Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lists, flaps and film flams: three playwrights offer fun, penetrating looks at the Byzantine business of writing.(BOOKS)(Free Fire Zone: A Playwright'

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One of my favorite quotes comes from the physicist Niels Bohr: "The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth." In new books about writing, playwrights Julie Jensen, Frank D. Gilroy and Theresa Rebeck posit different truths--and all three stand ready to unlock the verities they espouse through wisdoms, lists, tips, anxieties, warnings, guidelines, punchlines and epiphanies. All three of their books hold the potential to open the gate to new dramatic writing, a craft that can communally deepen the awareness of being human. Know thyself--and know which writing book is right for your particular process and level of ambition.

If you are a playwright who responds to sounds, one who writes from intuition and figures out the logic later, then Jensen's Playwriting, Brief & Brilliant will match your sensibility. Jensen hears the sound of a play and finds its rhythm through an intuitive approach, which can bypass analysis and yet actually get scenes written. After a couple of dozen of these short scenes are written in succession, Jensen's process calls for them to be sorted, edited and then rewritten. She rightfully notes that playwriting is a bi-brained task; sound is generated from the right brain and language from the left. She encourages aspiring writers to let the right brain lead the left toward a deeper, more instinctual truth.

In the same way a scintillating guest can lift a dull cocktail party with air and wit, Jensen is personable and enthusiastic whether delivering writing tips or a quick nuts-and-bolts guide to the business. In keeping with her play Last Lists of My Mad Mother, this slim volume is indeed full of lists of notions to keep in mind when focusing on components such as plot, character or dialogue. I found the lists to be the heart of the book: Jensen makes you feel anything can happen--but you have to have already had some experiences in playwriting. The chapter on writer's block is right on the money--in fact, this book might be just the right antidote to that common malady.

Where Jensen focuses solely on theatre writing, Gilroy and Rebeck are veterans of theatre as well as television and film, and provide insight into the differences, personal and political, of writing from the truth of one's being versus writing to pay the bills.

Gilroy states in his introduction to Writing for Love and/or Money: "I've been dead broke six times and if I don't sell something soon, it'll be seven." This is a book for the risk-taker who loves to tell stories despite adversity and financial ruin. It's a journeyman's take, spritely and badass, on weathering the instability of the professional writer's life. No straightforward lessons are offered, no lists, not even chapter headings--it's a fun, fast read, told in vignettes. The forward movement comes from Gilroy's desire to write his "great American play" (which he fulfilled in 1964 with The Subject Was Roses).

Beginning in 1939 (when he wrote his first one-page story), through his long-shot admittance into Dartmouth College (where he caught the playwriting bug) and his navigation through Hollywood, Gilroy is a gambler--he honed his instinct for drama through his experiences playing craps and betting on horses. Reading Writing for Love and/or Money is like hanging out with your favorite uncle and listening to old war stories. Gilroy models how to write a great character by being a great character.

And he is a greater portrayer of the writer's mind. Gilroy could be describing his own book when he evokes admired screenwriter William J. Bowers (The Gunfighter and The Sheepman): "He spouts anecdotes, observations and ideas--many of which could be developed into plays or films. One senses a story mind so rich, he can't spend it fast enough."

Equally entertaining and doubly informative is Rebeck's tour-de-force Free Fire Zone, a foray into present-day Hollywood and the current creative battlefields of show-business writing. While Gilroy is meeting with Walt Disney (who at one point offered him a lifetime contract, which Gilroy refused), Rebeck is meeting with Francis Ford Coppola and talking about "how to make this story more epic." Rebeck starts with a thorough overview of the craft of writing, but goes on to level with the reader about fame, money and power by addressing the writer's ego and the reasons writers feel compelled to write.

As she sure-handedly describes the power structures of television, film and theatre, Rebeck is clear-eyed about who holds the power and why. Her encounters with media megalomaniacs are particularly rich: She uses pseudonyms like Richard III and Caligula for producers and show-runners who scorch souls with the acquired pathologies of the business. It is our fortune to have a writer so fluent about actors, directors, critics and agents in all three of these mediums that she illustrates the writerly performances that are required to sustain and fulfill each.

Rebeck and Gilroy intersect when they view theatre writing as the one place to express oneself humanly--to fill one's depths after maneuvering the Byzantine power plays and raging egos in TV and film. Rebeck's third chapter on mendacity--the accepted dialects of lying--is worth the whole book. Free Fire Zone is edgy and fearless, in no small part because Rebeck so viscerally describes the experience of being a woman in a man's business--a place where one should "never look weak" and where one must take false statements as true.

Alice Tuan is a playwright and writing facilitator.

Named Works: Free Fire Zone: A Playwright's Adventures on the Creative Battlefields of Film, TV and Theater (Book) Book reviews; Playwriting, Brief and Brilliant (Book) Book reviews; Writing for Love and/or Money: Outtakes from a Life on Spec: The Early Years (Book) Book reviews

Source Citation:Tuan, Alice. "Lists, flaps and film flams: three playwrights offer fun, penetrating looks at the Byzantine business of writing.(BOOKS)(Free Fire Zone: A Playwright's Adventures on the Creative Battlefields of Film, TV and Theater)(Playwriting, Brief and Brilliant)(Writing for Love and/or Money: Outtakes from a Life on Spec, the Early Years)(Book review)." American Theatre 25.3 (March 2008): 44(2). Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 10 Oct. 2009

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