The Why Is Everything

It’s the new year and for the last few weeks we’ve been reminded to look back on 2016 to determine how we succeeded, how we failed, and most of all what we learned, blahblahblah, etc., etc.

I’m not against doing the above—it can be eye-opening and galvanizing. It can also remind us to express gratitude. It can even inspire us to pat ourselves on the back for accomplishments we had previously neglected to honor.

Nonetheless, as a creative person, I think this is actually a good time to reflect on why we create what we create.

Have you been performing your show so often that you’ve lost some of the spark?

Or are you in the middle of creating a show and getting discouraged?

As always, the why is everything. Why did you create it? Or why are you creating it?

The answer is the engine to your creative pursuit. Sometimes, when you need inspiration or guidance, all you need to do is to close your eyes, take a deep breath, and on the exhale say “I am performing/creating this show because _____.” (Remember the business card I mentioned in my first post?)

Whenever I’m asked why I created Alien Citizen, I say it’s because I had never seen a story like mine told in any medium, and I wanted to tell it for all the Third Culture Kids and multiracial folk and multilingual people and intercultural persons and girls/women who never see our multifaceted, prismatic stories on stage or screen. I don’t pretend to speak for any of the above people, but I do believe that something in my show will resonate for them, or that it will motivate them to tell their own very different and unique stories. I hope that watching me will give them courage to express themselves more often.

(I also created the show because I wanted people to stop asking me if I was from the midwestern USA. That question made me feel like my life had never happened. I’ve never lived in the Midwest.)

When I perform the show now, I do it for one person. Every time, as the nerves creep up on me at ten minutes to “Places,” I remind myself that there is one person in the audience who needs to see the show very badly. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant. I decide that it is true, and I perform the show as a reaching out, a connection, a service to that person who feels like an incurable outsider who stifles themselves in order to avoid being seen as an incomprehensible misfit.

My belief usually turns out to be true. That person is in the audience and they thank me after the show. There are frequently quite a few of them and they all “look normal.” Yet internally they have yearned to see/hear a perspective that they rarely see/hear in any medium.

But even if no one cared for the performance afterward, I would still have given my all for that one person I imagined. That’s my job.

What I don’t say when I’m asked why I created Alien Citizen is that I needed to express myself in a direct, honest way, without hiding behind a fictional character. That may be obvious for any autobiographical solo show, but the need was manifesting in curious ways before I ever performed it.

I started writing it in 2009 in bits and pieces, but a funny thing started happening between that time and the world premiere in 2013. I was getting cast in roles I understood to the bone—even when they were nothing like me on the surface. That’s a gift for which actors yearn. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as we would like.

During that period, I was cast as a Brazilian standup comic who is hired as a maid in a homogeneously WASPy town in Connecticut or New York. She is described as having “a refined sense of deadpan.” The show opens with her telling a long-form sex joke in Portuguese with a Brazilian accent.

Now, on the outside, one might think I’m not good casting for that role as I’m not a standup or Brazilian and didn’t speak Portuguese. But I am Guatemalan and my family moved from Central America to Fairfield County, Connecticut, twice in my childhood. Thus I understand to my marrow what it’s like to be a Latina who moves from Latin America to a WASPy town in the Northeastern USA. I also have some facility with language and a good ear for dialects, in part because I had to speak four languages when I was in the 8th grade in Morocco. Thus I was able to learn and understand all of the Portuguese in the show during the rehearsal period. (Shoutout to the internet and language-learning podcasts.)

Furthermore, I’ve been told countless times that I’m deadpan in my everyday life, so that character description wasn’t a stretch for me.

Most importantly, I found that I needed to play the character. We understood one another. On top of all of the above, she has experienced traumatic loss, while I had experienced a steady accumulation of less traumatic losses that became overwhelming over time. Playing that character allowed me to express so much from my life without tipping my hand to the audience—it was “safe” because I was disguised in her character.

Directly after that show I was cast as a quirky woman in Kansas who believes that aliens abducted and raped her as a child. She and I literally had nothing in common. Right after playing her, I was cast as a Southern, dutiful big sister. Again, I was not an obvious choice. Yet I understood both roles in essential, emotional ways that I was able to express on stage.

