I’ve had the damnedest writer’s block this summer. Part of it has been induced by the desire to change how I work on things. Really to get better at the business end of show business so I can get back to creating good work. That’s what it’s been about for the most part until recently. Being a great artist in your living room won’t do much if no one knows about it. I know writing about writing leads one-way to Boringville. It’s like seeing theatre about theatre. Who gives a fart? A film about theatre is a little better but not much. A play about film is almost the same. Usually these things have to be about something else, something deeper. The Player was a great film about film but then that was the genius of Altman with a great cast.
The trouble with so many workers in the theatre or entertainment world is that is all they know. If I am honest, I don’t know much more about the world either. That was factor number 2. Another red flag in scripts is the use of a therapist. The character is just going to go on and on about themselves, which is simply the writer spouting off ideas or phobias. Howard Korder’s Sea of Tranquility flipped this so that the analyst was the one we were watching. How he responded to the patient made it interesting. We weren’t listening to him complain. What passes for plot these days really boils down to either events or complaining. Because it is done by witty people or performed by pretty actors, it gets overlooked. As we have gotten better looking as a nation, the writing has gotten weaker. It seems like there are a lot more people who have decided they can get into creating theatre, which is great, but it becomes difficult to find the good things. People who make work about something beyond themselves. People who are truly saying something for others to hear. Not for the artists just to get off.
I tell my solo performance students there are three major traps in making one-person shows: therapy, fame/moolah, and revenge. I think the same is true for all writing. It just gets put under the microscope with solo work. I’ve had ideas for a new solo but I’ve pushed them back partly out of fear of stinking now that I’ve been teaching classes in this and also because I’m afraid my ideas are overly simplistic. It’s a bunch of crap. A game of procrastination because just writing sometimes is boring. I forget that the best way to get past writer’s block is to write. To find a time of day and commit to having my butt in a chair and my writing instruments in front of me. For years, scribbling in a composition book was the only creative outlet I had.
There’s also a thing when you’ve put on several hats that it’s difficult to know which one you should have on your head when. The producer can get in the way of the writer or the performer. The marketer and the salesman can totally wreak havoc with the artist. You can’t put the cart before the horse. You can’t expect whatever you create to save your life. Maybe what you do will bring more awareness to a situation but you won’t cure cancer. You can help people deal with human stuff better but you won’t fix it for them. You can’t set things up so they teach themselves or see something more clearly. Hopefully you will provide some laughs. That’s what I keep telling myself. I guess there are no hard and fast rules but there are things that you learn work and others that don’t as you go along.
I was interviewed recently for a position for an organization to teach playwriting to high school kids and was grilled on how I teach playwriting. The reason being that this company receives a huge chunk of money to have these inner-city kids’ plays be put up in a nice off-Broadway theatre. It’s all about being slick. First and foremost, you have to encourage people to have the sheer bravery to pick up a pen and speak the truth. You can talk about beats and character history and relationships and structure until you are blue in the face but you won’t get good writing out of them until they are opening themselves up to the experience. People put blocks up from the get-go for different reasons. Some do it because they don’t think they are qualified, others because they’re afraid they will come off as being crazy, and others because it’s difficult work. Deceptively difficult. I mean, picking up a pen or starting a new Word document is easy. But starting a new work can be downright overwhelming.
We know good scripts when we experience them. Sometimes the actors can compensate for weak writing. I had an acting teacher say that repeatedly in undergraduate. “Good actors can make bad writing good.” More emotional life or subtext or physical/vocal work can often be the Grey Poupon on the slab of dog food. But a good script is just there doing it’s thing like the drivetrain on a car. You don’t see it but it really makes the vehicle move. The quality of the paint or the material on the seats don’t do that.