’s insight.

The book is about a fourteen year old living in the 1970s Midwest. I would tell you her name, but Beard never mentions it. More savvy readers might figure it out , but surprisingly, it’s not troubling to be so in the dark about an identifier. Of course, maybe that’s the point: the protagonist is still trying to figure out who she is, so while everyone else, even the most minor of characters, have some form of moniker, the main character has no label for herself.

In Zanesville covers everything about being fourteen, from the mundane things that seem too boring to include in a book (marching band practice, doing laundry) to the typical excitements and dreads that occur in teenage-dom (the first party with boys, arguments with family), and all of it is done with an incredible style. Beard has a unique approach to writing that is so completely thought-driven and easy to read that sometimes the book in your hand is the only reminder that these notions are not going through your own head in real time. For example, in the early pages of the book, the protagonist and her best friend Felicia are preparing to march with the school’s band in a town parade. It is just as they’re getting into position that the protagonist realizes the gravity and potentially permanent geekiness of being in marching band. She thinks,

“I am what I do at this point, and if I do this, I’m done for. Once I march in their parade, I will be in it forever, uniform or not.
Felicia, unaware, has gone back to her spot. She’s been stationed in the very middle, like a tent pole, and I’m on an end, where everyone in Zanesville can get a good look.
Help.
Drum roll.
Help.
With that, Wilson sweeps his arms upward and then downward, sending the band shuffling forward[…] where the rest of the parade is forming.
Right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right left, right left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left.”

But don’t mistake the main character for being a girl only concerned with being popular, or, at the very least, not being labeled a nerd. She has other problems, including a perpetually drunken father, who she worries will kill himself any day now; a mother who can’t work enough to support her large family; and the gross panic that comes along with possibly, maybe feeling something for a boy.

Beard uses her talent with words to bring us completely and uniquely into the world of the novel. Her main character describes her father as “tall and tanned, with the haunted brown eyes of someone who does something terrible for a living.” Her younger brother looks like him, with “the same warm, shattered eyes.” Once, when the protagonist and Felicia are caught hanging out on someone else’s terrace, they attempt to hide by sitting stock still in the night, their “white tennis shoes throbbing in the darkness.”

The narrator also deals with the usual teen girl problem of facing boys, romantically, for the first time, and it is one of my favorite aspects of the book. While she certainly has the vain thoughts of a typical teen- she laments at her flat chest and, after getting up the courage to speak to her crush, she stands there waiting for his reciprocation while “the wind blows across the barren landscape of [her] chest.”- she also thinks more deeply about her confusion at the changes she’s going through. “I’m tired of figuring things out for myself!” she thinks mid-way through the book. “Just tell me why I look like this, feel like this, behave like this […] Why am I awake when everyone else is asleep, and what if that boy doesn’t know any better and likes me?”

But while the protagonist knows change and growth is inevitable, she’s not rushing into it. When she attends her first party at which alcohol is being served, she’s taken to a secluded spot by a popular, fairly nice boy whom she knows from her history class. She muses at how close they’re getting, physically, and that it’s not altogether unpleasant, but when he tries to kiss her, she thinks how awkward it will be when they have to see each other in class on Monday and pulls away. “Better to be the plain girl from his history class who didn’t kiss him,” she figures, “Than the plain girl from history class who did.”

This last point is exactly what I wanted from this book: the thoughts on growing up, how sometimes one has to be wrenched away from childhood, and the overwhelming realization of both the internal and external changes one goes through in those early teen years. Some of the protagonists musing on this subject took my breath away. A few choice quotes, since paraphrasing won’t do them justice:

“I’m sick of being a teenager. Being a teenager so far hasn’t gotten me anything beyond period cramps and a nameless yearning, which I had as a kid, too, but this is a new kind of nameless yearning that has boys attached to it.”

“In the dresser mirror, my face looks the same, but I feel something happening around me, some change as palpable as the weather. Stuck in the mirror are mementos from my childhood […] which is now over. I wandered through it and came out the other side.
It’s a stark feeling. Like getting to the last page of a book and seeing ‘The End.’ Even if you didn’t like the story that much, or your childhood, you read it, you lived it. And now it’s over, book closed.”

“The girl cousins I played with at those long-ago family gatherings all turned out boy crazy, and I see now why, leaning against this kid while he slowly bunches my shirt up, and eighth of an inch at a time. There’s something delirious and drowsy about this whole endeavor.”
“Nothing happened, and yet it feels like something did, because things aren’t the way they were before.”

“My troubles are accumulating. The dying kitten, waiting in the cobwebby dark for me to do nothing, and now the canary, put to bed while it’s still light outside, trapped behind a dishtowel, encased in the terrible fate of a bird who has never flown, but watches[…] while other birds land and take off from the clothesline. Sometimes he sings so elaborately and desperately that I have to put my hands over my ears.”

In Zanesville is a book that will take you by surprise with its wit and its insight. I hesitate to label it as YA, because the pace seems slower than  most YA, but it’s certainly smart enough to be placed in that category. But I don’t care who you are; this book is too beautiful to be left on the shelf. Seek it out. Devour it.

