Monthly Archives: September 2013

David Henry Hwang, Nick Flynn, Rosary O’Neill: Writers Giving Back to Writers

Writing I worked on during a workshop at Omega Institute.

Writing I worked on during a workshop at Omega Institute.

The Paradigm Shift

The long needed paradigm shift for authors is here. Like never before, successful writers of all genres are available to their fans and others as many discard traditional publishing routes that were profitable to everyone but the writer.  Self-publishing and direct to the source return the profits back to authors. As social media, blogs and e-zines trump traditional media, and streaming (House of Cards) Youtube (plays and shows) and Google Hangouts (live music shows) become widespread, TV venues that formerly preyed upon the division between the creator and the passive audience are dying. It’s about interactivity.  As a result writers are relying on interactions with followers on Twitter, Youtube, Facebook, etc., to promote and sell their work, engage their readers and update them on their latest triumphs. To remain current, they must stir the pot and trouble the waters of innovation and artistry. How else can they benefit from the currents of cultural resplendence? If they don’t connect, they will eventually be choked off as is happening to old line venues for the cultural arts.

Authors Stay Juiced Through Workshops and Master Classes

Nick Flynn at work during the workshop at Omega Institute.

Nick Flynn at work during the workshop at Omega Institute.

Another way noted writers are connecting is by giving back in workshops, conferences and master classes.  It is particularly rewarding when brilliant authors are sure footed guides who can shepherd their fellow writers up the mountain of difficulties regarding word-craft to unlock inspiration. Fluid workshops are settings which inspire writers to share their work without fear. They encourage spontaneous, authentic writing. They help authors learn new techniques and allow them to bathe in the creative flow of juiced writing.

Three noted writers and authors whose workshops and classes I took in the last months were particularly helpful and each was extremely generous. David Henry Hwang, successful Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright, Nick Flynn, poet and memoirist, and Rosary O’Neill, playwright, screenwriter and diverse author reached into their bounty of spirit and shared liberally. Reflecting back on the process with these exceptional writers, I now see that the exchanges and connections offered unique experiences that are helping me hone my craft and provide direction for my writing projects.


David Henry Hwang graciously speaking with us and staying for pictures after the class at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

David Henry Hwang graciously speaking with us and staying for pictures after the class at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

I absolutely adore this man, this stunning screenwriter, librettist and multiple award-winning playwright best known for M Butterfly, Yellow Face and Chinglish. I have seen much of his work on Broadway and Off Broadway. The first time I saw M Butterfly (I saw it twice.) starring John Lithgow and B.D. Wong, I remember telling my cousins after the performance that it was a happening.  Thrilling and alive, it was like seeing Venice for the first time or tasting my first sip of vintage wine from a bottle that cost more than $150. Poor similes, I grant you, but I was gobsmacked. Taking this class with him I was anxious to understand his technique. I had seen his development and knew early works like Dance in the Railroad. I and was looking forward to seeing his Kung Fu at the Signature Theatre in March of 2014. What would he share?

The writers/students in the master class with David Henry Hwang were at various stages in their writing careers; their backgrounds were motley. Wang enjoys people and he interacted with us after getting a general feel for this large group who was there to breathe the same air as this multiple award winner and Pulitzer Prize nominee. He of course, is unassuming, disarming and a sponge of humility you could just hug and squeeze. Despite the large  numbers in the group, David Henry Hwang put us at ease and somehow created an intensity and intimacy during the session, a talent in itself.

David Henry Hwang and me.

David Henry Hwang and Carole Di Tosti.

Move toward the unconscious.

The master playwright encouraged us to continually transcend the conscious mind and write frequently, overriding our conscious censor. For example, when thinking “I’m not good enough,” or “Why should anyone care about what I’m writing,” that is the nihilistic self-critic. Inspire yourself and unblock using various techniques; some suggestions are below.

