Four Notes

“What is it about three G’s and an E flat – three eighth notes and a half note – that are so pregnant and so meaningful that a whole symphonic movement can be born of them?”

– Leonard Bernstein, 1954

I’m guessing such a question about Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is one that, when explored by any composer of music, has the potential to yield a wealth of insight into the craft. I say “I’m guessing” because I’m not a musician or a composer. I can’t even sing. I have a guitar, but it cringes when I come near it. I am pretty handy with a tambourine, but that’s just one note. Jingle, jingle, bang, bang. Rhythm I can do … sort of. Start adding notes and I’m way out of my element. I’m a writer. I work in words. But, I learned something about notes this weekend: apparently, they aren’t very different from words – at least when using them to create art.

I was in my shop working on a Christmas gift for my wife and listening to a local public radio station, when I heard a wonderful analysis of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony by Leonard Bernstein. It came from a 1954 television broadcast in which Mr. Bernstein looks at the composer’s own sketch book, examining eight years of notes, revisions, and rewrites. He considers Beethoven’s early drafts and why they might have been rejected. Accompanied by The Symphony of the Air (formally The NBC Symphony Orchestra), the great American composer and conductor demonstrates some of those drafts so the viewers can actually hear the evolution of one of the world’s musical masterpieces.

Beside being thoroughly entertained by the historical aspect of the program (not to mention the great music), I was deeply impressed (and surprised) by its relevance to me as a writer. Having about as much musical talent as one might find on the head of a pin, I’d never realized the similarities between writing a play or novel and composing a symphony. As Mr. Bernstein notes in the program, “… many of us assume that – when we hear the symphony today it sounds so simple and right – that it must have spilled out of Beethoven in one steady gush.” This was always my impression. I am so amazed by the ability of anyone who creates music to do so, that it rarely occurs to me that it requires work. It’s more like magic. (Surely, to me, it might as well be.)

Mr. Bernstein’s explanation of Beethoven’s process – the way the master looked critically at his own work, discovering the themes buried in it, drawing them out, cutting and trimming away all the extraneous notes until all that was left was what was needed, what was right, exactly right, nothing more, nothing less – could have as effectively been a lesson on writing words rather than notes. In fact, from moments into the program, that is how I took it.

Hearing the music and the discussion of the writing process in musical terms allowed me to see my craft from yet another perspective. Things that I knew were there but had a very difficult time seeing became crystal clear as I heard them. The notes, the music, gave form where words alone fell short. Over the past year and a half, I’ve been learning to look at my work as a playwright through some new lenses – among them, poetry and dance. Now, I have music to complete that circle.

I can’t begin to explain all the lessons about writing that I’ve gleaned from Leonard Bernstein’s analysis of Beethoven’s process in composing his Fifth Symphony. In fact, I’m still learning. As the music continued resonating days later, I found myself digging up a YouTube video of the original television broadcast. Ten minutes into it, I went back and replayed portions. The audio was good, but the video adds another dimension as Mr. Bernstein used it handily to illustrate many of his points. As a tour of the mind of one master guided by another, the piece is a treasure trove for any writer of notes or words. Of course, simply mentioning Bernstein and Beethoven is probably enough to attract the attention of any music composer. But writers of words, take note: this is a lesson on our craft too!

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.