Rewriting the Bard: Julius Caesar

Cassius: Did Cicero say anything?

Casca: Ay, she spoke Greek.

Cassius: To what effect?

Casca: Nay, an I tell you that, I’ll ne’er look you i’th’face again. But those that understood her smiled at one another, and shook their heads. But for mine own part, it was Greek to me.

William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2

Greek to me.

After three months of working, I’ve finished the draft of the gender-reversed adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that I’ll be directing throughout October and November. (We open in December! If you’re in Colorado Springs, you need to come see this!)

And let me tell you this about adapting the Bard-His-Own-Self…

It’s intimidating. For a couple reasons.

First, the reputation: I mean, here’s a guy who has dominated the world stage, hundreds of thousands of English lessons, and is quoted daily. You probably said something he wrote at some point today — maybe you realized you quoted him, maybe you didn’t, but I would bet any amount of money in your pocket that there was something.

Second, the language itself: Say what you will about Shakespeare. The boy could write. There’s rhythm and vocabulary and plot structure. It’s kinda like fluent Greek and then me: speaking elementary Greek. Reading the Dr. Seuss of Greek, not the — um — Shakespeare of Greek.

So what kind of cocky, arrogant, ignorant ignoramus jumps into one of Shakespeare’s best known, most performed plays, and then just…”adapts it?”

*Raises hand slowly*

The Draft.

That’s me. I did it.

And not only did I swap the genders around (more on that in a later post). The Bard probably wouldn’t recognize Act V much (more on that in a later post). He’d wonder why so many conspirators were alive (and then die later). He would probably be curious about the dancing…but, then, he’s a theatre guy, so he’d probably roll with the dancing. Maybe he’d be irritated at how I reconfigured the Soothsayer.

I admit. I was hesitant at first. Mostly, I said to myself, “Self, we’re just going to swap the genders, keep as much of the meter as we can while we do that, and then make some judicious cuts. That’s all, Self.”

As I dug deeper into the text though, I kept thinking: “Self, it’d be cooler if this happened, then there can be a visual representation of XYZ. And if we move this character here, it solidifies ABC.”

So I made the changes. Then myself was like: “SELF! WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”

“WHAT WOULD SHAKESPEARE DO?!”

(Which is kind of dumb question to ask yourself, because we know what Shakespeare would do. He did it. I was in the midst of fucking it up as I asked myself that very question.)

Ironically enough, it was thinking about “What would Shakespeare do?” that gave me the creative freedom to cut and rearrange and reassemble.

Because Shakespeare fucking stole everything, rearranged it, reassembled, and cut and pasted. If Shakespeare were right beside me in the office chair, he would have done the same damn thing. Probably with more blood. He was an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.” (“Our” being other playwrights of the time period — meaning he stole their shit.)

Over the next couple weeks, I will explain my actions. In the meantime, I say that we all take a deep breath…and think about what else we can steal.

Kerouac, Burroughs, and Direct Collaboration

Kerouac, Burroughs, and Direct Collaboration

Direct collaboration, as opposed to indirect collaboration (which we’ll talk about next week) is where a writer works directly with one or more people on a specific piece. Jess Weaver and I developing the Christmas play for Springs Ensemble Theatre’s winter show is an example.
Shameless self-promotion moment:
Christmas Play
Writers working with agents or editors to shape-up a piece for publication is another, regularly-happening example of direct collaboration.

In 1944 Jack Kerouac and his friend William Burroughs took turns writing alternating chapters of And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a novel about the sensationalized murder of one of their circle, David Kammerer, by another member of their circle, Lucien Carr.

First, a super-quick background on the case — or you can go watch Kill Your Darlings starring Daniel Radcliffe, which covers this same story:

Kammerer was a teacher out in Missouri, and Carr was a student. When they met, Kammerer was 25 years old, and Carr was eleven. Kammerer basically took Carr under his wing (otherwise known as: followed the kid around) and, as James Grauerholz sums up in his Afterword to Hippos: “Eight years, five states, four prep schools, and two colleges later, that connection was grown too intense.” Carr tried to join the merchant marines, hoping to get on a ship and head out of country and leave Kammerer behind. That plan didn’t work out. On August 14, 1944, Carr stabbed Kammerer and threw his body into the Hudson River. Carr surrendered a day later, after first confessing to Burroughs and then to Kerouac – who may or may not have helped conceal evidence (I can’t find a definitive answer, so if anyone knows, please let me know). Carr and Kerouac were both arrested. Carr ultimately served two years. Kerouac only got bailed out because he agreed to marry his first wife, Edie Parker, and her family paid for his release.

