Thursday, July 10, 2014

Carl Sagan on Earth as a pale blue dot in a vast universe.

“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.” 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

If Your Story Happened to You, Keep that to Yourself

I am absolutely convinced, based on several experiences, that it is never a good idea to announce that a script you are working on is based on your own personal life or experience.  To make such an assertion achieves nothing, and can, on the other hand, get in the way. 
Years ago, in the first playwriting group I belonged to, a colleague made a comment that he couldn’t believe that a character in the scene being critiqued would do a particular act, whatever it was (I don’t remember the specifics).  The author of the scene, a young writer, protested saying, “of course he would; it happened to me!” as if that pronouncement would make the critic come to his senses.  Unfortunately, the young writer did not understand that, in writing, reality is no defense.  It’s irrelevant that the given action or moment was grounded in a real event.  The writer simply had not succeeded in recreating the event, or motivating the character, so that the theatrical version of the true moment was credible.  The writer needed to understand that the moment just wasn’t working, regardless of its basis in his life. 
Also years ago, while I was at T. Schreiber Studio, we were beginning rehearsal for the first of my plays to be produced, a play called Casino.  I had been jumped while in an Atlantic City casino by an irate casino patron who accused me of stealing thousands of dollars in chips from him.  A case of mistaken identity.  After I was cleared and returned home, my reaction was to turn this traumatic experience into a play.  When it was completed, I very freely let it be known around the studio that the play was based on this awful experience that happened to me (probably subconsciously seeking sympathetic outrage that something like that should befall such a nice guy like me). 
Anyway, on the first day of rehearsal we had the customary sit-around-a-table reading by the cast.  After the script reading was concluded, there was this spontaneous burst of enthusiasm and animated chatter among the actors.  I was thrilled.  In that moment of excitement, one of the actors commented that the character of Joe was a real jerk.  Almost instantly an embarrassed hush came over the table.  Like the toppling of dominoes, heads turned in my direction as each actor in turn recalled that the character of Joe was based on me.  I quickly assured the cast that I was not offended, and that they needed to feel free to say whatever they wanted and to do their work without inhibition.  The uncomfortable moment dissipated, but I had hard time shaking the suspicion that some of the actors were being careful around me. 
The bottom line is this: the surest way to protect oneself against candid and constructive, if stinging, criticism and feedback is to let it be known that the work is based on your life.  That will quickly discourage many from offering honest criticism and it will insulate you from feedback you might need to hear. 

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Theft of Someone Else’s Work

There’s been a lengthy debate in a playwrights’ discussion forum on LinkedIn about the difficulty of getting the rights to use someone else’s music in a play.  After you send an inquiry, most often it’s a waiting game, with no guarantee you will even hear back from the rights-holders.  One fellow (let’s call him Fred) admitted that he’d gotten so frustrated at not getting a response that he went ahead and used the music anyway, and no one was the wiser. 
I would strongly caution against Fred's strategy.  That's like asking to rent someone's car, and, if you don't get a response, you go ahead and drive it away.  I don't have to tell you what that's called.  That Fred got away with it was his good fortune.  I'm no lawyer but I'd say he was very lucky because, if the rights-holders had found out, they could have, at best, demanded that he cease and desist and pay them what they asked (at which point he would have had little choice) or, at worst, they could have taken him to court for copyright infringement and/or theft of services.  It's happened, and it is no defense to say, "but, your honor, they didn't respond to my inquiries."  
As playwrights, we own our work the moment we create it.  Ownership does not obligate us as rights-owners to respond to inquiries about producing our plays (not that we wouldn’t jump at the opportunity).  But the point is, we have no obligation to respond to each and every communication if we don’t feel like it.  And we certainly wouldn't expect that a theatre would go ahead and produce our plays anyway because we did not respond. 
As I've said before, when you use anyone else's copyrighted material of any sort, get written permission (and pay the royalty, if there is one), and do it sooner than later. 

Monday, December 30, 2013

Misconceptions about Using Someone Else's Music in Your Play

When it comes to using someone else's music in your play, misconceptions and convenient but dangerous rationalizations abound.  As someone who has integrated copyrighted music into plays (The Devil's Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith and another that I'm working on now), I'm here to say that pretty much everything people tell you is wrong.

Misconception:  Go to the Voluteer Lawyers for the Arts and they will make a contract for you.  They have standard contracts. 
I have consulted with the Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, and, although they are generous and well meaning, they knew no more about acquiring music rights than I already knew when I consulted them (to my disappoinment).

