New Tools

This is my first new blog entry since October, 2013. So, where have I been? What have I been up to? Let me start by reminding my readers (both of you) that I began this blog way back in July, 2013 with New Shoes in which I announced that I would be producing a show. That show, Playing in the Dark: Eight Tragic Tales of Hope, Redemption, and Enlightenment, featured three of my short plays (Monster, Family Tree, and Waiting for Leonard) as well as the work of fellow playwrights Kate Guyton, Daniel Guyton, Daniel Carter Brown, and James Walsh. It was produced by Out of Box Theatre and I was the production coordinator.

To understate it, producing the show was a daunting excursion. I will probably never do it again. Not because it’s hard, but because it’s not what I want to do. I didn’t produce the show because I want to be a producer; I produced the show because I want to be a better playwright. It was a field trip. A lab. A playwriting course on what a producer does with a script. And, with that in mind, it was an amazingly productive experience. Otherwise, it was an overwhelming draw on my already limited supply of time. And in that, it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

For several years, I had invested loads of time into writing plays, rewriting plays, workshopping plays, researching plays, rewriting plays, studying playwriting, marketing plays, rewriting plays, workshopping plays, and rewriting plays. In terms of hours, it was nearly a full-time job – and (ask any playwright) that job doesn’t pay. But I have a well-paying full-time job, so that’s okay – except that two full-time jobs doesn’t leave much time for things like keeping up with your house and cars, spending time with your spouse, eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom, and other things that sometimes don’t seem as essential as reworking a scene to bury some narrative in the subtext or tweaking a line to get it just right or writing a killer synopsis or getting out another dozen submissions. (You get the picture.) By the spring of 2014, I was overwhelmed and way behind – on life!

So, Playing in the Dark opened in May of last year and I was working on another play that was set to premier later in August. Playing in the Dark was a big success, but shortly before that run began, I made the decision to pull the August show and hang up my playwriting shoes alongside my producer shoes at the end of May, 2014. And that’s where I’ve been.

Sort of.

When I began my hiatus, I had no set time in mind at which to end it. Later, I decided one year would be sufficient to catch up on some overdue maintenance and improvements on the house and cars (a bathroom remodel, a new exhaust for my pickup, and so on), get my garden in, and spend enough quality time with my wife so that she’d be ready for me to find something else to do. Earlier this month, I started writing again – officially. But unofficially, my mind was on writing the whole time and some really cool things have come of that.

In a nutshell, I have taken the opportunity to look at my writing process from the outside in. Without the burden of self-imposed deadlines, I have taken a leisurely stroll in these old writing shoes and discovered some very interesting things. Some of them I’ll go into great detail about in later blog entries (watch for them), but for now I’ll just say that I have completely reworked my process. Now, as I tighten my laces and jump back into writing, it’s with renewed excitement and some cool new tools. I’ll be throttling the time I spend at it a little to (hopefully) avoid falling so far behind on the rest of my life, but I’m already pleased with the productivity I’ve experienced the past few weeks. I hope to diligently keep up with this blog (expect probably about an entry a month), as I share some of those tools.

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

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Important Stuff

I found out this morning through a barrage of e-mails – one from the producer and several from friends of mine who actually saw the announcement before I did (thanks for all the kind words, folks!): my ten-minute play Common Ground has been selected by Lakeshore Players Theatre in White Bear Lake, MN (near Minneapolis) for a November 7 production. It will be part of an arts festival called Food for Thought: Hunger in the Suburbs, created by local nonprofits to draw popular attention to the issue.

I’ve been writing all my life. Over the years, I’ve engaged in nearly every discipline of the craft I can think of. I’ve been a technical writer, creating equipment operating and service manuals hundreds of pages long. (If you think that stuff is boring to read, try writing it.) I’ve written for instruction, training, and education in a variety of environments including school, church, business, and military. I’ve been called upon to write policy for business and military organizations. I’ve written advertising and marketing copy from one-liners in small print ads to billboards to multi-page 9×12 glossy brochures and catalogs. I’ve written open letters that have been published in newspapers and more direct letters to government officials, some of which have incited responses ranging from published replies in open debate to the initiation of Unites States Senatorial investigations of such agencies as the Internal Revenue Service and the United States military. On the more creative side, I’ve written fiction for children and adults, creative nonfiction, radio drama, and quite a few stage plays. I’ve even dabbled in poetry and screenwriting.

You might say I really enjoy writing, but you’d only be partly right. What I really enjoy is creating things that get inside people’s heads and affect what they know or how they think. But fear not; I’m not into mind control. Reading this blog will not turn you into a minion programmed to execute my bidding without question (at least I don’t think it will – although a few minions would be nice to have, if anyone’s interested). What I am into is stirring people, giving them something to think about, or showing them things from a little different perspective than they may be accustomed to.

Whether it’s helping someone to better understand a task like repairing a machine, or motivating someone to right a wrong, or just helping someone shop, I most enjoy writing with purpose. You know: Important Stuff. That can be quite a challenge when I’m writing a play or other creative piece. My primary intent then is simply to entertain – to provide a momentary respite from the serious business of living and make people laugh or gasp or cry or laugh (laughing is my favorite). When I’m writing a play, the desire is always there to write about the Important Stuff – but there can be great folly when attempting to mix Important Stuff with frivolity. It’s not that it shouldn’t be done – but there’s a right way and a very, very wrong way to do it.

I’ve seen, read, and heard a number of plays in which it’s clear that the playwright is desperately trying to say something important. It may be a very good point – it may be something everyone should know and heed – but writing a play around Important Stuff just doesn’t work. The play suffers (and, consequently, so does the audience). When I write, I try to keep in mind that almost nobody goes out to see a play because they want to know what the playwright thinks is important (and the few ¬†that do are a little weird). No, people go to the theatre for the same reason they go to a movie or a ball game or a tractor pull – or just stay home and watch television: to be entertained. So I write things that I hope will entertain. When I see an opportunity to get some Important Stuff in there, I take it, but only when I can do it without interfering with the entertaining part.

All plays, movies, television shows, and books have one thing in common: they’re all based on true stories. Like it or not, none of us has the capacity to come up with something completely new. We can twist, crunch, flatten, combine, or simplify, but what we start out with is what we’ve seen, heard, lived, or otherwise know. And there are always lessons in life. So, it’s not surprising to find a lesson in a story, whether it unfolds on the stage, the screen, or the page. Writing a story and getting Important Stuff in it works if you do it right, but draping a story over Important Stuff doesn’t make good entertainment any more than drawing a big red “S” on the cover of an equipment operation and service manual would make it a comic book.

The difference is subtle. It might help to think of it like this: rather than trying to write Important Stuff and make it fun, write fun stuff, and look for ways to make it important. Trust me – it works best that way. When I wrote Common Ground for Onion Man Productions’ 2010 Summer Harvest festival of short plays, my intent was to entertain my audience. I just found a way to use the story to bring attention to some Important Stuff that many (most?) people know very little about – the suburban and rural homeless. The Lakeshore Players production in November will be the third for Common Ground.

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

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.