Saturday, June 10, 2017

Missing scene

This is basically a continuation of this post on how the writing is coming along.  The short answer is fairly slowly, since I continue to insist on working on multiple projects at the same time.

I have decided to move forward with the evening of shorts for Nov., though I am still a bit in limbo since most of the actors want to take most of June to decide.  (I only have one actor who has completely committed and another who is close to signing on.  In the end I'll need 6!)  And I can't do much else, including setting up the Artists Collective Agreement until I know who is actually in the case.  Nonetheless, tonight I am going to reread The Quest? and decide if I want to proceed with it.  It basically only existed as a response/parody to Kushner's Homebody/Kabul, and I have yet to encounter anyone who even is aware of this play!  But if I am going to put it in the line-up, then I should go see The Lavender Railroad tomorrow (at 8 pm on Sunday!) since I would recruit the author to read the long monologue that kicks off the piece.  (I actually was planning on going to see someone's play last Tuesday (also to support them and increase the odds of them participating), but then a bunch of things boiled over on the homefront, and I just couldn't swing it.)  At any rate, I think I'll put down the deposit today, so no one else can steal my dates out from under me.

I did get quite a bit done on the first act of Corporate Codes of Conduct and it feels like it is ready to be workshopped, but the second act requires substantial rethinking, not just tinkering around the edges.  I haven't been in the right frame of mind for that.

Since I really wanted to bring something to the Toronto Cold Reads Writers' Group tonight (they probably have one slot available), I went with slightly lower hanging fruit, and turned to a script I had completed while in Vancouver.  It is called Dharma Donuts.

(I can't recall if I was at all aware of Tracy Letts's Superior Donuts at that point, but I think I had my idea first (I mean before I heard of Superior Donuts).  I think the creative process was something like this: I returned from England and wanted to write a bit of a tribute to a very capable co-worker, but I didn't want to write another play about technical professionals.  I set it in a donut shop, since one of my high school students (in a previous life as a teacher) basically was in charge of her family's bakery for long stretches of time.  I also was able to go into the local Dunkin Donuts and soak in the atmosphere, even though I was not setting the play in a chain donut shop.  I knew I wanted the play set around Newark, NJ, and did do a fact finding trip to northern NJ at some point during the writing of the first act.*  I managed to get the first act finished in Chicago but kind of stalled after that.  After I moved to Vancouver, I actually enrolled in a play-writing class at Langara with the intention of using the class to force myself to really get this play completed.  And I did make steady progress on the play, getting a first draft finished.  I found myself drawing on the experiences of someone I knew from grad school.  She had basically fallen in love with someone through Skype, somewhat interestingly she had dated outside her ethnic group but got a bit more conservative with age and married within her ethnic group and religion.  At any rate, this is a completely different plot than Superior Donuts, but I still haven't gotten around to seeing that play...)

What I think is interesting about the play is that it focuses mostly on the interactions of women at work, though romantic relationships with men are a recurring theme.  The main character, Parvati, does sort of let herself go further than she had imagined, dating a white man for a while, but finds herself falling for her second cousin.  I know some people find this too conservative an ending, and it is a challenge promoting this as a liberating choice, though I think I showed that the white guy would not have been a particularly good fit for her in the end.  I kind of wanted a play where there are white actors but they end up being kind of marginal.  In fact, there is a customer who sort of serves as a Greek chorus (I probably need to find just a bit more for him to do**), but the focus really is on the interactions of the various Indian women and one Puerto Rican woman.

From a previous partial read through, I heard there isn't enough conflict when Parvati gives the guy the brush-off, though he does come back and amplify the conflict later on, including a scuffle with the other regular customer.  To prepare for the upcoming reading, I reformatted the play and cut almost a page at the end which seemed to be too extraneous.

I just recalled (a minute ago) some additional jokey language I had wanted to put in the play.  The white would-be boyfriend is always a bit obnoxious but always manages to bring it back in a bit in the end.  (To some extent I was being manipulative in not having the audience be sure if they wanted this to be a meet-cute play or not.)  He says something about how he has become a master a figuring out Asian ethnic identity, and he dares Parvati to guess what he is.  She says He is Portuguese.  He says that is not all, and Isabel says he is half-Portugeuse, half-Jerkish.  I think this can probably get squeezed in.

Anyway, I think the biggest dilemma is that there just isn't enough lead up to Parvati falling for her second cousin.  It all happens off-stage.  So I wrote out another scene where she Skypes him.  I think ideally this would be at the shop after closing, but then the cousin would have to be video projected or something, so not ideal.  But I cannot find the text.

