I’m reading The Journals of Ayn Rand, and I am positively captivated, because it is so rare and wonderful to experience another artist’s creative process. I experienced the same thing after John Kerouac’s biography (by Ann Charters), watching Project Runway, and anytime I read a (good) interview with an artist I admire.
Garret Schneider, K. Frithjof Peterson
I not only learn a deeper appreciation of the work I am passionate about, but I also learn and can change my artistic process.
It is for this reason I decided to do an interview with K. Frithjof Peterson (a fellow Collider playwright), it goes beyond that. He has a great perspective on playwrighting, and he’s a wonderful artist that I also respect as a person. This interview is about his Collider play, A Scientist’s Guide to Love and Poetry, being premiered on July 30th at 1pm.
ME: So, how are rewrites going?
KRIS: The rewrites are going well. It’s always interesting in the process to watch the play balloon out and slim down several times. After getting feedback from my first round of readers the play has really slimmed down. I’ve been able to cut down some of those repeated beats you get and tighten my language. Now it’s ready to fatten back up. That’s where John (my director) and I are – looking at areas that can be further mined and explored or complicated.
ME: You’ve had a number of “first drafts”, right? What did that look like?
KRIS: They looked like three different plays. The first one was fluffy and cute and closer to a one act play in shape. The second one was a full length and tedious and over interested in the wrong things like we started discussing in the blogs. I needed to write that draft to understand the rules of the world so I could cut most of that exposition and unfold it more organically. I had to have characters ask each other direct questions that I needed answers to and once I had those I could toss most of that stuff out. The second version also had a character that wasn’t in any of the other incarnations. She was painful to read but she really functioned well getting at the heart of Lucy’s character so I could eventually cut her but still unfold a lot of the discoveries she spearheaded. The third version finally felt like a play I’d want to see. I finally felt an investment in the characters and a rhythm to the piece.
ME: How has your proposal and your first draft differed?
KRIS: The biggest change has been in many ways Lucy has taken center stage and in the proposal it was Jeremiah’s show.
ME: What stayed?
KRIS: Jeremiah’s pursuit of Lucy and Gene Roddenberry helping him on that journey stayed consistent through all the incarnations.
ME: Tell me about your growth from 1st to 2nd?
KRIS: I knew for this play to work Lucy had to be a more complete character than she was in the proposal. The goal of that second version was really to figure out who she was and how her journey tied in to Jeremiah’s. That was a really exposition heavy draft and it didn’t produce a very good version of Lucy yet but it gave me the information I needed to really run with her character in the third version
ME: What number are you on now? What does that mean?
KRIS: I’ve got a pretty stable version right now at version three. I’m still crafting alternate scenes and asking further questions but the shape and direction of the thing seems to work for me now.
ME: What does “rewriting” mean to you?
KRIS: Rewriting to me is a lot like an actor trying to find the character in early rehearsals. I try a lot of things, hopefully I make risky choices. Lots of them don’t work. But it’s a time to risk big. I’m never afraid to open up another file and start from scratch. The last two full lengths I’ve worked on I’ve only preserved really 10 or 15 pages from the first draft everything else gets scrapped. I think a lot of writers do more in their heads than I do. I think about the plays constantly for sure, but I need to work it out. My graduate school playwriting mentor Steve Feffer really got me in that habit. I’d come to him with ideas and concepts and he’d just say, “Show me. I can’t say anything until I see it.” That means I scrap a lot, but it’s never fruitless. There are plenty of roads I would have never gone down if I over thought it initially. I would have just never explored the ideas if I really thought about them. And they of course, didn’t work, but if you work anything long enough you’ll find a line or scene or metaphor or character that does work and then it’s just a matter of re-appropriating those things in a different context. So rewriting is where I play and explore and that process doesn’t stop until I have a draft I think is workable. Lots of times I just have to write a couple different plays to get my first draft. And once I have that draft I try and rewrite with the same anything goes spirit. I think rewriting is the time you really wanna try and let your play surprise you, it’s not the time for refining or revision. Some plays need more rewriting. Some move much more quickly toward the revising stage. I just try not to rush that because I really like to rewrite and reimagine. Once I get a handful of really nice moments that surprise me, I start trying to shape things more around those.
ME: Who is your scientist? What was his/her speciality?
KRIS: My “scientist” is Bruce Worthel. He asked that I not refer to him as a scientist, it’s not what he studied in school. He was a writer and did some professional technical writing for FermiLab and then stayed on in various capacities. He’s a wonderful liaison. He’s extremely knowledgeable on both ends story telling and the science.
