Friday, November 22, 2013

Playwriting Pointers: Live! From the Last Night of My Life by M.R. Hunter

As a theater critic, I see a lot of promising productions crash and burn primarily from the hubris of the script. It all starts and ends with the play. There are variables in this truism but I've rarely seen a lousy script shine due to an outstanding cast and/or director. Hopefully, it can be made better than what is writ on the page but even so, one ends up feeling sorry for talents wasted. Conversely, a strong script can suffer from a weak cast and/or director but as in the case of Pacific Resident Theatre's "A View From the Bridge" the late Arthur Miller held up, unfortunately the production did not. Miller's words, his play still resonates and I believe it is this reason alone why PRT enjoyed an extended run. This is rare but not unheard of, but worse than either of the aforementioned polarities is a weak script + weak acting = weak results. Period. End of.

More astonishing is the same reasons for why a play fails each and every time I see it happen. Rarely is it truly a matter of taste but rather a neglect of common sense. Is it arrogance? Are playwrights intent on "breaking the rules" to prove they are so talented they don't need to abide with good rules of thumb? If this is the case, I'd like to break some thumbs. Instead, I'm going to offer Ten Playwriting Pointers using Wayne Rawley's play as an example of what NOT to do.

1. Length should be between 90-120 minutes. For every ten minutes over this, your play runs the risk of being weaker not stronger. Few playwrights can actually maintain much beyond a two-hour show and even those that can probably shouldn't. Rawley's play ran close to three hours. There was plenty of filler to kill too. Don't hold your audience hostage. It's freakin' rude! (Unlike a play, you can stop reading this at your leisure. Your call. But once you've either paid money or accepted tickets, you're a captive audience.)

2. Develop characters. Once the playwright goes to the trouble of naming a character, they should do them the courtesy of having a reason for being. Lately, I've been seeing too many non-existent characters show up and then all but disappear for the entirety of the show. Rawley has a deluge of minor characters come and go in his convenience store setup. Fine. But he opens his play with a crazed young woman who seems fairly important as she has a name (one she keeps correcting the protagonist Doug Sample on calling her—why?) Then she disappears. She is never heard from again in the course of 180 minutes. Her character didn't add anything but it sure did subtract. Start as you mean to go on. Open with what matters and characters that are essential to your show.

3. No red herrings. This is really unforgivable. Maybe it has something to do with M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense as the ultimate fake out. Okay. Let me disabuse all future fakers by saying this: IT BETTER BE WORTH IT! In the case of The Sixth Sense it was because Shyamalan didn't outright betray his audience. He played with perception. It's a novel approach but it demands the utmost respect to your viewers in its construction. Playwrights and writers in general must earn the audience's trust on the outset. Betray that trust repeatedly and no one cares what happens because how can anyone believe the author if he is intent on throwing the game with dream sequences, flashbacks and other unsavory literary devices. Be clear. Know where you're going as the writer and take the time to lead your audience straight and true.

4. Reality bites. No, really. If I want to watch inane chatter, I can stay at home and watch Honey Boo Boo or whatever god awful reality show on the tele. I go to the theater to be moved, to experience catharsis or even be entertained. Playwrights are developing a strange ear for dialogue lately and I blame the crap on TV for it. Maybe I'm wrong but in trying so hard to sound natural, characters blather on about nothing whatsoever. Remember, if the playwright goes by the first and cardinal rule above regarding time length, there isn't much room for yip yap that doesn't sync up, propel the action or reveal more about the character that is essential. I don't really care if a character had a pet dog named Heidi in their youth as in Deanna Jent's play "Falling." Not unless it MEANS something significant (which it didn't). That's a wasted fact I cannot help but wonder what it means when it winds up meaning NOTHING. In trying so hard to be natural, writers are providing unnecessary details. This actually can become a red herring (see above) but it tells me the playwright doesn't know what he/she is really trying to say. Let's just agree you, Mr./Ms. Playwright have 100 minutes. I'm being slightly generous. Make it count.

