Real Stuff

If you’re a writer, or if you aspire to be a writer, or if you’ve just spent much time hanging out with writers, you’ve probably heard it over and over and over … Write what you know! To some, it’s a mantra; to others it’s a clichĂ©. To me, it’s completely backwards.

The first play I had produced was a ten-minute play called Saving Starla. I wrote it for a project called 9×9 ’08 headed up by my friend James Beck. (This project eventually became a precursor to Onion Man Productions, with which I am still closely associated.) During the development process, the script was read at a Working Title Playwrights Monday Night Critique Session. After the reading, those in attendance offered their critical feedback during which a remark was made that me led to one of the most important choices I’ve ever made as a writer.

Saving Starla is about a young woman named Starla who has decided to take her own life. She’s making the final preparations when she’s interrupted by a neighbor, a young man named Eddy. He tries to save her by talking her out of suicide while trying very hard not to reveal how he knows what she’s up to – he’s been watching her through her bathroom window with his telescope. When I sat down to write the script, I had no idea what sort of things Eddy might have been observing (I mean, about her preparing for suicide – not, you know, the other bathroom stuff), so I consulted with a friend and associate of my parents who is a forensic psychologist and has investigated the scene of many a suicide. She described for me the typical behavior of real young women in Starla’s situation and that is exactly what I put in the script – real stuff.

What came out in that critique session was that, at least in the opinion of some of my colleagues, real stuff doesn’t belong in a script unless it actually seems real. You see, some of the elements of Starla’s behavior were unexpected by many members of the audience. Some of them expressed that I should change the script to make it more believable, even if that meant making it less accurate – less real. Some of these people were experienced playwrights whose work had been produced all over the country, and I hadn’t finished my first play.

Hmm … what to do, what to do? Should I follow the advice of my mentors, or follow my instincts? Being the rebel march-to-my-own-drum kind of artist that I am, I went with my instincts – and it was okay. In fact, it was more than okay. The play was a success and has seen two more productions since it’s premiere – one in New York City, and the other in Los Angeles! The lesson I learned from that experience was that real stuff does belong in a play even if it’s not believable. In fact, sometimes it’s important to put real stuff in a play because it’s not believable.

A few years after Starla, I wrote Common Ground, a ten-minute play about the suburban homeless. When most people think of the homeless, they think of the urban homeless – the scruffy, rumpled man curled up under a newspaper beside the front steps of an inner-city business or municipal building, or the bag lady with unmatching shoes sifting through a trash can at a bus station. Many people aren’t even aware of the suburban homeless camped out in the woods behind a strip mall or adjacent to a subdivision full of McMansions, or looking for food in an elementary school dumpster in the middle of the night. I wanted to draw attention to the fact that there are homeless people everywhere, including our own back yards.

Well, it was pointed out to me by my peers and mentors that such things weren’t believable and therefore wouldn’t work in a play. The audience just won’t buy it. So, once again I went with my instincts – this time without hesitation. I had learned. I was confident. And, once again, it worked. Common Ground has received a second production and a couple of public readings. As a result, I have been approached by several people who thanked me for drawing their attention to the plight of the suburban homeless whom they, in most cases, were previously unaware of.

Writing Common Ground was actually easy for me because I’ve worked with the suburban homeless and, for a short time, was one of them. It’s a world I’m intimately familiar with. I was writing what I know. But that’s usually not the case when I sit down to write.

Over the past several years, I have ventured into many worlds where I was a complete stranger and written plays about them. This required some work on my part – I had to learn the real stuff about those worlds so I could put it in my plays. So, know what you write has become one of my personal mantras.

The process of knowing what I write usually begins with online research. As I get deeper into the subject, I refer to books written by experts in the field, but I don’t stop there. Frequently, my research leads me to tracking down and making personal contact with experts and consulting with them much as I did with the forensic psychologist who helped me with Starla. In this endeavor, I have talked or exchanged emails with historians, language experts, a world-renowned physical therapist and other medical professionals, law enforcement officers, psychologists and social workers, war veterans, and sometimes ordinary people whose familiarity with the world I’m writing about simply comes from living there. Many times I’ve had to search half way across the country for these people – often by sending out cold e-mails to complete strangers. (“Greetings! You don’t know me, but I’m a crazy playwright from Atlanta and I’d like to ask you about some real stuff …”)

The most difficult time I’ve had finding an expert on a subject I was writing about was when I needed to consult with someone about Muskogee language and culture in the eighteenth century. Native Americans are very private about sharing such things (no wonder considering how they’re frequently portrayed in non-Native media and art). It took me over three years to find someone who was willing to talk to me. I had one telephone session with him nearly a year ago, and I’m still rewriting the script, trying to fix all the things I got completely wrong! But, the play won’t be finished unless everything in it is real stuff.

I’ve even traveled to locations where my plays are set. Sometimes it was the primary purpose for the trip while other times I’ve added side trips. On these excursions I’ve taken notes that included physical descriptions, information gleaned from people I met or historical markers, details like sounds I heard and even smells! It’s all part of knowing what I write.

