Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Making it purrfect
When developing a play, it's important to get feedback from many sources. Your readers. Your director. The cast and crew. And of course the audience.
Well, last week, I had the luxury of getting feedback from all four as my play The Purrfect Crime received its world premiere at Palmer Ridge High School.
On opening night, director Josh Belk confided to me that he had heard the jokes so many times in rehearsal, he didn't know if the jokes were funny anymore. Well, I'm the author and I'd reached that point four months before, after tweaking the script for what must have been the five hundredth time.
That's why the audience is so important. To them, the play is fresh every night. If they laugh, you know a joke is funny. If they don't--well, maybe it needs some work.
There was plenty of both during the three-night run of the show. I was pleased that the audience seemed to like the physical humor. The play is about a couple of criminals who pose as pet psychics to swindle the world's richest cat out of her fortune. The biggest laughs of the night came when the sassy butler, upon learning of the scheme, uses his gloves to slap the criminals--not once, not twice, but three times.
There were several jokes that didn't land, which is normal, so I'll be reworking those before I send the script to my publisher. But on opening night, my biggest concern was that the key scene, in which the criminals hold a fake reading, fell flat. Madame Zamboni, the main psychic, performed the reading as a cover so that her assistant, the slow-on-the-uptake Bubbles, could stuff the cat's priceless toys into a large sack.
With its farcical elements, this scene should have been one of the highlights of the show. But watching it on opening night, I was confused by what was going on. And I wrote the thing.
The main problem was that I didn't provide enough dialogue to make it clear to the audience what Bubbles was doing behind the rest of the cast.
Josh rode to the rescue by telling the actors playing the criminals to as lib some explanatory dialogue the next two nights. He also had the lighting crew bring up the upstage lights a little bit so that the audience could more easily see what Bubbles was doing.
It worked. On the next two nights, the scene went over much better, and I'll be revising the script to include the additional dialogue.
After the last show, I got a chance to field questions from the entire cast and crew. Meeting the talented students performing my plays is always the most rewarding part of my job, and these students asked some really great questions. It also brought home to me a great truth I've discovered about writing. If you want to find the plot holes in your script, let high schoolers read it. They'll zero in on those holes like Luke Skywalker firing at that vent on the Death Star.
The Purrfect Crime, as it turned out, has a plot hole the size of that Death Star, which I discovered when one of the crew members asked why--well, I don't want to give away the big reveal in the play, so let me just say that the motivation of the villain was lacking. I told the young man, half-jokingly, that I'd get back to him on that. Only later did I realize that the fix was an easy one, and I'll be plugging that into the final script.
As director, Josh was more concerned about ease of production, and after the run ended he came up with a great idea, suggesting that some of the scenes be moved to the same day so that there wouldn't need to be so many costume changes. I have to admit, that's not something I usually think about when I'm writing a play, but I may have to start.
Last but far from least was the feedback I got from my readers Jeff Schmoyer and Debby Brewer. They're longtime members of the playwriting group I started, but they've also been members of a novel writing group for many years, so they live and breathe plot, character and all those other writerly concerns. (They even run their own nano-publishing company, Jmars Ink.)
In this play, their main complaint was that there was no one to root for. It's a good point. The members of the Texas oil family who own the cat are pretty self-absorbed, which was necessary for the setup of the story.
But Jeff and Debby's advice reminded me that the characters, and especially the main character, needs to become likable at some point or the audience won't care what happens to them. Fortunately, I thought of a great way to soften Cecilia, the hard-driving businesswoman who wants the cat's fortune for herself but ends up driving the chain of actions that saves the cat from a kidnapper.
I always learn a ton when I work with students on developing my plays, and I couldn't have asked for a better cast and crew than the ones I was blessed with here.
A big thank you to everyone involved. I hope you'll see your names in the published version of the script soon!