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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Blast from My Past

Many years ago, before writing Murder Mysteries, among other things, I wrote music reviews for a local St. Louis paper called "Spotlight". Since I was expressing my opinion on local and national recordings, I thought it best to use an alternate name or pen name if you will. I guess I thought that if I used my real name and I happened to write a less than favorable review, the musicians could find me and express their displeasure. So, I invented a name or character if you will.
Quick back story, for years I had this problem, I apparently looked like "Jim" or someone named "Jim". Countless times, I would be approached in a public place or party and asked if my name was Jim. No, sorry, it's not. No Jim here.
Anyway, while deciding what my "pen" name should be, I thought about my Jim issue. I went on to think...Hmmm, you know, there seems to be a "cult" of people out in the world that think I was this guy named Jim. Aha! Perfect! Thus my pen name became.. are you ready? "Jim Cult". Yep.
One of the bands I wrote about and reviewed were called "The Eyes". The Eyes were a very popular local group that drew national attention. Eventually, they were signed by Atlantic Records and had to change their name, (see they did it too) and became "Pale Divine". Well, Pale Divine imploded after one record, but the guitarist Rich Fortus has gone on in the music industry to great things. In fact he is now a member of the newer Guns n Roses.
This past Monday, December 29th 2008, "Pale Divine" reunited for one night in St. Louis at The Pageant and played to a packed house. The reason I am telling you all of this - is that I found a The Eyes/Pale Divine website. On the site, under their "Press" tab, I found 2 of my old reviews listed. I almost don't remember writing them, but I thought I would share a little bit of what I used to do. Keep in mind I was much younger back then, but weren't we all. Here are the reviews:
"Just Released: 'Freedom in a Cage'"
Spotlight, April 6, 1989 (by Jim Cult) all rights reserved.

You may have to listen to Freedom in a Cage more than once to convince yourself that this is a locally produced product. Yes, the Eyes are a local band, and they've just come out with a superior cassette. Hats off to Dave Probst for an outstanding mixing and engineering job. The overall sound quality makes for an aural experience. "Body Fall" pulls you in one side with a few delicate acoustic notes, then dives into a powerful punch of rich harmonies and driving rhythms. "Way Strange" follows with searing guitar work from Richard Fortus. His lead work is like a wild fire that can barely be kept under control. Michael Schaerer ignites each song with powerful vocals, his range and approach setting the musical atmosphere. For example, "The Closet," which depicts a boy who's hiding after experiencing motherus-interuptus in a girlfriend's bedroom, becomes dark an foreboding through Schaerer's haunting vocal approach. Also, take note of Greg Miller's off-kilter attack on drums in the songs - it really adds to the tension of the lyrical content and mood. All ten songs on the tape are wonderfully crafted, there are no throw-away fillers here. The stand out track has to be "Delicate Balance," with its funky, winding tempo highlighted by Fortus' bouncing riff what wraps around Dan Angenend Jr's perfect, popping bass groove.We could go on and on here, but it would suffice to say that Freedom in a Cage is one rockin'-sonic-funk, dance-to-the-music, I-want-to-take-you-higher, get-up-like-a-sex-machine, let-me-stand-next-to-your-fire feast of excellent songcrafting. It's a must hear cassette by a top notch St.Louis band. Nuff said.


But wait! There's more.

The Audio File: “Straight To Goodbye, Pale Divine”
Atlantic/Atco Records
Spotlight, October 1991 (by Jim Cult) all rights reserved.

You may have heard it all by now: Record deal… long wait… name change… blah, blah, blah… et cetera, et cetera. Let’s cut to the exposition and go straight to Straight To Goodbye. You’ve probably heard most of these songs live or at least some of them on Freedom In a Cage, the independent cassette/cd, released a couple years ago.

Well, producer Simon Rogers has captured and kept the heart and energy of the initial compositions. Rogers, who has worked with the Fall and Peter Murphy in the past, seems to have let Pale Divine define their own sound. Categorizing the early Eyes’ sound found lines drawn to bands such as Mission U.K., the Church and so on… but some of the newer material carries hints of older influences. You may hear a touch of Beatles in “Universe” with its Eastern sitar-ish mysticism, a slice of Bowie in “It Couldn’t Happen To You” and even a hint of Hendrix in “Something About Me” with Rich Fortus’ feverish wah-induced fret work. But, of course, similarities are only in the ear of the beholder. Naturally, there is the original Divine sound. The best example can be found in the song “Anything” with its rich melodies, lush harmonies and lyrical quips like: “And if I have to sell you/What’ll you buy?”

A note on the atmosphere that Michael Schaerer’s lyrics present: Let’s just say they are not the “feel good” images of the year – somewhat lost and lonely, seething with neurosis. The only real love song is “Cigarette.”

The overall essence of strong guitar work and melodic presence that is the core of Pale music is enhanced by producer Rogers. The dynamics that one loses in live settings or local recordings, Rogers captures with crystal clarity. My only problem with the recording is some of the placement levels. Greg Miller’s drums are a tad subdued on most songs, with the exception of “Flow My Tears,” where they pound prominently under Schaerer’s tortured vocal. Also, the background harmonies on “Anything” area little light compared to how I usually enjoy hearing them. Aside from these minor peeves, Straight To Goodbye is an outstanding recording. The band’s basic inimitable sound is intact and enhanced on a professional level, allowing fans of Pale Divine or first-time listeners to hear their music in its purest form.


By the way. I did go to the Pale Divine reunion show. And not once did anyone ask if my name was Jim.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Death of A Doornail raises funds for Great Cause


LUVLife the High School youth group with First Presbyterian Church in Pueblo, Colorado will be presenting "Death Of A Doornail" by Lee Mueller to raise money for the national nonprofit Project C.U.R.E.

From the Puelbo Chieftain Online
After trips to Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic in 2006 and 2007, the youth group decided to forgo a summer mission trip this year to save money.

Instead, they devoted themselves to raising money to help equip the hospital they helped to build last summer, along with other volunteers under the auspices of Ministries in Action, in the town of Hato Nuevo, just outside Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

Their goal is $20,000 by the time the hospital opens next year, and they've raised more than $8,300 so far with regular chile and cornbread dinners at the church, calendar and bake sales and other events.


Performances for the Murder Mystery will begin at 6 p.m., starting with hors d'oeuvres in the fellowship hall. The first act of "Death of a Doornail" will follow in the sanctuary. Dinner will be served during intermission, when audience members will be given clues about the identity of the "who" in the whodunit.


WHAT: "Death of a Doornail" dinner theater

WHERE: First Presbyterian Church, 220 W. 10th St.

WHEN: 6 p.m. Sunday November 9th 2008 (Saturday is sold out)

TICKETS: $10 at the door

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Staying Dead at Magic Valley Little Theater


I posted previously about Magic Valley Little Theater presenting my play "Stay As Dead As You Are" about a wacky high school reunion, but I came across this nice little promotional piece at Magicvalley.com. I recommend if you are in the Southern Idaho area to check out their production.

By Erica Littlefield
Times-News correspondent
Story published at magicvalley.com on Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Audience members will find themselves in the middle of the action at Magic Valley Little Theater's latest production.

"Stay As Dead As You Are" is interactive dinner theater, and the audience will have several opportunities to participate in the show. Director Julie Dodson said dinner theater is a more personal, intimate theater experience because the audience members can be involved as much or as little as they want.

"It's fun for them to be involved with the show," Dodson said. "You feel like you're part of the cast."

The dinner theater opened Thursday night at the Turf Club in Twin Falls and runs through Saturday.

Dodson said the show is a murder mystery with lots of comedy thrown in as well. It takes place at a reunion of Slightly Left of Central High School, class of 1995. Barbara "Babs" Gleeson, the peppy class president and organizer of the reunion, is doing her best to make sure things run smoothly, but things go awry. Two of the reunion's attendees are wounded in the parking lot, and when shots ring out and Egbert the janitor disappears, every classmate is a suspect.

After getting up close and personal with the actors as they mingle before the show, the audience can ask them questions to help figure out who the murderer might be.

"Right from the beginning, they're part of the show," Dodson said. "It's different than watching a typical show in an auditorium."

