Housebroken opens at Riverside on Friday. Join me?

HOUSEBROKEN_Barbie_1_posterIf you’re in the Iowa City area, I want to invite you to see my new solo show, Housebroken, at Riverside Theatre. If you’re not in the area, I’ll still invite you so as not to appear rude.

Housebroken is an existential crisis disguised as a hilarious comedy about buying a house. Our hero, conveniently named Megan Gogerty, sets forth to upgrade her family’s digs only to find herself questioning who she is and what she values when everything goes wrong. It’s funny and sad, but mostly funny.

It’s also a love letter to Iowa City and the weird-os (like me) who live here. If you’re not super-familiar with Iowa City, hopefully you’ll have a great time. But if you’re an Iowa City resident, you’ll have a super-amazing-fabulous time. (I hope. Fingers crossed.)

Notice I say “she” up in that paragraph? I mean, of course it’s me. It’s semi-autobiographical, which means every word is true except the parts I made up.

The show opens on Friday and runs for three weeks. It’s directed by my friend and longtime-collaborator, Alexis Chamow, who flew all the way from ho-hum Los Angeles to work at the exotic Riverside Theatre. She is amazing. Together, we’ve cooked up a bunch of little surprises that will hopefully delight you as much as they do us.

I’ve poured my heart into this one, gang. It would mean the world to me if you came to see it. And maybe tell your friends?

The basics:

Housebroken: April 10-26

7:30 Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 2PM Sundays

Riverside Theatre box office: (319) 338-7672 (noon-4pm)

213 N. Gilbert St., Iowa City 52242

Megan Gogerty in Housebroken. Photo by Bob Goodfellow.

Megan Gogerty in Housebroken. Photo by Bob Goodfellow.

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The difference between standup comedy and a comic monologue

I’m a monologuist. I’m also a standup comedian. Sometimes when I’m fretting about my standup, my theatre friends will cheerfully suggest I just retrofit one of my comic monologues into my standup act. After all, my monologues are hilarious!

But it doesn’t work. They’re different art forms. And they differ in very specific ways.

On the surface, they look the same: one person on a stage, talking to the audience or to imaginary figures, and the audience (hopefully) enrapt and periodically laughing. But while the final product may seem similar, the approaches used in their constructions are almost diametrically opposed.

All time-based arts require us to come up with a strategy to compel the audience’s attention from minute one to minute end. In a monologue, this is usually done through narrative.

A monologue, like all narrative arts, is held aloft in the minds of the audience through tension, usually created by questions. Audiences are presented with mysteries to solve – “What’s going on? Who’s that person? What’s going to happen next? Who killed the cook? etc.” – and when the audience discovers the answers to those questions, they feel satisfied. Ideally, one big question is presented at the beginning of the monologue (in dramaturgical circles, this is called the dramatic question), and when that big, driving question is answered, the monologue is over. Questions create tension, which is a good thing. Audiences lean forward in anticipation; we use words like ‘taut’ and ‘suspenseful’ to describe this quality of the narrative. Even comedies, which we might not usually associate with cliffhanger-style narrative, make use of this suspense; often the biggest laughs are borne of this tension, or its release.

This desirable tension is created almost exclusively through the narrative. The audience doesn’t start out tense; before the curtain rises, the audience is often calm and chatting breezily with itself. When the story gets going, the tension gets whipped up through questions (assuming it’s a successful monologue), the audience leans forward, laughs are generated as tension is heightened or released, perceptions shift, the audience makes discoveries (often along with the main character who may or may not be on a journey), mysteries are resolved, the house lights come up, and everyone goes home satisfied.

Standup comedy works in exactly the opposite way.

When a standup comic hits the stage, the audience is already a little tense. They have a question planted in their mind before the comic opens her mouth: “Is this person going to make me laugh?” Audiences want comics to do well, and they’re nervous they’re going to watch somebody die a slow, laugh-free death. Watching a comedian is like watching a tightrope walker. We don’t want them to fall, and we’re worried they might.