And, no, there is no standard contract with respect to acquiring music rights.  Each agreement is particular to the show. How many songs are you using? How many different writers of those songs are involved? Are the songs used cabaret style (meaning sung anywhere in the show for entertainment value) or are they used to advance the plot? (It makes a difference.) In a standard musical, the royalties are usually divided into three equal portions among the composer, lyricist, and librettist (script writer). Consequently, if you're writing a musical using already existing music, you may be asked to divide as much as two-thirds of the royalties among those who hold the music rights. One tries to negotiate less, of course, but this is what you may be up against.

Misconception:  You don't need to worry about rights until you're ready for production. 
You absolutely do need to concern yourself about music rights long before you go into production. Acquiring music rights can take many months, even as long as a year. Music companies and other rights holders move at a glacial pace. If you wait until the last minute to acquire rights, you risk delaying or blowing your production.  Or worse, you might find that the rights are not available. 

Misconception:  Acquiring music rights will be done by the producer. 
Acquiring music rights is up to the creators of the show, not the producers, not the director, nor the hosting theatre. When you sign a production contract, you will see in no uncertain terms that the playwright (or creators if it's a team) is responsible for acquiring all necessary rights and permissions, and, more ominously, if a lawsuit is brought against the production for violation of copyright, you (the author) are liable.

Misconception:   It's okay to use a few bars of someone else's music without getting permission.  There is no such right to use a few bars of music or any other bits of copyrighted material without the permission of the author. That is, for lack of a better way of putting it, an urban legend. It is true that it's not likely MGM is going to come after you for using two bars of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," but you could get a cease-and-desist letter.

There is no way around it; you need to get permission when you use any material belonging to someone else, and the sooner the better. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

12 Not-So-Secret Secrets to Success in Playwriting (and Other Writing, too!)

1.  Create a clear Protagonist
Be sure you create a clearly identifiable protagonist – the character whose journey the audience is following.  The audience needs to know up front who to root for. 

2.  Create a Formidable Antagonist
Be sure your protagonist faces a character (or thing) that presents ongoing and escalating obstacles to the protagonist’s success.  Never make it easy for your protagonist. 

3.  Know Your Characters as Well as You Know Your Best Friend
The key to successful characters is detail.  The more you know about your character, the more genuine his/her behavior will be.  Think of all the things you know about your best friend.  When your knowledge of your characters - all of them - is as detailed and intimate as is your knowledge of your best friend, then you will instinctively know what your characters will do and say under the given circumstances of your play.  How to do this?  Write the biographies of each of your characters. 

4.  Be Sure There is Continual Conflict
The essence of compelling dramatic writing is conflict.  And conflict is not argument.  Conflict is characters having opposing objectives, desperately struggling to come out on top. 

5.  Be Sure the Stakes are Clear and Important
It should be clear to the audience why the protagonist’s mission or goal is vitally important to him/her.  When the audience understands, the audience cares what happens and emotionally goes on the journey with the protagonist. 

6.  Write a Tightly Structured Story
It all starts with the story.  Your story should have a clear spine (also referred to as the story’s “arc” or “through-line”), meaning it should have:  a beginning (the introduction of the characters and launch of the protagonist’s journey); a middle (the protagonist’s struggles to achieve his/her goal against the efforts of the antagonist); and an end (the climax, the moment the audience learns if the protagonist succeeds ... or crashes and burns). 

7.  When You’re Stuck, Get Mean
When you’re stuck for what happens next, ask yourself this question, “What’s the worst thing that could happened to my protagonist at this moment?”  And make it happen to him/her. 

8. Include but Limit Exposition
Exposition is the judicious and skillful revelation of past events (things that happened before the play).  But include only those events that are absolutely necessary to make the characters' motivations and stakes and the story clear.  And the exposition should come into play only when the characters need to trot out the information – in other words, exposition as ammunition.  Rule of thumb on exposition:  less is more. 

9.  Don’t Sweat Originality – it Ain’t What it’s Cracked up to Be
Don’t knock yourself out trying to find a subject or story that’s never been dramatized before.  Storytelling has been around as long as humans have, so you’re not likely to come up with a plot no one has ever come up with before.  Originality lies in how you handle a subjectyour spin, your characters, your dialogue, your retelling of the story.  After all, what is West Side Story?  What is Titanic (the James Cameron version)?  They’re both Romeo and Juliet with their own unique take on the timeless plot:  young lovers kept apart be forces beyond their control. 

10.  Care About Your Play
Write about something you care about, something that’s important to you.  A play can take anywhere from a year to two or more years to write, develop, and stage.  It’s your passion for the subject matter that will sustain you when the going gets tough.  (And it usually does.) 

11.  Don’t Try to Hide
Theatre is not a place in which you can hide.  The unique gift you have to offer the world is you – what you think, what you have experienced, and how you see the world.  Anyone can learn technique.  What will set you apart is how much of yourself you’re willing to share.  Put another way, the best place to hide is out in the open.  “Let it all hang out,” as the hippies used to say, and your plays will engage audiences and touch hearts. 