I also learned from the roles, which is another thing that every actor hopes for. The Southern big sister is in almost every scene in a long play, so I learned how to build and maintain my stamina onstage. This is vital for anyone planning to do a solo show.

In their final scenes, both roles have to master fear, and one learns to fight for herself. Directly after that show closed, I began working on Alien Citizen in earnest, writing and revising the script about my life. It was scary, but I was mastering my fear and fighting for myself.

I played my next role right before I went into rehearsals for Alien Citizen’s premiere. In that last ensemble piece, I played a multiracial, born and raised in the USA, conservative control freak who travels to her deceased mother’s homeland of Vietnam and reconciles her emotions over her troubled relationship with her mom. She is very closed off to her Vietnamese heritage until the end of the play.

She’s the opposite of me—I grew up in six countries, I’m not conservative, and neither of my parents was born or raised in Asia…and yet. I knew I was going to open my solo show in a couple of months and I was afraid that my parents might be hurt or offended by it. I had to push through my own fear, defensiveness, and self-righteousness and just accept that my folks had the right to react however they would react. I sent them the parts of the script that they were in and told them that if they didn’t want one or any of those sections to be in the play, I would remove those scenes. They didn’t object to the scenes, which was both brave and generous of them.

Among my many flaws, I find it difficult to practice forgiveness in my own life. So it was helpful and moving to play a woman who learns how to do it towards her loving parent and for herself.

I think all four of the roles that preceded my solo show trained me for the solo show.

Serendipity, perhaps.

And then Alien Citizen opened, and my life is entirely different now from what it was in 2013.

So in the few years leading up to the opening of my first solo show, I accidentally discovered that I needed to explore and reveal elements of myself in the roles that I played—more so than I had ever needed to before. Of course, I also needed to interpret the characters as they were envisioned by the playwrights and directors, but underneath that was a need to stake my claim to my own story. Those roles challenged me in ways I hadn’t encountered before and they made me a stronger and braver actor, and thus better able to create and perform my show.

Why did you create your show? Did you find yourself landing very different roles that were weirdly right for you before it opened? Or did other coincidences occur that now seem like serendipitous stepping stones to your show’s premiere?

If you’re creating a show now, why are you doing it? There’s no wrong answer. You do need to know the answer, though. In any case, you are heeding a call, you are doing it via the act of creation, and the world needs creativity and connection. It needs it in person, “live,” in a room with your fellow humans, breathing together, sharing the ephemeral moment.

Thank you for doing it, and Happy New Year.

BONUS: My favorite TED Talk, bar none. For creative pursuits…and…existence:

The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown 


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

Thank you for reading my nineteenth post! I love your comments! Please feel free to leave one below.

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It All Counts—Even 10 Minutes’ Worth

This month’s post is going to be short. By now you’ve likely read articles on how important it is to be creative and to tell your story, especially in frightening, divisive times.

It’s true. It is important, along with being an involved citizen.

But perhaps you’re feeling sluggish or blue or impatient or something else that’s preventing you from working on your show. Perhaps the show suddenly feels irrelevant—or too relevant and therefore risky.

If you haven’t done this yet, give it a try:

  1. Prepare your favorite tea/coffee/hot chocolate/smoothie/juice, etc. (Or order it if you’re at a coffee house.)
  2. Gather your pen/paper or laptop or recording device.
  3. Sit or stand in your favorite creative spot in your home/library/café, etc., your drink at hand.
  4. Turn on the recorder if you’re improvising rather than writing. (I assume you’re somewhere private if that’s the case.)
  5. Set a timer for four (4) minutes.
  6. Write or speak the reason(s) you’re not working on your show. Be blunt. Don’t stop until the timer goes off.
  7. Take a sip or two of your comforting drink. Now set the timer for six (6) minutes.
  8. Write or speak about a time in your character’s life when they couldn’t seem to do or say the thing they wanted to do or say. Include the words or actions you wish they had spoken or taken. Don’t stop until the timer goes off. (“They” can be you if your show is autobiographical, or they can be another character in your show.)
  9. If you want to keep creating (which is what you’re doing), continue.
  10. If you want to walk away, walk away.

Congratulations. You’ve done 10+ more minutes of creative work than you would have done otherwise. Maybe some of it will end up in your show, or maybe it will catalyze a new idea for your show, or maybe it will be clay that gets sculpted away. The point is, you reminded your brain and psyche that you are a person who creates.

