KURT SAVAGE, Veteran/Writer

Do NOT Go In There!

titanic-facehuggerTrying something new this week: Over at Terrible Minds, writer Chuck Wendig posts a Flash Fiction Challenge each Friday. This week’s challenge was to genre-flip a familiar scene from a book or film. That is, take a well-known scene from a movie or book and rewrite it in an entirely different genre. In a word, my reaction to the idea was, “Shiny!”

I tossed around a few ideas: The bar scene in Good Will Hunting, the fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. And then I woke up at 2 am this morning wondering what would happen if the crew of the Nostromo showed up to take care of the spider in Annie Hall’s bathroom.

So here you go:



     Annie, looking slightly distraught.
     Opens the door to Ripley’s knock. 
     Ripley, Parker, and Brett enter stealthily.
     Ripley motioning silence.
     Finger to her lips. 
     Dallas, Lambert, and Ash climb through the window.
     Off the fire escape.


      (to ANNIE)
You called. It was garbled, but we understood something was in your apartment.

We assumed it was a distress call.

Mother was able to make some sense of it by applying Advanced Crying Filters. It sounded like a warning.

Or a distress call.

There’s a spider in the bathroom.

No. No, no, no.

A spider. Jesus.

A big black one.

      (to ANNIE)
And it’s in the bathroom. You’re certain?

     Annie nods vigorously.

You got us out of hypersleep at three in the morning for a spider?

Well, you know how I am about insects.

Kill it! For God’s sake. What is wrong with you?

Don’t you have a can of Raid in the house?

      (shaking her head)

Protocol requires insecticide, Annie.

I know, I know. And a first aid kit. And a fire extinguisher. Tsch.

I think it would be better if it wasn’t killed.

She put herself in danger. She put us all in danger.

Aw, she does what the company tells her to, Ripley. Same as all of us.

You all can make fun of me all you want, but I’m the one who’s prepared. I’m always the one who’s prepared.

Is it cold in here?

Would you like a sweater? I have a really cute one that might fit you.

Can we just focus on the problem? Are we sure it’s still in the bathroom? It could be anywhere by now.

We’ll have to split up, search the apartment. Lambert. Ash. You’re with me.

     He and Ripley start moving.
     Arrive at the door to the hallway simultaneously. 
     A moment of confusion.
     All six crew try to squeeze through the door at once.

Hold it. Just stop.

     She gestures to Dallas, who steps into the hallway. 
     She follows, and then the rest, zipper-fashion.


     Except for Annie pacing the center of the room.
     Ignoring the cat.
     A brief commotion at the hallway door again.
     Then several seconds of silence. 
     Parker, Brett, and Ripley enter from the hallway. 
     Dallas, Lambert, and Ash come in from the fire escape.

What was that? What the Christ was that?

Parasteatoda tepidariorum. Referred to internationally as the American house spider.

How do you know so much about that thing?

I am the Science Officer. It is my job to know.

Did anyone else notice that it wasn’t alone?

I did.

Dammit. That means we’ve got another one.

Yeah. And they’re loose. Who knows how many of them there are?

We’re going to have to catch them and eject them from the apartment.

Sounds great. But, how?

Room by room.

That could take forever.

Guys? I do have to go to work in the morning.

And our supplies are based on us spending a limited amount of time out of hypersleep.

We can’t kill them. They have acid for blood. It’ll eat right through the walls.

Where the hell did you get that idea? Acid for blood. I mean, really.

Please don’t stain my Persian rug.

I say we put on our pressure suits and blow all the air out of the apartment. That might kill them.

I hate to point this out, but there’s no way to evacuate all the air from the apartment.

     Everyone looks at Annie.

What? How was I supposed to know? Tsch.

The longer we wait, the greater the chance that those things will spread out and we’ll have to find them again.

And what do we do when we find them?

Trap them somehow.

If we had a really strong, very fine net, we could bag them. I could put something together.

Why do we listen to you, exactly?