Seeing as how writers are such an understanding lot…Carr’s friends jumped to write about the whole situation. Ginsberg worked a few chapters for his own book, and according to Grauerholz, his version “is the most detailed, and possibly the most realistic, of all the dramatizations of Kammerer’s final hours.”

And Kerouac and Burroughs decided to write their version together.

I’m not surprised that writers involved in a collaborative circle would choose to write together. And I’m certainly not surprised Kerouac and Burroughs chose to write about an event that affected their lives, and the lives of other members of their circle, so completely. I am happy that the publication was saved until after all of the major parties have died. (Not for lack of trying, apparently, but Carr requested that they back off – which they did.)

Anyway, Kerouac and Burroughs did write the book together, choosing one of the most obvious forms of collaborative writing: the alternating chapter method.That’s just like it sounds. Burroughs took a chapter, then handed it off to Kerouac, who wrote the second chapter, and so on. I can’t speak for Kerouac and Burroughs, or how easy/difficult it is to do with two people, but I have used this method.

With about ten other people.

There are pros and cons.

Pros:
• Word count adds up quick. It’s satisfying to watch the story grow and feel the ownership of it…and do only a portion of the work. If you’ve never finished a big thing like a novel, sharing the work with someone else can give you the impetus to finish your own work. From what I can tell, Hippos was the first big work completed by either Kerouac or Burroughs…even though it wasn’t published until decades later.
• It increases communication, which forces you, as a writer, to articulate what you’re trying to do. That helps with your solo work as well.  You have to define your terms.
• You back up your work more. Hit SAVE!
• Keeps you on your toes – harder to predict what another writer will do with the material. Makes you think creatively within a piece and see various possibilities. (A lot like working improve for actors.) One of the rules for the round story projects that my writing group works on is that you can’t negate something one of the other writers introduced. So you can’t blow everyone up and start over in a new setting with characters you ‘like better.’ Hippos has a uniformity to the story that Kerouac and Burroughs had to have worked out in a similar fashion.
• It’s a great way to learn the structure of stories, because without thinking about that, the whole thing gets wonky fast. As it is, Hippos has an episodic build: first the characters go here, and then there, and then here again. There are some neatly interwoven threads, but there are a lot of diversions as well.
• It’s just fun. It keeps it playful, even if you’re dead serious.

Cons:
• You don’t have full control of the story. You MUST compromise. (If you don’t, it equals arguments with people who you generally respect and admire – why else would you choose to write with them?)
• Can result in a choppy story, no matter how hard you try. Hippos suffers from this, sorry to say.
• Schedules are a pain to work out. – Luckily, Kerouac and Burroughs were pretty much living together with some other buddies while they worked on Hippos.
• Without individual control, you hit the middle bar more often than the top bar. Kerouac and Burroughs were both smashing writers…but I have to say that Hippos doesn’t equal Kerouac’s solo work – at least from what I’ve read. (And I’ve never read Burroughs’s solo work, so I can’t compare on his side of the equation.) Part of the quality-question is definitely that this was their first big finished project for both of them…so it’s a book by beginners overall.

I highly recommend at least one attempt at direct collaboration like Kerouac and Burroughs.

Right now, Jess and I have hit out stride writing together. We communicate early and often and follow all the notes from above. I highly recommend just getting an experience like this…even if it goes nowhere. Just try to make sure that you pair up with someone you have a good working relationship with — Jess and I worked on several plays together as designers and performers before jumping onto the paper together.

After a while of doing this writing gig, we’ll all have an opportunity to respond to agents and editors sounding off on the work, requesting that we adjust our stories. But it’s not as often that you’ll have an opportunity to meet up with a buddy and articulate what you’re trying to do while creating.

You just have to go into it with the knowledge that, if you fail miserably, you can at least blame it on the other guy. (Hi Jess!)

***Side note on Lucien Carr: He is the father of novelist Caleb Carr — the author of two of my own favorite books: The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness.***

Rapture, Blister, Burn

Opening tonight at Springs Ensemble Theatre!!

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Rapture, Blister, Burn by Gina Gionfriddo is sharply-funny (if you like that sarcastic, smart kinda humor…which I do). It’s about Catherine, who has gone off and become a Neil-DeGrasse-Tyson-style academic of women’s studies. But she comes home to the small New England town where she grew up to take care of her ailing mother. Worried that she’s made the wrong decisions in her life by pursuing her career instead of a family, she reconnects with her ex-boyfriend, Don.

However, Don is married to Gwen — Catherine’s former best friend. Gwen is also questioning her life decisions and wonders what it would be like if she continued her education.  During a summer seminar taught by Catherine, the two women hatch a plot to switch lives.

