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Act One

Page history last edited by Jason Shen 15 years ago

Act One

by Moss Hart

 

I originally heard this described as the best book ever for describing the creative process of an artist.

It has also been described as the best book ever written on the American theater. After reading it, I think it may also be the best story ever written about entrepreneurship.

 

The story is simple. Moss Hart was one of America's great playwrights and directors. Among other works, he co-authored the Pulitzer Prize-winning "You Can't Take It With You," and directed "Camelot" and "My Fair Lady. Act One tells the story of his rise from poor dreamer to the co-author of a Broadway hit.

 

Written in the kind of breezy, "My Girl Friday" style that seems sadly extinct these days, Hart details the many obstacles, endless humiliations along the path to ultimate triumph. Here are just a few of the lessons that I picked up:

 

1. Storytelling is powerful.

Hart starts down the road to being a playwright when he discovers that he is able to win the respect of street kids by telling them about the books he's been reading. Storytelling is also something that his family lives--his Aunt Kate introduces him to the theater through her

 

2. Persevere.

Hart experienced a seemingly unending litany of career near-death experiences. After the lucky break of getting a job with a producer, and the even luckier break of convincing that producer to put on his first play (which he wrote in a matter of days, claiming to have discovered a new author before finally revealing his true identity as office clerk) he experiences a huge reversal when the play is a flop, and the losses force his boss to fire him. He recovers from this shock by winning his first job as an actor, but despite earning good reviews, is unable to secure any other parts.

 

His friend Edie finds them a gig running a little theater group, and then as social directors in the Catskills, but these little successes lead to Hart's greatest Waterloo, where he takes the job as social director of a camp, only to discover at the end of a long and humiliating summer that there is no money, and that he isn't going to be paid. Still he perseveres, and by social directing summer camps by summer and directing theater groups the rest of the year, he is able to support his parents and brother and also find time to write. For six years, he writes a play each winter, and each year, his plays are rejected by every producer in New York. When he finally writes a comedy which draws some interest, a jealous producer nearly sabotages his chances to work with George Kauffman by instructing Hart to tell the great playwright and director that he, the great producer, recommended that Kaufmann take on the play (which, of course, results in Kaufmann coldly informing Hart that he'll never work on any play recommended by his mortal enemy).

 

Even after Kauffmann agrees to collaborate on the play, the situation appears hopeless many times. During the first trial of the play, while the first act brings the house down, the second half of the second act, and the third act both flop. Hart and Kauffmann work around the clock on rewrites, but after the run, Kauffmann informs him that they're going to have to give up. Hart spends the next day feverishly re-writing to come up with a re-structured second half, and manages to convince Kauffmann to try one more time. After more extensive re-writes, they conduct another trial run of the play. While both first and second act now work, the third act still fails. More round-the-clock rewriting ensues, but nothing seems to help. Finally, with days to go, Kauffmann announces that they're freezing the script--they're just going to have to open on Broadway and hope for the best. That night, after a heavy bout of drinking, Sam Harris, the play's producer makes a comment that triggers a final rewrite to fix the play. With days to go, Kauffmann doesn't want to make the change, but decides that Hart has the right to make the call. The change is made, and despite a last minute frenzy that includes the stage managers forgetting to turn off the fans at the start of the play (which meant that no one could hear the actors), the play turns out to be a huge success. Yet on many occasions, any sane man would have given up. Only through a remarkable persistence (and not a little luck) was Hart able to succeed.

 

3. Forward momentum.

Hart's story is the story of entrepreneurship. He does whatever it takes, including faking it and making it up as he goes along. This includes his first play, his first time as an actor, his first time as a director and camp social director, and so on. He jumps in and figures it out after he's in the thick of things.

 

4. Dream big.

Hart had no chance to make it on Broadway. He came from a poor family, had little education, and no connections. Even for someone with every advantage, the odds are against success. Yet someone has to succeed.

 

5. If you are talented, some people will want to hurt you, but many more will want to help you.

Throughout his career, Hart benefitted from people who wanted to see him succeed and helped him along, even if it wasn't clearly in their self-interest to do so. His first boss, George Kauffmann, Sam Harris, all went beyond what was strictly necessary to help and encourage Hart. Without them, he wouldn't have succeeded.

