Every time I type WNEP'S RAW, it feels like I'm a wrestling promoter. Anyway the short version is that I wrote a piece entitled Indeterminacy and Don Hall directed it. We thought we'd try to talk process a little bit and see if we'd learn anything from each other or if the whole thing will end up with either one comparing the other to Hitler...
DV: What do you remember from the first reading of Indeterminacy at Write Club?
Don: That the writing was awesome - that the central question (what is the fucking number?) was compelling and that the use of language was very prose-oriented - more like a short-story than a monologue and more like an Edgar Allen Poe meets Rod Serling vibe than something lighter or more exposed. I remember kind of gushing about it, I liked it so much. Most important, I wanted to read the rest of the story right then and there. Is there a "rest of the story?" Is it for the stage or for the page?
DV: I could see another draft making it more concise, but to add events to the narrative would spoil the meal. Theater still has its hooks in me. So every story I come up with... I ultimately want enacted in a front of an audience. I'm comfortable calling Indeterminacy a monologue for stage. But, I wont get upset if someone else considers it a short story. Lately, I've wanted to see more well crafted monologues on stage. I've had this bug lately...(It's called Storytelling, not Story-showing). So I tried to challenge/investigate how to let the story and storyteller breathe on stage and have the space to share the tale without overstaying the welcome or becoming too inactive.
I have spent some of the last 2 years writing stories in prose form that I hope to eventually make stage plays. I am finding that prose can free me in a way that scripting can sometimes choke up my imagination. I have so many habits as a playwright, sometimes those habits can lock me up when I lean over a blank sheet of paper. The other thing that happens to me alot is that not all of the games/exercises we use in Write Club enable me as much as I would hope.
Don:You've mentioned that...It gave no one else any trouble. So what's your problem?
DV: First, I would debate that no one else ever has trouble following the form of the exercises. There are plenty of times when one of the other writers (you included during those months we held the club at your place) simply tell Jen* they don't have their "homework" to read that month. Some writers will catch up on assignments the following month. Sometimes a writer (not just me) lets the assignment fade off undone into the horizon.
Some of Jen's prompts will really get my right brain working (The Hopper exercises are an example of that...I wrote enough Hopper pieces to put up my own one act) but other times...nothing gets cooking. Since Jen lets us share what we have been working on...I never want to miss an opportunity to receive feedback. So, even if the exercise didn't click for me, I always bring something to read and fortunately for me, Jen and everyone else is generous enough to listen.
The ironic thing about Indeterminacy is that it was one of those exercises that really frustrated me. The exercise (putting 3 random items in a brown paper bag to give to the writer to make a story) generated in me a completely irrational anger. That first line to the piece - "I abhor Indeterminacy" was a reaction to the exercise itself. But acknowledging that on paper somehow opened me up and suddenly I was able to make something out of the items I was given (a picture of a woman in field at a great distance, a dice, and OMG it has been a year...and I can't remember the 3rd item...so lets just say my Anger was the third item...If Jen reads this maybe she can remember?).
Frustration, Anger, and Discontent as an engine for creativity? Why do I think this notion might appeal to you Donny Ray?
Let's talk about the Tech...
Don: OK...You cringed during the music the first time you saw the run-through. I saw you cringe but was pretty happy with the choice anyway. I asked you why you had problems with it, you told me and I listened but didn't change the music. Did that make you nuts or what?
DV:Not to get too Machiavellian but I made a conscious effort during certain loud rooster moments in the music to shake my head again and again. The first time was certainly involuntary. I was surprised by the cockadoddle do call made by the vocalist on the recording. But after that I was actually "performing" my distaste with the volume specifically for your benefit. I did this for a few reasons. The first was I wanted you to see it.... my thoughts being that if you agreed that it was too loud, you might tell me the music was going to be turned down without me even "saying" it. With someone I don't know, I think this would have been a much greater risk. Heck even with you, I thought "He might not appreciate this demonstrative note from me." However, I know that good, bad or ugly...you'd respect and desire my honest appraisal...even if we didn't agree in the end.
Did you think me shaking my head during a tech was inappropriate?
