Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Documentaries as Illumination

by Bill Johnson

A powerful effect of a well-made documentary is its power to illuminate an unknown corner of the world. Such a documentary is Muscle Shoals, about the beginning of a small music studio in Alabama that became the recording studio and provided the musicians for a number of soul artists, including Percy Sledge singing When a Man Loves a Woman.

The founder of the FAME recording studio, Rick Hall, was a fairly young Alabama wastrel turned music producer, and the house band was, in the beginning, just about all local Alabama white boys.

I had not the slightest clue they were the musicians backing artists like Arethea Franklin, Wilson Picket, and other soul singers.

When some members of this house band left and set up a 2nd, soon to be famous recording studio in the same small town, they were recording bands like the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

I love documentaries that take me into a corner of the world unknown to me.

A few other recent examples of such documentaries include The September Issue, about the senior editor and founder of Vogue Magazine putting out what would be the largest issue of the magazine; and Buddha’s Lost Children, about a Thai kick boxer who becomes a monk committed to a path of peace. Well, mostly that until some rowdy young men think they can disrupt his group. When he’s off on a journey and a horse goes down in an accident, his group set up camp to wait until their companion the horse can travel again.

Amazing documentary.

A few other of my favorites... Kabul Beauty School, about beauticians who go to Afghanistan to teach hairdressing and the power of getting what you want in life through affirmations to some Afghan stylists who risked murder under the Taliban for working in secret to ply their trade; and The Fog of War, with Robert McNamara (the Donald Rumsfeld of his time) admitting he didn’t have a clue why the Vietnamese wanted the United States out of Viet Nam.

Instant viewing on some of the paid services make it much easier for me to check out documentaries I missed.

If you only watch Hollywood big-budget features, you’re missing some real treats.

I'm just home from watching Spinning Plates, about three restaurants, one rated #7 in the world, a buffet style restaurant that's been open for 150 years, and a struggling, new, Mexican restaurant in Arizona. The documentary takes us deep into the lives and dreams of the people who run and manage these restaurants. Another wonderful example of how a film like this can transport an audience into another world.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular plays like Romeo and Juliet and 'night, Mother, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. For more information abbout my plays, visit

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

A Capsule Movie Review - Solaris

by Bill Johnson

I enjoy writing capsule movie reviews that explore principles of storytelling. The first I'm posting here is a review of the movie Solaris. The goal of these capsule reviews isn't just to review the movie, but to set out what about a particular movie created either the mechanics that helped a movie transport its audience, or some of the causes of that failure to transport.

In general, any big-budget Hollywood film that fails to find and satisfy its intended audience will have flawed mechanics.

Other, more recent capsule reviews can be found on my website.

A Capsule Review of Solaris

posted 12/12/2002

This film has gotten some weak reviews that call the storytelling slow, and a few suggestions that Clooney wasn't right for the part. My take, the story has a basic flaw in its structure. The initial set up is fine. Clooney is a therapist who clearly is unable to process through his grief about something that happened to his wife. He accepts an assignment to investigate what's happening on a space station orbiting a planet named Solaris. When Clooney arrives, he finds blood, dead people, and two survivors. One of the survivors tells Clooney he'll understand what's happening as soon as he sleeps. When he does, his dead wife shows up.

So far, strong, interesting plot, and strong story question about what Clooney will do about the return of his dead wife. But a problem in structure derails the plot. Most of the middle section of the film is flashbacks about Clooney meeting and falling in love with his seriously disturbed wife in parallel with scenes on the ship with the replica of his wife. There's no real drama or narrative tension around Clooney meeting, dating, and falling in love with his future wife, so that aspect of the story drags. There are long, long shots of Clooney trying to decide what to do about the replica of his wife. These scenes also drag because of an overuse of close ups.

This story structure problem isn't something that Clooney as an actor can overcome. Another problem, this is a film that aims to be about ideas, but there are no serious ideas explored in Clooney's relationship with his wife, or the question of why a therapist would marry someone so emotionally disturbed (serious mood swings, depression, suicidal to the degree that she kills herself). All these scenes with Clooney and his wife look great, but they don't have a deeper point. This lack of a clear sub text pulls down the film.