This kind of tension, which I’ll call survivor tension, is qualitatively different from narrative tension. It’s not enjoyable for the audience. Its presence in mass quantities is a sign things are going badly. When audiences are nervous, they can’t laugh. When they’re worried for the performer, they can’t relax into the jokes. It takes them out of the performance and stifles their natural reactions.

Survivor tension corrodes standup comedy.

It cannot be completely eradicated, except perhaps through alcohol. A sober audience is always going to have a soupçon of survivor tension bubbling in the back of their minds. If an overweight comic looks short of breath; if a comic stumbles, or pauses too long; if the audience has any cause to think the comic might fall off the tightrope, the survivor tension roars up. Ironically, the audience’s worry that the comic will fail makes it harder for the comic to succeed.

On the other hand, survivor tension is also responsible for the giddy feeling audiences can have when they see a comic successfully walk across the tightrope. It’s thrilling. They made it!

So successfully executing a standup set, like performing a comic monologue, becomes a game in managing audience tension. But in standup, the comic aims to reduce tension at every turn. Jerry Seinfeld says that a comic’s job is “to quell fear.” Where the monologuist plants questions in the audience’s mind to ratchet up tension, the comedian swiftly answers any and every possible question that might cross an audience’s mind as quickly as possible.

For example, a comedian may start a set by making a joke about his looks. At the beginning of a set, all the audience knows about a comic is what he looks like. If the comedian is overweight, or underweight, or looks like a stretched-out Martin Short, acknowledging this fact up front reassures the audience that he, too, knows he looks that way. He knows what they’re thinking. They can relax.

Relaxing the audience makes the comic’s job easier for two reasons. First, it lowers the temperature on the pot of simmering survivor tension, reassuring the audience they’re going to be taken care of by a performer who knows what he’s doing. Secondly, it amplifies the surprise of the punchline, resulting in a more forceful laugh.

If narrative is about creating tension, and standup is about reducing tension, how do standups tell stories in their acts?

Sometimes, they don’t bother. Judy Carter, in her comprehensive standup comedy workshops and books, says that “stories don’t work on stage.” Funny stories that work at parties, when performed as standup, often fall flat. Carter has found this to be true in spite of many highly successful comedians who are known for their storytelling, like Bill Cosby.

Yet Bill Cosby doesn’t tell a story in the same way traditional storytellers would. He structures his stories in such a way that reduces as much mystery – and therefore tension – as possible. In his masterwork, Himself, Cosby tells a series of stories about life with his children. Take his story about his child drinking his soda even after he told her not to:

In this section, Cosby doesn’t structure his story in a traditional narrative form. A traditional narrative might conclude the story with the line that “all children have brain damage,” rather than beginning with it. That’s the natural conclusion of that story, the discovery the protagonist father makes about his children when confronted by their behavior. Instead, Cosby takes the discovery, what might be considered the moral of the story, and puts it at the top as a kind of thesis statement. The story then functions as evidence to support his argument. The character of Cosby is not making any new discoveries during the course of the show; we are not watching a character change in the way we do when watching a narrative. Cosby is instead making assertions, opining, and using stories to prove his points. The structure of his rhetoric has more in common with an argumentative essay than with a narrative monologue.

In classic joke parlance, this “thesis statement” is the premise of the joke. Clarity of premise is essential to effective standup comedy. Patton Oswalt has said a comedian has to be so clear, he can be understood by a room full of drunk people. Clarity is the key to effective premises, whereas in a narrative monologue, a performer can afford to begin with a little mystery, planting questions in the minds of the audience to be resolved later. In standup, an audience is wary of long, winding narrative journeys and needs to know where it’s going before it will follow; in a monologue, the journey is the whole point.

Not all of Cosby’s stories in Himself follow the classic joke structure of premise -> punchline. Take his story about cooking breakfast for his children, informally known as the chocolate cake bit:

This bit is remarkable in its adherence to classical narrative form. The bit is structured as a traditional story: it’s told in chronological order, there’s a protagonist who makes discoveries, it resolves in a return to the status quo. It’s an episode of a sit-com waiting to happen. How does Cosby get away with it in his standup special?

