Sarah Ruhl on how playwrights should approach staging

Here’s an interesting video clip of awarding winning playwright Sarah Ruhl discussing her philosophy on staging. As a newbie to the medium, I have found that limiting myself to the barest essentials when it comes to staging has helped me focus on plot and character. But what do I know? I’m still learning.

That Time I got the Jennifer Aniston Name Drop


No one wants to see Jennifer Aniston die at the end.

All this talk in the news of a Friends reunion reminds me of an experience I had at a reading of an early version of One Bear Lake. This was a few months ago, and I had reworked the opening scene into a 10-minute play format.  After the reading, I was approached by a man who identified himself as an agent. My ears perked up because I assumed he meant theatrical agent since we were at a playwright’s workshop. I have a literary agent that represents my work in the world of publishing and film, and I have no interest in changing horses midstream, but theater is a different stream, so I was very interested in hearing what he had to say.

Well, it became apparent very early in the conversation that he represented screenwriters, and while I was flattered that he would approach me, I tried to look for an opening in his pitch to tell him I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want to waste his time. Just as I was about to engage thrusters and get out of the conversation he said two words that intrigued me. He said Jennifer Aniston.  Now I had to hear him out. For one simple reason. He had just dropped a major name, and I sensed this man was about to give me some excellent material I could one day write about.  Here is the gist of that conversation:

AGENT: Hi. I just wanted to tell you I really loved your piece.

ME: Oh, well thanks. That’s very kind –

AGENT: Let me ask you, does the lead have to die?

ME: Well, she doesn’t actually die –

AGENT: The reason I ask is because I’m an agent. (Hands me his card)

ME: Oh, you work with playwrights?

AGENT: (Ignores my question) Like I said, I loved your play. I just – I’m concerned about the lead dying.

ME: She doesn’t die –

AGENT: That is a hard sell if you want to get an A-List actress to play the role. Does she have to die?

ME: She doesn’t –

AGENT: And I’m little concerned that she has cancer. You’re going to have to show her going through chemo, and it’s just going to be very hard for the audience to take.

ME: The entire play just covers a few days. You don’t actually see any of the treatments –

AGENT: The lead will have to lose weight over the course of filming to make it realistic.

ME: Filming? I don’t understand. Do you work in theater?

AGENT: No, no, no – I represent screenwriters.

ME: Oh, well this – I have –

AGENT: I think this would be perfect for Jennifer.

ME: Jennifer?

AGENT: Aniston. I could really see her doing the lead. She’d be perfect. The audience wouldn’t want to see her die though. She can’t die at the end.

ME: As I said, she doesn’t die – That is to say the character doesn’t –

AGENT: And no one wants to see Jennifer Aniston look sickly and going through chemo.

ME: No, no one wants to see Jennifer Aniston go through chemo I agree. That would be horrible. But if it was just a part she was playing – A character – But beyond that issue, no one dies from cancer or goes through chemo in my play –

AGENT: Do you have more than what I saw here tonight?

ME: I’ve got a second scene. I’m planning on making a full-length version –

AGENT: Good. Send it to me when you’re done, and I’ll get it to Jennifer’s people. Remember, rethink the cancer. Or if you have to give her cancer, make sure she gets cured at the end. No one wants to see Jennifer Aniston die. (Walks away).

ME: She doesn’t die. – I mean the lead character doesn’t die at the end – the play only covers a couple of days. This isn’t – No one goes through – You understand this is a stage play, right?

The agent walks out of earshot.

Now, the guy was super nice to come up to me and compliment my work, and I appreciate him doing so, but I thought it was comical that I couldn’t get him off the notion that Jennifer Aniston was going to die at the end of my movie, when, A – It’s not a movie, and B – The lead doesn’t die at the end of the story, regardless if it’s Jennifer Aniston playing the part or not. He was fixated on letting me know that he could get Jennifer Aniston to play the role if I changed the play he loved. He’s probably very good at what he does because by the time he walked away I was convinced Jennifer Aniston was going to have me fired from my own movie that I didn’t write. Why did I have to give her cancer and have her die at the end?

BTW – I should clarify that he never claimed to know Jennifer Aniston. He was just confidant he could get the material to her people.

One Bear Lake -The Reading, The Fun, The Carrot Cake

obl-posterWe did the semi-staged reading of my play One Bear Lake last night. I say semi-staged reading because it was literally the first complete read-through of the material, and only one of the actors had seen the play in its entirety before hand. A few of the others had seen and performed bits and pieces here and there in various workshop environments. Thankfully, they’re all super talented, and they settled into the material from the opening bell. It was so much fun watching them bring their own little touches to their individual characters. I’ll list them below so they can take their much-deserved bows.

