Monday, June 02, 2014

An invaluable writing tool

I had a reading of my new play, A OR B?, last week. It was an exhilarating, terrifying experience but one I would recommend for any playwright. The only true test of what works and what doesn’t is to hear it in front of an audience. And by the way, this tool works equally well for spec screenplays or TV pilots.

You know how auto manufacturers test new models for safety features? They purposely drive cars into walls at high speeds to measure the impact. In a reading, your play is the crash dummy. You want to see if it lives. And you hope the car it’s sitting in is a Volvo XC90 with a reinforced safety cage and not Hyundai Elantra.

Since it’s only a reading, there are a lot of things you won’t learn. Much of your play may depend upon action, body language, lighting, music, costumes, props, theatricality. But a lot of major strengths and weaknesses of your play can be revealed even with actors just sitting on chairs reading from their scripts. Does your story work? Are the characters coming to life the way you envisioned them? Are scenes too long? Too short? Does the dialogue sound natural? If it’s a comedy, are jokes landing?

Depending on the quality of your cast, you may have to determine if something didn’t work because of the performance or your writing. Or the air conditioner going out. Or the sound being bad. Or action being required to sell this moment. Or lack of sufficient rehearsal. Or the pace was wrong. Or the audience was not the target for that subject matter. I can’t see David Mamet trying out GLENGARY GLEN ROSS for an audience of church elders.

In my case, I learned a lot. There are several places that need work. It’s amazing that stuff you absolutely loved you can’t wait to take out once you’ve heard it. But it’s the process. Things get better when you rewrite. And as opposed to just addressing notes from friends and colleagues based on their reading the script – notes that can vary wildly and you have no way of knowing which is right -- it’s so much more empowering diving in once you’ve actually heard it.

I feel invigorated after the reading. Yes, there are issues to address but I have a much greater sense of just what I have and what I still need. Happily, my crash dummy lived.

One trap with a comedy, especially early on, is to place too much importance on jokes that worked. More important is the story, the theme, and tracking the emotions and attitudes of the characters. Sometimes, for the good of the piece, you might have to take out some big laughs. And yes, I know – it kills you. But here’s the thing: when scenes work better the jokes play better. Jokes that played meh suddenly get big laughs because the scene now clicks. Unless your play is just a balls-out comedy farce, don’t judge your reading based on the number of laughs you got.

Did the audience respond to your characters? Did they care about their dilemmas? Were they engaged?

I also recommend a talk-back with the audience after the reading. This is like taking the place of the crash dummy in a safety test, but you’ll learn more about what the audience perceived by asked them instead of just trying to judge their reactions as the play was unfolding. Here again, I got lucky. My talk-back was moderated by someone who has been doing this for years. She asked me good questions, got the audience involved, and had specific ground rules. People were not allowed to rewrite the play. They could share what they liked and didn’t, but once someone says “I think the boyfriend should be a homeless guy instead of the president of GM,” ten more people will suggest ten more different second acts. Playwrights are looking for clarity. Sessions like that can totally befuddle them. And this isn’t to say other people might not have good suggestions or story fixes, but you want to handpick whose advice to seek. You want to go to folks you trust.

So now it’s time for me to get back to work. My sincere thanks to Alan Simpson and Sara Lukawiewicz for great performances (if only there were play reading awards…), and to Alan Naggar and "The Writers' Group" for sponsoring the event. The crash dummy thanks you all too.


blogward said...

"It’s amazing that stuff you absolutely loved you can’t wait to take out once you’ve heard it." Phew, and I thought it was just me.

julian said...

i'm in music, but there's nothing like the vigour of finding the pulse of the thing you've been nursing along. just getting it out of the house and into the world in any form is forward motion. congrats, ken. love the blog. apologies for any unintentional baby analogies.

Charles H. Bryan said...

A few years ago, didn't the president of GM become a homeless guy? Living in a Honda? My memory isn't the most accurate sometimes.

Friday Question: Ken, how are you? Everything good? I feel we readers should ask that more often. I hope all is well.

By Ken Levine said...

I'm fine. Thanks for asking.

Dodgerdog said...

I was in Sitcom Room 2 and have to say, one of the most transformative parts of that experience was hearing our words spoken out loud by the talented actors. Seeing them create characters from text was amazing. And the audience reaction was totally fun -- unlike anything I've experienced in my previous writing. I get the appeal of working this way.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I would love a reading of the stories I wrote during the 3 Day Novel Writing Contest. What may seem funny to you at 3 in the morning,on day 1 may not seem all that funny to you at 5 in the morning on day 3.

Bob Summers said...

Ken, is that a stock shot of actors or a real reading of your work? Who is that woman? She looks like a star.

By Ken Levine said...

That's Sara from the play.