After three years of intense focus on therapy and personal growth, I'm finally hitting the keys again and will be jumping into NaNoWriMo on November 1st, 2016. Stay tuned for updates!

Sunday 3 March 2013

PLAYWRITING & COMEDY - Jason Sherman & Demetri Martin

La Ronde - Soulpepper
So the last couple weeks have been extremely busy but hugely productive.  I’m back at work, with Soulpepper on their upcoming productions of La Ronde and True West, and things are really getting underway with Empty Boxes.

This week’s plunder is coming from 2 sources: Jason Sherman, the playwright who has adapted La Ronde for Soulpepper from Arthur Schnitzler’s original and Demetri Martin, author of This is a Book by Demetri Martin.  Sherman’s work has particular stylistic elements that resonate in my own writing and Martin’s book has inspired me to look at comedy and storytelling from new perspectives.  (I know I could have probably written a separate post for each, but I feel like I’ve been cycling through ideas and inspirations from both so much this week that they have somewhat merged into one in my mind.)

As I delve into the world of being a produced playwright, I’m finding that I don’t really know a lot about being a produced playwright.  I have been very thankful over the past few weeks to be able to observe some of Sherman’s writing process.  One of the things that I have struggled with is how to behave during rehearsals as a playwright.  It’s a strange new world to me.  I’ve been an actor, I am a stage manager and I briefly dabbled in directing, but I have only had a few interactions with playwrights in the rehearsal hall and have never been one (as  my only role in the process). 

Playwriting is a tricky business.  You are writing things that are meant to be said aloud, so, unlike writing books, it is difficult to fully comprehend if your work is achieving its intended purpose without hearing it read by actors.  It also changes based on the actors that are reading it.  Between Empty Boxes and My Mother’s Daughters, I’ve learned so much about how essential readings with actors and directors are to the development process.   When I’ve had readings of my work previously, it has been extremely difficult to break out of the stage manager role because this is how I feel most comfortable in a rehearsal, but it is not at all productive when my purpose for being in the room is as a writer. 

Studying Sherman’s behaviours in rehearsal has truly been one of the most enlightening experiences in quite some time and I have already been able to plunder and incorporate some of the things that I’ve learned from his manner and work into my own.  The most fascinating thing was watching how he listened to his work being read.  Often times I would look over and see him with his eyes closed or head down, which when you think about it, makes perfect sense.  I always thought that if I did something like that I would be considered rude, but how else are you truly going to hear the words of your text without any other distraction.  I tried implementing this comportment during the last reading of Empty Boxes and it was so effective.  As a stage manager, I have trouble removing my eyes from the script for too long, but that is not beneficial during readings.  If I am reading along, I hear the words as I intended them and not as they are being presented by the actor.  It is only when you listen to how the words you’ve written are interpreted by another person that you can determine if they are communicating your intent.

I also struggle with taking a commanding creative role in a production.  As a stage manager or even a producer, my creativity is not focused on the overall structure or concept of the production; that type of work is left to the directors and designers.  As the playwright, I do get input into the shape of the show: I created it!  If something is not coming across clearly, I can change the script.  But previously during readings, when people would have questions for me about characters, I would often feel intimidated and worried that I might come up with the wrong answer (another reason why I never made it as an actress).  After watching Sherman’s command of his work and the ideas he was trying to express, it inspired me with confidence.  Of course I know what is happening in the show: I wrote it!  I can tell you exactly why things are happening and I can also say that some stuff might be crap and needs work, but I get to make that determination and most text is worth discussing.  This past read was such a positive experience and it was very much due to the implementation of some of the mannerisms and attitudes I pilfered from Sherman.

The other thing that I’ve appropriated from Sherman’s work is how to deal with monologues and stage directions.  After working for weeks on La Ronde, I remembered that I had a copy of Sherman’s The League of Nathans and started combing through it with a new perspective on his writing (I failed to actually read the script when we were studying it in university).  Again, my stage management brain sometimes comes into conflict with my writer brain, so I end up with stage directions that read more like a prompt book.  This is how I understand people moving on stage, but that does not a good playwright make.  Sherman’s stage directions are clear and concise and really paint a picture for mood and atmosphere without imposing on direction.  I have yet to apply this new found inspiration to my own work, but during the reading this past week, I did find that the stage directions in Empty Boxes are in desperate need of an overall.  I’ve spent so much time working on the dialogue that I’ve completely neglected this part of the text.  Luckily, I’m working with a director that I get on with incredibly well and I know that the lacking stage directions are not going to hinder his process, but when I edit for future productions, you may seem some Sherman inspired stuff.

