the dig

One of the things I’ve grown to like the most about being a writer is research. My version of research is probably a little different considering the subject matter of my plays doesn’t require me meticulously recreating a 14th-Century courtyard or delving deep into the patterns of the human brain. No, when you write shows about Craigslist personal ads and karaoke bars, the research process is decidedly a little more lighthearted. Whatever I’m researching, however, the process of digging is one that excites me and since recovery its one I’m no longer afraid of.

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My past used to be like the attic of an old recluse. You had to be careful when you were digging around in there because you didn’t know what horrifying thing you might find. I had tucked away memories, thoughts, beliefs that I just knew were all too scary to deal with. I thought if these things were tucked away, they’d never hurt. And just to make sure, I dumped tequila and cocaine on them so they wouldn’t pop back up. Well, as you can imagine, that didn’t pan out the way I wanted. When I got sober, I had to unpack that attic.I had to look at all of the things I was hiding and drinking over. While uncomfortable and certainly not as fun as watching hours of karaoke videos on YouTube, it wasn’t terrible. It actually felt good. Not only did these ‘awful secrets’ from my past not kill me but a lot of them that I was convinced would kill me weren’t really that bad. I was miserable enough that I had to just trust that digging around would be okay. And it was. More than that, it saved my life.Digging-22

Several personal inventories, meetings, therapy sessions and years later, it doesn’t freak me out. My new show, Welcome to Ladyland, is in the research process right now. Since the show is maybe more autobiographical than my others, the digging here is more personal too. The show deals with relationships and as part of that I’m looking at my own behaviors and personality traits that maybe aren’t so great. Uncomfortable? Yeah. Ugly in parts? Uh huh. But I’m hoping by addressing these character flaws honestly, the work will also be really funny, human and uplifting too. The amazing thing about digging and being open to learning more about myself is that by welcoming it, nothing I find can ever hurt me, regardless of how deep its been buried.

Misunderstood

“Why the hell didn’t they laugh at that joke?”, “What are those old people near the front of the stage whispering about during the show” and “It’s a quiet crowd. Oh my god everybody hates it and hates me” are the kind of ridiculous things that race through a playwright’s twisted mind while sitting with an audience for the first time. At least this playwright’s mind. Having just opened my second show, I know these thoughts very well. I recently wondered, after not getting the kind of response I had anticipated if that maybe people didn’t get me and maybe I was in the wrong line of work.

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Self-doubt is part of the deal with being an artist so I try not to put too much stock in these kind of thoughts. Plus, being sober and having worked my ass off to try to like myself and give myself a break as much as I can, worrying about what people think is a fruitless and boring activity. Still, we creative types are always on the hunt for approval and I have specific ideas of what that should look like. Just hours of thunderous laughter, glowing reviews, tear-soaked faces and write-ups in the New York Times are all I really require to feel properly loved and appreciated. Clearly, I know how self-involved I’m acting and if you’re going through really difficult time and reading this makes you want to punch me in the face, I totally get it.

First off, I should be clear that the response I was talking about was actually fine. And I mean this honestly.  I really have had worse audience reactions. Like the couple who walked out or the guy who fell asleep during my first show or the audience member who wanted to meet face to face to tell me how bad it was. The thing about this crowd’s particular reaction on this night it was just “meh”. It felt like a solid mediocre and as a playwright that’s almost more insulting than being Fell Asleep During Your Show guy. Nevertheless, life and our show both go on and lots of work on this project and others had to get done. With some brainstorming and technical tweaking, we addressed some little glitches and then let it go. That’s right. The guy worried about what’s on the minds of mostly strangers, just let it go. We’re in the middle of a run and we had to move on. And that’s when something remarkable happened. By letting the show do its own thing, miracles happened. Reports of the highly sought-after laughter and tears combo platter came in from honest sources. Audiences howled at jokes that previously went unnoticed. Rhythms and magic moments never before seen were happening.  Mainly, the show found its groove and looked like a show we set out to make over a year ago. While trying to figure why or why not people weren’t reacting exactly the way I wanted them to (the nerve) turned out to be an exercise in futility, something occurred to me about the show. It has an opinion and it tells the truth. Does every joke work? No. Are there five minutes we could trim off? Sure. Will it change drastically in the next round of rewrites? Most likely.

