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I am a theatre junkie. Kabuki is at least as old as Shakespeare. It’s one of THE drama traditions I heard about as soon as I decided theatre was my life. Going to a kabuki play was on my must-do list while I was in Tokyo, but it was also felt, for me, like going to a cathedral and I hadn’t been to confession.
It was utterly amazing. It was actually four short pieces I saw, which — with intervals when you could get full meals and beer to have at your seat! — was three and half hours long. The style of acting and the men playing women (I’ll need to post about that separately—because) took some getting used to, because it’s so utterly different from any show I’ve ever seen before, and that’s part of the reason it was enthralling.
Everything I felt seeing my first kabuki was wrapped up in what I’d felt earlier that day while trying to track down Oiwa…the main character in one of Japan’s creepiest ghost stories, most famous kabuki plays (I didn’t see that one, sadly), and many of the country’s successful horror films.
I have presumed to put her into one of my stories…the short film I started work on in France over the summer, and the related feature-length screenplay I just drafted. They both concern domestic violence, culture clashes, racism, sexism, revenge, and guilt.
Theatre people are, put mildly, superstitious. We call it “The Scottish Play” or “McBoo”. We leave a “ghost light” on in the middle of the stage when the theatre is otherwise empty and dark. And in Japan, whenever an actor onstage, or an actress on film, takes the role of Oiwa, they go to her shrine in Tokyo and ask Oiwa’s permission to play her.
And that’s what I did too.
The trope of the Maiden Ghost, based on Oiwa, has appeared in so many incarnations now that she’s thrown the first pitch in a baseball game. Which sounds silly, but I find it actually shows that Japan takes her as seriously as kabuki; she is embedded in Japanese culture — everyone knows her, and everyone, in a strange way, loves her. She embodies something genuinely wrong — vengeance — but it’s something everyone understands and has, at some point, wanted against someone else. I’m frightened by and enthralled by her.
I hope it’s not cultural appropriation — Gore Verbinski’s remade Ringu, quite well, I thought. Yes, I went to visit Tokyo to see the city, yes I met up with an old friend who’s been in Japan 14 years. However…I also went to Tokyo specifically to visit Oiwa’s shrine and ask “is this okay?” I hope it is.
I realised something this morning, on a sunny day in the south of France. It’s a bit of a whinge. But it’s also a bit scary for me, and makes me sad.
I just sent off an application for a playwriting venture. One should keep track of how many competitions, initiatives, etc, one enters…but I’ve given up. Yes, everyone gets rejected, and I admit, tracking the number of things I entered and got rejected for became too much.
My FB and Twitter feeds have recently been filled with invitations to the Fringe shows of friends, as well as previews and reviews. I posted that I was a bit sad I didn’t have a show this year. That’s true…but not quite accurate. I’m also relieved I’m not doing a stage production, and THAT feeling makes me sad. I used to live for the insanity of putting on a show. Even when things went wrong, the result was a show I was proud of. I got the festival’s Artist Badge. I got reviews — good ones — and I could say “Yep, that’s me.” Audiences have told me how much they liked what I did.
Last year, I got my first ever 5-star review for It Started with an Allergy. I leveraged that, I promoted that show every hour of every day, and my houses still never got very big. The spectators who came loved it — there just weren’t very many of them. There’s a prestigious award given to theatre productions every year in Edmonton, and I really, REALLY hoped I might get nominated for Allergy. I didn’t. It’s occurred to me since that I don’t remember if I, or my director, invited the jury to the show! How can I not remember that? But I was also writing, producing, acting, flyering, doing the show. And I just…don’t… recall. That’s bad.
I submitted this play to yet another contest, out of resignation. I couldn’t muster anything to say in my cover letter: “yes, my play’s really good, these other industry people have said so, here’s my amazing CV of other amazing plays which nonetheless didn’t take off, PLEASE GIVE THIS TO ME.”
I wonder if that’s why I’m doing pre-production on a short film. Because it feels like I’ve done everything I possibly can in theatre, and I’m tapped. I’m on the French Riviera, on a writer’s retreat (which I paid for, didn’t get paid for, again). And still, today, I’m discouraged.
Having sent out what I believe to be a pretty kick-butt play, I’m now at the hard part: waiting. Waiting to see if anyone else with any pull to put the play onstage thinks it’s remotely as good as I think it is.
I used to wonder if writing is what I should be doing, if maybe I just really was not that good. For a while now, I’ve had a different problem: knowing that my writing is good, and still not having got one professional-level — PACT, Equity, etc — production, nor enough of a hit from one of my self-produced shows to keep working on theatre regularly.
Here is where technicians have been my saving grace.
