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Keyword: ‘David Mamet’

Sam Shepard

August 1st, 2017 No comments

When I started out in playwrighting my exemplars where the traditional male canon of American theater: Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams; and I was escaping my personal background in undergraduate English, with its heavy accent on Shakespeare, Aphra Behn, John Gay, Molière, Ibsen, etc. It wasn’t until I started reading contemporary playwrights, including David Mamet and Sam Shepard that I realized that theater could be much, much more than the little that I had seen and read.

My first exposure was to Mamet, and his brand of hypermasculine posturing. Here I realized that the speech of characters in my plays could be street speech, every day speech, and it could be arranged rhythmically in iambs and punctuated with fuck yous.

Sam Shepard showed that plays could be stream of consciousness, have radical set designs, outlandish plots, and explore the ravaged landscape of the fevered mind. Plays like the Unseen Hand, Chicago, Cowboy #2, Rock Garden, Red Cross blew my mind when it came to the spontaneous shifts in character and action, the stark symbolism of the text, repetitive language cycles. And then I got to his bigger plays: Fool for Love, True West, Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class, La Turista, etc. And here I saw displayed the full power of a playwright who had developed his own mythos and vision of the world. He took traditional plots and situations and suffused them with surreal events and behaviors that showed the raw unconscious pulsing just below the surface of the everyday. I knew I wanted to write like him.

Then there was the realization that I had seen him in films. Not even connecting the dots. When I was a kid I had watched his films on HBO: The Right Stuff, Raggedy Man… and then later, Thunderheart, Black Hawk Down, Bloodline. And having kids, heard a thousand times narrate the film Charlotte’s Web.

It was a hope of mine to meet him, but I’ll have to stick with his works, I guess. Sam Shepard was a unique talent, whose abilities were transcendent.

Jeffrey M. Jones @ CSU

December 5th, 2011 No comments

Jeffrey M. Jones

Trying to catch up on my happenings, as a lot has been going on and I’ve been negligent in my posting. A few weeks ago I went down to Cleveland State University to sit in on a class whose guest was Jeffrey Jones. It was a pretty interesting time just sitting and listening to the stories that Jones was telling about all sorts of things, including his own writing process and current project to tales of his days with and around the Wooster Group in New York and earlier days when theater was just breaking out in the 60s with folks around like Sam Shepard and Fornes and even an early encounter with David Mamet, etc, at the theater door: “It’s Mamet, the writer.” (Sexual Perversity in Chicago). I should make clear, right away, that I’m talking about Jeffrey Jones the playwright (Seventy Scenes Of Halloween) and NOT the pederast movie star of Amadeus fame.

I also heard from David Todd, my one-time professor who now works down south at Otterbein, who had recently referred me to Jones’ blog: http://jeffreymjones.blogspot.com/, which is quite interesting, revealing, and often aggressive: with Jones not being shy about his opinions when it comes to things theatrical. To tell the truth, I wish he posted more often. One entry that I found especially of this type was entitled “How Theatre Works” from 2008: http://jeffreymjones.blogspot.com/2008/11/how-theatre-works.html; and at some point I’ll post a response to it as I found some of what he had to say quite surprising given his own style of play creation and works.

In his talk at CSU, Jones touched on how he created plays: for instance, that he has a strong interest in creating a “pastiche” of other materials, such as Harlequin romances (bodice rippers) and Nixon’s White House tapes, etc. That is creating a collage of materials and seeing what comes out of it. In terms of his process, he says that he likes to set up a rule or process and to follow it to see where it leads. For instance, on the Flea Theater website Jones has a workshop listed which discusses a process that he uses for play creation. For an even more elaborate discussion of Jones’ approach, take a look at Broadway Play Publishers.

In some ways, the very act of creating plays in this manner flies in the face of the traditional notion of the playwright as authority or playwright as author. The notion of “author” has been a subject of much speculation in general over the past thirty to forty years (See Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, etc.). For instance, what to make of a playwright such as Charles Mee and his (re)making project. Me, who does not “write” the words of his play, but instead “orchestrates” the words of others (found texts) into a play. But beyond this, the question was raised in the discussion regarding the “new trend” of “devised theater”–that is, plays being created using a physical process or a theatrical/spatial approach, rather than a scripted approach. Often you’ll find actors and a director working to create plays as an ensemble, possibly using myth, fairy tale, or other found texts as a guide that is then reinterpreted or re-constructed. This approach to playmaking often cuts out the playwright or, in some cases, has been seen by playwrights as a direct attempt to cut the playwright from the process. Jones’ thoughts on this–while being familiar with this approach under various names–including that used by the Wooster Group, or even Shepard/Chaikin–are that playwrights create story and pattern. Playwrights are responsible for the orchestration of events, and Jones felt that this is not a likely outcome from devised theater or spontaneously created pieces. Jones felt that, while actors may be able to create a character or even a series of actions that have some meaning in a given context, they are, in his experience, not likely to be able to create an overarching story, a grand pattern, and that the pieces are unfocused, and thus lose power, energy, and possibly meaning over the course of the event. Playwrights, as the name implies, are supposed to be master builders of story. Playwrights should be familiar with how story works and the energy potentials of its various constructs, rhythms, and events–be they in a beat unit, a scene, or in larger blocks across the play–even if they intend to violate these rules or work against them. Some actors may have an understanding of the constructs, rhythms, and events in story, but most do not. Directors had certainly better.

I have taken steps into this arena of playmaking by pastiche or collage, though not to the extent that Jones has, nor do I have his track record, pedigree, etc. My thesis play, Patterns, for instance, was a collage of generic forms, as well as a collage of various texts brought together to reflect and refract one another: an effort to force meaning to be created by the audience who experiences the play and, in some ways, to deny that I as the playwright am the sole source of meaning with regard to the text. (That is, not to deny my importance entirely.) My play Andrew Jackson ate my Homework: A racial farce, is another example of this approach to playmaking. The problem that I have run into, or have noted to myself, when writing plays that reject the Aristotelian dramatic structure–or at least one of the issues–is where does the play end? Or how do you craft the ending without falling into the trap of “forcing” the ending or dulling the play, somehow–that is, as Jones might have it, without killing the energy, power, and meaning. This is a question of editing and has been addressed in many locations by playwrights smarter than me, one of which I have pointed to before: an interview with Wallace Shawn in an issue of American Theatre. For Jones, the question of where or when a play ends is when you, as playwright, have exhausted the material or your ability to create new things with the material. Or, to use the words from Jones above, when you set up a rule or process and trace it out to see where it leads, it is precisely when you have run out of leads that the play must be done–in one sense. Then there is the cleaning up. For Jones, this represents the other important facet of playwriting, which he posited in a question: “is it tight”? That is, have you gone back into the work and edited every line to make certain that it is as tight and clear and clean as it can be? That there is no fat, no laziness, nothing imprecise? Has the waste from each line been removed?

The event at CSU was lively and important for me, and I look forward to my efforts at revising the plays mentioned above using Jones’ guidance and thoughts for both ending and tightening plays.

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