Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want

PC: Aron Van de Pol

I saw a couple new plays over the last few weeks, and it got me thinking about structure.

There seems to be a trend with young playwrights that rejects the “restraints” of traditional structure. With nothing worthwhile to replace it, however, rejecting traditional structure feels like a rejection of any structure at all. The resulting play feels like a meditation on a theme at best and a plot with no climax or catharsis at worst.

There are two general kinds of structure that I’d like to distinguish: Flow and Story. Continue reading Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want

Big Choices to Make

“Have you considered suicide?”

My acting teacher asks me this question with unsettling regularity. No, she’s not suggesting I give up. (At least I don’t think she is…) She is simply pushing me to make big choices.

Because I never went to a formal acting program, I would sometimes get confused about the idea of “making a choice.” What does it mean to make a choice? A choice about what? Furthermore – what does it mean to make a “bigger” choice? Continue reading Big Choices to Make

The Birthplace of Innovation, Creativity and Change

For the longest time there was a wall I couldn’t surpass as an actor. I didn’t know how to be fully emotionally vulnerable in my work. Every now and then I would hit on something and it would surprise me. I couldn’t get back there, and I didn’t understand why.

A few months ago, I saw a play that featured a word that I thought I understood, but realized I didn’t truly understand. The word was shame. I thought I had a sense of what shame was, and I had a feeling about its pervasiveness in our society, but it was a vague sense and a vague feeling.

As it turned out, Vulnerability and Shame were inextricably linked. Continue reading The Birthplace of Innovation, Creativity and Change

The Anatomy of a Best Song

What is it that makes the “Best Original Song” for a motion picture?

This year is a particularly fascinating year for Best Song.

There appears to be a clear front runner in La La Land, nominated for the maximum two songs – “Audition” and “City of Stars.” Being a “movie musical” (yes, in quotations) the songs function in a very clear and direct way, allowing their effectiveness and RTDW to be more objectively quantifiable. With two nominations, however, it runs the risk of cancelling itself out.

Furthermore, historically the academy has chosen songs by famous pop artists, which gives an edge to Justin Timberlake and Sting. Although THIS year, with the massive pop appeal of Hamilton, the prize could go to Lin-Manuel Miranda. So it’s really up in the air.

There is always going to be a large amount of subjectivity when evaluating a creative endeavor. Ideally, the law of averages works it out so that the opinions of an educated sample reflect the opinions of the educated majority.

Remember, though, that while the nominations are made by Academy members who are songwriters and composers, the winners are decided by the membership as a whole. (So beware Lin Manuel Miranda – the deciding vote may come down to a tone-deaf cinematographer.)

I’ve always thought that songs in motion pictures are a difficult thing to judge, and precisely because of that they are almost always a difficult award to predict. Add to that the bizarre and ever-changing rules which govern the nominations of songs, which results in years where only two songs (???) are even nominated.

I thought it might be interesting to go through the nominations and see how to evaluate them on the principles of the Academy. According to the voting rules of the Academy: Continue reading The Anatomy of a Best Song

How Musical Theatre Can Change the World

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the greater purpose of musical theatre. It’s been said that if you want to make a billion dollars you simply help a billion people. Now, who doesn’t want to make a billion dollars (especially if you’re an artist)? But the question then becomes how do you help a billion people?

In order to take big actions you have to set big goals. So I’ve begun considering how an artist – say a musical theater writer – can truly change the world. Here are some ways I’ve come up with. Continue reading How Musical Theatre Can Change the World

The Magical Power of Really Bad Ideas

The only way to have a lot of really great ideas is to have a lot MORE really bad ideas.

The good news is having bad ideas is really easy! I have bad ideas all the time. They flicker into my head all day long, usually disguised as a good idea. Then after I spend a little more time with them, their true identity as bad ideas reveals itself, and they gets discarded.

But every now and then a really great idea flickers into my head disguised as a really bad idea. You just have to get through the bad ones first.

The trick is to cultivate these bad ideas. To actively farm them, go out and get them. You won’t believe how freeing this will be. Continue reading The Magical Power of Really Bad Ideas

What Will Your Oscar’s Speech Be?

As I watch the various entertainment awards ceremonies that populate the first few months of the year, I am always struck by the depth of intention artists find in work that can sometimes feel like pure entertainment. I’m reminded that in everything we as actors do, we must find the greater purpose. Make it about something bigger than ourselves because that’s where the possibility for greatness lies.

Last night, during the SAG awards, many of the actors rose to the occasion of our times, understanding that the work they do does not exist in a vaccuum, but is rather reflected through the prism of the culture, giving their award an importance beyond simple recognition of talent or hard work. Continue reading What Will Your Oscar’s Speech Be?

Eligibility and the Kleban Prize

There’s a certain pessimism that allows you to be blasé about not receiving the grants/awards you apply for as a writer. It’s the pessimism that says,  “Chances are I won’t win this, but I’ll try anyway.” Then when you aren’t selected you can say to yourself, “See, I thought so.” Or if you are, you can be pleasantly and genuinely surprised/honored.

I wrote my musical Joe Schmoe Saves the World in reaction to not winning the Richard Rodgers award one year, dissatisfied with the artists who had.  I thought of the Stravinsky quote: “The one true comment on a piece of music is another piece of music.” Resentment/bitterness/sour grapes can be transformed into something truly worthwhile.

Often I find I can learn a lot from people who receive grants/awards for which I also applied. It introduces me to a new type of work or a new way of thinking. It gives me inspiration to see other peers finally receive due attention. It forces me to pay attention to what people are responding to and strive for greatness in my own work.

On the other hand – sometimes it’s just down right frustrating. Continue reading Eligibility and the Kleban Prize

How to Fight Like an Artist in the Time of Trump

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what precisely I, as an artist, can do to counter the sociopolitical climate of this moment. I am unwilling to fall victim to despair, while at the same time I recognize a sense of helplessness – particularly when it comes to sharing the truth. Our leaders have become misleaders. Our social media have become less social, more media. And the press is now suspect both to those who wish to subvert the facts and those who are seeking them out.

Therefore, I feel that it falls to artists to follow through, more so now than ever, on their job description of holding a mirror up to society. We must tell the truth.

Here are a few thoughts about how we, as artists, can use our craft, our talents, and our art to more fruitfully fulfill our calling moving forward. Continue reading How to Fight Like an Artist in the Time of Trump

How to Improve Any Skill

When I first began teaching at USC, I was hesitant, afraid. “Those who can’t…” kept ringing in my head. I didn’t want to focus too much time and energy training other people to do what I was still focusing on perfecting myself.

The past few years of teaching acting has proven me very wrong. Rather than sapping my attention away from my skills, it has only honed them and made them all the more available to me in my professional career.

It reminded me of the time I spent helping my friends with their homework in grade school. My friend Danny was not very good at math. So I would sit with him and work through the problems, step by step, going through the process we had learned. Doing this allowed me to solidify the process in my own head. When it came time for the test, I now had double the practice and confidence to do well.

If you want to improve something you know how to do, all you have to do is teach it to someone else. Here’s a list of things you’ll find: Continue reading How to Improve Any Skill