Interactive shows like "Stay As Dead As You Are" present a challenge for the cast because they test the actors' improvisation skills. Stacie Jensen, who plays Babs, said the majority of the show is scripted. However, when it comes to actors' contact with the audience, they have to think on their feet. Jensen said she and the rest of the cast have done exercises and worked with Dodson to brush up on their ad-libbing skills.

"I'm pretty much ready for anything," Jensen said. "It's never the same twice. It's always different, and it keeps you on your toes."

Dodson believes audiences will enjoy the play's zany characters and trying to find out whodunit. But she also has a caveat: Things might not be what they seem, and the culprit might not be who you think.

"It surprised me the first time I read it," Dodson said.

Friday, October 10, 2008

More on writing and recognizing the Cliches

I have found that many people don't recognize the Cliche factor of most stories until you point it out. Cliches aren't obvious because the public's disbelief has been suspended so deeply, it resides in a fog somewhere in the back of their minds.

I have this "bit" I do with a friend of mine that's based on a line I heard from a local stand up comedian. The comedian said he was watching a rerun of "Three's Company" the other night. "It was the one where there was a major misunderstanding."

We took the premise of the joke and found we could apply it to almost any TV show. At parties or other social functions, as we are standing around interacting with people, one of us will start the bit:

"Hey you know, I was watching a old Don Knotts movie the other night. It was great!"
"Really? Which one was it?"
"It was the one where he got real nervous and scared."
"Oh yea. I saw that one! "
"And then I saw an old "Leave It To Beaver" the other day, maybe you'll remember it. It was the one where Beaver does something he wasn't supposed to do because his friends talked him into it. Then Ward finds out and has a talk with Beaver that has a moral lesson."
"Oh Right! That's my favorite episode! Speaking of which, did you ever see that one "Gilligan's Island", where they almost get rescued but Gilligan somehow messes it up at the end?"

As we go on with our, slowly you can see the light of recognition come on in the eyes of people around us and someone will finally say, "But, that's EVERY episode!"
My point exactly. Sometimes you can take the cliche and reuse it over and over and no one will realize it. Some people make a living doing that. Andy Warhol became famous for painting ordinary objects: Brillo Pad boxes, Tomato Soup Cans etc.. Common objects we see everyday, but presented in a new and different way.

Once you are aware of the cliches and the basic plot lines, the creativity comes in trying to dress them up and sneak them into the party. It's similar to the old saying that you have to "know the rules before you break them." If we take the old "romance" plot of "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back" and twist the ending where suddenly the boy really doesn't want the girl back - or "doesn't give a damn" - you have "Gone With The Wind".

If you take a few standard plots, one about a washed up boxer who doesn't throw the fight when he's supposed to, and another one about two bad guys who hunt down a stolen briefcase and try to get it back to their boss, mix in a little romance and have a few threads that connect all the stories, you may have something the public has already seen. But what if you chop up the story? Take the beginning of the story and put it at the end. Take the ending and move it to the middle. Take the middle and use it at the beginning. That way, no one will notice the cliches. Then you have "Pulp Fiction".

Again, once you recognize the cliches and become aware of them, they are much easier to manipulate.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Write Idea Redux

I posted this a while back but have re-written it and added a bit.


You would really like to write a novel, a short story, a play or something but are really not sure where to start or how to go about it. Well, there are endless "How To" books and some great College Courses you could take to get you started. Some of the books and the classes will have you sit down with a piece of paper and just start writing. Others may have you write a detailed outline before you start. The bottom line is there are countless ways you can learn about writing and the creative process. But one of the first things you need before you sit down and write, or even outline, is an idea.

What's The Big Idea

For example; In order to write on this subject, I had an idea. You see, I write Murder mystery plays and many times, after the productions, people have come up to me and asked questions such as:
"Where do you get your ideas?"
"How did you come up with that?"
Each time I hear those questions, I try to provide an easy answer, but the truth is, I really don't know how to explain it in an easy way. In the simplest terms, I get ideas and they become stories or plays. But to really explain the whole creative process of how an idea pops in my head, the transformation it goes through until it makes it onto paper, would take a while.

Over the years, the more that people asked me about my ideas, the more I was forced to actually think about the ideas and the process I go through. I've thought about the "where I get ideas" and the "how I get ideas" and the deeper I thought about it, I realized there are probably an infinite number of answers, just as there are an infinite number of "How To" books and methods learning to be creative and get ideas.

I also noticed that the same people who posed the "where do you get your ideas?" question, would inevitably go on to tell me about an idea they had for a story or a play, so it was clear they were able to get ideas, in much the same way I did. I also noticed that most of the time the questions turn from the "creative" to the "technical". The question "where do you get your ideas?" was really an icebreaker that leads to:
"Do you write in morning or the evening?"
"Do you use a pencil and paper or a computer?" If I used a pencil was it a Number 2 or did I prefer a pen.
"What kind of pen?" If I used the computer, "what software did I use and which is best?"
I believe every person who starts out writing is eager to know how other writers write. I confess that I asked those same questions and read every book I could on creative writing. You see, writers who are start out , want to know if they are doing it right. I can tell you, after asking all of the usual questions and reading most of the books, and you may have heard this before: there is no "right way". You simply need to try different methods and find the one you in which you are most comfortable.

I find that writing in the early morning is the best time for me. My brain is not overloaded with the crap of the day. My thoughts are just waking up and are still tainted in dream like state. I'm not thinking about what a lousy day I had at work and the rude guy that cut me off on the highway or that my lunch was dreadful. But maybe the end of the day works for other people when all the events of the day provide a catalyst for their creative process.

I've read that Marcel Proust had a padded sound proof room that he locked himself away in to write. He has issues with outside interference such as people or sounds. He needed it quiet to remember all things past. On the flip side, I read that Charles Dickens was the complete opposite. If there were a dinner party going on at his home, he would simply bring his writing table out into the room and continue to work in the the midst of the party. Two great writers, but two completely separate styles. Again this proves the point, that there is no right way.

On the technical side, I use computer to write most of the time. I don't have a particular brand of software that I use, I've used plain old Notepad and Wordpad. Sometimes I use a pen and whatever I can find to write upon. These writing methods are the habits I have developed and that I am comfortable with. Whatever method you develop will become your habit. The possibilities are endless, however, the basic stories you can come up with are not endless. Only the way you tell it.

What Do You Mean?

As far as ideas for stories or plays, it has been proposed that there are a limited number of plots or formulas that a writer has to choose from. Every book, play, movie etc.. is just a variation of those basic plots. As an example, Murder Mystery: someone gets murdered and someone figures out who did it. Pretty straight forward.

Other genres such as romance has the standard boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. And there's the "Hero's journey" where a common person is suddenly thrust into some type of adventure where maybe he or she has to travel a great distance, over land, sea or even within to overcome an obstacle, solve some problem or defeat a force such as evil. Most fantasy/ adventure books and movies use the hero's journey as it's core: Star Wars, Lord of The Rings, Rambo etc...

So when someone asks, "Where do you get your ideas?" it's pretty safe to say, I get them from the formulas that all ready exist. The trick is taking those ideas and create a variation that is so unique, people won't recognize it right away. An idea is in essence, a method to reinvent a story that has all ready been told. It like taking a cliche and wording it so that it sounds brand new. You can bring your horse over to the creek. But if he's not very thirsty, odds are he will will just look at the water.

Song Remains The Same

I thought about this the other night as they were promoting the new season of "Lost". I made a joke by saying, "I liked this show the first time, when it was called 'Gilligan's Island'". Granted, Lost and Gilligan's Island are completely different TV shows but the basic formula is the same. Take a bunch of different character types, put them through a catastrophic event: ship wreck/plane wreck, throw them onto an island that's cut off from the rest of the world and watch how they interact.

