Forever seeking the “oh shit” moment

It’s a rare but transcendent sight in professional wrestling: the slow epiphany. Here’s how it works (or did when I watched wrestling, anyway – a period of my life that ended roughly 25 years ago):

Two wrestlers have teamed up to be on the “bad” side. Often, one of them is “foreign,” representing the enemy du jour (today, it might be a BP exec). A tag team match ensues, and after much drama and cheating, the bad guys have knocked out the ref and are mercilessly pummeling the good guys. Only…something’s wrong. One of the guys – the “foreign” one – is breaking the rules, the bond, whatever bound them in the first place. And then the crowd senses it. Something big. Something wonderful. One of the bad guys is just standing there, watching the other as he pummels his hapless opponent. He’s…troubled. He’s thinking. He looks around the arena – the crowd is building to a fury. The pummeling continues. He looks at his partner. The crowd sounds like a Concorde. We see it in his face…”this wasn’t part of the deal. This isn’t right. I’m…I’m better than this.” And then…it happens. He approaches his partner. He taps him timidly on the back. The partner ignores him. He does it again, more forcefully. The partner pushes him away. The crowd has never known bliss like this. Their throats will be sore for a week. They don’t care. The guy does it a third time. The partner stops the pummeling and faces him. Our man smacks his partner with the fist of a thousand furies. The partner is stunned, but doesn’t go down, so our man performs his signature move – preferably, a jump-kick to the chest – and his partner is out cold. The crowd will need to do laundry when they get home.

I write all this not just for the juicy (and not a little guilty) nostalgia, but because it occurred to me that the slow epiphany is a rare thing in entertainment. Instead, when we’re lucky we get something just as sweet: the sudden realization, an event I like to call the “oh shit” moment. Raymond Carver used to keep a 3” x 5” card on his wall with a quote from a Chekhov story: “And suddenly, everything became clear to him.” Carver liked the mystery behind the phrase, but I like visualizing that moment, when in a flash the subject saw the big picture clearly and it changed his life. Such a rich visual – he stops mid-speech, his eyes widen, his mouth opens a touch, and maybe, if we’re lucky, he even drops his coffee cup and it falls in slow motion, breaking as it hits the floor and Keyser gets away. Oh shit.

Say, this corkboard is made by Quartet! Isn't that a funny - OH MY GOD.

Does this ever happen in real life? We cling to our worldviews so tightly, we fight against anything that contradicts what we have chosen to believe, we barely listen to other points of view. We brag that we have friends with different political views, but we are careful to counter their arguments without really thinking about them, lest they dent our belief system. Perhaps we allow a change of heart now and then, but it’s a slow process. So here’s a case where professional wrestling is actually pretty true to life. Let THAT sink in for a bit. Still, even wrestling can’t afford to let things take a truly natural course. It would take too long to watch someone truly deliberate in real time – the audience would never stand for it. “Is he gonna turn on ‘The Libyan Liberator’ or not? Cause NASCAR is on in an hour.”

I yearn for one of these. Not cheap shots at wrestling fans – I already feel bad about that. No, it’s the epiphany I seek. The slow ones might be great for riling up the crowd, but I want one of the fast ones. I want to suddenly “get it,” to drop my glass (not if it’s full of Smithwicks, Samuel Smith’s, or anything that begins with “Glen”) and freeze for a moment while the implications of what I’ve just figured out wash over me.

In short: I want everything to suddenly become clear.

I don’t think that will ever happen. I’m too slow on the uptake, too careful, too considerate, too damn stubborn. Even if I did figure out in a flash that Verbal had just made up his whole story, I’d probably have another sip of coffee and say “Say, I just thought of something…you don’t think…nah.” Maybe eventually, in bed that night, I’d get as far as “Huh…that fellow may have snowed me.” But even then I’d fight it.

I know I’m not alone here. I’m sure I try to load my plays with epiphanies and “oh shit” moments to make up for the lack of them in my life. And why not? Some of the best moments of true drama are based on the Sudden Realization that Changes Everything. (Side note: I’m not talking about those movies where a clue is discovered and the killer’s identity is revealed. Those moments are supposed to happen, and while they’re generally fun, they’re not nearly as satisfying as the bombshell that rocks our hero’s world.) It’s a cliché, maybe, but when it comes about honestly, there’s nothing as jaw-droppingly satisfying as a great “oh shit.” (Yes, you can remove the “oh” from that last sentence and it still makes sense, maybe even more sense, but seriously…try to stay with me, people.)