The storyline features three siblings and their spouses, which means beyond being able to competently read and deliver lines, there has to be a chemistry between all the characters in order to make the material believable. I was fortunate to have that kind of group because the overwhelming response from the audience was “this reminds me so much of my family,” or “I could totally see this happening with my family.”  Which, given how outrageous and rare the concept of the story is, says a lot about the folks doing the reading. Many thanks to them for lending their talents to my work.

For those of you who’ve never attended a reading before, do it at least once in your life. I go to as many as I can. I find it one of the coolest artistic events ever. It’s a play in its rawest form, and the audience gets to participate in the development of the work. I didn’t get an official count, but I’m guessing we had close to 30 people, counting the cast, at the reading. If you’ve ever seen a behind the scenes show about a sitcom or television drama, you’re probably familiar with the table-read, where the cast and crew sits around and reads the script for an upcoming episode. That’s very much what this is like.  After the reading, everyone gives their feedback.  You get comments on what worked, and what needs tweaking. People will comment on structure and character. Some in attendance are just fans of theater while others are involved in theater production, so you get a great variety of perspectives on all aspects of the material.  I’ve been writing in some capacity for 30-years and this is by far the most rewarding and collaborative writing medium. If you’re a writer, my advice to you is to get involved in a theater/playwright group. You’ll never have more fun putting words to paper.

What I learned from last night’s reading is that the family dynamic of the play works. The humor works. The few dramatic scenes were received well. In fact, it was suggested that I go to the drama a little sooner in the story to give it more balance. Right now, it’s frontloaded with humor and the tearjerker material comes in the last third of the play. The puzzling part about readings is you will get competing opinions. I had a few audience members who told me privately that they liked the current balance between humor and drama, so my job now is to engage my spidey-senses and rewrite accordingly. Frankly, I think it does need an “almost dramatic” scene earlier in the play, for no other reason than to let the audience know that you are going to dive deeper at some point in the story.

My goal was to tell a story that reflects the reality that even though they’re raised in the same family, each sibling goes through their own shit, and they come out of it with completely different childhoods. Thanks to last night’s reading, I know I’m just a few tweaks away from achieving that goal.

The Talented Cast (in order of appearance):

Lily – Blair Cadden

Paul – Ian Bonner

Freddy – Jason Olson

Rachel – Kate Tooley

Tom – Robert Frank

Gayle – Sarah Daniels

And let us not forget the very lovely and talented Mia Ridley reading stage directions impeccably.

Many thanks to all those who braved the cold and attended, and a special thanks to 5th Wall Productions for hosting and facilitating the reading. If you’re in the Charleston area, they have a new play opening on February 19 called Like Drowning by Brian Petti. It was first featured in their Rough Draft Readings program, so when I say “new,” I mean new as in debut. How exciting is that?

BTW – I also got reports that the carrot cake was delicious, so thanks to Publix for their baking skills.


How to laugh about cancer

readingI wrote a new play. It’s a comedy called One Bear Lake, and it started out as a ten minute play that I developed with the help of the good folks at South of Broadway in Park Circle through their Second Sundays at Seven playwright workshop, and it blossomed into a full-length play with the guidance of my friends at 5th Wall Productions  in West Ashley via their monthly Writer’s Bloc meetings. Writers helping writers. It’s a beautiful thing.

If you are in the Charleston area, and you will be around this Sunday, I invite you to come to our first public reading of the play at 5th Wall Productions at 6:00 PM. What’s the play about? It’s a comedy about two things that aren’t usually associated with laughs, cancer and carrot cake. Contact me on Facebook for directions and details.

First Rewrite Leads to Major Change – Poll

OPINION.POLL_The Pearl of Justice is about to undergo some changes, and chief among them is it won’t be called The Pearl of Justice anymore, and I need your help in figuring out what it will be called. More on that later.

I got a new editor just before Christmas, and she took the holiday break to read over my manuscript. I was, to say the least, apprehensive. In my mind, there was a distinct possibility she would hate the book, and my hopes and dreams would be bludgeoned to death by Lady Luck once again. As you can see, we writers are filled with gobs of self-doubt.

Fortunately, she not only didn’t hate it, she completely understood the tone and style I was going for. In fact, she felt like the series title, The Pearl of Justice, didn’t represent the gritty nature of the story, and she is right. It is much too soft for Dani, Step, and Kenny.

