Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Staged Reading and What I Learned

Cast of the April 26th reading of Total War at Outpost 186. Note that Anthony DiBartolomeo has been replaced by Stuart G. Levy. The author regrets not taking more photographs.

Despite whatever the lone protester outside of Outpost 186 during the staged reading of Total War was attempting to do, the main event was inside.

Over the previous few days of read-throughs with some of the actors, and conversations with my stage manager, Anika Hannibal-Colvin, certain problems with the current draft became evident. Corrections were often made on the fly and and some notes regarding the next draft were written down. Some of these issues were reaffirmed when I listened to the staged reading with script in one hand and a pen in the other.

Before I engage in some-lengthy self critique, I should note that on the positive end, most of the comedic banter seemed to work, the more poetic florishes were effective, the characters came across as fleshed out, and the audience seemed engaged by the subject matter and storyline, but I had not produced the reading for the purpose of self-congratulation or solicitation of allocades. The purpose was to identify the flaws, and to give direction to the next rewrite.

The Reading:

As I listened, I noted that the second scene of the first act, which had been effective as a piece of written text and would likely work well if staged by a competent director, is dreadfully boring as a purely spoken text. While there are a few good dramatic moments in the scene, but it's basically an info-dump. I still think the play needs the scene, but the scene needs trimming.

The repetitions through the play were not nearly as bad as I feared during the read-throughs, but "not nearly as bad" does not mean "great."

The last scene was somewhat anticlimactic (as I had feared,) and while I am certain a good director could stage it so that it would be more dramatically satisfying, it seemed to me that the director's job is not to make up for the authors' short-comings.

The Talk Back:

Nika took charge during the talk-back, allowing me to take a minimal role in the conversation that followed between the audience and actors. I tried to take whatever notes I could, since the goal was neither to explain nor defend the work, but to listen to others.

Andrew Hicks, amongst the actors, was the most forthright in his criticism of over-reliance on "dialectics" in certain scenes. If I understand correctly that he means philosophical back and forth about epistemology that strays away from the more concrete issues explored by the rest of the play. Jonah, the character Andrew portrayed, certainly should be concerned with epistemology, but for him to go on at length about epistemology without reference to Jewish-Catholic relations or Holocaust denial (the two historical issues the play dwells upon) amounts to a distraction and fails to convey how intertwined Jonah's emotional and intellectual life are. Some of the audience (again, otherwise engaged by other aspects of the story) stated that they felt somewhat alienated in those sections.

A number of other notes from the audience concerned simply placement of scenes, or emotional content of specific scenes. One phenomenon I noticed more than once was that when members of the audience (even in one case, a veteran actor) questioned the emotional tone of certain scenes or relationships between the characters, the actors playing those scenes were quick to defend the emotional aspect. This, I suppose, might a consequence of the very different ways the actors and audience experience the characters.

While some would balk at inviting a critic to attend the reading of a work-in-progress, Thomas Garvey's presence was invaluable during the talk-back. Besides complementing my use of several layers of irony, and his exploration of the less-than-noble qualities of the protagonist, he keenly identified the central conflict arc, and how it failed to advance beyond a certain point, though also pointing out that to fully develop this arc would require a substantial rewrite.


The play is not hurt by the research I conducted, but there is such a thing as putting too much of my research into the dialogue. The characters who are motivated by ideology (whether political or theological) were made authentic by the research, but if I made an error, it is that I felt the need to present a logical proof of their authenticity.

Scenes are weighed down by dialectics about historiography, truth in the post-modern era and theology, and a few audience members reported not being able to follow the discussion even if they were engaged by the rest of the story. It's not just a matter of shortening these passages: the lines from these scenes that use more metaphorical or allegorical language are more successful: they convey the emotion and they give the actors and audience more with which to work. After all, Plato's dialogues are rarely performed on stage, and to the extent anyone outside the world of Plato scholarship remembers any part of his ouvre, it's because of a notable allegory or sensual subject matter. Those who enjoy dialectics should be able to extrapolate the argument from the poetry, but for the rest, give them poetry.

I was working with a smart group of actors, but there were several points where I let them down at times by inserting jokes that not only required specialized knowledge to understand (and therefore deliver) but they were further obscured by the fact that the script did not even provide a hint to the actor as to where the could look up the concept being lampooned. (Even from my perspective, they were not the funniest jokes in the play.) Telling the actors (as I did to Andrew Hicks and Tom Sprague during the read-throughs) that "deliver anything that looks like a joke as a joke" simply isn't giving the actors a chance to inhabit the characters.

And now, to begin the rewriting...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Total War Picketed in Cambridge!

Before I recap the staged reading of Total War, a process that has helped me immensely as a playwright attempting to develop his first full-length play, I have have to share with you the performance that was going on outside of the venue.

The reading had attracted a protestor. Total War is primarily about Jewish-Catholic relations, and secondarily about Holocaust denial, it doesn't portray student journalists in a very kindly manner. So one might imagine that a reading, which has been mostly promoted through the blogosphere and social networking sites, were it to be protested at all, might be protested by, say, a traditionalist Catholic group, but instead we have:

Close-up. Slight photo manipulation to make signs more legible. Note Hamas-flag and rejection of a two-state solution to Israeli-Palestinian conflict on signs.