And yes, it may be clichéd but it’s also true: we need you more than ever.

BONUS: A wonderful TED Talk reminding us of why actors, theatremakers, and storytellers are so necessary for humanity:


Thank you for reading my eighteenth post! I love your comments, so if you would like to leave one, 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.

The In-Between Time

Have you been going through a fallow period, bookings-wise? Perhaps you’re waiting for your first paid booking since you self-produced your show in a tiny black-box theatre a while back. Or perhaps your bookings were snowballing…and then came to an unexpected rest. Or perhaps you’ve only had bookings in fits and starts all along.

What to do during this time when it’s a matter of several months? Here are some tips for keeping your creative juices flowing and your spirits up:

1. Start every day doing something creative. It’s your calling, isn’t it? In my case, I work on my next show. If I begin the day that way, even if it’s only for 20 minutes to reread and tweak a single scene, it transforms the day. Most days I have to work on uninspiring, tedious administration and marketing and blahblahblah. But when I begin the day working on what I love, I always feel that my day was well spent no matter what else I did, because I pursued my purpose first.

Full disclosure: I’m writing this as a reminder to myself, having floundered in this area of late. For the past few weeks, I was just doing the necessary but boring uncreative stuff and wondering why I was feeling low. Today I finally looked at my next show’s latest draft, which needs a lot of work…and the day felt brighter. No matter what I do or don’t accomplish today, I’ll have begun the day right.

Now, you may have a day job or hold several part-time jobs in order to make ends meet. Perhaps your workdays start early, so the thought of waking up even earlier to work on something creative may feel oppressive, because you love and need your sleep. I feel you—I’m not a morning person myself. Thus I recommend doing the creative work whenever you can…but try to do it several times per week. Give yourself permission to only work for 10 minutes if that’s all you’ve got. You can write an entire scene in that time.

I rewrote the first draft of my first show late at night because I had several part-time jobs at the time. While I had more than 10 minutes, it could still take a while to get going—I’d sit down to write at 9:30pm but only begin at 11pm. (The void of Facebook.) It didn’t matter. I got it done and have no regrets about how or when I worked on it because I now have a show and it’s gone places.

So keep creating during this period between bookings. Even a doodle a day can lift the spirits and keep your creativity alive.

2. Set a timer for your creative work. By now we all know that boundaries/limits/ parameters increase creative output—they don’t decrease it. Your brain will find ways to transcend limits if it has to. If it doesn’t have to, it may just become distracted by social media or the laundry.

Setting a timer works like gangbusters for me. If I set a timer to work on my new show for one hour, I will accomplish more in that hour than I would if I gave myself an open-ended stretch during which to create. It’s too easy to check my email when I don’t have a time limit. I’ve used an old-fashioned kitchen timer; the Pomodoro app; and online timers that can be found via Google. (Try it: Google “20 minute timer.”)

A time limit has many emotional similarities to a deadline. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I consider deadlines to be invaluable to the creative process.

3. Take care of yourself. I know it’s obvious, but some of us can get a bit slack with this, especially when we feel like we’re in limbo. Drink enough water, move your body regularly, go appreciate someone else’s artistic output at a museum or theatre or wherever you find inspiration, eat your fruits and veggies, meditate (there are some terrific three-minute meditations out there)…you know the drill.

I must add: do the healthy things that you enjoy. If drinking water bores you then pour in a dollop of juice—it’s not Sugar City if it’s just a dollop. If there’s only one kind of exercise you like, and it involves strolling with a pet, that counts. If you’re going through a phase during which you can’t bear to look at something emotionally painful (like Picasso’s Guernica) then look for art that gives you solace (like music that soothes or cheers you up). If a Sorolla exhibit comes to your neck of the woods, I can’t recommend his paintings of people at the beach highly enough. Instant cheer-up! (They don’t “translate” on a computer screen, so if you Google him, the images likely won’t do much for you, unfortunately.)

This entire year I’ve been working hard at taking good physical care of myself due to a lower back injury. I’m not in pain—it’s mostly just irritating—but it’s a longtime problem that needs to be resolved. So I’ve been doing everything I can to heal for some time now—chiropractic, acupuncture, cupping, special exercises, icing my back, avoiding sitting for more than 20 minutes at a time, etc. I think the past six months without bookings has been a necessary respite. Performing my show always exacerbates the problem, even though I’ve completely modified the blocking to accommodate my back. So six months off has likely been the best thing for my body in terms of healing.