He might be right.

     Annie hands him a paper cup.

Or we could use this.


     Parker and Brett move silently.
     Ripley ahead, carrying a flashlight.

Nothing. Tell me again why we’re looking for spiders in the dark.

     Ripley pans the beam around the room
     Stops on Annie’s cat, sitting on the side of the tub. 
     Startled, it arches its back and hisses
     Falls into the tub with a splash.
     Scrambles over the side of the tub. 
     Darts out of the room.

She must have been getting ready for a bath.

Cats are always giving them—

Not the cat. Her, you idiot.

Shut up, both of you.
      (to Brett)
Go get it. We’ll keep looking.


     Ripley and Parker continue.
     Searching the bathroom by flashlight.
     Brett moves into the hallway.
     Following the wet trail left by the cat. 
     He moves across the hallway to the bedroom.


     Brett walking carefully across the darkened room. 
     Looking for the cat. 

Jones. Here, kitty. Come on, kitty. Jones.
Goddamn it, cat.

     A soft thump.
     The blind flies up, bathing the room in eerie half-light.
     Silhouetting the cat on the window sill.
     It uses a paw to hold something against the window.
     Something moving.
     The cat lunges.
     An arm reaches for Brett.
     He screams.
     A sudden shadow in the doorway.
     The lights come on.
     Parker is holding Brett’s elbow. 
     Ripley stands in the doorway, her hand on the light switch.

Quit screwing around.

Oh, Christ. Is that what I think it is?

     They all follow Brett’s gaze.
     Looking at the cat.
     A spider leg hangs out of its mouth.



The size of a Buick.

Well, one down, one to go.

     Annie appears in the doorway.

Ew. Would anybody like a glass of chocolate milk?


Do we look like kids to you?

      (touching Ripley’s chest with the palm of her hand)
I got the good chocolate, Ripley.

Yeah. There’s still another spider.

Are you sure? It really is good chocolate. Hey, don’t squish the spider, okay? Even if it might not have acid blood, I’d rather not risk it, you know? Just flush it down the toilet, okay? And flush twice?

I know the protocols for killing spiders, Annie.

     Ripley disappears across the hall, returns almost immediately.

Big spider. Very big.

     She snatches the cup out of Parker’s hand.
     Returns to the bathroom.
     A shout.
     Parker and Brett high tail it to the living room.
     A flush.
     Then another.
     Then several more, staccato-style.
     Ripley returns to the bedroom. 
     Annie is sitting on the bed, her face in her hands.

Problem solved. What’s wrong?

Don’t go, Ripley. Please?

      (sitting down next to her)
What do you mean, don’t go? None of this makes sense.

Oh, I don’t know. I mean don’t go, I miss you. Tsch.

     Ripley puts her arms around Annie.

That could be a problem.

Oh, yeah.
      (they kiss)
Oh! Ripley!


     Ripley is tender now, wiping Annie’s tears.

Was there somebody in your room when I called you?

What? No!

Why did the whole crew show up, then?

Protocol. Your distress call met certain parameters in Mother’s programming and she woke us all up.

     Annie looks dubious.

Also, I had the television on.

      (accepting this)

      Ripley pulls her close and they kiss again.


     Seven hypersleep beds.
     Dallas, Lambert, Ash, Parker, and Brett are all settled in.
     Waiting for sleep.
     Ripley paces.
     Dressed only in a T-shirt and underpants. 
     She is holding the cat.

What could possibly be taking so long?

I’ve never seen you so agitated.

I don’t... There are no protocols.

Sure there are.

There must be a problem.

      The bathroom door opens.
      Annie stands for a moment in the doorway.
      Her attire matches Ripley’s.

Ripley, there’s a spider. It’s kind of a big one.


Two Sides: Writer and Actor

1564-1616 englischer Dichter.Bedeutendster Dramatiker der Weltliteratur.CDV-Foto 5,4 x 8,3 cm, nach einem Gemälde, Nr.1198.

