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Saturday, April 04, 2009

TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS

Occasionally, I am asked to stand in front of groups of people and say something marginally coherent about why I do what I do. This is pleasant, flattering, and annoying all at the same time, because frankly, I am really best while sitting at my desk, thinking my little thoughts. And even then, it really depends on how you define “best.”

I recently had to do this for Suite Scarlett. “Why did you write it?” people asked me. I gave my usual thousand-yard stare for a moment and had my usual thought that every other author I know is PREPARED when this question comes. They say something really pithy and connected, something that makes your brain quiver excitedly. And everyone is looking at me thinking I’m going to say something that produces a similar result.

The truth is, I usually cruise along on what I smilingly call FINELY HONED INSTINCT. Which is fine when I am at my desk, and less fine when I am in front of a group of people who have Expectations and want me to do something aside from twist my hair around my finger and hum quietly under my breath. People want answers! Talking points to take away! Well formed nuggets of information! They want to know what it’s ABOUT!

See, the problem is, Suite Scarlett came out of a list of stuff.

One day, I just sat down and starting writing a list of things . . . things that influenced me when I was a kid or a teenager. Things I admired. Things I aspired to. The things I would want to see in one story. There were at least a dozen things on the list. And out of that, about four hours later, came (almost fully formed) the spine of all three Scarlett books. “Like Athena from the forehead of Zeus,” I would say later. Not to anyone in particular. Just quietly, to myself.

So I find when I try to explain where it all came from, I have to pick the list apart and tell the stories one by one. And instead of delicious information nuggets, I offer up a kind of information smoothie, but not even in a cup . . . just sort of loose. And no one wants a pocket full of smoothie.

The good thing about Blogging Every Day in April, however, is that I have LOADS of time to list these items one by one! And so, today, I will begin with this one . . .



What’s that, you ask? Only the credit sequence to 80s television phenomenon Fame—based on the movie musical of the same name, about life at the High School for Performing Arts in New York City, which is where I wanted to be. THIS is what I expected from high school. WHAT A SURPRISE I GOT! Sure, I really should have known. I went to school inside of a convent in Philadelphia, not to the School for Performing Arts in New York. Even if I HAD lived in New York, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have gotten in, as I had no . . . you know . . . skills. Not the skills they would have wanted. “Dance!” they would have said. I am not convinced they would have been impressed with the result.

Everything was against me, really.

I guess what’s even stranger is that I didn’t necessarily want to perform. Well, perhaps a bit. I mostly wanted to write. I wanted to write, and maybe, on occasion, do some performing thing. I had no idea what job that was, but it sounded pretty awesome and unlikely. I WANTED that dancing and singing in the hallway dream. I wanted to be there, wherever there was. I wanted to start paying in sweat. I wasn’t one of those people who was going to let a lack of talent stop me from doing something I want to do. Fortunately, the theater is filled with kindred souls who feel the same exact way.

I started performing in college, and from there, working on new plays. When I graduated, I became the literary manager of a Philadelphia theater company. I was thrown in headfirst, profoundly unqualified. I had absolutely no idea how to do my job, so I most just winged things for a year and took a lot of notes. Which, as it turns out, isn’t a half-bad way to learn how something is done. The thing you learn isn’t necessarily the thing you are SUPPOSED to be learning or doing, mind you . . . but that is the way these things often work. You learn what you can, where you are.

At the end of it all, I found myself accepted to theater school as a dramaturgy student. FAME! It had come to me finally! Dancing in the hallways! Paying in sweat! Sure, I was more on the pencilheaded geek side of things, dramaturgy being perhaps the most thankless career in the known artistic universe. But still! I was there!

On the first day, I walked into rehearsal. I was going to see a venerated, major European director at work, directing Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle. I had the play in my hand—a huge printed out version in a binder for notetaking. I had about sixty colored pencils to mark up the script with all of his brilliant utterances. Thirty actors were gathered in front of him, waiting for his first instruction.

He stood up, looked at all the actors and said, “Take off your pants.”

And they did. They all took off their pants. They kept them off all day. I saw Brecht performed totally pantless.

I’m not sure if he ever explained why he wanted their pants off. No one even asked him. I’m not sure it matters.

Sure, it was kind of an abuse of power and completely unnecessary . . . but in that moment . . . I realized that this was really it. It wasn’t Debbie Allen in the corner with her magical dance stick, not where I was going, anyway. But it was a world in which everyone was willing to take orders like “take off your pants” and think absolutely nothing of it. Everyone was on the same page . . . and there was no such thing as too weird. All the pants were off.

I was home.

For the next few years, I learned that there was nothing too cheap, too weird, or too insane to pass as a show. I have seen productions of Shakespeare performed in rooms that only fit five chairs so that everyone else had to stand outside on the sidewalk and peer in a window. I have seen sets comprised of nothing but small amounts of fruit. I have put out three entirely separate live, actual fires during shows. I once literally tackled an actor who ran away right before curtain and hauled her back to perform.