ME: How has that been manifested in your play?
KRIS: A lot of the science that appears in the play came from questions I had that Bruce presented to a group of his scientific colleagues. I would pose my questions and curiosities and he would solicit responses for me and get those back to me as they came in as well as provided his own perspective. It was great to get so much feedback so quickly.
ME: What is the relationship with your director like?
KRIS: John Gawlik and I are just starting to get into the groove. I’ve seen some of his directing work in Chicago and some of his work on stage so I’m really excited to start digging into this thing and watching him work. But right now we’re still kind in that first course during the first date. We’re polite. We’re getting to know each a little. We haven’t started drinking too much or spilling our secrets. We aren’t discussing ex’s. I’m looking forward to it getting a little messier. Like I said, the work I’ve seen of his has been really exciting and I’m looking forward to being a part of that process.
ME: I dont know anything about science and I hate new work. Why should I see your play?
KRIS: For those who don’t dig on science, the play is most concerned with the human element and looking at science as a metaphor. It’s not a documentary. For those who don’t like new work. Then you should definitely be there. The audience plays a vital role in new play development and if you aren’t seeing the kind of plays you like developed get involved and make it happen. That’s the beauty of theatre. We’re limited to see whatever movies or television is released in our area but we can make our own theatre, and everyone in the community can be responsible for it.
-Garret Schneider, Collider Playwright
The Collider New Play Project is a part of the St. Charles Summer Theater Festival (July 14-31, 2011).
I’m a stereotypical artsy type. My spatial reasoning sucks and while perfectly capable of math, I almost never make the effort. I don’t keep up with the glimmering fast-paced world of science, and haven’t really learned much about non-human created phenomena since I was an undergrad. Which is probably why the Collider process has been so thrilling for me. We’ve discovering completely amazing stuff, in the past decade, did you know? While the duller mortals are declaring wars and arguing semantics, there are people launching instruments into space that prove the universe is 13.7 billion years old (how does anything else get funding?)
I generally feel unequal to the task of learning a major branch of science in order to write a non-stupid play about one of its practitioners, but the effort is both noble and fun. With my limited time frame, I’ve had to get creative. If you keep sharp, almost anything can be a chance to review your cosmology, from galactic portraits in the hall gallery leading from the Orange Line to Midway airport, to the Cosmic Microwave Background making a guest appearance on a hulu’d episode of “Family Guy.”
But the best part is the boys. Once you start publicly whining about Big Bang Nucleosynthesis, a surprising number of people you’ve known for years will jump out of their chairs and happily shout “Have you ever heard about flavor oscillation? It’s so COOL!” It makes for an excellent supplement to my science staff (Bill Higgins, kindly provided by Fermilab, along with my aforementioned Craigslist astrophysicist).
I wasn’t that surprised by Rob, an engineer who, on hearing of my project, went all starry-eyed and said that if he didn’t have a job, he would just sit around and learn this stuff all day. (We got through rather a lot of particle physics while he fixed my mom’s computer.) It also seemed natural when Matt, a military intelligence officer, prepared a ten-page declassified report to assist me in my review of the history of time. But then, there was Devon, an actor who’d been cast in a short play of mine. I twittered a Collider-research inspired astrophysics joke, and he responded on facebook. Here is the entirety of our inspiring, beautiful exchange:
Reina Hardy:Gentlemen, no more poems. No more emotions. I am only interested if you look into my eyes, hold my hands, and explain gravitational lensing.
Devon Ford:Baby, your shining eyes swirl like two distant galaxies. Or perhaps like only one distant galaxy that I can not see directly because there is a black hole between the two of us. But this galaxy sends its light in a V shape that passes closely to two sides of the black hole’s powerful gravitational well, and the two divergent beams are bent back towards eachother, and happen to converge again where I stand, and I see double.
Reina Hardy:That was exceptionally well played, Devon.
Devon Ford:I get all my pickup lines from Stephen Hawking.
An actor, ladies and gentleman! Wonders unceasing!
Collider PlaywrightCollider New Play Project is a part of the St. Charles Summer Theater Festival (July 14 – 31, 2011).
p.s. If you want more Collider news, please stay tuned for my next blog, The Top Three Party Scientist, and the Top Three Anti-Party Scientists, and follow me on twitter @reinahardy, paying special attention to #itsastrophysicsbitch.