This period between bookings will likely end. Meanwhile, you’ll have honored your creativity and perhaps even drafted a new show…which you’ll want to workshop for theatre friends you trust…which will get the ball rolling for a whole new production!

Just keep making things. That’s the stuff of life.

BONUS: An excellent article on how persistence, patience, and continuing to create can pay off in the end.


Thank you for reading my seventeenth post! I love your comments, so if you would like to leave one, 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.

When They Don’t Know What It Takes

So let’s say you’ve started touring your show at venues that are actually covering expenses and paying you. Congratulations! If you’re in the USA, I’m guessing that most of the bookings are at colleges and universities. Sweet! I’m also guessing that the show might be getting booked at conferences or other private events. Lovely!

Now, you don’t have a booking agent yet, so you’re doing all of the work: reaching out, promoting, following up again and again, negotiating your rate when somebody finally expresses serious interest, and figuring out the logistics when the booking is confirmed. Not to mention rehearsing regularly and staying in physical and vocal shape for your show.

Or you might have a booking agent and still be doing a ton of work because the agent has numerous clients they’re promoting and you want more bookings than they can get you individually. That’s normal unless you’re a celebrity, in which case you’re probably not reading this blog.

In order to coordinate the details for each booking, you’ve been corresponding with the campus/venue/organization’s liaison. Lots of back and forth, answering questions, etc. So by now you’ve realized something: not every liaison understands what theatre is, nor what it takes to present a solo show.

Sigh.

Watch out for these warning signs that the liaison is…er…uninformed:

1. They may not want to provide enough time for a tech rehearsal, even though they want the show with all the bells and whistles: lighting, sound, projections—and even though they won’t pay for your own techie to accompany you. They expect their techie to magically understand the timing for every cue, without having enough time to practice running every cue. Bwahaha!

  • Try not to lose it when you have to explain for the third time that this show is not a lecture delivered at a podium. (Didn’t they see the trailer? And when have they ever seen a lecture delivered with light changes and countless sound cues, and not just projections???)
  • Be prepared for the under-rehearsed techie to make several mistakes during the show that lead to a domino effect of woe.
    • At one venue, I had to stop mid-performance twice to tell the techie how to fix the cues. Fun fun fun.

2. They may hire a “professional” technical operator who reveals themselves to be less experienced during tech.

  • You’ve had one person in the booth running the lights, sound, and projections in the past and they did a great job, so you know it’s possible. Nonetheless, it may be very hard for some techies to multitask in that way if your show is cue-heavy.
  • Be prepared to ask for two booth operators if your show is cue-heavy.
  • To spare yourself these headaches, consider cutting down the cues in your touring version.

3. The liaison may request the show with all the bells and whistles, and then mere days before your arrival, ask you repeatedly if you actually need someone to run the lights. Um…what?

  • Do not be surprised if the person they finally find to run the lights has never worked in theatre.
    • Try not to panic about this. They can run your simple lighting cues at least marginally well if they’re a functioning human who can also read a script. After all, they turn lights on and off every day in their own home.
      • Even if they mess up, you’ll still do your job well, and the show will work despite the technical glitches.
  • Of course, after the liaison sees the show, they’ll understand about the lights.
    • But maybe not even then. Take that as a compliment: it means your performance was so riveting that the design elements barely penetrated the liaison’s consciousness. You rock!

4. The liaison may fail to alert you to the fact that the person learning the cues at the rehearsal is not the person who will run the cues during the performance. You may learn this in the middle of tech. Wh…wh…whaaaaaa—?

  • When this happened to me, I was fortunate to be accompanied by my husband. He had never run the cues for this or any other show, but he is a brilliant man and was my savior at that booking.
  • As obvious as it may seem, you must nonetheless stipulate in advance that the techie in rehearsal has to be the techie at performance.