But man, are they hard to do. They only work when the timing is just right – when the audience catches on just seconds after the character does. I’ve been successful once or twice – one of my favorites comes in The Trophy Wife, one of my early dramas. A couple – a man and his mistress – has plotted the death of the man’s wife, and the man lets something slip that allows the mistress to figure out that he has killed before. It happens as she’s talking – her sentence just stops midway, her mouth opens in horror, she drops her coffee cup in slow-motion (just kidding about that last part…I think). He starts talking again, she cuts him off and asks him a very direct question – and, hopefully, the audience figures out the answer at the same time she does and has to catch its collective breath.

So that one kinda works, but I’ve failed far more often than I’ve succeeded. For every successful “oh shit,” there are a dozen that fall flat, usually because the audience is already ahead of the character. Nothing more excruciating than waiting for the hero to catch up. Sometimes, the opposite is true – our hero suddenly “gets it,” but…gets what? Watch the movie of A Few Good Men and you’ll see Cruise suddenly figure something out, leave his meeting, drive to the victim’s place, look in the closet, and – EGAD! His clothes are still there. This clearly Means Something, but damned if can figure out what it is. He explains it to us later, but frustration has already set in: if we don’t get to share in the moment, what’s the point?

I’ll continue to seek the perfect moment of epiphany – in story, and in life. Since I no longer watch wrestling, I’m hoping to go the Chekhov route and experience a full-on, shameless “oh shit.” There have been some great ones in movies: “All’s you’d need is a target tracking system and a big spinning mirror and you could vaporize a human target from space!” “Johnny Ola knows these places like the back of his hand.” “(looks at penis of the girl he was just making out with).” Those moments are as iconic as they are rare, so naturally I long to create one – almost as much as I long to live one. (Well, maybe not that last one.)

So...THAT'S new.

Either way, once it happens, I hope I can actually act on it. Playscripts may not always reflect real life, but I think both need a jolt of cheap, impulsive drama now and then.

Besides, I have enough coffee mugs. I can afford to drop one.

I’ve become quite the Twirp lately – follow my Tweets!



An ongoing list of overheard theater fallacies

I’m incredibly fortunate – I actually make money in the arts. As the administrator for a community theater and a published playwright, my paychecks are directly related to all things theater. It’s a wonderful thing.

It also lends me a particular perspective. I hear from all types, including eager young actors, cynical techs, disillusioned writers, egocentric directors – and you can pretty much switch adjectives and objects at will. And so when certain clichés start to take form, I have the advantage of placing them in a certain context. Thus, I present to you an ever-expanding compendium of theater fallacies. Have you said, or believed, any of these pearls of wisdom? I know I have.

“It’ll Sell Itself!”

Usage: We need a hit, so let’s produce ‘The Sound of Annie of Oz Grease Superstar.’ No worries – it’ll itself!
The Reality: No. It won’t.

There are certain staples out there that community theaters know – just know – will be successful. We learn this from experience. JCS always seems to bring the crowds, right? And hell, the grandparents alone will pay back the exorbitant royalties of Annie or Wizard of Oz – so bring on the moppets! But it don’t always work out that way. Sure, parents and grandparents will come see their precious little snowflakes, and rock musicals tend to bring out the curious non-theater types. But hoping the name alone will entice the crowds is a big mistake. After all, once a title is part of the zeitgeist, it’s probably been turned into a movie and produced into the ground by every theater in a 30 mile radius…so much of your target audience has been there, done that. Your particular production might be the greatest thing since that bass solo in “You Can Call Me Al,” but the name alone won’t be enough to entice the crowds.

And here’s the trickier part – the people choosing theatrical seasons are, by definition, “theater people.” They possess a certain taste and insight that much of our target audience does not. You and I can name the musical that won the Tony last year – can they? When it becomes available, we theatergeeks will jump all over it, but we’re not the ones buying tickets, we’re the ones auditioning and finagling our way into free seats. Things like “Tony and Pulitzer winning” look great in marketing blurbs, but they don’t translate into sales. And I won’t even get into the production itself, except to say word-of-mouth is a powerful tool…few things can kill a show like a cast who discourages friends & family from coming to see it.

So what DOES sell a show? Damned if I know. Damned if anybody knows. Hell, look on Broadway, where it’s all movie tie-ins and celebrities – even Disney can’t tell a hit from a flop until it’s way too late. On a local scale, the only thing that really seems to work is the unadulterated enthusiasm of the production crew itself. Seems that if the cast & crew love what they’re doing, people will come.

“If the cast & crew love what they’re doing, people will come.”

Usage: See above entry.
The Reality: Not so much.

