Friday, February 10, 2017

A purrfect reading

A table read is one of the most exciting, nerve-wracking, agonizing times in a playwright's life, second only (and a very close second at that) to the world premiere. The table read is usually the first time the author hears the play spoken out loud. Even scarier, it's often the first time they get a live reaction from an audience.

So it was with a little trepidation that I approached today's table read of my new comedy, The Purrfect Crime.

I knew the students would do a great job. I sat in on a rehearsal for their fall show and they proved themselves to be not only talented but hard-working and dedicated.

No, it was my jokes I was worried about. I have a tendency to fall back on wisecracks and snappy
comebacks. I mean, I was brought up on old Marx Brothers movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons, so that kind of thing is in my DNA.

But people (and especially young people) find these increasingly unfunny.

What do they find funny? Three things.

1) Physical humor

I always like to add farce-like scenes to a play, even if the play itself isn't a farce. I've got a couple of these in The Purrfect Crime. One happens during a psychic reading and the other during a ransom drop.

But director Josh Belk thought of a new piece of business that's funnier than anything I came up with. The script says that the cantankerous Mama hobbles around with a walker, but Josh is going to try to find an electric wheelchair that she can cruise around in and bang into things.

Another reminder that playwriting is less about mapping out every detail of the story and more about giving your cast and crew something to play with.

2) Cheesy Accents

These always seem like a cheap way to get laughs. But you know what? They always work.

And this play has a lot of them. The Little family at the center of the story lives in West Texas--oil country--so they have a broad, easy drawl.

The butler Digby isn't necessarily British (at least he's not described that way in the script), but the young man playing him fell into a very posh English accent during the reading. He's not sure he's going to keep it, but it did add a lot of humor to his dialogue, especially when he fired off lines in a contemporary American patois like: "Oh, yes. You are totally rocking that, girlfriend."

The thieves who plot to steal the cat's fortune have a New York City accent, which is completely cliched--and completely funny.  But when they pose as pet psychics, the script describes their accents as "exotic". The young women playing them did a French accent that was hilarious. In fact, it was so hilarious that they may have a hard time keeping a straight face.

3) Weird, oddly specific lines of dialogue

I've written about this before, but one type of gag that always gets a laugh isn't a gag at all. It's just an oddly specific way to say something. Monty Python is the inspiration for me here, as their old skits were full of these.

One example? It comes from the first scene, right after the family learns that the fortune was left to the cat, and the cantankerous mother leaves in a huff:

MAMA: Oh, well. I guess I'll go back to watching my soaps.

CECILIA: You really should find a new interest, Mama. Those soap operas will rot your brain.

MAMA: What soap operas? I'm talking about my collection of rare and exotic cleansing bars!

When I originally wrote that, I thought the last line was a bit forced. But at the reading it got a big laugh. Not because of the pun, I think, but because it's just such a weird thing to say

I came away from the reading feeling much better than I did going in. Sure, there are a lot of gags that didn't get any laughs, and other lines that are just plain awkward, but those can be fixed pretty easily.

And after all, that's what a reading is for.

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