Crazy right? You should come see it.

Here’s what we’ve done leading up to tonight:

Casting — Aren’t they pretty?

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Haley King as Avery; Kara Carroll as Gwen; Matt Radcliffe as Don; Holly Haverkorn as Catherine; Karen Anderson as Alice — Photography by Emory John Collinson

Directing:

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Joye Cook-Levy directing Rapture, Blister, Burn at SET

Painting:

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Set design by Jack Salesses

Lighting/Sound/Stage Managing:

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Angelina Gallagher, Kitty Robbins, Gabriel Espinoza-Lira, and Sean Verdu teching Rapture, Blister, Burn at SET

Some heavy lifting:

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Marie Verdu lifting flats.

Acting:

 

Come check it out! Opens tonight and runs through June 4.

Introducing: Writing Desk II

A couple months ago, the new owners of the Damon Runyon Theatre in Pueblo gave us SET ensemble members an opportunity to dig through their stuff (and if you’ve ever been in a community theatre, you understand there’s always a TON of stuff) and take away whatever we wanted.

So we went down to P-town and shopped.

Shopping in Pueblo

^^^There we are, having lunch at Jorge’s after loading up the trucks. (I’m in the corner. If you feel like knowing who the other cool people are, you can find most of them here.)

Anyways, in the theatre was this roll top desk. Large. Dark wood. Had seen better days. There were bits of taped-on labels like: ‘hair ties’ and ‘glue.’ The kinda things you find backstage. But other than being fairly worn, it was in pretty good shape.

I already have a pretty nifty small roll-top desk (hereafter known as Writing Desk I), so at first I didn’t think I wanted it.

Then…I thought about it.

And thought about it some more.

And it wound up on the back of the truck.

And it wound up in my garage.

And I wound up refinishing it.

I mean, I haven’t showered in days between work, writing, and theatre…but the desk is done!

(The lighting in my garage sucks, so you get a close up for the color.)

(Also, special thanks to all those crafty people on Pinterest who recommended the Annie Sloan Chalk Paint. Love it.)

Jenny finishes her desk

^^^I’m in the corner.

Opus by Michael Hollinger

This is the set of Opus by Michael Hollinger (designed by Jack Salesses) that I’m directing at Springs Ensemble Theatre. If you’re in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in the next couple weeks you should check it out.

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The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence Review!

For those of you in the Colorado Springs area (or those of you who might just be passing by…) here’s a review of  the play I’m currently involved with as co-producer.

Special thanks to Bill Wheeler, who hosts a great theater blog that you should check out in general!

Here’s snapshot of What It’s All About: 
A finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and winner of the 2014 John Gassner award, Madeleine George’s The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence brings Watson, our favorite sidekick, to the forefront as he struggles to become the protagonist of his own story. Moving through time, The Watson Intelligence explores Watson through several different incarnations. We meet the classical Dr. John Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame, the tireless engineering assistant Thomas A. Watson of Alexander Graham Bell, the contemporary Joshua Watson of the ‘Dweeb Team’, and WATSON, IBM’s super computer that became Jeopardy! champ. These four Watson iterations merge, rising to face the mystery, romance, intimacy, and technology of a new world – revealing that real heroes are often unsung.

If you’re interested in coming and checking it out, we’ve already finished our first weekend, but here’s the stuff you need for everything coming up! (Also, here’s the Springs Ensemble Theatre’s website.)

THE [CURIOUS CASE OF THE] WATSON INTELLIGENCE will be performed at Springs Ensemble Theatre, located at 1903 E. Cache La Poudre Street, Colorado Springs, CO 80909. The play runs Jan 21 – Feb 7, (Jan 21-23, Jan 28-31, & Feb 4-7). Thursday, Friday, and Saturday performances are at 7:30 p.m., Sunday performances are at 4:00 p.m. Seating is limited, so reservations are recommended. Tickets are $15, with group rates available. $10 student rush tickets are available for every performance (valid ID is required, rush tickets are only available at the box office 5 minutes before the performance).

Directing Isn’t So Different From Being a Mom

Opening tonight: My directorial debut! (Well, my co-directorial debut — my co-director Sarah Shaver is AMAZEBALLS.)

Over the last couple weeks I have had the pleasure and the panic of trying to shape a series of short scenes and monologues about motherhood. Motherhood Out Loud is a beautiful collection of pieces written by some of the best playwrights around. I’ts striking to me because there’s a great mix of hilarity and tear-inducing emotions.

So there I am: in an open theatre space filled with talented actors, armed with this strong script.

Annnnnnd I’m scared to death I’ll fuck it up.

