The Odd Couple

Too Much?

I’m a member of the writing forum Absolute Write. It’s a fantastic site that deals with a lot of different genres and styles of writing, gives advice on publishing, has some fantastic threads where you can share your work and get feedback. All in all, it’s a site I recommend.

In the playwriting part of the site, this question was recently posed from user Izzie.

Smoking, Drinking, Swearing, and Dark Humor on Stage
The ten page play I am working on is a story that has been stuck in my head over the last month. So far, it has broken several of my “Do Not Write This” rules: no writing about College Kids, Teen Pregnancies, The Voice of Reason, and/or Drama Queens.” Too much of that in undergraduate college writing workshops.

Interestingly, to me anyway, it is better than I thought it would be. The characters are college kids who had teen pregnancies, one a Voice of Reason and the other a Drama Queen, but those are the things that brought them together and helped them find meaning. Or something. No finger wagging. Perfect? No. Next big hit on [insert theatre district here]? No. But I think it will turn out well and is making for good practice.

Because I am practicing, I have some questions on potentially offensive content on stage. Are these things problematic to the point I should not include similar elements in future work:

1. Drama Queen swears. In two languages, even. A lot. I thought it fit her personality. Used for emphasis and is not at random.

2. Teen pregnancies. I didn’t glorify them, but the characters ended up with some level of success in life. They’re not the epitome of mental health and I don’t know if I would call their outcome “defying the odds,” but they didn’t end up living in a dumpster or whatever after school specials would have you believe.

3. Drug references. Drama Queen went on a drug binge. See above about mental health, defying the odds, and dumpsters.

4. The Voice of Reason. She has baggage though, so is that a good thing?

There’s a lot of banter, so no praying for a moment of comic relief and ending up laughing at one line that isn’t very funny because there is so much drama you Must Laugh At Something. Thing is, I have seen an audience look afraid to laugh at gallows humor. Well, more than once. And one of the works was mine. And it ended up with someone pulling me aside and saying they were concerned. Yes, the person was serious about being concerned about my mental state because of something I wrote.

Guidance?

It’s an interesting question and one that I gave a lot of thought into before answering. It also gave me the chance to blog about this. This is how I answered her.

A lot depends on your intended audience and if it remains true to the characters. You should also ask yourself WHY you are writing this. Is it to shock or does it serve a purpose?

If your audience is college age/new adult audiences or those that attend “fringe theater” performance (I hate that term LOL I say as a member of a named “Fringe Theater” group) then yes cursing, drugs, etc are acceptable and such plays have seen success. In fact, a lot of mainstream shows feature this kind of behavior. Tony nominated musical NEXT TO NORMAL features quite a bit of cursing and drug use. AVENUE Q features even more cursing, talk about masturbation, and puppet sex. It also gave us the songs “The Internet Is For Porn” and “If You Were Gay”. DOG SEES GOD features characters who are in High School (and are pastiches for the Peanuts Gang) engaged in homosexuality, bisexuality, drinking, doing drugs, cursing, suicide, and bullying. David Mamet paints pictures with the “f-bomb” (see Glengarry Glen Ross or Oleanna) and even that old standard Neil Simon “cursed” in his plays. In THE ODD COUPLE, Oscar drinks like a fish (when I’ve played him (twice now) I’ve always played him as trying to drown out his personal sorrow through booze) and the entire group of poker buddies smoke.

NOW if you are writing a piece for High School students to PERFORM or see, then you’re going to find a lot less success with these kind of tropes (mainly the cursing), but even that is becoming less and less of an issue. I wrote a 10-minute monodrama for a young actor that didn’t have any cursing in it. I showed it to a friend of mine, a HS English and Drama teacher, and he said “you need to have this character curse.” When I asked “wouldn’t that limit the audience?”, he shrugged it off and said “not really.” This is a teacher at a very small school in Kansas.

I think all these things are fine, as long as they are true to the characters. If it is there to shock or just because you can, then they aren’t necessary, but if they are true to the characters and serve a purpose, then go for it.

I don’t think it is fair to say that there are “rules” that you must “NEVER DO.” Rules for writing, in my opinion, are made to be broken and the theater should explore all kinds of characters. I understand that some characters have become “stock” in playwriting but that doesn’t mean we can ignore them.

On the other hand, we need to ask ourselves, as playwrights, why we are writing about these characters and is there any way to make them “deeper” or more then just stock.

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The Friday Free For All: The Serious Business of Comedy

Tragedy tomorrow, Comedy TONIGHT

There are several things I still need to do for The Friday Free For All. First off I need to start posting on Fridays and not at 1am in the morning Friday night/Saturday morning as I am right now. I also need to come up with some kind of logo or picture similar to what I have for the Monday WIP and Wednesdays With Will.

I do apologize for getting this so late, I started working on it this morning and then a series of events and my volunteering to help with my community theater groups float for our 3 Homecoming parades pressed me into service this afternoon. Yes 3 Homecoming parades; local private school, local public school, and local college. Next two Fridays I’ll be busy I’m sure.

I’m also in very early pre-production of our community Christmas play, on which I’m helping with publicity and stage managing, and I’m entering chrunch time for the workshop I’m assisting directing and acting in, BONE WARS, written and directed by a good friend of mine Shley Snider.