Thesis: Revealing the Mystery

Or, I suppose, the answer to the mystery discussed in this entry.

 

In the middle of last month, I put out some feelers for a director for my thesis. I sent out an e-mail containing a synopsis and general project idea to two alumni from my school that had been suggested, one that I knew and one that I did not. While I was sure they are both competant directors, I thought I knew what to expect: one of them would respond (maybe, if they had free time) and would take pity on my schoolgirl project.

So imagine my surprise when both of them said yes, leaving me with the wonderful conundrum of having to choose. I eventually chose the alumnus who had contacted me first, partly because he had done so, and partly because he had been suggested to me on two different occasions. Also, he was fantastically enthusiastic. I sent him the script on a Sunday at 11 p.m. By 9 a.m. on Monday, he wrote me back saying that he loved the project and would be delighted to direct it. This was amazing and shocking to me, as I had met this alumnus very briefly a few times. Also… he loved my writing?! In the e-mail to me, he called it “a beautiful, moving piece of work.” I was speechless.

We e-mailed back and forth for all of February. I practically did a happy dance when I got a message from him asking what sources I used while I was writing the play, because he was doing some research and wanted to look into them. He was doing research. On something I wrote. A little over a year ago, I had two short plays produced in London, and it was surreal to realize that a huge number of people were auditioning and vying for roles that I had created. This was just as crazy.

He and I met up last night to discuss the reading, and after doing so, I’m so excited. He’s absolutely perfect for the project, and he also really cares about what I think about it. This seems like a given, and maybe it is for staged readings, but in general, the playwright doesn’t get much, if any, input into a project. I can already feel that this is a gem of an experience.

Wednesdays are always stupidly busy days for me- five class sessions, as well as a four-hour Children’s Hour rehearsal- but the rare free time I have will be spent frantically starting and finishing my revisions that I’ll be going over with my advisor on Friday morning. Guess who’s pulling an all-nighter tomorrow night?

THE BEST WRITING ADVICE YOU WILL EVER GET, EVER!

Actually, it’s more than writing advice; it’s life advice.

When I was a sophomore and in the same Children’s Theatre class that gave birth to my thesis idea, my professor gave me the best advice I’ve ever heard regarding presenting material. At that time, it was directed toward our writing, but I’ve used it in pretty much every area of my life since:

Are you ready? Here it is:

Don’t ever, in any way, shape, or form, apologize for what you’re presenting.

Sounds simple, right? But how often do you want to turn in a piece of writing (or open a speech or share an art project or present an idea) with a prefacing comment that runs along the lines of, “I know it’s kind of a dumb idea…” or “I probably didn’t do the assignment right, but…” or “Compared to everyone else’s, mine is kind of weird…” or any other statement that ends with implied ellipses and the shamed lowering of eyes.

I know it seems like qualifying your piece like that, before anyone even reads it, will keep them from thinking those things themselves or tearing their eyes out later when they deign to read your craptastic writing, but the fact is that you, as the writer, are not a reliable judge of your own skill. If you think that this piece isn’t as great as something else you’ve written, you may be right. But chances are, you finished whatever assignment you’re making excuses about not too long beforehand, which means that you’re still way too close to the project to see it clearly. And introducing a piece with “I don’t think this is very good” is like opening a conversation with “Don’t get mad.” The recipient of your words will automatically have an idea of what they’re about to hear (or read), and it’s not a good one.

I think about this advice a lot, because I am wont to make excuses for what I believe are substandard pieces. Usually, I restrain myself, even if I am bursting inside with the need to qualify. But today was the perfect example of why this advice is great to follow:

I had a short story due. I do not like writing short stories, or short plays, or short anything. I am a full-length writer. But the assignment was the write a short story. The assignment also came with a topic, one that was broad but, for me, very difficult. I didn’t have an idea for it until two days before the story was due and it was a flimsy idea. My way of carrying out the inspiration (dare I call it that) was even flimsier. I was working on the story until I had to hastily pound out a convoluted conclusion, print it out, and go to class. I hated it. I thought it was the second-worst thing I’d ever written in this class and also possibly ever. I considered skipping the session or turning in a section of a completed novel that fit the prompt. When I checked the critique schedule for today and saw that I was being reviewed, I felt sick.

But I went to class. I read my story aloud, as we must, and waited, cringing, for my feedback.

It was all good. Like, really good. Save for some small critiques here and there… my classmates and my professor and the visiting high school girl loved it. Even the guy who hates everything everyone else writes said he thought it was “funny and well-constructed.” (You don’t know this guy, but he might as well have just awarded me the Pulitzer.) When, after the feedback was over, I revealed my struggle with the assignment, my professor said, “Then maybe you should write under the gun all the time, because I think you should definitely send this around. I think people would be interested.”

While the feedback itself might not have changed if I had introduced my piece with some sort of excuse, it would have weakened the reception of the story. My classmates would have gone into the reading aware that the piece was substandard, and even if it wasn’t, that I thought it was. Their perception would have been altered before they even began to read.

So don’t apologize for your work. Stand by it proudly. It might not be the most amazing thing you’ve ever composed, but it’s probably not as bad as you think… and sometimes, it may just be awesome.