So…a lot’s happened since we last spoke. I’m still struggling with how much and exactly what kind of specific science will work its way into this play. I’m still corresponding with Bruce (scientist) and watching a ton of YouTube videos on simple science experiments you can do at home. That’s all the same, but everything else is up for grabs right now and that’s both exciting and terrifying and exactly why I sit down to write these things in the first place.
Somehow Lucy, who was fairly static in the treatment I’ve submitted, has become the more central character. What began as a simple question of, “How do I add some depth to Lucy?” may have turned her into a full blown protagonist. The questions around her journey really seemed at the heart of the play’s dramatic question dealing with how we need to define and rationalize and experience love. The play seems very interested at this point in notions of experimentation and the testing of theories. That’s tricky stuff when applied to art or poetry and love. What experiments can we do to test if a poem is art? What experiments can prove that we are in love? I like that notion. We play those games in our own relationships sometimes on an almost imperceptible level, sometimes on a larger more tragic scale. Will he do the dishes without me asking this time? If my friend flirts with him how far will he let it go? But what do the results ever really tell us?…Not much, but we need to experiment and test. We want proof. But doubt is our default state and even if the proof is staring us in the face how often will we acknowledge it?
And it’s it our quest for love, for something transcendent and beyond explanation, that comes into conflict with the scientific world? Don’t we want to keep the clever paws of science out of our tiny miracles? Of course. There’s a chart by Parrot (2001) that breaks down emotions categorically. Love is defined as a primary emotion, and an emergent property of the secondary feeling of affection, lust/sexual desire, and longing, as well as the tertiary feelings of adoration, fondness, liking, attraction, caring, tenderness, compassion, sentimentality, arousal, desire, lust passion, infatuation. How many of us will be content with that neat little definition? We want something transcendent. And so often, it’s easy for the lay person to see science as the thing that takes away any hope in even the smallest of our miracles.
But these worlds that often seems at odds share more than we often admit. They share the thrill of discovery. They share the element of surprise. Surprise is a funny emotion. Parrot’s chart defines surprise as a primary emotion which is an emergent property of the secondary feeling surprise. Seems redundant. But it doesn’t end there since the tertiary feelings include the repetition of surprise as well. It reads, “amazement, surprise, astonishment.” Surprise seems to do a much better job defining itself than love does. I wonder why surprise isn’t included in Parrot’s categrical criteria for love? I think it would be a good building block for art and poetry and theatre and plenty of other things that aren’t serviced by more traditional definitions. Don’t we need it for love? Don’t we fall in love because we want to find out what we’d be like together with someone? Don’t we fall in love because somewhere we believe this time it just might work? And we chase down scientific breakthroughs in the same way. Both of these journeys are fueled by notions of discovery and enriched by the possibility of surprise. Both are subject to heart break and cling desperately to the hope of joy. I guess in all the chaos that is sure to follow between now and the first draft date of June 1st that’s what I’ll hold on to.
-K. Frithjof Peterson, Collider Playwright
Collider New Play Project is a part of the St. Charles Summer Theater Festival (July 14-31, 2011).
There is a quote which I read while researching a play about futuristic high school students living in northern Maine (which is a story for another time). While the play has joined my burn-pile, the quote has stayed with me:
“Fairytales, are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.” -G.K. Chesterton
So many times we have an idea: a play idea, a character idea, a lesson plan, a way in which the world should look, and we either try to create that idea, or justify it. Once we either justify it or create it, we think we’ve done our job pretty well.
But think of all of the skits that you have to sit through when you’re watching Saturday Night Live (do people still watch that?), or the plays where a director puts the idea of the play onstage, or a ten-minute play where the writer though it would be deep to put five historical figures onstage and have them talk about themselves.
I don’t care if you can put historical figures onstage, I don’t care that your concept of a twist ending is to make the old lady the devil, I don’t care if this episode of celebrity jeopardy has two Sean Connery’s. It doesn’t matter that dragons exist. What matters is what you do with them when they come to you.
So many times I think that the idea is good enough, that having a cool concept makes a good play. And then I start writing it, and remember that the characters carry that concept. That the more time I spend explaining the concept into the world, the longer it takes for my play to start.
In writing Clockwork Child, I spent pages and pages trying to explain a world where a 19th Century mathematician on her deathbed could be rocketed back in time. I laid the traps and organized it so that the audience could get a nice little jolt when it happened.