I spent days, hours, weeks sitting on theater floors watching actors do things. All kinds of things. One thing that never seemed to stop was the comedy and biomechanical work. Once the actors started learning those walking into the walls tricks, or the fake punches, or the fake falling down stairs . . . well, they always needed an audience for that, and that audience was me.

“Watch,” they would say. “Watch. I’m going to walk into this . . .”

Boof. Into the wall.

“How was that?”

“Fine,” I’d say.

“Wait, I’ll do it again.”

Twenty times later . . .

And so, those of you familiar with the book might see the beginnings of Spencer and Scarlett. Spencer, the actor from the High School for Performing Arts, skilled at walking into walls. Scarlett, the constant observer, the non-performer, writing down her insane little plans.

Mostly, though, I wrote Suite Scarlett to become incredibly famous and powerful . . . so they I too could walk into a room, have the full attention of a large group of people (or a group of people blogging every day in April), and say, “Take off your pants.”

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23 Comments:

Blogger GEORGINA said...

I don't blame the actor for running away right before curtain if the audience was going to have to huddle outside and peer through a window. She must have wondered what on earth she was doing in such a weird performance.

I like it when people post in the early hours of the morning. It makes me wonder why they're awake at this time.

10:11 AM  
Anonymous Alysson said...

You just described my life. I've just finished first year university in the theater. I'm interested in both acting and playwriting. Tomorrow is my audition for second year acting where they decide if I will be a mostly actor who writes... or a mostly writer who acts. It's scary.. but I'm too excited. Looks like it's about time to go over my monologue for the hundredth time. :D

10:49 AM  
Blogger iamliterate said...

I can't wait for the rest of the list.

4:50 PM  
Blogger j.e.n. said...

"The thing you learn isn’t necessarily the thing you are SUPPOSED to be learning or doing, mind you . . . but that is the way these things often work. You learn what you can, where you are."

I teach yoga and at the end of every class I like to read my students a quote about yoga or life, or both. I hope you don't mind if I quote you today!
Jenny

4:55 PM  
OpenID lijuun said...

So . . . can I put them back on now?

7:48 PM  
Blogger Nadia Murti said...

Weird director.

7:49 PM  
Blogger DoreMifa said...

WANT.

8:39 PM  
Blogger Kimmy123 said...

psh, in the end, that's why anyone writes anything, right? .... right?

My captcha says megukes
So the gods are sending me a message about someone named Meg and her uke...

9:01 PM  
Blogger Lindsaygail said...

Great story. I love this list, and I love your blog! Also I'm joining BEDA a few days late. I have a brand new blog I'm breaking in. I've decided to count what I've done so far, because while I didn't actually POST every day in April, I have at least WORKED on a post every day. I'll follow the more literal assignment for the rest of the month.

9:06 PM  
Blogger Rosalie Bass said...

Isn't that everyone's goal in life, to be able to get an entire group of people to take off their pants without hesitation? Haha.

BEDA is going great so far for me, Maureen! Hope it's going wonderful for you as well.

9:35 PM  
Anonymous Bridget said...

So how excited are you for the new FAME movie?

9:59 PM  
OpenID juliakarr said...

Looking forward to the rest of your list - and it was so great to see the opening of Fame again. Loved it!

BEDA going well for me, too.

Getting a room full of people to take off their pants... hmmm... I'll have to think about that.

10:16 PM  
Blogger ROSIE!!!!!!!!! said...

In the end all writers want that kind of power! teehee, Maureen I <3 your blog! The ABBA house is still refusing my repeated pleas to turn itself from a christan store to an ABBA shrine.

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Rosi said...

Damnit, Maureen, now I want to read Suite Scarlett for the umpteenth time but instead I have to write some essays and send them off by midnight.

Perhaps I'll start another re-read at 12.01 :)

- Rosianna

11:08 PM  
OpenID sarahlynch said...

:)))))))))
I'm going to ask someone to take off there pants, and keep asking until someone does.

1:27 AM  
Blogger delightfully mediocre said...

What power!

4:12 AM  
Blogger Alexander Pepper said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:59 AM  
Blogger Alexander Pepper said...

*takes off pants*

5:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am in the process of trying to write a 5 minute long radio-show, and this was exactly the inspiration i needed. thank you (:

5:59 AM  
Blogger Violet Vixen said...

Yay! I love theater stories! I'd love to read more about your life in the theater! - V. Vxn, Ph.D. in theater (really!)

7:02 AM  
Anonymous Summer said...

oh my goodness.
my advanced drama class just put on a show that fits the too weird and too insane category. we even had a scene about sexting.
oh how I love theatre.

8:12 AM  
Blogger marrije said...

god I miss FAME...

12:59 AM  
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