Thursday, July 22, 2010

Never Too Late for a Smith Barney Reference

Good day today! (I mean both that it is one, and I’m wishing you one as well.)

I kept far away from the temptations of Internetville and finally finished draft number millionbillion of WAKE-WALKING. Am I going to Disneyland? Nope – I’m already immersed (ahem) in a new play. How do I feel? Uh … frankly, super-guilty, because in this draft of WW, I punished the bejesus out of my characters at the end of the play. Brutal. And yet, the happy (mostly) ending that follows is so much better for it. To paraphrase John Houseman, “They find joy the old fashioned way … They earn it.” Next step will be nonperformance workshopping the play for a few months to iron out some of the lumps (even though the lumps are my favorite part of Cream of Wheat, but I don’t know that that’s germane here, is it? Let’s not get off topic.) The cast and core crew are already in place, and I am super-super excited about each and every one of them. Particularly our newest acquisition. (Ssh.)

And it is opening night of THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF AMERICA (abridged.) Very excited. If you are in this town, you should come see it. And if you aren’t in this town, why not? Not to overstate things, but Greensboro has everything – mountains, ocean, desert, the Empire State Building, the Grand Canyon, the mummified remains of Theda Bara, the Taj Mahal, the summer home of TV’s Mr. T., and the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien is still going on here. (Ed. note: Greensboro has none of these things.) The point is, if you live here you should come see this hilarious show, playing all weekend at 200 N. Davie Street. And if you don’t live here, you should consider the fact that everyone who lives here gets free falconry lessons from a Molly Ringwold impersonator. (Ed.note: This is not entirely true.)

Also, tomorrow is my lovely daughter’s 11th birthday. 11. 11! Wishing her a very happy birthday …

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Lowell, and Next-Up

Have you read Robert Lowell? In my undergrad years, when I still imagined I was going to be the world’s first billionaire poet, Lowell was a towering influence on my writing. And to be fair, he is a towering influence on 20th century poetry as well. His book Life Studies, I think, belongs in every library. He began as a traditionalist, converted mid-life to Roman Catholicism (as his wife at the time claimed, “for the imagery”), and ultimately helped pioneer the so-called “confessional” school of poetry. Two of his students, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, went on to become Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

Going back and rereading him, I am surprised how in his shadow I have unconsciously remained.From “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”:

All you recovered from Poseidon died

With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine

Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,

Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,

Nantucket’s westward haven.

NB: I relish the fact that, at the end of my street, there is a Quaker graveyard, in which is buried one of Lowell’s closest friends, the incredible poet and critic Randall Jarrell. More on him in the future …

My two favorite Lowell poems, and certainly two of his most famous, are “Memories of West Street and Lepke” and “Skunk Hour.” “Memories …” revisits the short stint Lowell did in jail as a young man. He was as conscientious objector during WWII, and was sentenced to the same prison as the gangster Louis Lepke. About the celebrated death row inmate:

Flabby, bald, lobotomized,

he drifted in a sheepish calm,

where no agonizing reappraisal

jarred his concentration on the electric chair –

hanging like an oasis in his air

of lost connections …

“Skunk Hour” was written for Lowell’s colleague, friend, and great love Elizabeth Bishop (a fantastic Village Voice article about their lifelong correspondence can be found here), and remains for me an example of the great heights and terrific intensity of free verse poetry:

One dark night,

my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;

I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,

they lay together, hull to hull,

where the graveyard shelves on the town …

My mind’s not right.

A car radio bleats,

“Love, O careless Love ….” I hear

my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,

as if my hand were at its throat …

I myself am hell;

nobody's here –

Only skunks, that search

in the moonlight for a bite to eat.

They march on their soles up Main Street:

white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire

under the chalk-dry and spar spire

of the Trinitarian Church.

I stand on top

of our back steps and breathe the rich air –

a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage pail.

She jabs her wedge-head in a cup

of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,

and will not scare.

But enough about Lowell for now. Let's talk about the present ...


When I first started writing plays, the process would go something like this: I’d take a premise (something I used to believe was the most important thing in the world, a viewpoint I no longer fully subscribe to … more about that later, perhaps), allow myself to wander through that idea at a rate of 5 pages per day, no more, no less, until I’d come to the end of a first draft. Then I’d let it sit for a while, come back to it, do a script analysis of it (one of my favorite things to do), determine what changes I might like to see happen, and revise it at a rate of 8 pages per day, no more no less, until I’d come to the end of a second draft. Then I’d let it sit for a while, come back to it, give it a shine and a polish, and then congratulate myself for being so unbelievably brilliant.I’m sorry, what I meant to say was flagellate myself for being so unbelievably horrible. Wait, one more time: both are true.


