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Writing Comedy: From Page to Rehearsal to Stage

I had the extreme pleasure of watching my new play (co-written with a team of student writers), Grandparents’ War, at its debut the other night. Once the audience shows up and the lights go down, everything changes, and a writer finally gets to see (and hear) if the words he has written resonate off the page or not.

Yes, the actors have a lot to do with this. A great acting performance can make up for a poorly written script.

When I’m writing comedy, I never really know what will be funny and how funny certain lines actually are until there’s a live audience. I know what is funny to me, and certain lines I write certainly make me chuckle as I visualize in my head how this would play out on the stage. Once the script is written, I can only hope it will translate well and resonate with the actors and audience.

The first indication of whether my writing has succeeded or not is when I give the script to the actors. I finally get, for the first time, an unbiased look at how funny it actually might be. The initial read-through is a discovery for the actors, director and writer, as the actors see how the action and characters unfold and I get to watch their reactions to the lines or antics of the play.

Then when we move on to rehearsals, (especially once the script is memorized) I finally get a solid glimpse as to how the movement, plot and dialogue all work together to create the absurd and unexpected delights which make people laugh. This is where an actor can really create a special connection with a script and bring out comedy that I didn’t even write into the script.

By the time it all is ready for the premiere, I have a general idea if I think it will be successful or not. I was cautiously optimistic about Grandparents’ War.

I love the script of Grandparents’ War. It is, in many ways, politically incorrect as we work through many stereotypes and cross-cultural issues which create havoc in the relationships that the characters have with each other. There are many, I think, very funny lines, which ultimately entertain while carrying a subtle, positive message about family and the importance of ethnic diversity. Ultimately, however, it’s the audience which decides if the script is a success.

On Wednesday, when the crowd began to interact with the performance, I knew we had a hit on our hands. People called it, “laugh-out loud” funny. Someone said they couldn’t stop laughing. The actors had them exactly where they wanted them.

And then it happens, as it always does, the audience laughs at very unexpected moments.  Certain actors seize the moment and capture the imagination of the audience, making, it seems, nearly everything he or she does funny.

For our production of Grandparents’ War, it was Raj, the Indian love interest of Cordelia, played brilliantly by the Caucasian American actor, who stole the show.  His appearance, his mannerisms, his movements, his facial expressions brought rolling laughter throughout the play.

During one scene towards the end, when Jia Guo and the Colonel are bareing their souls to one another by telling each other where they were when their first child was born, Raj breaks the silence and with a dead-pan voice says the innocuous line, “I was in India.”  The crowd roared in laughter. The line worked far better than I ever could have anticipated because of the beautifully timed way the actor said it.

This is what I love about live theater. It’s scripted spontaneity. It structured improv. It’s all about bringing a script to life and letting the writer know if he or she has accomplished his writing objectives.

By the amount of laughter I heard on Wednesday, I cannot be anything but pleased.  I can’t wait to see the final two shows on Saturday.

 

Discipline + Imagination + Bravery = ?

Here’s another connection between acting and writing.

I found this equation in one of my drama books:

Discipline + Imagination + Bravery = Success!

I couldn’t have said it better for either acting or writing. Let’s break this down a little bit:

DISCIPLINE

An actor has to be disciplined in putting in the homework to properly understand the role. You have to understand the given circumstances of the play. You have to pick apart the dialogue and understand if what the character is saying is actually true.  You have to dig deep into the subtext in order to understand your character’s attitudes, emotions, and actions at a subconscious level. And you have to do all of these things as you learn the lines, practice with the other cast members, and try to fulfill the desires of the director.

Writers: As a writer, the first part of discipline is in the act of writing. You have to do it. Regularly. Whether you feel like it or not. Whether the ideas are flowing or not. Writers have to write if they are to be called writers. Besides this, writers have to research, and have to understand historical and cultural contexts. There is a lot of disciplined work required to be a writer.

IMAGINATION

An actor has to fill-in the gaps. The script only says so much. An actor has to take the imagination and make a three-dimensional characterization that goes well beyond the written page. Actors may also have to use their imaginations to act in scenes which experience doesn’t cover. Imagination is crucial for acting.

