Monday, September 17, 2012

So you want to do a staged reading

I wrapped up the first staged reading of The Butler Did It! on Saturday. And it turned out way better than I ever expected.

We came close to filling both performances, with around 65 people at the 3pm show and 55 people at the 7pm show (vs. a total capacity of 75). The play got lots of laughter and the talkback generated a surprisingly lively discussion, giving me tons of ideas to improve my play.

The biggest surprise? How much kids liked my play. I thought the mystery part would be too complicated for them. At times, even I'm confused by it.

But as we broke for intermission, one young lad loudly announced, "This is so funny!" (If only adults were so vocal!) And at the talkback, another boy--he must have been 8 or 9--explained in great detail how he was sure the rifle-toting grandma was the murderer because the audience was never told whether she was right- or left-handed.

Yes, it was tricky juggling the scripts and the props. But we made it work.

And did I mention this was my first time directing adults? All I can say is it gave me a whole new respect for theatre directors. The constant flow of decisions that needed to be made was exhausting, and I spent much time and energy double-guessing those decisions after I made them.

Sure, I made mistakes. But I also a learned a lot, both about playwriting and directing. Here are some of the things I'll try to remember the next time I do a staged reading.

1) People don't go to an amateur production for the play.

They go for the people. They want to support their friends and family who are going to be performing. The play itself is just an afterthought. So go ahead, invite everyone you know to your reading. But don't waste a lot of time marketing to people you don't know. They're not going to come anyway.

2) Associate with a school or other institution.

We used a theatre at a local Christian school, and it was a win-win situation. We got free use of the theatre, and they were able to raise funds for their theatre program by selling concessions during intermission. And it pulled in a lot of people who might not have known or cared about the play otherwise. Probably 75% of our audience was made up of parents from the school who wanted to see their beloved drama teacher take the stage for a change.

3) Schools are also a great (read: free) source of crew members.

Minimal lighting and sound effects can really make your reading come alive. And many students will work all day for no more pay than the experience and a meal (more on that later). When the performance time comes, don't forget to park a plaintive-looking student by the exit with basket in hand (pre-seeded with your own cash, of course). You'll be surprised how much money they'll bring in.

4) EventBrite makes managing your ticket sales a breeze.

And it's completely free.

5) If you can, do a script-in-hand performance rather than a straight reading.

Yes, it requires more work to arrange for costumes, props and sets. But it gives you a lot more insight into how your play works. And it's a lot more fun for the audience.

6) Two performances are better than one.

I was surprised how important this was to my actors. But it makes sense. They're not getting paid, so the laughter and applause from the audience is their only reward. Doubling the number of performances effectively doubles that reward. And it'll probably double your attendance as well.

7) Be open to change.

At the reading, you're no longer a playwright. You're a director. But you're a director with a unique power. You're free to change the script at will. So if something isn't working, dump it. At the climax of my play, the butler has to make an emergency phone call. The problem? He's tied to a chair. In my mind, I pictured this hilarious scene in which he picks up a pencil with his mouth and uses it to dial the phone. In rehearsal, this turned out to be almost impossible. Instead, we worked out a bit in which he knocks the phone onto the floor and uses his toes to dial. Much easier and just as funny.

8) Let your actors ad lib.

In the same way, give your actors permission to play around with the script. Maybe they have problems saying a particular line and would like to simplify it. Or maybe they don't think a line is in character. If you're lucky, they may find a funnier or angrier or more passionate way to say something. Actors are very good at getting inside their character. Let them do it.

9) But not too much.

The reading, after all, is a test of your words, your plotting, your pacing. If you have a line you especially like it, freeze it. You won't know how well it plays unless the audience gets to hear it.

10) Make yourself available to your actors.

If you're doing your job right during the rehearsal, you're going to look busy--too busy for your actors to approach you about questions they may think are trivial. Questions about the script are never trivial. And the best way to show that is to set aside time to sit down one-on-one with each actor and let them you questions in turn. Don't have time? Then do it when your actors are on break (You don't think breaks are for you, do you?)

11) You will never get enough rehearsal time

I originally budgeted 9 hours for rehearsal. Enough time to run through a 90 minute play at least four or five times, right? Wrong. With blocking, rerunning rough patches and answering questions, each run-through lasted about 2 1/2 hours and we only got three done. And you know what? It didn't matter. The performance went off without a hitch. It's amazing to see, but when the audience shows up, a kind of magic happens. Suddenly the actors hit their marks, remember their lines, show a whole new level of commitment.

