How to Move Your Script Forward

How to Move Your Script Forward

Moving Forward

This summer has been a time for reading scripts. It’s my favorite thing to do in the summer. It’s so exciting to discover a new play or musical that’s ready to move forward into a developmental workshop or even into a complete production.

The problem is, right now that’s harder than ever to happen.

I don’t have to tell you how the shutdown has impacted our industry – we’re all painfully aware. The good news is that audiences are slowly returning, and with various incentives from grants and subsidies more shows are being produced. What’s different is that the cost of production has never been higher.

What does that mean for your show? And how does it impact moving your show forward?

How do you strategize as a playwright right now?

  1. You must continually write new work. Build up your portfolio of new work of all types.
  2. Develop your work online and in-person, and let the world know
  3. Submit your work everywhere possible and feasible
  4. Plan readings & record them

Nothing new here, right? Well, hold on. There’s a few more insider tips I’m sharing with my writers.

Write Like a Producer

Every writer must think like a producer right now when beginning a new script. What would make this new work attractive to producers? What experience, new thoughts or new ideas could it give an audience? What’s the journey you’re asking an audience to go on with you? How can you make your script more cost-effective to produce?

After reading easily four dozen new plays and musicals so far this summer, here are some things that now stand out to me as central as reader, and as a producer.

First, I’m looking to be immersed in an interesting world, preferably one I’ve never experienced before. There’s a million and one locations over time and space that are possible, so be creative. Have fun building this world! The more delight you take in the research and conception of it the more we’re going to enjoy it later. Make us laugh! Entertain and delight your audience.

Second, by the first 15 minutes make it clear on whose journey I’m on and what your main character is after. Don’t make me wonder what’s going on 30 minutes in.

Also, make sure your script is ready to be submitted. It’s not my job to edit out scenes that go nowhere or characters who sit and talk endlessly. Ditto for typos and other poor formatting. Not sure of the proper formatting? Look it up. Make sure you look like a pro.

Writing like a producer means to think about holding to a small cast size (2-8 max, even for musicals), a single set, and limit including any unnecessary projections, props or stunts in your script. Instead, craft fully-realized characters where each action and interaction flow from their intentions.

I love it when a script is based on a story in the public domain, or based on a known person or event. My recognition of what your show is about helps me understand it at the very beginning – and that can give your play a definite advantage later when a producer can capitalize on that audience awareness.

Write, Then Promote

After your play is written, the real work of promoting it beginsYou must write AND promote. Even if you have an agent, you must continue to promote yourself consistently. There’s no way of getting around it.

The best ways to do this are:

  • Submit your work constantly. Give yourself a goal of at least 3-5 submissions a week (or month) and hold to it. Check online resources like the Dramatists Guild or Play Submissions Helper for current opportunities.
  • Research regional theaters to see which ones have produced work similar to yours. When you find them, reach out to them to ask about their submission policy (if not stated clearly on the website). Initiate a conversation – poof, you’ve made a contact.
  • Hold a reading, either in person or online. Listen to the feedback.
  • Record it and send the link to your email list. Show your fans your progress. Password-protect it on Vimeo or YouTube and send it out when requested.
  • Have the reading edited into a short sizzle reel and put it on your website, on your email signature, on your YouTube page and New Play Exchange page. I’ve seen many dynamite sizzle reels in the past year – make sure yours is one of them. (Sometimes the sizzle reel is better than the script, but that’s a different blog post.)

Get to Work on Your Next Play

Then get to work on your next play. Remember you’re playing the long game here, and if you’re a writer, you write. Consistency pays off.

But don’t neglect your other darlings. Write daily, and then promote weekly. It’s a lifestyle – one that you say you want.

Persistence is the only way to get anything done in the theater. Or anywhere.

Are Zoom Readings Still Useful?

Are Zoom Readings Still Useful?

As someone who was one of the very first producers presenting Zoom readings in 2020 and who was able to raise hundreds of dollars for smaller theaters across the country, I’ll be the first one to tell you that Zoom readings can be a cost-efficient way to develop a script. But it’s not 2020 anymore. There are a few things to think about before setting one up.

 

Zoom Readings Are Live

 

A Zoom Reading is a great way to get your script heard. Until you get out of your head and hear your words interpreted by someone else, you won’t really know your next step. Should you rewrite the opening with a different point of attack? Does your climax feature a secondary character instead of your protagonist? Is it clear what your script is about?

By scheduling a live Zoom reading, you’ll get feedback immediately. Listen to your audience and your actors. Did the audience react and laugh when you expected them to laugh? Were they confused about whose journey they were on? Did they “get it”? 

I always like to weigh my options when developing a new script. Zoom readings can offer advantages to both playwrights and producers in the early days.