Theatre techs — lighting, sound, set-building, the ones who do everything — are all utterly professional. They are there to make your show the absolute best it can be in the time given, and will bend over backwards, given the equipment and time they have, to give your show what it needs. And given that they work in theatre…they put up with a lot of crap.
Here’s the wonderful Henry Rollins on backstage crews. Maybe this is the reason technicians tend to be detached — I’ve never worked with one who didn’t love their work, but also maintained a very professional yet clear distance from whatever show they were working on.
And here’s the thing of which I am envious: technicians have skills. I was acquainted with a guy in Edinburgh, who produced a show at his own site-specific venue the same year we did Take a Bite. We made a bit of money. This fellow ended the Fringe £6,000 in debt. The understanding among everyone involved in the show was that they were working on spec: if they show made money, they would get paid. But the producer made a terrible mistake: he assumed this included their technician. In the middle of their tech rehearsal, the tech walked out for another venue, because that’s when the producer made it clear he had no intention of paying the tech anything until and unless the show recouped its costs. He had to find and hire a new tech with one day’s notice before the start of the Edinburgh Fringe.
The technicians don’t have to like your show. They will get paid, whether your show is good or not. They will work their butts off for your show because that’s their job and they take pride in their job, but they don’t need to be invested in any show.
How do I know I’m good? Because the techs have not been able to stop themselves from saying my show is good. When I doubt, I remember that, and grin.
At last, I have a smidgen of theatre news to share: my play The Ugly Princess will have a public reading as part of Script Salon, a new reading series starting in April!
The Ugly Princess will have her day on 3 August 2014…so it will be ever-so-slightly in the Fringe after all.
Mwa ha ha.
The Writeathon is in T minus 2 hours. I’ve been tasked with keeping YOU glued to the internet for the duration, so here’s my carrot:
For $50, you could pick the name of —
The mad king
The handsome prince
The smarmy manservant
The pretty – but mean villianess.
For $100, you could pick the name of —
The country the ugly princess rules, or
The country the handsome prince is from.
I’ll announce the names, and the donors who’ve picked them, as they come up. The ugly princess herself has already been named, thanks to a donation from Dale Lee Kwong! But I’m keeping that under wraps until just before the Writeathon ends, tomorrow at 7pm!
I don’t know how else to describe it.
Oh, there’s been a lack of time, certainly. Partly it’s procrastination – never had I felt a stronger need to wash and sanitize my rubbish bins and change my cat’s litter than this past weekend.
But the greatest enemy is SELF-DOUBT. Never doubt that. And it took a large Second Cup holiday tea, nanaimo bar and 4 HOURS to conquer it enough to get out my scene for Playworks Ink.
You see, besides seeing Mr Christopher Plummer (I can’t stop thinking that), Playworks is also going to have workshops. Classes. Classes which mundane me gets to take, from people who really, REALLY know what they’re doing. Chris Craddock is doing Solo Creation. If your life’s being is meant to be alone, onstage, JUST YOU, this is the man you need to show you how. He’s amazing. Classes with Sharon Pollock, who is among the best playwrights in Canada ever, and planet earth, and wrote Doc one of the plays which made me think “Oh God, let me write something 10 per cent as good as that one day…” I once met her, at another APN event, years ago. I hope she’s forgotten, because on hearing her name I squealed. Dignified.
I myself am taking Facing the Rewrite, with a playwright named Robert O’Hara, from New. York. City. Who has won an Obie Award. These facts would be enough to make my brain melt, but I’m also going to be taking a session with him called Don’t F*ck up my Play! This makes me weep with happiness.
Until this past weekend, on realizing, f*ck, I had to write something new, to rewrite during Facing the Rewrite, with an Obie-winning-playwright from NYC at the BANFF CENTRE. I knew exactly the scene from the new play I wanted to write…it just wouldn’t come out.
In this situation, it doesn’t work to say – “I’ve already paid, they’re not going to NOT let me in.” I’m going because I want to learn and I want to be GOOD because it’s Banff and this writer is good, and I can’t bring…mediocre.
It’s hard to explain the relief, when it did come out. It frightens me a bit that it took so long, that it felt so hard to start…and how relieved I am that once I got going, it was fine.
So. I’m excited again. I’ve heard today there is still a bit of room left in both Facing the Rewrite and Sharon’s course The Playwright as Storyteller. Really, you should sign up. Soon. Because…Don’t F*ck up my Play is full. (And Christopher Plummer is coming.)
Besides the fact that “woman” in this case is used as an adjective when it’s a NOUN. I HATE THAT.
