How To Choose

Have you amassed enough material for your show to create a nine-part miniseries?

Does it feel like every scene and character is vital because It’s Your Life And Every Bit Of It Made You Who You Are And You’ve Got To Honor All Of It So It’s Impossible To Choose?

And have you made sure that everything is thematically connected so there are no obvious scenes to cut? (If the answer is no, I highly recommend Alicia Dattner’s excellent posts on how to make sure of this: here and here.)

Meanwhile, do you know in your head and heart that you must make cuts, if for no other reason than that you don’t want to learn 15 hours’ worth of lines…but you’re stumped on how to edit the piece?

Here are my tips on how to choose which scenes to keep in your show:

1. Create an outline of it.

  • You should be able to eyeball the list of scenes on a few pages instead of having to flip through the whole script.

2. In the margin, write the theme for each scene next to the scene’s heading.

  • Examples: family dynamics, addiction, miscommunication, developing self respect, and so on. You know your themes best.
  • The themes should have a common thread, which is the overarching theme. Again, if they don’t, click on the links above to learn how to make it happen.
    • Example: my show’s overarching theme is How Displacement Can Affect Identity. (The logline is a lot catchier: Who Are You When You’re from Everywhere and Nowhere?)
  • Each scene’s theme is actually a subtheme of the show’s overarching one.

3. Count how many times a subtheme comes up.

4. If a subtheme pops up five or more times, cull those instances down to between one and three. (Four, tops.)

  • Each instance should feature a different facet of the subtheme.
    • Examples: in one scene of my show, characters think I’m adopted when they see me with my biological mom. In another scene, my classmates bully me over what they perceive to be my race. In another, I lose friends who misunderstand something I say about race. In another, a stranger denies part of my racial heritage to my face.
      • These moments are separated by many other scenes in the show. They serve as echoes rather than duplicates, and they highlight the fact that race has been a recurring personal issue throughout my life in different ways. Some moments are played for laughs and some are serious.
  • You can, of course, duplicate a moment if it was repeated in the same way throughout your life and that’s your point. But be sparing: the audience doesn’t need to witness it more than a few times if it’s exactly—or almost exactly—the same each time.
    • Duplicate moments are best kept short. A single sentence, a gesture, or a combination of the two will do.

5. If your subthemes have already been culled but the show is still way too long, here’s my tried-and-true dirty secret method for choosing what to keep: present a 60-minute version of your show to an actual audience.

  • The deadline should be non-negotiable. It can come from a class, a workshop, or your own small gathering of trusted theatre friends whom you’ve invited to watch the hourlong version in your living room. If it’s the latter: you must feed them and you may not mess with their schedules by backing out or delaying. This is real.
  • Wait until midnight-ish the night before the presentation.
  • Stand in your living room in your pajamas, cursing and sweating, holding a pen and a hard copy of the outline, and on anxious, irritable, possibly even belligerent instinct: circle the scenes you think could have the most impact on the audience. (Note: impact doesn’t have to equal fervor. A quiet moment can have great impact.)
    • If you’re convinced that all the scenes have equal impact, then choose randomly.
      • You read that right.
      • Yup. It’s how I did it.
      • It’s ok. You’re not carving this on stone tablets. You’re just trying something out for tomorrow’s (today’s! it’s past midnight!) presentation.
      • You will find out in less than 24 hours if the 60-minute version works overall, and what can stay or go.
      • You can add scenes back and delete others after this. We’re not writing in blood on sacred papyrus here.

In other words, when push comes to shove: just make choices and try them. Figuratively speaking, you’re throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. (It’s good spaghetti, so calm down. I honor your spaghetti.)

When you’re in rehearsal for the world premiere, your director will be an excellent dramaturg if they’re worth their salt, and that will make an enormous difference. But for now, try the above.

Let me know how this works for you. I hope you come away with a shorter, performable draft of your show that you feel good about. I would love to see it.

BONUS: In this video, This American Life’s Ira Glass gives excellent advice on storytelling for radio, much of which can be applied to solo shows:

Announcement: I’m leading new solo show and memoir workshops in August and September. Give me a holler here if interested.

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