“The Other Two Men”: The Director

The funny thing about my play “The Other Two Men” (review) is that it’s a story about an arranged marriage – that started out as a kind of arranged marriage.  The Players Ring wrote me that Tomer Oz would be my director.  Tomer arranged to meet and started right out with the two issues that cause the most conflicts in relationships:  money and sex.

“We’re paying the actors.”  He said, after introducing himself.

As a disciple of Yog’s Law in science fiction circles no other possibility had occurred to me:
“Of course we’re paying the actors!”

We moved on to how he wanted to approach the play.  “I’m not so interested in the gay stuff.”  He said.  I decided to ask what he meant rather than take instant offence.  (This is the director who added a kiss and a down-on-one-knee proposal to the staging:  he has no problem with same-sex material as a producer, director, or actor.)  What he meant was ‘I don’t see this as A Gay Story – this is not a niche production that would only interest an LBGT audience’.

“I agree.”  I replied.  “In fact you’ve understood all the main themes of the play perfectly.  So tell me your ideas for putting this play on stage.  How can I help?  I’ve typed brief casting notes on 3×5 cards, as a start ….”

We quickly moved on to casting, callbacks, the table read, and a startlingly compact rehearsal schedule.  I found it to be wonderful (everyone I’ve worked with at The Players Ring is kind and professional) and very difficult:  I had to trust Tomer before I knew or liked him.  As producer and director he made every key creative decision, as producer he had say over the production’s budget and finances, and while I quickly had good reasons for trusting him, extending immense confidence to a near-stranger was a hard thing to do.  Worse, we grew up on different continents and came from different artistic worlds:  so there were two cultural differences that could have created difficulties.  (My grandparents were from different continents so I knew that kind of difference well.)

The difference between writing and theater culture was the most difficult part for me – writers (see Yog’s Law) always suspect that publishers are not being above-board with shared creative decisions and finances.  Theater is collaborative and each person – stage manager, actor, producer, or light tech is trusted to do their job and work as a team.  Tomer explained (as a fellow playwright) that if I believed my script was a finished work then I should trust that a theater could stage it without my guidance or intervention.  In fact he did let me sit in on every step of the process, told me his ideas and showed me what he working on, and asked what I thought about each stage of the process (this was a courtesy, not a consultation).
Over rehearsals I quickly discovered that Tomer is an excellent manager; an organized, prompt, on-top-of-the-details boss who is clear without being overbearing.  He has a sense of humor, he is flexible (when the lights were stuck on ‘blackout’ one day during Tech Week he had no trouble shifting gears to an equally valuable alternate type of run-through), and he translated my high-concept science fiction (whose ideas about history and predestination he compared to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (!!)) with lots of strange emotional territory into to-the-point guidance that made immediate sense to our two leads.  He changed much of the play’s stage directions (even after James Patrick Kelly’s advice I had too many of them). (“Well, you’re limiting what I can do as an actor.” Emery Lawrence explained when I asked for his and Bailey Weakley’s feedback on the script.).  I had set the play on a traditional proscenium stage with two legs and a border in the wings – the Players’ Ring has a bare, black box 3/4 thrust stage with entrances at three corners.  Tomer changed the geography of the set and did a beautiful job turning the space between the actors into a metaphor for the two characters’ sorta-romantic relationship.

Tomer’s also … a lot of people talk about tolerance now; what a different, truly egalitarian American society would look like.  Without any grandstanding Tomer treated me as a full human being and fellow professional (even when I said, “Look, I don’t know any of the rules around here:  you’ll just have to tell me everything about how theater works.”)  Every culture I grew up with – whether it was Spanish or Southeastern U.S. – has a role for women (and for men).  During rehearsals Tomer had no box I was supposed to stay in.  It was very disorienting.  I had a job (the playwright) but I was an entire human being.  He also did a second thing that I put down to culture:  he understood the theme of fundamental human decency in the script with the clarity of noon daylight.

Tomer Oz is a good person to work with and an excellent producer and director.   By Tech Week I liked him – after trusting him entirely for three week with one of the most personal things I’ve written.

