Day #2b – The Tim Gunn of Portland Theatre

Today was my first meeting with script editor and writing guru Mead Hunter, who is working with me on knocking this script into shape.  Mead is the Portland theatre community’s Tim Gunn – warm, generous, incredibly intelligent, and a critical perfectionist in the most supportive, I-want-you-to-be-your-best-self kind of way.  I could tell you that I don’t want to hug him every time I see him, but that would be a lie from Satan.

Now, let me just say that I like to think of myself as pretty clear-headed about my writing ability.  I think I’m better than some writers, not as good as other writers (and there’s more in column B than column A), and that my biggest weakness in writing – as, frankly, in life – is a tendency to make everything more complicated than it needs to be.  I can’t help it.  The idea of writing a two-person play makes me claustrophobic.  And I remember with vivid clarity the wrath of the technical crew working on my play Requiem: God Breathing, which was part of the Whitman College One Act Play Contest, when they learned that my play required the following things:

–a character slits her wrists onstage and bleeds onto the floor

–a character ages from 18 to 60 over the course of forty minutes

–two characters live in 11th-century Italy and need realistic costumes

–one character has to cut off all her hair

–the set has to look plausibly like the interior of both an 11th-century chapel and a modern church in the Bronx

–two characters are thirteen years old

–one character is a ghost

Oh, and BTW our budget was like $25.  ‘Cause, yeah.  That’s how I roll, bitches.

ANYWAY.  So.  As part of my “if-you-really-want-to-do-this-then-you-have-to-make-a-commitment-young-lady” campaign for this play (this message is brought to you by my mom’s nagging voice in my head), I decided to do something I had never done before – consult a professional.  I have lots of brilliant writer friends and even more brilliant theatre artist friends, and I force them to read everything for me and give me notes.  But I’ve never worked with an editor, and editing is what I need.

Enter Mead Hunter.   I know Mead like everyone in the Portland theatre knows Mead, but I’ve never worked with him, and until he went freelance after leaving PCS I always thought he was out of my league.  But his rates are incredibly reasonable, and it was SO worth it to bring in someone with both an editor’s and a literary director’s brain to help me sift through how to Achieve My Full Potential – to go from Frumpy Librarian to whip-off-the-glasses, take-down-the-bun, “But Miss Jones, you’re beautiful!”, if you’re the kind of person that responds well to 1950’s sitcom metaphors.

So here’s what we’ve agreed on.  I sent the play to Mead last week and he’s already read it once or twice and will meet me today with some notes.  Then from there I’ll take the notes, do a rewrite, and we’ll meet again.  Rinse and repeat for a total of three consults, covering everything from script changes to if/how I should market the script to theatres, where to send it, etc.

Click here for a synopsis of How the Light Gets In and here for the cast list/setting/etc.

THE BIG MEETING

Mead and I met at Jim and Patty’s to drink delicious coffee and talk about logistics.  The good news is that he thinks the play is already pretty strong and had some really good ideas about places to edit and tweak.  My three great fears are that the play will be A) four hundred hours long, B) a tedious theology lecture, and/or C) a four-hundred-hour-long tedious theology lecture.  Mead assures me that these are unlikely and had lots of constructive ideas for how to ensure that.

As stated above, my Tragic Flaw as a writer is over-explaining and over-complicating.  Mead, who has the advantage of not living inside my brain, found lots and lots of areas where I could trim things down.  For example, one of the antagonists, Father John, is intended to be pretty immediately unlikeable.  Soooo, how many times do I need to have other characters saying stuff like “Boy, that Father John, I sure don’t like him” or the equivalent?  Can I make fewer words do more by assuming that the audience members aren’t boneheads and can make those narrative leaps themselves?  Answer: YES.

I also struggle with how to make things suspenseful.  You have to be so careful how you unfold information in order to maintain suspense over the duration of a whole play; Mead caught a lot of places where things were hinted at (i.e. you know there’s some sort of nasty stuff in Molly’s past with her parents, you know that she had a nervous breakdown which is how she ended up at the monastery, etc.) where I can kill two birds with one stone by making some cuts that both make the play shorter (huzzah!) while also making the suspense, you know, suspense-ier, by leaving some things unsaid for the audience to wonder at. He taught me a fancy new filmmaker word, “gapping,” which basically means you put the thing together and then remove whole chunks of information to make the audience work a little harder.   As someone who likes to explain everything – and was once accused of writing stage directions like I don’t trust actors – this is like the playwright equivalent of that Coco Chanel thing where you’re supposed to take off one accessory before you leave the house (says the girl whose college wardrobe was one-third leopard print).  I think this is one of my major problems as a writer, and I think it’s something that we all struggle with from time to time – what’s the line between too much explanation and not enough?  How do you explain without making something expositional?  Why does WordPress not recognize the word “expositional”?  I swear to God that’s a word.  Anyway, Mead gave me a lot of food for thought in terms of trusting the audience (and the actors) a little more, pulling back a little from the chunks that feel like somebody says “AND THIS IS IMPORTANT BECAUSE . . . ” (although Mead didn’t think there were nearly as many of those to be concerned about as I did).

Mead had some nice things to say about my script for last year’s Fertile Ground, Upon Waking, which he read when I submitted it to JAW.  I feel like this script is a lot stronger, and it was nice to hear that validated.  “You have a little more distance with this one,” Mead said.  “You’re not quite so close to the story so you can see the whole thing better.”  I think that’s true.

We talked a lot about actors (Kirk Mouser, I love you, call me!), and the casting/rehearsal process and how I want that to happen, which made me all of a sudden practically crap my pants at the thought that I really should have an as-close-to-done-as-possible draft of the script in less than two months OMGWHATTHEHELLHAVEIGOTTENMYSELFINTO????  Time management, you are a harsh mistress.  (Which I typed as “hash mistress.”  Which would be an AMAZING name for either a diner or a band.)

Anyway, if I were to sum up the wisdom of Mead K. Hunter as dispensed at this meeting in five bullet points, it would be these:

1)  Make the audience work a little.

2) Think really carefully about where a scene ends and the next one begins, and how to transition without dropping the ball.

3) Mead’s brother used to be a Trappist monk.  (That’s not advice, it’s just an awesome fact I learned.)

4) Be ruthless about hypothesizing potential cuts but be judicious about implementing them.  What’s the best and worst that can happen if you cut all of page 45?  What’s the best and worst that can happen if you let the audience fill in the gaps on their own about what might have happened in this girl’s past until all is revealed in the big final climax?  Do you gain more than you lose by making the whole thing run smoother?

5) Make sure you’re conscious, from moment to moment and scene to scene, that you know what each thing is supposed to accomplish.

I was heartened by looking at Mead’s pages of notes and feeling for the first time that bringing this script up to at least a quasi-professional level is attainable.  I kind of feel like a grown-up writer, you guys.  SWEET.

Claire Willett is the Grants Manager for Oregon Ballet Theatre, a Catholic youth minister, the Fertile Ground Dance Liaison,  a blog nerd, and a semi-kind-of-quasi playwright.  Follow her at “The Jesus Play: 100 Days To Opening Night” as she blogs the process of mounting a staged reading for Fertile Ground from rough draft to performance.
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