Thursday, October 28, 2010

For A Friend's Birthday

In high school, this was our song.

There's something about being a teenager in love that lowers your musical tastes a few notches.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I Believe...

...that if you have little messes around you at home, you'll have little messes around you in other areas of your life. I have coffee stains and a discarded apple core on my career.

...that the Tea Party is not as popular as we might think. That they're popular at all is frightening enough, but there's a reason we think they're bigger than they are. If you had a news crew, are you going to point them at the rational, level-headed politician or at the candidate proselytizing fear and being followed by angry imbeciles wearing tri-hats with tea bags and holding signs with pictures of Obama with a Hitler mustache and claiming he's a "tyrint"?

...that there's a mystery to the universe and I don't know if it's all a soupy accident, God, Buddha, Yahweh, or some snarky old dude named Burt behind a curtain somewhere. It's not about getting or having the answers. It's about living in the right questions. And if someone claims to be quoting God, they don't know shit.

...that when people stop growing and learning and playing, they start growing old. And start making poor fashion choices.

...that Guinness is the cigar of beers. One pint once in awhile is fine. I prefer IPAs. They're tarty.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Write What You Want To See

"Don't write for an audience,'' she said. ''Write what you want to see.''

Jane Espenson. Smart lady.

One thing that will drive me crazy in writing class is when a student starts talking about what will get laughs and what audiences love. Shut up. You don't know.

You only know what makes you laugh and what you love.

Here's more of what she has to say. Click HERE.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I Believe...

...that there's a rush to being so into someone that you physically ache when they are not around, that you seem to only think about the next time you'll see them and you're totally willing to spend money better spent elsewhere and forgo the sleep that you need because you just can't shake that person. Is it love? Remember, you said the same things about cigarettes.

...that sleep happens.

...that there's an opportunity this election year to tell the gluttonously rich "less government is better -for us" CEOs that the millions and millions and MILLIONS of dollars they're pouring into campaigns to tell me I was better off under Bush and they can get the country back on track (we're off track?) to fuck off. This country is not for sale...anymore.

Edith Bunker: This is a nice restaurant, and it's called the Gay Paris.
Archie Bunker: Gay, gay, what'd you do? Bring us into a fag hangout?

...that if a character says something inflammatory in a film or play or television show it is not necessarily an endorsement of that sentiment. Referring specifically to the flack Vince Vaughn is getting for his character in the film The Dilemma saying "That's gay." For one thing, the comment is being taken out of context. If you haven't seen the movie, and I haven't, you don't know how that comment reflects on his character or society. I am not defending the derogatory use of the word "gay." I am saying, in context, in comedy, in telling a story, it may be appropriate and actually highlight why not to use it in such a way. For examples, watch the first few seasons of All In The Family. It is brilliant satire that uses a bigot as its main character to highlight the ignorance of bigotry. Archie Bunker would not be allowed to exist on television in today's world.

...that we tell each other stories to help us live a better life and some of our best story tellers aren't doing hit TV shows or blockbuster movies or anything on Broadway or best-selling novels. They're in comic books, cable, Netflix, storefront theaters, independent book stores and bars.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Note to the Actor/Improviser

Stop ad-libbing.

Thank you.

P.S. Here’s why…

In 1998, I wrote a play called “A Hard Day’s Journey Into Night” about the break-up of a Beatles tribute band. I put a year into writing that play. Dug into the characters and relationships. Poured my heart and soul into it. The production never came together like I envisioned. The first compromise was dropping having actors who also played instruments who could pass themselves off as a tribute band, if even a mediocre one. I was told there was no way we could find people who could do that (in Chicago, no less). The second compromise came in choosing a director who, while a great guy, was better at directing/coaching improv than traditional theater. The third turn down a long dark tunnel came when the cast was chosen. All improvisers who preferred to “riff” than memorize their lines. That’s an exaggeration. There were some hardworking folks in that show who worked their butts off to deliver what I wrote. And then there were others who simply used what I wrote as a springboard. One guy even told me he should have co-writer credit. I declined. The experience was a nightmare.

“The Saga of the Viking Women…” just completed its fourth weekend. It’s a fun show with big characters and lots of music and action. Everyone at RvD is proud of it and considers it to be our best show, yet. RvD is made up of writers. When we’re in a show or supporting a show, we may be doing the task at hand, but we’re always filtering everything through our writer sensibilities. We know when actors are going off script and we’re aware of how it affects the story. On Saturday, there was so much ad-libbing going on in the show that it dragged the momentum we’re trying to build in the last half of the piece making the climax less so.