The point is, the raison d’ĂȘtre for each of these plays was always the same. I wrote it because I wanted to write something, had either stumbled upon or found myself stumbled upon by an idea, and that was that. Now things have become a little more complicated. I attended an extraordinary play last night called Neat, or I Swear to God I Didn’t See Franz Kafka, written and directed by the great Bill Lewis. The play itself was stunning, as was its performance, and I wish the point of my mentioning this was that the experience of this play alone inspired me to rush home and write. Instead, it was opening the program and seeing this:

I had somehow gotten it into my head that GTCC would be world-premiering (snickering at myself here) my play The Immersibles in Spring 2011. No, it goes up November 17, which means that they will likely go into rehearsal in late September.

I haven’t yet written this play. I’m not really even sure what it’s about. I just know what it’s called.

Don’t get me wrong, I will not be writing entirely blind. The title has remained with me for some time now, and though I don’t have a precise idea of the story or its characters, certainly not of anything so solid as plot, I have – for lack of a better term – felt this play intensely. It is not a premise (something I used to believe was the most important thing in the world, a viewpoint I no longer fully subscribe to … did I mention this already?) but a state of being. In a way, I feel that for some time I have been collecting and organizing myself, in a semi-conscious way, in light of this ephemeral concept, and all that remains is excitement about the process of discovery.This method of writing, heretical to me five years ago, now seems exciting, honest, and very right. Part of it is gaining confidence in my work and my processes, gaining experience and comfort, and part of it is simply the revelation (corny, probably, but if it isn’t true it should be) that we aren’t separate entities from our works. That it is okay to relinquish control and instead learn to trust. This statement is meant neither to overstate art nor to understate the person behind it. It’s just … well, trust.

As to premise, I’m not being entirely fair. I do still believe that premise is the great organizing principle behind dramatic works. I’m just not convinced that it comes first. I have known too many would-be artists who wait forever for the grand idea to come before they start working. Maybe that's the right path, I don't know. I think it’s worth considering that premise is a second-draft consideration.

So, I’m in the last days of Wake-Walking, and then I will plunge into The Immersibles –whatever the heck it turns out to be. Wish me luck. Here be its coffee-scented beginnings:

Monday, July 12, 2010

Cohen, Gilman, & Gregory LLP

After a week of brilliant sunshine and heat, Greensboro finally has a gloomy, overcast day. I love it. Teased me with rain all the way back from rehearsal in High Point. Days like this make me want to break out Songs from a Room, one of my all-time favorite albums. Truth be told, it would be my absolute all-time favorite album were it not so tonally specific. The lyrics are gorgeous, the mood playfully somber and intimate, and Leonard Cohen’s vocal delivery is so casually weary that the overall effect oscillates between an illustrated conversation and a careful confession from an old friend.

The album’s obvious standout is “Bird on a Wire,” which is truly a beautiful song, but I find that when I am called toward this album it is for the songs “You Know Who I Am,” “It Seems So Long Ago Nancy,” and “Story of Isaac.” “You Know Who I Am” seems to echo from a dark, cavernous place, and I love the chorus’s declaration that “I am the one who loves/changing from nothing to one.” “It Seems So Long Ago Nancy” was my introduction to the album – a friend of mine, Kevin Peterson, played it for me hoping to arrange the song for piano and female vocals. The arrangement never worked out, but this ballad of a doomed young woman still haunts me. And the “Story of Isaac” transforms one of the more peculiar Old Testament stories into an indictment of the Vietnam War and the so-called righteousness that results in the death of so many people. The album is most successful for me in its quietest moments and its small hopes. There’s a line in the last song, “Tonight Will Be Fine,” that I love:

I choose the rooms that I live in with care

The windows are small and the wall’s almost bare

There’s only one bed and there’s only one prayer

I listen all night for your step on the stair

I feel like I have lived in rooms such as this one my whole life.


I just finished reading Rebecca Gilman’s play Boy Gets Girl. In spite of that upbeat title, the play deals with a woman trying to hold on to the particulars of her life when a man she meets on a blind date becomes violently obsessed with her. I was trying to get some advice on how to structure my own play, and chose Ms. Gilman’s piece blindly as she had just come to speak at my grad school about her adaptation of The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. And while I don’t know that I’m going to borrow in any significant way from Boy Gets Girl to apply to my own play – that would be weird – I did find myself fascinated with a technique that Ms. Gilman uses in BGG.There are 18 scenes (most of my plays are usually ten or eleven), and the protagonist (THERESA) is in all but one of them. The antagonist, however, (TONY) is only actually present in four scenes – and he never appears in Act Two at all. Yet he is incredibly present the entire time. He is represented by flowers, by letters, or he is the main topic of conversation. We see him through his effects, which are cataclysmic for Theresa. Even in the play’s subplot, involving Theresa’s interview of an aging softcore filmmaker, seems to be resonant in her reactions to the filmmaker’s conception of gender issues. This is a very neat trick that Ms. Gilman has pulled off – one that I hope to apply to my own play (and all future plays.)