The problem isn’t just the title. The problem is also with Dani’s last name. Pearl boxed us in, so I made the terrifying decision to change it with the hope that by doing so I would open up our options for a new series title. I literally took a couple of hours and typed out Dani’s professional title (Deputy) and first name with a slew of last names until I could find something that accurately represented the tone of the series.

It wasn’t easy, but the winner is – Deputy Dani Savage, and the title of the first book is Savage Reckoning.  See how that works? Now I need to decide on a new series title, and this is where you come in. This is a one day poll because they want to start working on the artwork for the cover ASAP. HOW COOL IS THAT? Vote now!

















































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































The ‘Ferguson’ Play: A Denial of Bias


Phelim McAleer is unapologetic about his play’s message

I should start by saying I haven’t read Phelim McAleer’s play titled Ferguson. In all candor, I wouldn’t have any interest in reading it if not for the controversy that surrounds it. For those of you who don’t know, Ferguson is about the Michael Brown killing by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. More accurately, it focuses on the transcripts from the grand jury testimony in 2015 that led to the decision to not bring charges against the police officer. McAleer claims that his dialogue is pulled verbatim from the transcripts. I can’t testify to that fact because as I said, I haven’t read the play nor have I read the transcripts.

What I do know is that a number of actors chosen to do a staged reading of the play quit rather abruptly after the first read through because they felt it supported the officer’s version of the shooting while ignoring the community’s version. They believe McAleer cherry picked testimony in order to paint the police officer in a positive light. They are basing their belief partly on the fact that McAleer is a known Conservative activist who has produced a number of projects that support a right wing agenda. The playwright has stated that the testimony is the testimony, and he won’t cater to what he perceives as liberal bias to appease the actors.

Here’s what I think. McAleer’s play most likely has been crafted to support his point of view that the grand jury got it right when it exonerated the police officer.  He probably shouldn’t be selling it as an unbiased piece but their’s no law that says he can’t.  For the record, he doesn’t think he’s being biased, just factual. He’s either lying to himself or being willfully obtuse in order to give his play more credibility as the true version of events.

The truth is that a number of legal experts were critical of the prosecution’s lackluster case against the police officer. There’s the belief that the relationship between the district attorney’s office and the local police department created a conflict of interest that influenced the prosecution’s will (or lack there of) to mount a convincing argument that the officer was indeed guilty. That narrative doesn’t seem to be a part of McAleer’s script, and in my mind, it needs to be present, if only in passing, if he wants to truly present an unbiased story.

McAleer has every right to move forward with the production of this play as written.  In fact, he’s received a  number of online contributions to do just that, and from what I’ve seen, it’s more than enough money to do so. He wants to have runs in New York and Ferguson. I can think of only one reason he’d want to take it to Ferguson, and it has to do with his right leaning politics. It’s a dick move, and I hope he reconsiders.

I strongly disagree with McAleer’s views, and I really think he’s not being truthful about the unbiased nature of the play, but it is what it is. Looking ahead, actors and theaters are going to have to decide if they want to be associated with McAleer’s agenda, and audience members are going to have to decide if they want to pay to see a play that is most likely one-sided.

I fear that an attempted boycott is in the offing should the play ever reach the stage. It’s a fear for two reason. One, boycotts are antithetical to what theater is about. There has to be room for material of all political stripes. If we shut one point of view down because we find it offensive, we then are the ones committing an offense.  Two, boycotts don’t work. They never have. They always draw attention and supporters and end up backfiring. McAleer’s play will receive much more attention and praise if it is boycotted.

Let McAleer have the stage. Let audiences hear him out. Let the critics have their say. And then let the curtains close.  If we do this, I’m guessing Ferguson the play will come and go without leaving much of a stain on the stage.

For details on the walk-out and reading, here’s a link to an LA Times piece: Controversial ‘Ferguson’ play survives premiere with a brand-new cast

The Meh Revolution


It’s funny because it’s true.

A lot of my progressive brethren are upset that the media isn’t providing wall-to-wall coverage of the armed Bundy clan  who oafishly seized and now occupy a unmanned federal bird sanctuary in Oregon.  They’ve promised to stay there for years and will answer violence with violence. They aspire to die for their cause. The chief complaint among civilized society is that the 24-hour  newsers have yet to label these clowns as terrorists.

Honestly, I’m glad the news is ignoring them. The Bundy bruhs are throwing a revolution and nobody cares. They aren’t labeled terrorists because they don’t elicit terror. If anything, they should be called clownists or possibly the Cleveland Browns because both names represent comic futility.

