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Reflections of a working writer, a university screenwriting professor, and the editor of Oregon Literary Review.

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Charles Deemer

Oregon Literary Review

MFA, Playwriting, University of Oregon

Writing faculty, Portland State University (part-time)

Retired playwright and screenwriter.
Active novelist, librettist and teacher.

Email: cdeemer(at)yahoo(dot)com

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The Writing Life...
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The Writing Life II

(Posts archived here are from 01/10/03 - 10/31/06)

Sunday, October 22, 2006  
Trujillo II
A fitful night, thinking of Trujillo's play. Not the worst way to leave the theater.

T. tells his story in three acts. In the first (set in Tigard, 1991), six kids are exploring an attic in which they have no business being. The kids are played by adult actors, and this device is what immediately engages our attention, the theatricality of it. A power structure among the kids emerges, at the bottom a retarded girl and her caretaker brother. There's much fun and cleverness in the scene -- until the kids discover a pistol, which may be loaded. Instantly the mood becomes one of menace. Menace increases with the caretaker's turn with the gun because he uses it as a kind of revenge for earlier humiliation, the first to point it at another, the first to make threats. But as kids do, their attention finally drifts elsewhere. They abandon the attic, leaving behind the retarded girl, who starts screaming. Blackout.

In act two, we visit the parents of these children on the deck of the same house in simultaneous action. It's a winning conceit, and the actors superbly transform themselves into new bodies and attitudes. Here there are two central issues: an argument between sisters over a family organ, and a mother's fear that her child is not normal because she wants to be a scientist rather than play with dolls. If the theme of act one is Menace, here it is Adult Agenda, each of the adults with a selfish focus that has more to do with their own needs than the needs of their child or children. The mother of the caretaker and retarded girl drinks too much and is interested only in retaining a new boyfriend. Her sister wants the organ, ready for a garage sale, in order for her daughter to study music and "further her career" -- and she doesn't want to have to pay for it. These are the parents who scream at umpires at little league games, using their kids to fulfill their own dreams and values. Suddenly, up in the attic, a gunshot. Blackout.

And intermission. When we return, it's five years later. We move from Menace and Agenda to Tension. The caretaker boy, now a teenager, is returning home from five years in a facility for shooting his sister. But was his failure literally shooting her or leaving her alone so she could find the gun and shoot herself? It's not precisely clear (though he does say he shot her). Or is the fault his mother's boyfriend (now husband?), whose unloaded gun it was and in an open box to boot? The primary tension here is between mother and son -- can she forgive him? While the first two acts have many moments of humor, albeit dark, here the drama is taut and serious throughout as a family struggles to reinvent itself after tragedy. There is no resolution. The closing image is of the teenager's pain and guilt. A powerful curtain.

Is this play finished and complete? I ask the question because often my own plays were not at their premieres. In an extreme case, I rewrote each week of the opening run, resulting in six different plays in six weeks. In two other cases, I made major revisions during revivals. Sometimes I think plays are not finished but abandoned.

As much as I like T.'s play, I have one concern about it: in the last act, only four of the actors appear. What would happen if the entire story were told with these four actors? We would lose the thread of the mother's concern that her daughter won't play with dolls. We lose the kid in the attic who wants to study whales when she grows up. Does the play sink with these losses? Perhaps not. Perhaps, too, it opens up space to explore the one area about which I want to know more: the relationship of the adult sisters. A great strength of this text is that it's driven by subtext rather than explanation. Yet, issues around the family organ are suggested that might be explored. The third act of this play is so strong, so tense, so engaging, that tighter, smaller acts before it might benefit the whole. Indeed, why not structure the story as a two-act play with two scenes in a tightened first act? Perhaps this has nothing to do with T.'s sense of where he is going with this play. It's easy to change a play into the one you want to see. But I'm not sure the two characters missing from act three contribute urgent action to the central thread of the story here. So if T. does continue to develop this material, I'd suggest considering a two-act, four-character play.

Of course, what will probably happen is that this will go on to win awards just as it is!

If you are in the Portland area, do me a favor. Go to the CoHo Productions website and buy tickets to this play. It runs until November 18. Companies like this, plays like this, deserve your support and bring more vibrant health to a theater community than an expensive rerun of West Side Story or some such.

In the next issue of Oregon Literary Review I'm publishing two full-length plays by Charles F. (OyamO) Gordon, a NY-based playwright who has premiered over two dozen plays there, who is presently playwright-in-residence at the University of Michigan. Included is an interview, in which OyamO has much to say about the contemporary theater scene. I asked him to speak to how theater has changed during his career.

In terms of developmental processes the theatre has changed drastically in a deleterious sense. A former student of mine, for example, emailed me to announce that she was at last getting a play produced after countless readings, rewritings, developmental workshops, etc. The problem is that everyone wants to help you write the play through a coercive process: "If we like how the play is progressing in accordance with our enforced dramaturgical concerns, we might consider producing it." Their concerns often have nothing to do with the writer's vision, but rather are more concerned with the perceived needs or prejudices of the patrons of that particular theatre or of their literary staff.

I remember participating in a reading in Madison, Wisconsin, in which Gretchen Cryer also participated. Gretchen is a talented, proven theatre creator, highly respected. She and I exchanged a few thoughts about the interminable development process to which theatres subject us. She complained about the never ending rewrites that are done to satisfy one theatre after another who each want to replace your vision with their concerns. They always have "problems" with what you've labored over. They "don't buy" some technique or character motivation or dramatic action, etc.
Playwrights need to rebel, create their own spaces and challenge the American theatre. At one time the Off-Broadway and regional movements represented rebellion and then eventually they conformed to traditional mainstream expectations to assure their financial survival. Off-Off-Broadway is promising enough for now and NYC's downtown theatre movement offers some fearless fare, but the overwhelming feelings among the creative artists of the theatre are frustration, disgust, rage, despair and perplexity. The theatre is now a corporate entity that produces and promotes palatable consumer products of a 1984ish nature, stuff that "big brother" will approve of or, at least, not feel threatened by.

Playwrights need to develop ways to circumvent the restrictions of the culture police.

CoHo is not producing safe, "corporate" theater. Trujillo's new play can keep you awake at night. What in hell else does a community want from its theater artists? Support these people!

10/22/2006 03:51:00 AM | 0 comments

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