The plot picks up speed when Clooney and one paranoid survivor who wants to destroy the replica of Clooney's wife must make a decision about what to do. Then it comes out at the end that what the story was about wasn't just Clooney getting a cosmic second chance with his wife, but his forgiving her for his role in her suicide. The film doesn't acknowledge the anger the dead wife felt toward him that she would punish him by killing herself, or that he would have to be seriously disturbed to want to be with her, then to stay with her, or to want to be with her again after the hell she's put him through. But none of that is apparent about his character. Clooney is asked to play a character who's moral and thoughtful when what's underneath that persona is not in the film. The film ends up having a glossy surface and not much underneath.

So, the fulfillment of the story is interesting, just not developed in a clear, powerful way. Because the ending doesn't fulfill what came before, the climax of the plot doesn't generate the power it might have.

The movie does explore some ideas about the nature of reality.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular plays like Romeo and Juliet and 'night, Mother, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. For more information abbout my plays, visit

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thoughts on Getting a Play Produced

by Bill Johnson

For the inexperienced playwright, writing a play can be straightforward. One puts in the time and energy and does it. Getting the finished play produced and performed can appear to be simple as well. Send it to a theatre and get friends on the waiting list for when the play opens Off-Broadway. Unfortunately, that's like saying if you want to learn about hiking, you need to start by climbing Mount Everest. Long before most plays ascend to the lofty heights of a chance for an Off-Broadway production, or even a chance at a production in New York at a recognized theatre, they go through a process of refinement and revision. My goal here is set out some of the steps of getting a well-written play produced.

The first step is to write a well-written play. A play that engages and rewards the attention of its readers. Unfortunately for most inexperienced playwrights, their plays fail this first test. They don't read well. Some hallmarks of a well-written play? It immediately draws its audience into the narrative issue at the heart of the story.

For example, The Iceman Cometh opens with two characters talking about the issue of pipe dreams. Larry comments on how everyone around him is living a pipe dream, while he isn't. The plays acts out Larry's realization that he, too, is living a pipe dream. The play speaks in a rich way about the way many people need to lie to themselves to get through their lives. That means the play opens with a dramatic purpose of showing what it will take to bring Larry out of denial about who he is. This is a vital point because it means that from the opening of the play, the play's audience is oriented that the story has a dramatic purpose that the plays acts out to resolution and fulfillment.

On the opening page of your play, it should be clear your story has some dramatic purpose that will be acted out by characters who feel compelled to shape the outcome of the play's core dramatic issue. That dramatic purpose should infuse the dialogue of your characters.


Many inexperienced playwrights open a play with characters engaging in small talk to reveal who they are to an audience. This generates an impression that the play doesn't really begin until that process is complete. Open your play with an event that sets the story into motion in a way that your characters reveal themselves as they react to it and speak about it. The Iceman Cometh opens with two characters speaking about pipe dreams, and the expected visit of Hickey. Hickey will be the one who unexpectedly maneuvers everyone to examine and question their particular pipe dreams. As your characters talk about the situation they find themselves in, be careful to have characters speak to the point and respond to each other. Avoid having characters make speeches at each other. Let them voice their thoughts and feelings in a way that clearly advances the story. If your characters are speaking in paragraphs, ask yourself if they're really talking to another character or if you're using them to communicate information to your audience. As a rule of thumb, if you can't put your thumb over and cover any character's lines of dialogue, you're risking having characters run on to no particular point.

Write to the point of what characters are thinking and feeling, and have the others characters respond with what they're thinking and feeling. Stage craft Stage craft is everything that has to do with mounting a production of a play. How many sets a play requires. Suggestions on how they should be lit. How characters make entrances and exits. You can learn a great deal about stagecraft by going to plays and observing how they are staged. How light can be used to be dramatically suggestive. How a set can be suggested by a few props. How to get characters on and off a stage.

When you write your play, think about what makes the action theatrical. Avoid slipping into writing a play as if it's a television sitcom. It's not. Keep in mind that if you're writing a sitcom instead of a play, your audience can just as easily stay at home and watch sitcoms on television.