“Hi Kurt,

I am casting the role of Vincentio STILL in Shrew and I was wondering if you might be interested and/or available to play the part?


This on a Tuesday morning after a long weekend. My reactions went something like this:

  1. I can’t say no to Carla.
  2. Damnit, Carla! I’m a writer, not an actor!
  3. But, but, but, SHAKESPEARE!
  4. Oh, shit! I can’t do Shakespeare! I’m a writer, not an actor!
  5. What conflicts do I have?
  6. Nothing that can’t be changed.
  7. Shit! Nothing that can’t be changed! I’m not an actor and it’s SHAKESPEARE!
  8. I can’t say no to Carla.
  9. I’m a writer, I want to write for the stage, and this will give me insight into the actor’s experience.
  10. I can’t say no to this.

A year and a half ago, I appeared as Chief Bromden in a stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but I still didn’t consider myself an actor. Sure, I’d mimicked a North American Indian accent I hoped sounded like guys I’d known who’d grown up on reservations, I thought about how Chief might move (or carry himself when he’s not moving), and I even managed to get myself to the point of real tears for that final scene during every one of nineteen performances, but really, I’m not an actor.

Which is silly, because, yeah, I am an actor. I’m just inexperienced. So, I tried to approach this role with humility: I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m learning from watching you, my cast mates. I made jokes about my role being “The Shakespeare Starter Kit for Newbie Actors,” and I believed those jokes. I was deeply grateful that very few of my lines scanned da-DA-da-DA-da-DA-da-DA, sparing me the temptation to deliver them like Ted “Theodore” Logan desperately trying to avoid military school.

Only once during the rehearsal process or the run did I ever feel like I knew what I was doing. After a rehearsal, our dramaturge gave me a note regarding Vincentio’s reaction to the discovery of his servant impersonating his son: It’s about the cost of dressing a servant in a gentleman’s finery.

Her note prompted me to dig deeper into Vincentio’s character, diving in to identify my character’s emotional arc. Several of the characters who have never met him say they know who he is. Vincentio is not merely wealthy, he’s famous for being wealthy. He’s rich enough that he probably doesn’t care about the cost of extravagant clothing. He’s upset about something far more valuable: his identity. When Vincentio arrives in Padua, someone claiming to be him answers the door at his son’s house, and his servant shows up claiming to be his son. If you’ve ever found something on your credit card bill that you couldn’t possibly have purchased, you know exactly why Vincentio is angry in that moment.

I wrote her back with my “discovery.”

As soon as I sent the e-mail, I stopped feeling like I knew what I was doing. I worried that I’d overstepped my bounds. Our dramaturge knows her Shakespeare, has directed Shakespeare. In New York. I sweated over the way I’d parsed my character. I lost sleep over it. When we talked about it, I asked her if I was out of line, and she just laughed and said, “Not at all. It makes sense, and you’ve clearly thought about it more than I have.”

I realized later that I’d arrived at my characterization of Vincentio via the obverse of what we should do as writers when we’re developing a character. I’d gone to the text, read what my character says and does, what other characters say about him, and arrived at an understanding of who he is. As writers, it’s incumbent on us to figure out who the character is and then write stuff that provides clues for the actors.

In her book, “A Challenge for the Actor”, Uta Hagen offers six steps toward understanding a character. Though he’s speaking to writers, Chuck Sambuchino’s article on character development for Writer’s Digest covers the same ground.

Put some hooks on your characters, bits of information in your dialogue that help the actors understand how to bring your characters to life.

If you’re a writer, I encourage you to become an actor, as well. Even if you never plan to write for the stage. And don’t sweat it if you don’t get any parts. Just as you don’t have to have a list of your published works to be called a writer, it isn’t necessary for you to actually land a role to become an actor. Take a class on acting for writers. Go out on a few auditions. Read aloud in your living room, and walk through the physicality of becoming a character. Take Uta Hagen’s challenge.