It turns out The Other Two Men is Tomer’s first directing and producing gig in the Seacoast.  He is a familiar and sought-after actor with a wide range:  a player with the comedy improv troupe DARWiN’S WAiTiNG ROOM, the role of Musa in the Players’ Ring production of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo (VIPA).  His upcoming shows include:  Kiss the Moon, Kiss the Sun (Aug 4-14) with ACT ONE at West End Studio Theater, A Christmas Carol (Dec 2-23, 2016) at the Players’ Ring, and Metamorphoses with the New Hampshire Theatre Project (Jan. 13-29) at West End Studio Theater.  I urge you to see him in any of those roles. He will also produce Hurly Burly (March 10-26, 2017) at the Players’ Ring, which should not be missed.

I knew only two things about Tomer Oz before I met him:  I had watched him act in Bengal Tiger (“If you can act like that — and interpret a script like that — then you can direct *this* 45-minute play blindfolded with one hand tied behind your back.”  I said to him.)  And Alex from the reading had assured me:  “He’s great.”  (This means a very different thing in L.A.)

Alex Pease, one of the actors from last November’s reading, came on as our alternate light tech.  At one point during Tech Week he sat down in the theater seat next to me, and observed:

“This is a hard thing to do, to make the jump from short stories to scripts.  It’s also a hard thing to make the jump from publishing to the theater, they’re different cultures.  You’ve done both.  Normally I don’t allow the author to be a part of the actual production, because oftentimes you feel like you have to consult them with every choice or note, which can suffocate the director. This project is different; you’re one of the few who actually understands these limitations, and from what I can tell you’re one of the most understanding and accommodating playwrights I’ve ever seen.  This works.”

I replied:  “This has been everything I’m bad at and everything that’s difficult for me.  I like Tomer, though, he’s been worth trusting.”

Alex said: “I told you he’d be great to work with – we came into theater at the same time, only a month apart.  I’ve worked with him before.”

That’s the other cultural difference between theater and writing:  authors will overlook many flaws in collaborators and business partners as long as they’re competent professionals.  In this local theater culture the first criteria for hiring someone is ‘are they a decent person’ – everyone already knows who can do their job — but what matters is whether they are difficult, don’t keep their word, or are bad at getting along with people.  So they knew all that beforehand about Tomer and I didn’t.

I will work with Tomer Oz again any time.

-Lisa Shapter

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Support me for the Clarion Write-A-Thon!

Support me (or another fine SF author) in the Clarion Write-A-Thon!
http://clarionwriteathon.org/members/profile.php?writerid=380064

When I started writing I was bad at short stories: I couldn’t write them.

Meaning, I couldn’t write anything shorter than a novelette (a piece than unfolds over the length of 2-3 short stories). I had written the occasional short work, I had even gotten one or two things published, but for most of the history of science fiction a career worked like this: get known for short fiction then publish a novel. I felt there was something missing if I couldn’t write short stories and my late friend and fellow writer Gil Pettigrew recommended writing (and sending out) a lot of short pieces. There was a greater chance of success, he said, and it was a quicker and less bruising process than sending a novel out to agents.

I decided to get over being bad at short stories. I had two sources of inspiration: my pottery professor in college and Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles, recommended writing and sending out a short story a week. (This is all the more impressive when you realize in those days each draft of a story had to be completely re-typed on a typewriter.) So I took his advice: I’d write a short story each week, revise it, and send it out to a magazine before 7 days had passed.

I quickly realized my unconscious had added a twist to this challenge – I found myself writing science fiction stories from the same narrator (Resada Gestae), a human trafficking survivor looking for her stolen children among the planets of the Milky Way galaxy. Each story took place 2-6 months after the previous story and I quickly realized the point was not simply to write a story each week but to follow how the narrator grew from rage and resentment to integration and empathy. Part way through the process her security team, her police escort, took over the week-to-week stories then handed the narrative back to her.

After several years (and the interruption of three smaller interlinked short story series set in the same universe) I am ready to finish this 74 Story Project. Resada Gestae will visit her last half-dozen destinations and return home to her husband and rest of her story (the novel I was trying to write when her security team interrupted me. I have often wondered if I would ever finish the 74 stories: there have been interruptions (serious and not so serious), I feared I would lose inspiration or interest, and the series has not found its stride with magazine editors.* (Half of my rejections slips for each of the stories read “this is too much background!” and the other half say “why isn’t there more background?”)