5. Just because you're right doesn't mean you should write it. We all have personal interests in whatever it is. Some people enjoy knitting. Others like sports. There are some who have worked oddball jobs between creative gigs. Maybe you have a pet rock named Hercules. I DON'T CARE! Not as an audience member. Me and you over drinks? Sure, tell me all about your coin collection or your Disney princess figurines. In a play? Leave that shit at home unless your play posits on whatever trivial (and I really do mean trivial folks) knowledge you've gleaned in the years you've walked the earth. This isn't Jeopardy! I can actually tell a lot about a playwright and even their background on the amount of useless information they seem to want to provide. It's a compulsion. Stop it! I don't care as an audience member let alone a critic that you know what an "Arrow Stack" is because obviously you worked at a grocery store. Rawley suffers from this conceit and it is a conceit. Has my life been changed irrevocably because now I know what an "Arrow Stack" is? Nope. It annoys me that I even have that stupid, useless insufferable fact floating around my noggin. Imbue your characters but writers love utilizing their research or their innate knowledge to the poor audience's detriment. This information is only handy if it means something otherwise it is filler. Have a hobby. Have a life. Don't assume every personally derived detail should be delivered to someone WHO DOESN'T CARE!!!

6. Chekhov's gun. This dovetails with the aforementioned three theses. Permit me to quote from the master: "Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." Can't say it better myself. To be fair to Rawley, the gun goes off in his play but in possibly the most pathetic excuse and lack of payoff for its firing after he had already betrayed my trust as an audience member with red herrings, thrown in extemporaneous characters, provided useless information and what all. The gun is metaphoric folks. Introduce a character, a detail, a fact and it MUST RESOLVE ITSELF! Eliminate any and everything that doesn't tidy itself up. Before you start in with "I hate neat endings," um…Chekhov was actually pretty good about avoiding cliché conclusions. One has nothing to do with the other. Facts provided are like clues the audience is gathering as they sit patiently through your piece. I resent walking away from a play with a bunch of dead end characters, plot points and metaphoric guns that don't go off. Whatever you set up, you address it and conclude it somehow someway.

7. Art Schmart. Break the rules after you have mastered them. Too many artists are suffering from an identity crisis. Post-post-modernism? I say we are in the age of the Selfie Modernism. Incorporating slow-mo music video techniques on stage or delineating so far and away from basic structure is a hallmark of an ass, not an artiste. Do me a favor. Write a play that is straightforward, doesn't try to reinvent the wheel when it already turns just fine and see how it is received on the basics of storytelling, character development, dialogue, rising action, denouement and resolution. A detailed set will be the finishing touch but is not wholly necessary if you know how to maintain a palpable plot. Art for art's sake is bullshit. My time is valuable, my patience too and my tolerance for allowing "artists" to flout convention is bordering at an all time low. Master the basics first and foremost. Originality shouldn't be at my expense.

8. When in doubt…play it from the crotch. Yup. Best advice I ever got from my high school drama teacher (a woman and a lush). This truism booked me more gigs than anything Uta Hagen ever wrote. Sex sells. Just does. I'm not 100% on board with the contradictory media messages either but I gotta say it all boils down to what's between our legs. Sad but true. So allow me to stretch this analogy further. Get me hot. Get me wet. Have me leave a stain on the seat when the show is over. Too graphic? Tough titty. I want my nipples so hard I can cut ice. "Good People" got me hot. Okay, I wasn't going to nose dive into Jane Kaczmarek but the play was so good and delicious I wanted to swim in David Lindsey-Abaire's…um…brilliance. Sex doesn't have to be nasty. It is about connecting. Same with the theater. We connect to what is onstage and if you want your audience on the fringes of an orgasm then please follow the same rules that apply to good sex that are applicable to good plays. I'm a woman so the bar is set even higher in regards to sex and getting off. Fucking make love to me you playwright animals! Give me foreplay. Explore humanity. Get hard with truth. Get naked and vulnerable. Stand up. Be a man and plunge inside and be a woman and all accepting. Cleave. Hold. Thrust. Parry. Delight. Surprise. Tickle. Discover. Rise. Fall. Build. Release. This is a primal urge and a story we as adults are all too familiar and desire. It is what propagates the species. Not a bad guide for a storyteller. Write naked and stop watching online porn. Yes, writing requires us to cut a vein but I want the whole shebang: blood, sweat, piss, shit and cum. I see a lot of piss and shit but blood? Cum? Stop being such a douche or a frigid bitch. I go to the theater to get off (mentally) but I want to feel as though my two hours spent in a seat watching your show is better than a last minute shag with some bloke that thinks Tantra is the name of a new band. Fuck me with your words, your ability to make me ponder, to care, to connect to become a part of something. If you're a lousy or timid playwright, I have to wonder what you're bringing in bed.