If it isn't possible for you to attend plays performed at several theatres, rent videos of filmed plays. Study how successful playwrights have used the medium of actors on a stage to bring to life their plays. Consider how you use that medium to heighten the dramatic impact of your story. When you write out what you consider to be the staging requirements of your play, keep in mind they will be re- interpreted in the light of what a theatre can both do on their stage and afford to do. But what you suggest about the staging requirements of your play on its opening pages tells your reader something about your knowledge of writing for the stage. Asking or insisting that a community or arts theatre build an elaborate set to stage your play suggests you aren't aware of the realities of mounting a play on a limited budget.

When you write stage directions for your actors, keep in mind some actors/directors will use them, others may ignore them completely, even black them out. While writing a play can be a solitary effort, mounting one requires a community working together. That also means that the other people involved in mounting a production of your play might have a different vision of how to cast and produce your play. You should think about that and how you feel about others making decisions about your play that affect it. While it's true that on a certain level, you can sign contracts that require the play be done as you've written the dialogue, how it's cast, staged and directed can also significantly affect how a play appears on the stage.

I attended a play by webmaster/playwright Charles Deemer. The use of stage craft was brilliant and interesting to watch in its own right.

Marketing Scripts

Information about theatres and their script requirement are available in The Writer's Market. The Dramatist Guild also offers a resources guide to its members. The Theatre Communication Group also offers a guide to theatres and their script requirements. Information about theatres and writing for the theatre is also available on line.

Keep in mind that you have a number of distinct markets for plays.

Large, commercial theatres that have large stages and the experience/budget to create elaborate sets. Broadway theatres and a few large regional theatres occupy this niche.

Commercial theatres that seat 150-350. They work with more modest budgets and generally look for plays with more simple staging requirements and a limited number of actors, generally 2-7. Many off-Broadway and regional theatres fit into this niche. A few cities like Seattle have several such theatres that either employ equity actors, or work with a mixed group of equity/non-equity actors.

Arts theatres These theatres often seat 75-200, and are often formed around the vision of a group of dedicated theatre professionals. They generally are open to staging new works, but must face on-going budgetary concerns. Artists Repertory Theater in Portland is an example of such a theater. They produced Holidazed, by Cynthia Whitcomb and Marc Acito.

Community theatres They often don't have the budget elaborate sets, but they can produce plays with larger numbers of actors.

Colleges Again, they can't often build elaborate sets, but they can draw on a larger pool of actors. Some colleges also offer to stage readings and produce plays of theatre majors interested in writing for the theatre.

High School Writing plays for high school students is actually one way to make something of a regular income writing plays. Every time a play is produced, the writer gets royalties. Getting plays out into the market here generally means getting a play published and offered through catalogs that offer plays for the school market.

Children's Theatre This is more of a niche market. Some theatres specialize in producing theatre for children. Other theatres produce adult work, but find having a theatre-within-a-theatre to do work aimed at children expands their outreach into their communities.

On-line Theatre This is a new form of theatre written to be produced and performed on-line. It is so new, how it will evolve will be determined by the theatre artists now exploring the medium. Web master Charles Deemer has been involved with this field.

Historical Dramas Many people are familiar with the one person performances of well-known figures like Mark Twain and Abraham Lincoln. But there is also a market for one person shows about people well-known in a particular region or for activities that affected particular groups. If you can write such a play and find a performer, these kind of plays can tour colleges, particularly if they are historically accurate.

Historical Pageants Some states produce stage plays about historical events like the settling or founding of a state, or a dramatic time in history.

Arts Festivals Some arts festivals stage works by new writers.

Puppet Theatre There are a few companies that focus on doing work with puppets/actors. This form of theatre is produced much more often in Europe, where it is considered an adult form of theatre.

Audio Theatre This form of theatre can include plays written to be performed on radio, plays written specifically to be recorded and offered to the public on audio tapes, or plays that have been produced in theatres and then recorded on audio tape.

US Government The government puts together cultural exchange tours. These can sometimes include plays. This might mean the playwright would need to attach themselves to a theatre and do some legwork to set something up, but it can be done.

Labor Theatre/Other Some kinds of theatre are written and produced for the benefit of particular groups like labor unions or political theatre. A play about medical issues might be performed at a medical convention.

Mystery Theatre This is a form of theatre sometimes done as dinner theatre. It involves some kind of who-dunnit and is meant to be light entertainment. There are companies like Eddie May Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre that buy scripts or buy and revise scripts to fit this format.