One last thing: after experiencing the wonder of the viral video “Double Rainbow” and the kick-ass AutoTune rendition by The Gregory Brothers, I decided to check out more by The Gregory Brothers, including their “AutoTune the News” series and their 2009 EP, Meet the Gregory Brothers. These are some ridiculously talented folks. The “AutoTune the News” stuff is hilarious, but the EP is straightforward R&B music – and it’s terrific. I love to come across people who simultaneously make me feel supremely untalented but leave me still wanting to exalt in what they do.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Two Weeks!

The Complete History of America (abridged) goes up two weeks from tomorrow, and I’m getting really, really excited. Though we lost a cast member very early on (for reasons that are still not clear to me, but whatever), the show has been coming together incredibly quickly. This is a testament to director Christina Caltagirone, certainly, and also to my fellow castmates Jeff Aguiar, John Dillon, and Claire King. It has been a long time since I’ve had this much fun in rehearsal for a play (specifically, it’s been since 2004’s A Mouthfulla Sacco and Vanzetti.) If you are in town, I hope you come see it. (July 23-25, and a preview on July 22, Cultural Arts Center, downtown Greensboro.)

NB: Yes, the blog looks different. It looks different because I took it down, and I took it down because I am neurotic. If you know me, this is not news. And if you don’t know me – I’m Tommy Trull, neurotic. Hi. It’s all back up now.

Wake-Walking continues to spiral towards otherness, and I have begun Act 2 realizing that there will be a new character in the play. (Larry Brenner, your suggestion was well-taken, but I’ll bet not in the way you were thinking. Moohaha.) Finding writing time in which I can remain focused has really been an issue between rehearsal and work and doing the things I have needed to do to keep myself together. I am perhaps unwisely but happily and committedly working on a new musical as well: Silent Pictures, based on a short story by the very talented AshleyRose Sullivan. I’ve already written the title song, parts of which had been resonating in my head for several months now, and I am wickedly excited about this piece. It’s gonna have everything: fame, thwarted ambition, heartbreak, stunts, and, um, oranges. I’m aiming to have it up for the Greensboro Fringe Festival in Jan-Feb 2011, right before The Immersibles goes up at GTCC.

Yikes. I should get back to work. And this …

was completely freaking delicious.

This and That.

June 30, 2010. Hi there. Shouldn’t be writing this as I am swimming in work, but I feel oh-let’s-call-it compelled. Draft three of Wake-Walking is trudging along (I’m more excited about it than that sounds), but I’m finding that the little changes I have made to the introductory scenes are having sort of a butterfly effect on the rest of the play. This is great news in the sense that it means that the play is integral and not episodic, but it is daunting news in the sense that the revision is turning into a full rewrite. Oh well. Surprises are in store for me, I guess.

I watched a brilliant documentary on Frank Loesser last night on TCM in honor of his 100th birthday. Loesser was the composer behind some really terrific musicals (most notably Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), and was a one-man theatrical army. The guy wrote book, music, and lyrics for tons of plays, was an excellent businessman, producer, and even publisher of theatrical music. I have always admired these personalities (Stephen Sondheim is another, although much less of a difficult bastard than Loesser) – the kinds of folks who can navigate several different aspects of an art, or even several different discrete art forms, with great success. This is the kind of work ethic I aim for, though most days I feel like a dilettante.

Speaking of dilettantism, I’m off to rehearsal for The Complete History of America (abridged), a show in which I for whatever reason get harnessed into various things, such as:

the accordion:

and our sixteenth president:

Then it’s back home to do grad school reading and continue work on the new full-length (The Immersibles) and the new musical (Silent Pictures) so I can pretend that I am Frank Loesser, albeit a lesser Loesser. And lest there be any doubt about his affections … Lincoln says hi.

Hoolimagoos Are The New Black.