So, I will finish the 74 Stories Project this Summer with the help of the Clarion Write-A-Thon.  I have promised to finish the final stories of this interlinked 74-story series in order to support Clarion and I need backers (pledges per story). If this project doesn’t interest you there are other authors who will.

Wish me luck as I finish this multi-year project (now the equivalent of 3 novels in length) and support a Write-A-Thon author to benefit Clarion!
* With the notable exception of the editor at Black Denim Lit.

-Lisa Shapter

Read My New Short Story “Nightskyman Hope”

I have a new short story out in this month’s issue of Expanded Horizons:  “Nightskyman Hope“.

I’d been doing the Three-Day Novel Contest for several years and concluded (rightly or wrongly) that the then-sponsors and I had too widely divergent senses of taste for me to ever place in the contest. A few friends and fellow writers recommended National Novel Writing Month and I doubted I could get a new narrator (or at least a familiar narrator with a new project) to talk for an entire month. Worse, I never know how long a piece will be when I start writing it: I dreaded starting off with fine hopes on November 1st and ending up with firmly concluded a short story or a novella a few days later.

I decided to try: it was what I did when I had similar doubts about starting the Three-Day Novel Contest. At the end of that first November I had a complete novella (50,000 words is just over the Hugo award’s standard for a ‘novella’. It would make a fine short novel by 1950’s or ‘60’s SF publishing standards but it falls far short of contemporary ones.) The novella was “Steven’s World”. Like all of my National Novel Writing Month works it is still in the awkward fledgling stage – I work on them and revise them but never have the concentrated time to end up with finished piece that is ready to stand on its own.

Like many of my works, “Steven’s World” puts the narrator in a situation where he (or she) has every reason to quit but chooses not to. It’s a novella about the sole survivor of the small advance team whose colony site unravels catastrophically – and how he (or rather she) becomes the mother to a second, successful colony with a new advance team. Shortly after I finished the novella I wondered what let this narrator continue. I don’t write heroic SF: my narrators are ordinary people affected by new illnesses, prolonged trauma, isolation, repeated griefs and every other real-world consequence of spending decades alone far from help on a frontier. So what let this narrator report back to base and accept a second assignment? Personality? Beliefs? Loyalty to earth? Not being eligible to get out of his contract to serve? Was this a heroic story? Military SF satire? Or something far more small-scale and human?

I wrote a short story, “Nightskyman Hope” to explain his choice. Steven is alone on a 20-person ship: sick, depressed, and traumatized with no one and nothing preventing him from flying his ship into a star or a black hole. By the end of the story he’s back on base, he’s deleted his I-accept-any-and-all-penalties resignation letter for good, and he’s met the person who will be the center of the rest of his life – all because of a good psychiatric crisis-response computer program. (Or is it? Officially there is no live voice communication across galactic space ….)

I would like to finish the novella linked to “Nightskyman Hope”: Garnett Dorman shows up in two other pieces (alongside one of few earth-born women to remain at her post outside of earth’s solar system), in a third story Steven finally gets to hash things out with his ex (“Life on Earth”’s Edward) – with some help from Things We Are Not’s Olaf (yes, that’s Edward again in that story), and all of them get a last bow in a novel I’m working on now. Each story I write changes the other works I write.

A list of my stories: https://lisashapter.com/category/read-my-short-stories-in-order/

-Lisa Shapter

New Englanders, Come See My Play! (July 15-24, 2016)

“The Other Two Men” at The Players’ Ring (review)

Reading: Wed., Nov. 11, 7:30 p.m. FREE

Performances:  July 15-24, 2016

Cast:

Emery Lawrence as Sgt Saskatoon* Elis II
Bailey Weakley as Sgt Nebraska Vogul II

Tomer Oz as the Voice of the Planetary Archive of Gestae’s World

Director: Tomer Oz

(not the martial arts expert on IMDB)

Presented by Oz Productions

* (Hey, you changed the guy’s name!  I didn’t — this future universe writes in a set of characters that represent individual syllables.  In this writing system “Saskatoon” and “Saskatchewanare spelled the same. To Saskatoon’s permanent annoyance everyone but Nebraska calls him the wrong name – but he’s given up trying to explain the difference. Even his computer autocorrects to “Saskatchewan”.)

The descendants of the four founders of Gestae’s World decide to clone 2 of them and raise them in careful recreations of their 300-years-gone-by hometowns in order to solve the problem of what went wrong with their lives.