Let me repeat that, I have no hard copy or electronic trace of this scene, though I know I wrote it out.  I searched all the hard drives and it doesn't exist anywhere, which may mean it was on the laptop that died and backed up on the external hard drive that died!  Pretty upsetting.  There is a chance I wrote most of it out by hand, and I do plan to go through the notebooks again.  I decided maybe I should get a second opinion (tonight or in the near future) and then I'll decide what to do about the second act and whether to rewrite that scene from scratch.

Nonetheless, in general, this is in slightly better shape than I remembered (though possibly shorter than I had remembered), so maybe I should just spend another week or two trying to clean it up, and then I can focus on Corporate Codes of Conduct and after that Straying South.

* Actually, the trip was made primarily to watch John Logan's Red plus a day spent in NYC museums, but I did spend the next day wandering around Newark and then met up with a friend to drive through Jersey City, where the play is actually set.  The photos do a good job of establishing the setting, so I may as well post them here.

Newark City Hall (with golden dome)

Newark Public Library

Newark Museum

George Segal, Man in Toll Booth, 1978 @ Newark Museum

Rutgers-Newark campus

The next batch are from Jersey City proper.

The last one is Tops Diner in Harrison.  It would be cool to squeeze it into the play somehow, but may just be too topical.

** At one point there was a second backroom worker who got cut and consolidated into one and two more regular customers, but this just diluted the focus.  Even after the cast cuts, there are still 8 actors, which is way too many (based on modern theatre economics).  I now remember that I might have sent it off to this theatre for one of their competitions, but they didn't want more than 5 actors.

Edit to add: It was an interesting session.  We read half of a feature film script.  It was dramatic though in my mind totally implausible.  I think it reminded me the most of Ricochet, where you have this antagonist who has sort of godlike powers (or the Anonymous character who is in V for Vendetta).  Also I thought a lot of the internal logic needed to be tightened up.  But there was certainly promise.

They had time to read the first act of my Dharma Donuts script.  It's clear that not only does there need to be a lot of tightening, but the conflict does need to be elevated.  The lead critic said you need to imagine that everyone needs something and they expect to get it, and then the conflict arises when they don't.  One of the more interesting things was that as I was trying to explain the conflicts, I said that the main character wanted out of the donut shop.  This sort of just slipped out as I was discussing the plot, but it feels right.  Of course, the entire point of the second and third act is that she performs this amazing balancing act to neutralize conflict and to accept an arranged marriage and that she can hardly stand to be away from the donut shop.  But that is such a boring story.  I've written it out and memorialized my friends as it were, but now I need to do something interesting with the story and that means she wants to be gone.  I'd say that probably means everything in Act II and Act III has to be discarded and Act I will get cut and reshaped significantly.  They basically insisted I bring it back in this revised format, and I will try, though it will take a long time to get my head around this -- and then find the time to do it.

What I guess I knew was coming, though it didn't come until quite late in the evening, was the question of cultural appropriation and why should I write this play.  I was surprised at what a hard line this one guy took, saying that it could never be read at Toronto Cold Reads as long as all the main characters were Indian (as if that really is my main motivator).  I would have thought that more people would have stuck up for the right to explore other cultures without boundaries, but perhaps that is the Canadian "niceness" of shying away from controversies (and basically only seeing one side of the appropriation debate).  In many ways that significantly complicates my cutting, since I don't want the white male to be the protagonist.  I already wrote that play (though based on tonight's comments, I still need a way to elevate or change up the conflict in each of the scenes of Corporate Codes, since it does play too much as variations on a theme).  I think I will deal with the cutting first and then the ethnicity issue later.  (Thank goodness I didn't share Lester's Last Testament with them!)

It was definitely a fairly humbling experience, but it was true that even as I heard the play read out, it seemed to meander and the last scene really dragged.  So a bit of tough love was definitely in order.

Edit (6/11): After sleeping on it some more, I had a few more thoughts.  #1) I workshopped the first act with a writer of Indian descent.  She didn't have any problem with the appropriation issue, but I think she ended up quite disappointed that a strong character took such a traditional path.  She (and indeed most artists) would prefer someone who does want "out" of a traditional setting.  Which leads me to point #2) if I want to leave the story more or less alone then I need to write it as a short novel, which can have more interior decisions and wanting to remain calm but in control is a legitimate aspiration (whereas it doesn't work on stage).  Finally, #3) assuming I accept the assignment to majorly rewrite and restructure the play, then I don't need the missing scene.  I'll either have completely written out Pramod or his motives will be completely different.  So in that sense, last night was particularly useful.

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