Thursday, August 28, 2014

Questions Asked of Dying Dreams

Questions Asked of Dying Dreams adds up to a rousing maiden voyage for new playwright Vassallo and a challenging and enjoyable evening of theater. … Cynical, sarcastic, funny, or angry, all four playlets are insightful and engaging—no mean feat—and each takes a hard look at life, their characters always questioning its meaning.” — Bob Coyne, Asbury Park Press

Since I was a college student, I have seen writing as a dialogue, not a monologue. For this reason, I am not surprised that my way into creative writing of any sort is through dramatic scripts. Whether they are talking points in a guidance memo or a play for professional production, dialogues have always rung in my ear as a real way of communicating ideas, beliefs, and actions.

My attention to the way we speak to each other paid off when my first group of short plays, Questions Asked of Dying Dreams, led to my first staged show in New Jersey, followed by a New York premiere, as well as a playwriting fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Questions Asked of Dying Dreams, a collection of four related one-act plays, looks at unanswerable questions we often ask ourselves, questions that inspire and disappoint us but ultimately keep us alive, whether in personal or business relationships:
  •    “What Do You Charge for a Cure?” (35 minutes), concerns a director of a clinical program for who confronts her professional and personal doubts as she deals with one of her clients and a new intake.
  •    “How Silent Do I Sound?” (15 minutes), is about a bigoted, aging moving man who unexpectedly meets his new coworker and his own destiny.
  •    “Do I Bleed in the Dark” (25 minutes), looks at a homeless ex-boxer who has a final chance to make something meaningful of his life in his dying moments.
  •    “Isn’t This the Way You Wanted Me?” (25 minutes), focuses on an embittered, frustrated wife who reassesses her marriage and life in light of her husband’s remarkable transformation.

People who have seen or read these plays have talked about their interesting blend of comedy and drama that energize these stories.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Person to Person: Essays from Two Centuries

One of the joys of writing is the opportunity it affords the writer to reflect on anything in his experience. That fact rings true in the case of Person to Person: Essays from Two Centuries, a collection of 26 essays on my abiding passions as an educator, poet, and playwright. The book focuses on theater, communication, society, literature, film, education, and sports. Often, I find links among these divergent interests.

This 172-page collection spans the last decade of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first, when I worked as a reporter, columnist, professor, and artist for diverse organizations in the New York metropolitan area. In this volume, my second collection of essays (The first is The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze: Learning and Teaching Through Philosophy), I write on a wide range of issues, including race relations, eating disorders, childcare, criminal law, school choice, the environment, cinema, playwriting, and literary biography. Twenty-two of the essays previously appeared in literary journals (The Sewanee Review), political bulletins (Cato Institute) scholarly periodicals (Et Cetera, Exit 9: Theory and Politics, Institute for Critical Thinking Conference), and trade publications (The Dramatist, Teaching English in the Two-Year College), newspapers (New Jersey Family, Home News Tribune, Rutgers Review), and e-zines (Cyber Oasis, Decathlon 2000, Education News, Srishti).

Two of the essays are looks at the writer’s life. Two are technical reflections on language. Six are on education issues ranging from contexts of history, film, school choice, corporate training versus traditional classroom teaching, the politics of textbook publishing, and critical theory. Three are appreciations of Robert Penn Warren and Tennessee Williams. Two are on the athletics discipline of the decathlon. Six are on social issues such as multiculturalism, child molestation laws, eating disorders, upward mobility, cultural reproduction and resistance. Finally, five are book reviews of On Dialogue by David Bohm, A Taste of Power by Elaine Brown, Dialogue: Rediscover the Transforming Power of Conversation by Linda Ellinor and Glenna Gerard, Fatal Flight by Natalino Fenech, Genesis by Emanuel di Pasquale, Dialogue and theArt of Thinking Together by William Isaacs The Content of Our Character by Shelby Steele, and The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation by Daniel Yankelovich.

