Tag Archives: playwriting

Photographica: Late Afternoon and into the Past

Late Afternoon, Modish Building, Portland, Oregon

Late Afternoon, Modish Building, Portland, Oregon

A late winter afternoon–after a stretch of rain, the air still thick. Winter in the Pacific Northwest often limits you to shooting detail, given the long overcast stretches. But, when it clears, it gives you this full, rich light and color more akin to the semi-tropics, plus long shadows. Maybe the moisture content in the air; it somehow bends the light.

Here we have the golden hour plus: the warm light tinged with winter blues. The photo’s seem some post-production work, mostly to render it the way I saw it. Or at least how I remembered it. There’s no telling how far that can stray. Memory’s it’s own kind of filter.

The site–the Modish Building in downtown Portland–holds a special meaning for me. My first play–Controlled Burn–was produced on the fourth floor, in a sort of underground art gallery, with the artists squatting on site…not us, we came in as guests. Very punk, man! Kind of. They did throw some great parties. They also had limited gear available. The sound system was fantastic, and there must have been 50 cues, but our lights consisted of slide projectors and flashlights with colored gels over the lenses (and a silver plastic balloon that served to create a very cool watery effect). We took our set up in a rickety industrial elevator than ran so slow that you could reach out and touch the wall as it passed. We called if the David Lynch Memorial Elevator. We had to bring audiences up to the fourth floor in batches of ten. Luckily, the fire inspector never visited us.

With time, you learn. Back then, I had no idea. I remember Kyle Evans (who helped found Pavement Productions) and I attended PATA auditions when looking for actors. We knew nobody in the theatre community, nobody knew us, but they treated us as equals, and we ended up working with some very cool people like Sherilyn Lawson, Marty Ryan, and Catherine Egan (as a shamanistic dancer).

That’ll be 25 years ago this coming September. First play. Birth of Pavement Productions (I certainly had no idea that would last for 18 years). And my first review–the Oregonian compared me to a young Sam Shepard. They also said the play was kind of a mess–really, it was more performance art–and dubbed it “Uncontrolled Burn.” And thus the pattern: the critic give, and critic taketh away. Still, they couldn’t have made me happier unless they’d compared me to Beckett or Ionesco.

Funny that the piece really was a series of interconnected monologues, and I’m currently playing with a series of interconnected narrative poems–which could be performed as a series of monologues. I don’t know whether that means the circle comes round or I just have a limited number of ideas.

(Shot with a Canon 70D, 18-55mm zoom lens, processed in Adobe Lightroom.)

P.S.: This marks my blog’s 500th post.


The Modular Play: An Act of Faith

19442In 25 years of writing plays, I’ve generally worked from beginning to end. I may have a final scene in mind—sometimes an image that spurs the play’s creation. Sometimes, for tightly plotted stories, I work from an outline. Even so, when actually writing the piece, the process opens with “lights rise” and closes with “end of play.”

About a year ago, an idea came to me arising from images and voices I’d carried around for almost aa decade: American soldiers during World War II basically trying to talk themselves calm the night before a battle.

The time and locale fluctuated. D-Day seemed a natural, but also had been extensively covered, from The Longest Day to Saving Private Ryan. I considered the Anzio or North African landings, but those required explanation—and exposition. More and more, I thought of the lousy winter of ’44 and ’45, when war’s end loomed but hadn’t yet arrived.

Then an actor friend suggested I write a Christmas play, which made me laugh at first. No one would immediately associate my dark, sometimes sardonic plays with presents and cheery lights. Plus, could anything new be said of Christmas? Still, I liked the idea of writing a non-sentimental Christmas play for adults. All too often, between Scrooge, nutcrackers, and elves, the holidays seemed a reason to stay home from the theatre. Not because the existing plays were bad—simply because they were tired.

Then somehow the long-smoldering World War II play latched onto the Christmas Eve, finding the German-besieged town of Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. I’d long been fascinated by the town’s heroic effort to stave off Panzers as ammo, food, and medical supplies ran low.* And another image came to mind: a wounded civilian, a woman, in the midst of men trying not to fall apart. And If the Fates Allow took shape.

Or rather, it took shapes. I didn’t have an ending or a beginning. All I had were voices and a setting. The play stalled. I couldn’t find a way into it. I figured, what the hell, I’d write what I had—little scenes, snapshots, snippets of conversation. I had no idea where it was going. All I could do was rely on faith that I’d written a bunch of plays—too many maybe—and I could write another, hoping a piece would find its form as had happened so many times before.