This is about the day the two young men meet.

Four years ago, in about this part of November, I was working on my National Novel Writing Month novel. I had started a sequence of 74 short stories (“Planet 38” and “No Woman, No Plaything”) and I had decided the unfinished novel The 75th Story needed a sequel. That National Novel Writing Month I was writing that sequel – and about this point in the month a minor character in the novel said something to the narrator, took over her chair, and said “Author, I have a story to tell you.”

I sometimes have several narrators with different stories trying to talk to me all at once so I said what I usually say: “Get in line. You’ve interrupted the narrator I was already working with.”

The reply was quite surprising, “Well, she’s my wife. And you need to hear my story first.”

Characters spring these sorts of surprises on me all the time: in this case the first narrator, Resada Gestae, was happily married to only one person – not the second narrator. “Fine. Talk. Make it snappy, I have a 50,000 word deadline to meet by the 30th – just like every November.”

That novel made the word count by the end of the month – and I am still working on it as of this week. The same second narrator then interrupted Reseda Gestae’s sequence of 74 stories (including “Planet 38” and “No Woman, No Plaything”) to tell “Story 45” through “Story 63” (including “Searching” and “Planet 50”) – and then handed narration back to Reseda.

Just when I was thinking about revising that past November’s interrupted novel for National Novel Editing Month, the second narrator, Saskatoon Elis, interrupted again with another curve ball: a version of him from 500 years ahead started talking, the first man’s clone. So I wrote a long short story about the clone called “The Other Two Men” – while keeping up with the original story-a-week-project. I was looking at that long short story a few months later and noticed it was all in one setting and had only two main characters: rather claustrophobic or stage-y for a science fiction story, even SF stories that take place on one ship usually have more characters than that. I started to wonder if it would work as a play, so I looked for a word processor with a preloaded stage play format, lifted out all the short story’s dialogue and started a long process of re-writing (including showing the play to an actor and giving the play to my editor who writes plays for a living.)

In the process of sending my short stories to literary magazines (“The guidelines say ‘no genre’? Hey, I don’t like skiffy, either.”) I’d noticed that a few of them took scripts along with short stories, poems, and/or essays. I also sent the script to a few theaters but since I’m new at this I wrote it to be read on the page. (I went through a jag of reading The Best Play of the Year in high school, so I’ve read most of my theater rather than seen it.)

Portsmouth, New Hampshire has a decades-old tradition of small theaters who perform avant-garde, small-cast, minimal-set plays. I drew on that tradition as I turned “The Other Two Men” into a play, aware of what a small theater could and could not do. I sent to play to one of these role models: Portsmouth’s Pontine Theater and in their kind rejection note they suggested the Generic Theater might like to look at it. After a bit of confusion over how their process worked I hand-delivered three copies of the script (this is my first time out of the gate) with three copies of a form explaining in triplicate that, erm, no, I had not gone as far as casting or selecting a director for the piece – I only wrote it. I had very low hopes: my script was going into a contest against experienced playwrights who had done all of those things. I went home, sent out more short stories, and waited for another type of rejection slip – this time from a theater instead of a magazine editor.

Instead, I got an email that my play was part of a short list of 8 or so plays sent to the Players’ Ring, a second local theater, for the selection of the finalists. That was nice to know – my rejection slip would arrive a bit later than expected.

Both theaters wrote and said my first play “The Other Two Men” was selected as a finalist – however it was quite short (I knew that, my theater friends did talk me through giving an estimated run time) and it would be paired with a second play. I quietly hoped the second playwright would be better known than me – but odds were any playwright would be more experienced and better known that I was, so I was glad to hear that news.

The Generic Theater and the Players’ Ring matched my first-time play with James Patrick Kelly’s “The Promise of Space” – the man who’s won the Hugo, the Nebula, and the Locus award (and many others, besides), the man who wrote for the Sci-Fi Channel’s Seeing Ear Theater. The man with an English degree whose acclaim-starred career in science fiction is nearly longer than my lifetime.

I am deeply grateful for this, and to the Generic Theater, and the Players’ Ring, and to James Patrick Kelly (“Y’know, you don’t need *this many* stage directions”) and Alex Pease (“*Formatting*.  What script software did you use?” *kof* “I didn’t.”) for their guidance and advice.

