Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Tips for young playwrights

For a TV writer or a playwright, there’s nothing like seeing your first production. After God knows how many specs, one acts, and plays that never saw the light of day, the feeling can be glorious to see your words come to life the first time. I say that reservedly because there are some factors that could spoil it. Bad cast, bad direction, and in the case of TV – your script could be rewritten to where it’s unrecognizable.

That happened with the first produced script that David Isaacs and I wrote. It was a JEFFERSONS and we might as well have turned in a draft of THE PATTY DUKE SHOW considering how much of our script made it to the stage. (Note: Our draft of the JEFFERSONS got us our first MASH assignment so it couldn’t have been that bad.)

Playwrights don’t have that problem, but they have another. Once their play gets on its feet the real work often begins. The dreaded rewrite phase. After taking months to carefully and thoughtfully craft your play, now you’ve got a week to fix the story, throw out the whole father subplot, replace the airport scene, find a new ending, punch up a lot of the jokes, and add a two-page speech to convince a jury that Charles Manson was just a misunderstood youth.

It can be overwhelming, especially if you haven’t done it before. I remember my first runthrough. David and I had just been hired on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW for MTM in the late ‘70s. RANDALL was a multi-camera show so every afternoon we writers marched down to the set to watch a runthrough of the day’s rehearsal. I was very excited.

We arrived on the stage, the producers schmoozed with the actors, and there were still doughnuts on the crafts services table. Directors chairs were lined up in front of the set. They even had our names printed on the backs of them (although only assholes actually made a point to sit in his own chair). I took my seat along with David and the rest of the writers, all of whom were experienced. My script was in its handsome show binder on my lap and my pencil was at the ready.

The runthrough began. I was enjoying it, laughing at a lot of the jokes. Then I glanced to the side. The experienced writers were all furiously scribbling in their scripts – X’ing out things, marking certain places, drawing arrows, writing in the margins, dog earring pages. I thought to myself, “What are they seeing? This all looks pretty good to me.”

After the runthrough I walked back to the office with less of a spring in my step. We all gathered around the conference table to discuss the night’s upcoming work. A writer would just say, “And page 13, Jesus!” The other writers would agree. Nothing more needed to be said. It was obvious.

Except to me.

We went to work, each issue was addressed, and the next day the runthrough was noticeably better (even to me). Over time I began to catch on. Seeing how pros improved scripts was invaluable. There is just no substitute for experience.

But that doesn’t help the poor young playwright who now has a two-hour play to fix all by himself.

So here are some tips:

Have the right mindset mindset going in. The point of the runthrough is not to entertain you, but for you to analyze and assess what other people might find entertaining. Don't be like me.

You don’t have to totally fix the play in one night. Work on the big things first. Does the story track? Fix some of the jokes later.

Throw out anything that doesn’t work, even if it took you four months to write and was the reason you started the project in the first place.

There’s a saying on Broadway: Cut 20 minutes and run 2 years longer. Better to be short than long.

You don’t have to fix it yourself. Get feedback from people you trust. And it’s a time honored tradition in the theater to bring in “play doctors.” Abe Burrows became a legend doing that.  Swallow your pride. If you want help, seek it out.

Don’t just arbitrarily change everything that didn’t work. Sometimes it’s the acting and directing. You have to make that determination, but many times things don’t work because the actor or director doesn’t understand the intent. Keep the lines of communication open.

And finally, when you’re up all night in a hotel room tearing your hair out in a rewrite, stop for just a moment to remember how exciting it is that your play is actually being produced. It's all worth it.

In general, playwrights gravitate to television – that’s where the money and greater exposure is. But I always felt that more TV writers, especially comedy writers accustomed to the multi-camera format, should go the other way and write plays. How many plays are saved during tryouts? TV writers deal with run-throughs every day for years. Who better to tackle the process? I'm currently writing my second play.  I only hope to be in a position where I can follow my own tips.


VincentS said...

I share your hope about TV writers doing plays, Ken. Here in NYC there is such a dearth or new writing talent. Broadway and Off-Broadway are filled either with revivals or the same three or four well-established playwrights. I know the money and production values are so much better in LA and it's a big risk but it's so rewarding artistically for a playwright to succeed. Where would theatre be if Neil Simon and Tennessee Williams had not emigrated here from Hollywood? And good luck on your new play!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

For anyone who wants to read more, I'd recommend Moss Hart's book ACT ONE, which includes an enormously detailed description of the process of rewriting and reshaping a play during try-outs and rehearsal. Hart was, of course, working with the great George S. Kaufman (who on opening night generously gave Hart most of the credit for the final play), which was an undeniable benefit.

VincentS: Sadly, London's West End has gone the same way. Twenty years ago, you could see eight new plays in a week. Not any more.


Mark in Auburn, NY said...

