Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle All the Plays
The scene is the cluttered workspace of a mild-mannered arts editor at a great metropolitan newsweekly. The editor, a balding, bespectacled boomer we shall call R., sits at his desk, hunched over a book of some kind, reading intently. Enter A., the freewheeling Gen X theatre critic.
A: Shouldn't you be working?
R: Very funny. I have to finish reading this script before I can do anything else.
A: What is it?
R: Part One of Angels in America.
A: Is that Perestroika, or is that the other one?
R: This is the other one. Millennium Approaches.
A: And you're reading it because...?
R: It's the law. Council just passed an ordinance requiring every citizen in Austin to read the play before Zach produces it next year. Non-compliance is punishable by sitting through a year's worth of performances of Same Time, Next Year.
A: Brrr.... Then I hope there's a copy of those scripts in my stocking this year. Hint, hint.
R: You know, scripts are underrated as gifts. Everybody gives books. What do books have that scripts don't? Scripts have stories, just like books. Damn good ones, with all the good parts of people talking, but without all that pesky narration.
A: I am such a short attention span gal that it's the narration that really hangs me up.
R: Well, sure. It puts you right to sleep.
A: You know, I was actually thinking about giving someone a script for this Secret Santa thing.
R: It's a natural! Scripts are fairly inexpensive. They make great Secret Santa gifts or stocking stuffers. And there are tons of good reasons to give someone a script. Actors love 'em because they can read them and play all the parts themselves.
A: And you know, actors love that. Because then they don't have to go through the pain of auditions and callbacks. Low ego damage.
R: It's your own personal production in your head.
A: Directors love 'em because they can do their whole Machiavellian thing with people in their head. Critics love 'em because they can tear them apart before they ever make it to the stage. Dramaturgs love 'em because it gives them something to do.
R: Which we're still not sure what that is, but dramaturgs love to do it!
A: Yeah, they do.
R: And anybody who's an audience member loves 'em! If the script is for a show they've seen, it's a super souvenir, and if it's for a show they haven't seen, it helps 'em get familiar with the show before they go see it. It's especially good for kids. I know when The Public Domain does Betrolt Brecht's Galileo next year, I'll go over the script with my five-year-old before I take her to see it. Galileo -- there's a gift! [$2.98, Half-Price Books]
A: Or if the show your loved one was going to see was a musical, you could get him or her a recorded version of the script in the form of a cast album.
R: Of course! We have one of those 800-pound gorillas of the musical theatre, Phantom of the Opera, headed to the Performing Arts Center in January, and what better way to psych up that Lloyd Webber-head in your household than with an original cast CD! [$28.99, Tower Records] Or for that loved one about to jet off to Broadway to check out some of 1997's big musicals, you could slip them a CD of, say, The Life or Titanic. [$17.99 & $13.99, respectively, Tower]
A: Hey, how about giving someone the best of both worlds: a cast album and a script! You could pair a modern musical with its classical source. I'm thinking West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet. That song "Somewhere" -- it just breaks my heart.
R: Funny you should mention that show, because in addition to the original cast album [$15.99, Tower], you can now find two new CDs, one with popular artists doing the songs from the show -- no lie, Little Richard singing "I Feel Pretty" [$16.99, Tower] -- and another with jazz artists, headed by Dave Grusin. [$17.99, Tower]
A: Here's another good pair: My Fair Lady [$11.99, Tower] and Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. [$1.48, Half Price Books]
R: Try this: The Gospel at Colonus [$15.99, Tower] and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles! [$4.98, Half Price Books] Or the revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Nathan Lane [$15.99, Tower] and an anthology of the plays that Stephen Sondheim, Larry Gelbart, and Burt Shevelove drew from for that show: the ancient Greek comedies by Plautus! [$9.98 per volume, Half Price Books]
A: This pairing thing is fun. And it occurs to me that you could create some interesting pairs with recordings and other source material. Like, speaking of Sondheim, you could get Sunday in the Park With George [$15.99, Borders Books & Music] and pair it with a book of paintings by Georges Seurat!
R: Or Into the Woods [$15.99, Borders Books & Music] with a collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales.
A: Or Into the Woods and Anne Sexton's Transformations, her book of poems based on all those old myths and stories. [The Complete Poems, $15.95, Barnes & Noble] Or My One and Only with Tommy Tune's new autobiography, Footnotes [$24, Book People]. Or Joe Orton's Complete Plays [$12.95, Borders Books & Music] with his biography Prick Up Your Ears, by John Lahr. [$14.95, Book People]
R: Now, there's a fine idea: Matching scripts and biographies! What fading Southern belle wouldn't swoon over copies of The Glass Menagerie, from which Tennessee Williams took so much of his life, and Lyle Leverich's 1995 biography Tom, The Unknown Tennessee Williams? [$7.98 hard, $4.98 soft, Half-Price Books]
A: And for those playwrights who have yet to choke on a bottle cap and have their life inventoried and analyzed, you could match the script with some other kind of writing by the playwright. You know, David Mamet loves penning essays, and he has a new book of them out, True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor. [$20, Book People]. It might go handily with one of his plays, say, the most recent one to be published, The Cryptogram. [$10, Book People]
R: Or, since we started down this long road with Angels in America, there's Tony Kushner's Thinking About the Longstanding Problems of Virtue and Happiness [$6.98, Half Price Books], a collection with a play and essays and a prayer. It would be a nice slice of cheddar on the apple pie of Angels [$9.98 both parts, Book Market; $35 deluxe set Barnes & Noble, Book People]
A: Come to think of it, there are a lot of reference books like that out there which can take you through the background or history of a work. We have one of the greatest theatre history scholars in the country living right smack here in Austin.
