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.

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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 clich√©. 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.