Environmental Theatre This is a kind of theatre written to be performed in a particular environment, perhaps on a boat or traveling train.

Improvisational Theatre There is a kind of theatre now that, say, stages a wedding, and actors and audience intermingle.

Musicals There are production companies that specialize in producing musicals.

Play Publishers Play publishers like Samuel French publish plays and offer their production rights to theatres. Getting a play published often requires getting it produced first (with some exceptions). Getting published used to mean that a play was produced and reviewed in New York. That doesn't have to be the case now, particularly for plays written for schools, churches and community theatres. Most play publishers will send guidelines about what they expect in terms of submissions. Some of the larger play publishers are:

Samuel French, Inc. 45 W. 25th St. New York, NY 10010,

Pioneer Drama Service, Inc. PO BOX 4267, Englewood, CO 80155-4267,

Other Churches occasionally do plays. Some coffee houses allow artists to stage works.

A glance at the list above should alert playwrights that some plays by their nature should be submitted to particular theatres. Sending a play with a cast of twelve and elaborate sets to an arts theatre is misguided. It risks being considered unproducible just from a glance at the cast of characters and set requirements. The same play, however, could find a welcome home in community theatres or as audio theatre.

It's Written, Now What?

You've written a play. You think it's done. Now what?

I suggest your first step is NOT to send the play out. Instead, that you gather some people together to read it out loud. This will give you a sense of how the play sounds. If you can't arrange this, I suggest you read your play out loud and record the reading, then play it back while you listen and make revisions.

In my years in theatre, I have found that the one thing that consistently separates out those who get produced from those who don't is the produced playwrights hear their works read out loud before sending them out. Hearing your play read out loud means that you can edit/revise lines that don't play well. It means your play will generally read more strongly.

After you've been through this process, is the play ready to be sent out?

Before you consider your play producible, I suggest you consider trying to arrange some kind of staged public reading. Find out if there's a performance space available for you to arrange the play to be read. Invite some friends. Perhaps send out a notice to the local paper so you can see the reaction of others to your script. If you don't know any actors, any local college with a theatre department could help you find some.


speak to some of the local theatres to see if they produce staged readings. As part of a commitment to new theatre, some theatres have a regular program for producing staged readings of plays. That allows the theatre to get a sense of audience reaction to the play before the make a commitment to produce it.

The steps set out here are not written in stone. Most theatres won't require that your play have been presented as a staged reading before they'll consider it. I suggest you consider it part of the process of creating a play and making sure it reads well before you begin submitting it.

Writer's Groups

While writing plays can be a solitary craft, there are number of playwrights groups around the country. These groups can offer valuable information about which theatres in your region are interested in reading new scripts. The Dramatist's Guild in New York also offers its members contract advice and information about both national and regional theatres. The Chicago Dramatists Workshop is another large group for playwrights that has a staged reading program. They are at 1105 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, IL 60622,

On-line Information about plays, playwrights, playwriting, writing groups and theatres is available on line. Check out

Classes Some colleges have theatre departments, and colleges occasionally offer students opportunities for staged readings. Classes are also a good way to meet other playwrights and theatre people in your community. Some theatres offer classes in writing for the theatre. These classes can be a wonderful opportunity to become part of a particular theatre community.

Because producing a play is a community effort, for some playwrights becoming part of that community is part of writing for theatre. Other writers prefer the more solitary writing life. While you should choose the path more comfortable for you, at least be aware that there can be more to getting a play produced than writing them and mailing them off to theatres.

Contracts Entertainment attorney Dana Singer has written "Stage Writers Handbook: A Complete Business Guide for Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Librettists." The book offers a information about the business of writing for theatre. It's published by the Theatre Communications Group, which also puts out a book about which theatres are reading scripts. Keep in mind that a contract spells out in writing the understanding of all concerned parties about what their expectations and understandings are. It can help avoid misunderstandings from different interpretations of verbal commitments. As a famous studio executive once commented, verbal contracts aren't worth the paper they're written on.

Copyright If you want to take steps to protect your play, you can copyright it with the Library of Congress at The fee is $35.

You've Mailed it Off; What Now?