But am I proud of The Singing Room? You bet your ass. This singing, joke telling, tender, brilliant cast makes everything I write so much better and are worth the price of admission alone. Also, the show takes risks and doesn’t say apologize for who it is. Yet there’s even a bigger reason I’m proud of it. A friend whose been caring for her dying spouse made a point in telling me the other night how wonderful the show was and how grateful she was for a night out. It was then I realized that this whole making art thing isn’t really about if people love me or how amazing I am. It’s about telling the truth and hopefully providing light for other people. If everybody doesn’t get it or love it, that’s okay. Maybe a couple will. And if  sticking to that mission makes me misunderstood, then its a badge I wear with honor.

If you’re interested in seeing it for yourself, grab tickets here! 

The Singing Room: A Playwright’s Thoughts

I’m taking a break today from my usual neurosis today to write about my new play, The Singing Room which opens here in Denver on April 27th and runs through May 18th. It occurred to me that even though I rewrote the show itself about 13 times, I’ve never actually written about the show itself. What was it about a story that revolves around a birthday party in karaoke bar that I was drawn to?  How did this play start out as one thing and morph into something else? And why was I obsessed with writing a show about karaoke?

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I guess should first explain what the play is about. The central plot revolves around April, a fashion writer celebrating her 25th birthday at Sunshine’s Singing Room with her friends- Dan her timid  co-worker, Leslie her controlling but out of control childhood friend and Ava, her actress neighbor with a surprise of her own. This birthday party mixes with the regular barflies at Sunshine’s Singing room including Leroy, a karaoke legend in his own mind, Ruby a former, would-be rock and roll goddess and the owner of the establishment as well as our salty emcee for the evening Sunshine, herself. My own tireless research in bars in Los Angeles helped inform these folks, naturally.On the dubious occasion of her birthday, April finds herself at a crossroads and before the night is over thanks to the help of some friends and some strangers, her life might just get turned upside down. I was compelled to write about April mainly because that moment in a person’s life when you start to see through the cracks of how you live and start to think “Hmm. Maybe this doesn’t work for me anymore” is one that interests me very much. In my own life, I needed a series of those moments to happen before I made a change but since we’re trying to make an entertaining little show here, April gets to experience it in two acts. Lucky girl. But leaving the people and things that don’t work or that are no longer good for you isn’t always a happy ending either. Therefore, the story since its inception has never been clear-cut and the ending in my mind has always been ambiguous. This decision gave the show from the first draft to the last what we in the production have been calling “funny-sad”. You know, that hilarious yet kind of real and heartbreaking quality. The first few versions were primarily focused around just the birthday crew and April’s conflict. While funny and entertaining, there were parts that  read like a bad episode of “90210”. Something else was needed to give the story an edge. After toying with even more rewrites, we figured out that the story really needed more of the bar folks to help express the themes of love, disappointment and transformation. Duh. They were sitting at the bar the whole time.

As far as karaoke goes, I’m a huge fan. I love that normal people  can get up on stage and rock out, whether they suck or not. Karaoke is less about vocal prowess and more about selling it to the crowd. It’s also huge to face your fears to just get up there and do it. I myself, suck at singing but it doesn’t stop me from having fun and being ridiculous although now that I’m sober it takes a little more coaxing than it used to. Go figure. But these themes of fearlessness and self-awareness were interesting things to infuse in the script too. We spent a lot of time at karaoke with our casts from previous shows and we both always thought that a karaoke bar would be a great setting for a play. Just the very nature of karaoke gives real life this musical/music video quality which is otherwise impossible to achieve. Also, karaoke is so random and sporadic and putting that energy on stage was an exciting and terrifying proposition. A little terror, I find, is a good thing and certainly keeps the work fresh.  Since karaoke is different every time so is The Singing Room. The characters all have a set of songs they’ll be performing throughout  the run and the show will have songs by the audience too.