My final point on Sherman is relating to his inclusion of many monologues in his work; they are so carefully and skilfully embedded in the dialogue that while viewing, you don’t feel the “Oh no, here comes another monologue” feeling that I know I sometimes get at the theatre.  The way his are formatted, you will probably not realize it is a monologue until it is almost over (unless you are reading it or are a stage manager with the script in front of you).  This is an area that I struggle with.  If you have ever seen one of my scripts in the first draft, they read something like The Vagina Monologues, just one person’s rant after another.  My Mother’s Daughters is suffering from this problem right now.  I have all the text I want to say, it’s just that no one really says it to each other (which can make for some pretty boring drama).  My goal with that piece is to pull back some of the monologues and see if I can channel some of Sherman’s ingenuity and ease the longer speeches into a dialogue.  We’ll see how that goes!  I’ll keep you posted!  At least, having an example like Sherman to emulate gives me some direction as to where and how I need to go about accomplishing that task.

Now onto Martin... 

I know you might be confused how Martin and Sherman have bound themselves together in my mind, but it is because of this: comedy!  Sherman has a brilliant way of combining comedy with serious subject matter and I find his sense of humour is very similar to my own, which is why I have been able to extract so much from his works.  This week, I have also been reading This is a Book by Demetri Martin, which I have barely been able to put down.  This book is a collection of rants, thought and doodles by Martin.  He has a unique and varied style that has left me in stitches on number occasions.  I like to think I’m funny (even when no one else does), I try to infuse humour into my writing, but I don’t think I come up with funny ideas.

Martin’s book has made me look at comedy in a whole new light.  Because his style varies between each piece in his book, you get a unique look at so many different things that are funny.  One essay is from the perspective of a boy raised by a man raised by wolves; another uses colours to describe situations in a hilarious way (hard to explain, but awesome to read, if you get the book, this section is called “How I Felt”).  After reading this book (and I’m not quite finished yet), I can’t help but have a new perspective on comedy and style.  The experience has been similar to my post about the Empty Boxes Auditions, when the candidate spoke about writing a story inspired by a mundane object.  Martin takes unusual ideas or obscure topic matters and makes them interesting (and hysterical).  It’s just a matter of looking at things from a different perspective from the rest of the world.  This is something that I definitely struggle with; being a nerd and outcast for most of my life, I have spent every moment trying to conform and fit in; now, just as I feel I’m achieving my goal of conformity, I am venturing into a world deviation, where unique and exceptional ideas are esteemed.  Martin’s book is a good reminder of how to create in this way.  It is the obscure that is interesting.  What is lying below the surface?  His essay on “Bees” looks at a woman who was stung by a bee while on the phone and then gives statements from the perspective of the phone, the table, the bee, the nearby tree, a squirrel and the person on the other end of the phone.  The humour is in hearing the various perspectives.  It is not a complicated idea and most of the statements are exactly what you might imagine them to be, but how often to you actually look at something from that viewpoint.  Anyway, This is a Book by Demetri Martin is not only a fantastic read, but for me, it is working as a writing exercise book.  If ever I’m short for ideas or inspiration, I will just try writing in one of the styles employed by Martin and I’m sure the ideas will come flowing.  I’ll try to do one shortly and post.

Well, that’s all for this week.  For more information on the people, places and things mentioned in this post, please go to:

Demetri Martin -

PS – I have to leave you with an excerpt from Martin’s book because I haven’t stopped laughing since I read it!

From the section called “Ideas & Opinions” in This is a Book by Demetri Martin by Demetri Martin:
“WARNING: Sometimes it looks like I’m dancing, but it’s just that I walked into a spiderweb.”

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