How to Smile when you Kill (your Darlings)

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Look at all of those seats to fill!

Kill your darlings – it’s as ubiquitous a piece of writing advice as “write what you know”, and recently, I’ve done some slaughtering of my own.  My full length play Quiet Cowboy is slated for a five-day premiere run at the Mellow Theatre in Scranton, PA.  Minutes into a summer tour of the space, Gaslight Theatre president (and age-old friend, and QC director) David Reynolds turned to me and said, “How’d you like the play, Mr. Lincoln?”  And it’s true; the Mellow is strikingly reminiscent of Ford’s Theatre.  Hopefully, though, the only life-changing drama that takes place in January will be onstage.

Of course, the terminology of theatre productions can be utterly morbid.  An actor “cheats” to be seen, gives “cold” readings, and is told to “break a leg.”  If the talent laughs onstage, breaking character, they are considered a “corpse.”  In the aftermath of a show, good theatre companies hold a “post-mortem”; an opportunity to discuss what worked in the show’s run, and, more importantly, what went awry.  On the more technical side, there are “ghost lights” for reasons of safety and superstition.  Only props seem to actually “live” somewhere in the theatre world. 

And, of course, there are those legendary death “props” in the theatre world.  In the clip below, witness the daring use of the actual skull of pianist André Tchaikowsky by the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company), as was set out in Tchaikowsky’s will.  This is the BBC version with the RSC – the skull is real.  More blogging follows:

Theatre carries with it a guaranteed existential (some might say “temporal”) experience, in that each performance is different than the last.  As it is created, it dies – never again to be seen.  Wednesday night’s show is entirely different from Friday night’s show – actor (and audience) mentalities change slightly or in leaps and bounds, certain tricks of the trade play better to certain crowds, laughter comes in places appropriate and unexpected.  (I recall a series of MacBeth rehearsals in which the actor playing MacDuff would enter with a basketball instead of the bloody head of the title character.  On opening night, he was finally given the actual prop head – a convincing piece that wasn’t presented to him until just before his dark return for the play’s conclusion.  The director said of his performance: “You’ll never pull off that performance again.” – A look down the timeline of infamous MacBeth performances will also yield a high number of dark and fatal onstage ‘accidents’; The Curse of MacBeth… which is why you don’t say the show’s title unless speaking the Elizabethan tongue, and e’en then should you turn thrice and spit for want of blessings.)  Theatre is about surprise, on both sides of the curtain.  Even productions that we affectionately deem to be “train wrecks”  – those with ques you can run a fleet of ships through, or where the poised Queen takes forever to actually DIE onstage (based on an actual viewing of Hamlet), or with cardboard line-delivery and hack actors – are fascinating to watch.  As Garrison Keillor once said to me: “Being a playwright is wonderful, because no matter what happens, you give the people ‘an evening’.”  So, whether it be a masterpiece of writing and performance or massacre of art and decency, the audience will take your work home with them – for good or ill.

Since that tour and the confirmation of the Mellow, I have been guilty of an assassination of my own.  Character assassination, to be more accurate.   No, I’m not running for public office; this is no mud-slinging black and white commercial where an opponent’s nose balloons out of proportion and his use of government contracts is exploited to gain points.  Rather, I deleted an entire character from Act II of Quiet Cowboy; a move that came after some major stalemates in my writing sessions.  In the process of preparing the play for its premiere, I’ve found the value in deadlines again.  It is because of a deadline that this deletion (indeed, a dizzying and dreaded REWRITE of Act II in its entirety) came like a miracle.  A brief reading with the Stage Manager, the Director, and a lead actor, reassured me of the necessity of this “murder” – the blood that ran like ink soon turned invisible, and the character was erased from existence.

As recently as this past Sunday (October 17th), the cast assembled at my apartment for a full read-through and talkback session about the major changes.  Those in attendance took them well, and I discovered this killing I was so afraid of – the elimination of an entire character – meant expanding other roles and sculpting something more intimate but far from insular.

I think it’s important as a writer to remember that out of death comes birth.  I am reminded of this even as one of the lead actresses cast in Quiet Cowboy shows me her personal binder full of every full-length draft she’s recieved of the play (she has about 4 completely different full-length evolutions of the script in chronological order; there are nearly 8 previous scripts that she hasn’t seen).  Quiet Cowboy is my first full-blown opus, and the deadline (the run is January 5-9, 2011; rehearsal scripts are needed by November) fast approaches – for the first time, my play will have a life beyond the page.  I have no desire to act in it or direct it, and plan to only be present at rehearsals for line or scene revisions.  It will soon be time for this play to die a little in my mind, so that I can see it anew on the boards.  As with all productions, this one will end, will meet it’s deadline onstage.  (Hell, even CATS finally closed…)  This brings up an even more dreadful question: Once it has been put up, how does one take it all down?  Life and Death … the myth of the Phoenix bird comes to mind.  After being engulfed in passionate flame, what new version (of myself, of the play) will arise from the ashes?  What will I take away from it all?  What will it take away from me?

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6 Responses to “How to Smile when you Kill (your Darlings)”

  1. Jennifer Says:

    Sounds like great progress is being made. Looking forward to the production.

    The phrase is “murder your darlings” I think – first coined by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (or Fitzgerald or Nabakov or even Stephen King, depending on who you believe). That said, who cares? Kill them, murder them, loan them to a weird uncle, line the birdcage with them, make a hat.

    This post resonates with me in terms of how writing for theatre and acting can be so much the same. You carry a character within you for months (maybe years), and then he or she disappears mysteriously. Whodunnit? The writer either erases (murders) or the actor forgets. Yes, how does one take it all down?

    Regarding the real skull for Hamlet – you need to see “Slings & Arrows.”

  2. matthewhinton Says:

    JenniFEAR (see, I used FEAR this time, on account a’ it’s nearing All Hallows),
    Yeah, “murder,” “kill,” “drop them from planes,” “sweep them under the rug,” “keep them in dry storage,” “winterize them” … I do many things with my darlings. (I like “make a hat” and the bit about the uncle best, though)
    “Slings & Arrows” is in my que. No, I’m still not on Netflix yet, but I do have an analog que, and that is one of many on the list.
    Thanks!

  3. Rachel Says:

    This post is so encouraging. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your journey, Matt. That quote from Garrison Keiller was particularly hopeful; I think as a playwright it can be particularly terrifying to let your manuscript fall into someone else’s hands, for them to do with it what they will. But you’re right; no matter what, it’s an experience. LOL. And really, how often do you walk away from a poor production and blame the playwright?

    Sidenote: I LOVE the RSC production of “Hamlet.” David Tennant; wow, AMAZING. The girl who played Ophelia, in my humble opinion, was “ok.” 😉 But I’m kind of particular about that character…

    • matthewhinton Says:

      Thanks Rachel – it was great to meet Garrison; that proved to be a big night for me and I was glad for the experience.
      I’ll be excited to see the revisions to Ophelia – speaking of characters with a theme of death surrounding them …

  4. Bill Says:

    I’ve always hated that “kill your darlings” garbage. The story, book, play, script, poem is “the darling.” Individual lines, turns of phrase, characters, chapters and scenes, regardless of how beautifully written, do not count unless they add to the whole. Therefore, to delete something “spectacular” does not mean much if its absence makes the overall story far more compelling.

    Matt, I hope you get to the play for the opening and close – to fully experience that birth and death. The actors and audience will undoubtedly inspire you on some level and may jumpstart your brain with your next phenomenal project.

    Write well, my friend – and much success.

  5. October 2010 – The Write Life Says:

    […] Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments » […]

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