Disaster movies use the same basic formula of throwing different "types" together and have them work toward a common goal which is survival. To make the plot interesting you must have "Conflict". Conflict -which is the 'stuff' that moves the story along and makes it interesting, will come from the different characters as they work toward something. One character want to solve a problem this way, while another wants to do it that way. Conflicting types of characters make it interesting. The Captain and his first mate. A Millionaire and his wife. A movie star. The Professor and Mary Anne...etc.. A key ingredient of any good story is having different types of characters who will interact, clash and argue. If seven people who were all passive vegetarians were shipwrecked on an island, it would get dull after 5 minutes. They may fight over the last coconut but that's about it. Throw in an aggressive meat eater and you create conflict. The conflict is the substance you use to hide the bare fact that the plot has been used a million times.


Building ideas Outside the Building

So, I maintain that the key to creative writing isn't so much in your idea but how you present it. Here is an example of my spin on the murder mystery formula:

I wrote a play called "I'm Getting Murdered In The Morning" and the setting was a wedding reception. I got the idea when I was at a friends wedding reception. I wrote another mystery play called "Stay As Dead As You Are" that was set at a High School Reunion. Any guesses where I got that idea? Ideas are easy.

My Process

For most of the murder mystery plays I write, I get an idea for the "setting" first. The setting can be also thought of as - a plot of land in which I'm going to build a house. The play is my house and I need somewhere to build it: a wedding reception, a corporate meeting, a talk show and so on. Next I need to fill the house with characters. I ask myself what kind of characters would be in this house or setting? For example, a wedding reception of course would have the bride and groom, the best man and maid of honor and so forth. Since it will be a murder mystery play, someone will have to be murdered and someone will figure it out. In this case, my A to B to C is pretty much laid out in advance. My goal is to take the standard formula of a murder mystery and the stock characters that you would find in these settings and shake them into something different so it becomes creative. I need to reword the cliche.

Anyway, while I was at the "real" wedding reception, which was held in a large banquet hall that had 4 or 5 other reception rooms and on this particular night, there were at least 3 or 4 other receptions going on at the same time, I had noticed a funny thing. As you may know, some people at wedding receptions tend to consume various beverages that impair their judgment and if you're impaired and chances of getting lost and ending up in an wrong room at a different reception are very good. This was the funny thing I kept noticing. People at the "Smith Reception" ended up in the "Jones Reception" etc.. So, while the basic idea of Wedding Reception murder mystery entered my mind, so did this idea of people wandering around, getting lost and ending up in the wrong rooms.

Rewording the Cliche

In the script, I had various odd characters walking into the play and realizing they were at the wrong place. I took this idea all the way down to the final "who-done-it payoff at the end. If someone at a large facility could wind up mistaking one room and one reception for the other, why couldn't a murderer mistake one room and one person for another? So at the traditional ending, where we discover the murderer's motive, which are traditionally things such as greed, lust or revenge, the killer in my script admits it was a mistake. Wrong room, wrong person. While I stuck with the basic formula, some one gets murdered and someone does it, I changed up the 'resolution' to make it different.

So the essential answer the question, "Where do you get your ideas?" would be, I take standard formulas and rework them into something that appears different. But then the question that would follow, or at least one I would ask is, how do you do that? How do you take something that has been done a million times and get a an idea on how to mold into something that appears brand new?

Stuck in the Muck

To that question, I will use a old cliche and that is "free your mind". I will explain, a good friend of mine reads every vampire book that comes out. Is a fan of every TV show and movie related to Vampires. He knows all you can know about the subject. He writes stories and screenplays all about vampires, which is fine because right now, there is a huge market for vampire related stuff. Problem is, he knows nothing else. His mind is totally and utterly locked into the Vampire genre. In the vampire genre of story-telling, since there are so many stories, movies etc.. all the really good "spins" are being taken and beaten into the ground. Since that is all he reads and watches, his chances for creating something new are getting smaller and smaller every day.

So what should he do? Simple. Read or watch something other than vampire related material. Something completely 180 degrees the other way. Why? Because new inventive ideas are applied to all genres: drama, comedies, action adventure, romance, sci-fi and so forth. As strange as it may sound, even though I write murder mysteries, I do not read or watch any murder mystery related materials.

Long ago, I have learned to open the creative side of my mind up to all possible sources of input. I became a fan of everything. I rarely watch prime time television or mainstream movies. Instead I watch old foreign films: French, Italian, Swedish, Japanese etc.. New foreign films. Documentaries. I don't listen to popular music. I listen to classical, Jazz, Blues, World Beat, Alternative, experimental.

The basic idea is to absorb everything that is out there. Because everything that is out there is doing the same thing and that is taking cliche idea and reinventing them into something different. Being open to all forms of stories, films, music, whatever, opens you creative channels to new and different possibilities.

Same Old Song and Dance

I remember enjoying the movie "The Magnificent Seven" when I was a kid. I took a film course in college and saw the Akira Kurosawa film, "Shichinin No Samurai" (Seven Samurai) and realized that the "Magnificent Seven" was actually remake of that film. I went on to learn that another Kurosawa film called "Yojimbo" was re-made 3 years later as an "Spagetthi Western" called "Per Un Pugno Di Dollari" or "A FistFul Of Dollars" with Clint Eastwood. And then in 1996, it was re-made yet again as "Last Man Standing".
The funny thing about this, is that the original story of "Yojimbo" was taken from a novel called "Red Harvest" by Dashiell Hammett.
So, here is a case where an old detective novel was read by a great Japanese Film maker who reworked the basic idea into a Samurai film. Granted, Kurosawa has made many Samurai films, but the point is the source for this film had nothing to do with Samurai material.
Seven Samurai was seen by another great film maker from Italy named Sergio Leone. Leone reworked the Samurai idea into a Western. Eventually, the American director Walter Hill reworked the Western idea into a gangster movie.
The same idea, spun three different ways into something new. If Akira Kurosawa hadn't opened himself to other ideas or literature beyond his Japanese heritage and found an American Crime Novel called "Red Harvest" , "Yojimbo" would never had been born. And if Sergio Leone had only stuck with traditional Italian cinema, he never would have seen "Yojimbo" and we may never have heard the term "Spagetthi Western".

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Magic Valley Little Theater Stays Dead

The Magic Valley Little Theater - located in Magic Valley, Idaho will be presenting Stay As Dead As You Are which is about a High School Reunion that becomes slightly dangerous.

This was one of the first Murder Mysteries I wrote where I wanted to take a major left turn in so far as formula. Instead of the traditional, someone is murdered and someone figures it out... instead I... well, I can't really give that away now can I? Let's just say, High School reunions may be traditional, but this "murder mystery" is not. Anyway, if you are in the Southern Idaho region, here are the details:


Doors will open at 6:00 with a no-host bar, with dinner to be served at 6:30. Tickets will be available at Everybody's Business and Kelley Garden Center in Twin Falls, Arlene's Flowers in Jerome, The Dutch Garden in Wendell, SAV-MOR Drug in Buhl, and from any cast member.


Seating is limited, so advance purchase is recommended. Tickets are $25 per
individual, and $45 per couple. For more information you may contact
Julie Dodson at 404-3170, or Stacie Jensen at 420-4169.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

New Site For Playwrights

I've been building a new website called www.playedwell.com and it's time to get the news out. The basic idea came to me as various groups, colleges and High Schools all over the world would ask me if I knew where they could find a drama, children's play or funny one-act. I do know a few independent playwrights but not nearly enough to fill the need.

Therefore, I decided to create a new site that would host the works of any playwright who wanted to list his or her work and make them available to the theater world at large.

I know there are many "publishing" companies and websites out there, I found them when I had a bunch of plays I wanted to submit to the world, but I wanted to maintain my own control and be a bit more independent that's why I started my own site, www.play-dead.com. I want to offer the same control to other writers who which to remain independent but may not have time to maintain their own website and marketing.
If you are playwright and want to get your work out there,let me know.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

All Over at Chaparral High School


In the previous post I mentioned auditions at North Florida Community College for "All Over But The Shooting", well today I get word that Chaparral High School in Parker Colorado has all ready held auditions and is performing the show September 11 and 12 at 6:00 PM at Chaparral High School, 15655 Brookstone Drive, Parker.

Here is a blurb taken from Denver.yourhub.com:

"Chaparral High School's national award winning Encore Players would like to invite everyone to All Over But the Shooting, written by Lee Mueller.


