Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The making of SURF'S UP

Jim Stapleton, director Jack Mendoza, Julia Arian
Okay, yesterday I posted the ten-minute play I wrote on the fly for the one-day-play event. If you haven’t read it, check it out. Today I discuss my ersatz thought process.

The first question I always ask is what is the relationship? Who are these characters and who are they to each other? In this case I decided on a father and daughter. Could have been a teacher-student, could have been a boss-employee, but that’s what I chose. Partly because I wanted a history between them.

So now what? You want some conflict in the scene otherwise it’s just two people jabbering. There had to be an issue between them. What if the summer was over and the daughter decided not to enroll in college for the fall? The dad could be upset with that.

But I thought that’s a little on-the-nose. What if I flipped it? What if he was the one who wanted to go off and see the world and she was the conservative one? I liked that better.

Now to construct the scenario. Who was he? Why did he want to change his life? For this I turned to the theme. What does “the end of summer” represent? Well, it means different things to different people. I love summer. It’s my favorite time of year. So for me the theme is “loss.” Summer meant “vacation.” The rest of the year was “work.”

So what if dad wanted to recapture his youth? What if he quit his job to go surfing? Years ago I saw this movie, ENDLESS SUMMER about two young surfers who traveled the world in search of the perfect wave. This dad is starting to see his summers dwindle and he wants to do something about it. All that I liked.

And for added fun I had him banged up, having wiped out on numerous occasions. That makes the daughter’s case for opposing this nonsense even stronger.

So that’s the start. Dad, in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts comes to his daughter, who is wearing a suit, to announce that he’s changing his life. Just by their wardrobe you get a strong sense of who they are.  Use everything at your disposal.

I get a certain amount of mileage out of that initial conflict, but ultimately the daughter is not going to change his mind. It’s his dream, he’s earned the right to go, and I think you’d hate her if she spoiled his plan. At some point the daughter has to wish him well.

But now what?

At this point I thought I’d turn the tables. What if dad asked her to join him? It’s a chance for them to bond, a way for her to be less inhibited. I would also have the chance to delve more into the theme and what the end of summer represents.

All that was nice, but how to convince her – in only a few pages… and without the benefit of any big speeches? (Not allowed since the actors had to memorize this play in only a couple of hours.)  At this juncture I really had to delve into her character – who she was and what she really wanted? And needed? I thought maybe she should have a creative side she was afraid to really reveal. What if she wanted to be a writer? I figured she wasn’t a surfer so what would she do on beaches around the world? She could write. She could also experience life, which is essential for a good writer. So there was her motivation. She had a job she hated, no boyfriend, a dad she wanted to get closer to, and a chance to flex her creative muscles. The turn is still a little quick but I sort of buy it.

And finally, I wanted this to be a comedy. And yet, in the whole breaking of the story, you’ll notice I focused very little on the comedic aspects. Character, theme, conflict, emotion – those are more important. If I create interesting characters with clear attitudes the comedy will come (hopefully).

So that was my attack. You might want to go back and read it again. The audience liked it. Now that I have time I’m going back and making adjustments. As always, it’s a process, and the process continues.

My thanks to Mike Myers, the Ruskin Group, my actors – Julia Arian and Jim Stapleton, my director – Jack Mendoza, and Steve Mazur. And Chip for the bagels.


Roger Owen Green said...

Off topic, I suppose, but I read the book Never A Dull Moment last year about the music of 1971. The October chapter is about, among other things, the Beach Boys' album Surf's Up. You might enjoy it.

Dave said...

I still think it is Excellent.

If I HAD TO pick at one thing, it seems a bit neat and formulaic (even though you flipped the two characters). But I also realize that is a limitation of the form. Not much room for Beckettian discomfort in ten minutes with two characters. But still very enjoyable, and is that not the intent of this type of exercise? It is about entertaining an audience.

Otherwise stated, if the father was more like Andy Kaufman, most people would react by saying, WTF was that?

Steve Boyko said...

Hi Ken, I love how you shared your thoughts behind writing the play. I noted at the start that all of the relationships you considered for the two actors had a power imbalance - father/daughter, boss/employee, etc. Was that conscious? Do you think that imbalance brings a tension? Or was it more driven by the actors themselves and their age difference?

Earl Boebert said...

The play was lovely, and the "build log" was fascinating.

Ken Levine said...


Good question. In this case it was the age difference. But in my plays there's always a power imbalance, and often times that switches between them. One of my plays, A OR B? was pretty much all about that as a young couple jockeyed for the power position.

Thomas Mossman said...

I just want to comment on Jack Mendoza's t-shirt, which I also happen to own.

First, it does in fact say This Was A Sussess (not success) and that's not exactly a mistake. It's taken from an audio drop used on the Kevin and Bean Show on 106.7 KROQ here in L.A. It's from a news report where the reporter pronounced the hard C in "success" so softly that it's virtually nonexistent, hence "Sussess".

The shirts were for Kevin's charity, Friends and Helpers (he's the one on our left on the shirt under the caption).

Peter said...

As I said yesterday, Julia is a real cutie.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Very interesting how the stress of extreme time pressure pulls out such a nice first act (hint hint).

Damn "hinting" - why not write, produce, and direct another play based on this one? It's fairly clear that you like the characters and their relationship.

And why not do your outline in close concert with adjusting that first act?

Buttermilk Sky said...

While you were dealing with the loss of your dad, two significant cultural figures also died, Walter Becker and Shelley Berman. Any comments?

Peter said...

I'm not gonna hint. I think you should turn this into a sitcom pilot! You've got a great premise and fun likeable characters.

DaveMB said...

One advantage of your opening is that it gives the actors some
really fun physical comedy right off the bat, so they are improvising
stuff right away and building the character. The better the actors,
the more they add here to what you already have.

Cheryl Marks said...

I'm interested how long it took you to get to the "start," that is, to settle on the scenario and the relationship? (I immediately flashed on your talented daughter, Annie, and you and the "flip" seemed quite appropriate.) And then, once you started writing did you have to go back and revise any of the premise? And lastly did you have any feelings of despair or the sense that you should scrap the whole thing and start again? . . . a Friday question?

Jim said...

Ok, I get most of the credits (and I even understand why Flipper might need a trainer), but I'm not sure what Mike Myers is doing there. Catering? Choreography? Technical Consultant for the surfing bits? Doing research to play Alexander Throttlebottom at the Met?

JED said...

I, for one, like the play just the way it is. I enjoy a good short story as a separate pleasure from reading a novel. Yes, part of me wants to know more about these people and what happens to them but sometimes the wondering stays with you longer than having your questions resolved.

Diane D said...

Wow, your thought process is fascinating, and you make it sound so easy, which it must have been or you couldn't have done it so quickly. I wonder if you know how hard that process would be for a less talented person. I loved everything about it, especially the characters, and I agree with all those who want you to do something more with it. What a great story!

DG said...

Did you take notes as to what really played? Or did it all really play?

Dan in WNY said...

I'm with JED. Every time somebody suggests a continuation, I think they're not giving credit for how well it stands on its own and how great the ending is.

Diane D said...

Jed and Dan
Wanting to see a great 10 minute play turned into a full length play or movie takes nothing away from how great it is. I would think the contrary would be true. It does stand very well on its own, but it still feels like a wonderful scene from a longer work, to me anyway.