Monday, November 17, 2014

25 things I learned by doing a play

My play closed last night at the Falcon Theatre. As you read this they’re probably taking my name down from the marquee. (At least they didn’t do that during the final curtain call.) 

It was an absolutely awesome experience and I can’t thank the staff of the Falcon, the crew, and my terrific cast (Jules Willcox & Jason Dechert) enough. Special thanks to my director, Andy Barnicle, and the Godfather, Garry Marshall.   (all pictured below with me.  Notice, how as the playwright, the light is shining out of my ears?)  

I’ve also enjoyed sharing the process with you dear blogniks. So as a wrap-up I thought I would post 25 things I learned from the experience.

The first thing you do is scope out where the local bars are.

As in every form of show business, casting is the most important decisions you will ever make. Everything else you can fix. 

At some point you have to lock the script, although if I had my way I would be rewriting after every single performance.

As the playwright, be ready to defend and justify every line and bit of punctuation in your script. Trust me, you will be asked. This, by the way, is a good thing.

Actors can see and function in the dark.  You must be part cat to be a theater actor. 

There’s no editing afterwards.

Things will go wrong. Zippers will break. A cue will be missed. But considering how many little things all have to happen with complete precision it’s a wonder that most of the time everything comes off as planned. Let me amend that: It’s a wonder that everything EVER comes off as planned.

I’m canceling my subscription to the Los Angeles Times. Not because they gave me a bad review. Because they never even bothered to review it in the first place. Better they should review New York plays than productions that take place in their own city.

Equity is a stronger union than the Longshoremen.

People laugh more on weekends.

Lighting, sound, set, and costume designers are not technicians. They’re wizards.

Actors are very aware of the audience. They see you sleeping in the third row.

Tech week is like binge-watching C-SPAN.

For a comedy, rewrite the pre-show “turn off your cellphone” announcement. Put some jokes in it. It helps get the audience into the mood and it’s nice to get a running start on laughs.

The stage manager is like an air traffic controller but under more pressure.

Listening to the actors and director talk, I realize I know shit about classical theater.

Green rooms are never green.

There are a lot of good actors out there that no one has ever heard of.

Staged readings are really helpful. Even when they suck. This from personal experience.

Use plastic glasses for props. Real glass breaks. And backstages are dark.

The one question everyone asked me when I greeted them at the theatre was: “Will there be an intermission?” The answer they were all looking for is YES.

Understudies have the most thankless job in theater.

There are a million details you never think about. Like somebody has to wash the wardrobe each day. God, my heart goes out to the guy who does that for CATS.

There is usually one skeesix in the audience who coughs through the entire second act.

Working in the theater is a labor of love. But not by choice.

Thanks so much to everybody who came out to see my play. Hopefully it will live again someday somewhere.


Scooter Schechtman said...

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Matt said...

Did the understudies ever get to go on?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Congratulations to you, Ken.

@Scooter I wouldn't be so tough about the list format -- it's a list of love to people with whom Our Blogger shared a rewarding experience. This ain't Mashable yet. Or even M*A*S*Hable.

Also, about those lists, my dog appreciates me keeping up on things that will poison him.

Ken, for those of us who live too damn far from sunny Southern California, any chance the script is (or will be) published? Greedily, I'd like to see a recording of the production, but I imagine Equity would come out and break your legs.

And also, a completely unrelated Friday Question, which may be a little sick or cruel (not to you, nor to me): When MIKE & MOLLY first appeared, I couldn't help but think "That show is one successful weight loss program from losing its tagline." So I read this morning that Melissa McCarthy lost 45 pounds -- which is great for her, but lousy maybe for the show (or even for her being able to get certain parts). How generally, would producers/networks/agents handle such a thing - when a performer has a "distinctive look" and then goes about changing it?

Charles H. Bryan said...

Well, if MIKE & MOLLY were still on. Is it still on? I really abandoned CBS Monday sometime back.

VP81955 said...

Had a wonderful time at "A Or B?", and hope it's revived somewhere. (As a start, Ken, contact local community colleges' theater departments; a 2-person play is fairly economical to produce.) Again, I wish you further success with this endeavor.

Finally got to see a filming of a "Mom" episode on Friday (and enjoyed the experience. I wrote about it at

With it comes a potential Friday question: Ken, what's the longest lag time you've ever had between episode filming/taping and episode airing? Because the second-season debut of "Mom" was delayed a month, the ep that aired Thursday was its third of the season. Friday's filming was for episode 12, so it won't air until January.

