Fertile Ground Portland

A Festival of New Works Blog

An Actor Weighs in on New Play Development Hell October 30, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — fertilegroundpdx @ 12:32 am

080311-sagnwebreadyActor Karl Miller (foregrounded in this photo from PCS’ 2008 world premiere of Sometimes a Great Notion) has had some experience with new work development. Although, it should be pointed out, not from the viewpoint of the playwright, chewing their fingernails off in the back row of a darkened theater while an audience reacts (or fails to react) to the most recent revision of their current masterpiece.

No, Karl is the guy on the stage who hs been called up, possibly in a panic, by a playwright or a literary manager to read, perform, and occasionally help birth fully staged world premiere works.

Which makes his perspective on the relative utility of  our existing “new play development” process a little different than most. After all, he’s had to read a lot of them. Out loud. In front of people. While trying to look like a good actor the whole time.

And sometimes, depending on the writing, that can be hard.

So when Karl Miller sits down to identify the common things that make a new work difficult  (at whatever development stage the work might be in), there’s a good chance he’ll have some fairly insightful things to contribute. Like, for example, this, from his recent blog post:

I’m an actor, so I know about rejection and criticism and the living death that is the audition process. I experience development hell from the other side of the music stand. After Bacchus-knows-how-many staged readings, I’m starting to think all bad plays were written by the same two playwrights. With that possibility in mind, I offer this list of things that make it hard to respect the writer and his or her self-esteem during a development reading …

Ping pong dialog. Conflict is the essence of drama, yes, but some young writers are stuck on a binary dialog rhythm that sounds something like this:
A: Stop chewing your food that way.
B: This is how I always chew my food.
A: Not since you started eating meat again.
B: I thought you loved meat.
A: You and I both know I’m a vegetarian.
B: It’s news to me.
A: Everything’s news to you.

And so on. So two characters are fighting about everything and nothing and all we learn is that one character will oppose what the other character just said. It’s astonishing how long some people try to sustain this rhythm … like a really boring version of the Question Game, or a really pointless improv activity. It’s undeniably dramatic, but it bars any possibility of dramatic development since no statement can escape the self-canceling pull of the succeeding statement. And it’s definitely emotional, but anger is the only emotion that can sustain this stuff for a whole scene.

The Vocative Tense. A glitch that occurs most often in book adaptations. The vocative should be used sparingly:

A: How’s it going, John?
B: Oh, great, Sally, great.
A: John, is something wrong?
B: Sally, stop asking me that!
A: I can’t help it, John, I love you!
B: We’re not going to discuss that, Sally.

Most people don’t use the vocative in real life. We know the person to whom we are speaking; there’s no need to whip out the proper name, except for emphasis. Book adaptations sometimes import the vocative as a replacement for “he said” and “she said.” But I think the over-reliance on the vocative comes from a failure to touch the character, or to distance oneself from the character. Some intimacy or chemistry is missing and the writer makes up for it by clutching to the names. It’s an easy enough diagnostic to run: go through the script and find them all. Ask yourself if they’re really necessary or natural-sounding, and then find the connection the character really wants to make.

Read the rest of his insights from the new play actor’s chair right here.


SexyNurd: I’m Frightened…and Yet Strangely Titillated October 29, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — fertilegroundpdx @ 7:52 pm
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hasselhoff1{photo: David Hasselhoff or SexyNurd…who would you rather screw?}

This guy (the one on the right, not the left) is one of our Fertile Ground participants this year…and he describes his one man world premiere show SexyNurd as being the tale of a “rock star trapped in a nerd’s body.”

Here’s a pic from their recent photo shoot:


Um… I can’t decide whether to shudder or gasp or giggle. Maybe all three?

Either way AuGi (aka SexyNurd) was a performer in last season’s packed to the rafters Talking Dogs reading (by the inimitable Pema Teeter). Looking forward to seeing what this guy does under his own steam. Um, maybe that was the wrong metaphor.

