Submissions are now open for the 2015 Theatre Lab held at the Sundance Resort in Utah.

The Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, the centerpiece of the Theatre Program, is a three-week play development retreat designed to support the creation of new work by playwrights, directors, composers and librettists, and to provide a place where that work can be effectively mentored and challenged.

“The space that defines the Sundance Institute Theatre Program is that precious wedge of time between ‘idea’ and ‘production’ when artists dream, leap into their discomfort, their unknown, and get closer to their vision.” —Philip Himberg, Artistic Director

Lab alumni and projects include Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate, Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, Denis O’Hare & Lisa Peterson’s An Iliad, Taylor Mac’s The Lily’s Revenge, Tracey Scott Wilson’s The Good Negro, Adam Guettel & Craig Lucas’ The Light in the Piazza, Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori’s Fun Home, Stew’s Passing Strange, Byron Au Yong & Aaron Jafferis’ Stuck Elevator, Steven Sater & Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening, Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, and Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife.

Apply or read more about the Theatre Program here.

Photos by Fred Hayes and Ashley Gilbertson

2

Merry Christmas everyone. Shall we eat?

Honey, Lawson’s not at the table yet.

And?

Fredrick!

Lawson’s here? Why didn’t you guys tell me?!

I thought Virginia would’ve told you honey.

Sorry.

*sighs* It’s alright. I’m gonna go upstairs and see if he wants to join us. I haven’t talked to him in a good while.

Timothy, be gentle. He’s not feeling too good.

*scoffs* Hey, I’m not like Dad over here.

I suppose at one time in my life I might have had any number of stories, but now there is no other. This is the only story I will ever be able to tell // Donna Tartt.

Don’t cry over someone who knew better than to hurt you. Don’t bleed over someone who made you feel worthless. Don’t waste yourself on someone who treated you like you aren’t good enough.

You are good enough. You are better enough. And one day, you will be someone’s best enough.

—  Nikita Gill, Notes to Myself.

"Now listen to me, my son," Daedalus urged Icarus. "Fly behind me, and keep close. Don’t fly too high or too low. If you fly too low, the sea spray will weigh down the feathers. If you fly too high, the sun will melt the wax." At his son’s promise to do as he had instructed, Daedalus embraced him and then kissed his forehead, and it seemed as if some great bird was feeding its young mouth-to-mouth, as birds do. Then they turned and ran to the cliff’s edge and then up, out, and away — away from the lands controlled by Minos. Flying!

But Icarus did not stay close to his father. As the earth shrank beneath him, he beat on up past clouds, past listening, past promises. Icarus flew on alone, higher and higher and higher towards the sun and bead by golden bead of wax started to melt.

Too late for help, Icarus fell — down, down into the sea that bears his name…

Daedalus buried his dead son in the sand, buried hope and laughter and joy, laid the clumsy fingers in the ground, placed an obol in the foolish mouth, kissed the cold forehead. Then Daedalus flew, his tears falling in the sky like rain, away from danger, away from grief…
— Greek Myths: Daedalus & Icarus.

Artwork: The Fall of Icarus, by René Milot.

3

Sinclair, I’ve been thinking about what you said to me earlier about spiting me because of how I raised you and the personal choices I’ve made in my life which would ultimately effected you and I want you know that I never purposely wanted to hurt you or make you feel bad.

………

…… I’m not a good mother and I’ve always knew I wouldn’t be ever since finding out I was pregnant with you. I knew I didn’t want to give you up and I thought that I could possibly raise you right. Your father didn’t want anything to do with you because he was Mr. Perfect and you were his dirty little secret he didn’t want anybody to know…. I still hate him for that.

….. You never once tried to do anything about it.

Who would have believe me, Sinclair? Who would believe that the Governor in 1985, Paul B. Fortner, had an illegitimate child with a prostitute? The same man who was expecting with his wife their now adult daughter Lorraine. He would’ve had me killed if I said something….. so I stayed quiet for both of us.

I would’ve said something still.

And risk my baby’s life? Sinclair, I’m not a good mother, but I always know when to put you first.