Come see James Patrick Kelly’s “The Promise of Space” and my play “The Other Two Men” read tonight by the company of The Generic Theater at The Players’ Ring tonight at 7:30 p.m, the tickets are free.  (Cast: Alex Pease as Sgt Saskatoon Elis II, Collin Snider as Sgt Nebraska Vogul II,  Alan Huisman as Maj Saskatoon Elis I Director: Susan Turner.  (Players’ Ring Late Night Series Performances:  July 15-24, 2016) (review)

– Lisa Shapter

Feminism (Or “Where Are The Women in My Fiction?”)

I write fiction that is a metaphor for things that are difficult to say in plain, non-fiction prose. I write feminist science fiction set in a single-sexed military that has colonized the Milky Way galaxy. I’m doing the old and revered fictional trope of taking a minority’s experience (women’s) and giving them to members of a majority (men) – to take away that ‘I can’t entirely identify with someone who’s Other’ that sometimes happens in readers’ subconsciouses. I hope this may make my perceptions of women’s experiences clearer to readers who might not pick up the straight-up version of the same thing (an all-female science fiction story – a genre I don’t always finish, myself: ask me someday for my review of Herland or Door into Ocean.)

As a result, readers sometimes ask me why the otherwise tolerant and egalitarian society in my military science fiction has banned women from serving in space. The in-world reason is not complex or nuanced: it is the irrational reaction to the tragic loss of an all-female transport ship a generation before due to an unexplained hull rupture. I’ve sometimes responded to sudden misfortunes by getting upset about smaller, more controllable things: what if an entire planet (and the policies of its representative government) did the same thing on a larger scale?
The male narrators within my military SF stories are very aware that their home planet’s decision is irrational and hypocritical: but they will lose their careers if they advocate for a political point of view while in uniform. (Read my story “Life on Earth” in Expanded Horizons (Jan. 2015) for an example of this.) They are very aware that the human body, with very minor individual variation, can survive only a narrow range of pressures and temperatures – they endured every survivable extreme during basic training (beside women, I might add, who still serve a limited military role within the solar system). Nearly every one of them wants the ban on women to end: they frequently encounter life and death challenges where the training, intelligence, knowledge, strength and problem-solving of women could have made a vital difference, and they say so (if only within their own thoughts while telling the story). These are also stories about how even an unwanted, artificial segregation from part of humanity changes their culture and thinking, as little as they wish either to be changed.

I also write fiction where the pieces of the puzzle are scattered across several stories. A generation later, my narrators do not remember exactly why a transport ship was entirely crewed by pregnant soldiers. In the novels and short stories from the same time there is the mundane explanation that these are the wives of men and women with field assignments on their way to join their spouses at their colonial posts. The maximum galactic travel time is six months, the first three month is the most fragile trimester in a pregnancy: better to serve it on earth (or in a transport ship with a full neonatal hospital). Their later children will be born onworld in clinics with limited medical staff, but their oldest child will have the best start. The truth is, the frontier is an immensely dangerous place to have children – and the transport ship is an attempt to ensure at least some reproductive success.

The exact cause of the all-female transport’s loss is never found: despite investigation, it remains and enigma and a source of conspiracy theories … and homeworld responds by banning women from serving in space. It makes no sense: there’s no ‘why’ but the over-compensation of the human brain in trying to find patterns and avoid danger. A generation later a lot of the details have been forgotten; my narrators have to live with the ban (and almost none of them support it).

At the end of this network of interrelated stories written across the history of this single-sexed military there is a novel: a novel about how and why the ban on women’s service in space is reversed.

I do not share my narrator’s views. I am not writing these stories to advocate for the characters’ individual politics. (I don’t like political advocacy novels from any part of the political spectrum.) I’m asking wider questions about what it means to be human, what the consequences are of asking only part of humanity to be more involved in childbearing (if technology might permit neither or both men and women to have children – by artificial wombs or artificially created full hermaphroditism), and what it means when humanity does not fully use all of the strengths and skills of its whole population (caused by sociological or historical accidents, not a deliberate decision that some portion of the population is not worthy of full consideration.)

So: the men in my stories stand in the place of women. (You can even try it with the non-military SF novella A Day in Deep Freeze.) Read them in that light and see if it makes them less cryptic.

-Lisa Shapter