In any case, you can sneak a peek at AuGi’s SexyNurd persona (again, possibly a poor choice of metaphors here) by

SexyNurd, we love you. Just not, you know, from up close.


Claire’s Little Red Pen October 23, 2009


Claire’s got a new post up on her blog about the process of taking her notes from her meeting with Mead Hunter and turning it into LOPPING A FULL HALF HOUR OUT OF HER PLAY.

No that’s what I call editing. Here’s the start of her post… and its got me thinking I should be hiring Mead to edit my BLOG posts, and possibly even my emails. God he’s good.

So, the good news is that after going over Mead’s notes and my notes, I was able to bust through and cut over 24 pages out of the script fairly painlessly. I sort of went through it with a machete and hacked away left and right, anyplace where there were chunks of dialogue that seemed repetitive, or things were being over-explained, or someone was saying the exact same thing but in nineteen different ways (what can I say, I write like I talk). There’s still more cuts to be made, I’m sure; I’m hoping to take some time this weekend to go through with a fine-toothed comb and sort of work out the kinks a little; like, are there tiny tweaks that need to be made to smooth over a place where I hacked out two whole pages? (ANSWER: Yes.) But since that means I’ve cut fully like half an hour out of the running time, I’m feeling pretty good. It was surprising, after talking through it with Mead for so long, how easily the cuts came; like the first pass through, I just sort of skimmed through it and highlighted (with that oh-so-satisfying MS Word cross-out function, like so) everything that seemed like it could be cut…

Read the rest of her post.


Mead Hunter is Portland Theatre’s Tim Gunn October 19, 2009

Today was my first meeting with script editor and writing guru Mead Hunter, who is working with me on knocking my script into shape.  Mead is the Portland theatre community’s Tim Gunn – warm, generous, incredibly intelligent, and a critical perfectionist in the most supportive, I-want-you-to-be-your-best-self kind of way. I could tell you that I don’t want to hug him every time I see him, but that would be a lie from Satan.

Now, let me just say that I like to think of myself as pretty clear-headed about my writing ability. I think I’m better than some writers, not as good as other writers (and there’s more in column B than column A), and that my biggest weakness in writing – as, frankly, in life – is a tendency to make everything more complicated than it needs to be. I can’t help it. The idea of writing a two-person play makes me claustrophobic. And I remember with vivid clarity the wrath of the technical crew working on my play Requiem: God Breathing, which was part of the Whitman College One Act Play Contest, when they learned that my play required the following things:

–a character slits her wrists onstage and bleeds onto the floor

–a character ages from 18 to 60 over the course of forty minutes

–two characters live in 11th-century Italy and need realistic costumes

–one character has to cut off all her hair

–the set has to look plausibly like the interior of both an 11th-century chapel and a modern church in the Bronx

–two characters are thirteen years old

–one character is a ghost

Oh, and BTW our budget was like $25. ‘Cause, yeah. That’s how I roll, bitches.

ANYWAY. So. As part of my “if-you-really-want-to-do-this-then-you-have-to-make-a-commitment-young-lady” campaign for this play (this message is brought to you by my mom’s nagging voice in my head), I decided to do something I had never done before – consult a professional. I have lots of brilliant writer friends and even more brilliant theatre artist friends, and I force them to read everything for me and give me notes. But I’ve never worked with an editor, and editing is what I need.

Enter Mead Hunter. I know Mead like everyone in the Portland theatre knows Mead, but I’ve never worked with him, and until he went freelance after leaving PCS I always thought he was out of my league. But his rates are incredibly reasonable, and it was SO worth it to bring in someone with both an editor’s and a literary director’s brain to help me sift through how to Achieve My Full Potential – to go from Frumpy Librarian to whip-off-the-glasses, take-down-the-bun, “But Miss Jones, you’re beautiful!”, if you’re the kind of person that responds well to 1950’s sitcom metaphors.

