Monday, September 22, 2014

What I'm up to these days

I thought it might be fun to chronicle the process of having my play produced at the Falcon Theatre. (Obligatory plug for tickets: Here’s where you go.  They're going fast.  Seriously.)

The play is a two-character romantic comedy exploring the relationship if the same couple had been lovers or co-workers.

Work really began when our director, Andrew Barnicle, came aboard. Even though I’ve directed a lot of TV, I’ve never directed a stage play and since this will be a full Equity production I didn’t want to screw it up due to my inexperience.   Your crew loses a little confidence when their director says, "What's a tech rehearsal?" 

Andrew has directed hundreds of plays and I’m learning a ton just watching him. So if anyone is looking for a director for LES MISERABLES I think I’m ready.

First order of business was discussions on the script. As opposed to television, what a luxury that all notes were merely suggestions and not direct orders. I find I’m more open to changing the script if I have the option not to. Anyway, I assembled the notes from him and my producers and did another draft.

Earlier this year I had a staged reading of the play for an audience of about fifty. As a result of that and their feedback, I went back and did some major rewriting. I threw out two whole scenes and replaced them with new ones. I took twelve pages out of the first act. I adjusted attitudes throughout. And of course there were those pesky jokes that just laid there like a dead carcass in the sun. I probably changed 35% of the play based on that reading. I can’t recommend them enough (although I wasn’t saying that the night of).

Next up was casting. Again, I’m used to television. Auditions are held in the showrunner’s office. There are usually four to six people in the room sitting behind a table. Actors come in, shake your hand, stand two feet away from you and do their audition.

In the theatre, our first casting session was held in a rehearsal hall. We all sat at one end of the big room and the actors auditioned from the way over on the other side. At first this seemed strange, but it hit me – this is the theatre. Actors have to project. How do they sound and look from far away? There are no close ups, Mr. DeMille.

We saw some great people. Who knew there were a lot of actors in Los Angeles? Thanks to our casting director, Sandi Logan, for finding them. (She has three DVR's and has season passes for every show except HONEY BOO BOO.  She must sleep an hour a month.)   Since much of the play will hinge on the chemistry of the couple, for the final casting we brought back our finalists and mixed and matched. Like I said, we had a lot of awesome candidates, but one couple just seemed to leap out at us.

I couldn’t be more thrilled that Jules Willcox and Jason Dechert will play the couple.

We also needed to cast understudies and got lucky there with Lori Eve Marinacci and Josh Covitt. In many ways, they have the toughest job of all. They have to learn the play and the blocking and are on call for every performance. But who knows? I recently saw the understudy for Jessie Mueller in BEAUTIFUL and she was fantastic. It’s a crapshoot but one way to be discovered.

Rehearsals began last Tuesday. A table reading of the full play in front of the production team kicked things off. I’m reminded of that great scene in the movie ALL THAT JAZZ when there was the table reading for the musical that Roy Scheider's character was directing. You heard no sound other than him snapping his pencil. But as he looked around the room everyone was laughing hysterically. It’s like he was the only one who realized it sucked. I always respond to good table readings with reserved optimism. In this case, happily, it was a very good table reading. Oh sure there were clunker moments when I just couldn’t wait to scurry home and start making revisions. But it was fun to hear the words come alive and the story seemed to make sense.

For the first few weeks we will be in the rehearsal hall while the current show is on the stage. The first few days were spent reading the script aloud and pretty much dissecting the play line by line. Let’s just say that every ambiguous moment or tiny motivation problem I tried to sweep under the rug with a good joke got flagged. I never mind notes of clarification. If something isn’t clear or the meaning is misinterpreted that has to be addressed. My staged reading was very helpful in that regard. I was getting questions like “How long have they been together at this point?” and “So what happened to Claire?”

These are far different notes than the usual network “Could you make her more likable” mandates.

But in these few days the director and actors really found the moments and attitudes and the play was starting to come alive. I’d go home every night and rewrite (which was not easy on Thursday when the power went out in my neighborhood for ten hours).

