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.

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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.

All My Myths are Copyrighted

I wrote the following article a while back and it was posted on my old blog and the Mixtape Blog . I’m putting it up here because I like it and don’t want to forget it.

Hasbro. DC. Marvel. Disney. They’ve got them all locked down. Every childhood legend and league of disproportioned heroes and villains. Back when people told stories around firepits and under stars no one could tell you the real story. Pretty often some wise guy who thought he could top the last tale might claim to have the real story – but he’s just a showboating sonovabitch. He knows about as much as any other guy. The teller who gets to be right isn’t the one closest to what came before, but closest to what comes after. The story that gets repeated is the story that gets to be real. And that was the way it was for a very long time.

Stories keep evolving – survival of the fittest. But there’s no place for evolution in a production line. Take chickens for example. The humble chicken, by virtue of being tasty, flightless, easily domesticated, nutritious and easy to breed, has been kept in more or less the same state for hundreds of years. The only changes to the chicken have been to bulk it up to produce more meat and breed better egg layers. Change is not evolution – evolution can be surprising. So we now have battery farmed chickens, have done for just under a century. The chickens are controlled and bred selectively – some are even copyrighted. And we all can have access to the same fowl feast.

My mythology – the heroes I dreamt about when I built worlds out of stones and sticks – are battery chickens. Bloated and making some investors happy. The stories I got don’t belong to me, I don’t even think they were rented out to me. If this was around a firepit under stars and Hasbro had just finished telling a story about Optimus Prime and the All Spark, I would get up and say, wait a minute, listen here because I’ve got the real story – see the All Spark wasn’t the real creator, somebody made it. A bazillion years a–

HEY YOU SHOWBOATING SONOVABITCH! YOU SHUT YOUR DAMN MOUTH BEFORE MY LAWYER LEROY HERE SHUTS IT FOR YOU!

That Hasbro – he’s a dick. And he’s locked up all the dreams in battery farms. And just like in battery farms, more productive is the goal, not better. Legally who ever tells a story owns the characters that are created through it – as long as those characters are distinct enough. And, as in any case of ownership, the rights to that character can be transferred. Fair enough that you tell a story and people who make money from retelling that story owe you something, and fair enough that people shouldn’t be allowed to stop you making money from telling your story. But there comes a point of cultural saturation when that character must take on a life of its own. By which I mean a return to the firepit nights of old. May the best story win. This is the way it is for Sherlock Holmes, Hercules, Robin Hood and King Arthur – why not for Superman, Snake-Eyes and Optimus Prime?

BECAUSE I OWN THE RIGHTS TO ALL DERIVATIVE WORKS AND LEROY HERE WILL PUT YOU INTO THE GROUND IF YOU TRY TELL PEOPLE A STORY WITH MY GIANT ROBOTS IN THEM! YOU WANT TO TELL A STORY ABOUT GIANT ROBOTS? RIP OFF THE FUCKING GOBOTS.

I have more legal right to use Jesus in a story than Superman. Corporations are more powerful than church. Maybe.

What childhood looked like from inside my head.