On Writing

Final Curtain

This is an old post that I removed from my blog after selling it to an anthology.

Now that the anthology is out of print, it’s time to bring it back. The message is important, I think. Plus it’s fun!

***

About 20 years ago, long before I became a children’s book author, I wrote for the stage. I found a little success soon after graduating from college, getting a number of my short plays produced in New York. The theatres were all small (79- to 99-seaters) and not in the best part of town, but I was ecstatic. Almost every weekend I was somewhere on 10th or 11th Avenue attending a rehearsal or seeing a show. I felt important, or, if not exactly important, busy enough to convince myself that I was on the cusp of importance.

And I was right to think this; for one day I was contacted by an artistic director. I won’t say which company this artistic director worked for, but it was a good one, a prestigious one. The theatre space they performed in was small—but not the same kind of small I was used to. The theatres I wrote for had difficulty filling the house. Sometimes the number of cast and crew exceeded the number of people in the audience.

This theatre, on the other hand, was not acquainted with half-filled houses. This theatre was small because it was exclusive. Its shows sold out. It advertised its plays in actual newspapers. Its stage was beautiful. This was the real deal.

The artistic director invited me to submit a script. The request could not have come at a better time; I was just putting the finishing touches on a 40-minute one-act titled Exacta Men that I knew would be a good fit for that stage. I mailed it off and then began my negotiations with God.

“What sins can I jettison to make this deal happen?” I asked Him. “How about if I stop saying the F-word? Would that work?”

My bargaining worked. Mr. Artistic Director liked what he saw and soon set up a backers’ meeting. A backers’ meeting, for those who don’t know (and at that time I sure didn’t), is an event where actors read a promising script to an audience of Rich People. If the Rich People like what they hear, they hand over money to Make The Play Happen.

The meeting was arranged in a comfortable and well-appointed office space in Midtown Manhattan with windows that proffered views of the Chrysler Building.

I approved. I like Midtown office buildings. I like the Chrysler Building. I like being in rooms filled with Rich People. Oh, yes, all of this suited me just fine.

There were several plays up for consideration that evening and Exacta Men was the first one to be read. Mr. Artistic Director got the Rich People settled into their chairs. He found me sitting in the front row, made me stand up, and introduced me to the crowd as “Michael James Allegra The Author Of The First Play We Are About To See This Evening.”

Let me digress for a moment to say that I really dislike such pre-play introductions. I don’t know how to respond to them; the audience doesn’t either. The audience hasn’t yet heard the script, so it doesn’t know whether to applaud or throw tomatoes. So they usually just stare at you—and that’s what this one did.

Believe me, that stare is excruciating.

“Would you like to discuss your play, Michael?” The Artistic Director asked.

I would’ve replied “F*** no,” but I had recently negotiated the F-word out of my vocabulary. So I shook my head and sat back down.

The reading began. The Rich People took to Exacta Men instantly. They were engaged. They were laughing in all the right places. I was very pleased with myself.

But things were about to take a turn.

Exacta Men is about three 20-somethings who have a guys-night-out tradition of going to the racetrack to bet on the horses. One of the men, however, named Sean, has upset the natural order of things by inviting his new girlfriend, Marla, along. The other two guys, Jim and Carl, are none too pleased with this new development. So, as soon as Sean and Marla are out of earshot, Carl starts grumping.

 

CARL

Why would anybody take a girl to the track on a date?

 

JIM

It’s not much of a date.

 

CARL

Exactly.

(He stews over this a moment. Then:)

First he blows us off for, like, what? Two months?

 

JIM

Couldn’t be two months.

 

CARL

I’ll bet it’s two. I’ll bet it is. And then when he starts to hang out with us again, he brings this girl along.

 

And then Carl says this:

 

And she’s pretty uppity for a chick who isn’t all that good looking.

 

As a writer, I liked this line because it does some heavy lifting in establishing Carl’s character. It illustrated Carl’s views toward Marla in particular and women in general. In short, it showed that Carl was a pig. Everything Carl said up to this point suggested this, but that line drove the point home. It was also supposed to be a laugh line. A line where you could laugh at Carl.

When the line came out, however, the audience gasped. The gasp was so long, so loud, and so violent, it frightened me.

I leaned over to my friend, Bill, who had accompanied me on this particular jaunt, and whispered, “I just lost the whole room.”

“No,” he whispered back, but Bill was not a theatre person. He wasn’t attuned to these things.

From that gasp onward, the audience sat in stony, arm-folded silence.

The reality of my situation could not have been more crystal clear. We were three minutes into my 40-minute play—and everyone in that room had every intention of hating the remaining 37 minutes of it. Carl’s line gave them permission to hate it. And they hated me for writing it. And they knew what I looked like. And they knew where I was siting. I was in the front row. Oh, why did I have to sit in the front row?