  • Cost-Efficient – With a “Pro” subscription of only 14.99/mo, the Zoom platform is hard to beat. You can easily cast friends to gather for a cold table reading (no need to cast to type) by sending them your latest draft, and then to stay afterward to discuss.
  • Convenient – Since your goal is to get the smartest people (or the most well-connected) into the room to give you feedback, you make it easy for them to participate – all you’re asking is for them to make time to listen, from the comfort of their own home.
  • Build an Audience – The convenience of Zoom gives you the ability to also invite potential investors, producers, artistic directors, and other members of the theater community to be on board with you as you develop the script. If people are interested in you or your show, they appreciate the opportunity to become part of the creative process.
  • Build a Fan Base – Similarly, online Zoom readings give you the ability to develop and then gather a group of “raving fans” to be part your audience. One of my writers did this, and now he can depend on this dedicated group of fans to regularly show up to see his show whenever he presents it. Followers count!
  • Raising Money – The knowledge of who your target audience is not only helps you to market and promote your shows, it will also help you successfully raise money – both directly and indirectly. Potential investors or donors can be sent a recording of your reading afterward.

 

Zoom Fatigue and Technical Limitations

 

After two years some Zoom fatigue has set in. “Oh please, not another Zoom reading,” some say. But try to invite producers to an in-person reading, and many still are reluctant to attend. It’s all about safety – and we need to keep each other safe.

I know, we’re all Zoomed out. We long for the way we did things in 2019, but until covid is a thing of the past (which it still isn’t in 2022) Zoom helps to keep theater alive and moving forward safely. I know some artistic directors who would prefer to listen to a Zoom reading in their car instead of having to take the time to read a script.

There are some times when you shouldn’t plan a Zoom reading.

Zoom can be decidedly NOT helpful if your script contains a lot of action. Stage directions are a poor representation of comic moments, for example. We once tried to produce a Zoom reading for a madcap comedy dependent on hilarious mishaps. It fell flat, dependent upon a reader reading stage directions instead of watching talented actors demonstrate comic timing and physical comedy. Also, the missing laughter from other audience members enjoying the moment did not give permission for others to laugh along. (Hint: always encourage the audience to react in the chat space, also some find that irritating.

Especially when developing a musical, Zoom technology doesn’t allow us to learn as much as  we need. It is famously not set up for the overlapping of voices and the underscoring of music, unless first recorded and then edited. (Note: I believe some other platforms now do this.) The musical experience is limited in a zoom reading. Even if you play a demo track, what does your audience see onscreen? It’s disconcerting not to see the characters sing – and lip syncing is even worse. The best choice may be to see slides with lyrics written out, but that can be distancing for the audience. Some cannot integrate the binary experience of dialogue and inserted songs enough to feel a powerful catharsis.

For a successful Zoom reading to advance development you may need to do some extensive editing. In this competitive environment, potential producers or producing partners may request to see your best work visually before they can “see” it on stage. Professionally edited Zoom readings have become an acceptable way for busy artistic directors, investors and producers to experience a show on their device without needing to read an entire script and listen to demos, and can be a definite asset.

 

Use the Technology to Your Advantage

 

At CreateTheater I find Zoom to be an indispensable tool for development, no matter what stage a script is in. Since the writing process is often more “re-writing,” a company of theater professionals experienced in new play development is indispensable. When we trust the feedback and those giving it, the opportunity to present a Zoom reading, re-write and present again inexpensively is tremendously helpful.

Zoom isn’t going away anytime soon. The key is to make it work to your advantage.

 

 

 

Finding New Paths

Finding New Paths

“The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.” GEORGE BERNARD SHAW

Developing and producing new work in a post-covid world is challenging – to say the least.

More than ever, theater companies and writers need to be savvy and intentional both in their work and in their business models. We need to find a new path.

As an academic and as a commercial producer developing new work, for years I saw the potential for universities to step into the void left behind when non-profit theaters began to feel the financial pinch. The spaces available to our students at SUNY Stony Brook made my commercial producer friends jealous – at least until the theater arts major itself was killed off.

But the lesson was learned – by providing universities with opportunities that benefit their students, new work could be given room to grow on a college campus, to the benefit of both students and creative teams.

A few years ago my college friend Kevin Halpin, now Chair of the Performing Arts Department at SUNY Cortland, asked me, as another SUNY professor, to review his new BFA in Musical Theatre. I was happy to come up and take a look. After sitting in on classes and talking to the faculty and students, I realized he had created an amazing department to develop new actors, singers and dancers. The training was thoroughly professional, and the facilities were breathtaking.

I also knew that as working actors, his students would need to learn how to develop new work and needed opportunities to do so.

 

The Professional College Musical Theatre Partnership

 

I am thrilled to announce that CREATETHEATER and SUNY CORTLAND PERFORMING ARTS have just formed the new Professional College Musical Theatre Partnership to develop new musicals in their B.F.A. in Musical Theatre program.