Why do actors ad-lib?

- It could be they are not confident in the script and, as performers, are covering their asses. If they can just get the audience to laugh at what they’re doing, the audience will see it’s not they’re fault the show sucks. This is not the case with “Viking Women.” We all love the show and the characters.
- They’re bored. I have seen Second City revues devolve into big soupy messes simply because the performers got bored with the material and started to change it up unaware of or unconcerned with how far they have drifted from the original show. They’re keeping it fresh for themselves at the expense of a paying audience who came to see the revue they heard or read about. Since “Viking Women” is only a ten-show run and last Saturday was only number eight, I’ll assume that’s not it, either. If it is, these actors need to learn more about how one keeps a role fresh and interesting internally without damaging the story telling experience.
- I let them.

Yep. I think that’s the one.

As a director, I don’t mind when actors try new things… in rehearsal. It often leads to moments that truthfully flesh out a character or aspect of the tale being told. As a writer, it sometimes leads to a better line of dialogue, which makes me look smarter and funnier than I am. It’s a win-win. It also helps build ensemble and the sense that we are all creating this thing together. This is essential, in my experience. The actors aren’t meat puppets. They are co-creators. They’re the ones who breathe life into what’s on the page.

This is also tricky. I want actors to honor the script and I want them to discover exciting, spontaneous moments. Where this becomes a burden is when an actor “runs” with it and changes lines that aren’t an improvement, often just different, often simply not as good as what was written. Or their ad-lib is simply them speaking the subtext of their character when it would be far more interesting to keep those comments internal and show them to us.

Again, at a rehearsal level, this is easier to address and handle. Once the show opens, it becomes a different animal. Lights come up and the actor is now in control. This is as it should be, but with all the weeks of preparation and proven moments, why would an actor ad-lib? (By the way, I am distinguishing ad-libbing from improvising. Improvising is discovery and exploration. Ad-libbing is an actor trying something they think will be funny. Usually premeditated and not in the moment. Also, don’t improvise during my written show!)

Ad-libs usually start flying because an actor had success at it and now wants more. They’re high on how clever they can be and how much the audience shows their approval through laughter. Laughter solely caused by that actor’s wit. The actor has shifted from being an ensemble member to being in it for him or herself. This leads to the kind of ad-libbing that breaks character, calls out the story or other characters/actors and does NOT forward the action or make the play more engaging. It’s an indulgence.

And it’s my fault for not telling the actors to knock it off after the first weekend. The show is now set. Deliver the show.

“Saga of the Viking Women” is filled with brilliant comic talent. It’s a big show with lots of props and costume changes and the story is complicated. We rehearsed in a space too small for the show and we have performed on all three stages at Stage773. Two of them were last minute changes and done without a tech rehearsal. We own this show – the writers, the crew and the actors – and feel like we can do this show anywhere, anytime. But, we’re also not infallible.

Saturday’s new ad-libs were mostly chitchat and spoken subtext that landed with slow-motion thuds. The audience still enjoyed the show, but we, the writers, know they didn’t get the full experience of what we intended.

Actors. Want to look like rock stars? Commit to your character. Commit to the relationships. Commit to the story. Deliver the show everyone is there to see.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

I Believe...

...that to be able to forgive oneself is empowering. To be able to forgive another is freeing. But just because you forgive someone, doesn't mean you have to fuck 'em.

...gays being denied marriage and military service (hopefully over), 50 million people still uninsured post-healthcare reform, stalling benefits for the unemployed, blocking jobs programs, kicking people out of their homes before doing everything possible to keep them in their homes, putting corporations before people... Everybody counts, America. It's the land of opportunity, not the land of "go fuck yourself." Act like it.

...that "fiscal conservative" is an oxymoron.

...that the GOP is trying to buy the election with massive amounts of money being poured into election campaigns from foreign and domestic corporations and billionaires. My vote is not for sale. However, I will entertain offers.

...that you only have two more weekends to see Robot vs. Dinosaur's The Saga of the Viking Women and their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of The Great Sea Serpent. See it before it's gone forever. The show rocks. It's funny. The music is great. And it has a sea serpent!

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Run Down

I've been super busy lately, but not too busy to miss out on some shows that I think you might enjoy, as well.