It didn’t. A nervy process ensued, where, at any time, the play might go sideways. Plays do sometimes. You get into them and find out they have an unfixable flaw or they run dry. But increasingly, I began to feel comfortable with the characters. I could feel them pushing to have their stories told. So I started thinking of scenes—some so brief as to be blackouts—as pieces of a mosaic. I’d just keep writing until I exhausted the time and place, or until the play’s form revealed itself. No matter how it turned out, I was having a great time writing it. I liked hanging out with the characters and you couldn’t beat the circumstance for drama.

Siege plays—where a penultimate event shapes the action—have a form all their own. You just keep moving forward, and they get increasingly tense. The possibility of disaster colors everything, lending weight and urgency to otherwise ordinary conversation. If a character speaks of missing home, the question hang as to whether he’ll ever see it again. Sharing a cigarette carries a sense of communion—a rite to stave off emotional collapse.

Then, as if illuminated in a camera flash, the ending appeared to me, and it completely startled me—as I hope it will the audience, and I found most of the material written previously supported the resolution. Though my conscious mind seemed to float from place to place, my unconscious had been doing its job. I still needed to properly sequence the pieces and build transitions, which essentially meant rewriting the play from beginning to end, but a great deal of the original material survived the rework, and the beginning found itself. It said: start here. I’d just been warming up to that point.

I can’t say it’s the most relaxing way to work, but it wasn’t boring, and the results worked. I think.

Would I used the “modular play” technique again? Maybe. Plays have a way of telling you how they want to be written, and there’s something satisfying in taking your hands off the wheel and letting your instincts do the driving. In a way, it’s what writers do anyhow. Even when you’re carefully laying out a piece using an outline, you have to step back and let the imagination run. We’re never much more than nominally in control of a first draft. The rewrites demand all the writer’s craft and cunning.

Putting pen to paper is always an act of faith—faith in one’s self, in your intuition, and your need for discovery. Whether you leave the diving board with your eyes open or closed, you’re still going to hit the water. And you still have to clear the rocks.

*Despite my efforts to find a fresh World War II event to write about, after completing the play, I discovered that Band of Brothers had explored the same time and place, although they looked at if from a very different angle.

(At noon, January 26, “If the Fates Allow” meets the public as a concert reading at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, produced by Playwrights West as part of the Fertile Ground New Works Festival.)


The Sweatermakers Weaves a Sly, Subversive Spell

Andrew Wardenaar: Playwright

Andrew Wardenaar: Playwright

The Sweatermakers by playwright Andrew Wardenaar is a strange play. I think Andrew would freely admit that. But it’s strange because of its innovation: it refuses to be a comedy or drama—in a big way—by essentially being both. When it’s funny, it’s wildly funny, really going for it, and when it’s dramatic, it’s as serious as…. Well, that would be giving things away.

The play takes the audience on a ride, and, if one thinks of that as strange, it’s because it honestly does something that we see too little on stage: it takes chances. Big chances. And the script, director, cast, and designers rock it. You can see it in the audience when the lights come up. Their faces wear that bemused, slightly stunned smile that says: that was…a trip. And you know they’re going to be carrying those words and images with them for quite some time. Those words not only entertain: they pose questions about the society we’ve been woven into.

Since 2011, Andrew has been a member of Playwrights West (a Portland theatre company created and operated by playwrights, serving as a collective to the produce its members’ work). Andrew’s play Live, From Douglas was featured in Portland Theatre Works’ 2009 LabWorks workshop. Another of his plays, Spokes, premiered in 2008 as part of a compilation of short works entitled Me, Me, Me and Ewe. His other works include The Next Smith, Anachronous, The Attendant and Good One, God. Mr. Wardenaar is also a director and recently graduated with an MFA at the University of Portland.

Director Matthew B. Zrebski helms the show. He’s a multi-award winning playwright, composer, script consultant, teaching artist, and producer-director whose career has been defined by new play development. He has served as the Artistic Director for Youth Could Know Theatre, Theatre Atlantis, and Stark Raving Theatre—all companies specializing in new work—and, since 1995, has mounted over 40 world premieres. He holds a BFA in Theatre from the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University and is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America.