  • Silence the censor by writing as fast as you can. You can always go back and edit.
  • Cut out phrases from a magazine article and shuffle them into various sequences. Copy a phrase or two priming the pump until it’s flowing. Don’t stop until there is a natural pause.
  • Write out words in free association. Put them in a hat and choose various ones that continue the associations. Write continually and automatically. Follow where the writing leads you; don’t lead it.
  • Of course, David Henry Want suggested to always write what inspires and keeps your interest. The more you have fallen in love with what you are writing about the better.
  • Allow yourself to give your characters free reign. They will lead you to amazing places that you never new were possible on the journey.

NICK FLYNN’S MEMOIR AS BEWILDERMENT at Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY

Nick Flynn chatting with writers before class.

Nick Flynn chatting with writers before the workshop begins at the Omega Institute.

Nick Flynn is a poet and  best-selling memoirist. He wrote The Reenactments, The Ticking Is the Bomb, and the haunting and beautiful best seller, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City which was published as Being Flynn, the title of the independent film based on the book. The film stars Robert DiNero and Paul Dano. Flynn’s three books of poetry are The Captain Asks For a Show of Hands, Some Ether, and Blind Huber. I was familiar with his memoir Another Bullshit Night... and liked his style of writing.  During the two day workshop, Nick Flynn was generous answering questions about the making of the film (it took seven years) and his writing life. He challenged us, attempting to jar our sensibilities into the unusual because only then could the chaffing break us into the realm of the unexpected to authenticity. As we wrote and shared our writings, elements he uses in his own writing resonated deeply. His wonderful humor carried us through any nervousness.

Use image and object chains from various sources.

  • Flynn encouraged us toward selecting images and objects threading them in our work. Images carry emotional power and weight. These are tied to associations from our unconscious that have meaning beyond what we may not recognize consciously.
  • Write down dreams and the images will more naturally appear to us. Incorporate images or objects in automatic writing which should be spontaneous and  unedited.
  • The writing muscle should be exercised each day, a minimum of seven minutes. Write ceaselessly allowing the flow and trusting it to take you wherever. Dare to risk the journey, the more bewildered the better. Eventually rationality through the concrete image emerges.
  • Create moments of surprise and use them in writing. Look for a science article (NY Times, perhaps) that is filled with images or objects and write about one that has energy and interest. Look through old pictures. List three questions about the people or objects in the photos. Write on each for 7 minutes. Incorporate the results in your work then edit later what doesn’t sing. You’re practicing powerful description and your technique will be enhanced overall with your writing projects.


Deborah Temple, Dr. Rosary O'Neill, and Mary at the Omega Institute.

Deborah Temple, Dr. Rosary O’Neill, and Mary Anderson at the Omega Institute.

Rosary O’Neill, Ph.D. is a playwright, director, screenwriter, writer of narrative nonfiction and a scholar who hails from New Orleans. She was the founding artistic director at Southern Rep Theatre where her plays about family with Southern Gothic themes were produced for many years. A prolific writer and virtual dynamo who has received 7 Fullbrights, and fellowships to the Norman Mailer House, Tyrone Guthrie Centre and other venues, she has studied abroad where she has completed research for a play about John Singer Sargent and a book and play about Degas, to name a few works. With extensive experience in acting and theatre production, she has written The Actor’s Checklist, is currently working on a soon to be published book with new information never before revealed about the Mardi Gras in New Orleans.  Rosary O’Neill has written 22 plays. Most have been published by Samuel French. Many of them have been performed at the Southern Rep and many have garnered readings at the National Arts Club, the Rattlestick Theatre, The Players Club and in regional theaters like The Westchester Collaborative Theatre and Bard College. Her latest work, an uplifting musical entitled Broadway or Bust with lyrics/music by David Temple, directed by Deborah Temple will be performed at Bard College Black Box Theatre, November 13th and 15th. She has written a TV series entitled Heirs that that is currently being shop optioned. An experienced college professor, Rosary’s class was a joy and steered folks in a different direction, toward writing characters that live and are breathing and vital. This is playwriting/screenwriting at its best.

Deborah Temple, Dr. Rosary O'Neill, Mary, Carole Di Tosti at the Omega Institute.