My husband, Michael Emmitt, who is also directing this crazy show (bless his heart), talked me off ledges, reorganized the script and even wrote some of the shows best lines. Like April, we recently had to look at things that weren’t working and make huge scary, changes. This winter, we both finally left the theater company we built. It was painful but as April discovers, it was even more painful staying in something that we didn’t feel good about. Yet, The Singing Room has survived! From rehearsals in our living room to last-minute cast and script changes, the show, like most of them do, has gone on. We’ll be performing in an incredible theater space that we were blessed to find. Miraculously, it feels like the show we always wanted to make. And when it comes to life and art you really can’t ask for more than that.

TweetUp & TalkBack Event for ‘The Singing Room’ on April 19th!

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I don’t often to use these pages for whoring of personal projects but I have an event coming up that I wanted to let you guys know about and if you are in the Denver area, I’d love to have you attend! My new play The Singing Room opens at Spark Theater on April 12th and to celebrate I’m throwing a #TweetUpAndTalkBack on the following Friday April 19th! What the !@#$ is a #TweetUpAndTalkBack, you ask? It’s a chance for my friends to see my new show at a discounted rate (only $15 bucks!), eat some snacks and attend a post-show discussion with me and the cast of The Singing Room!

The Singing Room tells the story of April, a Spain-bound writer who’s picked karaoke as the activity of choice to celebrate her 25th birthday. Lots of drinking, lots of singing and lots of revelations soon take place. The Singing Room is about growing up, waking up and finding yourself even in the most ridiculous and dramatic of situations. Based on my own countless days spent in bars and some personal birthday disappointments from the past, The Singing Room is a play with real karaoke meaning that every show will be different, rowdy, sporadic and hopefully, hilarious. I’ve never written anything like this and I can’t wait to share it with folks who get me. Talkbacks are a blast and a fun way to get audience’s reactions on the show. To sweeten the deal, yours truly can make a mean chocolate chip cookie  and whip up a life changing batch of guacamole. How you like me now, David Mamet! Boom.

But seriously, I’d love to have you. So if you are interested in attending, I’m taking reservations at urtheinspiration@hotmail.com. We’ve only got 40 seats so act now as they say on the infomercials. And now back to your regularly scheduled blog…

xo,

Sean

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

You’d think after fifty years a play about an aging alcoholic couple who bickers and lures an unsuspecting couple into their web of insanity would lose some of it’s bite. You’d think that this subject matter would no longer be interesting or powerful. You, of course, would be wrong.

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Last night one of my favorite people on the planet joined me for an evening of theater. Being both of the alcoholic variety, it was fitting that our choice for such a date night was Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Spark Theater.  For me, Albee’s masterpiece is the closest you can get to active alcoholism without having to pick up a drink. He so perfectly captures the delusional and paranoid thinking of the alcoholic mind without turning the show into a cautionary tale or after-school special. Each phrase is so pointed, so poetic and every twisted thought of the characters’ is laid bare on the stage. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is often referenced  by members of 12 Step groups when talking about alcoholic relationships and it’s easy to see why. The work captures the truly fucked up existence and warped behavior of an alcoholic couple. George and Martha prove that the couple who drinks together, loses their grip on reality together. Running at 3 hours, the show is an intense epic beast. I’m glad I waited for 4 years of sobriety to watch it again. Earlier in recovery, the work would have certainly fallen in the ‘too close to home’ category.