So here’s what we’ve agreed on. I sent the play to Mead last week and he’s already read it once or twice and will meet me today with some notes. Then from there I’ll take the notes, do a rewrite, and we’ll meet again. Rinse and repeat for a total of three consults, covering everything from script changes to if/how I should market the script to theatres, where to send it, etc.

Click here for a synopsis of How the Light Gets In and here for the cast list/setting/etc.


Mead and I met at Jim and Patty’s to drink delicious coffee and talk about logistics. The good news is that he thinks the play is already pretty strong and had some really good ideas about places to edit and tweak. My three great fears are that the play will be A) four hundred hours long, B) a tedious theology lecture, and/or C) a four-hundred-hour-long tedious theology lecture. Mead assures me that these are unlikely and had lots of constructive ideas for how to ensure that.

As stated above, my Tragic Flaw as a writer is over-explaining and over-complicating. Mead, who has the advantage of not living inside my brain, found lots and lots of areas where I could trim things down. For example, one of the antagonists, Father John, is intended to be pretty immediately unlikeable. Soooo, how many times do I need to have other characters saying stuff like “Boy, that Father John, I sure don’t like him” or the equivalent? Can I make fewer words do more by assuming that the audience members aren’t boneheads and can make those narrative leaps themselves? Answer: YES.

I also struggle with how to make things suspenseful. You have to be so careful how you unfold information in order to maintain suspense over the duration of a whole play; Mead caught a lot of places where things were hinted at (i.e. you know there’s some sort of nasty stuff in Molly’s past with her parents, you know that she had a nervous breakdown which is how she ended up at the monastery, etc.) where I can kill two birds with one stone by making some cuts that both make the play shorter (huzzah!) while also making the suspense, you know, suspense-ier, by leaving some things unsaid for the audience to wonder at. He taught me a fancy new filmmaker word, “gapping,” which basically means you put the thing together and then remove whole chunks of information to make the audience work a little harder. As someone who likes to explain everything – and was once accused of writing stage directions like I don’t trust actors – this is like the playwright equivalent of that Coco Chanel thing where you’re supposed to take off one accessory before you leave the house (says the girl whose college wardrobe was one-third leopard print). I think this is one of my major problems as a writer, and I think it’s something that we all struggle with from time to time – what’s the line between too much explanation and not enough? How do you explain without making something expositional? Why does WordPress not recognize the word “expositional”? I swear to God that’s a word. Anyway, Mead gave me a lot of food for thought in terms of trusting the audience (and the actors) a little more, pulling back a little from the chunks that feel like somebody says “AND THIS IS IMPORTANT BECAUSE . . . ” (although Mead didn’t think there were nearly as many of those to be concerned about as I did).

Mead had some nice things to say about my script for last year’s Fertile Ground, Upon Waking, which he read when I submitted it to JAW. I feel like this script is a lot stronger, and it was nice to hear that validated. “You have a little more distance with this one,” Mead said. “You’re not quite so close to the story so you can see the whole thing better.” I think that’s true.

We talked a lot about actors (Kirk Mouser, I love you, call me!), and the casting/rehearsal process and how I want that to happen, which made me all of a sudden practically crap my pants at the thought that I really should have an as-close-to-done-as-possible draft of the script in less than two months OMGWHATTHEHELLHAVEIGOTTENMYSELFINTO???? Time management, you are a harsh mistress. (Which I typed as “hash mistress.” Which would be an AMAZING name for either a diner or a band.)

Anyway, if I were to sum up the wisdom of Mead K. Hunter as dispensed at this meeting in five bullet points, it would be these:

1) Make the audience work a little.

2) Think really carefully about where a scene ends and the next one begins, and how to transition without dropping the ball.

3) Mead’s brother used to be a Trappist monk. (That’s not advice, it’s just an awesome fact I learned.)

4) Be ruthless about hypothesizing potential cuts but be judicious about implementing them. What’s the best and worst that can happen if you cut all of page 45? What’s the best and worst that can happen if you let the audience fill in the gaps on their own about what might have happened in this girl’s past until all is revealed in the big final climax? Do you gain more than you lose by making the whole thing run smoother?