9. Pay off. See # 8 then come back. Nothing is worse than feeling as though you should be paid for your time. Do you enjoy feeling used? I don't. Plays that don't provide a suitable pay off piss me off. Wayne Rawley spends close to three hours of my time on this earth which is measurable, introduces characters without development, fakes me out with red herrings, betrays my trust, has inane dialogue, reveals more about himself than I'd rather not know and suffers from erectile dysfunction of storytelling and then…and then…? I'm left with a bullshit ending complete with an aged John Travolta whisking away our hero who doesn't deserve it. Go back to Anton Chekhov and follow through. Anything else is a waste of time and rentable space.

10. Tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help you Dionysus. Okay. I know I'm going to get spanked for this but hang with me before you start lighting torches. Truth stands unvarnished and intrinsically real. It just does. Bullshit conflates. Fiction rides the rails of truth and occasionally leans from the weight of its own distortion. I write fiction. I understand the desire to make more of something than is but sometimes a banana is a banana. Truth can be a matter of perspective but this is usually an excuse for bad behavior, bad writing and bad justifications. Those who seek out truth know it through and through. It doesn't require excuses. It simply stands on its own merit. The adage "ring of truth" comes to mind. It's circular. It begins and ends from a sense of unity. Two people may tell the same story differently. One may rely on facts—cause and effect (chronology) or what occurred in space and time. The other may offer motive, agenda, personal experiences and the like to the equation. I tend to lean on the side of facts. Just do. Good fiction relies on providing the facts in an understandable sequence, cause and effect, relatable consequences and includes the emotional background and perhaps zeitgeist of the time to make the story come alive. Hypocrisy is not something I'm a big fan of. Saying one thing and having your characters do another doesn't work both onstage and off. Be what you set out to be and if that is being a playwright then please respect your audience before one word hits the page. Have authority but don't abuse it and don't betray my confidence. Know what it is you want to say but say it as efficiently and clearly as possible. No one can be Brecht or Miller. They have already been there and done that but then there is YOU, Mr/Ms. Playwright. What are you adding to the canon? Measure yourself against the greats and know you will probably fall short but start with TRUTH. Not the truth you tell yourself in order to sleep at night but the ugly, gross, reprehensible truth that keeps you awake (and should). Know yourself first (warts and all) before you even attempt to convey the human experience onstage. It requires self-awareness the kinds of which a therapist cannot hope to allay, and it requires eliminating easy outs, justifications, and minimizing, distorting facts to be more in keeping with your wants and so forth. The truth is usually hideous. It is not easily won. It is earned. Earned.

Look at that word playwrights and take a moment to pause and reflect. You did not spring up from the ground yesterday a valid voice in the din. Validity must be experienced and felt and shared with us so we may too rally and empathize otherwise what is the point? I am on your side but only up to a point and then we must part company when you tax my liberties by demanding too much.

Wayne Rawley's play failed. I didn't make it fail. It did by his conceit. He broke a pact several times over. What do you want from me? I tell the truth, painful, harsh, sexual explicit but dammit all to hell you know where I stand. No pussy footing or ego fluffing over here. If I thought Mr. Rawley was beyond redemption, I wouldn't bother with writing this. I have better things to do with my time on earth limited by my smoking and clogged arteries. I actually believe Rawley has ironically, raw talent but I am angry. He could be so much better but is worse by virtue of the fact that "friends" put this show onstage and didn't help him from himself. Where was the director JJ Mayes whose program credits could use with pruning too…luscious girlfriend? And you want me to take you serious? C'mon now. I get it. Pete Caslavka is Wayne Rawley's buddy and wanted to star in a vehicle making play. FU! Sacred Fools, Pete, JJ and his "awesome and luscious girlfriend" embarrassed themselves and to my expense of time and we wonder why LA theater "gets no respect?" Someone should have held Rawley to the standards I'm holding him to on the outset. 

You want me to give you a good review. Earn it. Starts with the playwright and begins and ends with the script. The cast, the director, the set designer, the lighting designer can help but it is up to the playwright ultimately to be judicious, thoughtful, self-aware, truth seekers (not hypocrites), trustworthy guides into a journey that should only last at maximum two hours and be done with it. Anything more and you better bring the Iceman. Anything less and you deserve condemnation and my wrath. And don't you dare accuse me of something as shallow, pig-headed and self-serving as "getting on the wrong bus." You got me on the wrong bus by virtue of your craptastic script buffered by your buddies. If you go the easy and sad, sorry excuse route of throwing me under "the wrong bus" I can tell you now its game over. Don't do as Colin Mitchell is doing currently by using his website and his editor's status to attack the critics. Are you kidding me? He threw a loyal supporter under the bus because she dared to have a slight criticism about his show needing more work. He lapped up the supporters of those he's admonished in the past like Cynthia Citron and Dale Reynolds only to turn on Jenny Lower of the LA Weekly because she didn't fall in line. This from a man who extols truth and accepting criticism. Really?