We have to stop categorizing abortions as justified or unjustified. The best thing you can do if you support reproductive rights is to force people to realize that abortion is common, and the most common abortion is a five-to-15-minute procedure elected early in the first trimester by someone who doesn’t want to be pregnant or have a child. It’s our job to say it’s O.K. if that’s the end of the story. It’s O.K. if it’s boring or not traumatic or if you don’t even know what it was.
—  This is What an Abortion Looks Like, Merrit Tierce in the New York Times

Game: A Dark Room

A Dark Room is probably the best game I’ve played all year, and its simplicity hides a subtle and affecting story. Part of the game is the discovery process as the game slowly reveals itself, so it’s difficult to describe without spoiling things. If you’re prepared for the slow-ish pace, and an interface built from minimal text and progress bars, you will discover a very rewarding game.

There are a few similarities between A Dark Room and Blackbar. They both have a minimal interface and memorable storytelling, but unlike Blackbar, A Dark Room sports richer gameplay that allows for multiple play-throughs using different techniques and play styles if you’re up for that sort of thing.

The game has been in the top 10 paid games list for quite some time now, and has been featured by Apple a number of places. It’s amazing to see something so unusual ranking next to big franchise games like Tetris, or LEGO® Lord of the Rings.

A prequel, The Ensign, was just released a few days ago. I have not had a chance to play it yet, but I’ll write about it here when I have.

Also, if you’re at all interested in how games are created, I quite enjoyed the audio “making of” clips that you unlock when you complete the game.

Not Leaving

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On the morning of September 11th, 2001, I stood on the roof of my apartment building in Brooklyn and watched the twin towers fall. I spent the rest of that day crying, drinking, and planning my escape back home to San Antonio, where I could feel a bit safer with my family and await the forthcoming Armageddon from a yellow-level threat zone.

The next morning, I tried repeatedly phoning the same few friends with limited success. Much of New York cell service was lost and what few lines were free were constantly congested. Eventually, I called the downtown Manhattan bistro where I waited tables, hoping to find out if my coworkers were all right. I expected the phone to go unanswered because the restaurant, like almost every other business below 14th Street, had to be closed.

“David,” begged the assistant manager as plates and silverware clanged in the background, “get here any way you can. We’ll pay for your car if they open the bridges!”

Not only were they serving, but as one of the few open eateries in a ten-block radius, they were packed with West Village locals who wanted to be anywhere but home.

Over the next 72 hours, in place of my absent coworkers who’d fled the city, I would work three double shifts. Then I would have the money to do what they did—rent a moving truck and leave New York.

Each day, to cross the 14th Street roadblock, I had to show my ID to a military policeman. It was the Texas driver’s license I’d been meaning to replace since 1999 when I’d moved to New York City to be a performing artist. I’d managed to fill the two years since with drinking at bars and dancing at clubs in between working at jobs I didn’t want, like the one I was going to that day.

"Where you going?" the guard asked from behind huge goggles with a giant machine gun strapped to his chest.
“I work down here at the French Roast,” I replied.
After a few minutes of checking my story on his walkie-talkie, the guard let me pass, gruffly reminding me, “If you live in New York, get a New York ID!”
But soon I wouldn’t live in New York. In a few days I would be on my way to San Antonio where my ID made sense.

Three days later I’d made 900 dollars: my get-out-of-dodge fund. At the end of my last shift, I got drunk on red wine with my favorite bartender, Yoni. We talked about the softer side of New Yorkers that had emerged since the attacks: doors were held with smiles and eye contact; pleases and thank you’s were exchanged with cashiers. Earlier that day I’d seen a couple embracing in tears on a subway platform—the simplest goodbye suddenly wasn’t so simple.

I noticed this sudden swelling of emotion in the restaurant too. I told Yoni that during the last three days, I’d felt more like a therapist than a waiter. Holding a coffee carafe and wearing an apron, I listened to people tell me that they were quitting their banking jobs or ending their abusive relationships. Over a dirty martini, a woman told me with tears in her eyes that she’d decided to move back home to spend her mother’s last few “good years” with her.

Whenever a customer asked me how I was doing, I answered, “Hangin’ in there,” uncertain about opening up to a man to whom I’d just served an omelet. No one needed to hear about the people I loved whom I still couldn’t reach by phone or my friend whose father had died in the first tower.

The first of my three shifts felt mutually therapeutic. Three days later, being in the restaurant had become a kind of torture. Every half hour I locked myself in the bathroom for a crying jag as I cleaned my hands with alcohol wipes, afraid that Al Queda had tainted the tap water. I imagined the water in Texas, flowing pure and clean from the luxury showerhead in my mom’s master bathroom.

