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.)

You Ever Wonder About Old Reporters?

Irreverent? I suppose. But I don’t think Andy Rooney would have minded too much. CBS announced the longtime 60 Minutes essayist has died at age 92. He seemed like a grumpy old guy when I was a kid, and I’m not a kid anymore.

He took a lot of ribbing over the years, particularly for his apparently left-field topics, often using small issues to make bigger points. (“You ever wonder about paperclips? Nowadays, they come with this plastic covering. I don’t know what that’s for. When I was growing up, we were happy with plain metal….”) That’s parody…but not too far from reality sometimes. I’d look forward to the left/right editorial counterpoints at the end of 60 Minutes, then feel let down when they’d announce there would be no counterpoint–just Andy Rooney’s commentary. It felt like getting stuck at the Thanksgiving table with that uncle who never stopped talking…except about some mysterious part of his past that no one wanted to talk about. You felt affection for him, but sometimes you wanted to get a word or two in.

In time, Rooney became a kind of institution, the way longtime columnists do. Like Mike Royko or Art Buchwald, it didn’t matter that their best work was behind as much as that they weere still there doing it. Rooney stepped down from 60 Minutes earlier this year, and I got that “uh-oh” feeling because I figured he was one of those guys who’d go out keeling over in the CBS lunchroom. When I heard he went into the hospital for surgery a couple of weeks ago, I could hear the curtain rustle.

He got it wrong sometimes (and he was honest enough to admit it…sometimes). He got it right too, even when it was pleasant to hear. But mostly, he just got it, said it, and left it up to you to do what you would with it. That’s admirable, as is that even if he occasionally apologized for what he said, he never apologized for being Andy Rooney.

Here’s something you might now know about him, and, like that uncle who won’t shut up (but has a past), it might add a little more depth to him. During World War II, Andy Rooney served as a reporter for the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes. He wrote about U.S. soldiers living and dying, and, in doing so, went where they went. Where they lived. Where they died. He rode along on a daylight bombing mission over Germany where one-third of the bombers never came back. He won the Bronze Star for covering the horrendous fighting around St. Lo, France, where the allies broke through the German lines after D-Day, beginning the end of the Third Reich. Like a lot of those guys, he didn’t talk about it much. At least not much in his commentaries. That just wasn’t the way it was done, and, besides, he had so much else to talk about. I’m sure if you asked him, straight out, he would have told you he’d been terrified and sickened by the war, and then he probably would have said he was lucky to be there. That’s not a soldier talking–that’s a newsman.

With time, I became more fond of him, even when sometimes you’d feel like, c’mon, Rooney…give it up and go plant some flowers or catch some trout. But he was a reporter (none of that fancy “journalist” stuff for him), and, obviously, he loved it. Even when he didn’t have much to say, he found an entertaining way to tell you: “Today, I got nothin’.”

Today, we got nothin’. Or at least a little less. And I think Rooney would be okay with that. Anyway, he’s going to have to be. And so are we.

Fred Patterson, Man of Action

So I get these e-mails…come on, did your dad really look like Sean Connery? Huh? Reeeaaally? Come on.


But when you’re a kid…yeah. Kind of. And it’s pretty cool to somehow think, yeah, sure dad’s going off to work at the newspaper, but what he’s really doing is undercover work, just pretending to work at the newspaper, and….

Anyway, here’s my dad in his prime, the photo taken in Beaugency, France, in the Fall of 1944. And, what the hell, he’s kind of dashing. And he does carry a gun.

And though I’m sure there’s no chance of it, if there’s anyone out there who might have known him or have a friend or relative who might have known him back in the day (in the army, he worked as an armorer in Northern Ireland, England, and France, went to the University of Montana in the late Forties, and worked for AP in San Francisco in the Fifties), I would love to chat with them.

‘Cause I miss the guy. Every damn day.