My first staged reading

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I want to write down what this experience left me before I forget.

In august 2009 I took a month-long play writing course which culminated in a 30 minute staged reading at a professional theater. The class was very fun and the process was hard but eye-opening.

The play turned out rather well. It was a farce, and even though the speed and timing could have used more polish, I was happy with the result and the audience reaction was pretty great. I wasn't able to video tape it (no camera!) and my attempt to record the audio failed as well (damn battery!). After both readings, several people walked up to me and congratulated me on the play, actors as well as audience members. It was thrilling. The director came in pretty late, but handled everything really well. Loved the approach he took, read-through, tackle physical comedy first, then block everything else. Do character work as we go. Great for a 6 hour rehearsal period. The actors were also really good.

I got to hold a 5 minute feedback session with each audience. It was fun holding court at the theater, I'm a total attention whore so this was like crack for me, haha. I asked if people had felt the outlandish and improbable plot twists had been too much and if any of them had taken them out of the play. The consensus was "No" (only one person had a minor quibble). The other question was how the thought the play turned out (after the final scene). Some people had completely different predictions, which was kind of neat. My ambiguous ending proved more effective than I had imagined.

During the sessions, some people just gave me outright praise for making them laugh, which was wonderful to hear. Among the quirkier feedback, a friend's seventy-year old mom said all the f-bombs coming from the female character was degrading for her (wtf?!?!), and another lady said the play totally resonated with her because she had been a girl scout (WTF!?!?! ROTFL!). This one lady walked up to me and told me what the f-bomb mom comment was BS, that my language seemed authentic for the age of the characters, and given the extreme situations I put them through, it made perfect sense, I shouldn't change a word. I agreed, but told her in a very diplomatic way that it was interesting to hear how this would go over the older generation.

After the second reading (which went better since the female character's script didn't explode mid-performance, saved by yours truly who miraculously had two scripts on hand for reading sound effects and stage directions), the producer of a local theater congratulated me on the piece and asked if I had any full-length pieces. I said no, and he looked a little disappointed. He recommended I write full length pieces to get them produced. This had never really occurred to me. Then, later, a playwright from the audience gave me his contact info because he wanted to mount an evening of one-act plays next spring and wanted to include mine. It would be awesome if this materializes.

OK, what did I learn from the experience:

1. Actors and not that interesting to talk to. Directors certainly are.
2. Getting feedback on my work from experienced professionals was incredibly valuable. The teacher gave me the best advice and the play would not have been successful without their collective guidance. I'm a little nervous that I won't be able to write anything good without their help, but we'll see (the monologue with the three women turned out alright before I took this class, btw...)
3. Every single word in the text has to have a meaning and a purpose. It's just so much better if things connect and make sense all over, it gives the piece a real sense of cohesion. This is incredibly hard to do, and the connecting dots sometimes stare you in the face until someone points them out to you (feedback!)
4. Sometimes writing just for writing's sake works. Not always, but I was surprised it worked at all.
5. Great plot ideas don't just fall from the sky. It takes hard work (and a little inspiration). But mainly hard work.
6. People don't go to the theater to see plots, they want interesting characters. This is much harder to do than good plots. A couple of the playwrights did an excellent job with their characters.
7. Shit has to happen in the play, stuff has to move things along. Characters need an ACTION. If they don't have one, people will be snoozing.
8. Don't go full speed ahead with a project until it excites you. If in the middle it stops exciting you, STOP and rethink it. WARNING: I haven't fully wrapped my head around this one yet. I spent about a month writing the first version of the work I presented. Changed the structure quite a few times. Then during the lab I basically rewrote it. Three times. It was crazy. People were really wowed by how fast I rewrote the entire thing. And that I improved it. After doing my homework (Frayn, Orton, Coward) farce was surprisingly easy to write for me. Maybe my voice as a writer is comedy? I loved exploring the darker aspects of my characters, so dark comedy definitely seems appealing. I guess I'll just have to write some more plays to find out.
9. You want the director to like you. You want to get along with them. And you want them to be in sync with what you want to present and say.
10. Use TPS for all future auditions. Add character details: Male, Hispanic, 20s. Make sure your play's name is HUGE on the sides, with character descriptions, and if there is more than one version, make the difference HUGE also.
11. We make problems! Don't solve them, make them deeper! Make your problems work for you. If something is hard to solve, try using as is. It will make the play more interesting. We're not here to solve problems, we're here to USE them.
12. Usually, the less explained the better. Audiences are pretty smart, trust them. They can do the math and figure stuff out. Exposition is nasty.
13. Mamet's golden rule: push the beginning of the play as far as you can. Push till it hurts.
14. Cut, cut, cut. First assignment was to cut our stuff down to 66%.
15. Make stage directions part of the plot, otherwise the actors/director will ignore them.
16. Meeting the audience' expectation, not necessarily a good thing. (Surpass them!)
17. Careful with direct address to the audience. Use it wisely. If it's for exposition, try including it in the dialogue.


Loved this process for feedback:
1. Affirmations - Statements of meaning (What did you like?)
2. Questions from artists/playwright
3. Neutral questions from us.
4. Observations ("I have an observation about... would you like to hear it?")

Doing actor exercises to get in sync with everyone was also wonderful to try out. Felt closer to others, more confidence to speak out.
1. Counting collectively to 20. At random. Without interrupting. Have tostart over if we interrupt.
2. Pink tarantula game. Saying one part of a two-part name (color and animal) and if you're called, do the same for another. If you mess up, you're out.


UP NEXT:
-Take acting class. Someday... after my masters degree I rekon...
-Get my one-act produced!
-Write a full length play
-Polish my ten-minute plays
-Attend a play writing studio/lab/group. Try out a few, see which one fits.
-WRITE, WRITE, WRITE!