Kinda reminds me of that scene in ED WOOD where Ed meets Orson Wells.

rw said...

I'm reading a book about the making of the spiderman musical - which seems quite relevant to this at the moment..

Howard Hoffman said...

Plays remain the entertainment medium that's completely driven by audience popularity and acceptance. The public truly decides when it stops production, not a network executive. And you know it'll be there with no surprise night and time slot changes.

BigTed said...

I second the recommendation of "Act One" as a great look at how a comedy play is rewritten based on the audience's reactions. (Although aspiring playwrights may be made incredibly envious by the story of how a young nobody suddenly found himself collaborating with George S. Kaufman.) The movie is also kind of fun -- Kaufman is played by Jason Robards, and Hart is played (fairly convincingly) by George Hamilton.

B Smith said...

Friday question, Ken....the new series of So You Think You Can Dance Australia commences shortly, and a lot of the publicity centres on one of the new judges: Paula Abdul.

Is thee anything we should look out for when she's on?

DBenson said...

VincentS: My take is that Broadway is no more short of writers than Southern California is short of actors. Just as a microscopic number of actors are "bankable", an even more microscopic number of writers / composers / lyricists inspire backers to open their wallets. Hence revivals, jukebox musicals, and a few new (but not too new) works by brand name writers and/or starring somebody who's Hollywood bankable.

The new writers and plays will have to come from elsewhere -- regional reps, colleges, festivals, etc. Heck, even known writers are taking those other routes.

Canda said...

Broadway would embrace a great comedy, and not just the campy over-the-top stuff that never runs long.

Nel Simon and Wendy Wasserstein proved that a comedy can run for a very long time.

Then there's the road, dinner theaters, community theaters, colleges, etc.

Lots to be made, but the burden is on you to write it. There are no assignments on Broadway. You need to write it, and be able to sustain yourself financially while you do it.

Angry Gamer said...

Writing a theater play to me seems so oh I don't know... so 1500s.

I don't mean this as a slam or anything. I am saying this seriously. Why do a play in a time when TV and Film is getting overtaken by new media?

For art?
For challenge?
For fun?

All of these might be relevant back in 1562 when Bill was being born. But today?

Spiderman The Play! is a cautionary tale and it's interesting someone already commented on it.

Perhaps I am too cynical but why would anyone really spend the time and effort to gestate a play to be appreciated with the polite applause of a few hundred? When that same creative talent could be projected to millions via new media?

I am a bit biased I DO work in technology... But still the best advice I ever got about being obsolete was this pithy statement:
"You never want to be in the buggy whip business when a Henry Ford turns 20."

Chris said...

Friday question: it's obviously easier to write for a show that already has established characters and running gags than creating your own.

Could this be a trap for a young/unexperienced writer? Could it tempt him to write "joke-like rhythms" as you put it and expect the actors to deliver, already knowing they're funny? Has this ever happened to you when you were younger (Writing specs for shows you liked)?

Chris said...

Friday question #2: when you go outside with a multi-cam show, does the setup turn into single camera or do you still shoot with 4 cameras? Have you ever directed an episode where you had to shoot outside?

VincentS said...

DBenson: Excellent point. As a struggling actor/writer myself I know you're right. But if, as you say, Hollywood and Broadway opened their wallets more readily and took more creative risks good acting and writing would be coming in from many places.

Liggie said...

Angry Gamer, plays aren't going anywhere.

1) Some art forms work best in front of a live audience; in fact, a friend is in a show this weekend that involves audience participation. A YouTube comments section isn't the same thing. Also, seeing a performer in front of you evokes a different reaction than seeing them on a screen. (Compare an MP3 with a concert, for instance.) A shared experience with many people in front of a stage touches a different reaction than clicking on a video link on your tablet.

2) A play requires a different acting technique than a video or film. Stage actors have to project their voices and movements to reach the whole audience, while screen actors employ subtlety (particularly with facial expressions) far more. Actors like switching between the two styles, and want those options kept available.

3) Imagination. A play can be performed anywhere, and it lets each theater create its own staging ideas. Whereas, a video may run into trouble if the weather doesn't cooperate, a locale won't allow filming, etc., and you only get one interpretation.

4) Best for the playwright, she keeps the rights to the script, unlike screenwriters who sell the script for a one-off fee (plus any negotiated, usually minor, extras). Theater companies only rent the play for a given time, and as long as there's a company anywhere willing to put on the play, the playwright will keep earning royalties on a consistent basis. For writers who prefer a consistent income instead of periodic lump sums, that's an attractive option.

Anonymous said...

As a beginning playwright I was given this advice by Oliver Goldstick and it has served me well.
Sit in the last row of the theatre and watch the audience as they experience the play. They will tell you what works... and what doesn't work.
I've never learned as much about whats happening onstage as I have sitting in the back row.