R: That would be Oscar Brockett...
A: ...whose books are used as standard texts in just about every theatre program everywhere, even the backwaters of Pennsylvania.
R: He is ubiquitous.
A: He is ubiquitous, and do you know, when I was introduced to him, I just stuck out my hand and said, "Hey, read your book." [Shakes head sadly] I've never quite managed to get past that. But no one has more theatre books out there than him, and they're all really good, comprehensive guides to theatre, with good, glossy pictures. [A History of the Theatre, $54, University Co-op]
Reference works as gifts are always a great idea, especially for technicians, because they are really a pain in the butt to buy for.
R: Unwrapping a Fresnel on Christmas morning wouldn't provide much of a thrill, I would think.
A: No. Although it's more fun if you plug it in first, because then the paper glows. But there are some really good technical handbooks out. For example, Kidd's Stage Costume Step by Step [$21.99, Book People] and Glenum's Stage Rigging Handbook [$24.95, Book People] would be perfect for any technician who doesn't like naked actors squashed by falling scenery.
R: So another pairing would be The Stage Rigging Handbook and a crescent wrench.
A: Yes! Or, knowing most technicians, a box of Band-Aids.
And for people who want to write for the stage, there's a wonderful guide to playwriting that takes you step by step through the process, from formulating the idea to actually getting that puppy onstage. It's called The Stage Writers Handbook [$16.95 Book People], and it's by an author who recently came to Austin. Her name is Dana Singer.
R: Now that you've dexterously circled us back to the field of playwriting, it occurs to me that we live in a city in which one can scarcely swing a cat without smacking some citizen who's penning a play. No doubt the scripts of Austin's native dramatists would make grand gifts of the season. At least one would quite literally: David Mark Cohen's Baby Grand. [$5.25, Barnes & Noble]
A: Kids who have spent any time in the theatre are bound to have come across Susan Zeder's plays, maybe Step on a Crack or Mother Hicks. She lives in Austin, and one of her scripts might delight some aspiring young playwright.
R: I saw her play Doors in the anthology Theatre for Youth [$14.98, Half Price Books], edited by former chair of the UT theatre department Coleman Jennings. I'll bet you could even get her to sign it for you.
A: Sure. Show up at her house...
A: ...with book in hand. She'd be so excited that you'd purchased it...
R: ...and that you're giving it to a child as a gift...
A: ...she'd slap her signature down tout suite.
A lot of local companies that stage new plays will sell copies of the scripts after performances. Rude Mechanicals publishes plays by Kirk Lynn. Sometimes you can even see the playwrights shilling for their own scripts.
R: Salvage Vanguard Theater is another company that publishes new scripts. It's part of Salvage Vanguard's mission to make copies of new plays available. This is, by the way, the same Salvage Vanguard that's producing The Best Salvage Vanguard Holiday Ever, which features 10 five-minute plays commissioned by Salvage Vanguard and performed for only two nights this weekend at Little City Downtown, is it not?
A: It is.
R: You might even be able to find printed copies of those plays at those performances.
A: And even if you couldn't, I feel sure someone would be willing to run off and photocopy one of them for you.
R: I know that all 14 plays produced to date by Salvage Vanguard are available, for only $5 apiece, through Salvage Vanguard: 2116 Guadalupe, #220, Austin, 78705, or by calling 912-0331.
A: Now, if the person for whom you're buying gift scripts is interested in brand-new plays by playwrights who aren't local, which aren't always easy to find in bookstores, you can find some scripts in magazines. My personal favorite is American Theatre, which puts a new script in 10 of its issues every year. You don't even have to pay for it; it just comes in the magazine. So you could get your script-loving loved one a subscription to the magazine. [$35 Individual/$20 Student; Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 355 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10017-0217].
R: This is the same American Theatre that recently published an article about Austin theatre?
A: Yeah, it was by some hack who writes for a local weekly.
A: By the way, individual issues of American Theatre are available in the magazine sections of several local bookstores. [$4.95] Actually, we in Austin are lucky because we live in a city that has a lot of bookstores that have a lot of magazines, and we can get the Yale journal Theater. [$8, Book People, Barnes & Noble]. It's a very good magazine that covers the cutting edge of what's happening in American theatre.
R: As a matter of fact, the RAT theatre movement with which a lot of companies in town have been involved -- The Public Domain, Salvage Vanguard, Frontera, Physical Plant -- and were among the founding members, sprang from an essay by Erik Ehn in that magazine. Proving that there are connections between people in Austin reading that very same journal about which you're speaking and being on the cutting edge.
A: Speaking of the cutting edge, isn't it about time you got back to writing about it or are you going to keep wasting time finishing that script?
R: Hey, it's never a waste of time finishing a script.