Then an idea popped into my head that almost made me vomit: “What if,” I thought, “these Rich People think I agree with Carl’s views?”

My head pounded. My stomach churned. I could feel Rich-Person Hatred burrowing into the back of my sweaty neck. Rich-Person-Back-Of-The-Neck Hatred is sharp, jackhammer-y, and fire poker hot.

At one point I was nearly overcome with the urge to yell, “I’m not like Carl! I want you to laugh at him! Let us mock him together! HAHAHA! What a dweeb he is!”

At another point I came up with the slightly more pragmatic idea of popping out of my chair to announce, “And then entire cast got trampled to death by a racehorse! The END!”

But I did neither of those things. I just sat there and soaked up the blurbling bile.

After several lifetimes, my play ended. I made a beeline for Mr. Artistic Director (who looked like he just witnessed a murder, and, in a way, he had), thanked him for the opportunity, and strode with great purpose to the exit.

“They didn’t seem to like it much,” Bill observed after the elevator doors closed behind us.

I then reneged on my agreement with God and used variations of a certain F-word to commend Bill on his acute powers of observation.

That evening was the most awful experience of my writing life—but I did take something valuable from it. It proved to me once and for all that I was supposed to do this writing thing for a living.

Big Honking Failures, I think, separate the wannabes from the gonnabes.

Up until that reading, I had nothing but success in my writing life. My successes were very modest, but they were still successes. It was easy to keep plugging along. I was getting positive feedback from actors and audiences. I was getting produced and having fun.

That reading on the other hand, shook me to my core. After that night, I could’ve walked away from writing forever and I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed me for doing so.

But I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I needed time to lick my wounds. And for years afterwards, whenever my mind flashed back to that night, my body turned on the flop sweat machine as if it was happening all over again. But I still wrote. Writing became a kind of therapy, I think. It was me saying, “My career is not going to end this way.”

Exacta Men eventually became a two-act play, titled Rebounders. Rebounders fared far better than its predecessor. Three years after my Exacta Men backers’ meeting, Rebounders won a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. It’s been performed in front audiences, too, and those audiences laugh at Carl rather than hate my guts. I prefer this.

Big Honking Failures happen. You can’t always avoid them, but you can keep them from destroying you. And when that Big Honking Failure does arrive, take my advice: Be sure to have a few F-bombs at your disposal. Trust me; you’re gonna need ’em.

On Writing

Why I Will Never be a Teacher

I’m crazy about teachers. They are selfless, fun, ridiculously dedicated, and a wee bit nutty. I should know, for I have been surrounded by teachers — either by choice or design — my entire life. Both of my parents were teachers. My older sister is a teacher. My wife, Ellen, is a teacher. And, for the past 15 years, I have worked in schools.

But I do not teach; I write and edit alumni magazines — and this is for the best. I would not be a good teacher.

To best explain why I feel this way, I need to tell you a little story:

***

Back in 1995, one of my short plays was accepted into a one-act festival. The cast and the director were selected without my input, which is pretty common. I also found everyone to be pleasant and fun, which is far less common. I especially liked the director, a weather-scarred longshoreman named Joe who was built like a vandalized brick house. He was tapping into his artistic side, apparently – and was very successful in doing so. He came up with many excellent ideas that I embraced without reservation.

The cast was also a pretty good fit. The actress playing the lead – let’s call her Marla – was playing slightly against type, but Joe, who had nothing to do with the casting either, was addressing the problem. He figured Marla would work out just fine. He turned out to be right; Marla was a quick study, and the rehearsal process proceeded apace.

But, as you probably guessed by now, something happened.

Something always happens.

On the week before opening night, the play was on its feet and the actors were off book. Now Joe was just working on little things — sharpening the timing and making sure that the actors not only remembered their lines but also understood why they were saying the lines as written.

It was at this very, very late point in the process that Marla started to forget large swaths of the play.

This surprised everyone — for Marla had her dialogue down pat for weeks — but no one was more surprised than Joe, who I discovered, to my delight, was even more control freaky and detail oriented than I was.

Joe decided that an interrogation was in order. He called for a break and pulled Marla aside while the rest of us sat around pretending to not eavesdrop. After a few minutes, the two of them broke away and, with a sigh, Joe called me over.

“She quit smoking,” Joe said.

“Does that affect memory?” I asked.

“It does if your brain keeps yelling, ‘I want a cigarette! I want a cigarette! I want a cigarette!’”

Despite everyone’s best efforts, Marla could never find any spare brain real estate for her lines. It was like watching a car wreck in slow motion. Short of pinning Marla down and blowing smoke into her mouth (and I’m pretty sure Joe considered this option), there was nothing any of us could do.