This show will kick off the 2008-09 Encore Players season schedule. All Over But the Shooting is a murder mystery dinner theater show that will have the audience laughing through out the night. All Over But the Shooting is a show about a theater group holding auditions for a Murder Mystery called "Death of A Disco Dancer." All of the typical actors show up to audition.


The auditions get underway without too many problems, well one ... one of the actors mysteriously dies. As luck would have it, Inspector Bonnie Brauvera is present at the auditions to serve as Technical adviser for the play. Will she be able to solve the mystery before the curtain goes? Come see to find out."

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

It's "All Over But The Shooting" at NFCC

The North Florida Community College -Sentinel Upstage Players will hold open auditions for “All Over But The Shooting” at 7 p.m., on both Monday, Sept. 8 and Tuesday, Sept. 9 at Van H. Priest Auditorium, NFCC campus, Madison, Fla. NFCC students, employees and members of the community are invited to audition. Rehearsals begin in September.

The Murder Mystery Play All Over But The Shooting is actually about an audition for a Murder Mystery play. Did you follow that? Irony can be so ironic sometimes.

The actual play will be presented Nov. 13, 14 & 16 at the Wardlaw-Smith-Goza Conference Center. NFCC’s Dr. Jessica Webb directs this fun production. For more information about auditioning, rehearsals or the play, contact Denise Bell at (850) 973-9481 or belld@nfcc.edu.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Grateful For The Name

A friend of mine contacted via email today to tell me he was out driving and saw a this bumper sticker:



Aware that my website is called Play-Dead and also knowing that I had been a "dead-head" at one time, my friend was curious if there was any connection.

Actually, yes and no. It is true that back in the early 1980's, I became a part-time Dead Head - I did see the Grateful Dead about 10 times and traveled out to Colorado for a 3 night stint at Red Rocks, but I was not a full time Dead Head. Full time would be traveling all over the country and following them on tour. I only did it when I had the time and money.

Anyway, about the Play Dead bumper sticker. No I did not choose the name based on an Homage to the Grateful Dead. Actually, I was cutting the grass one afternoon and can't help but have 'grass cutting thoughts' (which is something like daydreaming in productive way) Anyway, I had been trying to think of a a good name for my Murder Mystery Script website. I was pushing the lawnmower around the yard, I recalled back when I was a kid and my dog would leave little presents for me in the grass. (yes Dog poop) I remembered, no matter how careful I was, I always managed to step in it. As I thought about my dog and her trick of leaving surprises for me, I thought of other tricks that dogs learn. Such as roll over, get down off the couch, stop eating that and of course playing dead. A light bulb goes off and illuminates the section of my brain that was thinking about good web site names and it hooked up with the other side that was thinking about dog tricks and "PLAY DEAD" was born.

I put the lawnmower away, wiped off my shoes, (no dog poop this time) and ran to the computer to see if I could purchase the Domain Name. I checked "Playdead" and I learned that "playdead.com" was taken. Dang deal! I thought for a second and then I remembered my friend Bob Baker and how he couldn't get his own name for a domain, Bobbaker.com. (It was taken by a car dealership or something) So he used a hyphen in his name and got Bob-Baker.com. So, I tried it with a hyphen; "Play-dead.com" - and that name was available. I grabbed it.

Out of curiosity, I checked on the website "Playdead" -without the hyphen and it was (maybe still is) a Grateful Dead site dedicated to learning and playing songs by the Dead. Wow. Cool.

So, no my site had nothing to do with the band. Even though they were a big part of my life, it was not a nod to Jerry, Bob and the boys. Instead, Play-dead was actually a nod to stepping in dog poop while cutting the grass.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Basic On Stage Survival Guide (Part 4)

In Character

As you memorize your lines and rehearse the play, you will begin developing your "character". Your character of course is the part you are playing. Keep in mind that when you are in a play, you are in a character. You are Hamlet not Joe Schmo. You will get a feeling for your character when you put on your costume and make up. Yes guys, you will have to wear make up. The reason for this is that under the bright lights of the stage, your face washes out into a faded blur of nothingness. You will wear a "base" or "foundation" make up that gives your face a richer tone of color and removes the faded blur look. Also you may wear eye liner to define your eyes on your face. Many rock stars use eye liner. If you are playing an old character, you will be given wrinkles and gray tinted hair spray to age you.

You will look less and less like the real you. Under make up, you will begin feeling like someone else and that person is your character. Your costume will also add to the "someone else" feeling. If the play is set in a different time period like the 1800's or 1920's, you will be wearing older style clothes. Just wearing those clothes will make you feel different. And that is the point of playing a character, it is someone different.

Although you know the person on the stage is only you in a costume and make-up, it is not supposed to be you. The words you are speaking are not your own words, nor is the play a representation of your life. I have known actors who get confused by this fact.

Example: I was in a play with a girl who absolutely refused to wear her costume. When the director asked her "why?" she replied. "I would never wear colors like that! They don't even match!" He replied, "You aren't wearing those colors! Your character is!"

Nothing Personal

Get used to the idea that you are playing a character and not yourself. Your character may say or do things you would never say nor do. One of the joys of acting is expanding and exploring your mind. You may be playing a deranged ax murderer, a Druid Ninja or a mutant Oak Tree - where else can you become these characters without being arrested or committed to an institution? Once you free "yourself" from your character, it will aid all the choices you make on stage and you will not worry that wearing green pants with a maroon sweater and white shoes is a fashion train wreck you would never personally wear. A character is nothing personal.

The point of making a distinction between you and the character you are playing helps with the issue of nerves. Granted, the very first time I set foot on a stage in front of a live audience, I was very nervous. But once I said my first line, my nervousness dropped a few notches. As I spoke my second line, it dropped even more. Many experienced actors will tell you the same thing - as soon as you speak your first line, you forget all about being nervous.


The Nerve Barrier

I read an article concerning "public speaking" and the reality of being "nervous" in front of people. Essentially, "public speaking" is you facing a roomful of people and talking about something. You are not playing a character, you are being yourself. The article went on to say that people giving a speech or presentation, tended to feel more secure when they had an object between themselves and the audience, such as a podium or desk. Psychologically, the desk/podium was an object that represented a barrier between them and the audience. This object separated them and was in effect, protection or a security blanket. If for some bizarre reason the crowd staged an attack, the speaker could hide behind the podium. In the old days if an audience didn't like you or what you were saying, they would throw objects such as tomatoes and other assorted fruit and vegetation. Perhaps a podium was invented more as a vegetable bunker and not so much as place to hold papers.

Much in the same way a speaker has a barrier between himself and the crowd, an actor has a barrier of a "character" he or she can hide behind. Nerves usually strike when you think about people watching you and judging you for what you do and what you say. But if you keep in mind, it's the character that is doing and saying things, not you, it should take your nerves down a few notches. A character is your security blanket. Of course, the barrier of a character isn't quite as secure as a large podium to protect you from hurling objects, but audiences nowadays are a tad more forgiving.

It is very natural to be nervous right before you go on stage. Once you step foot on stage and become part of the play, your mind doesn't have time to think about how nervous you are. It's too busy recalling all of your lines and blocking that you've memorized. As you are absorbed into the flow of the play, your nerves get pushed to the back of your mind.


Comfort Food For Thought

Experience has taught me, that how nervous I am before a show - is directly proportional to how secure I am in knowing my lines. If I don't feel secure with my lines, then my nervousness is doubled. Nerves can even be effected by your fellow actors. If you have a scene with someone who has gone blank a few times in rehearsal or jumps around in the script, it's doubtful that you will feel comfortable with them on stage. The key here is comfort. You feel comfortable when you know your lines and know that other actors know their lines. Fear produces nervousness and of course, fear is bred by the unknown. You can eliminate fear by eliminating th unknown. Then you can relax.

How Can I Relax?

Many actors I have worked with have a routine to help them relax before a live performance, such as stretching out as if they are about to run a marathon and others find a dark quiet place and want to be left alone. Others turn their nervousness into insane energy and jump around like a 6 year old who just consumed a pound of sugar.
Whatever method helps you to relax, I suggest you do it. Feeling relaxed just before you go on stage will carry over onto the stage. I personally have tried many methods and now I have it down to just stretching out a little to relax the muscles and then spending some time in a quiet place to focus my thoughts. Again, feeling calm and relaxed helps brings your nervousness down to zero before you hit the stage. Believe me, there are enough things that may happen to you on stage that erase any calm relaxed feeling, so it best to start out at zero.