The Sweatermakers’ cast includes: Jen Rowe, JR Wickman, Ben Buckley, and Sharon Mann. Designers include: scenic design by Tal Sanders, lighting design by J.D. Sandifer, sound design by Em Gustason, and costume design by Ashton Grace Hull.

Though Andrew’s a thoroughly seasoned theatre professional, with The Sweatermakers, he’s experiencing something playwrights never forget: his first fully staged production. We talked, and here’s what he says about his own journey.

 

SW ADD 1How did the play change from the beginning of the production process to opening night?

I have been working on this play for several years now, and it has seen numerous changes over the course of its development, but when it was just me and my laptop, most of the revisions altered the plot, or planted character seeds. Going into the production process brought several practical issues to the forefront, however. The Sweatermakers had always been a very presentational piece of theatre and aspects of it were thoroughly cinematic. That becomes a problem in a space as intimate as CoHo Theatre. Originally, the play hinged on the ability to hide things, but with audience on three sides, mere feet from the actors, such a thing would have proven impossible.

In lieu of hiding, we featured. The blackouts, a convention introduced to disguise the movement of the actors and the placement of the props, became an essential part of the play’s rhythmic language, and the sudden darkness became an essential part of the audience’s experience. Split scenes, which in earlier drafts were supposed to show what was going in different locations, necessarily bled into one another and began to interact. Everything became more organic, as was the case when the playing of the clarinet was replaced by the human sound of whistling. The play became about the actor in a simple space, which I believe is what makes the medium of theatre so deeply compelling. The embracing of simplicity doesn’t just address pragmatic concerns, it betters the storytelling.

Through the production process/rehearsals, did your ideas or feelings about the play changeSW ADD 5?

Absolutely! One of the most rewarding things about being a writer is getting to hear what others take away from your material. I’ve had tastes of this throughout my career, but usually in the form of questions at readings, or comments from colleagues that have looked at my work. To be exposed to the interpretation of a roomful of thoughtful artists night after night, though, drove home the fact that the ideas we playwrights touch on are just the beginning of the discussion with our collaborators and our audiences. In earlier drafts, I was hyper-focused on what I was trying to say with the piece. In the rehearsal room, and in performance, I am solely interested in what others are hearing.

Was there a point where you felt like: “wow…this is really happening”?

Yup. I’m still there. Mind = perpetually blown.

How did opening night feel?

Opening night is always terrifying for me as a director or designer, but to experience as a playwright, to be the artist that has created the foundation that the show is built upon, raises the anxiety even higher. It was exhilarating and mortifying, a trip that I’m still coming down from. But there sure is a grin on my face.

Did the other artists show you things about the play that you hadn’t seen before?SW ADD 7

I learned more about the play in the past four months, collaborating, than I did over the course of the past four years of writing in solitude. Every design meeting, rehearsal, and performance has been a rich learning experience.

Did the experience change you? If so, how?

Yes. Irrevocably. But I’m honestly not sure how to articulate it. To simply say that it improved my writing skills and producing knowledge is insufficient. There’s been a spiritual shift. One that I have not yet grasped.

 

Portland, Oregon, theatregoers have but three more chances to see the world premiere of The Sweatermakers: it closes Saturday, August 30th. The Sweatermakers plays at CoHo Theatre (2257 NW Raleigh St, Portland, Oregon) at 7:30 PM on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Friday and Saturday tickets are $25, or $20 for students and seniors. This Thursday’s show (August 28th) are at a special $10 for both online sales and walk-ups, in an effort to make new work accessible to all audiences. Tickets can be purchased through CoHo Productions, at www.cohoproductions.org (503-220-2646). For more information see Playwrights West: http://www.playwrightswest.org/sweatermakers/

 