5) Make sure you’re conscious, from moment to moment and scene to scene, that you know what each thing is supposed to accomplish.

I was heartened by looking at Mead’s pages of notes and feeling for the first time that bringing this script up to at least a quasi-professional level is attainable. I kind of feel like a grown-up writer, you guys. SWEET.

Claire Willett is the Grants Manager for Oregon Ballet Theatre, a Catholic youth minister, the Fertile Ground Dance Liaison, a blog nerd, and a semi-kind-of-quasi playwright. Follow her at “The Jesus Play: 100 Days To Opening Night” as she blogs the process of mounting a staged reading for Fertile Ground from rough draft to performance.


The Best Advice for Playwrights I’ve Read In a While October 15, 2009


You think the hard part about creating a new play is sitting down in front of the typewriter (well, probably computer screen but typewriter is the more romantic image, isn’t it?) and trying to create compelling characters, a fresh approach, a truly theatrical way to bring the story to life.

But in reality, the hardest work comes after the play is in hand, particularly if you have ambitions for it beyond a reading in your living room with your closest friends. And this element of playwriting, the “GETTING YOUR WORK SEEN” part, is mysterious, complicated, and can feel very random…particularly if you are building your playwriting career outside the confines of the two or three MFA playwriting programs that have established relationships with regional theaters on the hunt for new voices.

This is one of the gaping holes that the Fertile Ground festival is designed to help solve. A platform, not mediated by one literary manager’s taste in plays, where writers at various stages in their careers can move their work to the next stage, solicit feedback and expose their work to artists and leaders who can help move it forward.

Right now we have over 30 individual world premiere projects registered for the 2009 festival, many of them from writers who are producing their own work. Which is why I was super excited to run across this blog post from Adam Szymkowicz with some brief but extraordinarily valuable pieces of advice for playwrights about both the on and off-the-page logistics of building a playwrighting career.

Here’s a sample:

9. Once the play is in really really good shape, send the play to lots of places. Like at least 100. Pay attention to people’s guidelines and follow them. Buy a Dramatists Sourcebook or join the Dramatists Guild and use their guide. Also find the small theatres wherever you are and see if they take submissions. Get to know the people, maybe help them build sets or something or act in shows if you can. You can learn a lot about playwriting by actually being in plays. When you see a director you like, ask them if you can send them your play. Another thing you should do is find the places not in the sourcebooks who are doing plays like your plays—especially small theatres. Google the people whose work is like yours and try to send your plays to the places doing their work. Sometimes theatres will only do established playwrights work even if they have a lit office whose job it is to read through the submissions. (See #1) The odd thing is sometimes even if your play isn’t right for a theatre, you might want to send it just in case the lit asst who is probably young, is into it. Ten years from now, they could be at a different theatre and have more power. Lit people tend to jump from theatre to theatre. This is why you should apply to everything you can. If people like your stuff but it isn’t right, they may ask you for something else later or may recommend your work to another theatre. Lit people can be very generous like that.

10. Join the yahoo group the playwrightbinge. Also take a look at En Avant for upcoming deadlines and places to send plays. The internet is great.

11. Some people write lots of 10 minute plays, especially early on. These are easier to get people to produce. It might take years to get your full length up but you might get a bunch of 10 min plays produced. This will make you feel better, or it might when the rejection letters start coming in. It also might be a way to get your foot in the door of theatres who could someday produce your longer plays. Or it might just distract you from writing full length plays. This is okay if your goal is to write 10 min plays. Look at David Ives. Although don’t look too hard. He’s writing full lengths now and musicals and it’s harder than ever to gain his sort of notoriety by writing exclusively short plays. If you can’t write a 10 min play, don’t worry about that either. At some point, someone will ask you for a short play. You can just tell them no.”

Check out the rest of his post right here.

How about you? What have you found to be helpful in helping a play (and a playwright) become more visible?