By Austin Kaiser
If I say, “My Mom makes me remove my shoes before I enter the house,” and then step back and expect that to paint a picture for an audience, I’d be wrong. The audience would think, “Big deal. Your mom is sensible.” But if I add, “And if I’ve been to New York City, she makes me wet-wipe the bottoms,” then I’ve added something original. That original idea is humorous and makes the audience think, “Okay. Maybe his mom is a notch over the top.”
This spike of originality is what “LOVEABLEASSHOLE” is missing. “LOVEABLEASSHOLE” has the right pieces, but each needs to be taken from trope to original. The story goes: a guy sleeps with lots of women and then realizes his behavior was immature. The End. It has moments of epiphany but needs to be pushed from “I realize I’ve been hiding my pain by sleeping with women” to an original insight only you could come up with. By “you,” I mean Jonathan Suber, the writer and performer. Jonathan, you’ve seen car commercials that end with a slogan along the lines of “Experience the extraordinary.” Or a beer commercial that says, “Live truly.” The engineers and the brewmasters may believe the sentiment because they engineered the car and brewed the beer but we, the viewers on the other side of the television, who have no car or beer, don’t feel the strength of those slogans. They come across as words that could apply to anything. They ought to be specific enough to only apply to that particular manufacturer or brewery. That’s what I need from your writing. Lines that only you could say.
If a show is called “LOVEABLEASSHOLE,” I expect to be horrified at the behavior of the main character, then witness their transformation into a role model. I wasn’t horrified—or in love. The most horrifying line delivered was a remixed cliché. You said, “My heart became cold.” Pause. Cliché. Can it be saved? Yes. “So cold that I couldn’t cry at funerals.” That was good. You took something generic and made it original by adding a new line that created specificity. Do that again, one hundred times, and then, on the one hundred and first time, do something more complex and deep, and use that version in the play.
This play suffered from what I call an actor playing a real person with quotes around the word real. They are so “real” that they say “you know” at the end of their punchline, then look around, crack a smile and break character. As a member of your audience hoping to look at you and see a new reality, you’re being so relaxed that you lose timing and precision ain’t it. I want to witness a character experiencing a moment. Every word, facial expression and body movement should attempt to move me. It should have a purpose. This is how great plays are made. Allowing for improvisation and spontaneity, you should act like the words come to mind in that moment on stage. Stop presenting the story like a retelling and just live it like it is. Lean into the words and trust them to deliver the power. If you’re saying something sad, don’t grimace or look down like a puppy and put your hands in your pockets. Those are clichés. A real person sharing news about the death of a loved one is going to move very little and look at nothing in particular. If someone is telling a nostalgic story about their dad, they aren’t going to say, “You know, we all have dads who do corny things that you don’t appreciate until they’re gone.” They’re going to say, “My Dad wanted me to set up his Facebook and I never did.” Do the scene like a regular human would live it and, if you do it well, I’ll pick up on the feeling you want me to feel. (And, remember, be specific.)
This is a broad piece of advice that can apply to a lot of shows, especially those by people still learning how to write and compose a story. I want each show to become the best it can possibly be. I think the thing that limits 95% of shows and movies is the script. You can act as well as Marlon Brando or Donald Glover or whomever your Champion Acting Idol is when you have great material. Actors can rise to good material, and that’s where they find their breakout performances. That’s when they surprise themselves. This is what me and everyone else in the audience wants. We want you to have breakthrough moments of honesty on stage in front of us. They would be phenomenal. They would be profound. Keep working on the stories. Write them better and better. Watch your favorite movies and listen to how precise everything is. No one says “you know” in movies. Steve Harvey once said, “I want to stand there for 90 minutes and, every eight to twelve seconds, produce a house laugh that touches 85% of the audience.” That is how serious his discipline is. Whether you want to come across as informal like my funny cousin or serious like my girlfriend’s dad, you will need lots of practice being that person. You are yourself as a real person plus acting the discipline. You are you plus acting the craft, which means plus a million little talents. You have the facial expressions and intimacy with the characters and energy to perform. Improve the story and everything else will follow.
Your establishing yourself as an asshole can be deeper. Establishing yourself as lovable can be deeper. Examples of being an asshole were that you slept around. That’s the extent of the specificity. When I see a show titled “Asshole,” I expect the main character to be horrible. I expect him to be doing things that Satan would be proud of. When someone says they are a loveable asshole, I expect something more than, “I realize that if I want to change, only I can do it. I can only change when I’m ready to.” That might have been insightful 20 years ago before the Internet made therapy and self-talk mainstream. “Nobody’s perfect” is not an insight deep enough. “I’m a work-in-progress” is not a deep enough insight. “Don’t let social media control your perception of reality” is not a strong enough insight. I hear those same remarks from my friends when I eat cheeseburgers and have a smoke in the parking lot. When I come to you, I’m coming to someone who’s put months into a show. In that setting, I expect deeper insights. I want to walk away shaking. I want to walk away questioning things I thought I knew. I want this show to be good enough for Shakespeare to watch it and say, “I really liked that.” I want this concept of your life being explained “from asshole to lovable” to be pushed as far as possible. I want the audience to feel like we know you. (And I know your experiences are valid. They are important. Find better ways to articulate them. Keep retelling them. Reimagine them. Tell them from new points of view. Stumble onto methods and ideas completely original to you. Don’t let me come and pick apart flabby phrases. Serve bulletproof dialog and performances.)
The first scene about your father being a preacher and your being stabbed can go. They have inherent interest, meaning violence and parents and God are interesting in and of themselves, but it has no contextual interest. It doesn’t set us up for who you are going to be in the next few scenes. It doesn’t come around full-circle at the end. Every scene needs to push toward the same goal. Have a singular goal. After you’ve written one or ten plays that achieve a successful singular goal, then you can get fancy and include personal, fluff, for-the-hell-of-it material. By then you’ll know how to handle and incorporate it properly.
My favorite moments were when you described your love of big women and your experience chasing them in the ‘90s and 2000s when the internet was limited, and you had to go to the library to trade naked pictures through email. That was funny and the examples were specific. I think you should consider renaming the play or making a new play called, “Loving Big Girls Before the Acceptance Movement.” Those scenes were most entertaining to me and home to your most original writing.
I also loved your singing in the car to Beyoncé. You have acting talent. You have control of your facial expressions. You know how to work them to make your audience laugh. Push that talent. I also loved the scene in which you had sex with the girl in the wheelchair. If you perform again in NYC, please invite me so I can see your show again and give more compliments about the parts where you shined.
I recommend this show to someone who wants to support a black performer. I recommend the show to someone who wants to see what a show-in-progress looks like. I recommend the show to someone who wants to be entertained for an evening. I recommend that Jonathan continue to work on it.
Written and Performed by Jonathan Suber
Sept. 19 at 9pm, Sept. 22 at 9pm
Director: Walter DeShields
Technical Director: Lisa Barnes
Stage Manager: LaQuanda McCoullum
Photo: courtesy of the production
United Solo 2018
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
AUSTIN KAISER is a writer with an expertise in art and the creative process. His writing is about improving your imagination and exercising your empathy muscle. Kaiser is currently writing a book called, “100 Questions Every Artist Should Have The Answers To.” His other book, “How To Go Viral & Put Wings On Ideas: A Book For Content Creators & Young Artists,” explains how ideas travel and which ideas travel best. More at: www.medium.com/@KaiserMane.