Setting Off Sparks

This really is a post for Portlanders, but, as it’s about a cool, artistically oriented event, other folks with like minds might find it interesting (and you might try it in your burg).
Monday night (May 20th), Playwrights West, a group of professional playwrights (of which I’m a member) based in Portland, is throwing a party. Yes, it’s a fundraiser for a full production of one of our playwright’s works (Licking Batteries by the wonderful Ellen Margolis), but it’s kind of turned into a celebration–a celebration of the joy of creating new work.
Dubbed Sparks, the evening features short pieces–either standalone short works or excerpts from longer works–from eight remarkable writers (and one bozo…me). It’s what we have to offer…our words, and some terrific actors have signed on to breathe those words to into being. And since we’re all getting together, there’ll be food and drink and a silent auction and good vibes: what could best be described as a party.
Here’s the fascinating thing to me, though. All of us in Playwrights West share a common purpose: to stage the new works of our members and to raise awaeness of the power and delight inherent in presenting premieres (and we’re just lucky to have access to some killer scripts). All of us are professionals who have had our works staged in many forms and venues, and, frankly, we all can write. (Present company excepted…or at least tolerated.)
But, man, what a lot of different voices. All really original, and all coming at the work from different angles, bringing unique voices and sensibilities into play.
So what the folks who attend Sparks will be able to experience is a terrific mosaic of ideas, images, power, and, well, light from these eight writers (and the bozo). In one place, at one time (and only at this one time under the same tent). The works range from new projects, still in progress, to new works about to be born as fully realized productions, such as an excerpt from Andrea Stolowitz’s Ithaka, which is about to open at Artists Repretory Theatre (where it won a commission), and, of course, Ellen’s Licking Batteries–the play we’re fully staging in August. And, if you drop by, you get to embrace these works–to celebrate their originality and diversity–with like-minded people…those who love new theatre. (You know who you are.)
Really, Sparks is a way to say: yes, new work counts. It keeps theatre alive, vibrant, surprising, ever changing. It’s vital. It matters. And we can do it really, really well, right here in Portland. Oh yes, we can.
So drive, walk, take the streetcar, and come on down to CoHo Theatre on Monday night. Have some food and drink and laughs. Maybe try out a cool new outfit. And take what promises to be an unforgettable ride with eight splendid, absolutely kick-ass writers (and one bozo).
Details follow. See you there….
Steve
—————
Sparks: A Benefit Performance

By the writers of Playwrights West
Directed by Playwrights West Company Member Andrew Wardenaar
Date: Monday, May 20th
Time: Cocktail Hour & Silent Auction at 6 pm. Performance at 7 pm. Postshow reception at 8:30 pm.
Venue: CoHo Theatre (2257 NW Raleigh St)
Cost: $40; tickets online or at door (cash/check only) subject to availability. Seating is limited.
Purchase Tickets from: sparks.brownpapertickets.com
Playwrights West, a professional theatre company composed of nine acclaimed local playwrights, announces Sparks, its first-ever gala benefit performance. This performance will feature short excerpts of works by all nine member playwrights, culminating in a world premiere excerpt of Playwrights West’s upcoming 2013 season performance, Licking Batteries by Ellen Margolis. In addition to the performance, the evening will feature delicious food and wine and a silent auction.
Featuring excerpts from: Eating in the Dark by Debbie Lamedman; Consider the Ant by Karin Magaldi; Licking Batteries by Ellen Margolis; Bus Stop by Steve Patterson; Ithaka by Andrea Stolowitz (opening May 28th at Artists Repertory Theatre); Jeepers by Andrew Wardenaar; Where There Is Darkness, Light by Claire Willett; The Chain and the Gear by Patrick Wohlmut; and Forky by Matthew B. Zrebski.

Season of the Bitch

You got to crank up every pitch
You got to crank up every pitch
This is the Season of the Bitch

Ah, writing. At last count, I’ve been doing it seriously for…(pause for math)…36 years. (Not counting the short story I spontaneously wrote, unbiddened, at age six, and then demanded my mother type up. Which she did. That’s a mom.) In general, the first four or five years of writing turned out crap. Then, for the next ten years, it turned out more ambitious, somewhat better-crafted crap.

After about 15 years, I started writing for the stage, found my form, and put my apprenticeship behind me. I’d achieved what I’d more or less decided to do when I was, uh…six. I became a writer. Which essentially meant I’d found my way out of one maze and entered another.

In the process, I’ve experienced some incredible highs, weathered some dark stretches (when I seriously wondered if it was worth it) and some bleak streaks (when I had no ideas or just didn’t feel like picking up a pen), and received more rejections–I prefer the word “bounces”–than I can count. Seriously.

I used to decorate the walls of my office–whatever space I’d set aside for writing–with rejection slips. It seemed like a defiant gestures–something a Writer would do. After awhile, the decor lost its charm, took on the stench of self-pity, and felt slightly masochistic. Now, production posters and cast photos cover the office walls. And, you know, there are a bunch of them. They’re a lot easier on the eyes and psyche because they say: you’ve done it before, you’ll do it again. That comes in handy when one enters the Season of the Bitch.