To begin with, Cosby does not start his act with this story. He delivers the “chocolate cake” bit well into the show. Also, in 1982 when this special was filmed, Cosby had been a huge star for twenty years. We can safely assume that much of the audience was already familiar with Cosby’s comic persona. For those that might be unfamiliar with his act, Cosby starts his special, not with narrative, but with a conventionally structured joke. First, he acknowledges the reality of the moment by commenting on the wild applause that greets his entrance:

 You can’t yell like that, for crying out loud. Today’s Thursday. You gotta wait till Friday. It’s always strange. I’ve had a lot of people work for me. And I’ve found out, it’s a funny thing, you give them Saturday and Sunday off, and they work so hard to get to those two days. And those are the two days they totally destroy themselves. I mean, you know, you think to yourself, My goodness, I really pounded these people and worked them to death, and they get to Friday and they say “Yay!” and then they come in Monday, they say “sigh…Boy, am I glad to be back here! I’m no good on my own! I was given two whole days and I just went crazy!”

This is a conventionally structured comic bit. The first half contains the premise, which is presented rhetorically as a thesis: it contains an observation, a truth, or a point of view (“…and those are the two days they totally destroy themselves.”). The second half of the bit serves as evidence proving the thesis. Here, Cosby illustrates the truth of his argument using what Judy Carter calls an “act-out,” where the comic creates characters and acts out their reactions or behaviors.

From there, he pivots into another conventionally structured bit about drugs. So in the opening moments of his special, Cosby 1.) acknowledges the reality of the moment; 2.) tells two strong classically structured bits, thereby reassuring the audience that he can manage this tightrope easily. He doesn’t get into longer narratives like the chocolate cake story until much later in his special.

It’s also worth noting how much silence greets the beginning of the chocolate cake bit. The laughs don’t start coming until well into the story. Cosby is such a master comedian that he can afford these long silences; his audience trusts him by this point in the show (and his career), and they can tolerate a little mystery. If an unknown comic were to start her act with a story like the chocolate cake bit, she would have a much harder time. The silence would quickly curdle into survivor tension. An unknown comic, or a comic at the beginning of a set, needs to establish her bona fides as a comedian by opening with strong, well-crafted comic bits that get laughs quickly in order to reduce tension and set the stage for success. Only after she has established herself can she afford to experiment with traditional narrative structures.

This kind of rhetorical dexterity shows why Cosby is a master of the form. It also illustrates how these different strategies can be deployed at different times for different purposes. Narrative tension can be incorporated into a standup set, but only if the performer understands how audiences will respond and why, so that he can maximize its effectiveness.

(I realized I wrote a whole essay about standup comedy without making a single joke. Monkey fart. Monkey fart. You’re welcome.)

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Why you should just read my play SUPER HOT RAVEN already

  1. It’s short. It’s two ten-minute plays. It’s not like you’re committing to marriage, here. I tell you what: just skim it. If it doesn’t hook you, then go with the Lord and be forgiven.
  2. It’s funny. Look at the day you’re having. You could totally use a good laugh – you deserve it.
  3. It’s premiering at Iron Crow Theatre Co. in Baltimore this month. Are you in Baltimore? You are not. So here’s your chance to pretend like you’re in Baltimore, which I do often.
  4. It’s about lesbians.
  5. It makes reference to Edgar Allan Poe, which will make you feel smart. If you’re anything like me, those opportunities are few and far between. You gotta seize on them while you can.

Here it is:


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Random things I learned from other playwrights

The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta runs a program called the Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, open to playwrights in their first year out of their MFA programs. This weekend, they invited all the past Kendeda finalists – 50 so far in the ten years the program’s existed – to come down to Atlanta for a weekend of shop talk, camaraderie, and a general pooling of our resources as to how we could, you know, remake the American Theatre and stuff. About 30 showed up, and it was glorious.