Jeannie said...

@ Charles H. Bryan -- agree that it would be fun to read KL's script. But in lieu of that, Ken...would you be willing to post your "turn off your cell phone" copy so we can see how you transformed a bland announcement into a kickstarter for the play?

George said...

Ken, Listicles are fine. I can't think of a better format to have presented these findings about your play. It is a very fun play with a unique premise. Do you know of any plans to present it elsewhere?

benson said...

Let me add my congratulations on your play and add to the list of those who would really like to see it.

Since I probably know less than most everyone here about how the theatre business works, here's a (Friday) question. What is the next step for your play? Since it got I nice reception from both the audiences and at least one reviewer, how does it live on?

Chris said...

Let me add my voice to those who would like to see the script published so we can read it. Does one self-publish a play? Also, like Jeannie, I'd love to read your "turn off your cell phone" bit. You'll have to write a new one for your next play anyway, right? That was encouragement to get busy on "C or D" or whatever it is you're going to write next. Congratulations on what sounds like one of the best experiences in your career.

Mike McCann said...

Be sure to let your east coast pals know when you get the chance to stage it here.

John Weber said...

Ken, my wife and I enjoyed "A or B?" very much, and very glad that the stars aligned and we were in L-A while it was up. Also without a doubt great to meet you finally! Hopefully Samuel French will publish you and it can be performed far and wide. Cause it should be

Ted said...

The show was hilarious - we loved it! Jokes were plentiful, and all in character. And yes, the casting was all important - your actors were terrific! Here's to a long future life. As Howard Dean once said "Movin' on to New York - Yaa Haaa!!"

Ken Levine said...

Tomorrow I will post my pre-show announcement and discuss whether I will make the script available. Please check back. And thanks again to everyone for your interest.

Todd Everett said...

Were I in the business of writing plays (though I used to be in the business of seeing them), I wouldn't aim for Broadway -- well, that wouldn't be my ultimate goal.

As suggested above: school and community theaters. There's a bunch of 'em, and they can't perform Neil Simon and Shakespeare all the time (though the royalties on Shakespeare are inviting).

Keep the cast of a manageable size. If there are going to be people of both sexes represented, it's easier to find women for a community theater production For high schools and colleges, maybe you'd want to give opportunity to more actors.

Keep the sets, sound and lighting cues down to a level that can be handled by semi=pros or downright amateurs, though a couples of effects can demonstrate that it's more than a reading. Actors -- particularly amateurs -- love to dress up. But costumes are a PITA. all it a draw, but I personally would keep the setting contemporary.

And so on.

Sounds like you may have a winner -- but, seriously, I'd aim for a quantity of productions, rather than an expensive stab at Broadway. Though of course the publicity that comes with a Broadway run can be worth a certain amount of someone else's money!

Canda said...

Apparently, you never had a cell phone go off during the show. Congratulations. Worst problem with that is when the person, whose phone rings, refuses to acknowledge it, as if he/she pretends it must be someone else in the audience. They're too embarrassed to turn their phone off.

Also, often there's no announcement warning the audience to turn off their cell phones before the 2nd Act begins. This should be done, because people often turn on their phones during intermission, then forget they did so.

Texting is another problem I see now during plays...not to mention the people who try to video the show.

Jeffro said...

Congrats, Ken, on the awesome run of your very first play. I dig how your writing career has evolved to include being a playwright. Next, you'll have to pull an L. Ron Hubbard and invent a new religion.

By the way, what's the deal with that cake? It looks like it was embedded in another cake and was surgically removed with extreme care.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I won't add to the list of people asking to read the script, because I asked twice last moonth!

Charles H. Bryan: I don't watch MIKE AND MOLLY, but I believe McCarthy has put on quite a bit of weight since the show started, so...wash.


Rock golf said...

@Chris: If Ken does write a sequel called "C or D?" you can be sure someone will ask him why he's writing a play about rope.

D. McEwan said...

I enjoyed the play very much and only wish I could have seen it again late in the run, to see how it evolved.

Having spent my life working in live theater, with a degree in Theater Arts, I was amused by this list. Everything you learned is true.

I hadn't occurred to me till reading this that my ability to negotiate my own apartment in the dark is related to all the thousands of hours I've spent moving about in total darkness backstage.