You can expect to wait. Sometimes for days. Sometimes for months. Sometimes for years. Some theatres assign readers to read new manuscripts and make a decision whether to pass them along for further review or simply return them. Other theatres simply have whoever's interested and has the time read new scripts. Others might have scripts reviewed by a committee. There's no single answer here as to what will happen when you submit a script.

You can also call theatres in your community to ask if they're reading scripts and their submission guidelines.

Agents Most agents are only interested in representing writers whose work they can market. If you're an unpublished playwright, you're better off focusing on getting a play produced, but some unproduced writers are able to get agents. Other writers have agents to handle books or screenplays, and their plays are handled as a matter of courtesy. Even if you have an agent, keep in mind that you are the one with the vested interest in getting your plays produced, so even with an agent it's still in your best interest to promote your work by submitting it to theatres.

Contests Some theatres now stage competitions and contests, with the winners being produced/staged. They generally have entry deadlines and guidelines. The nice thing about contests is that if you don't hear by a certain date that you've been selected to be produced, you at least know that someone has reviewed your script.

Some contests charge a reading fee to cover the costs of reviewing scripts and mounting a production of the winning script. While this isn't a good thing for playwrights, for some theatres it's the only way they can manage to stage a competition. It does mean that some competitions are actually scams intended to make money for someone. Some of the worst of these are exposed on-line. If a theatre is asking for any kind of fee, be careful.

Conclusion Writing a play and seeing it produced can be a deeply moving experience. Or deeply disappointing. Or surprising. Or illuminating. Or any number of other feelings. There's no way to know ahead of time how a performance of a play is going to turn out. About the only thing that's guaranteed is that it promises to be an interesting experience!


To read some of my longer reviews of popular plays like Romeo and Juliet and 'night, Mother, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. For more information abbout my plays, visit

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Narrative Tension in Ender’s Game

by Bill Johnson

A hallmark of successful novels is narrative tension. Narrative tension is the tension characters in a novel (and movies) feel about unresolved and unfulfilled events and needs. When characters in a story are blocked from gaining what they want, they experience narrative tension. When acting to gain something increases a character's pain (because the story/storyteller increases the obstacles) a character in a story experiences increasing narrative tension.

In a nutshell, a storyteller creates a character who can't refuse to act because of the cost of inaction, but there's also a price to pay for acting.

Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, is a great example of narrative tension. To act on his love for Juliet is to turn against his clan and family; to not act on his feelings for Juliet is to violate his sense of what's important to him. But any action he takes increases his pain.

Romeo is a great character because he won't allow even death to block him from being with Juliet.

A novel (or movie) that lacks narrative tension fails to be compelling. It can appear to be episodic; events happen, but there's no tension around an outcome to these events. Characters act, but there's no tension generated around their actions.

The novel Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card, and the movie based on the book offers examples of a successful use of narrative tension and a failure to generate that tension.

The novel opens with a character named Ender deep in a state of narrative tension. He’s a third, in a society that ostracizes a third child, and he’s also just lost his status of wearing a monitor and being studied as a boy to be trained to help defeat an expected alien invasion.

Since Ender fears his brother is a homicidal sociopath, he’s now in deep fear for his life, and that fear is transferred to the audience.

He’s in a state of narrative tension.

The early movie scenes that introduce Ender, Peter, and his compassionate sister Valentine convey tension, but not narrative tension.

In school, Ender faces an attack from a bully now that he's no longer monitored. Ender defends himself with that he doesn’t understand is lethal force to forestall any future attacks.

That logic gets him back into training by the military, where the military officer works to isolate and increase the tension on Ender.

At every step, his situation, his narrative tension, is made worse.

But in the movie, these scenes of struggle are introduced and resolved so quickly, they fail to generate the tension generated by the novel.

In the novel, there’s great tension as a game the military creates for Ender to play to gauge his inner mental state becomes something much deeper and mysterious than the military understands. In the movie, this is reduced to a few scenes.

As a movie, Ender’s Game reminds me of the first Harry Potter novel and movie. The novel is a chronicle of narrative tension; the movie is a kind of coffee-table edition of highlights from the book.

Understanding why the movie Ender's Game failed to find a large audience is a good lesson for understanding narrative tension.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon Kindle. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.