The new CreateTheater/SUNY Cortland partnership will begin accepting submissions of new musicals from now until July 17th, 2022.

This new program will produce one staged reading each year, with submissions managed by CreateTheater and the final project selected by the college faculty. The program is seeking new musicals in development with no previous production history, centered around young people’s voices and perspectives on current issues.

This is hopefully the first of many years of creative collaboration between the nonprofit professional training programs on campuses and the commercial theater world . With commitments such as this one, the professional theater and the academic world together are finding new ways to develop, promote and produce new work in the 21st century.

For more information and to submit, go to createtheater.com/college-theater-development-partnership.

To read the Broadway World article, click here. 

To learn more about SUNY Cortland’s Performing Arts BFA, go to their website here.

Story vs. Plot

Story vs. Plot

Where in the Story Does Your Plot Start?

 

A discussion about the difference between plot vs. story is anything but an academic question. Instead, like most talks about structure, how a plot is designed from the ground up defines how the audience experiences the story later in the theater. The point of attack is that first thing the audience will see or hear as the curtain goes up.

It’s the first decision that can make or break a great idea for a play, and frankly, I’ve seen too many playwrights who are confused at what point their show should begin in the story.

 

What’s the difference between plot and story?

 

Story is a chronological sequence of events: this happens, then that happens, then that happened next.

However, a plot is carefully constructed by the writer to create a meaning out of those events. A writer sorts and sifts, edits and rearranges the sequence of events in a story to tell the story in a certain way to a certain audience, to create a certain effect on that audience.

This is the craft of writing. A writer uses his own unique perspective to create meaning. A writer is not a historian nor a journalist. There’s a reason that Plot is #1 of Aristotle’s Six Elements. A weak plot will get the dramatist nowhere fast.

 

Early or Late Point of Attack?

 

It’s a generally accepted saying that in writing a play you have to “get in late, get out early.” In other words, start the plot or scene as late in the action as you can, show the action, and then get out of the plot or scene as quickly as possible. This is how most contemporary shows are built, with a late point of attack. This climactic structure allows the story to focus on building the suspense, on engaging the audience in an entertaining way while posing the dramatic question that forms the spine of the story.

Contrast this structure to its opposite, the early point of attack. Look at Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, that journeys over many years, over a vast sequence of events that all play out in front of the audience’s eyes and ears. An episodic structure unfolds episode by episode onstage, with little exposition needed. It too has a dramatic spine, but is built to explain causeswhy something happened.

A climactic structure is interested in effects – what happened as a result of the inciting event.

In thinking about where the point of attack should be, keep in mind that every story and every character has a history. The problem is to decide where in that history to begin telling the tale.

Plays typically begin at a point just before the primary conflict erupts out of the world of the story. Successful musicals have a variety of both early and late points of attack.

Plays need conflict to fuel their dramatic action, so from a technical standpoint this “fuel” needs to catch fire a few pages after the point of attack – and this tells you where the point of attack should be. Let’s just say for a point of reference, for a full length play try to have the inciting event happen before page 15, on average.

Since many  contemporary playwrights use a very late point of attack, their plays cover only the last few hours or days of the story’s history prior to the climax of the major conflict logically generated by that story.

 

Climatic vs. Episodic

 

In general, for plays using a Climactic Story Structure,

  • Plot begins late in story, closer to the very end or to the climax
  • Covers a short space of time, perhaps a few hours, or at most a few days
  • Often occurs on one set
  • Casts are smaller, usually not more than six or eight
  • Plot is linear with few subplots
  • Dramatic action occurs in a logical cause and effect chain.

By contrast, in plays using an Episodic Structure,

  • Plot begins relatively early in the story and moves in a series of episodes
  • Generally covers a longer period of time: weeks, months, sometimes years
  • Travels to many locales, often exotic
  • Often employs theatricality (flashbacks, dreams, visions, etc)
  • Sometimes uses a non-linear plot structure to tell the story
  • Larger casts with many actors playing multiple roles
  • Frequently marked by several threads of action juxtaposed together to create a web of circumstances

 

How to Start the Play You Want to Write

 

The opening of your play needs to grab the audience’s attention, otherwise the battle is lost before it begins no matter which point of attach you’re using. In general, think about having these elements in your openings:

  1. Start your play as far into the story as possible. Begin well into the story, just before the inciting incident.
  2. Be sure that something happens early on (the inciting incident) to upset the world of the play and cause your protagonist to take action (no one likes a passive protagonist)
  3. Give your protagonist a critical want and make it clear to the audience. Make the stakes high.
  4. Be sure that the antagonist provides strong obstacles. The more even the battle, the greater the suspense.
  5. Get the backstory in throughout the play, when it’s necessary to do so, by gradually weaving into the dialogue the backstory exposition that happened before the start of the play.