June 25, 2010. I was possessed today, as I randomly am, to clean the holy hell out of my immediate world. Pure gutting. Carnage. Well, carnage in reverse. But if you were a piece of garbage in my house today, it was your apocalypse, and I hope you prayed. Sometimes things just have to be put in order, and today was one of those days. (As an interesting side note, I discovered that once an arachnophobe like myself sees a bulbous, spindly spider under his bed while he cleans, suddenly everything in the world becomes bulbous and spindly and begins to creep and crawl of its own volition. Try it out.) I came across little items and notes to myself and trinkets and doodads and, uh, hoolimagoos that I had completely forgotten about – including several ideas for stories and plays, bits of dialogue, et cetera, that I had completely forgotten about. They’re all brilliant, and they will make me a million billion dollars, because that’s what playwrights do, primarily. Make money. We’re savvy that way.

I did not start cleaning out of civic duty: I am intentionally not writing today, nor will I write tomorrow or Sunday. I’m not good at not-writing. In fact, I am very bad at it. But I have a new idea, and I don’t want to start writing it too early. Instead, I’m going to let the thing that’s welling up inside me continue to well. I know what The New Thing is going to sound like, feel like, look like, and smell like, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. So we’ll have to see.

Have you heard of a poet named Christine Garren? She taught an intro to poetry class at UNC-G that was transformative for me many years ago, and while I was in her class her bookAfterworld came out. I recommend it highly. I especially love this poem of hers, called “The Rescue”:

The missing boy was found in a clearing of the woods

surrounded by some wolves as if he were on fire.

How did he speak among the wolves, for hours, as he did?

Singing for his mother, he became as natural as the animal.

After school he’d strayed from a game of field grenades,

but the wolves were not unkind when they heard him sing.

His mother came and hurried with him home.

His father ran ahead and beat a path of fear.

Over his mother’s woolen shoulder, he saw their coats of Spanish moss

and said: Go on; sweet wolves, when I pray awake tonight I will

pray to you.

This poem is one of a handful I have accidentally memorized. Didn’t set out to do it – just realized that I suddenly knew it.

I am currently obsessing about The National’s latest album,High Violet, in particular the song “Conversation 16.” One of the great talents a writer can have, I think – particularly if the writer tends toward more serious or even (gasp) unhappy material – is to be able to write about it in a way that does something entirely else with it. Makes it funny or clever, even if the heart of the line is fundamentally tragic. “Conversation 16” contains this line:

I’m a confident liar

Have my head in the oven

So you’ll know where I’ll be

Everything about this line kills me. For 15 years now I have gotten into the same conversation with people who don’t like Leonard Cohen because he “depresses them.” There are very few Leonard Cohen songs that do not contain at least a modicum of humor, and it is that humor that buoys his art. (But I digress. I could talk about Leonard Cohen forever. In some universe, I’m doing just that.)

Last bit: today at rehearsal for The Complete History of America (abridged), I looked around and saw that my cast mates and I were demonstrating – nay, performing with utopian presence – the following talents: unicycle-riding, accordion-guitar-piano-playing, juggling, a grab bag of accents, gymnastic tumbles and other semi-athletic miscellany, giant-Lincoln-bunraku-puppetry, and I realized … a theatre stage is the only place in the world that a bunch of geeks like my beloved castmates and I could possibly imagine ourselves to be cool. Or even useful, to be honest. And I think I’m okay with that.

This is a snapshot of the Virginia Stage Company, taken from up high on a beer-and-tequila-fueled midnight tour (thanks Julie):

Norfolk, VA.

June 23, 2010. Norfolk has been lovely. The city, yes – I will talk endlessly about this city if prompted, so maybe don’t do that – but this trip in particular has been absolutely necessary. It has been spiritually cleansing and reaffirming. And also liquor-soaked.The hotel room, as I have been thinking of it and calling it, isn’t a hotel room at all, but actors’ quarters for the transient professional actors who come through Virginia Stage Company. This entire honeymoon party (eight of us) have been able to stay here because of our good friend Julie Franklin, who works as an ASM (or perhaps as an SM, I’m not exactly sure. It’s also possible she’s an MS, an SMA, and possibly an SAM, although I’m pretty sure that it is I who am SAM, and I have some really disgusting food to aggressively sell you.) And the food! Remarkable. I love shellfish, and I have been swimming in it. Both literally and figuratively, I guess – the water off the bay is very warm, and I escaped getting sunburnt only by the grace of a full-body radiation suit.

Have you tried Rogue’s Chipotle Ale? It is a great first beer of the evening, and a not-so-great last beer of the evening. I will advertise:

I lost my brand-new sunglasses because I am fundamentally a horrible person. The upshot, however, is that the process of tearing apart the room looking for them led me to a miniature diary that was behind the dresser. At first I thought it was a passport, but no – a cursory inspection of the first page let me know that this was some person’s private notebook and that the right thing to do was to return it to the dust and shadows.So I read it cover-to-cover. And back again.

