Shall we begin with another little Vonnegut to set the tone:
“And somebody might now want to ask me, ‘can’t you ever be serious?’ The answer is, ‘no.’”
When you sit down to work, do you find you have your own idiosyncratic way to get yourself started? I do. I like to set a timer for 30 minutes (15 if it’s an especially daunting or challenging task lying before me.) It takes a lot of the pressure off. My only rule is that I can’t get out of my chair until the timer goes off. I learned this from Joe Myers who taught me to write and was one of the 3 great teachers I had in my life. Joe knew Hemingway. One day he brought a very short play into his seminar, had us read it aloud. “What do you think?” “terrible,” we all said. “Hemingway wrote that,” he said. That was the end of the class, no other comment. But we all k new what he was getting at. Joe’s rule of writing? “Creativity is sitting 9 hours at your desk.” I try to do that, but I have to take my prescription in small doses. I sit there for 15 minutes. Don’t have to actually turn anything out-just sit in the chair and keep my fingers moving on the keyboard. “Hey, I can do that, easy.” And sometimes the 15 minutes can turn into 9 hours. (A useful addendum to this rule that I learned from a Brazilian pianist named Ricardo is: After a half hour the brain loses some of its peak efficiency so get up go to the kitchen to refill your coffee cup-but don’t linger. It’s only a 5 minutes break and then right back to the typewriter or the book or the watering for the next 15 minutes. I did say typewriter, didn’t I? I guess I’m feeling a bit nostalgic this morning.)
According to his friend Garson Kanin, this was Charlie Chaplain’s way: Between films Chaplin was known to be quite the hail fellow, well met-a frequent guest at places like San Simeon, the Hearst mansion on the coast of California which is also the title of one of the best Kingston Trio songs, with a killer banjo solo by Dave Guard..
In 1924 another frequent Hearst guest the film director Thomas Ince died on William Randolph’s yacht. (According to legend Chaplin was having an affair at the time with Hearst’s a mistress, actress Marion Davies. Hearst loaded his pistol and attempted to kill Chaplin-only he accidentally shot Ince instead.) The official story remains that Ince took ill on the Hearst yacht and then died, after being taken ashore, of a heart attack.)
In the midst of his social frolicking and carrying on, someone would eventually come up to Chaplin and would ask casually, “So, Charlie what is your next movie about?” Without over thinking the subject he would answer with a single sentence or two. Perhaps he might say “oh, it’s about the Little Tramp meeting a flower girl.” Over time, as he was repeatedly asked the question, the answer would get longer as he filled out the story till it reached the point when he didn’t need the prompt of the question any longer to get himself started. Then he would take friends and acquaintances aside at parties and other such occasions, taking advantage of all comers in a growing series of these impromptu sounding board sessions. .
“Do you want to hear about my next picture?” This was how he developed his ideas telling friends, in greater and greater detail, the story of what would become City Lights, Modern Timesˆ, or The Great Dictator.
Then, at just the proper moment, Charlie would withdraw from the public world. He would not be seen for months until he finally, emerged again with a complete script, ready to move on to the sound stage.
My own process: for many years has been “research first.” At times even before I actually read the play all the way through. Learn everything you can about the writer, the history of how the play came into being, and what the various critical commentaries have to say. Then, equipped with all this peripheral knowledge, I would finally put my big toe into the cold water of the actual text. As I said I did this for years.
But lately, starting with my work on Mother Courage, I’ve been doing something different. I staredt by holding my nose and jumping right into to that cold water. I began with the direct experience of the actual words of the play. I read it half a dozen times or so. It takes a lot longer to read plays like this, but it’s a lot more fun. The first read took about 3 weeks. Maybe because I still used the 15-minute rule. Penetrating a challenging script without any context can get pretty rough at times. But at a certain point the play itself starts talking to you (In this case it was after Scene 3, the longest, by far, scene in the play-23 pages), and with each read the voice of the play speaks more and more directly to you, revealing its secrets in a stronger, and often more defiant, voice. “Listen to me! This is what I’m about.”
Sounds perfectly logical doesn’t it? Well sometimes I’m a very slow learner. Took me almost 40 years of directing to get here.
Last night I finished the adaptation of Mother Courage, the next leg in our Brecht in Exile. I’ve had a lot of help getting it to the place where I can take the script out for it’s first trial run. My primary source was the Willet translation, which I found to be the most accurate. Barbara found the cut script (in German) from the 2005 Berliner Ensemble production we had seen. Bless those Germans. They not only include the text of the play in the program, but it comes with all the pencilled edits. (And thanks to Duolingo my German has reached the point where I could pretty match it up with the Willet.) The BE dramaturg really knew what he was doing. The result is a very action-driven version with all of the superfluous character “comments” removed.
Here’s an example of the BE cuts from scene 1 and what it does to the style and musicality of the play :
MOTHER COURAGE: Anna Fierling.
SERGEANT: You all called Fierling then?
MOTHER COURAGE: What d’you mean? It’s me’s called Fierling, not them.
SERGEANT: Aren’t all this lot your children?
MOTHER COURAGE: You bet they are, that one’s called Eilif Nojocki – Why? his father always claimed he was called Kojocki or Mojocki or something. The boy remembers him clearly, except that the one he remembers was someone else, a Frenchie with a little beard. Each of us has his own name, see.
SERGEANT: What, each one different?
MOTHER COURAGE: Don’t tell me you ain’t never come across that.
SERGEANT: So, I s’pose he’s a Chinaman? Pointing to the younger son.
MOTHER COURAGE: Wrong. Swiss.
SERGEANT: After the Frenchman?
MOTHER COURAGE: What Frenchman? You keep muddling things up, we’ll be hanging around here till dark. A Swiss, but called Fejos, and the name has nothing to do with his father. He was called something quite different
SERGEANT: How in hell can he be called Fejos?
MOTHER COURAGE: I don’t like to be rude, Sergeant, but you ain’t got much imagination, have you? Course he’s called Fejos, because when he arrived I was with a Hungarian.
SERGEANT: But he wasn’t his father …
MOTHER COURAGE Pointing to her daughter: And that’s Kattrin Haupt, she’s half German.
SERGEANT: Nice family, I must say.
Sounds more like George S. Kaufmann writing for the Marx Brothers than what we think of as “Brechtian”, doesn’t it? Hope so anyway.
Script going out today. We are now officially out of the Chaplin isolation period.
Meeting with a few of the actors in a couple of days to have the words spoken aloud by someone besides myself. “To hear it spoken aloud.” I get a nervous feeling in my stomach just writing this.
“I’m not feeling very well. I need a doctor immediately. Ring the nearest golf course,” said Groucho. “And this is what’s on my mind today,” says Jim. September 8, 2020.