See if that doesn’t make your characters, and your writing, stronger.

It worked for Shakespeare.


Will Shakespeare and the Unsatisfying Ending


William Shakespeare could tell a pretty mean story, and the rest of us are mere mortals. Or at least, that’s how the narrative goes, right? I’m not talking about the conventional narrative, I’m talking about all of the narrative. A Google search of “Shakespeare ‘not that great’” will get you reviews of Shakespeare’s birthplace and of a pizza joint in Columbia, MO. Several spots down the list, and more relevant to the search, you’ll come across the first of a series of rants by Holger Syme on the subject of people’s opinions of Shakespeare: “Not only is Shakespeare universal, and specific, and translates, he’s also, amazingly, totally comprehensible to teenagers, would you believe it.”

Shakespeare’s language being what it is, students presented with one or two of his plays inevitably ask why he should be studied, and equally inevitably, the answer is, “Because William Shakespeare is totally awesome, Dude!

As an unapologetic Shakespeare fanboy, I wholeheartedly agree that The Bard fully deserves his lofty pedestal, which is why I was stunned to discover a hole in the plot of The Taming of the Shrew big enough for E. L. James to drive an Audi through. As a writer, I felt as though the metaphorical ground had dropped away, leaving me with a profound sense of literary vertigo. Maybe there’s hope for us mortal writers, after all!

The secondary storyline in Shakespeare’s Shrew centers on the deceitful actions of a young college student seeking to marry a wealthy man’s exceptionally pretty daughter. This plot line climaxes with the arrival of the student’s famously rich father, who gets arrested in the ensuing comic confusion and only escapes jail when his son reveals that the two young people have eloped. The two fathers angrily declare that they’ll get revenge for the whole mess and exit the stage. The next scene is the wedding feast for the two young people, and there’s no further mention of either villainy or knavery.

Wait, what? What just happened? Two of the wealthiest, most powerful men in Italy just got conned, and one of them nearly thrown into a sixteenth century Italian jail! These are not men to be trifled with: there’s ample evidence that one does not get to be an extremely rich businessman in Italy by letting anyone get away with cheating you out of anything. But no, Will sends the two men offstage, where they apparently agree that this will never be spoken of again.

Why doesn’t Shakespeare show us what happens to satisfy them? Did he feel he was out of time? The play is more than two hours long, but then, Hamlet, in its complete form, runs over four hours. Ranked by length, Shrew is only twenty-sixth of William Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays. It’s not likely that the revenges of Baptista and Vincentio were omitted to be kind to the audience.

It is also unlikely that the scene was written and is simply missing. The Taming of the Shrew comes to us from the First Folio, which was published seven years after William Shakespeare’s death and thirty years after the play was first performed. It would be odd if it were simply left out of the compilation, since that scene seems to be the only one missing. So, yeah, there’s probably no “lost scene.”

The two men do get a revenge of sorts when the college student receives his comeuppance in the final scene. I say, “of sorts,” because it isn’t brought about by their actions. The newlywed student bets a fairly large sum that his bride will come when he summons her, but she refuses, preferring the company of the other ladies by the parlor fire. When the young man confronts her with his loss, she calls him a fool, thus showing herself to be the real shrew. The young man’s final lines are fairly bitter, and his father’s reply somewhat sarcastic.

Perhaps Shakespeare’s intention there was to show that to get their revenge, old men often only have to wait for the young and foolish to do themselves in. It’s a vague, unsatisfying ending, especially for a comedy.

And therein lies a clue to Shakespeare’s genius. By contrasting strong-willed Katharina’s jarringly submissive speech against a bride refusing her new husband’s simple request to join him in the main room at their wedding celebration, Shakespeare’s ending turns the world on its head, both inside his story and outside the theater, carried there by an audience that’s been encouraged to think.

There’s the hope for us mortal writers, right there, or at least the standard we need to work toward: Make the audience think uncomfortable thoughts.