What I find interesting is that each line was broken down for its intent, subtext, and purpose. And the director was quite right in his interpretations. But honestly, when I write, I’m not thinking of any of that. I guess it’s just intuitive. I’m in the heads of the characters thinking “Okay, so what would he say here that feels honest?” Nice to know my subconscious is on the case and not just still lamenting that girl who dumped me in high school.

But I think most writers work that way. If you really intellectually analyzed every line and bit of punctuation while composing I suspect your draft would feel very “written.” You gotta go by “feel” as much as anything else.

On Saturday they read through the entire script start to finish.  Way better than the table reading of Tuesday.   So now at least I know I’ve got a real good radio play.

Today it goes on its feet. Stay tuned for more installments over the next few weeks.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Thanks for that. Very interesting and good fun. Although: the reason the only sound you heard was Roy Scheider's pencil tapping in that scene in ALL THAT JAZZ was that he was developing a heart attack and was accordingly completely alienated from his surroundings. Note him rubbing his left arm and then breaking the pencil.


The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Ken, who was the first person you let read the rough drafts to make sure it was authentic or funny? Your wife, your daughter, your partner, or James Brooks?

Unknown said...

It is interesting to see a stage director work. Slightly different case for me - I was one of 6 sketch writers at Second City in Chicago. The director worked magic in staging the actors and could create laughs just by their positioning.

Then he asked mne to rewrite a sketch so that it could be broken down into two short runner sketches. Nothing like taking my point of view and making it work for a director's vision of how it fits in a larger show.

I recevied the most satisfaction when he came to me and said he wanted to use a second sketch of mine as the show closer and could I write a killer line for the end of the skecth that could lead into a closing song. Oh yeah, could I have that line in 30 minutes? The cast needed it because the show went up the next night. Talk about feeling alive! Man that is why I love writing for any type of performance.

By Ken Levine said...

Bumble Bee,

My wife, my partner David Isaacs, and writer Treva Silverman.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Ha! I was going to have some questions about the general process for getting produced at the Falcon, and then I decided to let Google do the work. Garry Marshall! I love Garry Marshall, in that "I've only seen him on television" kind of love one might have. You may have mentioned the pre-production process previously, but my mind is full of baseball these days.

But I do still have this question: Who did the design of the ad that you show on the blog? I think its nice work, with the contrasting necktie and briefcase, and the bold colors. Very striking.

By Ken Levine said...

Jill Mamey designed the artwork. I agree. It's very cool.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

The book, "Showrunners: The Art Of Running A TV Show," by Tara Bennett came out last week.

Has anyone read it yet?

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

This is keen! I look forward to reading more of this process...

Scooter Schechtman said...

Will we get this?
"So this is how it ends, in a health food restaurant on Sunset Strip."
"Wait, I'm gonna come with you. I love you"

Steve C. said...

Loving the process of the play.

Joseph said...

Thanks for sharing this! It's very interesting and encouraging to know that even great writers like yourself have to revise and revise until the very last minute. I look forward to seeing the play!

Bill Jones said...

This is fascinating. I could read posts about the process of writing, producing, and staging a play (about which I know very little) all day long. Thanks!

Sharon said...

Tickets have been purchased! Will see you and A&B in November!

Kathleen said...

@Bill Jones
I totally agree. I'm enjoying reading about what actors and director look for during the table reads.

DBA said...

I was just gifted tickets for my birthday. Excited!

Anonymous said...

Apologies in advance for poor articulation and/or misinterpretation of intent...

"Nice to know my subconscious is on the case and not just still lamenting that girl who dumped me in high school."

I know the line is meant as a joke to highlight that you are fully engaged with your work, but on first reading it engaged a fear of mine: that all my writing is wish fulfillment; that I'm using characters as agents to play out and/or share past traumas; that I'm a narcissist; that I can't get into anyone else's (e.g. a character's) head because I can't get out of my own; that everything I write is hack allegory for my own life.