I was among the class of writers in the very first year of the Kendeda program (Seniors rule!), which meant that everything I said was taken extra seriously.* That’s called gravitas, kids. I got it in spades.**

For the sake of those who couldn’t join us, here’s a quick hit list of some of the stuff I learned, or in some cases re-learned.

  • The most important thing is to write really fierce, honest, amazing plays. When in doubt, do that.
  •  The second most important thing is to foster good, warm, trusting relationships with other artists.
  • All playwrights, in their heart, suspect they are frauds.
  • We must learn to tell the difference between productive fear and destructive anxiety. If one is experiencing the latter, try aiming for bite-sized victories. Don’t eat the whole elephant at once.
  • Social media is a huge time-waster and we should all do it. Except for the ones who shouldn’t.
  • We should act like Beyoncé and manage our personal brands. “Fuck you” can be a brand, but there are consequences.
  • We must act locally and make a lot of noise.
  • Hollywood loves playwrights, and they shop for them in the New York Times. Except for when they shop for them on YouTube. One of those is easier to get into than the other.
  • We must empower ourselves. Institutions cannot grant us legitimacy.
  • Everybody wants to be 13P, except 13P.
  • Theatre for the very young – ages 18 months to five years – is a hot market.
  • This suit jacket I’m wearing appears to have sewn-up pockets, but when I un-sew them, I discover I’ve simply made an exciting new hole. There’s a lesson there, I’m sure.

Fantastic playwrights. Fantastic conversations. Lots of candy. Thanks, Alliance Theatre! And big love to you, my beautiful new friends who write plays, which is a seemingly insane thing to do. Glad to have company.

* No, it wasn’t.
** No, I don’t.

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Theories about music onstage

