Do I Need a Star?

Do I Need a Star?

The Need for Stars?

 

 “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” – Steve Martin

 

Writing a play and then staying the course to see it produced is a daunting task. It requires tremendous focus and 100% dedication to each step in the developmental process.

 Once you think your play “works,” the next step is to have a staged reading to introduce it to the public, either in NYC or elsewhere. A reading is the step before a workshop or a production.

 So if a staged reading is the step before a workshop or production, what is our goal for the staged reading? Getting people to see the reading. And not just ANY people – specifically, people who could help us get to that next step, a production or a workshop. (We also want to get smart, experienced people to the reading for them to give us feedback as well, but for the purpose of this blog post let’s stay with the people who can help us move the play forward.)

 So, who are these people? How can I get them into my reading?

 

 It’s All About Relationships

 

Since everything in this business is about relationships, you should be developing relationships and networking like crazy as soon as you realize that you want to be a playwright. Specifically, you want to cultivate relationships with Artistic Directors, directors, producers, and generally, almost anyone in the industry.

 Sooner or later you realize that everyone in the theater lives or dies by their network of friends and friends-of-friends. And it’s helpful to be friends with or in close association with someone who knows or has access to a “star.”

 

Getting a “Star” Interested in Your Play

 

 I can hear the plaintive cry from many of you: “I don’t have access to a star, and don’t know anyone who does!”

 Sigh. That’s where most of us start, but if you’re in this industry for any length of time and make an effort to network, you’ll inevitably meet someone (or hire someone) who knows someone to make a connection for you. And if your work is good enough (and your price is right), you’ll probably be able to hire someone that’s worked on Broadway before to be in your reading. Often it’s not as expensive as you think.

For a quick answer, you can contact your intended celebrity by signing up for the IMDbPro, which is what most people use. You can also try contactanycelebrity.com.

 BUT the real answer is that quality work shows up very early, in the writing and in the score (if we’re talking about musicals). Sometimes I start to read a script and quickly become riveted to the story. When it’s this good, I smile and say to myself that “the magic is starting to happen.”

Losing yourself in a theatrical world established by a talented writer is a completely magical experience. The “magic” is found on the page long before it makes its way to the stage, and if you’ve read a few hundred scripts or so like many of us have, you know it doesn’t happen all that often.

“Star” actors see the “magic” when they read your script; the same with “star” directors, music directors, and yes, theaters and producers. The cream always rises to the top. Eventually.

 Unfortunately it usually takes its damn sweet time getting there.

 

I Don’t Have a Star – Yet

 

Notice the operative word here – YET.

In order to find that “star” you think you need to attract the theaters and producers that you think you need to help move your script forward – the most important thing you need to remember is that the first star of your show is …. your script. 

Let me say it again.

Your writing should be so good that your SCRIPT is your very first “star.”

 So, while you continue to network and develop each of your plays, remember it’s the constant fine-tuning to your scripts that is the real work.

No amount of networking or self-producing expensive staged readings can substitute for the nitty-gritty down-and-dirty daily work of meeting with yourself every day to sit down and write.

  •  In order to make your writing the true star it needs to be, remember to acknowledge the daily discipline to write (or re-write) every day.
  • Remember to recognize the need for real craft in your work, and
  • Understand the need to constantly keep learning.

You must be a constant student of life and of the craft of writing to master the craft of writing.

 

As Steve Martin quipped, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

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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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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 defines how the audience experiences the story.

An early point of attack gives you the musical Les Mis, where you see the epic story in its totality play out in front of the audience. There is little or no need for exposition, since the audience sees every important moment play out in front of their eyes.

A late point of attack gives you Oedipus Rex or just about any contemporary drama or musical that you can think of.

 

Plotting Your Story

 

The “wright” in playwright means “maker.” It is useful to remember that plays are constructed; they have a shape that is chosen for a reason by the author.

A story is a chronological sequence of events: this happens, then that happens, then that happens next.

A plot, by contrast, is carefully constructed by the writer to create meaning out of those sequence of events. A playwright sifts and sorts, edits and rearranges the sequence of events in a story to tell the story in a certain way to create a certain experience for a certain audience.

This is the craft of playwriting . There’s a reason that plot is #1 of Aristotle’s six elements. A writer uses his or her own unique perspective to create a meaning, a message, a takeaway for the audience. A writer is not a historian nor a journalist.

And a weak plot will get the dramatist nowhere fast.

So let’s ask the question again: Where in the story does your plot start?

 

Early or Late Point of Attack?

 

It’s a generally accepted saying that in writing a play today you have to “get in late and 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 dramas are built, with a late point of attack. (Classical plays also have a late point of attack,fyi.)

