11×11 – One Down

The first month of my 11×11 project has come to an end and I have done one play. Sort of. The rules I laid out put the page target at 30, but I finished at 26. Apart from a two page prelude, the play is a single continuous scene without entrances or exits. Two characters having a conversation.

So what did I learn? Firstly, finishing is the most important thing and how that may be defined is a not hard and fast. 30 pages is a good goal, but a piece that’s shorter but with a continuous spine and a real ending is also good. Secondly, to be careful of excuses. The one above makes sense but other excuses I made to not write were lame self-sabotage. Among them:

  • I can make up the page count tomorrow (no, you won’t)
  • I don’t have an idea what to do next (not writing is the opposite of solving this)
  • I’d rather answer this email (that’s a damn lie)
  • OK, but I have to answer this email (you know you don’t really)
  • I’ll write better after a power nap (you won’t get back up)
  • What’s happening on Facebook/Twitter/News24 comments section? (What is wrong with you?!)

And Finally, I confirmed it’s possible. For me. (So probably for you too)

The result of January’s labour is Every Beautiful Thing, promised to Briony Horwitz last year and finally delivered. It’s an emotional drama and comes from the same place as A Girl Called Owl – a spiritual sequel. To keep the 11×11 challenge interesting I’m going to pick very different projects each month, so February’s play is going to be The Underground Library. This is more in the Get Kraken! mould, multiple scenes and locations, an action adventure aimed at teenagers. Conveniently there’s an SAfm radio play competition and the submission deadline is the end of the month. Whenever possible I’m going to try incorporate opportunities like this into the challenge (because I like money).

11 x 11

There’s a pleasure in symmetry, a pleasure in pattern. Rituals and habits are reassuring. Looking at 11 x 11 with its palindrome promise, makes me think it doesn’t stand for anything out of the ordinary. It can’t represent anything challenging or impossible. Can it?

As a matter of fact it can. 11 x 11 is a project I’m embarking on, a gauntlet I’m throwing down against my common sense. It stands for something a bit ridiculous in its audacity: a promise to write eleven plays in eleven months. One play every month from January to November.

This year I’m not producing any shows. I’ve produced eight shows in the last five years (four of which I wrote) and it is time for a break – time to rethink my strategy. What better way to do that than to rewire how I think about writing? If you’re like me you’ve got a folder of ideas and bits of scenes lying around, maybe a couple of promises to write the script of an idea that your table of drunk friends came up with. If you’re like me you’ve got the material, you just sat on it.

11 x 11 is about quantity, not quality. None of these plays needs to ever be produced. The goal is not the stack of pages but the experience and the practice. What does it take to be prolific? How will my process change? What will I learn from this?

The rules are simple. I have to finish a play by the end of every month. It should be about an hour (or more) so if it’s a one hander then over 20 pages, and if it’s dialogue over 30 pages. So I’ll be writing between 220 and 350 pages.

Best of all? I’ve already started and have 8 pages to go to meet my target by the 31st. This is possible and I am going to do it.

What Makes a Good Story

These are points I put down, observations about the fiction I find the most compelling. When I analyse my work, I look for these and try to make sure that what I want out of a story is what I put in to my own.

  • Interesting characters placed in situations that test their limitations and weaknesses
  • A coherent and expansive world
  • High stakes for the protagonist
  • Diverse and consistent manners of speech
  • Characters undergoing change or development
  • Pacing that balances action and contemplation, advancement and expansion, humor and seriousness
  • Solid symbolic underpinning
  • The setting is integral to the plot
  • Contrasting points of view
  • Plot is edited on the principles of similarity and contrast
  • An ending that is surprising but inevitable
  • The parts tie into the whole
  • The forces of antagonism are deeper than the action so that the outcome affects the principles of life (the classic irresistible force meeting the immovable object)
  • Clarity of action and idea
  • The thesis and anti-thesis are both compellingly explored

Practice. Practice some more.

The difficult should become habitual, the habitual, easy, the easy, beautiful.

–          S. M. Volonski quoted in Stanislavski’s Building a Character

 The path to mastery is one of practice. As a kid I had this hope that I’d try something for the first time, pick up a javelin or a puppet or something, and I’d be great. I’d find that thing that would mean I was special. I still harbor that fantasy sometimes. It’s a common hope and it sells a million lottery tickets every day.

Whether I’m kneeling on the mat at aikido, trying to discern the movements of the sensei’s hands and feet or trying to explain story mechanics to twenty eighteen year olds, I am hoping that an epiphany will happen. That this time it will be easy, maybe even beautiful. And then I realize that at least this has stopped being difficult. When you’re climbing a mountain it’s important to stop half way up and enjoy the view before you carry on.