Which is to say, over the last month or so, I’ve submitted a shitload (to use the writer’s technical term) of work after a long stretch of basically non-stop writing (you have to grab the work when it’s hot and coming in, else it’ll spurn you, and you’ll lose it), and the little letters and e-mails have started trickling in. One picks up an envelope armed with a letter opener (I prefer a antique Mexican switchblade, compadres) and a bag full of rationalizations: these are tough times; everybody’s having a hard time getting produced; there are a ton of good playwrights out there and a limited number of slots; getting bounced means you’re in the game; and, as the posters attest, getting produced is not impossible.

These help to push away the darker thoughts, which still have a way of sneaking in when you’re tired, bummed, or overwhelmed. The game’s rigged. Your work’s too weird (non-commercial, non-linear, dark, unconventionally structured, and about 100 other choices you’ve deliberately made). You don’t live in New York City. You’re not paying off a more or less useless MFA in theatre. And the killer: You suck and you’re kidding yourself.

If that last one kicks in, it can paralyze you as quick as a curare dart to the neck. Then you have to: distract yourself (in my case, do something creative just for pleasure, but there are plenty of other options available…some of which won’t kill you); get back to work with a big, neon FUCK YOU sign flashing over your head; or crank up some fast, furious rock’n’roll and crawl back into the submission machine. If you can do all three without getting lost, the process can actually feel somewhat manageable.

Lightning eventually strikes, but, the longer between flashes, the more tempted one is to wise up and get the hell out of the rain. You can, or course. Sometimes you must to dry out. But, if you want to see the process through, inevitably you’re going to have to bundle up and head back into the storm.

As for the don’ts….

Don’t take it out on whoever responds to you. They’re doing a job, may have limited clout, and are prey to circumstances you can only guess at. If they’re taking time to read scripts, they love theatre and new work just as much as you do, and they may well be another writer dreading the mail/e-mail when they get home. And, brass tacks, they may not like the kind of plays you write…which means you don’t want to be produced there anyway.

Don’t take it out on other playwrights, sucessful or otherwise. They have worn the very same impossible shoes hurting your feet, and, though they might be having a hot year, they might be lacing up the torture shoes 12 months later.

Don’t take it out on family or friends. They really can’t understand how you feel, and, whatever they say, they probably think they’re being helpful. That’s called love, and should be accepted as such. Also don’t avoid them because you think you’ll bum them out. Honestly, they’re just as eager to tell you all the stuff that’s pissing them off; it’s a symbiotic relationship.

Don’t take it out on the job you have to work to pay the bills. They haven’t a clue, could care less, and you’re lucky to have a gig these days.

Society. Yeah, you can take it out on them. But it won’t do a damned bit of good, they don’t care what you say or do, and it can lead you back into “lost cause” wilderness.

And…don’t blame yourself. At the moment, you have enough problems. Just try to write as well as you can, and keep going.

So. For writers beginning and otherwise (and, I suppose, any artist–and anyone looking for a job). Do you ever get used to those oh-so-polite kicks to the nuts? Nope. Are they avoidable? Not if you want to play. Should you take it personally? No. Will you? A little, even if you won’t own up to it.

This is the Season of the Bitch.


Commencing Bombardment

Back in the early Nineties, we had ourselves a perfect little pocket war, known as Operation Desert Shield, the only U.S. war, so far, to sound like a feminine hygiene product. It was a swift, unforgettable thing, with CNN broadcasting live footage of Scud missiles falling on Tel Aviv, our wealthy friends, the Kuwaitis, getting looted by another one of our wealthy friends, one Saddam Hussein. Back during the Cold War, we weren’t always too choosy about who we took up with, and, as often happens, some of our relationships ended badly.

Seriously, it was a terrible war, with real bombs, blood, and bodies, and there was nothing amusing about it. I keenly remember feeling an awful sense of despair, as it became readily apparent the violence was inevitable, with no true certainty how it would turn out. Just as with its sequel, Operation Desert Storm (like most sequels, even more of a bummer), there were legitimate fears the war would set the entirely Middle East ablaze and completely destabilize the world economy. We’d have to wait another decade for that to happen.

History felt like an irresistible wave, a tsunami that rolled over everyone, no matter where they lived and how much money they did or didn’t have. The sense of fear and helplessness haunted me long after we’d tucked everyone back in their boxes, and I dealt with it the way writers do: I picked up the pen. In this case, I wrote a two-act drama called Bombardment.

