Lessons Learned from Self-producing a Reading

Heartbreak: New Plays by Mackenzie Worrall

If you want it done right, sometimes you have to do it yourself. That's why I'll usually produce my own readings for works in progress. I hit up the owner of Kafe Kerouac who very generously lends his coffee shop out to literary groups around the city. If you're in Columbus, I can't emphasize enough how much of a help Mike is to the local scene. (Plus, the Toni Morrison is to die for.)

I did a few things differently than the last time. So... maybe, just maybe, these lessons will stick for the next reading.

1. Marketing is Important

This is something I know. I tried some new things this time (Facebook! Telling people in person!), but my turn out wasn't as high as last time. In part, that was intentional. My audience last time was so huge that I don't think I got a lot of quality feedback. To fix it, I intentionally advertised less.

The result? I knew all but two people personally. More people stayed for the feedback, but it was almost entirely positive comments.

Yay, my ego.

However, I organize a reading to hear the negative things. So. Next time. Tell fewer people in person; advertise more around town in coffee shops. This awesome poster (partly seen in the featured image of this post) was handmade by the talented Maddie Gobbo and only Facebook got to see its glory. So far. It's too awesome to stop using. It'll see the light of day again.

2. Have Someone Else Run Your Talkback

The amazing and super, super smart Chris Leyva ran the talkback after the show. This is something I love to do, but I also know that I'm too close to my own work to do it right. This was the first time someone else took the reigns for me. Even if I could only give him credit for talking while I frantically wrote things down, that would be enough to be life changing.

However, Chris took the conversation in valuable and interesting directions. He pursued lines of thought I would've glanced over.

That night was also his first night seeing my plays. I gave him no preparation. (Thanks, Chris!)

Lesson learned? Always have someone else run your talkback. And if possible, make that person Chris Leyva.

3. Skype is an Acceptable Rehearsal tool

I've never used Skype outside of my marketing work. This time, I used it to rehearse two separate actors who couldn't attend my main rehearsal. The play was mostly monologues. With Skype, we did a face-to-face reading and I gave each actor separate notes. The reading was their first time doing it together.

You know what? It worked.

Now that I know Skype is fine, I may start looking for actors outside of Columbus. I can rehearse them ahead of time and they can come in for the reading. Wow. Modern technology, am I right?

Thanks

Finally, I can't thank the following people enough for their involvement. Adam Greenbaum Latek, Emily Bartelt, Alexander Sanchez, Scott Riser, K.C. Novak, Jordan Shear, and Amy Hall were my talented group of actors. Madeline Gobbo for the poster, Ethan Roberts of Cinema Parmesean for the recording, Mike and Kafe Kerouac for the space, and Chris Leyva for making it all worthwhile.

More info to come on what happens to these plays! The submissions process has begun. I'm also planning on producing them right here in Columbus. Don't worry. I won't let you miss the announcement when that happens.

9 out of 10 Things You Write Are Crap

9 out of 10 Things You Write are Crap

In college playwriting, we only ever talked about the structure of a play and how to construct it. We approached it from the artistic point of view. What I've found myself longing for is an approach to writing from the business perspective. Second City, while also a very funny place, has been expanding and making money for more than 50 years. They know a few things about the business of writing.

9 Out of 10 Sketches Suck

Second City produces a lot of work. They have at least four shows running at a time. Each show has up to 30 sketches in it. That's 120 hilarious sketches. That means that about 1080 sketches were also written that really blew. Thinking of it that way, I feel a lot better about my own writing.

With that in mind, the focus of our class was on idea generation. We worked with various ways to come up with new ideas, individually and collaboratively.

The Del Close Set Up

Del Close was a Second City actor and director who put a lot of thought into how to come up with new ideas quickly. The idea of this exercise is to write the first three lines of a sketch and then move on. After you have a bunch of beginnings, you can choose a few things that are working.

Here’s the outline:

  • A: Who is Character B, and where are they?
  • B: Who is Character A, and what’s happening in the scene?
  • A: Raise the stakes and center it on the relationship between the two characters.

For example, here’s a bit that funny guy Mike and I put together.

  • Mr. President, we have a situation in the ball pit.
  • For the last time, you’re my Secretary of Balls, I need you to take care of this.
  • Fine, I’ll take care of it. But if you shaft me one more time, I quit.

From there, we both continued the scene and went in different directions. The Del Close set up inspired both of us with the first three lines, though.

Pitching in the Writer’s Room

Our class also worked on how to pitch a sketch idea to a group. This is great for sketch comedy companies and TV writing (SNL, 30 Rock). This was a pretty straight-forward way of thinking about a sketch.

Each pitch needs:

  • Set up - Who, where, what’s the relationship
  • Problem - What’s happening in the scene
  • Solution - What’s the end result

We briefly touched on structuring a whole show. For example, Saturday Night Live has most of the best sketches in the first half. These all have good solutions. Ending a sketch is the hardest part. So the sketches that are a little clunkier get relegated to the last half of the broadcast, when fewer people are watching.

Miscellaneous Concepts

Finally, a few random ideas for how to generate ideas for writing.

  • What’s Different? - Take something mundane and normal, then make it absurd. Example: a drive-through where you buy emotions.
  • Relationship Triangulation - Two characters against a third. The humor ensues when they take opposing sides. Example: parents vs. child.
  • What’s Before/Beyond? - Take an event we’re all culturally aware of and explore what happens immediately before or after it. Example: what happened to Lincoln on his way to the theater?
  • Clash of Context - Take two opposing ideas and merge them together. Example: we watched a sketch from Paradigm Lost (Second City) where office mergers change management style at work like a radio station changing its format (ie: country, electronica, hard rock).

Start Writing Now

…is a mantra I tell myself. It’s amazing that in five days of sketch comedy class, we covered something I was really craving in college playwriting and never got. Not to say that college classes didn’t teach me anything – they absolutely did. Studying under Wendy MacLeod was amazing. I’m just glad to have covered some idea generation concepts to bust through periods of procrastination.

With these exercises, I hopefully won’t feel a dry spell ever again.