I got up from the bar and looked around at the restaurant for the last time. Its tiny tea light candles and wall sconces lit up a dozen scattered forlorn faces. Beneath an antique poster for French cigarettes a man sat alone wearing headphones, listless, a bowl of uneaten soup steaming in front of him. As I hugged Yoni goodbye, he slipped a huge magnum of red wine into my satchel and said something in Hebrew.
“What?” I slurred to him.
He patted me on the shoulder and whispered, “Drink… to forget.”

At 3am a cab dropped me off near my loft building in Bushwick, a sparse Brooklyn neighborhood that had felt like an industrial wasteland even before the attacks. Now its streets were full of garbage that had blown over the East river from the towers: lunch receipts from Wall Street delis, a Father’s Day greeting card, internal documents from Morgan Stanley—little pieces from the archives of strangers’ lives crunching beneath my feet and flapping overhead in coils of barbed-wire fencing.

Approaching the door to my building, all I could hear was techno music blaring from the rooftop across the street. An outdoor rave seemed in poor taste, but in the wake of the attacks, any human desire seemed plausible. If people wanted to sit in a bistro and pay 18 dollars for a sandwich, why shouldn’t they want to dance?

"You got a cigarette?” someone asked from the darkness a few feet behind me.
Without a second thought, I reached into my brown leather satchel for a smoke, my street smarts weakened in this new era of kind gestures. A moment later I felt a body up against my back and an arm around my neck. Something hard was rammed between my ribs.
“You feel that?” he asked. “That’s a fucking gun. Gimme all your money.”

I took a deep breath as the man behind me tightened his arm around my neck. The odor of tons of smoldering metal still hung in the air, like a preheated oven with forgotten pots and pans stored inside. A street lamp pole five feet away was covered in posters of smiling faces with the word “Missing” below them. Over the horizon two long strands of smoke joined in the sky to form a mock cloud.

With trembling hands I dug in my bag for a few bucks, tearing through books, loose change, and packs of gum. As hardcore techno pounded all around us I stuttered repeatedly, “Please don’t shoot me. Please don’t shoot me. Please don’t shoot me…”

And then I remembered, through a woozy veil of panic and Malbec, the 900 dollars in my pants pocket that would save me from a future full of shit like this. I caught a glimpse of him over my shoulder as his wrist trembled against my Adam’s Apple. He was a thin man in his mid-thirties. His face was drawn and fragile, his eyes wide and hungry as they bounced around in his skull. I could sense his anxiety and a part of me wanted to be sympathetic, reminding myself that he was just trying to survive, even now more than ever.

"Hurry up!" he grunted against my ear, jamming the gun deeper into my back while eying the building door across the way. Quickly, while I had the chance, I moved the cash from my pocket to my bag, where it would be harder to find in the mess of journals, phone chargers and matchbooks. Impatient, he reached around me and into my front pants pocket, where I kept my credit cards and driver’s license. Just as he removed his hand, a group of five partygoers emerged from the building across the street. The man nudged me toward my front door, grunting, “Now go inside.”

He began to casually stroll away at the same pace as the five kids across the street, all of them heading toward a busy avenue 50 yards ahead. If he hadn’t said, “Now go inside,” I might have gone inside. But his presumptuousness felt like a greater affront than being held at gunpoint. Didn’t he know this was a time of solidarity and peace, that for just a few days he should be loving his neighbors, not mugging them?

So I followed him.

"Hey!" I slurred to the group across the street. "That guy has a gun and he just mugged me!” I said it incredulously, as if to shame him for leaving a bad tip. A girl with blond dreadlocks yelped in a way that was equal parts fear and "you’re-kidding-right?" The group followed us cautiously, wary about trusting the drunk guy with purple teeth and a giant bottle of wine sticking out of his bag.

The mugger began to fast-walk like an elderly person doing morning aerobics in the mall, as if full-on running would imply guilt. As he picked up his pace I dialed 911.
“911,” said the operator, sounding like she’d just been woken up from a nap, my gunpoint robbery probably one of the less urgent calls she’d taken in the last four days.
“I’ve been mugged!” I screamed.
“What does he look like, sir?” she asked through a yawn.
He was wearing brown slacks, a red and black striped sweater and a small, brimmed hat. “Freddy Krueger!”
“Um… Excuse me?”
“Freddy Krueger!” I broke into a full sprint toward my mugger.
“Sir, where are you?” the operator asked, finally sounding concerned.
“I’m following him!” I screamed, now brandishing the huge magnum of wine over my head.
“Sir, please stop pursuing the perpetrator.”