From Zero to 60 in One Second

There was an older actor that I had worked with on a few occasions. He was a very good actor but had a terrible time remembering all of his lines. I really enjoyed working with him but never felt comfortable with him on stage. When he couldn't remember his line, he had a bad habit of saying any line that came into is head. Sometimes the line he said was 15 pages into the second act. Problem was you were actually on page 2 of the first act.
Another funny habit this actor had was his lack of eye contact. He had a tendency to look above your head as he was speaking to you, as if there were a spot on the ceiling he was fascinated by. He never made direct eye contact, that is, unless he went blank. If you were in a scene and he looked directly at you, actually made eye contact, then you knew your were in trouble.
This actor's real issue was his nerves. Since he was so forgetful, he was extremely nervous on stage and his mind was racing a mile a second. Instead of relaxing and slowing his mind down, it was a jumbled mess of racing thoughts. Therefore, when he went blank on stage and tried to recall his line, instead of taking a second to think he would just throw anything out. Of course, 9 times out of 10, it was from the wrong scene. Sometimes it was from the wrong play.

Granted, not all actors will give you clues and not all actors will give you comfort. The best way to work toward feeling comfortable and eliminating fear on stage is running the play and the lines over and over and over until you could do it in your sleep. It's also helpful when you work with someone who tends to go blank quite a bit, is to know their lines so you can keep the flow going and on keep it on track. Feeling relaxed before you take the stage is beneficial because if you are out there "freaking out" from the start and an actor goes blank or jumps 20 pages, you may totally spaz out and run screaming from the stage. And we know screaming will upstage everyone.

But seriously, the point is that the more relaxed and comfortable you are, the easier it is for your mind to think. The faster you are able to solve whatever issue has interrupted the flow of the play. More about 'saving flow' later.


Can You See it?

As I have pointed out, rehearsals are very important to helping your memorization and also getting an idea of the flow and pace of the show. There is a technique used by famous people, especially athletes called "visualization". Before they take the field they visualize themselves in the game. A baseball pitcher may mentally see himself keeping the ball down to good hitters. A quarterback will imagine himself dropping back and throwing a perfect pass to the wide receiver. An actor can visualize themselves on stage, saying every line perfectly, conveying every emotion and getting the audience into the palm of their hand - this visualization is called rehearsals. Yes, a rehearsal is really a live visualization. The director will be visualizing each scene and performance and how it will play to an audience. The actor can use the same technique in rehearsals. I personally have used "visualizing" a few times to help me get a feeling for my character and surroundings. In college I did a play where the setting was representational, meaning the set did not actually have flats to represent walls. (Novice note: a "flat" is a large piece of fabric, canvas or other stretched over a large wooden frame. They are propped up to create the walls or other parts of a set.)

We had a bare stage and the only set pieces we had besides a few tables and a counter, was a door frame and a window frame suspended from the ceiling to represent, well... a door and a window. The rest of the stage was surrounded by black curtains.

The play was set in a old time drug store in Brooklyn and to help me get a feeling for it, I came in early before rehearsals and walked around the empty space and visualized what it would look like in reality. I imagined what the walls would look like, old and dirty, with advertisements hanging on them. I pictured the drug store shelves and what they would like stocked with all kinds of stuff. What the floor would like etc.. Just visualizing those features made me feel very comfortable on stage. And when I was comfortable on the stage, I was relaxed.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Basic On Stage Survival Guide (part 3)

How Do I Learn Lines?

(Some Memory Tips and Tricks)

I am often asked "what is the best way to memorize lines?" I don't know if there is a "best" way but I can tell you what I do and what others do. But first, if you recall, under the subject of "highlighting" your lines, I mentioned it was a good idea to Highlight the lines or actions just before your lines. Case in point: I did a play with an amateur actor who highlighted all his lines and memorized them in advance (so we all could see how dedicated he was). The rehearsal began and our dedicated actor was completely lost. Why? Yes, he knew his lines, however he did not know "when" to say them his lines. He neglected to memorize his "cues". What's a cue? That is the line or action that prompts your line.

Example:

PERSON 1: How are you today?

PERSON 2: Just fine! Yourself?

If you are playing Person 2, it's kinda important to respond to Person 1. The only way to do that, is to know Person 1's line. Not only must you memorize your lines, but you must also know the lines that come before them because those lines are your cues. Hence my suggestion of highlighting your cues in another color. I suggest 'another color' to prevent you from accidentally reading those lines in rehearsals, because it will happen. I've done it.


Ready Set Action

Another Example:

The wind blows through the open window and extinguishes the burning candle.

PERSON IN THE DARK: Oh great! The candle went out!

Here you are "Person In The Dark" and as you can see, your cue is not another line that is spoken or any kind of sound you will hear. It will be something you will "see". It's a cue based on an action. One of the hardest things to remember is a cue from some type of action.

In most cases, the actual "wind blowing through the window extinguishing the candle" will not be actually 'happen' until the "Tech Rehearsals". Novice Note: "Tech Rehearsals" (Technical Rehearsals) are usually the final rehearsals one week before the play opens. This is where the all the Lighting/light cues, Sounds/sound cues and other Effects (wind and candles) are worked out.

Until you get to Tech Rehearsal, hopefully someone will follow along in the script and Read any action cues out loud. This is not always the case. I have spent what seemed like hours on stage in a rehearsal waiting for someone to say a line only to find out it was a visual cue. It's a good idea to be familiar with the line that comes just before the action. For instance, going back to the candle being blown out by the wind, if the line just before it is - "My! It sure looks windy out there!" You may want to be aware of it.

Hi, How Are You?

OK. Now that I've made you aware of what to memorize, let's get back to methods to help you memorize.

The first thing many actors do is the read the script a few times. Next step is to re-read the scenes in which you have lines -those will be the pages where your lines are highlighted in yellow. While you are re-reading these scenes, look for easy bits to remember such as responding to a question. Perhaps another character asks you something. "How are you today?" and your line is "Just fine." Or they ask "Where did you put the gun?" and your line is- "I threw the gun in the river" In lines such as these, your cue is a question and you simply respond. Responses are very easy to remember.


Mind Games

Another key is to pay attention to the subject of the lines just before your lines. Look for clues. In many cases, your line will contain a word or idea that relates.

Example:

SALLY: The trees look oh so lovely in fall.

DICK: Yes they do. I must get wood for the fire.

In this case, it's easy to see the cue for Dick's line is related to Sally's line. The subject of her line is "trees". Dick responds to her statement and then seems to begin a new subject about 'wood for the fire' , but in essence it's the idea of 'trees' that cue "wood for the fire". When lines contain what I refer to a "Cue -Clues" , (trees = wood) they are a cinch to remember.

Once you search your script for easy Question/Answer lines and Cue/Clues you can move on to other memory methods.

Picture List

In my early days on the stage, I was given a great technique that I still use today and it's very similar to the Cue/Clue example I sited above. I was a novice actor in a fairly large role, I was having trouble with a short monologue I had to deliver because the monologue had a "list" of things I had to rattle off. Lists are very hard to remember. One of the actors took me aside and suggested I tried to visualize each item in the "list" and connect or relate it with the next item.

Example:

GEORGE: When I was a kid I had a bicycle, a wagon, a dog and a purple umbrella.

The actor told me instead of thinking of the words as a list, one item after the next, to instead think of them, or picture them as one big item. Relate them to each other as one image. In the example above, the list has a bicycle, a wagon, a dog and a purple umbrella , so I pictured myself as a kid riding a Bicycle. And the bicycle was pulling a wagon. And in the wagon was a dog. And since I didn't want to ride too fast, there was a purple umbrella on the back of the wagon for a parachute. One big picture instead of little snap shots.