This climactic structure with a late point of attack allows the plot to focus on building the “suspense,” or on engaging the audience’s attention in an entertaining way while playing out the dramatic question that forms the spine of the story. A late point of attack begins in the midst of the conflict, and we find out important details about the past on the way to a much greater conflict in the rising action.

Contrast this structure to the opposite, the early point of attack. In Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, the action covers many years, over a vast sequence of events that all play out in front of the audience’s eyes and ears. An episodic structure like this unfolds scene by scene onstage, with little backstory. It too has a dramatic spine, but this plot takes us from the very beginning of a story and allows us to experience each moment leading up to the main climax for ourselves, with little to no exposition needed. Shakespeare also uses an early point of attack, as his average play length was three hours. (You can show quite a bit of history in three hours.)

Plots with early points of attack tend to emphasize the past, and understanding the causes of events that took place. Those with late points of attack seek to make us understand the dynamics that lead up to a conflict and the repercussions that followed.

One is not better than the other. It is simply two ways a playwright can attack a story.

 

A Writer’s Checklist: Plot

 

A plot is a roadmap to get you where you want to go, and a blueprint for what you want your audience to experience at the end. A plot builds a definite structure from the story’s sequence of events.

Here’s a quick Writer’s Checklist for Plot:

  • Get in late, get out early
  • Stasis: start right before the inciting event. Identify the world of the play and start the action quickly.
  • Inciting event: generally happens within the first 10-15 minutes of a play or musical.
  • The inciting event immediately launches the rising action, the journey the hero undertakes to get what he wants.
  • Clarify wants of the main characters early in the play and their obstacles by the first 20 minutes.
  • Midpoint reversal
    • Surprise twist – end of Act 1 in musical, and halfway through a play
    • New goal or intensified goal accelerates the action
    • This could be a subtle event, even an internal (psychological) reversal
  • “11:00 Number” traditionally occurs right before the climax (in musicals) for fun or theatricality
  • Climax, with an anagnorisis (where the hero and others fully understand where the journey has brought them or taught them), and a peripeteia (a reversal of some sort), which brings about an emotional catharsis in the audience.
  • Resolution – plot points are resolved logically (no deus ex machina)
  • The Finale (in a musical) delivers the theme in a rousing tune that stays with the audience as they leave the theater.

 

Helpful?

 

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

I’d love to speak with you. Email me at cate@createtheater.com or post a comment below.

 

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Writing Active Dialogue

Writing Active Dialogue

Let’s Get Some Action Going

 

Have you ever been reading a script when the action suddenly felt clunky, heavy-handed or, even worse, stopped mid-scene?

Probably it was the result of poor dialogue.

Like everything else on stage, dialogue must push the story forward and reveal character, plot points and exposition on stage. When inexpertly done, the action drops dead on its feet. Poor dialogue makes the audience disconnect, makes the plot unbelievable and results in actors overreaching in their attempts to make their character come to life.

It’s the worst.

 

The Rehearsal Process in Development

 

Recently I was directing a new play by a young, inexperienced playwright who was clearly overwhelmed by the production process. In a particular scene the actors were presented with some very poetic, very flowery dialogue. It was beautiful prose, but it definitely wasn’t something that would come out of anyone’s mouth.

My actor was talented and experienced, and everyone in the scene tried really hard to make this dialogue work – but it was extremely difficult to justify these words on stage. Our many suggestions for a modification of these lines were all turned down, and so we were left struggling with a very clunky, heavy scene that stopped the action mid-play. Not great for a comedy.

What to do?

 

Active Dialogue is not Prose

 

Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that diction was the 4th most important element of dramatic action. Although Aristotle seems to infer that diction was more part of the production process than the writing process (more pertinent to the art of the actor than the art of the poet), he also defined diction as the metrical composition of the play, the way that spoken language is used to represent the characters themselves.

Diction is the actual composition of the lines spoken; if Aristotle’s “thought” deals with what is said, then diction deals with how it is said.

In other words, Aristotle’s diction we now call dialogue – not only what a character says but how he says it. If the words don’t sound believable coming from a character in this moment, it is not good dialogue. If it sounds good on the page but completely wrong when spoken out loud, it is not good dialogue.

Prose is not good dialogue, no matter how eloquent it appears on the page.

 

How to Write Good Dialogue

 

Dialogue isn’t an issue with writers who know their characters. If you live with your characters for any period of time, you can write dialogue that accurately reflects who they are and what they’re thinking.

