Friday, August 24, 2012

Scripts Needs an Audience

Today, I'm thinking about the difference between playwrights and screenwriters, and in particular what screenwriters can learn from their theater counterparts.  It's a jumble, so this may or may not coalesce into lucid ideas.  I'll give it a go.

Playwrights exercise absolute control over material, screenwriters do not.  Part of the reason is that the playwright controls timing while in movies, the director and editor control timing. If you write comedy, timing can make or break a  laugh, but drama is also about the building and delivering of emotionally triggering moments. Screenplays just are not as complete as play scripts. Screenwriters don't know if their story works so long as it is only on the page, which makes it hard to grow and get better. 

Playwrights also can't know from the page either if their play works as theater, only if it works as literature the way Shakespeare does. Text on the page doesn't tell you if a joke will work as dialogue.  Reading Moliere, I don't laugh. Yet almost any production of Moliere delivers one belly laugh after another.  Playwrights have opportunities to get a read from real audiences on their work at every stage of their development. They get plays produced by small theaters and hear their words come out of the mouths of various performers. They cannot blame the director or actors if the same scene falls flat in two different productions. They learn how to write scenes that actors can act and that audiences will respond to.  Staged readings will draw an audience and allow playwrights to test their work in a theater with live actors.  But readings of scripts are not the same as readings of plays because the screen is not a stage.  What is a screenwriter to do?

I think this understanding rooted in my theater past is what has made me look to the internet.  Many of the people I talk to about producing on the web point me to the experts and what they are saying about how to make a career on the web.  I feel we are not speaking the same language.  I have great respect for theory, but practice leads and theory follows. I want to encourage women to get out ahead of the curve, not to follow the tracks laid down by other innovators.  There is much talk about the 'M' word (monetization) as if that's the whole point of video on the web.  However, if you look at what has driven innovation and made it a mecca for eyeballs, the money people have consistently been behind the curve.  I see the possibilities for great art that is also audience-pleasing that is only possible with lots and lots of practice.  At making stories AND at getting the audience reactions.

One of my favorite writer biographies is Moss Hart's Act One.  As a young man, he spent the summer in the Catskills, but since his family was poor, he had to work.  One of the things he did was write sketches that were put on for guests.  He got the playwriting bug and did it every summer for years.  These were the cheesy, non-professional sketches of summer resorts, but he dove in with passion. Winters, he went to the NY Public Library and read every play he could get his hand on.  He said he learned more from the bad ones than from the good ones.  He started writing plays for professional production, and his work led him to a partnership with great George S. Kaufman. The most striking story I remember from their partnership was during the first out-of-town performance of their first collaboration.  At the act break, the young Hart rushed up to a sour-faced Kaufman and gushed for him to be happy.  Hart pointed out that the audience laughed a lot and was having a good time.  Kaufman replied that he wasn't paying attention to the gags the audience laughed at; he was listening for the ones where they didn't laugh.  Those were gags they would have to fix.  For Hart, this was the real turning point in a career from a good playwright into becoming a great one.  During act two that night, he stood at the back and noted every time the audience failed to react as they had expected, and that night the team worked on rewrites, gave the changes to the actors, and waited to see if the new gags would work.

Most of the folks on YouTube are only after eyeballs. That's fine, but that's also why many of them are a one-hit wonders.  The pros have gotten in the game and are using the web as a proving ground for ideas, but it is not because they have money that they will have success. It is because they are using the web as their "out-of-town" previews where they tweak and develop their work as they prepare for the big time. 

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