Monday, September 28, 2020

Playwriting for Zoom

Opinions ahoy!

I have been thinking about the next few years and live theatre.  We will see an increased use of Zoom and/or other such software platforms to create our art while social distancing.  Along the way plenty of producers are going to realize something important--a professional Zoom account costs (as of this writing) fifteen dollars a month.  Compare that number to renting just one performance space for a single night.  I don't think these kinds of performances are going away, even after Covid 19 fades away.  If in fact it ever does.

So--how to tailor plays and performances for this new medium?  Here I offer some suggestions, some for theatre productions in general, but those in bold are aimed at playwrights specifically.  But methinks all can prove useful to writers.

  • I do think productions need to mutually decide where things "are" in terms of the actors on screen. So, if they are all indicating or looking to where a house is, every one of them looks at the equivalent of down stage left.
  • Passing small props from one screen to the other can work very well, providing identical props can be provided.
  • Best if everyone can set up something akin to a green screen and coordinate so everyone is in the same background at the same time!
  • Alternatively, one might find it easier to have a dark background, with light primarily on the character (although this mandates a certain atmosphere).
  • Borrowing a bit from silent cinema, somehow arranging an intro card to show a change of location coupled with some kind of music or sound effects seems good--but I gather this is much easier to do in post production rather than live.
  • Costumes. Given we're probably only talking about something for the upper torso (generally) it seems to me this isn't too much to ask, and deserves a lot of attention. Some kind of color design should go into this.
  • One can change the angle of the "shot." Not with the same degree of options as a film, true, but closeups and angles are very possible. Often, depending on your camera, you can alter the focus and with a little bit of ingenuity even put a transparent material in front of the camera!
  • As writers, look back to Shakespeare and how he had the characters refer to the location--how it looked, how it felt, the hour, their own reactions to the place.
  • Actors should also feel encouraged to use their hands, to gesture with their faces as well as express with them (tilting the head for example) and bring their hands into the picture when it feels right.
  • Opening credits. If all else fails you can find some lovely piece of free stock footage to play in a loop along with some free music and then scroll the cast list as well as other credits. Do it right and you "prime" the audience the show itself.
  • Any scene that includes physical contact probably needs to focus more on building up that contact rather than having it simply happen. Foreplay, in other words. Lead up to the violence without showing it. Ditto the kiss.
  • Likewise, something simple like a stabbing, being shot, or maybe a slap across the face can be "shown" by a bit of creative staging within the screen.
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Friday, August 21, 2020

PACT - A Way to Look at Playwriting

 Sharing a bit of playwriting philosophy.

This is a paradigm, akin to the four humours of the body in some vague ways, but I call it Aspects of Plays. Even comes with a handy acronym--PACT. Simply put I believe (or more accurately I personally perceive) plays having four major Aspects, one of which is nearly always primary. One can get into which is secondary, etc. if you really want to but I'm focusing on just the Primary.

Also, a playwright often develops more than just one, many giving almost identical attention to more than one Aspect, sometimes all four.

Re-read that last paragraph again. It will save time.

The Aspects are:

Plot
, i.e. the actual events that make up what some call the "actiona" of the story. I would say Moliere and Ira Levin are two playwrights who develop this most strongly, the former to some extent because he had to, the second maybe more because of his genre. Frankly, the vast majority of the feedback I get is focused on this, in a very formulaic way that I find sometimes very tiresome. Yet for all that I do attempt to have strong plots. "Plot" is not bad but it can (and this is what some folks--often trained for tv or film--find absurd) be secondary or even tertiary.


Atmosphere
is the feel of place, the "world" in which a play takes place. At heart I do feel Chekhov's great plays as well as most of August Wilson seem to me about their worlds more than anything else. I would go so far as to say these characters would be totally different, events utterly changed in you re-located these plays to another place and time. But this goes beyond time and place. It is also a sense of what is possible, and the "feeling" of the play's location. For example, are there women in the world of Waiting for Godot? Can one doubt there is a God in Murder at the Cathedral?

Character
is the other area where I get the most feedback, but often (weirdly) for statistical reasons, i.e. the notion that if a character veers too far from the average or a stereotype this is a failure. Meh. Insights into questions I had not asked, though, that is a treasure! But yeah, some playwrights do focus on characters, such as Tennessee Williams and imho Edward Albee, sometimes Eugene O'Neill. Events happen but fundamentally because of the characters, often with precision based on extremely specific character details leading to decisions informed not but mere self interest but the full spectrum of a human personality.


Theme
on the other hand is the idea about which the play deals. Frankly Arthur Miller and Henrik Ibsen are pretty clear examples of this. But this also has two different modes. Some writers explore a Question while others prefer to focus on giving an Answer. Ben Johnson is clearly one of the latter, in that his plays are clearly teaching a specific lesson. Shakespeare on the other hand is the former--he does not tell the audience what to think but engages them in a situation which excites their imagination.

You may disagree over my assignment of these aspects to different writers and I won't argue the point. My reason for sharing this is to explain how I personally see plays, including my own, and hopefully such a framework may offer something useful.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Cabaret Macabre (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

This wonderful dance show from ZJU will return when theatres re-open.  In fact it will indeed have two more performances (see below)!  When they do, allow me to recommend this lovely, dark, funny cabaret show.  In this case the name Cabaret Macabre says it all, really.

Brittany DeWeese (the redhead on the cover) choreographed/directed this collection of dance pieces as well as performing.  Laura Van Yck (she of the raven locks on the postcard) acts as hostess, channeling some blend of Morticia Addams and Marilyn Monroe with a liberal sprinkling of Dita Van Teese.

Now, given the name and design of post card, I did sit down with some expectations.  Vague ones, to be sure.  Probably some spooky/halloween songs while gothic ladies performed a series of stripteases..  And yeah, I kinda/sorta got precisely that.  With an edge.  I happily report however the performers gave more than expected.

For one thing--men.  Two male performers, Chris Andrews and Michael Baker, sporting both the looks and the talent to dance some amazing performances, usually with their female cast-mates.  Sometimes on their own.  They did not strip, but then hardly anyone did.  Rather, what we got were dance/movement vignettes.  Vignettes that  really worked--entertaining, a bit shocking, a tiny bit thought-provoking.

One of my faves had a man and woman with two goblets, one of whom was poisoned, and their elaborate dance on and around the table, constantly switching goblets on each other until both downed the contents at one time!

There was more, including more than one time members of the audience found themselves taking part!  But while yes, this show had plenty of lingerie and flesh showing off amid artful teasing, what I really walked away with was the broad-spectrum joy of entertainment on a host of levels.  A pastor using a woman as his pulpit, until she turns the tables on him.  A man descending from boyfriend to animal.  One final striptease which ends with a hilarious bit of body horror!

Kudos to all involved, pictured below--those not yet mentioned include Taylor Alyssa, Lindsay Chase and Darian Stranix.  All photo credits belong to Laura Van Yck

Cabaret Macabre will return at 11pm on Friday and Saturday, April 3 and 4, 2020 at  Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group 4850 Lankershim (just south of the NoHo Sign), North Hollywood CA 91601.

  

Friday, March 13, 2020

You are all invited...


THIS EVENT HAS SADLY BEEN POSTPONED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE


Imagine a radio station more or less today, in an America like our own.  And they are putting up an adaptation of a gothic classic.
Snacks will be provided.  Feedback eagerly sought.