5. The liaison may do everything perfectly before the show…and then botch the opening because they don’t understand that the whole thing is an intricate work of choreography between the techie and yourself, so any new element will throw off the rhythm. For example:

  • The liaison may fail to tell you that someone will deliver a speech right before your show. Perhaps you’re like me and have lovingly chosen pre-show music that is followed by a specific song that plays while the lights go down, which gives the piece a certain ambiance right from the get-go. Your techie will have to figure out how to coordinate the sound and light cues around the speech without stopping and starting them abruptly and making things seem disjointed, since the cues were built to flow from one to the next without interruption.
    • Remember to thank the techie afterward. They are the show until you say your first line.
  • The liaison may fail to instruct staff to not bother you as you’re about to make your entrance.
    • At one non-theatre venue, a random volunteer tried to to give me a handheld mic as I began my performance, even though I had never once expressed a need for a handheld mic and in fact was wearing a lavalier that worked fine. I had never even met this volunteer. I’ll let you imagine the awkwardness that ensued. Woohoo!

6. If the venue has problematic acoustics, they may give you the type of lavalier mic that flops around on your collar, causing dull thuds and loud brushing sounds at inopportune moments during the show.

  • Bring some body tape that will help to stabilize the thing somehow.
  • Good luck.

7. They may expect you to set up in 10 minutes when you normally need 30-45 minutes.

  • I assume that your cues are on your laptop. When setting up, you or the techie will need to make sure that your laptop can “speak” to the projector. This can take up to 45 minutes if the venue’s projector is testy.
    • Every other venue’s projector is a special snowflake. From hell.
  • You’ll make it work. You’ll just be harried as all getout, which is exactly how you want to feel right before you do a sprint triathlon while emoting, which is what a solo show is. Oh, wait, no, that’s now how you wanna feel. (I’ve completed a sprint tri so I know whereof I speak.)
    • Nevertheless, you’ll make it all work. As usual.

8. They may not warn you that even though you’ll be performing in a theatre, this particular one has no dressing room, no green room, nothing. You may find yourself motionless in a two-square-foot area in the tiny wing for 20 minutes before “places” is called. If you budge, the audience will be able to see you before the show starts…thus ruining the reveal.

  • Of course, you can open your show the opposite way: idling on stage in full light as the audience enters, or taking a seat in the house and chatting with them, no fadeout, etc.
    • This wouldn’t work for my show but I understand why some solo performers keep their top of show “loose.” Smart for touring.

9. They may fail to tell you that the theatre has multiple entrances, every one of which will be locked when you arrive. You’ll learn this because you’ll make your way slowly around the building, pulling your super-heavy carry-on with all the props in it as you try every single entrance. The only way in will be through some labyrinthine tunnel shown to you by a kind stranger who does not work at the theatre.

  • Isn’t touring  your solo show a blast? Yippee!

10. They may fail to tell you that your show has been slotted in between class periods. So you will be unpleasantly surprised when, at the 50-minute mark, 90% of your audience walks out.

  • I just kept going as the mass exodus occurred over the last 30 minutes of my 80-minute performance. Good times!

11. They may only pay you enough to cover expenses. You may find out later how much they paid their previous keynote speaker. You will learn the difference between celebrities’ stipends and non-celebs’ stipends, and boy howdy, it’s a doozy. It will be particularly shocking when you know that the celeb just stood behind a podium and read an essay they wrote, while you used your entire body to play over 30 roles, covering every inch of the playing space.

  • Don’t be bitter. They had no idea what to expect from your show even if they saw some footage online. No one truly knows what you do until they see you do it “live.” And we’re not celebrities, so we’re proving ourselves with every performance, because we have to.
  • Just make a note of what to charge when you’re better known, cuz baby needs a new pair of shoes and pronto.

12. They may forget to pay you. You may not realize it yourself until you’ve parted ways because you’ve been so focused on the tech rehearsal and performance.

  • You will get paid eventually because the agreement is in writing, but if you were counting on that income to pay some big bills the very next day…
  • The first time you have a paid booking, put as much of the money into savings as you can, precisely because a future booking might pay you late.

There’s more but of course the moral is obvious: have a contract. Not a letter of agreement—a contract. The more pages with more stipulations in legalese, the better.

Now let’s say that you’re just starting out and deeply need (psychologically and/or financially) any paid bookings coming your way. You may not feel ready for a fancy contract because you’re afraid it will scare prospective customers away.