12.  Buy Playwriting for Dummies
Run over to your local Barnes and Noble or go online to, whatever, and get yourself a copy of Playwriting for Dummies.  It’s the most practical, thorough, readable, savvy, and fun book on playwriting ever written ... ever written by me that is.  It’s both a great primer for beginners and an invaluable refresher for experienced playwrights. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Is "Formal" Training Necessary for Playwriting?

Recently, a neophyte playwright posted online the question whether "formal" training is necessary to be a successful playwright.  In a word, it's a must.  (Okay, three words.) 

Formal training - be it in a school, a playwriting workshop, or with a theatre organization that offers courses - in my opinion, provides a number of important advantages. First and foremost, as I tell my students (and wrote in my book "Playwriting for Dummies"), know the rules before your break them. If you want to take theatre in a whole new direction fine, just know what it is you're departing from. As Newton (Isaac, not Wayne) said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

Second, participating in a playwriting program of some sort teaches you how to take and make use of constructive criticism. It's something some of us do better than others but something we all must learn. It's better to find out early, in a supportive environment, that your play needs work than it is to find out before a paying audience of strangers. 

A third reason is networking. When you're in a playwriting program, you meet people whose experience and contacts you can benefit from. As competitive is playwriting is in terms of the relatively few production opportunities, I've always found playwriting colleagues to be willing to share contacts and point out relevant opportunities.

Fourth, theatre is a collaborative medium. Writing a script is not the endpoint but only the beginning of the journey, a journey that involves a host of other people with different skills. So you might as well get comfortable with the give and take of collaboration sooner than later.

Last (for now), is the opportunity to have public developmental readings of your play in progress. Yes, you can arrange a reading on your own, but it is much easier (and safer for your fragile psyche) and the audiences much larger when your reading is arranged and moderated by a school or theatre organization. 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Adapting a "True Story" to a Play or Movie

Recently this question was posted on a theatre industry chat site:  Would anyone have any advice on how to proceed with getting a book made into a play or a movie? A friend of mine wrote an award-winning true account about having been a hidden child during the Second World War and the characters would lend themselves to a fantastic movie. I'm trying to get the word out about it.  This was my contribution to the discussion. 
Your question is difficult to answer because you mention adaptation to a "play or a movie."  The processes of writing, developing, and producing plays and movies are different.  Nevertheless, there are some thoughts I can offer. 

First and foremost (and forgive me for saying so), if I were a producer and you pitched to me the project as described above, my answer would be "been there, done that."  What I mean is there are lots of stories of people being hidden to save their lives during WWII, not the least of which is "Diary of Anne Frank."  Does that mean you're dead in the water?  No.  You, as the writer, need to be very, very clear on what makes your story different from the others out there.  What's your "hook"?  In other words, it's not the sameness of your story (no matter how worthwhile) that will interest a producer, it's the uniqueness.  And you need to identify and be able to speak passionately on what is great about your story and what sets it apart from the others. 

Second, execute an agreement between you and your friend, the book author.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say, "but we're good friends.  Why do we need a contract?"  Why?  To stay friends.  Memory can play tricks on people, particularly when it comes to who has final say in a disagreement or how money is to be divided if the project succeeds.  You don't need a lawyer.  The Dramatists Guild has a collaboration agreement that can be customized to your needs.  Or you can probably find an adaptation agreement template on the Internet.  The agreement should specify these things:  you have exclusive rights to make a play and movie adaptation of the book for a certain period of time (24 months is common).  You should specify how much you're paying for the rights to do these things (you can put down $1 if you like).  It should be specified who (you) has final say if you disagree on something in the script (the considerations for writing a successful play or movie script are different from those in writing a book, and book authors sometimes forget this.  Which is one of the reasons why savvy script writers do not give script approval to the book authors).

Finally, that the story happened does not carry as much weight as you might think.  The fact it is the "reality" can sometimes hinder progress.  You can't allow yourself to get stuck on the facts.  The writer of a play or movie needs to have the flexibility to fictionalize.  Sometimes events need to be changed or dramatized (events in life, while powerful for the participants, are not necessarily a compelling story for others); events need to be created to make the story flow more smoothly; tons of characters (okay in a book) need to be pared down or combined into fewer characters (especially for a play).  If you want a lesson in the freedom to make things up, read the factual news accounts and then see the "based on a true story" movie "Argo."  Much of the film script, particularly the ending, was fabricated to make the movie a nail-biter.  But who cares?  It was a whale of a ride.  In other words, don't let the facts get in the way of creating a great script.