So to sum up, a plot is a roadmap to get you where you want to go, and what you want your audience to experience at the end of the play. A plot builds a definite structure from the story’s sequence of events as determined by you, the writer..

Are you writing a play or musical? Would you like someone to look over your script, or to help overcome writer’s block?

Schedule a free consultation with me here.

 

 

 

Join the Online Theater Community at CreateTheater.com.

Breaking Up With Aristotle: Alternate Plot Structures

Breaking Up With Aristotle: Alternate Plot Structures

To Aristotle With Love: We’re Done

 

So many contemporary playwrights claim to have “broken up” with Aristotle.

 

As in, “Ari, we love you and all, but you’re so old school. We’re done.”

 

The energy of the “action plot,where a protagonist has a goal and takes action to obtain that goal, is the plot of Aristotelian tragedy, and the most common organizing principal used when plotting.

 

Whether structured as an episodic early point of attack plot or crafted as a climactic late point of attack plot, it’s still following an active protagonist through his idealized “want” to achieve (or not to achieve) his ultimate high stakes goal. We identify with the protagonist on some level as our “hero,” and experience his journey vicariously through that emotional identification.

 

This is the plot of The Hero’s Journey. It’s the most common plot structure taught in grad school, film school and found in myth and novel from contemporary times to the days of the Greeks.  But it’s far from the only way to construct a plot.

 

Alternative Plot Structures

 

Searching for other structures, I came across film theorist Charles Ramirez Berg’s article A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the “Tarantino Effect.” 1

Berg noticed a trend of an increasing number of modern films that didn’t fall under the dominant energeic plot paradigm. He decided to classify films by these different plot types, and has come up with twelve categories, suggesting that this is just the beginning and not an all-inclusive list.

In theater we know that many types of plots exist, and though character goals can be a part of these plots, it’s not the only way in which to plot a story. But I found Berg’s attempts to categorize them fascinating, and great food for thought.

According to Charles Ramìrez Berg, films can thus be divided into 12 categories, arranged into three main groups based on the ways they deviate from the Hollywood paradigm:

  • plots based on the number of protagonists
  • plots with nonlinear temporality
  • plots that violate classical rules of subjectivity, foregrounded narration, and the narratives of goal-orientation, causality, and exposition.

 

PLOT BASED ON THE NUMBER OF PROTAGONISTS

1) The Polyphonic or Ensemble Plot – multiple protagonists, single location

2) The Parallel Plot – multiple protagonists in different times and/or spaces

3) The Multiple Personality (Branched) Plot

4) The Daisy Chain Plot – no central protagonist, one character or prop leads to the next

PLOT BASED ON RE-ORDERING OF TIME; NONLINEAR PLOTS

5) The Backwards Plot

6) The Repeated Action Plot – one character repeats action

7) The Repeated Event Plot – one action seen from multiple characters’ perspectives

8) The Hub and Spoke Plot – multiple characters’ story lines intersect decisively at one time and place

9) The Jumbled Plot – scrambled sequence of event motivated artistically, by filmmaker’s prerogative

PLOTS THAT DEVIATE FROM CLASSICAL RULES OF SUBJECTIVITY, CAUSALITY AND SELF-REFERENTIAL NARRATION

10) The Subjective Plot – a character’s internal (or “filtered”) perspective

11) The Existential Plot – minimal goal, causality, and exposition

12) The Metanarrative Plot – narration about the problem of movie narration

Different Plots, Same Dramatic Needs

 

Instead of a particular plot structure, let’s talk about serving the dramatic exigencies demanded by plot:

  • a dramatic arc that grounds the audience in a particular world (the beginning),
  • gradually builds in emotional intensity (the middle)
  • to a climax where certain “truths” are revealed and understood by an audience, and in that understanding, the dramatic action is resolved (the end).
  • It’s about the journey that you take the audience on, and how you make them feel on the way.

 

It’s how you make them feel.

 

I’ve seen circular plots revisit an action three times, each time ramping up the emotional intensity for the audience with new information; it works. I’ve read plays that were more character studies than plays, but the structure worked because the character was approached from different perspectives, each one more intense than the one before. It was very interesting. (Admittedly, this works better for plays than musicals, which need clearer plots and subplots to be successful.)

 

An audience goes to the theater to experience something different from their own life. As long as a play takes the audience on an interesting journey, holds their interest and engages their emotions or their intellect in an enjoyable (not confusing) way, plot structures can and should be as inventive and creative as possible. There’s more than one hero’s journey.

 

So – have I encouraged you yet to play around with structure? Take Berg’s 12 categories and start brainstorming.

 

What structures would YOU like to experiment with? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

1A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the “Tarantino Effect.” Charles Ramírez Berg, Film Criticism, Fall 2006; 31, 1/2; ProQuest Direct Complete pg. 5

 

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