You’re right in some cases. If I had used my current contract back in 2014, I’m sure I wouldn’t have booked some of my performances that year, because the liaisons would’ve run scared. I did have a letter of agreement that helped to prevent various problems not listed above. I tweaked it over time to prevent some of the above after I had experienced the pain. However, while it was a proper document that would hold up in a court of law, it did not look like a There Are Actual Lawyers Involved contract. A very serious-looking contract shows the liaison that they’re booking a serious professional, so the liaison had better have their act together.

I don’t regret using my old letter of agreement when I toured my show in the past, and I’ll always be grateful for every paid booking. But now I understand more fully what the show offers and how much my work is worth. Plus, I’m at a different psychological place with the show itself. I love touring it and I know the toll it takes on me if the venue’s staff aren’t able to support the performance in a knowledgeable, professional manner. If a liaison wants to book my show, they will sign the new contract, which will make the above list of painful experiences unlikely because they would literally be in breach of contract, legally speaking.

Even if you want to stick with a two-page letter of agreement vs. a 10-page contract-with-rider, I urge you to add some specifications based on my warnings above. Seriously: make sure that every liaison agrees to give you directions on how to enter the venue and lets you know if there are events (like classes) scheduled 50 minutes after the show begins, and make sure they sign the agreement. (Because come on. That was some ridonkulousness I shouldn’t have had to go through.)

As for me, I’ve been touring my show for a few years now. I’ve seen how it affects people from different walks of life and I know what it takes to give them my best performance. I’m ready to take the next step. Intimidatingly Professional Performer Land, here I come, contract in hand.

BONUS: Here’s a fantastic post on all the jobs involved in being a touring solo performer. I swear, somebody throw us a parade!


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

Thank you for reading my sixteenth post! I love your comments, so if you would like to leave one, 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.

How To Cut Material from a Bloated Show (or How To Choose, Part 2): Guest Post by Scott Barry

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.

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.

Thank you for reading my fourteenth post! I love your comments, so if you would like to leave one, 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.

Getting Unstuck: How To Go from Ideas To Script

Ready to create your show but have no idea how to begin? Or do you have written material but don’t like the way it sounds when you read/perform it aloud? (Too formal, too wordy, etc.?)

This is a tried-and-true, easy method to produce material for a solo show or to revise a scene so that it flows more naturally. I mentioned it in my From Defeat to Celebration post, but I’ll go into more detail here.

1a. If you know which parts of your life you want to include, choose any story from one of those periods. If you don’t know which parts of your life you want to include, then choose any story from your life—the first one that pops into your mind is usually just right.
1b. If the story is already written and you want to revise it, skip to the next step.

2. Tell the story out loud to a recording device–audio or video, it doesn’t matter. Smart phones usually have both kinds of apps.
2b. If the story is written, don’t read it. Just improvise (yes, you can improvise the telling of a true story) and record the improv.

3. Physically and verbally reenact the events in the story as much as possible. For instance, if your scene depicts you riding a bike to school: mime the act of riding the bike and say your age, where you are, where you’re going and why, and describe what you see/hear/smell/taste/feel. Mention as many sensory elements as you can remember.

4. Go for it. There is no wrong way to do this. It is not about trying to be “good” or “interesting” or any such thing at this point. Forget all that. You’re simply telling your story in a safe space with as much detail as possible. Include every single detail that you care about.

5. When you’re finished, walk away. 

6. The next day, watch or listen to it and transcribe it word for word.

  • How we tell our stories off the top of our heads is usually more dynamic than any essay we’ll ever write.
  • If you already had a written version of the scene, the improvised version is the edit. You can also merge the original written version with the improvised monologue to “finesse” the scene, if you like.

7. Do this for every scene in your show. Choosing what stays in the final draft comes later. I’ll write about that in another post.

The main thing you’ll learn from this process: “telling” it takes fewer words than writing it because facial expression, body language, and specific gestures are microcosms of storytelling on their own. Your body and face will encompass worlds within the story, which will both enrich it and save precious stage time.

I’m excited for you to learn and discover and hopefully be liberated by this process! Go forth, mighty solo show performer, and tell it like it was and is. Your story wants to be told by you, in your way, with your words, off the top of your magnificent head.

BONUS: Great stuff on developing characters for your solo show:


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

Thank you for reading my thirteenth post! I love your comments, so if you would like to leave one, 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.