"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Here are the contents of my old blog (Aug 08 - June 09) from a previous site:

17 June 2009

OK, I am really terrible at maintaining a blog. And of course, since this is meant to be accessible to and read by my students, there are many, many subjects I can't address. [Example--clipping my toenails...way, way, too disturbing for young minds.] But I will try to make more of a stab at it from time to time. So a few random observations.

Ridiculously proud of winning Outstanding Chorus at the Metropolitan High School Awards. Was also proud of being nominated for Best Music Director, but a little annoyed that I don't get a piece of paper to put up in the trophy case for that.

Am starting to think about directing MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING in the fall. First I have to read the text a few times and make some basic decisions. I also want to prepare my own cut script. I need to decide on a historical setting--at the moment I'm thinking spaghetti western, with tango dancing at the party. (I know that makes no historical sense, but this is Shakespeare, folks!)

I am also completely cheesed off that the high school is surprised with a paper shortage at final exam time again. Either they need to adjust the budget or they have to get serious about conservation, more serious than just saying, "Hey teachers, please save paper." That is a ridiculously pathetic approach. Build some incentives--pay a cash bonus to the teacher who uses the least paper. (That would also require the re-instituting of account numbers to make copies, which would also be a good idea.) There was one teacher I saw EVERY SINGLE DAY (no, I won't name names) copying out worksheets for all of his classes. It was as if he didn't have a textbook. He must have burned thousands and thousands of pages. Meanwhile, I was trying to scrimp, copying doublesided in tiny fonts, sometimes only making enough for every other student and making them share. And other teachers did nothing to change their habits. They're pigs. I said it. Pigs. New Milford has virtually no policy on conservation and recycling and it is a disgusting lesson we're giving our students.

See this is why I don't do this more often. I try and write a couple of innocuous remarks and I slide into a rant. I will go fume in peace.

8 March 2009
I think my blog will look better and more professional if there are more graphs and charts in it. Here's a start:

20 January 2009

Even though the musical, WORKING, is off to a terrific start (I have vowed to cut back on the use of "awesome" in 2009), I am still under the winter blahs. Impending midterms, I think.

However, we are experiencing another peaceful transition of power in our government today, and that makes me feel like this:

(That is my lovely daughter, Samantha, who is studying in India this semester, expressing her joy at visiting the Taj Mahal on a field trip with her fellow students.)

1 December 2008

In case you're wondering just how self-absorbed I am, the previous blog entry should pretty much settle it. I completely forgot to mention that terrific day when both Coviello and I were late for rehearsal and the cast had been kicked out of the auditorium for some other event. By the time C & I arrived, the cast was already rehearsing, deeply engrossed in the script and the characters without any adult leaning over their shoulders. Way to take ownership of what we're doing here!

Anyway, here is the awesome company of THE SCHOOL INSPECTORS at their most dignified.

30 November 2008

Now that the fall comedy has been over for a week, and although we cannot say the dust has settled, because we are already beginning the interactive murdery mystery this week, not to mention pre-production work on the musical, Working, I had better get my last thoughts about the experience of writing and directing a new comedy, THE SCHOOL INSPECTORS, down before I am unable to recall them. I have absolutely terrible recall--I constantly remember things incorrectly, not just scenes in movies or passages in books, but my own life as well. (Strangely I almost never remember music incorrectly. If I remember it at all, it's dead on.)

I must say it was an excellent experience for me. Everything was executed as well as I could have hoped, and I seem to have matured enough as a director (and writer) that if an actor took a speech or a scene in a different direction than I had anticipated, I was open to seeing where they were going with it; and more often than not, I let it go that way, only making the normal adjustments any director would, to increase the clarity of the expression, but not trying to change it back to the way I had imagined it.

And I was frequently delightfully surprised at how the actors would seize these parts and develop them and extend them out. As a writer one often has a singular focus on the foreground events. You want to make sure the dialogue makes sense, makes the right points, flows naturally, leads cleanly to the desired reactions (usually laughter). As a director/writer, I like to keep the background humming along to avoid the artificiality of having everyone on stage frozen listening to one conversation. But as a writer one seldom has the time or even the capacity to develop all the background interactions in detail. My actors did that. They kept the characters alive and behaving all the time, creating vivid and sometimes multi-layered characterizations. They really co-authored much of the play with me as I had hoped.

I made interesting and important discoveries as a writer--things I should have known, maybe even things I did know but had forgotten. One of the functions of this exercise of blogging is help me keep from forgetting them. One rule which is Cardinal Law in screenwriting, but is frequently ignored in the theater is creating either a sympathetic character or a surrogate for the audience. In film, one must decide whose story one is telling. But in theater, where we are often in love with the idea of ensemble, we neglect the job of giving the audience a way into this world, giving them someone to take the journey with.