But I couldn’t. I wasn’t thinking of my safety or his gun. It was my time to vent, to scream and release. Now I wasn’t anyone’s waiter. I wasn’t a sounding board or a therapist. I was a victim, just like every New Yorker was however great or small their loss or sense of security.

We were almost at Bushwick Avenue when the mugger, running ten feet ahead of me, looked over his shoulder with frightened eyes and wheezed, “Stop.”No one had ever looked at me with fear before. And I liked it. For three days I’d been invisible, but now someone was seeing me. I wanted to catch him. And I was so close.

Right after he crossed the avenue, a throng of traffic zoomed between us and I watched him disappear into the darkness of an unlit park at the center of a housing project. As drunk as I was, I knew my limits. I accepted defeat. So at 4 in the morning I sat on the curb and, for the first time since that terrible Tuesday, I sobbed; not about the robbery that didn’t happen or the gun that was probably a candy bar, but for the monstrous tragedy I’d been attempting to ignore for three days while bringing people dessert menus and warm baguette.

I stumbled home drunk and emptied my pockets, realizing that the mugger had gotten away with my Texas driver’s license. Without that license, I couldn’t rent a U-Haul. Or drive one. I would have to wait for my replacement, which could take days or even months because every public service was suspended. Like airplanes from the American sky, rules and regulations had disappeared too. No one was making any promises, at least for a little while.

A few nights later I was awoken by screaming in the middle of the night. I looked out into my desolate, post-apocalyptic neighborhood from my second floor window to see a young blond woman in a short, sequined dress on her knees in the street. She was alone, rocking back and forth with her hands over her ears, her high-heeled shoes kicked off beside her.

"Their bodies were burning," she screamed, less like someone traumatized by actually having seen it than like someone who, after taking some very high-quality drugs at a nightclub, couldn’t stop imagining it.
“Hey,” I yelled, jolting her into catatonic silence.
She pulled her fingers from her hair and stood up before stumbling through the exterior door of her loft building across the street. I watched from my open window as lights came on in a room directly across the street. A giant, industrial window screeched open and she appeared.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said, wiping her eyes and lighting a cigarette. We leaned out our windows in silence, looking occasionally at each other but mainly at the sky above.
Ten minutes later she flicked her cigarette butt into the street and sighed, “Thank you,” offering me a dim smile before shutting her window.

The next morning I woke up to a loud, metallic thud. I looked out the window and saw a mustached man in his fifties securing the lock on a moving truck before getting into the driver’s seat. In the passenger seat was my blond neighbor in sunglasses, expressionless and static as the man I assumed was her father swept her hair from her face. She was prettier and paler than she’d seemed the night before, kneeling on the concrete beneath an orange streetlight. I waved, hoping she’d notice me. But the only place she seemed to be looking from behind her giant, black glasses was through the windshield at the road ahead.

Over the next week I had time to calm down. I started to trust the tap water again and thought, “Is the water coming from that high-pressure showerhead in Texas really so great? Like, is it Whitney Biennial-great? Or Tompkins Square Park in Spring-great? Or Bjork sighting on 9th Avenue-great?” I started to think that living in my parents’ garage sounded like a cop-out, the kind of step-back that would eventually send me into the middle of their quiet suburban street to psychotically pull my hair out.

A week later, in spite of my doubts, I had a going away party at a friend’s apartment. About 30 people came: work friends, neighbors, bar buddies, and a few people I’d never met. As the night progressed, I couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that something wasn’t right; that maybe I hadn’t really made a concerted effort to do all the things I’d moved to New York to do; go to the MOMA, take an improv class at UCB, perform on a New York City stage. Within a few hours one of my friends offered me a lead on a new job. Another told me about a share in her apartment in Spanish Harlem. By the end of the party I announced, a bit embarrassed, that I wasn’t going anywhere. By midnight, my bon voyage party had become a welcome back soirée.

A week later I used that get-out-of-dodge fund as a deposit on a place on 116th street. If a man with a gun in my back couldn’t scare me away, why should I let faceless terrorists halfway around the world?
So I stayed.

A week later my mom called from Texas to tell me I’d received a letter with no return address. Inside was my ID, a little piece from the archive of someone’s life, scuffed and bent from blowing around the dirty streets of Bushwick.
Scrawled on the attached Post-It note was:
“Whoever you are. I hope you are okay. God bless you.”

Twelve years later I still have a Texas ID. And I’ll never replace it. It’s what makes me a New Yorker.