I’m not saying it hurts. I’m just saying that no amount of cast loveydovey is going to promote a show. If said loveydovey translates into grassroots promotion – poster hanging, phone calls, impromptu street performances – it helps. But I’ve seen many shows that faltered despite the genuine enthusiasm of the cast & crew. Sometimes, the audience just doesn’t feel the love (in simpler terms, the show ain’t as good as the cast thinks it is). But often, I think those producing the show begin to assume their love is contagious, and will spill out into the atmosphere, enticing viewers like the smell of a bone entices Tex Avery dogs. It doesn’t. I’m thrilled for those in theater who have a wonderful experience – that’s what it’s all about. Now go hang some posters, willya?

“It’s all politics.”

Usage: You know why no one will produce my play and/or cast me? I don’t know the right people. It’s all politics.
The Reality: Yes, but not quite like you think.

Theater people are notoriously…unique. Think about what we do – we devote much of our lives to either pretending we are someone else or enabling others to pretend. At some level, we are constantly auditioning, showing someone our most vulnerable side so that they may judge us and decide our fate. Or, worse yet, we ARE the judges, watching person after person (often our friends, but not at that moment) parade their talents so that we can decide whether or not they fit into our “vision.” Our level of personal security is…oh, let’s say “skewed.”

Therefore, when things don’t go our way, it is very easy to blame the politics of theater. No one will produce my script because I don’t know the right people. They won’t cast me because I don’t have a chummy relationship with the director. And there might be some truth to the matter.

However, there’s an inherent surrender in comments like these. The truth is, theater – local or otherwise – is a small business, as the awesome Gary Garrison will tell you. If you don’t have connections, MAKE THEM. Lord knows I knew nobody in the playwriting biz when I started, and I can now count many amazing and successful writers among my friends…and those friendships have led to opportunities I never imagined. And really, all I did was send emails, go to productions whenever I could, and generally make an effort to connect with my fellow writers, to learn from them, to listen to them, and (especially?) to drink with them. I’ve had the luck and fortune to be able to travel, to take classes and seminars, to visit – granted, not everyone has that luxury. But isn’t that (along with odd abbreviations and kitty pics) what the internets are for?

And as for you actors & directors – yep. All things being equal, a director will choose someone they know & love over working with an unproven entity. Again, though – theater is a small, small world, and your rep, good or bad, will get around. Trust me. No one wants to work with people they…don’t want to work with, whether the gig is paid or volunteer. So how ‘bout your connections? Take a good, honest look at yourself and your history. Did you spend time complaining about the production to your fellow castmates, people who were actually having – or trying to have – a good time? Did you talk smack about your fellow actors to your friends, leaving said friends wondering what you’re saying about them to others? Were you obnoxious during auditions? A frequent absentee during rehearsals? (Let me tell ya, folks – if you must have a vice, make sure it ISN’T being the guy who calls in sick all the time.) Trouble-makers come in all shapes and sizes, and “insecurity” is no excuse…we’re ALL insecure, brother. When it comes down to it, them what duz the castin’ are going to choose the nice, supportive person over the talented painintheass every time. Politics? Not really. Just common sense. Being at the helm is a hugely daunting task – every move gets second-guessed, not least by yourself. Those of us who do it want to make things as stress-free as possible, and that means keeping the nasties at bay.

Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t back-scratchers out there, just like there are in every gig. And it doesn’t mean good actors & writers aren’t getting screwed out of great roles & shows because those in charge had their blinders on. But if they’d rather work with an old buddy over you, hey – it’s their loss. And probably a theatrical venture you’d rather not take. In the meantime, please remember that the best, most lasting connections start by being friendly and supportive, even (especially) behind backs.

More shattered illusions coming soon to a post near you…



Now THAT’S how you end a year.

God bless Google Alert. Usually it notifies me of an intertubes post from, say, 2006, but today I got a good ‘un:

IndyWeek’s Picks for Best Live Theater of 2009

My comments: I am equally honored and humbled. Honored, because North Carolina’s Indyweek is an excellent publication that respects the arts (eight critics for theater alone! How much space does YOUR local paper give the arts?) and takes criticism seriously – no free passes. And humbled, because “Green Eggs & Mamet” was part of a 10-show festival that was one of the best I’ve seen. It included Mark Harvey Levine’s LA 8 AM, Jennifer Maisel’s “Fissshhh,” and Stephanie Alison Walker’s “Melt” – three plays (among many others) that blew me away with their creativity and passion.

If I’m ever quoted for anything theatery, I hope it’s this: Playwrights don’t write plays. We write scripts. A play is the collective effort of many people – actors, directors, tech people, even the audience. And each of them is equally vital to the production. Maybe the audience is the most vital – if a play is performed in an empty theater, did it make a sound?