  1. We like people who sing well. So if a character sings on stage, the audience is almost predisposed to like that character, or at least give her the benefit of the doubt. I think we like characters who sing well because when they sing, we don’t question their intensions. Which leads me to:
  1. Songs don’t lie. We accept music and songs and singers at face value, because we know it’s virtually impossible to lie in a song without also revealing the lie.  If a character sings, “I love you,” we buy it. We don’t question it. In Oklahoma!, Laurey and Curly sing, “People Will Say We’re In Love,” a laundry list of things the other mustn’t do to avoid the gossipy rumors that they’re a couple. Protest all they want, we know those crazy kids are goofy for each other from the first measure, because songs don’t lie. Even ironic musicals like Chicago have trouble lying in song. In “Funny Honey,” Roxy espouses all the reasons she’s fond of her husband Amos. We know that normally Roxy doesn’t give two figs for Amos, but in that song, in that moment, she does. Why? Because he’s taking the rap for her crime. And then when he gets wise to her manipulations and rats her out mid-song, the music reflects and communicates her change of heart with perfect precision.
  1. Songs propagate the paradox of the stage. Songs in plays, except for special occasions, are generally not naturalistic. If a play is naturalistic, it feels like a straightforward representation of real life, and if a play is theatrical, it feels like an artificial or heightened representation (exploration?) of real life. Theatricality is inherently false. Therein lies its power. Theatre is metaphor. Everything on stage is representative of something else. The power of theatre is the power of metaphor, which is the power of a lie that tells the truth. And the paradox of theatre is the more it lies (the more false, the more artificial, the more incredible), the greater its potential to tell truths. People don’t burst into song in real life – or if they do, they’re not usually backed by a full orchestra. It’s false, unrealistic, theatrical. It’s one of the most theatrical things an actor can do on a stage without the help of spectacle. Which is why it’s so compelling to watch, and why an audience is so willing to trust its honesty. Because a song distances us from the naturalism of a moment, it paradoxically draws us closer into that moment’s honesty and emotional reality. It’s an extremely powerful tool for theatre artists.
  1. Sung text carries more weight than spoken text.  If a character says, “I hate you,” and then sings, “I love you,” we’ll believe the song. Songs don’t lie; speeches are riddled with lies. So in terms of truth telling, of which conveyors an audience will believe, the formula breaks down like this: sung text > spoken text.  Anyone can lie in a speech, but somehow a song feels truer, more pure.  Because:
  1. Music carries tone, and we react to tone emotionally. Music (and I’m talking Western, popular forms – for theories on atonal experimental pieces, ask a music scholar) works like a cable: it plugs directly into the listener’s brain and conveys huge amounts of information very quickly. Music gives cues to the listener about how to feel, how to interpret images, what the lyrics mean, etc. On stage, music tells the audience, in no uncertain terms, what the tone of the play is. Listen to “Hey, Big Spender” from Sweet Charity, and we know exactly how those taxi dancers feel about taxi dancing. The lyrics are lies (and we know they are lies – see above) and the music tells us the truth. They hate their jobs. And we sympathize with them for hating their jobs and also maybe respect them a little because they’re revealed to be con artists, and America loves a con artist. (Aside: the first act of Sweet Charity is so brilliant and daring and thrilling in how it wrestles with thorny second wave feminism issues, and so in the second act, when the play is shoehorned into a love story, it’s one of the more disappointing missed opportunities in the history of the American musical. “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This” is so resonant with rage and longing and frustration! But no: she really wants to settle down in a little house with Oscar. Bleah. End of aside.) So now our formula is updated this way: instrumental music > sung text > spoken text. Filmmakers have been using music to convey tone since the beginning: scary music, chipper music. In that first scene of Punch Drunk Love where Adam Sandler’s character discovers the harmonium, there’s no musical underscore at all, and it’s completely disturbing: is this a comedy? Is something bad going to happen? Tell us how to feel, P.T. Anderson! Which brings me to my last point:
  1. Music is weirdly comforting. Even scary music is kind of comforting, because at least we know where we are tonally. As any Pinter scholar will attest, silence breeds tension. Music calms us, or at least gives us something to latch onto that we trust, that won’t betray us in the end (because music doesn’t lie), something that will lead us through the wilderness and deposit us on the other side, safe but maybe also, if we’re lucky, changed. That’s one of the reasons the Brecht/Weill musicals can be so creepy and so fun at the same time. The music distances us from the creepiness, allowing us to examine it safely at arm’s length.

We should take these ideas about music and use them, exploit them, in our plays. We should craft some experiments out of these theories by turning them inside out, applying them or undermining them as we see fit. We shouldn’t let “but then we have to pay a piano player to come to rehearsals” be the excuse that keeps us from embracing a fundamental and extremely powerful tool of theatricality. Sing out, Louise!



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Things That Are Holding Me Back Today

As a playwright, I’m confident I should have a career equivalent to Sarah Ruhl plus Tony Kushner divided by Tennessee Williams, if it weren’t for the following:

  • My kids. Obviously. First on the list. No brainer.
  • My job. They don’t recognize my genius. I’m like, “Don’t you know who I am?” And they’re like, “Complete your task so we can pay you and go home.”
  • Industry professionals. “Don’t you know who I am?” (Answer: No.)
  • That I live here, and not there. But There is so expensive.
  • That one time when I lived There. They didn’t recognize my genius. Plus, they’re the past. I am the future.
  • All the people who are older than me and think they know so much. Suck it up, oldies: you’re irrelevant.
  • All the people who are younger than me and think they know so much. Why don’t you come talk to me after you paid your dues like the rest of us? Also, your PlayStation called (Insert withering insult re: PlayStation here).
  • My life choices. If only I hadn’t bother to seek shelter, food, or meet my basic needs. Curse my weakness!
  • The Internet. Self-explanatory.
  • The deluxe final season of Breaking Bad. Am I not made of flesh and bone?
  • That my plays maybe aren’t as good as I think they are.
  • My boss. Definitely my boss. He’s all, “Blah, blah! Bossy, bossy!” I’m like, whatever.
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How to cut out soda in one easy step

1. Stop drinking soda.

…You’re welcome, Earth.

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