“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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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