Playwrights? It's difficult. I know. I'm on your side. But please do the courtesy of following some basic rules which will serve you well. I've seen a lot of plays that weren't my personal favorites but they at least honored the guidelines I've set above. The minute you open your play, you are open to criticism. Take it. Ignore it. Don't make yourself an absolute ass by admonishing it publicly. There's the easy and ready temptation to do just that but I am warning you, we are not your friends, your colleagues, your ego-fluffers or your loved ones. Maybe we're wrong and all your friends and family members are right on the money. Come back from delusional land and take what is proffered. You cannot have it both ways. Don't bitch and moan how critics give passes to unworthy shows but come down hard on yours. Pick your side of the fence but don't you dare let me catch you riding both sides when it serves you best. I will come down on you like a sumo wrestler. If critics have merit, then accept their criticism. If they don't, then Dionysius help you. "Live! From the Last Night of my Life" has so much potential to be par excellence. Kill your darlings. Follow good ole Chekhov. Listen to what the serious critics have to say if you don't wanna listen to little 'ole me. Fine. Do better and I will give you a better review. Are we understood? Is that fair?

For everyone else, a good review is earned by a solid script. Anything else is bullshit.

MR Hunter is a professional writer, screenplay consultant and has had plays produced under pseudonym. 

"Live! From the Last Night of My Life"
Runs through Dec 21
Fri & Sat @ 8pm
Thursday Dec 5 & 12 @ 8pm
660 N. Heliotrope Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90004
PH: 310-281-8337



  1. I saw this play in Seattle and thought it was brilliant. You, on the other hand, could really use an editor.

  2. Holy shit, you start this piece with an admonishment to keep it short and then write over three thousand (incredibly repetitive, banal, and self-aggrandizing) words of advice? Serious fucking failure of applied critical thinking. Why on earth would anybody trust your judgment, even if they could make it all the way through this bizarrely long-winded harangue?

  3. You might want to honestly rethink the "No ... ego fluffing over here" claim. The total absence of self-awareness in both the length and tenor of this advice column, the presumptuousness, and the apparently profound disregard for your audience, made reading this as unpleasant as you say the play was. Full disclosure: I think a lot of Mr. Rawley both as a person and a writer, so my comment here is made fully cognizant of the prejudice and ego I bring to it. The unrestrained ranting and posturing in this review seem to be all about ego-fluffing. It made it very hard to absorb any reasonable criticisms you may have made. I admit that my failure to connect to your review rests partially within me, with who I am and the way I like things. You might consider including this admission into your own writing. It would go a long way in satisfying your #10: tell the truth.

  4. I saw the show too the article goes to great lengths and i got more out of reading it then what i paid for tickets. Bravo! what was aid needed saying. good for u!!

  5. I'm sorry. Who are you, again?

  6. Excellent review of a disappointing play.

  7. It's all subjective. ALL OF IT. Everyone should get over themselves. You have to try stuff. You have to fail. What is life about. One man's failure is another man's success.

  8. Discovered this review/column at 3:00 a.m. on a morning months after it's original posting. Could NOT stop reading until I had finished it! As a long time critic, MR put into words (many, I will admit!) what I have been thinking (and wished I had thought to put down myself!) for years, especially when it comes to this particular production company. On a purely selfish note, I would LOVE to enjoy the company of MR for a round of drinks (or two or three.....) while picking her brain. You had me with Items 1-7 and 9-10, but ooo la la, number 8 was inspiring! Keep up the great work!!!

  9. I'm sure that this review applied to the production in L.A. Luckily, I was fortunate to see this show in Seattle. It was beyond incredible. It was constantly sold out and for good reason . It was easily one of the most amazing plays I've ever seen. I'm sorry that you endured a lesser production put on by a lesser company. There are rumors that it will be remounted here in Seattle in early 2015. If you can, do yourself the favor and see it there. It really was outstanding in every sense of the word.