12) Run through the entire play at least once without stopping.

If you do run out of time and haven't run through the entire play at least once, do a double-time rehearsal (going through every action and saying every word, but rapidly and without feeling). This really speeds things up and is an extremely effective way to practice entrances and exits.

13) Order too much food.

The last thing you want to do is put on a show with hungry actors. Just be prepared to eat leftover pizza for a week after the show.

14) Print too many programs.

People are always tempted to skimp here. Don't. Your cast will want to take extra copies home. And really, it's a cheap way to make them happy.

15) If you borrow props, don't use anything with sentimental value.

We lost a beautiful period table lamp at our second performance when the lead bumped into a side table. While the lamp wasn't expensive, it was the owner's bedside lamp and turned out to be irreplaceable. Good thing it was the lead's own lamp.

16) Have one of your cast members run your talkback.

Then sit back and SHUT UP! The talkback is not a time for you to explain or defend your play. It's a time for you to hear what the audience thinks about it. Your jawboning only inhibits that. (This was one of the hardest rules for me to follow!)

17) Keep your talkback to 15 minutes.

And make sure your audience knows ahead of time that's how long it'll run. As much as you may love to hear the audience go on and on about your play, it will quickly turn dull for them. And if they think it's going to last a long time, they may not stick around in the first place.

18) Take feedback with a grain of salt

All feedback is useful. But don't fall into the trap of believing that any one commenter speaks for the whole group. I was surprised how many times an audience member would find fault with one aspect of the production--that a particular character needed more backstory, for example--only to be followed by another audience member who said that they liked that aspect of the production. If you get several comments that cite a particular problem, you'd better be prepared to fix that problem. But don't try to please everyone. It'll never happen.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Critical mess

As if I didn't have enough to do--what with running a staged reading, managing a monthly playwriting group, judging professional productions for Colorado's Henry Awards and, most importantly, writing my own plays--I also review the occasional show.

It's hard work, probably the hardest of the tasks listed above. After all, it forces you to use both halves of your brain. Not only do you need think in an analytical way about something as subjective and ephemeral as theatre, but you also have to be entertaining and fresh and concise in your analysis.

But what's even harder is having to slam someone you know and who you know is going to read your slam. Anyone who thinks critics revel in the attack has never been a critic.

I started back in 2008 with the Colorado Springs Gazette. Now I'm writing for the Colorado Springs Independent. For now, they appear online only, though I'm trying to convince the powers that be that there are thousands of people dying to read my stuff in print (don't hold your breath).

But even if I never see my reviews in ink, I'll continue plugging away. Why? Because it forces me to be honest about my own playwriting. How can I be sloppy or boring or contrived if I criticize it in others?

And then there are those free tickets.

I probably wouldn't even bother you with these. Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to review a wonderful new play by Samuel Butler titled The Whale. At the time, I was between newspaper gigs, so the only place I could post my review was on my own blog. I went to the play, scribbled my thoughts, posted them here and didn't give it another thought.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Internet forum. My review became the most popular post I ever wrote. Even now, eight months later, it has gotten twice as many hits as my second most popular post.

So without further ado, here's the start of my latest review for the National Tour of La Cage Aux Folles in Denver.
"I suppose there was time when La Cage Aux Folles seemed cutting-edge, maybe even shocking. But that time wasn't last Tuesday, when the national tour opened a three-week run at the Buell Theatre in Denver. Instead this show, which first opened on Broadway in 1983, just seemed tired and musty, like a rerun of a 1950s sitcom in which the characters look like real people but act completely different than anyone you've ever met."
The tour is based on the 2010 revival, which won critical raves as well as three Tony Awards. Set along the French Riviera, the story (adapted by the great Harvey Fierstein) centers on a homosexual couple who own the area's most popular drag club. Georges is the suave master of ceremonies and easily flustered "husband." Albin is the flamboyant boa-wearing star and wisecracking "wife."
In an odd bit of "star" casting, Georges is played by the eternally tan and apparently ageless George Hamilton, whom Baby Boomers will remember as the guest star of 1001 TV shows in the 1970s and 1980s and Generation X-ers won't remember at all. I say "odd" because I doubt there's a single person alive who would buy a ticket based on his name alone, and yet he doesn't really bring much in the acting or singing departments.

But I wish I looked that good in a smoking jacket.
To read the rest, click here.