That brings me to this weeks topic: The Serious Business of Comedy. There is an old axiom “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Though the person who quoted that statement is unknown (although many have been credited), it still holds true. Comedy IS hard. Edmund Gwenn, best known for playing Kris Kringle in 1947’s Miracle On 34th Street

Edmund Gwenn with Maureen O’Hare in Miracle on 34th Street

(and one of those rumored to have said that axiom) said this:

All the honors go to the tragedian for chewing up the scenery, while the comedian, who has to be much more subtle to be funny, is just loudly criticized when he doesn’t come through. (Act Your Way to Successful Living, Rau, 1966)

Comedy is one of the hardest things to do. As difficult as Hamlet is to do (and it is), in my opinion, Dogberry, Bottom, and Falstaff (Shakespeare’s three greatest comedic creations) are even more so. And not getting laughs is much more noticeably then not getting tears.

I bring this up because the two shows I’m working on and prepping are both comedies. Comedy is more then running around and laughing and then trying to pull it together in the last minute. It requires discipline, listening to your director, listening to your audience, and perfecting your timing. Pratfalls get laughs, but you can’t just fall to get a laugh, you have to know WHY you’re getting a laugh.

as Oscar in The Odd Couple, with Jeremy McGuire as Murray

One of my “signature” roles is Oscar Madison in The Odd Couple. It’s a show I love to do and have played the role twice now and could play it every year for the rest of my laugh and never get tired of it. I did a production where the actor playing Felix had a very easy going nature about him. He could get laughs very easily, but he didn’t earn the laughs. Laughs earned provide you with a greater satisfaction then easy laughs. A pratfall because your character has been drinking a lot and has built up to that moment is funny because the laugh has been earned, a laugh gotten by carrying out the wrong prop because you weren’t paying attention is funny because you’ve obviously screwed up. It’s the same as the “laughing with you” vs “laughing at you”.

Comedy has to be earned and earning it is hard work and serious business.

The Friday Free For All: The Audition Process

I’m still looking for a better name for my Friday posting then “The Friday Free For All” because I’m not giving anything away for free but my mind and posts.

And speaking of sharing my mind and thoughts, I was accused today in a British Lit class of “being too deep” obviously this girl hasn’t read any of my plays.

So until something better comes along, welcome to The Friday Free For All, where I will be discussing a play or musical I’ve seen or read, discussing the writing process, or going into thoughts about the art and craft of theater. Kind of whatever is on my mind regarding theater.

The Audition Process and Education

Twelve years removed from the first time I went to college, I recently went back to study English and Secondary Education. The purpose is to be, obviously, a teacher of English and Drama. I bring this up because my college recently held auditons for the Kander and Ebb musical Curtains, a fun musical set in the world of theater in the 1950s. And for the first time in nearly two decades of being involved in the theater, I wasn’t cast.

I understand not being cast, every show has limited parts and not every actor is suited for every role. It is obviously difficult for a woman to be cast in The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) or David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, since there are no parts for women or for a man to audition for Steel Magnolias since there are no parts for men. A show like Simon’s The Odd Couple only has a couple of female roles and a handful of male roles, there is no place to “create roles” for more actors, no matter how talented they are. Same with Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years or the Jones/Schmidt musical I Do! I Do!, both of which has a cast of two (one male, one female) and no room for expansion.

My point to this is, the reason I wasn’t cast, wasn’t because I was wrong for any roles or that I gave a bad audition, in fact in both instances it was the exact opposite. I wasn’t cast because “we decided to cast people that we’ve worked with from the music department”.

Hey, I understand, not a problem. Rep theaters are like that. Close knit communties where you work with the same people over and over again. Community theaters are like that as well. My issue with this is, if that is what you are doing, then don’t call it an “Open Audition”. Or if you do call it that, be prepared to expand your ensemble or cast people you weren’t expecting too.

As a writer/director, I’ve written shows where I’ve precast someone before pen ever touched paper (or finger to keyboard), but in those instances I’ve never held “open auditions”, I’ve gone to that actor and said “hey I’ve got a role for you, are you interested?” and we move from there. But I’ve also seen what happens when a young person takes a leap of faith and auditions for a show for the first time and they nail it. The first show I ever did in college was The Fantasticks (a show I’ve been in love with ever since), our Mortimer had never acted before and was brilliant. A shining star in a production with lots of shining stars. It was also a show that, due to it’s limited cast size, we created an ensemble for. And everyone that auditioned and accepted the role, was involved in. I can only imagine the frustration, embarrassment, lack of self worth attitude that a young artist might experience after not getting cast (especially when the statement “everyone will get cast” is made from an instructor/director) in a school production (whether that be in grade school, middle school, high school, or college). I had some of those feelings after getting cut and I’ve been doing this for over 20 years in a variety of roles. That’s why I try and keep the casts in the shows I write flexible so you can work in as many or as few “extra characters” as needed. In Allie In Wonderland, they are Playing Cards and CookieMen. In The Absolutely Real Story of Tom Sawyer as told by Becky Thatcher, they are just extra kids with lines (in fact the character of Mary in Tom Sawyer was written thanks to a young actor wanting to join our company about a week or two after rehearsals had started. My co-director/producer, an English teacher and grade school principal, couldn’t say no and I had to write more lines. The actor was amazing and perfect in the role and I can’t imagine the show without her).

I’m not suggesting we coddle actors during their education and give out roles or create roles where they aren’t there. As I’ve said above, there are plays wth male only casts and plays with female only casts. And some actors just aren’t right for roles. But far too often I’ve seen people with little or no experience fall deeply, madly in love with theater because they were “given” a part or without prior experience.

Directors, when you hold open auditions or are preparing your season, keep that in mind. My suggestion, depending on different factors (ages, type of theater [i.e. community, educational, rep, professional], gender), is to work up a variety of different shows for your season. Do some that are more “exclusive” then others and do some that are very open to everyone. But if you are doing a large cast, open audition musical in which an ensemble can be worked in, work it in and be ready to be surprised by who comes out.