For example, I began the play with the idea of a simple transliteration of Gogol's Inspector General into a school setting. However, I could not imagine making a vain and petty beaureaucrat the object of fawning attention as Khlestakov is in the original, as our social conditions are so different from those of Imperial Russia. That character would simply not work. So, as I always enjoy stories about con men, I decided to transform Khlestakov and Osip, his wily servant (in the commedia tradition) into two con men. I always knew I would be swiping patches of ideas from the Danny Kaye film adaptation (written by two first-class comedy writers of the 1940s, Phillip Rapp and Harry Kurnitz) which was how I first came to know the play, albeit in the romanticized, bastardized and Vaudeville-ified version of the film. I plunged in and wrote about ten pages when something told me that me story about two con men was not going to work. Somehow I sensed that although the students would have fun putting the play on, I could not imagine an audience giving a rat's hindquarters about these guys.

I know I am not expressing an original thought when I say that a writer develops a sense of the audience, the very presence of the audience in his or her head while writing. And one of the advantages of writing theater after as many years experience as I've had (my first high school musical was in the spring of 1970, while Nixon was still popular), is that one's sense of the audience has become fairly highly tuned. I never learned so much as during those years of helping write the Act IV Cabaret at the Weston Playhouse in Vermont, our own little "Saturday Night Live" in a basement bar, when I would stand at the back of the bar night after night and hear how the same material would hit or bomb, or be transformed from bomb to hit as the actors began feeling their way through the material and towards what the audience wanted.

So I knew that two guys were not going to make it in this story. Perhaps if I had the time to develop their story, as in The Sting, when one is rooting for Redford's character to get revenge on Robert Shaw's character. But the extensive content demands of adapting the Gogol were never going to permit that--the story focus must needs be on the people who have made this town, or in our case this school district, the little hell that it is. A large backstory would be needed as to why they were seeking revenge, and that would take focus away from the thrust of the satire.

So I started again with a man and a woman. I don't know why, but I knew right away that they were not a couple. And they began rummaging around the abandoned room in the first scene just as my earlier two con men had done, but then they surprised me by talking about another con named Harry. And why Harry wasn't there. And what Harry contributed to the group. And now there was a dynamic. There was even the makings of a triangle, even if the characters themselves didn't know it yet. And I knew that the working out of that triangle could move alongside our main story of the corrupt school district without interfering with it, and perhaps even enriching or enlivening it. An unrequited affection sprung up, and now the story had a motor.

Let me say I am as surprised as my cast members might be to say that at this point I did not know Harry would actually appear in the play. But one of the chief tasks in putting together any play is figuring out the curtain. I was annoyed at SNL for years because they refused to write endings for their sketches. Now, that's OK for Monty Python, because they were on film/tape and part of their point was the freedom to leap from a moving sketch when it had run out of ideas and land, often mid-stream in another sketch. But SNL is live, it is a bastard child of theater, and theater needs curtains. You need to tell the audience, "It's your turn to respond. What do you think?" And since you want the response to be favorable, you make striking and often comedic curtains.

One of the most successful elements in our production of The Hostage last year was the small bits of pyrotechnics involved. And since, as far as I knew, Cody Millo who had devised them would still be available, it was natural to plan for some pyro. I thought to borrow a bit of the second act curtain from You Can't Take It With You together with the "tapestry scene" from Lion In Winter, during which successive conspirators go to meet the prince of France and successively hide behind tapestries as the next person enters. It turns out I was actually stealing from the film version of Inspector General which has a similar scene, executed in a slapstick style closer to my intentions. So I knew we would have some pyro (computers exploding), some people running around and even the little "after-joke" of the sprinklers. It's one of the things I admire about the great slapstick film artists, Chaplin, Keaton and especially Lloyd. They are not satisfied with a joke followed by a cascade of similar jokes. There is usually a topper, and frequently the topper is some sort of reversal. Lloyd's climb up the building in Safety Last is full of those. And I never anticipated that my sprinklers would involve real water--that was strictly Mr. Coviello's idea from start to finish.

But it still didn't seem enough. I needed another slice of ham for this Dagwood sandwich of a curtain. What if the real Inspector General turned up then? No, that was the final curtain. I knew I wanted to preserve that much of Gogol, especially his direction that the play should end in a long freeze. Gogol was frustrated for much of his career in the theater that almost no one would end the play as he had directed with a long, long freeze. (He specifies a minute and a half. Even I did not have the courage to extend it past 40 seconds, or the length of the chord decay in the recorded music we used.) So the real IG was out. How about another fake Inspector General? Wait--I've already written one in--Harry can come back. And if Harry comes back, he can stir the pot of romantic complications. Now it's true, Harry could have maintained that he was the only authentic IG all through the third act and maintain additional plot complications that way. But i couldn't see a way to keep that idea going that wasn't tedious and repetitive, not to mention reminiscent of too many other farces we have already seen before. No, now it was time to go back to the story of Ian and Liv and Harry's return gave us a good way to tell it. That aspect of the third act wrote itself. It helped that Liv was a good and experienced con, used to not saying everything she thinks. The years I spent writing screenplays taught me to underwrite, and that is my favorite mode. Let the actors show what the characters are feeling and thinking, regardless of what they say. Subtext and all that. So I loved writing that triangle, simple as it was, and my three actors carried it off flawlessly. I think our female lead did some of the best, richest, most subtle acting I've ever seen in a school setting.