Deborah Temple, Dr. Rosary O’Neill, Mary Anderson, Carole Di Tosti at the Omega Institute.

Sound character when creating dialogue.

  • When writing characters, think of individuals you know, their high points and dramatic episodes. Ask yourself why you remember them; what strikes you about them? Give yourself a prompt that you think might help you distill who they are in an image, then write about them. Eventually, this can be worked into creating character.
  • Read all dialogue aloud. Make sure it sings. If you are bored and don’t wish to read it, have someone else read it aloud. If it doesn’t resonate to you or the other individual, then drop it and move your inspiration elsewhere.
  • Select a scene where there have been family get-togethers. Dialogue should reveal differences in character, cadences, phrases, accents, content. How are you revealing tonal messages through speech? Act out the lines. What doesn’t fit, jettison.
  • Remain upbeat at all times. Shun negative thoughts. Do you have anything better to do with your life than to create life, through characters, dialogue and plays/films? All dialogue has run through you at one point or another. You are recalling it to your remembrance and shifting it around for greater use. Above all, enjoy the experience.

PARTING SHOTS: David Henry Hwang, Nick Flynn, Rosary O’Neill

DHH- Find a way to have your plays read aloud, even if you are getting actors in your living room. It’s the only way to find out if the characters cohere, if the whole thing works.

NF-Only submit your finest work, your best, work, the stuff you’ve edited and crafted and you still find vibrant after reading it 100 or more times. If you don’t want to read what you’ve written, then put a red line through it and circle it. Cut it out. You’re bored with it, others will be too.

RO-Spend a lot of time editing and revising. The work must pop, the dialogue must sing. If it doesn’t, you’ve overwritten. It’s too long. Cut, cut, cut, but still be logical and make sense. You can always add. The editing is hard, but vital to great writing.

All of them:  Keep on writing!

Sacred Elephant by Heathcote Williams: Stage Adaptation by Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley

Sacred Elephant, currently Off Broadway adapted for the stage by Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley, is created from Heathcote Williams’ magnificent epic poem about nature’s divine design represented through the elephant. Crutchley gives an ethereal and other-worldly performance as The Other, the being of the elephant. The production is currently at La Mama’s First Floor Theatre until September 22. See the review on Blogcritics and on this site.

Below are the expressive photographs of Crutchley in an embodiment of the elephant’s ethos. I included these to enhance the previous review because of an article that appeared in the Huffington Post about a baby elephant who was rejected by its mother. It cried and cried for hours. Its response is heartbreaking…like our response when we were hurt as children and cried in desolation, or as adults who feel hopeless and cry out to God and the universe for solace and comfort. Click here for the article.

The elephant is us. Can we continue to destroy it and not perish ourselves? Elephants are beings like the other creatures on this planet and must be safeguarded and protected. If we do this, we safeguard our own destiny. Williams’ poem is dedicated to this end as is Crutchley’s performance.

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The marvelous Jeremy Crutchly.    Photo by Rob Keith

The following is part of the press release by Jonathan Slaff.

Jeremy Crutchley is well known in South Africa and the U.K., having performed a diverse range of award-winning contemporary and classic roles. He has received many Best Actor National Theatre Awards in South Africa and has appeared with the RSC and in the West End. He was nominated Best Actor in the South African Film & TV Awards for his leading role in “Retribution” (2011), a thriller in the style of Cape Fear. He currently appears with John Cleese as The Glock in the feature films “Spud” and “Spud 2.” In January 2014, he wil be featured in the U.S. TV series “Black Sails” (Starz).