Then I realized that it didn’t matter. That no one wanted to see a play which so laboriously tried to setup time travel. If I was in the audience, I wouldn’t care about the mental games Ada Lovelace plays with herself to prove that she hasn’t gone back in time. That’s ridiculous. I don’t want to see a time-travel play. I don’t want to see a Victorean England play. I want to see a work which has the audacity to use both of those in a way which speaks to me right now.
Time travel exists. Great. So what. What are you going to show me about it right now?? Well, I am going to show you a woman going back in time and mentally abusing her younger self so that she is too scarred to ever become a scientist. And she won’t do it by yelling. She’ll do it by finding what her younger self loves most, and encouraging her to take it apart.
Time travel is the vehicle for something highly-theatrical, for the exposure of the battle with both of your selves. I saw a preview for this movie which perfectly illustrates this: Another Earth. A movie where a 2nd earth is found right next to our own. A girl wants to go to the second earth and encourage her other self to be honest about an accident.
I’d pay money to watch that. This is something which I always need to remind myself: don’t write for the dragon, write for the battle.
-Garret Schneider, Collider Playwright
Collider New Play Project is a part of the St. Charles Summer Theater Festival (July 14-31, 2011).
Talking about my process is about as alien to me as learning astrophysics. Which is, to my chagrin, also a big part of the process for this particular play. I am not going to let any more kindly scientists tell me that they admire my playwriting abilities. Science is much, much harder.
I’m still about waist-deep in the learning-astrophysics portion of “Stars and Barmen.” My wonderful Collider-provided scientist, Bill Higgins, who talked with me for hours on the phone about the glories and mundanities in the life of my gate-crashing astrophysicist main character, has given me a splendid reading/watching list. I’m working my way through, and remembering how easy it is to fall in love with stars. They are such total drama queens, what with all the expanding, and contracting, the changing into different elements, and the occasional massive blow-out. And yet, their behavior and positions are our biggest clues as to the origins of the universe, and the general what-the-eff-ness of everything. It’s as if you could figure out essential cosmic truth by closely observing Brad Pitt’s divorce. Fun.
I recently spent three weeks in Florida for the Orlando Shakespeare Harriet Lake New Play Festival. In between rehearsals and rewrites for my play “Glassheart,” I had occasion to ride a few coasters in the many fine area theme parks. Coasters terrify me. From the moment that a coaster ride is suggested, up to the very last moment at the top of that purposefully terrifying hill, my heart rabbits away and I can’t control my breathing. But the second the cars drop, and the ride starts going fast, my heart slows down, and I’m as happy as if I were flying. Starting a new play is a little bit like riding roller coasters. I’m getting better at it, but I still can’t quite shake the feeling that I might die.
For this play, my essential plan is to pour as much astrophysics and relevant poetry into my brain as possible, put the cork on, shake it up, limber myself with a number of writing exercises, and then spill out the first draft during a particular three week period that I have blocked out. This might look like procrastination, but it is an actual method. Most of my good plays have been written in haste, and rewritten at length. There’s something about a good old fashioned draft sprint that (knock on wood), gives dramatic gestalt. Anyway, I know the story. It’s about two people desperately looking for something, and a third person who found it and lost it. It’s about essential truth, fully felt experience, nasty break-ups and getting laid. That part of the play is easy-ish It’s just my difficulty that the main character in it happens to know way more facts about the universe than I ever will.
Besides the reading (poetry and cosmology) and the writing (poetry and free-writes) that I’m doing to train for this sprint, my major time investment is field trips. I went to the Adler with my personal non-Collider provided astrophysicist (I got him on Craigslist! You can get anything there!). He knew everything about everything in the museum. It was humbling. We took this one walk down a long gallery of different sorts of stars- he told me about each of them, and a lot more besides. By the end of it, my head felt heavy, as if tipping it might make something slosh out.
My next field trip will take me back to the very, very beginning, the ancient feeling of looking up into the night sky, seeing the endlessness of stars, and thinking “Wow. Something’s GOT to be going on up there.” We’re going to drive out into the black, away from the light pollution, into the nearest state park with a decent dark-sky rating. And then I’m going to lie flat on my back, and look straight up, and I’m going to say “Ok. All this. Explain it to me.” And then I’m going to listen.
-Reina Hardy, Collider Playwright
Collider New Play Project is a part of the St. Charles Summer Theater Festival (July 14 – 31, 2011).