This post may seem like I’m looking the gift horse in the mouth, and I genuinely don’t know why this occurred to me today, but it has, so here we go:
This morning, I received an e-mail saying “I’m pleased to inform you that Crushed has made a sale.” I get that same e-mail about every six weeks or so.
I wrote Crushed in 1997. It had its premiere at the Walterdale Playhouse, during their Evening of One-Acts program — it’s now called Cradle to Stage (now accepting submissions…do it!). This program did — and does — get some heavyweight dramaturges to assist the playwrights. Mine was Vern Thiessen. And here it is, my little two-hander one-act, doing quite well in the fledgling world of online publishing. And a sliver of me wonders why.
It’s very short, 18 pages, though its playing time has always been not less than 30 minutes. It’s about two sisters…the younger is an abusive relationship, and she in turn is rather abusive to her older sister. It’s a very, VERY cheerful story.
Does it still have legs because there are still too few really good scripts out there for actresses? Is it because I happened to get it right — how an abused woman thinks, and how she might in turn end up hurting the people around her? Because — very unfortunately — domestic abuse is happening?
I’ve been very lucky. I have never been physically abused by a man — I wouldn’t stand for it. I have never been turned down for a job because I’m female. But maybe it’s because I’m older, and still on my own, or because there does appear to be a true movement to belittle women lately, that I’m pondering how little progress we’re actually making. I’d like to believe there are more men like these in my own sphere, who not only don’t believe I’m lesser, but would step up when another man says I am. I wish Suzanne Moore of The Guardian wasn’t right…but she is.
I hate being a “woman writer” because that implies what I’ve written about couldn’t possibly matter to anyone but other women. So I put it out there, brothers: if your sister is being beaten up by her boyfriend, isn’t that your problem? What about your daughter, or niece, or your best friend’s daughter? If that boyfriend said “She was asking for it,” would you really say “Yeah man. Women“?
“We will meet, and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously. Take pains. Be perfect. Adieu.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
This morning, I ordered The Hollow Crown. I have, I admit, already seen it, and pre-ordered the DVD I could play in Canada the moment it became available. That’s for another post. (It’s excellent. All four parts. Buy it. Buy it buy it buy it.)
It will be clear to anyone who knows me, and any regular readers I have, that I’ve been going through a bit of a funk. This site is my professional face, so I won’t go on about the other facets of my existence not going right, but my professional playwriting facet hasn’t been going the way I wish either, which has compounded things.
About a month ago, I asked myself, “Why am I still doing this?” And for the first time in my life…I couldn’t answer myself right away.
I chose to devote my brain, my every moment really, to writing for theatre. I chose it because I love doing it. But WHY did I love it?
I couldn’t remember.
The wonderful Mr Simkins’ Guardian article gives one reason the majority of us (yes, I’m saying US) keep at it: “it’s a drug – and once it gets in your system, it’s difficult to break the habit”. When you do get a role, when a show you’re doing goes well, it is very like a shot of adrenaline. You feel great.
It’s the bite of the theatre bug. At the end of high school, where I’d been called one of the best actors they’d seen in a long time and an excellent writer, I asked my drama teachers if they honestly thought I could hack it in drama school. They said no. I wasn’t thick-skinned enough, I’d be eaten alive. Good, I thought, that’s that. So I did my English degree, intending to become…a journalist? …a teacher? Lying to yourself is futile, ladies and gentlemen. Halfway through my third year, I won a playwriting contest. I had been infected by the theatre bug when I was FOUR. No escape.
Take Pains. Be Perfect.
So. Apparently this is what I’m meant to do. I’ve worked my tail off at it. Other theatre professionals have told me I am good and should keep at it. And here I was, about a month ago, questioning at age 38 what the hell I’ve been doing. Ultimately I chose to write and keep writing because I love it…
But without remembering, even for myself, why I love it, I had my worst anxiety attack in years.
There were some shows in the last month I wanted to see. I didn’t go. One night I tried watching a movie at home, a movie I’d seen before and enjoyed, just to take my mind off things, and stopped it in a panic when I saw the boom mike in frame. I’m not watching the movie anymore, why is the mike…! I went to the house of my best friends, while they were feeding their kids dinner, and had a breakdown with them.
Now…we come to Shakespeare.
I was at home after a long day at my day job, watching cat videos on YouTube. I happened upon a review of The Hollow Crown series, and although I’d seen them already…I watched it.
A very brief prelude for all who haven’t seen it: the review contained a clip of the scene in Henry IV part 2, where King Henry — played by Jeremy Irons — is awake in the dead of night, wandering into the throne room of his blue-moonlit-castle, saying “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
Stendhal’s Syndrome. I am not exaggerating.