Connect the Dots

I have used this method of "picturing" to help me memorize ever since. I use it to remember long monologues. Most monologues contain "ideas" such as Hamlet's monologue which begins "To be or not to be." The main idea is 'death' and Shakespeare uses different metaphors as ideas to express the characters question and they can be broken down into ideas.

I look for the ideas in a monologue or in a long passage of dialouge because each idea will lead to the next. In most long speeches, the character is talking about this idea which leads to that idea, which is like the example of the kid riding the bicycle (first idea) that's pulling a wagon (second idea).

Going back to Hamlet's "to be or not to be" - the very first idea is the whole question of "being" or "not being" which is leads to the idea of "suffering slings and arrows" or to "take arms against a sea of troubles" which leads to the idea of "not being" or "death" is being like the idea of "sleep" and on and on. Each idea leads to the next and it's easier to remember if you connect the ideas.

Pretzel Safe Diamond Peanuts

Sometimes, you may have ideas that are not connected. A scene between 2 or 3 people in which they seem to be talking about 2 or 3 different things. For instance - I was in a Neil Simon play called "Rumors". Near the beginning of the play, the characters of a husband and wife arrive at a their friends house. As the scene begins the wife is commenting about the furnishings of the house and the husband is talking about how hungry he is and is wondering if they have any snacks. At least two pages of dialogue between the husband and wife that had no real connection or ideas relating to each other. Two different subjects with no easy question/answers or Cue/Clues. I simply created mental images triggered by the other unrelated lines. I created my own Cue/Clues.

Example:

WIFE: I bet she keeps all her jewels in a safe!

HUSBAND: I can't get this pretzel bag open!

WIFE: She has a dozen real diamonds you know!

HUSBAND: These peanuts are unsalted! Who buys unsalted peanuts?!

Based on the Wife's line about "jewels in a safe" , I needed something to cue my line; "can't get this pretzel bag open" .

So, I thought about an image of "jewels in a safe" and connected it with "pretzels" in "bag".

The jewels are locked away in a safe and you cannot open a safe. The pretzels are in a bag. I can't open the bag.

For the next line, I visually connected "a dozen real diamonds " to "peanuts are unsalted!"

Diamonds are clear crystal objects. Salt is a clear crystal object. The simple association of "diamonds" and "salt" worked as a cue for my line.

Between The Lines

Another method I often use is a tape recorder. You can record yourself reading the cue lines followed by your own lines. And then listen to the tape over and over, while driving or working or whatever. Much in the same way you learn the words to a popular song or a commercial jingle from hearing it over and over. Repetition is the key. Repetition is the key. Personally, I only tape myself reading the "cue" lines and then I read my lines silently to myself, allowing the tape to be blank for the time where my line is spoken. I play the tape and say my lines out loud during the blank spaces.

Another method is to simply read the script and cover up your lines with a piece of paper. As you come to your cue line, (which is highlighted in a different color) say your line and then you can move the paper to see if you were close.

You're Out of Order

When I say "close", what I mean is - as you begin committing your lines to memory, initially you will remember the "gist" of the line. If the actual line is: "Joe and me are going out for awhile, I'll pick up the ransom money on the way back. I'll see you later." At first you will remember clumps of words, the key points of the line such as "going out", "picking up ransom money" and "see you later" . Seldom at first, will you recall the exact order of the line as it appears in the script. You may recite it from memory like this: " See you later. I'm going out for a while with Joe. On the way back, I'll pick up the ransom money."

Welcome to the wonderful world of paraphrasing. Don't worry, we all do it at first. But try not to make it a habit. Problems can occur when actors continue to paraphrase even during performances. The main problem is those lines are someone else's cue. In the above example, 'see you later' may be a cue line for another actor, but if it's the first thing the actor says instead of the last thing, it may cause a problem.

One of my favorite personal examples of the "paraphrase fallout" came during a live performance of "You Can't Take It With You". The actress playing the part of a Russian Countess never said her lines the same way twice. The other actor who relied on her lines to cue him, finally developed a strategy to wait till she stopped speaking to say his one big line: "I'll make sure you're on time, your Highness."

He would say his line regardless of what she said, because he knew it came directly after her it and when he heard a reasonable amount of silence, he knew she was done. One night, for some strange reason, the actress said her line exactly as it was written. Hearing his cue as it was meant to be, caused some type of malfunction in the actors mind, there was a slight pause and finally his line came out; "I'll make sure you're on Hime your Tiness". Realizing what he just said, his eyes got very wide and literally his body jerked with a shock. Some day I may write a chapter on how to suppress laughter on stage.

The Write Thing

I know an actor who approaches memorization, like studying for a final exam. He will sit at a table and read his lines over and over. He will then test himself by closing his script, taking a piece of paper and pen and writing his lines down from memory. He will then check the script to see if he made any mistakes . He does it over and over until it sinks into his memory. Rarely does he paraphrase.

Read To Me

A common method which is probably the most popular, is to find someone willing to to follow along in the script and feed you your cue lines. They read from the script while you squirm and struggle to recall your lines uttering phrases such as: "No don't tell me! I know this! This is where I say something about the thing..... OK! How does the line go?" Having a somewhat impartial person to help you can... well, help you. If you say your line incorrectly or paraphrase they will more than willing to correct you.

Pause Turn Page

Some actors I've known simply memorize their script with no special methods or outside help except a photographic memory. They can actually visualize pages of the script in their mind. I knew one such actress who during her performance would pause at odd times. Right in the middle of a line she place a beat (novice note: Beat - pause of about one second) for no real reason. I found out that each pause she took corresponded to a place where her line was continued on the next page essentially she would pause, as she mentally turned the page.

Memory Cement Blocks

Allow me to tie this all back into the process of rehearsal because this is where your memory will be tested. You can listen to your lines on tape or recite them with a friend but it is not until you're in rehearsal that all your work finally develops and begins to click and stick into place. In a rehearsal, you are hearing your cue lines from the actual actors who be saying them. Also as you rehearse you will be moving around the stage with your blocking which can really cement the lines to your memory .

Move Speak Move

You will discover that your movement/blocking will attach itself to your memorized lines. I discovered how deep this "movement = line" connection was during a line blitz. Novice Note: A "Line Blitz" or "line rehearsal" is usually a panic session the director calls for when play is about to open. The actors sit around and simply run all the lines from the play, no acting, no blocking, just dialogue. Sometimes, you are asked to run all the lines as quickly as possible. Extra Trivial Note: I've also heard this referred to as a "Rain Rehearsal". The story goes that if there was bad weather during a performance, there may be a chance the power would go out. If the power went out, the audience would want their money back. But, technically, if the play was beyond the half-way point, the theater did NOT have to issue refunds since the audience saw more than half of the show. To prepare for this, actors would have "Rain Rehearsals" which was a 'speed metal' version of the play.

So anyway, during a line rehearsal, line blitz, rain rehearsal, whatever, we were sitting around running our lines and I noticed I was having a hard time recalling my lines. In frustration, I got up and began walking around and as I paced around the room it suddenly dawned on me. My blocking! I realized how much of my memory was embedded in my blocking. When I say this line, I'm standing by the door. And for that line, I'm walking to the table. Not only can a someone else's line prompt you, but so can a movement or location on the stage.

Friday, August 01, 2008

The Basic On Stage Survival Guide - (part two)

Here is a continuation of The Basic On Stage Survival Guide:

The Basic Rehearsal Process
(training wheels)
The Basic Rehearsal Process
(a few guidelines and rules)

One of the first things you will do in rehearsal is called a "read through" . A read through is just that, everyone sits around and reads the play out-loud. This will be one of the first times and maybe only time, you will hear the play from start to finish as it was written. It is during the ''read through" that you will get a sense of how your fellow actors are going to play their roles. If the play is a comedy, you will get a good idea where the laughs will be, if it's a drama, you will learn where the "dramatic" moments are. And it's during the read through you will get a sense of the flow of the play. You may not get a sense of it again until the final rehearsal or the first performance. But don't worry about that now, because now you must work toward performing your role* without training wheels which is the written script.

(*A bit of Trivia on the the term "role" -meaning the character you play. In the very early days of theater, they did not have a fancy published script for every actor, instead they would hand out a rolled up parchment or paper that contained the actors lines in a given scene. So, an actor was given a 'role' of paper instead of a full script. That is where the term "role" comes from.)


