Friday, September 26, 2014

Coming alive

There's a great lyric from the musical Applause in which the headstrong Broadway star Margo Channing lays out for her young protege what she can expect from a life in the theatre. Among things like grabby stagehands and dark toilets in the halls, comes this little gem:

"You'll only come alive at night, when you're in a show."

That pretty much sums it up , doesn't it? And not just for actors, but for playwrights as well.

At least that's the way I felt this week, as I sat in on the rehearsals for the world premiere of my new farce, Million Dollar Meatballs, at Discovery Canyon High School.

It's a wonderful experience, and a rare one. I've attended rehearsals for my plays a couple of times before, but this time it's different. This time the play is still in development.

Oh, it's close to being done. I'm happy with the pacing and flow. I don't have to rewrite huge sections of dialogue and I certainly don't have add or delete any scenes.

But there are a ton of physical gags that I may discover aren't possible (a beard made of whipped cream?). And every new script I write seems to have plenty of "jokes" that just aren't be funny.

Fortunately, I found a dream director in Amy Keating, the school's theatre director. She has years of directing under her belt and really knows her stuff. And yet she's open to questions and suggestions from a relative newbie like myself. Just as importantly, she's been giving her students free rein to play with the script. After just two walkthroughs, we're already finding new directions to take the story.

One major change has been with the character of Humphrey, the maitre d' of the restaurant in which the play is set. I originally described him in the script as "maddeningly dense", but Amy had the idea of patterning him after the snarky maitre d' in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. And she found the perfect actor to pull it off, a young man with a smarmy delivery that reminds me of the Jim Carrey character in Liar, Liar. I've been tweaking his dialogue to bring that out some more and we even stole one line from another character because it fit Humphrey's sardonic view of the world much better.

I've also been punching up a lot of the jokes. One big surprise about this whole process is that I found I don't need an opening night audience to know which lines work and which don't. Between the understudies and the crew, about 30 people are present at each rehearsal and that's more than enough to get meaningful feedback (some local theatre companies don't get that many people to their actual performances), And these kids make the perfect audience, eagerly yukking it up--or not--through each run-through.

The most important thing I've learned? It turns out that there are three kinds of jokes.

One, is the joke that never gets a laugh. It may sound funny in your head when you're typing it on your laptop, but in the harsh bright light of the stage, it fall flats on its face.

Here, to great embarrassment to myself, is an example from the script. It's the scene where that dubious whipped cream beard comes into play. Beans, a stupid jewel thief, has disguised himself as a waiter and Cecil, the arrogant restaurant critic who popped in by surprise, sees right through his dubious costume.

CECIL: You're not Boris. Boris has a beard. You've just got a face full of whipped cream.

BEANS: I do?

CECIL: Yes. Right there.

(BEANS takes a taste of the whipped cream.)

BEANS: Ah. So that's why those cats were following me.

Ouch. The best thing to do with these jokes is rip them out of the script at your first opportunity and give them a quick burial in some dark alley.

Then there is the joke that gets a laugh the first time it's heard and never again. This type of joke  typically involve a degree of wordplay or wit, something that surprises you the first time you hear it, but once you "get" the joke, it doesn't offer anything new.

An example of this occurs when Tommy the Singing Telegraph Boy arrives on the scene:

TOMMY: Look, I need your help. If I don't deliver this message, then I won't get paid. And if I don't get paid, then I won't be able to get into clown college.

HUMPHREY: You want to become a clown?

TOMMY: No. I'd rather be an accountant, but my father insists I become a circus clown like him.

HUMPHREY: Those must be some pretty big shoes to fill.

TOMMY: You have no idea.

I don't mean to suggest these are lesser jokes. After all, most of your audience will only see your play once. Just don't rely solely on this type of joke.

Finally, there is that Holy Grail of Humor, the joke that gets a huge laugh no matter how many times it's repeated.

It's not witty. It's not particularly clever. I don't even know how to describe it except to say that it's just a long, oddly specific way to say something that could be said much simpler. And, as much as I hate to admit it, it's funny not because of the writing skill of the playwright but because of the delivery and timing of the actor.

An example of this comes when Cecil attempts to order some food from the sullen Russian waiter, Boris:

CECIL: All right, fine. I'll have the Duck L'Orange.

BORIS: I'm sorry, sir, but the duck flew south for the winter.

CECIL: Are you joking?

BORIS: Oh, no. The migratory habits of waterfowl are no laughing matter.

Believe it or not, that last line gets the biggest laugh in the play. Sure, it's a good line, but it gets a huge boost from the outrageously accent of the actor playing the part.

And yes, using an accent is a cheap way to get a laugh. But you know what? It works. Every single time.

So I'm now looking for ways to add more of these jokes to the script. After all, it's not my job to write funny lines. It's my job to write lines that the actors can make funny.

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