Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Readings and writing

I’m currently in the process of rewriting my new play. I am a member of the Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Playwright Unit and once a week we get together and share each others work-in-progress. We get actors to come and do an informal reading (above is my cast), and by “informal” I mean no rehearsal, sitting on card chairs in a living room, performing for an audience of 15-20. We’re not allowed to have a helicopter land on the stage.

But it’s an invaluable tool. Hearing it aloud for the first time, even under less than ideal circumstances, can really give you an idea of what works and what doesn’t. Additionally, in this case, I got feedback from peers I respect.

That’s the good part. The bad part is when stuff sucks and you want to crawl into a hole or buy everyone a car. But that’s part of the process. There’s a reason even the best comedy playwrights like Neil Simon have readings, workshops, out-of-town tryouts, and previews before “opening night.” And even then – you sometimes find yourself changing a line or two during the show’s run. When I did my play A OR B? at the Falcon Theatre I went back after the show had closed and did another pass. The new production in April at the Village Theatre in Hatboro will be the beneficiary.

The key is not to get down on yourself. Accept that it is indeed a process. Again, using A OR B? as an example, I re-ordered and re-structured several key scenes in the last act. When did I have my “aha moment?” In the middle of previews.

I had watched rehearsals for a month along with a week of previews. In rehearsals the original scenes seemed fine. But then seeing the whole piece on its feet and reading the audience’s reaction, the last act just felt off. I wrestled with possible solutions for several days until the answer popped into my head.

When we made the changes and they worked I was delighted and relieved. And there was also a little voice in my head that said, “It took you five weeks? You’re this hotshot Emmy winner and you couldn’t see this problem two weeks ago? Or six months ago when you wrote it?” The answer is: no, I couldn’t see it. Thank goodness I saw it when I did.

So now I’m rewriting my play. I took a few days to digest the notes, select the ones I felt were helpful, come up with solutions to the problems I felt needed to be addressed, draw up a game plan, and roll up my sleeves.

At least for me, there’s something invigorating about starting a rewrite when you know you’ve got the tools to make the script better.

And my favorite part: making cuts. Jokes I thought were so brilliant three weeks ago – I can’t wait to highlight and delete. Especially for a comedy, you could have a page with six jokes that get laughs. But if you take out the three that got meh laughs and just kept the three that really worked, the scene will be much funnier. Putting solid laughs closer together heightens the comedy of the whole scene. The trouble is (and the reason you need the reading) is that it’s hard to tell which of the six jokes are the winners. Could be three, could be five; could be none.

The other thing I do, if I’m being honest, is over-write the first forty pages. I’m learning the characters, getting comfortable with them, but ultimately I don’t need as much explaining. In this case I took out four pages from the first forty. Some good stuff, but just not necessary and it slowed the piece down. 

As the expression goes: sometimes you have to kill your babies. Don’t be afraid to cut things, even things you love. Always think of the big picture. Does this conversation go on too long? Is this joke funny but too jarring or slightly out-of-character? Are there too many callbacks? Does this joke hurt your emotional moment? Is this a good joke but takes too long to tell? Do you need to lose four pages? Do you want to get to someone’s entrance sooner? Is this joke a holdover from a previous draft? There’s another expression (this one from Broadway): Cut twenty minutes and the show will run two years longer.

If you have a script (screenplay, teleplay, stage play), I recommend you arrange for a reading. Gather some actor friends, or any friends. Invite a few people to provide feedback (and maybe some laughs if it’s a comedy) and have your cast either sit on chairs or around a dining room table. You’ll see things good and bad that you never expected. And you wrote it to be performed, so treat yourself. All it will cost you is maybe your ego, and you should probably feed these people. At least provide water. 


Covarr said...

I'm in a play at a local community theater, written and directed by a friend of mine. This is the first time he's either written or directed, and while the play as a whole is fantastic, easily one of the funniest shows I've had the pleasure of acting in since I joined this theater group, he's found it quite useful to see it in action so he could make relevant tweaks. There have been a number of script changes, major and minor, throughout our rehearsal period, based on how it's played out. Some have been small error fixes (he'd only just finished writing it as we started rehearsals and didn't have as much time as he'd have liked to error check), and some have been replacing or moving jokes that didn't quite work.

I do think it's pretty nice having the writer so directly involved in the production. When you're licensing a play, if something doesn't work quite right, that's just too bad; generally these licenses don't allow for script changes (something something copyright). But when the writer is right there and also directing, there are no such pesky license issues. If he see sees something that could be better, or if an actor or crew member gives input that he likes, we can make the change. It's really nice.

Charles H. Bryan said...

And be open to what these people say in exchange for their glass of water (cold and unleaded, I hope). I've had two experiences when friends asked me to read their (prose) work. I wasn't cruel, I didn't say "Ouch! This sucks!", but I was honest in terms of what I thought did or didn't work, I didn't try to rewrite it into what I thought the work should be, and I stressed the positives. Wow. Neither one took it well. I "wasn't supportive enough." Lesson learned.

Charles H. Bryan said...

BTW, how common is it for a work to be published (as A OR B? has been) and then revised? Other than George Lucas being unable to leave his old movies alone, that is.

Johnny Walker said...

Great advice, especially the tip that three great jokes will be funnier than the same jokes sandwiched with "meh" ones. I never knew that!

Unknown said...

Good advice, Ken.

MikeK.Pa. said...

I always like to learn more about writers' creative process. Curious if there are certain times (no, not 7 a.m. vs. 9 p.m.), you get those "aha" moments - driving alone in the car, in the shower? Is it usually after you've stopped thinking about it and the creative side of your brain goes into a more relaxed mode?

Re: "As the expression goes: sometimes you have to kill your babies." I think Solomon was the first one to coin that. Not sure if he was a Guild member.

Ben K. said...

A lot of people have recommended Moss Hart's memoir "Act 1" here, and it includes a terrific account of what it's like to rewrite a comedy during out-of-town tryouts. It helps that it's partially about a veteran playwright (George S. Kaufman) mentoring a nervous newbie (Hart).

Paul Duca said...

That reminds me...did you catch the production of ACT ONE on LIVE AT LINCOLN CENTER?
Tony Shalhoub played Hart, his father, and George S. Kaufman.

Mike in Seattle said...

I've posted this before but I think it's worth mentioning again, a terrific essay by David Simon, well worth the time to read for noobs like me, about not seeing the potential problem with some too on the nose dialogue until they got on the set and were ready to shoot. Simon, Oscar Isaac and director Paul Haggis went back and forth with Winona Ryder as mediator in Simon's recent HBO series SHOW ME A HERO.


VP81955 said...

I still ask for advice from those who have read my romantic comedy screenplay, and just got some suggestions -- a few of which I plan to use in the rewrite because they'll make the script flow better. Anoter idea from this guy unintentionally solved a problem I had with the climax, and should also make the scene both moving and infinitely funnier.