This is not the first time I have encountered this man, who, as one can see, practically wraps himself in the Palestinian flag. He first came to my attention when he and a group identified as Boston Anti-Zionist Action (BAZA - website hasn't been updated in over a year) were heckling a bill of genocide survivors who had come to speak at a rally in solidarity with the people of Darfur. I later discovered that his name was David Rolde, former Party Secretary of the Green-Rainbow Party of Massachusetts, and at least as of October 10, 2007, was still listed as serving on the GRP State Committee. (On October 29, 2007, Nathanael Fortune, Co-Chair of the GRP informed me, that Rolde had resigned from the party.)

The oddest thing about Rolde's "protest" was that Total War is not about any aspect of the Middle East conflict: it's about Jews and Catholics. However, this did not stop Rolde from shouting "Jewish murderers!" as nauseum in a whiny voice while partially blocking the footpath between Outpost 186 and the sidewalk. I suppose he takes his street performance anywhere there might be an event that could be termed "pro-Jewish."

Periodically as the actors were preparing, I would step out onto the patio of Outpost, unable to restrain a chuckle as I could not make any sense of why he was protesting Total War. Eventually, I called out to him something along the lines of:

"Excuse me, do you know what tonight's play is about?"

To which Rolde responded, "It's a play about Holocaust denial but you're denying the genocide in Palestine! You're a Holocaust denier!"

"I'm not sure you understand the meaning of the word 'genocide.'" said I, only to take on a more condescending tone, "You could, of course, use the word to mean anything you please just because you know is has emotional resonance, but that doesn't mean you know what you're talking about. Would you like to come inside and see the play and maybe learn something?"

Rolde scuffled a few feet down the sidewalk so that my view was largely occluded by the fence. He quieted down for a few minutes. I have no idea of he scared any potential audience members away, though he apparently had a verbal altercation with at least one late arrival.

Next: The reading itself, and what I learned.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Motionary Contest

Agata Stadnik, a graduate student at Mass College of Art and Design, and MIT, initiated the Motionary project as part of her work. She had come to my recent performance at Stone Soup and invited me to participate. Part of that participation was a contest in which I was asked to improvise a definition of four words using only movement.

These are all first passes, unrehearsed, and should not be taken to be completed pieces. The YouTube audience is invited to vote on the pieces as part of the contest. There's a whopping $50 at stake!

(My personal favorite of the bunch)

Vote or comment here.


Vote or comment here.


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Vote or comment here.

Friday, April 17, 2009

April 26th: A Staged Reading of "Total War" @ Outpost 186

Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sunday, April 26th, 8pm:

Ian Thal hosts a staged reading of his play, Total War, at Outpost 186, located at 186 1/2 Hampshire Street, Cambridge MA.

Total War was recently named a semi-finalist in the 2009 Dorothy Silver Playwriting Competition. The reading is an opportunity both for the author to develop the play through listening and for an audience to experience a stripped-down version of a work-in-progress. A talk-back will follow the reading.

The reading will feature the talents of local actors including: Dale Appel, Anika M. Colvin-Hannibal, John M. Costa, Anthony DiBartolomeo, Mikey DiLoreto, Lou Fuoco, Kate Heffernan, Andrew Hicks, Lesley Anne Moreau, Krystle Spoon, and Tom Sprague.

Total War is a five-act play set at a Catholic university where the student newspaper has published a Holocaust denial advertisement. While faculty and staff attempt to show solidarity with the small Jewish community on campus, an anarchist-cell using the nom de guerre of “Total War” begins a campaign of guerrilla art attacks before a predictable dialogue on free speech and religious pluralism can begin.

Though a work of fiction, Total War was inspired by events Thal witnessed while attending graduate school, exploring the history (and potential futures) of Jewish-Catholic relations, historical memory, and the conflict between grass-roots activism and institutional power. It is a story made timely after the scandal surrounding Vatican’s recent lifting of the excommunication of the anti-Semitic Society of Saint Pius X and its Holocaust-denying Bishop, Richard Williamson.

Facebook users can RSVP here

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Cast for Staged Reading of "Total War"

In the process of learning that self-producing a staged reading is harder work than I expected, I have assembled a cast of players to help me with the April 26th reading of Total War at Outpost 186:

Duane McCormack: Anthony DiBartolomeo

N.B.: Stuart G. Levy played the part of Duane on April 26th.

Edith Havilland: Kate Heffernan

Donald Crincoli: Mikey DiLoreto

Jonah Gringer: Andrew Hicks

Andrea Kunst: Krystle Spoon

Father Aldobrandini: Lou Fuoco

Erica Weiss: Lesley Anne Moreau

Father John Bullock: Tom Sprague

Richard Doncaster: John M. Costa

Campus Police Officer: Dale Appel

Stage Directions: Anika M. Colvin-Hannibal

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Still Seeking Actors for Staged Reading of "Total War"

I've received several responses already, but I am still seeking actors to round up the cast for the staged reading of Total War which was recently declared a semi-finalist in this year's Dorothy Silver Playwriting Competition.

The reading will be held at Outpost 186 in Cambridge, MA on April 26th. The primary purpose of the reading is to allow me to hear the dialogue spoken aloud, and thus aid my rewriting process.

Interested actors should consult the character breakdown.