First of all: wonderful!
Not to mention: yoiks!
And finally: YES.
You’re embarking on one of the greatest adventures a person can take. It will be a roller coaster, a swamp slog, a winged flight, a quicksand sink, a melancholy stroll, a thrill ride, a gory brawl, a hilarious road trip with friends, a lonely trudge, and a journey of a thousand metaphorical miles…that are absolutely worth walking.
Five major tips I can give you as a person who wrote, produced, and acts in her own one-woman show and has managed to tour it around the USA and three continents:
1. Write down the reason(s) that you want to create this show. Every possible reason is valid. Then write a short, straightforward version on the back of a business card* and place the card where you can see it every time you work on the show. Here’s my card for my first show–I propped it against my laptop stand:
2. Deadlines will save you. A call for submissions, a contest, a class that assigns work due by particular dates, will all help you to make progress. If you’re someone who is most accountable toward others, then I recommend you take a class in which the instructor and your classmates will expect to experience your work each week. A class in which you must present a complete rough draft of the whole piece (or a whole scene) in the last session can make all the difference.
3. Your classmates are a precious source of courage and tenacity if you do take a workshop or class. When I was writing my first show I took two workshops—one for playwriting and one for solo shows—and while both instructors gave valuable feedback and instruction, the gold of those classes were my classmates. Watching them be brave and share their work every single week made it impossible for me to hang back and hide. I watched them make progress, stumble, fall, get up, stumble again, and fly as they presented that week’s work…which gave me the impetus and stamina to keep working on my show. Almost every week I’d find myself thinking, “If s/he’s brave enough to share that, and the sky hasn’t fallen, then maybe I can share my story about ____,” or “If s/he can fail to engage us this week after doing amazing work for the past month, then my ‘failures’ are likely temporary, too…and just as important as the victories.” Above all, I learned from my classmates: about storytelling and about living.
4. Listen to all feedback. From classmates, instructors, trusted colleagues for whom you workshop segments of your show, and your director. They may say things you don’t agree with, but that will help you to clarify your intent with that scene or character. You cannot see/hear your own work. Even watching it on video isn’t the same as being another human with their own perspective. If more than one person says they want to know more about ___, or wants you to slow down, or doesn’t know why that scene is in the show, etc., listen to them. Experiment with their suggestions. You may need to rewrite or cut something, or just perform it differently. Sometimes a long sentence can be replaced with a physical gesture that is more immediate and effective. If you trust someone’s feedback even when you don’t fully understand it, you may come to understand it over time—sometimes you have to do something repeatedly for it to click. (And if that moment never comes, then, of course: do it the way that feels justified to you.)
5. Your director is also your dramaturg. You may feel wedded to certain scenes or to the order in which you’ve placed them, but you must listen to your director’s feedback about the text and structure, not just the performance. Give your director credit for her/his dramaturgy. The greatest things my director, Sofie Calderon, did for me:
- She made me justify everything that she wanted me to change or toss if I was stubbornly holding onto it. I had to rewrite it or perform it in such a way that it moved the story forward, or gave it rich, fun detail. If I couldn’t make it worthy in her eyes it had to go.
- She made me use my whole body and the whole stage. I couldn’t just stand there and mumble, which was my instinct, because I was petrified even after decades of acting. (If you and your director are taking the Spaulding Gray sitting-behind-a-desk approach, this tip is not applicable, of course.)
*I got the business card idea from superb writer/editor/coach Terri Wagener.
BONUS: A gajillion websites and articles have been helpful to me on this journey. I’ll share at least one with each blog post. Take what works for you, discard the rest, as with any advice.
- Rise and shine: the daily routines of history’s most creative minds by Oliver Burkeman [The Guardian review (including edited extracts) of Daily Rituals by Mason Currey]
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