 

6. You can never rest on your laurels.

Hart comments that every time he sets out to write a new play, all his past successes are of no import. Even Kauffmann, already a legend when he began to work with Hart, though confident in his abilities, knew that success was never guaranteed. This means that the creative artist can never feel secure. And neither can the entrepreneur.

 

7. Follow where your talent leads you.

Hart, like many young artists, thought that he needed to agonize to create ART. For six years, he struggled to emulate his heroes Ibsen and O'Neill. When he finally decided to try writing a comedy, he was suspicious because the writing came so easily. When you've found your calling, you should enter a state of flow, rather than a state of struggle. Even though it took a lengthy struggle to make the play successful, Hart did the bulk of the work in three spurts of inspiration: When he wrote the first draft, when he re-wrote the second half to convince Kauffmann to pick up the project after he had abandoned it, and in the crucial last-minute rewrite that saved the play.

 

8. Don't forget to breathe.

The final problem that Hart had to surmount was constructing a third act that would bring the play to an appropriate conclusion. Rewrite after rewrite failed to do the trick. But when Sam Harris commented to Hart that the play was "noisy," Hart realized what was missing: a quiet scene to allow the audience to digest and internalize what it had seen. Similarly, other creative works, whether they be novels or new ventures need to leave time to breathe. Without slack or quiet periods, there is no chance to catch one's breath and allow sub- or semi-conscious to assimilate, incorporate, and regenerate.

 

9. Frenzy and panic is a natural part of the creative process.

Hart learns that every play follows a particular pattern, which includes a frantic buildup to the climax of opening night. During this time, tempers fray, the phlegmatic turn into fire-breathers, and everything that can go wrong does. Yet these mistakes are a natural, even inevitable part of the process, even for the most jaded. A similar thing can be observed in the buildup towards a product or company launch. One simply needs to bear in mind that unreasoning panic is to be expected if not welcomed, and that people who understand that this is the case will be able to recover more quickly.

 

10. Out of town try outs are good for the production company.

First, getting everyone away from home increases the level of focus. Being in unfamiliar surroundings together stimulates bonding and energy. Second, it is beneficial to try out new ideas in a lower-risk environment. If you bomb in Philly, you still have time to retool before opening on Broadway. These same principles can be applied to startups in the form of offsites, hackathons, and betas (of both the stealth and endless variety).

 

11. Quirks make the character.

One of the strengths of Hart's writing is his ability to humanize his characters with their characteristic quirks. For example, Hart humanizes himself with his hunger. Maybe it's a metaphor for ambition or the deprivation of his youth. The important thing is that it is a critical part of his character that rings true and helps build understanding. The fact that he is constantly hungry, and the fact that Kauffmann seems impervious to the same urge both illustrates the difference between the men and provides comic relief. Similarly, Kauffmann's love of excessively sweet homemade fudge helps humanize a man who otherwise seems like Greek god.

 

12. Surrounding yourself with people with the right attitude is critical.

At various points when he is close to the breaking point, Hart relies on the calm, positive acceptance of his friend Joe Hyman. Hyman's reassurance and support help sustain Hart throurh many a rough patch. Entrepreneurs should find their own Hymans to help them through the inevitable downs. Someone like Frans, for example, is so positive that it is impossible to feel bad when talking wit him.

 

13. Sometimes, senseless consumption is important.

One of the great moments of the memoir is when Sam Harris gives Hart $100 to relax and enjoy himself before the opening. Rather than save the money (which represented a month's wages, and which is probably what I would have done in the same situation), Hart gets a hotel suite, a full spa treatment, and an enormous dinner. Ultimately, the pleasure he takes from the pampering helps get him over the finish line. Sometimes, these fripperies are important.

 

14. Greatness is everywhere.

Hart notes that among his starving contemporaries were several future studio heads. The office boy of today may be the mogul of tomorrow. Just as Friedman theorizes that in a flat world, a paucity of natural resources can be a goad to inventiveness (witness Taiwan and the other Asian tigers, in comparison to the oil-rich states of the Middle East and the mineral-rich states of Africa), so poverty and deprivation have been shown many times to be a spur to ambition and greatness.

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