In writing dialogue, use this as a checklist:

  • Dialogue must accurately represent the character in terms of background (geographic, socio-economic, era, age, time of day and state of being)
  • The structure, or meter, of the spoken dialogue must stay true to the overall structure inherent in the play (that is, whether the play is written in verse, is a sung-through musical, is sparsely written with minimal lines, composed of long monologues, etc.) and true to the rhythm, pacing and tone of the script
  • Great dialogue reflects the internal action, or psychological action, of the character in that moment. What does the character want right now in this scene, in this beat, in this moment in time? It gives insight to the character through both psychological and physical choices, and changes to reflect a different intention.
  • Active dialogue moves the story, or the plot points, forward in every moment.

 

Is This Really How People Talk?

 

Always give yourself a reality check: is this really how people in the world of my play talk? Are these lines moving my plot forward, revealing something about the character or giving important exposition that the audience needs to know? Is it structured in a pleasing way? Typically, long monologues tend to stop the action, as will flowery, detailed passages trying to pass as dialogue.

So what happened in the rehearsal room after that? As a director it is my job to justify the words of the playwright, no matter how expertly (or inexpertly) written they are. My choice was to tweak the action of the character to read word for word the flowery prose from her journal, to reveal the “hidden poetry within her soul.” Since this character wouldn’t speak like this, I had her write like this to reveal something hidden within.

The audience bought it, enjoyed the scene and gave accolades to the young playwright. A job well done.

Ah, the hidden art of the director.

 

Planning For Success Part II

Planning For Success Part II

Winter Doldrums?

 

Do you find winter to be your most creative season?

It always has been for me. There’s something about being more at home and quiet that ramps up my creative energy to flow into more artistic pursuits.

Maybe because I’m more still I listen more? Who knows. But my best writing, ideas and projects have all had their origins in this time from January to April.

Getting back to my previous post, February is when I’m in the thick of it. Ideas are coming so fast and furious they sweep me away. Like most of us, January’s work on planning our year get down and dirty in February.

The rubber meets the road. It’s do or die.

Sometimes I do… and some years I die. That’s honest.

BUT when I DO – when I take ACTION – it’s a great year!

My whole year is determined by what I do or don’t do in the first quarter.

Is that true for you too?

 

Scripting and Planning Only Go So Far

 

Like actors that blossom when they stand up and step into their character, what makes or breaks us is the discipline to take action and build momentum.

In other words, our routines can make or break us.

I’m working with two writers right now. Both are very talented and full of ideas for the new musical they’re writing.

  • Writer A is mainly a songwriter and performer. He’s never written a musical before, but has a routine in place of coming to the computer every day after he gets his daughter to school. We meet every week like clockwork, on the same day at the same time, interrupted only when he occasionally has to tour. After six months he has an exciting Act One and is working on Act Two.
  • Writer B has extensive musical theater experience as a performer, director and producer. She has a wonderful idea for a new musical and is determined to see it on stage. However, more often than not our weekly sessions are moved or often rescheduled to the next week. Life seems to constantly interrupt her daily writing schedule, rendering it haphazard or nonexistent. After three months of working together she’s still struggling to write her outline.

Your Routine Frees You To Fly

 

I’m the last one to deny that often I’ve been more Writer B than Writer A. But even so, I recognize that my routines make or break me. It’s not what I do now and then that determines my life, but the action I take consistently that creates success, or not.

Writer A is his own hero. He is creating his future as he sees it in his mind.

Determine your own priorities and responsibilities. I know you know this – I’m now acting like that nagging voice in your own head that sounds like your mother. (Annoying, I know.)

If you want to see your plays onstage you must take regular and consistent ACTION to make that happen. No one can do this for you. You can pay someone, but really, it is your baby and it’s up to you.

A Checklist for Success

 

  1. Write every day at the same time in the same place. Establish a routine that works for you. Make it consistent, day in and day out.

Plan for your own success daily. Once you finish one play start the next one, so when an agent or producer inevitably asks to see your other work you have something to show them.

  1. Feed your creativity regularly. Keep a journal or notebook to capture your great ideas before the wind blows them away to someone else. Do interesting things every week to inspire and delight you.

Happiness is a wonderful inspiration of creativity. Keep your inner artist happy.

  1. Network, network, network. Meet people in the industry and learn about what they do. Make friends with people from every walk of life – they feed your writing and may possibly become your chief supporters in the future.

You never know where your next coincidence will come from.

  1. Submit, submit, submit. It’s a numbers game. Keep it a game by challenging yourself to collect the most rejections of anyone you know.

Because the reality is that the more you submit, the more opportunities you’ll create.

  1. Keep learning and growing. Like an actor must continually keep his instrument tuned and available by taking classes and learning different styles of acting, dance, vocal techniques, etc., a writer also must continually keep learning and advancing in his art. Writer’s groups and workshops in person and online are available everywhere. Take advantage of them.

Not only do workshops provide inspiration and knowledge, but they also provide built-in discipline in the form of assignments AND you meet really interesting people from many different walks of life.

 

 

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