Yellow Line Guide line

One of the first things actors do when they first get the script is Highlight their lines. Yellow is the most common color used for this practice. Highlighting makes your lines easier to find on the page: example- if your attention is diverted away, you can quickly glance back at the script and find your place. Having your lines jump out at you in yellow from a black and white page, helps draw your eye to the correct spot. Believe me, there is nothing more frustrating than waiting for an actor to find his place in the script. Another fact about highlighting is that you can easily flip through the pages of the script and see which pages you have lines and those you don't. An important guideline I will suggest here and explain in detail later, as you highlight your lines on each page, also highlight (in a different color) the last few words of the line (or action) just before it. Knowing where and when to say your line is important.


Blocking and the pencil Rule

After the Read Through, the first rehearsals will consist of "staging" your movement; where you stand, what direction you should walk, when you enter and when you exit. Movement on a stage is commonly referred to as "blocking." The script will have "suggested" blocking that will appear in italics such as "walks Upstage and exits" but the suggested movement is only that, a suggestion. Your actual movements will be given to you by the director. The rule is that you write these directions in the margins of your script using a pencil. Yes pencil. Why? Because directors tend to change their minds and it's very hard to erase pen.


One quick bit of stage direction trivia I learned from a Theater History major was the origin of common stage directions: such as upstage and downstage. In the early days of theater, the audience sat on a flat, level area which made it difficult to see all the action on the stage. To compensate, the stage was built on a slight angle that went up toward the back. Any actor standing at the very back of the stage, was slightly higher "up" than anyone at the front of the stage. This made it easier for the audience to see everything and everyone on the stage. Hence we have the terms UPSTAGE - which means the back area and DOWNSTAGE which means the front area. To move "upstage" an actor was walking "up the stage" to the higher area in back and walking "down the stage" or Downstage to the front. This bit of information made it much easier for me to remember the ups and downs of directions. Of course, somewhere along the line, they decided to change this and have the audience seated on an incline and make the stage a flat surface.

Novice Note: Stage Right and Stage Left are from the actors point of view. No trivia is provided for right and left. I will assume you can figure that out.


Rule: Don't Upstage

There is also a term called "upstaging" which means to steal focus from another actor. If you stand directly in front of another actor, blocking the audience's view of that actor, you are "upstaging."

If another actor is speaking lines on the stage and you suddenly begin jumping up and down and screaming, you will cause the audience to pay attention to you and you are upstaging.

Basically any time you draw the audience's attention away from where it should be, you are upstaging.

Initial Direction Details

You may have a detailed director and find yourself writing many directions in the margin of your script, so it's helpful to abbreviate the directions such as "cross upstage left" or "walk downstage right" with "cross UL" or "walk DR". Here you just note the first letter of the area - U-upstage, D-downstage, C-centerstage, R-right and L-left. I even know a few actors who use "X" to signify "cross" and even others who use arrows point up or down.

That's Cheating!

Another term and rule you will learn during blocking is Cheating. This does not mean copying your stage directions from another actors script, it means "turning slightly toward the audience." There will be scenes where your character will be talking to another character and in real life, humans tend to face one another when involved in a conversation, however, on the stage it is frowned upon turn away from the audience. If you act like a normal human and turn toward the person you are speaking to, the audience will only see your profile. Not good enough. The audience will be insulted because you are ignoring them. OK, that rule isn't totally true but most directors may tell you that, therefore they will ask you to "cheat" toward the audience.


Rule: Cheat Toward The Audience
To "cheat" means to keep your body toward the audience and slightly turn your head toward the person to whom you are speaking. It will feel awkward and unnatural but it will make your director and the audience happy.

Another awkward cheat is delivering your lines to a character who is behind you. If you think the audience gets insulted when you turn sideways, imagine how enraged they would be if you turned your back on them

Rule: Never turn your back on the audience.

Why? Well, if they throw something at you, you won't see it coming. O.K. not totally true. But most directors will have a cow if your turn your back to deliver your lines. Now, there are always exceptions - sometimes a director will have you turn your back or face sideways for dramatic effect.

But most of the time, if you are standing downstage and someone enters upstage, which will be behind you, you must "cheat" by delivering your lines either slightly turned or facing straight ahead.


All kidding aside, the main reason that actors must cheat toward the audience has to do with sound, that is the sound of your voice. When you are facing the audience and speaking, the crowd should have no problem hearing you because the sound of your voice, or your sound waves, are pointed right at them. If you were to turn to the side or completely around, your voice (sound waves) are pointed away from the audience your sound waves bounce around the stage before finding their way out into the theater. This bouncing effect brings your volume down a few notches and makes it harder to hear you .


Sound Advice
Which leads me to another term you will hear and rule you must follow: "projection!". Projection means tpo speak louder. Let's go back to being a normal human, when you are talking to someone who is standing relatively close to you, you will be speaking in a normal tone. If a third person is twenty or more feet away from you, chances are they will have a hard time hearing your conversation. When you're an actor on a stage, (not a normal human) the audience will be that third person twenty or more feet away from you and it's important they hear you, so you must Project!

Rule: Project

To a first time actor, you will feel like you are shouting but trust me, by the time your voice (sound waves) reach the ears of people sitting twenty feet or more away, it will sound normal. Only to someone standing right next to you, will it sound like shouting and anyway, you are not shouting, you are "projecting."

You may also a director say, "project from your diaphragm." This means instead of speaking from your throat - as you do when speak normally, "from your diaphragm" is when you push air to your voice from your stomach region - which is like turning your volume up to 11. Singers know all about projecting from the diaphragm, so if you know a singer they can teach you how to do it.

I have known many actors who couldn't get the hang of projecting from the diaphragm. One actor I knew who was having a hard time with the concept was also a big fan of Pee Wee Herman and he he loved imitating Pee Wee's laugh. (if you are not familiar with Pee Wee Herman you can ask someone or find a clip on Youtube)

As you may know, Pee Wee's laugh was very distinctive and very deep and loud. The reason it was loud, is because it came from the diaphragm. I said to the actor, "You know, every time you do the Pee Wee laugh, you are using your diaphragm to project it. Just figure out what you are doing to project that laugh and use it to project your lines." I could see the light bulb go off.


Pretty Pictures
Allow me to turn the topic back to "blocking". One stead fast rule that a director follows when designing "blocking" for the stage, is that they try to create interesting pictures for the audience to see. Example: If there's a scene with 3 or 4 actors on the stage and they're all standing in straight line, like a chorus line or police line up, it's not very interesting. In fact, it's downright dull.

Most directors use the triangle theory. The triangle theory states that if there are 3 actors on stage, they must be spaced to form a triangle. One actor maybe standing a few feet upstage and the second a foot downstage and so forth. If you were on the ceiling of the stage looking straight down, they would form a triangle.
The basic idea is to have actors spaced at different depths on the stage and not standing in a line. It's much more interesting to look at from the audience's perspective. The stage is 3-D after all. A director may also ask you to "counter."

Rule: Counter to create depth

If you are standing on the stage and one or two others actors move toward you in a scene, you should "counter," which means take a step back or forward to create a triangle. Even after weeks of rehearsal, some actors may forget and stand right next to on the stage and you should take a step to counter.
Finally, once all of your blocking is set, your cheating is done and your volume is adjusted, you will begin running through the play over and over.

Depending upon your rehearsal schedule, you may get to run through the play numerous times with the script in your hand but there will come a time when the director will want you to be "Off Book". Novice Note: Off book means you have memorized all of your lines and blocking.

I can't stress this enough, the faster you get 'off book' the better, because the more chances you have to speak your lines from memory, the deeper your concentration will become. But first let's get you Off Book.


Next post: How To Memorize Lines

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Basic On Stage Survival Guide (Part One)

I've decided to try my hand at writing something other than a Murder Mystery play. Being involved in theater for the past 20 plus years, I have learned many things about being on-stage and I realized that many of the lessons and things I learned were by being on the stage and not in a classroom or book.