JET BLACK CHEVROLET written by Scott Barsotti. It's part of a two one-act program called It Could Happen Anywhere present by The Curious Theatre Branch at the Prop Theater. Jet Black Chevrolet is an expertly written exploration of self-imposed sleep deprivation brought on by the grief of losing a son. The acting is excellent and anyone who has ever experienced staying awake way beyond the point which your body stays on board for the venture will relate. There are enough loops and turns in the story that will keep you talking after the show about what exactly happened and I mean that in a good way. The second one-act on the bill, The Flowers Are Dead by Matt Rieger is not as successful. It tells the parallel stories of two small poverty-stricken families and the young teenage sons trying to break away from their familial constraints. The stories don't intersect until the end and does so in a way that, while artful, doesn't really make sense given the rational behavior of the two boys. IT CLOSES THIS WEEKEND!!!

CANDIDE directed and newly adapted by Mary Zimmerman at The Goodman Theatre is well worth the time and money to see. Candide, as a musical, has had a troubled history with many high caliber writers and directors taking a whack at taming this unwieldy story. While not 100 per cent successful at that, it does come closer than any previous incarnation. At times, the narration is too heavy-handed and too full of straight exposition and there are no breakout songs, save for the closing number, which had me up on my feet for a standing ovation. Anyone who has ever sat next to me at a show knows I am loathe to just dole those out willy-nilly. Still, this production is full of stunning imagery and comic performances. I also recommend reading the book. It is one of the best social satires ever written.

THE NAIROBI PROJECT presented by Blewt Productions at The Annoyance Theatre is hysterical. It is the presentation of a play commissioned by a Chicagoan for a Nairobi playwright to pen. The playwright is certainly well-intended and does his best to grapple with English as an almost second language. The actors commit full guns to their characters and the action. It's a good exercise in what happens when a cast follows the dialogue and stage directions to a tee. A good lesson for aspiring playwrights and sketch writers out there.

Of course, a must see is Robot vs. Dinosaur's The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage To The Waters of The Great Sea Serpent as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of The Great Sea Serpent at Stage773. I love this show. It makes me laugh every time.

The 365 Omnibus Shows You Would Never See Unless You Knew Someone In The Cast: Remounted closed its four-show run at Gorilla Tango last night. Scott Olson and crew did a great job and reminded how cool a process 365 was - from the writing to the shows. There are no current 365 productions in the works, so if you're interested in putting something together, let me know.

Coming down the pike, Robot vs. Dinosaur is in the pupa stage of writing our next show for the spring and, I didn't think this would ever happen, but Don Hall and I are working on another two-man show. The clincher, we came up with a great title. Don Hall and Joe Janes Are Using This Show To Try To Get Laid. We're going to be diving into the world of dating and relationships from the perspective of two middle-aged men, one twice-divorced and one never married.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Saga of the Saga

After three years of doing shows, RvD got its first review by one of the more established institutions in Chicago and if you weren't familiar with our work, it probably won't have you rushing to the phone to order tickets. Fair enough. Put up a show and invite reviewers to cover it, can't complain when they do. You can read the full revue by Albert Williams of The Chicago Reader by clicking HERE.

Here's my response to elements of the review...

"Comedy troupe Robot vs. Dinosaur crosses Roger Corman's 1957 drive-in potboiler, The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, with Marat/Sade, Peter Weiss's 1963 play about a group of lunatics--led by the Marquis de Sade--who put on their own show about the French Revolution."

What problem could I possibly have with the above statement? We're not a comedy troupe. We're no more a comedy troupe than The Neo-Futurists or WNEP are. We're a theater company whose core group is made up of comedy writers. We craft our scripts. When a show is ready, we pick a director and cast it. "Saga" has a cast of fifteen. Of those folks, four are company members. Our roots are in sketch comedy, for sure, but we strive to present more theatrical work.
"Despite occasional bright spots, the production doesn't follow through on its premise: The characters of the inmate-actors are never developed, so we're left with a limp send-up of a cheesy old movie whose main attraction was its cast of scantily clad, soaking wet babes."
We're doing a parody, here. Marat/Sade is our context and we swapped out the story of the French Revolution for The Saga of the Viking Women. The Marquis de Sade was a full-of-himself hedonist which seemed like a perfect swap for The Great Sea Serpent, who is worshipped as a god in the film. Our show, as presented, is about 80% "Viking Women" and 20% "Marat/Sade." We could have evened it out and spent more time on the inmate/actors, which would have made it a two-act show and probably deathly boring. The insane asylum is our way into the story and, ultimately, back out, with the serpent having his own uprising. To me, it's about The Great Sea Serpent, played by the multi-talented Nat Topping, and he has a story to tell with Orson Welles-like control. Everyone else lives in his world and is his puppet.

It bums me out that Albert didn't like the show more. I think it's a ton of fun. It's filled with many great songs and many great comic performances.