Thank You

I spend a lot of time being cynical about the theatre industry. There is a lot to be cynical about – whopping great piles of fuel for the furnace of anger – but a great deal of why I am cynical is my purely selfish frustration. I want people to come see my work, I want to be able to spend more time writing and less time hustling, I want opportunities handed to me, I want people to recognise my talent and nurture it. I want. I want. I want.

My mother had this to say to a 6-year-old’s tantrum: “I want doesn’t get”.

Whether or not you deserve recognition is not a relevant question. I know it’s hard work. I know it’s probably harder for you because I know that the degree of support that I’ve been given, support I didn’t earn or deserve, is a rarity. We are all born into this world naked and crying in need. At that red and wriggly point in our lives we have done nothing to deserve what follows except be.

Good things have been happening for me this year. I do not know how much I deserve, but I do know that everything I’ve done was made possible by the love of my Ma and Pa.

Inspiring a Generation, No Really.

Beren directs some Inspiring action

At the beginning of the year I was chosen along with Lindelwa Kisana, Beren Belknap and Frankie Nassimbeni to take part in ASSITEJ SA’s Inspiring a Generation programme. It’s a collaboration with ASSITEJ’s Swedish chapter whose goal is to encourage more quality plays to be written for the youth. At the beginning of the month our counterparts arrived and we spent a week doing workshops lead by Karen Jeynes and Lucia Cajchanova. In three weeks we’ll be going to the Bibu.se Festival in Lund and will be presenting scenes and the first draft of our plays.

Whenever I need inspiration, or my process stalls, I turn to Robert McKee’s Story. I randomly opened it and got this:

“At last he [the writer] has a story. Now he goes to friends, but not asking for a day out of their lives – which is what we ask when we want a conscientious person to read a screenplay. Instead he pours a cup of coffee and asks for ten minutes. Then he pitches his story.”

The exercise of writing out the story inevitably leads us to write out what happens. But this is not story. The story is the distillation of what happens, the spine under the actions and events that gives them meaning. Telling a story is to select moments out of the infinite scope of ‘what happened’ (for in fiction anything is possible) into an emotionally moving sequence. When you tell someone your story out loud you’ll see if it works in their face and their body language. Then you’ll know if you have story that’ll hook your audience or just a list of things happening.

Direct it Yourself

Warning: This Post May Contain Traces of Nuts

Heeeey… so you’re a writer? You’ve been sitting in front of a computer screen, hunched over and away from natural light or maybe you’ve been sterilizing your baby-maker by perching a humming laptop on, obviously, your lap. I can tell these things. You’ve probably spent a couple of weeks or years working on your script. You’ve revised it, rewritten it, thrown it away and started over a couple of times. But now it’s ready. What do you do now?

Direct it yourself.

No, no, no! That’s what everyone tells writers not to do! You need another mind on it, you need a trained director to shape and mould it – someone who has experience, or a degree, or something.

And they’re right. A good script does need all of that to reach its potential.

But …

Have you ever heard a director say he has an idea for a production and get this advice: “Great idea, go find someone to write it for you. You need another mind on it, you need a trained writer to shape and mould it – someone who has experience, or a degree, or something.” I haven’t.

Writing is regarded as an innate skill in the Cape Town theatre industry. Everyone has it. While overseas the writer/director is a rarity, here it is almost impossible not find a director who is also a writer. And it requires very little to bring out this wonderful storytelling ability that lurks in the heart of talented people. You don’t need to study a degree or even read a book on it; after all you’ve read/watched /listened to stories your whole life. What if I was to say the same about directing or acting? UCT has 4 year long programmes for each of these. But not for playwriting, that’s something you’re meant to have picked up along the way.

When a person is a writer first they create opportunities for actors and directors. They often take on the role of producer too. Look around: Nicholas Spagnoletti and his play London Road; Duncan Bulwalda and Dream, Brother; Louis Viljoen just finished a run of his new script The Verbalists at the Arena; Amy Jeptha who is too prolific to cite only one example;  and, yes, me.

Directors generate jobs often – for actors, designers, techies and musos. Actors generate jobs too. But in all my wracking of my brain the only independent production I could think of where a writer was approached to write something is Damage Control. Well played Lauren Steyn.

Independent theatre doesn’t generate jobs for writers but writers generate jobs for independent theatre all the time.

This is an absurd situation.