Like many of us, I lived through my own George and Martha moments while I was drinking. The “drinking and fighting” combination platter was one I ordered for many years.When I ended up being that person in that alcoholic relationship, I couldn’t believe it. I mean I knew better, didn’t I? Having grown up around drinkers who like to fight (or maybe they were fighters who liked to drink?), I always thought I’d never end up like them. I’d never identify with sad, awful souls like George and Martha. I’d never get drunk and yell in front of guests in my own home. Well, never say never. While non-alcoholics surely see George and Martha for the monsters they are, for me as a person in recovery it’s hard to not have compassion for them. If you’ve been there, you know how hard it is to get out and all of their crazy thinking seems rational to people like us.

If you’re in Denver, go see this show. Seriously. The acting is spectacular and seeing Albee live is something every American theater lover should do at least once. Spark’s productions are intimate and raw and this serves Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf extremely well. If you’re looking for a cushy opera seat and a production done by old, white corporate theater, skip this and go see Legally Blonde or some other mind rotting unoriginal piece of shit on stage. If however, you are interested in work that still has guts after 50 years presented with integrity, check this out. Watching this couple sink into alcoholic insanity on stage last night made me feel grateful for the life I have now, it made me feel grateful for artists like Albee who tell the truth about the human condition and made me feel inspired by theater and art and it’s ability to make us aware, alive and yes, even a little afraid.

The Voices in My Head: The Musical!

You and me, we have a special relationship. I routinely tell you about how batshit crazy I am and you politely read and even comment. I like it. So in the spirit of our lovely little back and forth I might as well tell you how I talk to myself and hear voices in my head. I say this not to appear  interesting or eccentric.I bring this up because maybe it’ll help others. See, I always just assumed I was nuts, turns out I’m just a playwright!

Ever since childhood, I’ve had in-depth conversations with myself and whoever else was banging around my head. I kept it hidden for years. Finally, when the Bluetooth era exploded I felt like I could come out of the closet. I could safely walk down the street while deep in conversation and no one would question it. Not like anyone ever questioned it in LA to begin with. That’s an entire city of cuckoo birds who wander around chattering to themselves. Nevertheless, the Bluetooth gave me a thumbs up to talk to myself out on the open. Towards the end of my drinking, the out loud conversations with nobody became for frequent and more desperate. I was always telling myself “You’re gonna be alright. Things aren’t that bad. You can get through this.” These mantras were usually followed by whispers of plans that might help get me out of  whatever the mess of the moment I was in and oddly enough, random numbers I would say out loud. Sometimes even cries for help can be mumbled to ourselves I suppose.

As I’ve recovered and changed my life, the conversations continue and  the voice still  pop by to say hi. But it’s not of “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi” variety anymore. In fact, these conversations are now incredibly useful. In my new incarnation as a playwright, I basically try to find stuff for characters to talk about that will propel some sort of a story while entertaining the audience. This task, in the beginning, scared the crap out of me so I knew it was going to be something valuable and miraculous. Eventually. As I started writing, I painfully forced words into the characters mouths and it all sounded incredibly phony and awkward and literal. During the 77 billionth rewrite of my first show and after a late-night breakdown, my husband and creative collaborator asked bluntly,”Why are you writing this show?” I told him through a cloud of tears and bad attitude that I was writing it to get to the heart of how technology has changed the way we communicate and that in the end I think we’re all just trying to make real human connections. “Then do just that,” he told me. I sniffled and calmed down. I realized in that instance I just had to get out-of-the-way, trust the story and keep writing. I went back to the drawing board (I don’t really have a drawing board or even know what that is but I do like that expression) and then the miracles happened. When I shut the naysayers in my mind up, the characters just started talking! All I had to do is write it down. They told me everything as long as I just let them talk. It was that simple. These voices I’d had rambling in my brain since childhood, weren’t trying to hurt me, they just wanted to be on stage! Of course. Even the voices in my head are attention whores.

While writing this new show, the voices are now like old friends. But sassier. They tell me to be quiet so they can keep talking. They tell me to stop questioning the process. They tell  me to let them speak so others can hear their stories. And I happily oblige.