Thursday, 19 April 2012

When clear is not clear enough...or is it??

I have been sitting on this quote which I found in the Calgary Herald on March 14th, searching for an opportune time to blog about it. The quote in question...

"In the absence of defining information, people project what they believe should be there. People are emotional and they want to engage with emotional characters. They will often engage their own psychology to do that. They will assume causality and infer narrative."

This past weekend I had the great pleasure of working with Sharon Cavanagh on her new play The Final Word. It's the story of an aging poet who has come to the Minister of Culture to demand a statue be erected of him. The language is poetic and offers a discussion on the nature of art and politics. While working on the play, questions came up on a couple of occasions regarding how a moment was to be played. Where I, as the director and dramaturg, understood a moment one way, Sharon understood it differently when she wrote it. Neither interpretation was incorrect, based on the material Sharon had written, even though they were in direct opposition of each other. On each occasion I deferred to Sharon. After all, she should know the answer as she wrote it. But on each occasion it became clear to the both of us that there was a lot of room for interpretation. So the question I posed to Sharon was "Have you provided a director or actor with enough information to ensure that your choices become their choices? If you wish them to approximate your thoughts and interpretation, have you given them enough information to get there?" I love this play and nothing stated above is meant as a criticism of the work. (How's that for clarity? Notice how I used Bold and Italics to be clear about this point. You should be able to infer how strongly I believe in that statement.)

While I don't think one can create with this quote in the front of your mind, it is an interesting thought to keep in the back of your mind when working on your next great play. A play can be overwritten as easily as a play can be underwritten. The overwritten work provides no room for interpretation by the artists or audience, while the underwritten provides no defining information and can be anything to to anyone. On a theatrical spectrum you could put Norm Foster at one end and Samuel Beckett at the other. Where does your work live? One interpretation or many? Are you generating the meaning of your work or is the audience? Are you providing us with enough of a context for thought?

So where did this quote come from? Shall I keep that a secret and have you infer it came from a writer? Well I won't. The quote wasn't from a writer at all. The quote came from David Mark an expert in Artificial Intelligence, speaking at a gaming conference, about creating video game characters.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Playwright Profile: Neil Fleming

Neil is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter based in Calgary. His plays include: Outside, Anomaly, Security, Last Christmas (Lunchbox), 6-Car Pile-Up, Corpsing, He Said, She Said (Radio Nights), John Doe/Jack Rabbit (Ground Zero/FireBelly Theatre) and Honesty (Two Sheds Theatre Troupe). In the past Neil has served on the APN board as President and as Alberta Rep on the National Council for the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Neil splits his time writing plays, being creative at joe: media group, hanging with his girls Jane and Emma, walking his dog Pippin, and playing left wing for the Hosers. Visit

1) What is your writing process? Do you start writing right away? Outline? Research?
I usually have a bunch of different ideas gestating all at once. Whichever one bubbles to the top is the one that gets my attention first. Once I’m ready to put it down on paper, I do a rough structural outline. I really enjoy the discoveries of a first draft, so I don’t tend to over-plan, but I work better in a framework, with key moments laid out to aim for. I always try and know the ending before I begin.

2) Where do you write?
On my laptop – wherever it happens to be.

3) What do you need to have with you when you write?
I like to have internet access for on the fly fact-checking. A note pad. Coffee. Chocolate. Later on, Irish whiskey.

4) What is the last great play you saw? What made it great?

Ooo. Tough one. I’m going to go with Stephen Massicotte’s “The Clockmaker”. I loved its absurd style mingled with the realistic tension of an abusive relationship. I loved that it kept me guessing all the way until the end. As a writer, I can’t shut off the story machine in my head, so watching a play that I can’t predict the outcome is a rare joy. In the end I had that feeling of satisfaction you get when you finish a large crossword puzzle without cheating.

5) Mac or PC?
13” Macbook. iPhone 3GS. iPad2.

6) Who are your mentors?
I don’t know if I have a mentor per se – maybe I should though. I know I learned a lot about playwriting from Gordon Pengilly and Sharon Pollock through programs at APN. I learned a lot about craft from dramaturgs like Shari Wattling, Vanessa Porteous, Vicki Stroich, Trevor Rueger, and Johanne Deleeuw. I learned a lot about the business of being a writer from Vern Thiessen.

7) Do you have writing rituals?
Aside from the sacrificing of a virgin Oilers Fan before sitting down to right a first draft. Not really.

8) Best advice for when you hit a wall?
Step back. Usually when you hit a wall it is because you (or a character) need(s) to make an important decision. You need to step back and look at the question that needs answering before you can go ahead. These are great opportunities to make a decision on behalf of your characters, that not only solves the problem, but makes the drama higher and their situation worse. Step back. Examine. Decide. Carry on.

9) Best piece of grammar or style advice?
The world of the play is up to you, but if it is not the normal world, you need to fill us in on the rules. The audience will come into your world if you tell them how your world works. The problem is, you must follow the rules you have laid out, or risk losing us to confusion and frustration. Make your own rules, but follow them to the letter.

10) If you were to write a play about your own life, what would the opening line be?
“When I was a kid, I really wanted to be James Bond, or Luke Skywalker, or Indiana Jones, or… I guess what I really wanted was an adventure. I didn’t realize at the time, that life itself is kind of the ultimate adventure.”