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Jeremy Crutchley in Sacred Elephant. Photo by Rob Keith

Crutchley’s varied and enviable career ranges from classics to solo shows to rock shows. He performed Doug Wright’s international hit, “I Am My Own Wife,” in 2009 to kick off the Grahamstown Theatre Festival and in South Africa’s prestigious 2010 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, the show was nominated for six awards and received three, including Best Actor and Best Solo Performance.  Theater critic Peter Tromp (The Next 48 Hours) named the piece as one of the ten most memorable productions in his decade of reviewing. The previous year, Crutchley won Best Actor as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” before going on to play Alonso in “The Tempest” at Stratford-Upon-Avon and in that show’s sold-out national tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was a Fleur du Cap Nominee for his performance as Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”, also directed by Geoff Hyland. In 2002-3 at Edinburgh and in the West End, he created the role of Dr. Drabble in the black comedy, “The Dice House” (based on Luke Rheinhardt’s “The Dice Man”). In the UK in the 90’s, he performed at London’s Theatre Royal Windsor and Orange Tree Theatre and appeared in various TV productions for BBC. In the 80’s, he attracted notice for his performances in Sam Shepard’s “Cowboy Mouth” and “Equus,” among others. Also a rock musician, he has written two Rock Theater works and recorded a blues-rock album. When “The Rocky Horror Show” finally hit South Africa in 1992, he played Dr. Frank ‘n’ Furter in the original cast. His recent TV appearances include: “Miss Marple: A Carribbean Mystery”(BBC), “Kidnap And Ransom”(ITV), Martina Cole’s “The Runaway” (Sky TV) and “Women In Love” (BBC).

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Jeremy Crutchley as The Other. Photo by Rob Keith

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Jeremy Crutchley in Sacred Elephant by Heathcote Williams at La Mama First Floor Theatre. Photo by Rob Keith.

Heathcote Williams (author) is a poet, playwright and actor. He is best known for his extended poems on environmental subjects, “Whale Nation” (1988), “Falling for a Dolphin” (1989) and “Autogeddon” (1991). His plays have also won acclaim, notably “AC/DC,” which was produced at London’s Royal Court, and “Hancock’s Last Hour.” He is also a versatile actor whose memorable roles include Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of “The Tempest.” “Sacred Elephant” was the first environmental poem by Williams, although it was not commercially published until after his better-known work, “Whale Nation” (1988). “Sacred Elephant” actually dates back to 1967, when Williams spent three months touring in India. While in Rajasthan, he observed local elephants and their trainers at close quarters. He also had a close association with a circus elephant named Rani and was able to watch her daily routine and behavior in captivity. Captive behavior, which is largely unknown to the general public, forms a large portion of “Sacred Elephant.”

The poem first appeared in print in 1987, published by Williams himself but in an unusual form. Three thousand copies were issued on elephant-sized paper and with print “large enough for elephants to read.” These newspapers were given away privately to friends and associates. That year, Williams performed the poem as a radio production, receiving many favorable reviews, including one from Harold Pinter who called it “a marvelous poem.” When Williams’ “Whale Nation” was published in 1988, it set a pattern for Williams’ books to follow, including “Sacred Elephant,” which was published commercially by Jonathan Cape a year later. Following this publication, the book received many more favorable notices.

It was recorded as a Naxos audiobook by Williams himself and given recitations, but it had never been explored for its powerful theatrical potential until Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley conceived this production. Heathcote Williams has granted exclusive dramatic rights to Crutchley to perform the work.

‘Sacred Elephant’ by Heathcote Williams. Adapted for the stage by Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley

Jeremy Crutchley in Sacred Elephant drirected by Geoffrey Hyland   photo by Rob Keith

Jeremy Crutchley in Sacred Elephant

Sacred Elephant, based on a poem by Heathcote Williams, has been brilliantly adapted for the stage by director Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley. Crutchley also acts the role of The Other, the spiritual ethos of the elephant of the title. The production is currently at La Mama’s First Floor Theatre until September 22. This U.S. premier and all that Crutchley embodies in the role must be seen and witnessed to be believed. It is magnificent.

This is not an easy entertainment, though. In fact it is devastating in the import of the message and experience it offers. However, that is one element of what the poet and artistic creators intend. One cannot walk away untouched by Crutchley’s performance, which awakens our empathy and opens our minds and hearts to the torment of these wonderful creatures.

