I’m very pleased to announce that produced playwright, screenwriter, and solo performer Scott Barry wrote today’s entry. After I shared my last post on how to choose which scenes to keep in your overlong script, Scott made a very insightful observation on Facebook about my suggestion to keep the story “on theme”:
“If your aim is to write a theme-driven show or a character-based show with variations on a theme then I would agree. If you’re aiming at a plot-driven show then I would add to each scene this examination: does it argue for or against the theme, does it move the plot forward and take the story emotionally and psychologically deeper? Also, on the latter, is there a desire line, with direct story conflict? I have to say it’s what I don’t get nearly enough of in solo theater today: characters with desires, on quests to get something or change something or solve something, with obstacle after unsolvable obstacle, and life and death stakes (even if just in their minds). I miss causation where each scene, decision, action, reaction, leads to the next—for better or worse—as opposed to episodic tours of thematically related events. I miss story velocity and dramatic questions (as opposed to philosophical questions) that leave me wanting, or at least wondering how the hell this is all going to work out—until the very end.”
I agree wholeheartedly with the above, so I asked Scott to expand on it. He generously did, with this caveat: “I’m a big believer in people following their creative impulses and breaking all rules of convention, etc., if that’s their path. What I’ve written is what works for me.” You’ll see where his suggestions converge with my last post and then go into new territory that I wish I had thought to add myself:
Years ago I was sitting in the Geary Theatre in San Francisco watching my idol Spalding Gray perform his monologue “It’s a Slippery Slope.” To say that I was enthralled would be an understatement. And yet, somewhere towards the end of the show I looked at my watch. He was eighty minutes in. And then I happened to glance down my row and two other people had their watches out. A thought occurred: even if you’re Spalding Gray you get eighty minutes.
Cut to a few years later and I’ve proudly completed the first draft of my first solo show in a burst of creative bliss. Handwritten in a spiral notebook no less. And with a pencil!
I typed it up. It was two hundred pages, i.e. two hundred minutes long. Oh crap. And it was autobiographical. Everything in it had meaning—to me.
What began that day is a process I still use to make those dreaded cuts.
1. I write an outline (or what I like to call, “Running the gauntlet”):
- I start with a logline and/or a brief description of the story. Honestly, I suck at these but the point isn’t to get them right. The point is to learn something about my story. I always do.
- I write out the themes and values at stake. Love, power, truth, family, fame, loss, etc.
- I try to write an operating question or statement (even if it sounds cliché) that can be argued from both sides. E.g.: “Love conquers all.”
- I write detailed character descriptions.
- I write a “beat sheet” where in one or two sentences I try to describe what happens in every scene. Often, when I struggle to articulate what is happening in a scene—nothing is happening. When I try to describe how the scene illuminates the theme—it doesn’t. Same for characters.
- Then with my eyes on that beat sheet I ask some tough questions:
- Does each scene move the story forward?
- Does it provide new information?
- Does it take the story emotionally or psychologically deeper?
- Does it argue for or against the theme?
And if the answer is “no”: most often it goes. If for some reason in my gut it’s essential and I just can’t articulate why, or maybe it’s incredibly funny, it stays. After all, we’re artists, not accountants.
2. Once I’ve paired the material down close to its intended running time, I ask one last question:
- Is the overall shape of my story as esthetically pleasing as the parts themselves? If not, there might be some more trimming or moving of parts.
3. Then, and only then, do I give it to trusted friends to read.
4. And then, and only then do I workshop it whole or in parts in front of audiences of people I don’t know and see what flies and what doesn’t.
Because even if you’re Spalding Gray—you get eighty minutes.
Thank you, Scott, for sharing your process with us! It’s practical and thorough; shows a deep understanding of the art of good storytelling; and leaves room for impulses and the mysterious alchemy that tend to accompany creative endeavors. Readers, for more information on Scott and his work, go to: RisethePlay.com.
And thank you, dear readers, for checking out SuitcaseFactory’s fifteenth post! If you would like to leave a comment for Scott, but don’t see a “Leave a Reply” box below, scroll to the top and click on “Leave a Comment” or “# Comments” under the post title.