All of it.

Which makes me think that directing is not so different from motherhood.

As a parent, I really really really hope I’m not fucking my kids up. I hope they feel loved and safe. I hope they feel like I’m someone they can talk to. I hope no one ever hurts them. I hope they are happy. I hope they are healthy. I hope that when I give advice or discipline that it’s helping to develop their character and make them stronger human beings. Most of all, I just hope for them.

With directing, there are more specific concerns — concerns about if the story is being told well, concerns about lines, concerns about lights burning out.

But as a director, I really really really hope I’m not fucking people up. I hope the actors and the technicians feel able to create in a loving, safe place. I hope they feel they can approach me with problems or observations. I hope the audience loves them. I hope they are happy. I hope they are healthy. I hope that when I give notes or assign tasks that it’s helping to develop their work and make them stronger performers. And mostly, I just hope.

I also think that directing is like motherhood in the fact that, a lot of times, you just have to bluff.

Yes. I do know what I’m talking about. Really. Just trust me.

Then hope to God I’m not wrong.

In the end, you have to trust that your kids and your crew will take care of business. You just have to set them free and say “I did my best.”

If you’re in the Springs, come check out this lovely piece of theatre. I’ll be thrilled to hear what you think.

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Directions

Dead Man’s Cell Phone Production Poster (Designed by: Linda Nichols)

Sarah Ruhl is the second most performed playwright in the United States — second only to the Bard his own self. This is the last weekend that it will be performed in Colorado Springs at the Springs Ensemble Theatre.

In other words: this is the last weekend I’ll be playing Jean.

I cannot tell you how much I love doing this play. If I could, I would perform it every day. A lot of that love is due to Sarah Ruhl’s writing style, which, as a writer, I sooooo appreciate.

One of the coolest things Ruhl does as a playwright is her stage directions. They’re almost like poetry themselves. And, while specific, they still let the director, designers, and performers go to town creatively.

This is where there’s a big ol’ difference between writing for the stage versus writing for movies versus writing novels.

Movies tend to break things out simply: Character A and Character B fight. (And there you have about twenty minutes of any Transformer  movie.)

Novels (short stories, etc.), of course, will spell all of that out: Character A hurls a chair at Character B. The chair cracks in half over Character B’s head, carving a gash across B’s forehead. And on and on — perhaps with Character A is drinking a gin and tonic.

This is how Sarah Ruhl chooses to present a fight scene in Dead Man’s Cell Phone:

A struggle for the gun. 
Perhaps an extended fight sequence
with some crawling and hair pulling. 

That magical word ‘perhaps’ leaves everything open but she’s also managed to convey exactly what this particular scene needs. Sure, you can do an extended fight scene and both Character A and Character B can be drop dead serious about what’s going on — that’s definitely one way to go. But the other is to follow that ‘perhaps’ and you get something far more in tune with what the rest of the text suggests: this is a kinda ridiculous situation — but there’s a gun so you better take it kinda seriously. Somewhere in between is the sweet spot…and the writing in the stage directions hits that note just perfectly.

Something else that happens in Ruhl’s writing — and is noticeable in the above passage — is that she breaks lines the same way poet’s do.

A struggle for the gun. This is very straightforward. And it’s its own paragraph/line/sentence. Note there’s a period.

Perhaps an extended fight sequence This fragment is left hanging. But it’s a singular thought too. This is like a line of poetry — a piece that is it’s own thing but is still connected to the next line…which is kind of a turn.

An ‘extended fight sequence’ call to mind something very serious. Then Ruhl changes the tone with the next line:

with some crawling and hair pulling. She finishes the thought with something unexpected — which is how the fight sequence should work.

We know from the rest of the play that at least one of these characters should just not be involved in a fight sequence. Because it’s ridiculous. Absurd. And the stage directions are written in a way that reflects this. It could be written like this:

A struggle for the gun. Perhaps an extended fight sequence with some crawling and pulling.

Reading it that way feels different. (At least to me.) To me, this way feels more throwaway.

I once heard an interview with Ruhl and she said that one of the most frustrating things about watching performances was that the director/actors/designers were so busy trying to put their own stamp on a piece that they didn’t worry about ‘birthing’ the story. She already wrote everything down. The story is there…and she left enough flexibility to give the director/actors/designers to come up with something really creative. So why not just tell the story?

Our director said that if we have any questions, to look to the script first. Everything is there. And it is. We’ve taken Ruhl’s notes and tried to make magic. I think we’ve done pretty good too. Here’s a review from Broadway World Denver. If you’re in Colorado Springs this weekend — you can snag tickets (hopefully) at 719-357-3080.