The motivations for writing "Basic On Stage Survival Guide" is two-fold. The first motivation came from a series of uncomfortable moments I recently experienced on the stage. Granted, this was an amateur production but most of the actors had phone-book-thick resumes of stage experience, therefore I assumed they would know what to do when someone went blank or missed an entrance.


My other motivation was that I am one of those phone-book-thick résumé actors and most new actors seek my advice such as "What's the best way to memorize lines? What do I do if someone misses an entrance ? What do I do with my hands? What are the rules?"


As I thought about it, I realized that I was never taught any rules of the stage, instead I learned from experience and the advice of other actors .

The Basic On Stage Survival Guide is a collection of traditional rules and guidelines for the stage. The guidelines are not rules in the sense of laws. If you break one, chances are you will not be arrested but you may get an earful from another actor.

I will approach this guide as if you have never set foot on stage before in your life and introduce the rules over time. I will also introduce various terms you should know and in some cases the trivia behind the terms. One of the first rules is that before you stand on the stage, you must audition.

Audition
An audition is a process where a director or others, select from a group actors that best fit the characters in the play. If the play is about a group of teenagers struggling with peer pressure it is doubtful they would cast middle age actors into the parts, therefore you may want to research the play first. In most cases, audition notices in the paper will tell you exactly what age range they are looking for and even what kind of auditions they will be. Most auditions will be simple "cold readings" from the script. A cold reading means you will read from the script without much time to prepare. You may have a few minutes to read the scene to yourself and get familiar with it or you may even be familiar with play, in that case it will be a Luke warm reading. A good director will describe the scene for you before you begin reading, but the idea is that you are approaching the material cold. Try picking up a book, turning to any page and just start reading out loud, you'll get the idea.

Helpful Tip for New Actors at your first cold reading: I have seen many new actors get passed over at auditions because they make common mistakes and end up in the "no experience" pile. The first mistake inexperienced actors make is reading from a script as if they are reading poetry. Some new actors think that "acting" means speaking in an iambic pentameter rhythm which is fine if you are auditioning for Shakespeare, but not every play was written by Shakespeare. When you are reading straight dialogue, the idea is to make it sound natural and conversational. Stay away from the sing-songy style of reading.
I have also witnessed a few actors suddenly become British when they read from a script, I'm not sure why, the play was set in the American South.
If you want to audition for the first time, be careful of any set ideas you have about acting. The First Rule is that "acting" doesn't mean every part is Hamlet. Also don't believe that to sound like you're acting you must sound British. These tips will keep you out of the "no experience" pile.

Other auditions may have you prepare a short monologue and perform it from memory prior to cold readings. Not every great actor is a great cold reader and performing something such as a monologue gives the director a good idea of your talent.
Musical auditions will have you prepare a song to sing at the audition. One audition I attended, the director handed out copies of a short monologue and gave everyone about 15 minutes to memorize it. This gives the director a fair idea of how quickly you can memorize. Some auditions may have you participate in improvisational games which demonstrates how quickly you think on your feet.

All of these methods help the director discover the best actor for the role. Hopefully it will be you. And if it is - welcome to rehearsals.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

First the Stage and Now the Screen

As some of you may know, I was a filmmaker long before I was a playwright. Of course, when I say "long before" I am referring to the time I got a Super-8 Movie camera for my 7th birthday and began shooting movies with the kids in my neighborhood.

Now that it's much easier to make movies and actually post them on-line for all the world to see, I thought I would share some of my work - my "screen" work with all of you. You may have noticed a Youtube Icon on the page. If you click on that - it will take you to my films. My more recent films that is - not the ones I shot when I was seven. Note - these are not Murder Mysteries. Let me know what you think.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Woodland Friends "Wake The Dead"

From the Daily Democrat -Woodland, California

The Woodland Friends of the Library will present their 9th Annual Mystery Night, Silent Auction and Wine Tasting on Saturday, March 15 at 6:30 p.m.
The activities will at the Woodland Library and in the library's Leake Room. Prior to the start of the murder, mayhem and mischief, guests will be treated to wine and finger foods as they walk through the library gathering clues and bidding on some great silent auction items.

At 7:30 the curtain will rise on To Wake The Dead a hilarious murder/comedy play in the style of previous Mystery Night plays. The 12-member cast includes Councilman and Sheriff's lieutenant, Jeff Monroe; Planning Commissioner, Marti Dote; Insurance Agent, Jim Hilliard; Chief of Police, Carey Sullivan; Chamber of Commerce CEO, Kristy Wright; Yolo County Recorder, Freddie Oakley; Woodland Mayor, Dave Flory; Woodland Finance Director, Joan Drayton; Councilman Art Pimentel; City Manager, Mark Deven; and West Sacramento Mayor, Chris Cabaldon.

Directing this outstanding (and infamous) cast will be Woodland's own playwright/director, Sue Bigelow. Having had one of her plays open on Broadway last May ("Rose Colored Glass"), she should do a great job of keeping this unique cast on their toes and the laughs coming.

The audience will be totally involved in determining "who done it" as the cast goes to the wake of Fred Finnegan, a successful writer of mysteries and supernatural stories. Each cast member is a caricature of a famous mystery writer and dialogue is full of puns and clever comments (with the title being a play on James Joyce's novel, "Finnegan's Wake." At the conclusion of the play, the audience following the clues, will have a chance to determine the murderer and win a prize for "best detective."

Tickets go quickly and are limited, so be sure to order early. The cost is only $35. Make checks payable to Friends of the Woodland Library (or FOL Mystery Night). Indicate the number of tickets wanted, along with telephone number and e-mail for confirmation of receipt of your check. Mail checks to FOL, P.O. Box 545, Woodland, CA 95776. Envelope must be postmarked by March 1. After that date the tickets will be $40 and you can call for reservations at 666-2298 and pay for them at the door. Information will also be available on the City of Woodland Library site at City Of Wooland library under the Friends tab.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Tennessee sees "Death Of A Doornail" again

The Gem Players are bringing back those zany characters by popular demand in “Death of a Doornail,,” a mystery dinner theater event on Feb. 14, 15 and 16 at 6 p.m. at the historic L&N Depot in Etowah, Tennessee. Tickets include dinner and the show. Seating is limited and reservations are required. Tickets may be purchased by calling the Gem Players office at 263-3270. Or visit their website Gemplayers.com

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Stockbridge Valley Central centers on "Murder Me Always"


By: LEAH McDONALD, Dispatch Staff Writer
The Oneida Daily Dispatch
01/10/2008

STOCKBRIDGE Ny - "What's going on in here?" won't just be on the characters' lips as audience members have a chance to take part in the murder mystery action at Stockbridge Valley's dinner theater this weekend.

"It's definitely different than anything I've ever done before," said senior Irene Wasnik, 18, who plays undercover cop Trixie in Lee Mueller's "Murder Me Always." "It's quite an experience."

Director Kelly Meola said she chose this piece to give community members some exposure to "different types of theater they might not get in rural settings," and hopes the first-time event will become an annual one.

"I think they're going to love it," she said. "They'll be really entertained and surprised at how flawlessly the process goes."

The play is actually a play-within-a-play, in which the director is murdered while the company is giving a particularly bad performance of "Murder Me Always." Detective Joe Mamet, played by junior Matthew Misiaszek, 15, sets out to discover who the real murderer is, pulling the whole audience into the production.

"I like my part," said Misiaszek, who will be on stage for the first time in his theater career. "It's kind of like a 1960s detective with sort of corny lines."

Every time he comes on stage, for instance, he always asks "What's going on in here?" - usually because someone is passed out on the couch.

"It's different learning to interact with the audience," Wasnik said. "They get more involved with the play - there's audience interaction."

She explained how the cast members need to do a lot of character work because audience members will be invited to ask questions, and she and other cast members will have to answer in character. "I hope they ask questions we can answer."

Meola said the kids have been really excited about the play so far, however, especially with the "idea of doing something different."

"It's really fun," Misiaszek said.

The play will be Friday and Saturday, Jan. 11 and 12 at 6 p.m. in the school cafeteria. Tickets are $10 pre-sale and $12 at the door. The cost includes admission, a spaghetti dinner, dessert and beverages.