Here’s what I know beyond a shadow of a doubt. These idiots will not be there for years. They are dozens of emotionally unstable white hicks with more bullets than sense. They will quickly fracture and fall apart. It will start with a trickle and end with a mass exodus. The Bundys will get some friendly pats on the back from the folks at FOX News, and the right wing blogsmear. I’m sure Alex Jones has had an erection since news of the armed band of dimwits capturing an empty building first broke.  But beyond that, no one cares. The lack of attention will eventually take the fun out of their patriot games, and they’ll start to bore even themselves.

Is the media being hypocritical? Yes. Should that bother rational human beings? Yes. These clownists are not protesters. Protesters don’t show up armed and threaten violence. Criminals do that. They should go to jail for attempting to mount a terrorist organization to overthrow the federal government, but we shouldn’t give them the attention they want. They don’t deserve it.  They deserve to be, at most, laughed at and at best, ignored.


That time I was interrogated by the police

7f4161d31989a3cd54a655abc3ff6e99-originalSince coming home from celebrating Christmas with the family, I have spent my downtime watching Making a Murderer on Netflix.  It’s a documentary series told in 10 parts about a man by the name of Steven Avery living in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Avery is accused of murdering a young woman by the name of Teresa Halbach. That’s the short description. The long description involves multiple accounts of police corruption in the county’s sheriff’s department that led to Avery serving 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit, a $36 million lawsuit against the county for that false imprisonment, and a series of suspicious investigative and prosecutorial tactics by the criminal justice system in the state of Wisconsin that led to the very public trial and conviction of Avery for Ms. Halbach’s murder.  The series is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. If you’re a fan of the Serial podcast, this is very similar. The major difference is the filmmakers never make themselves part of the documentary. There is no narration or commentary from the folks making the series. They let the footage, taped phone calls and evidence do all the talking.

What I find particularly interesting is the interrogation tactics by the police. Specifically, when it came to Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey. At the time I believe he was 15 or 16, and they subjected him to a number of marathon one-on-two interviews with the lead investigators. Brendan’s IQ is in the low 70’s. He’s a shy kid who is terrified by authority figures. The investigators clearly guided his testimony and pushed him to confess to being an accessory to the murder of Teresa Halbach.

I have seen this interrogation technique firsthand. In the early 90’s, I was visiting my grandmother in Grand Junction, Colorado during the holiday season. My stay was involuntarily extended because the vehicle I drove at the time broke down, and the mechanic had to wait a week before the part he needed to fix it would come in. Other than my grandmother, I didn’t know a soul in Grand Junction, so I spent my days at the library writing like any aspiring writer would. With no vehicle, my mode of transportation was my feet. So I hoofed it back and forth from the library to my grandmother’s house every day. I was a stranger walking the streets of a small community in the cold weather. Think Rambo without the ripped physique or the survival skills.

The events happened thusly: (Circa 1992)

On one particular day, my grandmother leaves to go decorate the Christmas tree at the VA. Approximately 30 minutes after she leaves, I hear a knock at the door. When I answer it, I see a uniformed officer staring at me with his hand resting on his holstered weapon. Five other police officers stand in front of three county cruisers with their lights flashing.

The deputy at the door says, “You look like you’ve been testing driving a blue truck.”

Highly confused and somewhat intimidated I answer, “Excuse me?”

The deputy explains that a woman had listed her blue truck for sale in the auto trader, and a man matching my description came to her house to test drive it, and he simply never returned. I laugh because in my mind it’s a ridiculous notion that I would steal a truck, blue or otherwise. Something in my mind clicks at this point. I’m about to have a memorable life experience. I tell myself to take mental notes. Observe everything very carefully because you may be able to write about this someday. So from that moment on it became “research” to me. I’m not just being accused of stealing a blue truck. I’m being allowed to witness actual police procedure up close and personal. It doesn’t occur to me that I will ever be arrested for a crime I didn’t commit. To the deputies who came expecting a volatile suspect, I’m sure they think I’m exhibiting bizarre behavior. To them, it may appear that I’m actually appreciative of the opportunity, and in my writer’s mind, I am.

They take me to a police station and put me in a tiny interrogation room. It’s essentially a windowless supply closet. The good cop comes in first. He believes me. I’m clearly a nice guy. The woman who identified me as the suspect has obviously made a mistake. He wants names of people I’ve talked to. He wants to know where I’m coming from. I had just been visiting a friend in Montana. I explain that my vehicle is in the shop, and I’m expecting it to be repaired within the week.