Write what you know? Yeah, like that would take me more than about eight minutes. No, writing what I know simply won’t do. I don’t know enough to make it a good story. Oh, there are things I think I know – beliefs, assumptions, perceptions – but that’s not good enough. That’s not real stuff. I want the real stuff in my plays, and that takes a lot of work. But it’s worth it.

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.

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New Shoes

Self-production seems to be a growing trend among playwrights. I know for a while the Dramatists Guild of America was encouraging this – in fact, to the extent that I as a member have felt pressured to self-produce. The pressure has slacked some recently, but not completely – and I have a problem with it. You see, being a playwright doesn’t qualify a person to be a producer any more than being a baker qualifies a person to run a full-service restaurant. Producer shoes are some pretty big shoes to fill.

Before I became a playwright, I wrote a lot of fiction (mostly literary) and creative nonfiction. I’ve had a few short pieces published in anthologies, but I was seeking the holy grail – a published novel. Unfortunately, I never actually finished one, which made it tough to get one published. (What’s up with that, right?) The reason I never finished any of my novels (and I have a rather large box of them) is that, before I ever got half way through, I kept going back and rewriting. I’d get so far, read what I had, decide it wasn’t good enough, and start again. Driving this routine was my awareness of the competition. (Playwrights who think it’s so difficult to get an artistic director or literary manager to read his or her play should try getting a publisher to read a manuscript for a novel. Believe me, we have it easy on the dramatist side of the house.)

The advent of home personal computers turned everyone into a potential novelist, and now the publishing industry is completely covered up in manuscripts – most of which really stink. But the technology did something else: it turned everyone into a potential publisher. It wasn’t long before people figured out they could bypass the big publishing houses and self-publish. Good idea? Not necassarilly. You see, without all that competition, there’s nothing to motivate a writer to strive for excellence – or even goodness – beside his or her own high standards (if, indeed, those standards are high). Here’s a clue: if nobody wants to publish your book, it’s probably not the publishers – it’s probably the book.

Now before all my self-published friends get their noses out of joint, let me say that there is a place for self-publishing. Like I said, the competition is pretty stiff and more than ample. You may have a really good book, and it can still get lost in the stacks and stacks of manuscripts that are submitted every day and never be read by a publisher. Or you may have a good book with a really small or unique market that no publishers are reaching out to, in which case a small, self-published run (perhaps print-on-demand) might be most appropriate. But, more often than not, a writer self-publishes because he or she just doesn’t want to work that hard on a manuscript. Some self-published books are really good; a lot of them aren’t.

When I finished the first draft of Bonneville Love, my first full-length play, I decided that is what I needed to be doing – writing plays. I finish plays. (Finished plays have a shot at being produced whereas unfinished novels pretty much have no shot at being published.) Of course, that first draft absolutely stunk! (Stank? Stunk?) Anyway, so did the next one, and the next one, and the one after that … getting it ready for production took a lot of rewriting, cutting, workshopping, rewriting, cutting, rewriting … you get the picture. But, at least I had a beginning, a middle, and an end. That was neat! Different!

Getting Bonneville Love produced took a lot of work because the script had to meet someone’s standard for “ready for production” – someone who understands what a good  play should look like, what is doable with the resources available to them, what an audience will sit through, enjoy, and tell their friends to come see – a producer!

I am not a producer. I am a playwright. As a playwright, I know that if nobody wants to produce my play, it’s probably not the producers – it’s probably the play.

Now before all my self-produced friends get their noses out of joint, let me say that there is a place for self-production. For instance, if a playwright is also a producer and successfully produces the work of other playwrights, then it’s not necessarily a bad idea to produce his or her own play. But there are those – some representatives of the Dramatists Guild among them – who have said that if you can’t get anyone else to produce your play, you should produce it yourself. I say, if you can’t get anyone else to produce your play, keep working on it and make it better. Or write a play with a market.

Hey, I know a lot of artistic directors and literary managers and, where a few of them are a bit hesitant to produce new work because of the risk involved, most of them would be glad to produce a new play that is well written, logistically feasible, and appeals to their audiences. In fact, they look for plays like that. I don’t know of any who conspire to not produce one playwright or another. Theatres need plays – good plays. The obstacle to production is not the theatre; the obstacle is the play.

All that being said, I have decided to try on the shoes of a producer. I tried on one sock last spring when I got involved with the production end of Onion Man Productions’ Summer Harvest 2013: Keep it Legal. I attended a workshop by Roland Tec and sponsored by the Dramatists Guild in March, and I learned just enough to know that I have a lot to learn. My plan is to produce a festival of short plays next spring – as an understudy. In other words, I’ll do all the work while an actual producer explains to me what work to do and why. (Sort of like when you go skydiving for the first time and they strap an actual skydiver to your back to tell you when to jump out of the plane, when to pull the rip cord, stuff like that.) And I’ll be including one or two of my own plays in the program. So, yeah, I’ll be self-producing – but I’ll be wearing producer shoes (not playwright shoes) when I do it!

Raymond Fast is an Atlanta area playwright. Visit his web site at www.raymondfast.com or find him on Facebook.