Writing: So much of writing is imagination. A thought comes to your mind, or a vision of a character, or a word, or a name. The imagination must take that small fragment and go places which are not obvious. In my novel, I had to imagine how to get a penniless, battered, Vietnamese woman into a position where she could escape Vietnam and end up in an unlikely place as rural Pennsylvania. Writers have to go places, sometimes hard places which leads us to …

BRAVERY

Actors have to be incredibly brave if they want their performance to be authentic. Sometimes, they need to unmask the hurt and painful moments of their own lives in order to touch that human emotion that is genuine in such a way that it will move the audience. It’s easy to see an actor who is not brave enough, or who has not put enough honest work into their role. Their performance is flat and unbelievable. But when an actor is brave, the performance can be magical and transforming.

Writing: Writers are such easy targets of criticism that to be successful, one needs thick skin, and a lot of courage to go on in the face of all of the critics. Good writers must be honest with themselves. If a writer only wants to sugarcoat subjects, I believe they will never be a serious communicator of the human condition. It is not easy. Whatever you write will be assumed to be what you think or what you have experienced, whether true or not. It’s an uncomfortable positioned in which to be placed. But good writers don’t compromise a story to placate anyone else. Good writers are fearless, willing to go places where others are unwilling to go. Good writers must be brave!

My goal is simple, I want to put this equation into practice.

Discipline + Imagination + Bravery = Success!

Auditions Day 1: Reflections

I started auditions today for our new play “Grandparents’ War” (more on the play later!) and I had 12 young actors, bright and spry, opening themselves up for critique. Talk about frightening. Is there anything more unsettling than drama auditions? Okay, well, perhaps there is. But actors have to really bare their soul in unique ways that other artists, perhaps, do not. (Feel free to argue!)

There is no blending in in acting such as one can blend in with a band ensemble or choir. Actors purposefully have to stand out, but they don’t just have to stand out and be themselves; they have to boldly portray someone else who may be completely different from their own personality. Actors have to reach deep down in themselves and discover uncomfortable places in order to proclaim the authentic experience of the one they are playing. Because of this great acting is so challenging, and that is why it is rather easy as a viewer to pick out the movies  or shows who have second-rate actors. The level of authenticity often isn’t there. The actors haven’t done the proper work to bring the role alive. That’s why I love watching someone like Anthony Hopkins who is an all-encompassing professional at his trade. He doesn’t act. He lives. He lives as the character.

I admire every single one of the brave individuals who did their monologues and read their lines today. I wish I could give everyone a role.

That is exactly why I hate casting.

Tomorrow – Day 2. More soul-baring to come.

Don’t Judge a Character

Recently, I started teaching my new Intro to Theater Arts class. One important facet of acting which has been reinforced with me lately is the idea that an actor should not  judge a character.

Think about it. When we see someone doing something bad, we tend to label him or her a “bad person.” Instant judgment. It makes total sense. A murderer has committed a crime against the moral standards that society has deemed to be acceptable. That fact in itself makes that person “bad”.

But as an actor, what happens immediately after you judge the character you are planning on playing? You have taken away the character’s main objective for doing what he or she has to do. Bad people don’t look at themselves as being bad. Far from it! They are merely doing what they think is necessary for their given circumstances.

I can see this in writing as well. In my novel “Beauty Rising”, Martin’s mother could certainly be looked on as a “bad person” for being so overbearing and abusive towards Martin and especially for what she does later in the novel. (no spoiler here)  But in her mind, everything she does is grandly justified. The situation compels her to act the way she does which, unfortunately, leaves a wake of destruction in its path. The consequences of her actions are not important to her, or at least she is willing to live with them because  her objectives, however misguided they may be, are the most important things for her. In other words, the stakes are high.

An actor chosen to play Martin’s mother would have to put aside all judgments and delve deep into her psyche to find the justification for her actions. Judging her up-front would only put up an unnecessary barrier making her true-being much less revealed in the final performance.

In this way, writing is similar to acting. A writer has to build in the necessary tension and obstacles, the necessary back-story and conflict in order for the character to be believable – this often means going to uncomfortable places, but I believe it is crucial in building a character that speaks authentically from the pages.

Readers can judge away!  Actors and writers don’t have that luxury.