Jeremy Crutchley as The Other. "The shape of an African elephant's ear is the shape of Africa.  photo by Jingxi Zhang

Jeremy Crutchley as The Other. “The shape of an African elephant’s ear is the shape of Africa.” Photo by Jingxi Zhang

Through graceful movements and meaningful and magnetic voices and renderings, Crutchley enacts the poem, becoming The Other and invoking its spiritual dimensions. By this very embodiment of the elephant and all it represents throughout history to the current time, he engages our sensibilities, reaching for our spirits to force us to hear, see and feel the beauty of who The Other is as we acknowledge our kinship with him/her/it.

We also experience the soul-sickening malady of our own degradation. We’ve allowed The Other to be maltreated and destroyed for our pleasure, almost like a whimsical afterthought. And no one dares stop us. We do it because we can, harming ourselves in the process. Though we know better, we effect The Other’s and our destruction anyway.

Jeremy Crutchley embodies the ethos of the elephant. "To the early Christians, the elephant was the Bearer of All Infirmities." photo by Rob Keith

Jeremy Crutchley embodies the ethos of the elephant. “To the early Christians, the elephant was the Bearer of All Infirmities.” Photo by Rob Keith

The revelation penetrates like a bullet between the eyes and the question “Why?” hovers in the air as the poet and artistic executioners Hyland and Crutchley tether us to the long chain of abuses society has inflicted upon the elephant in its irrational lust for the “fun of it.” The puzzle of our humanity or lack of humanity deepens. What glory to repeatedly sacrifice, maim and imprison these creatures for the fleeting mood elevations of children and families? Where is the intelligence? Who indeed are the dumb beasts?

Even better, how does their torture relate to those activists at the tail end of consumer culture who would never traffic in ivory or advocate the abuse and poaching of these marvelous creatures? And yet, here we are, watching a stage play of Sacred Elephant for our pleasure, a play showing the misery of The Other. The irony is a cruel one, and I can’t really smile at its darkness, nor forget easily. And that is another thematic point this production makes.

The lighting (Luke Ellenbogen), music, set, sound design and staging (Hyland) are effective assists to Crutchely as is the costuming (Ilka Louw). The frames of light and shadow, the three boxes Crutchley lifts and rearranges and sits upon, the sway of his grey and white dusted flow of costume, all masterfully work with the music of Heathcote’s phrases and word jewels. The spectacle enhances the message of the power of life and the misery of the dissolution we’ve wreaked on The Other.

Jeremey Crutchley:  "When elephants are allowed to die in their,  own time and space, they will sometimes hold up a fallen body as if forming a funeral cortege."  photo by Rob Keith.

Jeremy Crutchley: “When elephants are allowed to die in their own time and space, they will sometimes hold up a fallen body as if forming a funeral cortege.” Photo by Rob Keith.

From historical veneration by ancient cultures to the elephant’s current decline exacted by global “progress,” this production of Sacred Elephant reminds us of how “far” we’ve come and what we’ve sacrificed to get here. It’s a banal evil, all the more rotten for what we’ve allowed, whether directly or unwittingly. Hyland’s and Crutchley’s adaptation shows that we’ve been separated from what is divine, majestic, awe-inspiring and magical in ourselves and The Other. We’ve been alienated from the spirituality of our past and have destroyed our inheritance to face an isolated, loveless future, unknown to ourselves and the creatures that are our kin.

The message is potent. The production delivers. See it to see The Other. It runs until September 22.

The above review originally was published in Blogcritics. See link Click here.
Photographs courtesy of Rob Keith unless otherwise noted, with the beautiful poetry of Heathcote Williams.
And from a shared aquatic past, The elephant inherits the one quality That Homo sapiens has always arrogantly assumed Distinguishes him from the brute beast –  An elephant in distress Will weep salt tears.

And from a shared aquatic past,
The elephant inherits the one quality
That Homo sapiens has always arrogantly assumed
Distinguishes him from the brute beast –
An elephant in distress
Will weep salt tears.

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