Don: Not inappropriate at all, but I’m unusual like that. There is far too much “polite” that goes on during the creation and presentation of artistic work. I’d MUCH rather have someone come up to me and tell me to my face what a fucking hack I am than politely try to negotiate. Was I initially irritated? Yup. But that gave way immediately to the feeling that, at least in this specific case, I was there to serve your piece, not the other way around (although I didn’t change the piece of music, I just instructed Henri to lower the volume a bit at a certain point and worked with Yeater to project past it – to beat the music rather than let it beat him – and it all worked out the it needed to).
DV: Also I'd like to add. I would never have shaken my head like that at a regular rehearsal. I would have probably involuntarily made a face. But, I would have made an effort to conceal my reaction (I'll admit my poker face fails me on occasion).
Second, it was a tech rehearsal. Discussions over the volume of sound cues are up for grabs in such an environment. Ultimately, the power during performance actually resides with Henri Dugas (Tech). I actually remember telling you that I liked the music, but I could not hear the actor. I could tell from your reaction to my note that you weren't concerned about Jim Yeater's audibility (Actor). I also know (or assume) that you are savvy enough to know that the actor needs to be heard. You told me he would be heard in the end...or assured me that that was your intent. So, that was that. I took you at your word. I moved on.
Let it "drive me nuts"? If I were to get "nuts" who would be the focus of my consternation? You for not picking a different piece of music? Henri for having his finger on the volume knob? Jim for not projecting more? In the end, none of us are getting a Tony Award regardless of how loud or quiet the music is, so I just have to content myself for handling that with which I have some sort of control and/or influence and letting go ultimately of the rest. Also... on any given night, different audience members are going to have varying opinions about whether they could hear Jim during the loud vocalizations on the recording.
In the end I thought the use of music was a good choice and whether it was lowered or Jim projected more...I was able to hear (almost) every word. So for that I was thankful.
My turn for a question...I know you pretty well. I know that you have strong opinions about production hierarchy. However, you went out of your way to let me know on a couple occasions that as far as you were concerned this production was an extension of the writing exercise. So...Even though we are fierce friends, I wonder sometimes if I could let you direct a full production of something I have written. I have no doubt you'd bring all your talent and sincerity to the project. The ultimate question would be if I was comfortable with your vision of my text before anyone even saw my vision for it? You've mentioned to me how you wanted to direct these RAW pieces with deference to the writer's intent. Talk about that...about you usually approach versus how you approached this. How do you conceive differently. How to process differently. What sort of conversations pre-rehearsal would you have with a playwright that maybe you didn't have with me? And, if you were given total complete autonomy over presentation what would you have changed? If anything?
Don: My standard approach is that when I take on a piece to direct it, it becomes mine. Yes, the playwright owns the play but I own the production of the play and at that point, just like if I'm a conductor conducting an orchestral piece of music, my interpretation of the piece now comes into play. If I need to make cuts, I make them. I do not, however, ever make additions to the text.
For this piece, it was implicit in the exercise that this was FOR the writers primarily and I took that in stride.
Pre-rehearsal conversations ordinarily would include "Here's what I think the play is about and here are my plans to put it up onstage. Whaddya think?" Two things happen - the playwright agrees with my interpretation or he doesn't and we haggle for what it is the piece is actually saying beyond the literal interpretation until we come to some sort of common understanding. Sometimes it's a smooth process; sometimes it's brutal & I always let them know that if I am directing it, it's my call in the end.
DV: If you are directing? Or if you are producing? Or to rephrase...does the prerogative you lay out here apply to WNEP shows or any show?
Also...I like your approach about owning the production (...in the event that a playwright is dead or at least established). With newer playwrights, my question would be why do their work if you can't do it as written? When meeting with the playwright do you ever consider that your approach to the play in question has any fallibility or do you perceive that exchange to be more about political power balance within the upcoming production? I.e. do you entertain doubts (your own, the playwrights)? Is there anything other than say instinct that comes into play if you do entertain the doubt about your concept for a new work?
That's a nice Cliffhanger for Part Two...hoping to have it ready for you dear Reader...Next Week!!!
* Jen Ellison is the artistic director of WNEP and the founder of the WRITE CLUB
First Draft of Indeterminacy
A Raw Evening