Watch on explore.noodle.com

Wisdom in the Age of Information – an animated essay

10 Things…Painting Like a Writer from Muddy Colors

Flow…one of my stream-of-consciousness pieces…but even when the elements barely relate, it still has to work compositionally 

Creative picture making is like creative writing. While studying books about writing, when an author describes how to construct compelling sentences, I hear it as if they are talking about building a picture. I often replace the word ‘writer’ with ‘artist’ and find new clues for simplifying an image to get to the point.

The creative process is universal. Studying other creative fields helps me learn better picture design.  This opens me up, and allows me to understand painting from a writer’s perspective.

Read More

In my wife’s 2nd grade classroom, they define a story as a sequence of events that has a Beginning, a Middle, and an End

If you were to take that idea and use it to tell a classic story, it might look something like this: 

  1. Peter Parker becomes Spider-Man
  2. An evil scientist wreaks havoc on the city
  3. Spider-Man stops the evil scientist

Easy peasy, right? You’ve got characters, you’ve got conflict, you’ve got action, everything a good adventure story needs. So what’s the problem? 

If you’re in grade school and your task is to write a short story about your favorite super hero, there isn’t a problem. However, if you’re trying to write a movie that fills 90 to 120 minutes of screen time, you may find that a three-act framework might stretch your ideas a little thin. 

Our friend Film Crit Hulk explains: 

Hulk hears it all the time when people complain about movies: “it’s the problems in the film’s second act!”

The problem with this generic “second act” designation is that it can imply a problem with virtually anything in the middle part of storytelling. Meaning it is a beyond vague way to talk about story structure.

Question: what is an act?

Hulk will ask young students, film journalists, even working writers and most don’t have an answer. 

Sometimes they’ll fall over their words. Sometimes they’ll be hit by a bolt of speechlessness.

Their answers basically amount to an act being a term that’s a general placeholder for chunks of story that usually separate “beginning, middle, and end.”

Sound familiar? Film Crit Hulk continues:

So Hulk’s got another of Hulk’s famous working definitions for you. And it’s not out of Hulk’s butt here. It’s one used by many great screenwriters, professors, and other way-smart people.

The best way to put it is to define an act by its point of separation from the next (act).

Thus: The end of an act is a point in the story where a character(s) makes a choice and can no longer “go back.”

This means that the way we move from one act to another defines the act itself. We call these transitions act breaks.”

Film Crit Hulk:

The act break can be:

  • a new and interesting plot development
  • a poignant character realization
  • a personality reveal
  • two previously un-met characters becoming friends
  • or even, if handled correctly, something as insipid as “no! The bad guys are here! Run!”

An act break can be anything as long as it has a significant changing effect on the narrative resulting in the character choosing an action defined by that change; one that causes them to move forward in this new reality with understanding.

More importantly, an act break creates propulsion.

Suddenly, it becomes clear why so many films have “second act problems”: A three-act story only contains two act breaks.

In other words, it only has two points in which the character makes a choice they can’t go back from. 

That lack of propulsion, the lack of drama-energized progress, is a direct result of thinking about stories in terms of “three-act” structure. 

Not only does three-act structure not accurately reflect the way good stories work on a dramatic level, it doesn’t tell us how to write (or even outline) a dramatically compelling feature-length film story.

Depending on how you cut it, some movies have five acts, some even have upwards of twenty. It all depends on what kind of story you’re telling and what’s appropriate. 

Our friend Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty) has an excellent toolkit for thinking outside the three-act box.

It’s incredibly handy for beginners, journeymen, and masters alike. You can learn about it on his website Channel 101 by clicking here

To read Film Crit Hulk’s full essay on the myth of three-act structure, go to his blog here.

I’d been fascinated with Rand since I’d written a story in the New York Times magazine about a competitive championship tournament bridge player who was also an active objectivist and Rand devotee. I had read half of Atlas Shrugged before I got the gist of my role. I really enjoyed the book because of its absurdly reductive philosophy that inadvertently plays on adolescent male narcissism like a jazz saxophone — to draw a connection to the famous Randian saxophonist and economist Alan Greenspan — but it also spoke directly to the adolescent male fantasy of “I’m the only smart one. Everyone is leeching off of me and I’d rather destroy my work than compromise my integrity by being nice to others.” Her moral severity came as a tonic to my cultural relativist upbringing.

The dress in which John Hodgman impersonated Ayn Rand, one of the many magnificent garment-related tales in Emily Spivack’s Worn Stories.

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