On Writing in Solitude


A few years ago, before I wrote my first screenplay, I went to the Screenwriter’s Expo in Los Angeles. Naturally, they served up a glamorized and glorified recruitment pitch, quite rightly saying that without the writer, there’d be nothing on the screen, or the stage. They reinforced for us the image that I think most people have of the heroic writer hunched over his keyboard, a solitary genius typing away at works of staggering brilliance with enormous commercial appeal.

There’s undoubtedly some truth to that, but for the record, I feel compelled to admit that I seldom hunch over a keyboard. I do most of my creative writing in a recliner. With my feet up. And sometimes with a beer or a glass of wine.

But diligently working alone is not all there is to writing. A pretty fair number of us are deeply, profoundly uncertain that what we’re putting on the page makes any sense to anyone but ourselves, so we’re always asking others what they think. For every page of a play like this one, there have been conversations with hapless friends and loved ones that go like this: “So, I was thinking that my protagonist should be more like (famous literary character) and then he (does something that seems profound in my head) because what he’s thinking is (something else that seems profound in my head)…” interspersed with the other person’s counterpoint, “Yes, but I—Okay, but what if—That sounds—I don’t—sure, but—Okay—Huh—I’m looking forward to reading it.”

Sure, it’s the hunched-over-or-reclining writer who puts the words on the page, but everyone the writer talks to while he’s not writing that help him decide which words to actually put on the page.

It’s a safe bet that once the words are on the page, many of them won’t be quite the right ones, and the writer will have to hunch or recline for a while longer to do a rewrite, or two, or three, or a hundred. Because writing is rewriting.

It is an impossible task without the help of one’s tribe.

I am more keenly aware of this today than I have ever been, because last night was the first table reading of my first full-length stage play.

I tried. I really tried to be nonchalant, but I was nervous. Horribly nervous. I’d surrounded that table with some of the best people I know, people who are not only excellent humans, but are also ripping-good actors and excellent friends. They did what actors do: they came prepared. They understood my characters. Their characters.

And the first forty minutes were excruciating. There are jokes in there, people! This is the lighthearted, funny part of the play! This isn’t right! My brain was screaming at me, “NO ONE IS LAUGHING! ABORT! ABORT! ABORT! THIS PLAY SUCKS!”

I looked at the five friends who made up the audience, theatre people all, and they were…riveted.

Really? I thought. The combined intensity of their gaze could have melted diamonds.

And just as I’m looking at the play with new eyes and thinking maybe this is okay, one of the actors found his groove. And then another. And then the rest. And everyone was laughing where they were supposed to, and then everyone was crying where they were supposed to, and there in the final monologue, I got to hear the anguish in my character’s voice and I was sobbing right along with her, and damn-damn-damn, is this what it means to be a playwright?

No, actually, it isn’t. The conversation that happened after the words END OF PLAY is what it means to be a playwright. That conversation was entirely glorious and thoroughly, deeply, wildly humbling. There were notes, some of them hard to listen to. The ending needs work. One of the characters does something that doesn’t make sense. There’s a setup that never pays off. The structure of the last few scenes gives the play no less than four different endings.

But then one of the actors offered a suggestion that was exactly what I’d already decided to do. And an audience-member suggested a change I’d been planning for my next draft. Suddenly, there were two separate conversations going on about the meaning of the play, how beautiful it is, and how it will challenge its audiences.

I haven’t been able to shake the memory of that first forty minutes, but I know why it happened. I was so intent on keeping things casual and informal that I didn’t give time for the actors to warm up their instruments, even after two of them asked for that time, and all of them showed up early. The lingering twinge from that first forty minutes is perhaps my penance for not honoring the talents of my friends the way they honored mine.

Writing is never done in solitude, dear reader.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my recliner.


Three Things That Influence My Writing

Occasionally, I’ll read something that strikes me as so true, it changes my perception of my self. Here’s one from today:

“Everything influences playwrights. A playwright who isn’t influenced is never of any use.” — Arthur Miller

It’s been four months since I decided to change the trajectory of my life and career and become a full time writer. Specifically, a playwright. To be honest, it feels like a calling, in the same way that joining the Navy out of high school felt like a calling. I’m drawn to it.