The good part of "Things go wrong" is that they give you stories. After years in theater, I have a long list of funny "Things-went-very-wrong" stories about stage goofs and accidents. Of course, not all are funny. The time an actor did a stunt wrong in a comic sword duel in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and stabbed me in the face onstage with a sword was not funny. (I came within a quarter of an inch of losing my left eye. And after it happened, and the director in the audience had screamed, we could not get laughs for the rest of the performance. The audience was too horrified. I got a nice ovation though, for finishing the show with an open wound on my face and barely able to see through the double vision. Then off to the hospital.)

I don't know why audiences are more lively on weekends, but they indeed are.

Yes, actors are very much aware of the audience. I've always been so, and I've encountered the other end of it. Both Stephen Colbert and Nathan Lane, when I spoke with them after seeing them act onstage, told me exactly where I'd been seated and how I'd reacted.

In nearly 60 years in theater, I've seen exactly one green room that was green.

"There are a lot of good actors out there that no one has ever heard of."

Yes, yes, yes. And more people who use talented actors need to go out and see and find them.

Staged readings, and even non-staged readings as long as there's a small audience, are immensely helpful.

Sometimes you have to actual glass. When I was in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Momma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, I and an actress had to clink champagne glasses and have them shatter every night. The prop guy got us real champagne glasses instead of break-away ones. Do you know how hard it is to smash those together so they shatter? And then, yup, we got to finish the act with broken glass on the stage.

"Understudies have the most thankless job in theater."

Yes, yes, yes. I've been an understudy, and it's a lot of work for no glory. In a production of All My Sons once, I understudied all the male roles, so I had to learn the entire play. Never went on except at two rehearsals, where the director saw that I knew the play inside and out. The good thing about it was that the director saw how dedicated I was, and she cast me in leads in the 7 plays we did together subsequently.

At least in a big-cast musical, the understudies can be in the show. When I understudied Mordred in a huge production of Camelot (We had the original road company sets and costumes), they put me in the chorus, and gave me five lines of dialogue as Squire Dap, so at least I was onstage every night. That bastard Mordred wouldn't have missed a performance for his mother's funeral.

Jeanie said...

As a former member of the fighting 222nd, congratulations!

The Mutt said...

Do Shakespeare. The writer won't keep showing up to tweak things.

Once the show opens, the writer and director need to back off. It's the stage manager's show.

Actors can trip over a painted line. Keep the set simple.

If you want an actor to do a nude scene, keep an electric blanket in the wings.


Any chance of making the amateur performing rights available? I'm a professional TV screenwriter in the UK, but direct amateur theatre [it gets me out of the house!]. A funny two-hander is gold dust, would love the chance to read A or B, see if we could cast and stage it one day...

Pat Reeder said...

Pitch it to regional theaters. Here in Dallas, we have a thriving local theater scene with lots of excellent companies, many looking for new plays to offer as regional debuts. The fact that it's just a two-character play would broaden the number of theaters that could produce it.

As for the L.A. Times reviewing Broadway but not L.A. productions, there's a similar mentality here. The major Dallas media don't consider anyone a success until they leave here, make it and move back. They figure if you're from here and you're still here, you can't be all that good. My wife, Laura Ainsworth, is a terrific retro jazz singer with two critically-acclaimed CDs to her credit so far. The last one got worldwide airplay and rave reviews from as far away as L.A., NYC, Scotland, Italy and South Africa. Here in Dallas, it got small write-ups in two giveaway papers. It reminded us of a line from a play we saw about Jimmie Rodgers, where someone advised him to get the hell out of Meridian, Mississippi, because nobody ever became a star in his own home town.

Dana Gabbard said...

I was thrilled to see the last performance with a friend. It was incredible and I was very impressed at the writing, acting and direction. Had my picture taken with Ken afteward and posted it on Facebook. Plus met Garry Marshall and told him what a thrill that a few months ago I went to an event in Santa Monica for Carl Reiner and after meeting Marshall I can now say I met two comedy legends this year. He was amused to be called a legend. My friend and I had dinner after across the street at Bob's Big Boy. What a fabulous evening! Hope the play has legs. Los Angeles City College has an excellent program based on the Li'l Abner production I saw recently on a recommendation Mark Evanier posted on his blog. I bet they'd be interested in doing it.

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Nikki Hevesy said...

So very cool to read all this and see the play get mounted, watch the journey and have it turn out to be such fun