At that time, I’d become friends with some wickedly clever artists running a new Portland Theatre Company, Stark Raving Theatre, and I asked them if they’d take a look at it. You know, just to see what they thought. They said, sure. And the next thing I knew, we were building a set. That’s the way theatre ought to be done–by the seat of your pants, with absolutely no idea what you’re getting yourself into.

The four-actor play–two men, two women–was directed by the very talented Kyle Evans, and ran for six weeks. It took a typical trajectory for a new play by a then-unknown playwright: a great opening (when everybody’s friends and family showed up), struggling weeknights, but stronger weekends. Reviewers were puzzled, dismissive, or both, but word got around that the play was a wild little beast, and really different from anything else running in town. Weekend audiences began to grow, and we closed strongly.

A year later, I tried to hide myself in a plush theatre seat at the Oregon Book Awards ceremony (Oregon’s top literary prize), absolutely terrified that Bombardment, one of three Finalists, might actually win, and I’d have to say something in front of a bunch of writers much more distinguished than myself.

It didn’t win (it’d be almost 20 years before I’d finally bring the OBA home for Lost Wavelengths), but the Bombardment experience really set the hook: I wanted to keep writing plays. For good or ill (depending on who you ask), I’ve been doing it ever since.

So I’ve always had kind of a soft spot for Bombardment, even though it totally screwed up my life. The play was just so . . . out there. I was so new to playwriting, I didn’t even know how many rules I’d blithely shattered. Bombardment was like letting the horse loose, holding on, and just marveling at its power while trying not to worry about getting killed.

Over the years, as I’ve honed my craft (supposedly), I’d dig the play out of the files, work on it a bit, maybe shop it around to a few theatres, maybe put it back in the folder. I came to accept it just wasn’t the kind of play for bigger theatres–the kind afraid of possibly alienating their subscription base. It was just too jagged, non-linear, brutal, and, frankly, weird. It’s a play for theatrical buccaneers.

And that’s why we’re here.

[To be continued]


Another Shade of Dark

My plays have never been known for being especially frothy. Blue is, apparently, my favored color–in clothing, language, and music. I suppose that reflects my outlook. Humor, however, serves an an antidote to the blues, on-stage and in life, so I try to find it even in the heaviest work. Another requisite in tackling the serious is to do it very, very well. I don’t know that I’ve succeeded in that, but, believe me, I have tried. Serious themes deserves the best, and I’ve spent many sleepless nights wondering if I’ve done the work justice.

The last few years, I’ve largely focused more on the fantastic: plays exploring the psyche or utilizing magic realism or alternate realities, and I’m turning, also, to exploring the human condition through our relations to the arts, of late writing about music and photography. But, for a good number of years, I was known as the “war guy.”

That is, I wrote a series of plays–four in all–about war and its aftermath. Three explore the subject through the characters of journalists: Waiting on Sean Flynn (Vietnam); Liberation (Bosnia); and Depth of Field (Liberia, Sierra Leone, and 9/11). Reporters, serving as our eyes and ears during conflicts open a breathtaking, immediate window into war narratives. Plus I used to be a reporter–never a war correspondent, though (I get asked)–and I have great admiration for those who put themselves at risk to the show the world the cruelties of which we are capable. They’re also damned interesting people, which makes them fun to write about.

Flynn and Liberation have been successfully produced multiple times (and Liberation has been published by Original Works Publishing). Depth of Field remains in progress. I’ve finished a number of drafts, but I still haven’t quite cracked the code on that one. I haven’t given up, either.

The fourth play, Next of Kin, stands as a sort of coda to the trilogy, shifting the focus from reporters to soldiers and their families, whose vital stories I felt remained somewhat unaddressed by the other plays. Next of Kin, looking at Iraq, is also the most contemporary work. It’s a good, strong play, I think, which had a very successful staged reading last year with the splendid folks at Portland Theatre Works; I’m currently shopping the premiere to theatres around the country.

Though I never planned it, the plays developed their own arc. Flynn asks why we’ve come to war, and whether we should stay or go? Liberation, acknowledging we’re trapped in war, asks how much do we sacrifice to tell the story? Depth of Field asks whether, after surviving war and paying the price, why return. And Next of Kin asks what we do and who we are when its over.