Then the bad cop comes into the room. He’s about 6’4” tall, roughly 275 lbs., and I’m guessing about 5% body fat. He’s a slightly taller version of John Cena. He starts putting the pressure on me to confess. He wants to know why I did it. He starts feeding me little details about the crime itself and wants to know if it sounds familiar to me. He’s relentless and terrifying. He tells me that I have a few hours before my crime becomes a felony. If I confess now, it’s just a misdemeanor.

Keep in mind, I’m still looking at this as an adventure that will make a great story. I start joking around with the bad cop to try and get him off his game. “Trust me,” I say, “If I stole this woman’s truck, you’d be the first person I’d tell. You’re huge.”

He chuckles and both the deputies leave the room. The good cop comes back and asks me to accompany him to another part of the station. He escorts me through this maze of people. About 50 people form lines on either side of me as I traverse the building. He takes me to a fingerprinting station, and asks me if it’s okay if they get my fingerprints. I say no because that feels like I’m being arrested. He accepts my answer without an argument and walks me back to the interrogation room.

I’m subjected to more good cop/bad cop questioning. The woman saw me walk through the station, and she’s confirmed that I am the suspect who stole her truck. The problem is I talked to one person by phone that day, and that person confirmed my alibi. But, only one person to confirm my whereabouts is pretty flimsy. The deputies scold me for not talking to anyone at the library. I ask them if they’ve ever been in a library.  It’s not a great place to meet people and strike up conversations with strangers.

I’m interrogated by these two for a total of three hours before they get their lieutenant involved. He takes me into the cafeteria where he tries to get me to relax. My alibi checks out, he says, but something about me doesn’t add up as far as he’s concerned. I just look too nervous. Like I’m lying. I respond, “You know it’s probably your line of work. You’ve been conditioned not to trust people.” He now thinks I’m a smartass, but that is my sincere opinion.  He wants to know why I appear nervous. “Because,” I say, “I’m being accused of stealing a blue truck.” He barks back, “No one is accusing you of anything.” “Then why am I here?” I shout. It’s then he realizes that he doesn’t know what the word “accused” means, and he backtracks on his assertion that I haven’t been accused of anything.

He breaks the news to me that that they’ve recovered fingerprints from the scene. The suspect touched the woman’s screen door, and the best way to end this ordeal is for me to let them fingerprint me. I say with jubilation, “Yes! Let’s do it. Fingerprint me.”

He immediately looks disappointed. I realize instantly that he just lied to me. They don’t have fingerprints. He is bluffing, and I inadvertently called him on it. They carry on with the charade that they have fingerprints and escort me to the booking area. I place my fingers on a computer screen and my fingerprints are scanned, and then they demand that I stand for my mugshot. I protest, but they assure me that it’s standard procedure. I’m convinced they are lying to me and this is a ruse to place me under arrest without causing a scene. However, they take my mugshot and drive me back to my grandmother’s house.

For days following the interrogation, deputies drive by my grandmother’s house every hour on the hour. Fortunately, my Grandmother and parents have a lot of connections in the community, and a meeting is arranged with the second in command at the sheriff’s department, a man that goes to church with my grandmother. We arrive and he explains that the whole thing has been dismissed. They now believe the woman was lying about the truck being stolen for the insurance money.

Back to 2016:

Here’s the difference between my encounter with police interrogators and Brendan Dassey’s.  I was in my mid 20’s. I had a college degree. I have a much higher IQ than Dassey, and I wasn’t terrified by authorities. They tried to feed me details and get me to claim them as my own, but I could see what they were doing. They were interested in a confession, not the truth. It was pretty obvious from the moment the bad cop entered the interrogation room that they were going to try to outlast my insistence that they had the wrong guy and just wear me down.

Brendan Dassey was an emotionally stunted, awkward teenager who didn’t even know the difference between yards and feet. He went through three of the types of interrogations I went through, and there was the added pressure of the case being about murder.  I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so confidant and fascinated by the interrogation had I been facing being falsely accused of murder. They broke the poor kid down and shaped his confession.

I cannot recommend Making a Murderer enough. Watching it has convinced me that we need drastic changes to our criminal justice system. The presumption of innocence does not exist in this country for the most part. Prosecutors use the media to prejudice a community against a suspect, and judges (most often elected officials) behave in a way to appease the public.  I’ve been subjected to the kind of interrogation tactics that Brendan Dassey went through, albeit on a much smaller scale, and I know investigators don’t want the truth. They want a confession.  If you’re poor, uneducated, and learning impaired, you don’t have a chance.

After watching the series, my guess is you will come away with two questions: How can the system be this corrupt, and who really killed Teresa Halbach?