The line of thought in this book varies as broadly as the interests, and the conclusions can be surprising. In any event, reading Person to Person is like reading a part of me.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze: Learning and Teaching Through Philosophy

One question aspiring authors frequently ask me is, "How do I get started in the writing business?" After stating the obvious answer, "By writing," I might go deeper by explaining what other established writers did on their way from obscurity to fame and acclaim: "Start small." Many novelists started as short story writers and either collected their published stories as a volume or expanded one or more of those stories into a larger literary work. Writers of any type do the same. Playwrights often begin with short plays leading to full-length ones, poets with a diverse batch of published poems that they shape into a book-length collection, and essayists with a single 1,500-word article on a subject they later master, leading to a comprehensive treatment in a 75,000-word study. Starting small minimizes the risk of wasting huge chunks of times on a potentially abandoned project, mitigates the pain of receiving countless rejections from publishers, and hastens the gratification of completing a project.

The next question I might hear is, "But even starting small, where do I start?" The temptation is to give the curt answer: "Start by writing what you know." Instead, I say, "Start with what you have already written." By reviewing past writing, the novice becomes an instant editor, reviewing a manuscript for quality just as a professional editor would.

Starting small and using what I had were the case with my book The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze: Learning and Teaching Through Philosophy. This book is a collection of 17 essays, 7 of which appeared in various literary and scholarly print and online journals, and 4 more of which appeared in publications after the book release. I wrote some of these essays in response to my eclectic reading, some as presentations for professional conferences, and even some as homework assignments when in a doctoral program. None of my work went to waste, especially when I saw a pattern emerge among these pieces.

The common bond of these essays is my passion for education, writing, and philosophy. The first essay, the prologue, titled "Reflections of the Inner Voice," describes how writers and writing teachers might integrate their reading and living experiences to realize their inner voice. The first section, "Foundations," collects 11 essays on great ideas from Western educational philosophy, including works of Plato, Aristotle, Quintilian, Augustine, Aquinas, Erasmus, Vico, Hume, Kant, DiderotRousseau, Dewey, KierkegaardNietzsche, Dostoevsky, Camus, and Sartre. This part provides new writers and writing teachers with a basis from which they may ground their learning and teaching strategies. The middle section, "Considerations," offers 2 more essays as a means of assessing the writing and teaching profession. The final section, "Applications," includes 3 practical approaches for the writing teacher: in integrating the personal and the professional, and in dealing with administrators, and in teaching students. 

Writing students and teachers, developing writers, and armchair philosophers will find some of their own ideas in this book--and they'll be sure to discover an idea or two along the way. So write what you know and start with what you have.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Philip Vassallo's Amazon Author Page

Since people have been asking me about my books, especially aspiring writers, I have decided to share my author page on Amazon. With a click on the image above, you can go there to read about and buy my eight published books: three on work-related writing (How to Write Fast Under PressureThe Art of E-mail Writing, and The Art of On-the-Job Writing), two essay collections (Person to Person and The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze), two poetry collections ( American Haiku and Like the Day I Was Born), and one short play collection (Questions Asked of Dying Dreams).

I will write more about these books in future posts.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

A Powerful Look at Our Youth Culture

Drama lives. At its best, it offers profound insights into the human condition and our cultural mores. Besides focused writing and reading, few better ways exist to hone the writer's craft than to experience a compelling piece of live theater that merges comedic and tragic elements through deep, believable characters and an unusual yet accessible story line.

This weekend audiences continue to get such an opportunity as previews of Kenneth Lonergan's play This Is Our Youth started on BroadwayI saw this exceptional production with the same cast (Michael CeraKieran Culkin, and Tavi Gevinson) and director (Anna D. Shapiro) at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago on June 25. This production has no kinks to iron out, so I encourage theatergoers to purchase less expensive preview tickets.

A two-hour tragicomedy about aimless New York youth in the 1980s during the Reagan Era, the play premiered Off-Broadway in 1996 at the Intar Theatre and has since been staged in London, Melbourne, and other major cities. Yet 18 years after the first staging and 32 years after the date of play's setting, it remains a painfully relevant story about how the excesses of society have devastating consequences on our communication, aspirations, and relationships.