It is beautiful. I feel horrible, prying this way – particularly since there was just enough information there for me to find out who this person is (she’s an actress living in NY and LA, and yes I’m going to mail it back to her. Anonymously, though.) But she tells a story of the last day of one of her relationships, and the story is just achingly beautiful in its sadness and its weird symmetry. I want to include this scene in something, certainly in a modified form, and I am soliciting suggestions as to whether or not this is ridiculously inappropriate.

I am also soliciting suggestions for a tattoo. I have finally committed to getting one at the ripe old age of 100 gazillion. It will happen this summer. Rachel has suggested something mythological, as that seems to be what I tattoo all my plays with. Mara suggested a quill. Brian suggested a wine logo. I’m not sold on any of these ideas, although if I could find something that was mythological and visually interesting, I might do that.

There is more, there is always much much more, but I’ll stop here. I have so many things to say right now I might break whatever words I try to use. Tomorrow, however, I will be back home and back to the daily grind, which is comforting.Little by little. Meanwhile there is this, which was in a storefront window on the way to breakfast this morning:

(UPDATE: Sunglasses were lost, and now they are found. All is as it should be.)

Animal Crackers

June 20, 2010. I’m headed off later this afternoon to Norfolk, Virginia, in the strange position of accompanying other people on their honeymoon. My excellent friends Brie and Michael Reeder were married yesterday, and have invited several of us up to share their vacation. I met Michael earlier this year when he stepped in one week before opening to play the sizeable role of “Phineas” in my first musical, Perseus in Suburbia – it is worth mentioning that he had never been on stage before, and completely knocked it out of the park. His lovely wife Brie ran lights for that show, and is an actress as well, whom I look forward to working with on future plays. Having never been to Norfolk, I am terrifically excited to go. Having tons of work to do, lines to learn, and no internet access up there is somewhat less exciting. (Thank goodness for cell phones and Twitter.)

First packet for my last semester of grad school (though I am considering a screenwriting extension for many reasons) is due Thursday, and I am nearly ready. I have almost finished revising Act 1 of Wake-Walking – it is strange to see it covered in shiny new dialogue, almost like watching your best friend on TV’s “What Not To Wear” – and I have a new ten-minute play to add into the mix. I have nearly finished reading Jill Dolan’s Utopia in Performance, and my thoughts toward the essay are mostly complete. Daily is the new key word, by the way; perhaps it will be edifying to puzzle out why.

I heard good things from two different people about the screening of “The Hickory Switch” – still peeved that I haven’t seen it. This irritation is almost completely mollified, however, by the fact that this came by FedEx yesterday:

Inside it was a violin. I immediately played a screechy “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” It was glorious. In my head, I looked like this:

Stage, Page, and ... uh, Screen.

June 18, 2010. I am enjoying being back on stage immensely. It has been way, way too long. (Not counting the play we did in NYC last October. Or the Nichols and May scene Rachel and I did two weeks ago at the Cabernet Cabaret. But still.) This play is a comedy, The Complete History of America (abridged), and it is extremely fast-paced, delirious, and athletic. And it’s really freaking funny. The cast is wonderful, the director a joy, and the rehearsals are, um, sweaty and six-hour. (Gym, I am coming back to you one day. Though it looks like it may be August.) Acting was such a huge part of my life for so long, I’m a little angry at myself for stepping away. Granted, if I had to choose between writing for the stage and treading on it I would certainly write, but thankfully nobody’s making me choose.

Speaking of writing, I am now deep into a revision of my newest full-length play, Wake-Walking. I feel more comfortable with it every day. These are characters I have lived very close to since the beginning of the year, and the process of watching them develop and change – sometimes even switch places – has been edifying. My structural focus this draft has been on clarifying what is happening, how it is happening, and why it is happening, trying my best to clean up and/or eliminate the momentum-killing spots I found so charming in the earlier draft. My essential focus for this draft – in the sense of essence, not necessity – has been to make the show as entertaining and meaningful for the audience as possible. In the upcoming Fly-By-Night Theatre production, I know who is playing “Marianne.” I know who is playing “Tom.” I know their strengths and styles, and I also know I can simply let go of that information and let the characters be. And … the play is so much better now. To write is to revise, and you better love it.

The screening for our team’s 48-Hour film, “The Hickory Switch,” was last night. I was unable to attend because time no longer belongs to me. I hear, however, that it went over really well. So my fingers remain crossed, as they have been for a week now. Here’s a shot someone surreptitiously took of me entering the 48-Hour kickoff:

I look like a bookish gunslinger, or perhaps the recently deceased. So it goes.