A smaller change brought on by the commencement of production was the realization that the actor playing Fiedler, the corrupt bookkeeper, was going to be enjoyed by the audience, and that he needed to be brought back, more than once if possible. One obvious opportunity was presented by my failing to include him in the serial-bribery scene which winds up Act II. He was easily inserted in there, and got some of this best laughs in that short sequence.

Finally, there comes the rest of the third act, primarily the scene with the parents. It's true, when we had auditions I did not have a third act and to be brutally honest, I wasn't sure I had enough story to fill it out. I just had the triangle and wrapping up the bribery thread with the discovery of the real account books. Then came auditions and I discovered that I had at least five more interesting actors (well, even more than that, really, but I was running out of imagination and room on the stage) that ought to be included than I had parts. When I laid the play out in the summer I shot for a goal of 20 speaking roles, which is pretty hefty and virtually unknown in the modern theater, other than in government-subsidized theaters in Europe and elsewhere. We had had about 17 or 18 in The Hostage and a small crew of additional people on stage. But now I had 25 people I knew I wanted to use. I thought briefly about making a scene with the students of the district. That presented two problems. Although ultimately the students are the most important stake holders in what is going on in their school district, I could not imagine how they would know about or understand what was swirling around them. And I couldn't craft a whole scene about their lack of awareness--certainly not in the Third Act, where the story needs to keep moving forward, not stalling for time. And there was an esthetic question. Since all the actors are students, and most of them are playing adults, won't there be a sense of the violation of a convention if some of the students are playing students? How do we differentiate them as a group without heightening the artificiality of the students playing the adults?

But there was one last group still unrepresented--parents. And parents are the likeliest target for con men. (I have loved The Music Man nearly all of my conscious life, and it may be the source of my affection for fictional con men.) So on marched the Moms. We had already established that many of them were Estonian, so that helped with naming them and giving them a social context. What did they want? They wanted to know how these threatened changes would affect their kids' ability to get into college and out of this terrible town. The scene evolved, partly based on pretty common gripes teachers have with parents until suddenly the parents were demanding they be allowed to buy the answers to the standardized tests. I did not know this would happen when I sat down to write the scene. I was all set to try and dazzle them with "76 Trombones"-worth of blather about these phony Kaplan-style testing courses. But the parents' characters (who were being written for actors who had already been cast at this point) took control, took the play into one more layer of complication and stayed right on course. This just heightened Ian's ethical dilemmas, it rounded out our picture of a corrupt world and gave a cap to our climactic scene. It really was quite marvelous how many problems those moms solved, on top of creating an extremely funny scene which some audience members thought was the peak of the play. My only explanation was that by waiting that long, I was now living deep in the world of the play and my instincts led me naturally to solutions that my conscious mind would have taken much longer to get to.

So now it's done and most people seem to be pretty happy with it. Well, if they're not, they haven't had the nerve to tell me, and I like it just fine that way. On to the next projects. I have some thoughts about seasons to come, but I'll save that for another blog entry.

25 October 2008
Obviously, I am completely miserable at maintaining this blog, but that was worsened by my failure to finish writing the play until about a week or so ago. That weighed on my mind so heavily I could barely sit and relax and watch a TV show for the guilt of not having finished the play. It's no masterpiece, but it's done--at least done enough to be produced.I am so proud of my Drama crew and it makes me happy to be with them. Here is a picture of some of the gang commandeering a piece of school furniture to be used on our set. It completely captures the spirit of our group:

7 September 2008

Well, I've really put my foot in it. We are committed to THE SCHOOL INSPECTORS for the fall show, although I have still to write most of the third act, plus polishing the second act. But I refuse to turn back. This should be a learning experience.

3 September 2008

Classes again. Do the students know we at least as nervous as they are (or more)? Hope no one reads this.

20 August 2008

Alright, I haven't proven too good at keeping this updated so far, but I was doing a freaking lot of writing. Wrote 40+ pages while I was visiting my dad in Maine. Meanwhile, been trying to ignore the Olympics. (I feel as though I'm constitutionally required to care more than I really do.)
2 August 2008

I've just set up this site and one of its purposes is to encourage students to become reflective and to use the medium of the Internet to freely and generously record the wanderings of their own minds. So it only seems and right (write) and proper that I should do so myself.

Notwithstanding, it's the middle of the summer and I don't have much to write about except that I am trying to write a play for the fall production of The Opening Knights and it's damn hard. The play is proving to require more structure and more engineering than I had anticipated. I don't want to say much more about it, because I find that writing about writing takes energy and brain cells away from the actual writing itself. Besides, I could wind up going in an entirely different direction than I've started, and I will feel foolish having this up for everyone to see. Unless I don't. In any case, that's a decision I would prefer to postpone.

Long story short (LSS), that is all I care to say at the moment. More, we hope to follow.

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