Writing these plays has been, I think, a substantial, unique accomplishment. (I have kind of a dream of having them collected in a single volume someday. Maybe it’ll happen, though it’s hard to say, given the state of both theatre and publishing these days.) I didn’t set out to do it: it just happened. They’ve made me a few bucks along the way–not very much. But they have rewarded me, however, so richly in terms of experience, introducing me to people and places I’ll never forget (and never want to, even when the memories are ghastly).

They’ve given me a chance to work with brilliant directors, actors, and designers on a subject that seems to bond artists they way soldiers and reporters bond in the field: everyone knows this is a serious, important issue that demands our best, and the subject tends to strip away our bullshit because, let’s face it, it’s about living or dying, killing or being killed. When you work like that, you get down to the core of your collaborators, exposing who you really are, and it’s one of the primary reasons I have such deep affection and admiration for those who work in this tough, sometimes ephemeral business. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn to like your colleagues, and they become your friends; if you’re really lucky, you’ll come to love them.

The plays have also afforded me some of the most intense audience interactions of my career. During ther performance, the theatre feels beyond electric, the air supercharged. Total strangers, speaking to me after shows, have told me stories they may have never told their families. After a performance of Liberation, a Bosnian woman told me how she walked, barefoot, away from her hometown as its men and boys were being systematically slaughtered. And then she thanked me for having the courage to tell the truth. Never, ever have I felt so simultaneously honored and humbled. That moment remains a treasure I will carry to my end.

Finally, this subject has allowed me to talk to and exchange letters and e-mails with with veterans and war correspondents, which has been worth every minute of sweating through the work, worry, and heartache that comes with making theatre.

I feel these plays have deepened my soul. When I pick up the morning newspaper and read so-and-so many have been killed or wounded wherever they’ve been killed or wounded this day, the pictures and feelings that come to my mind may be different than yours. Not better or worse, just…different. If you have a heart, you can’t write about war without it changing you, and you can’t write about war effectively if you don’t have a heart. Sometimes I think it’s damaged me, you know? Just a little. Knowing a little too much about the worst humans can be and the most terrible things that can happen to us. Whatever I’ve learned and kept inside, It’s nothing compared to those who have been there, and it’s paid me back more than I could ever imagine.

This Memorial Day, as we approach the 10th anniversary of September 11th, I just want to take a moment thank all those who have served–and those who have reported the world’s self-inflicted catastrophes–for putting your very lives at risk. That’s it. A small and quiet acknowledgement that’s but a pebble in the ocean compared with your experience. With a special thanks, from as deep as I can reach, for those who have been so gracious to share your best and worst stories with me.

Here’s to the day when all our work becomes obsolete.


A Good Day in Splattworld


It’s that time of year again, when the children wait expectantly for the presents to arrive…. Yes. I’m talking about the announcements of Regional Arts and Culture Commision’s (RACC) project grants for artists. This year, I’m tied to two projects which have won grants; the following descriptions are from the RACC site:

Portland Theatre Works Next of Kin LabWorks. Portland Theatre Works will produce an intense developmental workshop of Steve Patterson’s play Next of Kin, which had a well-received developmental reading in our FreshWorks program in October 2008. In the play, set in rural Oregon during the height of the Iraq War, Mike is a Marine Casualty Assistance Officer, who informs parents and spouses their loved one has been killed.

Chris Harder, Fishing For My Father. From my personal experience as an adopted child, meeting my biological father, and becoming a sperm donor myself, I am inspired to explore the complex quality of love that is shared between children and their fathers and how diverse circumstances influence who we are. By using fishing as a common thread I aim to discover the significance that shared moments and memory have in our lives.

In the case of Mr. Harder’s piece, I’m writing a quartet of monologues. (Chris and I worked together on The Centering, for which he won a Drammy Award as best actor.) So that means I have some writing to do, plus a rewrite of Next of Kin, plus two plays in January’s Fertile Ground New Works Festival (The Rewrite Man as part of the Pulp Diction new works reading series, and Riffs, a short play as part of Introducing…Playwrights West, readings from a new theatre company I’m involved with…called, not suprisingly, Playwrights West. You can buy tickets to both events through the Fertile Ground Web site.)

This is the nature of theatre. In 2007, I won the Oregon Book Award, tra la, my future was golden, all I had to do was wait for the offers to come cascading in, and…nothing happened. I got a lot of writing done this past year, but had not a single production. In 2010, well, I’m already exhausted thinking about it.