My experience in the military was that the objectives achieved most are the ones that were well defined at the outset. The definition may change over time, but the OODA Loop always applies: Observe the objective, Orient towards the objective, Decide on a course of action, Act. Repeat as necessary.

Observing the objective involves understanding outside information and circumstances as they unfold. When an artist speaks of her influences, these two things are what she’s referring to: What’s been done before, and how has her awareness of it affected her work? What’s happening in the world as she works, and how does it change how she moves forward?

I’ve been asking myself those questions, and for a few minutes, there was actually a pretty interesting conversation going on in my head about it. What stopped the conversation, what hung me up, was the idea that there’s no limit to the things that influence me. Current events. Conversations with friends. Books I read and don’t finish. My checking account balance. How itchy my beard is. Game of Thrones. Pre-HD episodes of The Gilmore Girls.

It feels like too much, and that can’t be right. Can it?

Of course it can. Arthur Miller gave us permission.

The idea that it’s okay to be influenced by anything and everything, that how and what I write can change from day to day, is incredibly freeing. I can write within my genre and still bring in new ideas and energy and life from outside it. Being open to influences across the spectrum of my experience is what makes it possible for me to focus on my primary influences, the Big Three.

So here they are:

My connection to other veterans.

In the ongoing discussion about veterans and the price they pay, I often feel like I’m somehow “less than.” I served in five ships for a total of ten years at sea. I served thirteen years on shore duty, but was never ordered to serve ashore in a war zone. I spent less than eight months in war zones, and rarely left the boat. My “battle rattle” was a set of blue coveralls and a pocket-sized Daytimer. I never got shot at like some other veterans. I never chewed dirt like many other veterans. I never worried about who might be waiting to kill me as I entered a room. I don’t get uncomfortable near windows. So, yeah, I feel a little like an imposter, but instead of giving up and not writing a story about a Marine still suffering from his experiences in combat, I can use that feeling as an impetus to dig deeper, to get it right. These people, these veterans who write, they’re my people. I understand where they come from, even if I haven’t had the same experiences. By virtue of our shared wartime service, we are all on the same side of the divide between veterans and American society at large.

My connection to the past.

I wasn’t much for Shakespeare when I was a kid. I was so put off by the foreign-sounding language that I couldn’t connect to the stories. My horizons have widened a bit in the intervening 40 years, and now I find myself so mesmerized by his work that my own play is really a riff on Hamlet. My protagonist is named for both a beloved character in a Jane Austen novel and Jane herself. There are nods to Tom Stoppard, Monty Python, The Princess Bride and new-agey astronaut Edgar Mitchell.

My connection to the present.

There is a saying, one that’s widely reported as an ancient Chinese curse, that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” These are, most assuredly, interesting times. Pick a media source and I’ll show you a compelling story, so the “curse” actually seems to me like a boon, particularly since my objective is to inspire social change. Veteran suicide, relationship violence, gun violence, and the human cost of war fill all our social media feeds and dominate the news. It’s impossible to write without their influence.

I know some ridiculously smart, talented people. I get to learn from all of them. I get to create art with quite a few of them. I get to be married to one of them. Each of them contributes to my writing in a thousand ways, often quite profoundly. It’s exciting to acknowledge their role in my writing because in the end, the thing that enables a story to resonate is its connection to the humanity in all of us.

As a general rule, I don’t particularly like the “X-number of Things” blog post, but here I am, presenting one as my first post on my new blog. They’re ubiquitous to the point of being overdone, but they are almost “the rule” when it comes to online content. When I was in school, my teachers used to tell me that you had to learn the rules before you could break them, so, this is me, showing that I’ve learned this one rule, at least: Thou shalt have a list-post on your blog.

Now I can start breaking the rules.


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