So thank you to everyone who created theater in 2009 – all of my comrades in playwriting and everyone who acts, directs, works backstage, ushers, bartends, reviews, and (maybe most importantly) supports theater by going to see shows.

Sentimental? Maybe. It’s New Year’s Eve. Gimme a break.



How to write a musical for fun and profit

Check THIS shit out. I’ll wait.

It could be fantastic. Seriously, it could. One of the great things about playwriting is that, in theory, anyone can do it. We’ve all seen plays, we’ve all had conversations, and to quote Captain Stillman, the only way to learn is to do it. And look who we have here: Stephen King, storyteller extraordinaire. John Mellencamp, who…ah…well, “Uh Huh” was a great album. And a bevy of talented and semi-hip singers. Should at least succeed as a great curiosity, right?

Of course, the playwright/composer in me is feeling a sensation of rueful laughter, dread, and out-and-out contempt (imagine Whatever Happened to Baby Jane-era Bette Davis chuckling over her fourth Rob Roy – that’s the feeling) that these non-theater punks think they can just waltz into my medium and cash in. After all, just because anyone can write a play doesn’t mean they should – playwriting is littered with failure, with unseen and unheard plays, with wonderful pieces of work that find themselves in a corner three pages from the ending with no way out. It’s taken years of mistakes for most of us to begin to understand the mysteries of the stage, to learn how to adapt story structure, to write dialogue that make actors look good, to use the very limitations of the stage to create worlds far larger than one can imagine – and the best of us STILL struggle to turn in a decent script.

Besides, look how many non-theater pirates have fallen on their rich little faces while trying to craft a play. Look at Tim Robbins – his satire Embedded is, by most accounts, a cartoonish bore, which came as happy news after I saw his obnoxious comments about theater on The Daily Show. And let’s not forget how Paul Simon turned himself into a theatrical cautionary tale with The Capeman. And while hiring Bono to write the music for a musical about Spider-Man SOUNDS like a great idea (if you’re on peyote, that is), early reports and delayed openings hint that epic disaster might be in the cards for Julie and the gang (the jury’s out, of course, but they’re salivating). It’s enough to make one treat themselves another Scotch. (Ah, Mr. Morangie…you beat out Miller, Close, and garry/ross as my favorite Glen.).

But still and all, I wish King & Kompany well. I’m not one of those who laments the brand-naming of Broadway – honestly, it would have died completely without Disney, so if Mel Brooks and big green ogres keep people buying tickets, so be it. Besides, sometimes our beloved boards DO need a good shaking up – look at Passing Strange and, before that, Hedwig and the Angry Inch – two shows that genuinely shook our idea of how to tell a story through music. Just because many of us find Stew’s contempt of musicals obnoxious doesn’t mean the man’s not a genius.

Still, though, I reserve my right to schadenfreude if Stephen and John discover that proficiency in one or two artistic mediums doesn’t necessarily translate to the stage. Besides, if it does fail, you know Uncle Steve will write a fantastic essay about it.



Episode 4: A New Hope.

It’s been, oh, a good 30 years or so since my last post. I’m hoping to remedy that as our millennium reaches 10…it turns out I have a lot to say, and when I don’t say it, I do things like buy Scotch and lose hair.

Playwriting has been quite the bugaboo for me lately. I wrote a few plays in 2009, including one hour-long kids’ musical and a few that were produced off-off-Broadway. But on the whole, I’ve become a cliche – the playwright who avoids playwriting. At times, I’ve avoided writing altogether. I’m not sure why, but I think insecurity and a touch of self-flagellation have something to do with it. This isn’t rare – no matter how many productions my plays get, no matter how much genuine success I might achieve, every time I sit down to write I will always have a nagging voice that says “all your past success means exactly nothing right now.”

The voice isn’t wrong, of course…success doesn’t make anyone good at what they do. But experience, practice, the genuine desire to learn…yep, there’s the rub. But the voice doesn’t want that. It wants passivity, surrender. It wants me to choose anything over active writing – Facebook, the Food Network, Wii Sports Resort, Smithwicks (all worthy opponents, of course).

But I’m getting a little tired of the voice. It’s time to create – plays, music, essays, thoughts, feelings, anything, really. I’ll also update this site in general, restoring my old posts, adding photos, hyping new productions. Hopefully, this will become an addiction that will take the place of some that cause much more damage in my life.

Thank you, my faithful readers. You are welcome to comment at will, but I must warn you that I get loads of fatty spiced ham in my comment sections, so it may not get posted right away. In the meantime, feel free to send me an email at matt (at) mattcasarino (dot) com.