Anyway, congratulations to Mr. Harder and to Mr. Andrew Golla at Portland Theatre Works, and to all the other RACC recipients. If you want to check out the other granted projects, the info can be had at RACC Project Grants for 2010

Plus, depending on how things go, I might be writing a non-fiction book, and I have a bunch of new plays to market.

In other words, maybe I’ll get to sleep next year. A little. Maybe.

Good times.

S


Time Waits for No One, Not on My Side


Where’s the “off” button on this thing, anyway?

Sorry it’s been so long between postings, but, some time during early October, life accidentally bumped the hyperdrive switch, and I’ve been violently sucked into an uber-accelerated time vortex, and it’s been all I can do just to clutch the safety bar while my rattling little cart has climbed, dived, slid, and shuddered into the curves.

Hyperbole? Well, yes. But it has been busy. In addition to working 50+ hour weeks at my day job as a mild-mannered technical editor, I finished the working draft of Immaterial Matters–a new full-length drama I’ve very pleased with.

I’m helping Playwrights West, a new Portland theatre company, get off the ground (including building and launching a last-minute Web site to serve as a placeholder until we can build a better site).

I shot, framed, and hung a photo project for a production of Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love and served on a public panel discussing Sam’s work.

I reconnected with one of my oldest friends (then promptly dropped the ball when the schedule overwhelmed me–sorry, Scott), and I got together with Jack Boulware, a college/journalist buddy, in town to promote his terrific new book Gimme’ Someting Better (and more to come on that).

Deb and I managed to go see Bob Dylan and B.B. King, both beyond wonderful but Tuesday-night concerts which left me wasted the rest of the week.

I shot a portrait of a charming transvestite for Pulp Diction, a January new works reading series and part of Portland’s Fertile Ground New Works Festival, which includes my newish full-length play The Rewrite Man–which, of course, I had to rewrite.

I’ve made huge leaps forward with my guitar playing (I think), bought Deb a new Ibanez acoustic as an anniversary present (we’ve been jamming together, which has been wonderful), bought and broke in a new Vox amp (because Deb’s new guitar has an electronic pick-up, and I happily returned the great Roland amp she’d been loaning me), and, this week, completely lost my mind and bought an Epiphone Sheraton II semi-hollow body electric (more on that to come as well).

Plus the car blew up and needed major repairs, we had a small dinner party for my yearly winter dish, Beef Bourguignon, and, after writing three full-length plays in two years, I decided to take a break from playwriting…to write a non-fiction book (and stil more on that down the road, naturally). In my spare time, I managed to begin writing a song. Because, you know, I didn’t have enough to do.

Finally, three vetebras in my neck went out (stress, perhaps?), and I’ve pretty much been in constant pain for weeks, but I’ve been so busy that I couldn’t get to my doctor until this past week. (Getting better, thanks.)

Things, pleasantly, look to slow down in a little while–right after the PR I have to do for Playwrights West (also part of Fertile Ground), rehearsals for The Rewrite Man (and possible rewrite), two grants I should hear yea or nay on this month, a new round of play submissions, some work as a regional Dramatists Guild representative, photos I owe some friends, revamps of Playwrights West’s and my own Web sites, research on the new writing project, and then this upcoming “Christmas” event…whatever that is. Plus another couple play rewrites with looming deadlines.

So my apologies for the posts I haven’t written, phone calls and e-mails I haven’t returned, or any other balls I’ve managed to drop. I’ve been lucky to hang on to the pair I was issued years ago.

At some point, the fatigue morphs from agony to giddiness. At least that’s what they tell me: I’m still waiting.

In short, if I owe any of you stuff–scripts, pictures, calls, or new blog posts–please bear with me. I’ll get to it right after…. Well, it’s on my mind, okay?

My to-do list includes: “update to-do list.”

S


A Taste of "Immaterial Matters"


From the new play….

REILLY thrusts the paper at CRANE.

REILLY
Read!

CRANE warily takes the paper.

CRANE
“Three fires of incendiary origin–“

REILLY
The other column.

CRANE
“Clifford Beekly has been diagnosed with acute insanity–“

REILLY
Further down.

CRANE
“An unknown man found hanging in Mr. Wilson Crowley’s barn–“

REILLY
Below the fold, Crane.

CRANE
There’s nothing below the fold but obituaries.

REILLY
Wrong. There’s nothing below the fold but customers.