Our fears were realized on opening night as a jittery Marla regaled the audience with an improvisational nic-fit fueled monologue. It was quite remarkable, really; what she uttered was so dissimilar from any of the lines I had written, that the rest of the cast was too fascinated to interrupt. Their silence only seemed to prompt Marla to spew more words in the hope that something coming out of her mouth might eventually sound familiar.

It took a while — a very long while — but Marla did find her way back to the script. The rest of the cast lunged at this opportunity and wrestled the play away from their co-star.

At that moment, I heard Joe, who was sitting two rows behind me, groan, “Oh, thank God!”

Joe’s outburst prompted me to giggle like an idiot until the play was over.

***

I recently told that story to a teenage actress I was interviewing for The Lawrenceville School’s alumni magazine. After she stopped laughing, I asked her, “Do you smoke?”

“No,” she replied.

“Great!” I said. “Don’t start.”

Then I added, “But if you do start, don’t stop.”

Something tells me a teacher would never urge a smoker to keep on smoking.

But I do not teach; I write. And, as a writer, I stand by this advice, now and forever.

On Writing

My Pest Friend

I don’t have a Best Friend. I don’t yearn for one, either.

I do, however, have a Pest Friend – and he is a treasure.

Pest Friends, if you need a definition, are friends who harass you into doing things you don’t want to do but know you should do. In their irksome, persistent way, they (metaphorically) make you eat your vegetables.

I’ve known My Pest Friend — also named Mike — since we were undergrads at Carnegie Mellon University. He and I first met in a playwriting class and the roots of our friendship began to grow once we admitted that we found each other’s scripts funny. This is about as good a way to begin a friendship as any. In fact, it is possibly the best way.

At that time I was taking playwriting very seriously. I wasn’t a good playwright, not even close, but I was serious. In fact, I shunned a number of social opportunities to read every last play that could be found in Hunt Library’s extensive collection. And when I wasn’t reading, I was writing. Not only did that allow me to hone my skills, but it also allowed me to indulge my Sullen Loner instincts.

Mike was different. He did not take playwriting seriously. He also was more of social animal than I. But he, too, exploited any free moment he had to pursue his passion – musical composition – with a rigor that equaled and perhaps even surpassed my own.

After graduation we continued our pursuits. Mike moved to L.A. and became a composer of some renown, and I went back to New Jersey where, by some kind of miracle, I learned how to make a decent living as a writer and editor.

Both of our passions evolved over time. I shifted from playwriting to children’s books. Mike, in addition to scoring movies and video games, began to drift into musical theatre. His drift in that direction, however, was slow, almost glacial. By the time he was fully committed to the idea of writing for the stage, I was no longer there to welcome him. Theatre didn’t interest me much anymore.

My actions, I’m afraid, vexed Mike. From that day to this, Mike became my Pest Friend.

Mike used to live in New York so, once or twice a year, he heads to the East Coast to visit his family. Once he arrives, we set up a time to have lunch.

I always look forward to these lunches, but, I must admit, I dread them a little, too. For one thing, Mike does not have children – or, to put it another way, his mind is not addled. His intellect and wit are every bit as sharp as they were in college. I used to be able to keep up with Mike’s lightening quick conversational skills, but those days are long gone. My mind is now as sharp as a billiard ball, and the closest I can come to “witty” these days is when I trot out my impressive collection of poop-related humor.

I also kinda dread these lunches because I know where our conversation will eventually lead. Mike will pester me into writing a short play.

First he softens me up. Mike always was one of my biggest fans, and he goes on for a bit about how I’m turning my back on my natural talents. This flatters me because I know he is sincere.

Mike then observes that a 10-minute play does not require a major time commitment. Which is true.

Mike then points out that online theatre databases make it easy for me to find acting companies that would produce my stuff. Which is also true.

Mike then reminds me that there is no financial outlay. This, too, is true. Unlike the old days, I can submit my scripts via email (so no snail mail costs). I also no longer need to pay dues to The Dramatist Guild.

“And you make money, don’t you?” he asks me.

Indeed I do. Usually, anyway.

Oh, I try to negotiate with Mike as he works me over. “Tell ya what,” I say. “I’ll write a new play as soon as you marry that girlfriend of yours. And, to sweeten the deal, I’ll write a full-length script as soon as you two have a baby.”

But these counteroffers roll off Mike like water off a duck’s butt. He knows they are just the ravings of a man who has already lost.

He also knows that I would never lose if I didn’t, somewhere deep down, want to lose.

“Writing for kids is great and you’re good at it,” he says to me telepathically. “But you, Allegra, need to write for grown-ups once in a while. Poop humor is fine, but your sense of humor used to make people bleed. You miss it.”

And, ugh, that’s true, too. Damn that Mike and his razor sharp brain!

Long story short, I’m writing another short play and Mike is the pestiest pest I know.

And, well, I don’t think I’d want it any other way. Thanks, buddy.