“And so reader, I eviscerated it.”
The first development reading of a play is a thing of horrid splendour. The audience is expectant, the actor does their best with what they’ve been given both in terms of rehearsal time and text, and the writer is left exposed by the austerity of the whole set up. It’s so brutally direct which is why it’s so useful – nowhere to hide, no bells and whistles, just the question: Is the play up to scratch?
At yesterday’s reading of True Brits at RCSSD the answer was a resounding and somewhat expected “no”. Or to be more precise, it’s not up to scratch as a play. There’s a difference between a play that reads well and one that plays well – and yesterday I discovered that True Brits had been the former. There was a particularly galling moment where I realised the drama was over and we were still ten pages from the end, which is around twenty minutes. Couldn’t believe I’d let that happen (and sorry for putting you through it Ali!)
But it’s ok for it to have issues, even quite serious ones at this point. That is, in fact, the entire point of the exercise. You put out what you think is something in decent nick, see where it’s lacking, sort it out. As painful an experience as this can be, I wish I’d been able to do it long ago. It feels like I’ve been working on the play for longer than I have but the delay in the Arts Council funding means that it’s been more a stop/start affair. The next few months though are when it gets serious. Five months between now and Edinburgh (if we get the Underbelly Award – more on that in a later post) to weed what’s not working and replace it with the good stuff. Make it a proper play with density of feeling & insight, not words.
Seeing it on its feet, finally getting it out of my head, was an essential step and gave me the bravery to rip out parts I’d had doubts about but had convinced myself were essential to the narrative. Slashing through the script with Tanith and a (sadly not red) pen in the Hampstead cafe later was hugely cathartic.
So, in more detail, here’s what I learned (or in some cases relearned) about writing and about the script from the reading:
– I was mugging too much for the funnies. I wasn’t making the most of the natural comedic moments or slicker, passing jokes which suit both the style and the character better. I just held the flow up way, way too often in order to try and be a clever boy.
– It is, as ever, all about the in medias res. Cut out or repurpose stuff that happens before the main action unless you have a good reason for it being there.
– I was using space to set up and pay off what I realised were fairly inconsequential things. This was mostly with the non-central characters and I think this was the biggie. I always find it hard to create minor characters, a knee-jerk reaction to wanting to give an actor loads to get their teeth into and it’s slipped into this piece. What I finally grasped yesterday was that, with a monologue, every one but the speaker should be considered a relatively minor character, even when they’re prominent. If the text too often serves other characters at the expense of the central character, the drive of the piece suffers immensely – it’s just someone telling you about someone else. Those other characters exist, should have a journey, shouldn’t be 2D, but they’re *not* the conduit of the story. Be quick and clear with character detail and remember it’s about how that central character sees them, not any semblance of objective reality.
– If you’re trying to be a bit canny with structure and a little reveal, remember that you can’t expect an audience to see what’s gone before through a different lens in a single moment and for that to impact them meaningfully. This is something that works way better in film (thinking of your Keyser Sozes, Tyler Durdans here) since it has the privilege of flashback. I reckon you can do it on stage with more protagonists (could see a theatre version of Rashmon still working, for example,) or, I suppose, if you’re a better writer than I am just yet. I’ve settled for making it clearer what’s going on, earlier, while keeping a bit of mystery – making the “what?” obvious whilst retaining the “who?”
Finally, I also realised (in the shower this morning, natch) that there was an opportunity to add a beat to the climax, just a couple of lines, to tie it together a little better.
I had this anger/frustration/energy from yesterday that compelled me to sit down and start rewriting it straight away. By 6 A.M. I’d culled 1800 words, which means the script has gone from a record high of 14,200 to a record low of 11,200 in no time at all. Another thousand or so words gone, matched with the snap-snap delivery I’m looking for and we’re touching on bringing it down to an hour. It’s funny to think that just a couple of days ago I’d felt so adamant that 13,000 words (or around 80 minutes) was the absolute shortest it could be. I’m pleased to have been wrong about that. In the coming days I’m going to bring it down another five hundred words whilst also sprinkling lots of little bits of surprise through out the script to pep it up. For now though, I’ve uploaded the post-triage version up for those with the link who want to take a look.
The first public reading will be end of April at the Brockley Jack – plenty of time for development, and by then we’ll start to have something quite exciting, performance wise. This play has been what can only be described as “a massive ball ache”, and has been far more of a struggle than I ever expected it to be, but I’m looking forward to crafting it into a taut, punchy, funny, feelly little number that still says everything I want (and hopefully goes down a treat in Edinburgh.)
Thanks to Sarah Grochala and Tony Fisher at RCSSD for hosting, the MA class for their patient audience, Ali Zaidi for stepping up to play the role – near ninety minutes of delivery, especially after just one rehearsal is a bloody tough ask – and Tanith for directing and just generally being a massive lad.