Take Pains. Be Perfect.
Perfect script. Perfect adaptation of a perfect script. Perfect actor in that part. Perfect setting. Perfectly set. Perfect perfect PERFECT.
And when the last bit of The Hollow Crown was broadcast in Britain last year, and was pre-empted by Wimbledon…there was an outcry from the public. Over Shakespeare.
These films had the very best actors cast in exactly the right roles, and exactly the right crew making them, from the costumes to the swords to the direction. They were perfect, and the audience agreed.
I am still learning, in this, my long, rarely-paying playwriting career. Some tidbits I’ve learned:
– when to admit that a script I have worked diligently on is still not ready to be seen.
– when to leave the director and cast to get on with it, and when–because I’m the producer and coming up with the money–to step in.
– that the perfect actor may not always be cast in their role, sometimes for the stupidest of reasons, and so that show will not be perfect — and one must get on with life, and the next show.
– that audiences and critics are seeing your show with NEW EYES. Listen and weigh what they say…they may be right.
– that striving for the perfect show means getting hurt. Badly.
My fellow playwright Kim McCaw told me once about a good friend of his who’s been an actor in London for years. He’s been in too many shows to count, and after every show, his friends and family have come backstage and said “Well done, we really enjoyed that.” Then he was in War Horse. And everyone came backstage screaming “OH MY GOD! That was AMAZING!”
Many shows turn out badly. Some shows are good. A few are perfect.
I am taking pains to be perfect. I am hurting because I want my work not to be good, but perfect. Whenever I have written the best script, and gotten the perfect director for it, and the perfect actors in each part AND for each other, the show has been perfect. And on those few occasions, the audience, no matter how small, has loved it. I am selling only the scripts of Crushed and Take a Bite because I am that proud of them. They are, I daresay, perfect.
THAT is what I love.
I had a dread of reading this Guardian story, which a fellow APN member tweeted almost a week ago. I finally read it today. And I’ve just listened to this CBC Definitely Not the Opera podcast, which has left me seething.
In the wide world, I’m not much of anybody. So when I say “there is never enough money”, and a contributor to the Guardian says something similar, multiplied by a million, all I can think is I wanted to be wrong!
Mr Simkins says two things in his writeup that really strike me:
“People often ask me what the essential difference is between professional actors and amateurs. Their presumption is invariably that it’s to do with talent. But in fact the only defining difference is whether you have the stomach for the lifestyle – one in which rejection, disappointment and despair are part of your daily routine.”
Recently I’ve been trying to explain to people I know who aren’t involved in theatre at all what makes it so hard, and why I still insist on not giving up this whole writing plays thing when I still have to keep a day job. How do you explain that an actor who works regularly may be living at the poverty line? How does it make logical sense that a playwright can have a show produced, and then not have anything else done for years, and so has to keep working at something else entirely? If you’ve gotten there, haven’t you “made it”?
And here’s the second:
“The cruellest aspect of the acting business is not that it’s unfair, but that it’s merely indifferent. It gives everything to some and nothing to others; talent, ambition and virtue have little to do with it.”
Someone I know is an avid fan of reality TV, and one day was discussing, with genuine seriousness, how arrogant a particular contestant was. I burst out: “He’s on a reality show! Of course he’s arrogant!”
I am absolutely furious, I am stuffed to the gills with WTF, that although there seems to be widespread acknowledgement that the arts are cool and involve work, that this acknowledgement doesn’t translate to support for art. How, HOW is it that vain, brainless, arrogant people get to be on TV, while talented, hard-working people who wish to do something entertaining and important struggle to do so? Why is there a paying audience for vain, brainless, arrogant people on TV, at the expense of stories worth watching? WHY?
The DNTO podcast partly answered my question. There’s a section in it with an author named Jake Halpern, who’s written a book titled Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favourite Addiction. Please, do listen, and fear. When people say they would rather be a celebrity’s bag handler than a lawmaker, it tells me this:
audiences watch people who would otherwise never be famous, because it means anyone in that audience could one day be on TV too, and have their brush with fame.
Perhaps it’s an offshoot of my recent identity crisis from playwright to prose-writer, but I really want to do some research and write out my own ideas on this, as…an essay, I guess? Does anyone do that anymore?
For now, I feel a little less alone in feeling alone. I mostly write–and re-write–with no company other than my cat. And when a show (which I have produced myself) ends, once the joy wears off, I feel empty. Along with anger at myself for feeling self-pity when the shows of friends didn’t do so well. PLUS resentment, on behalf of us all, at morons who steal focus from us by being morons.
I will attempt to explain tomorrow just why on earth I still do this.