“Great scripts are not written, they are rewritten, and rewritten and rewritten” is a statement Robert Downey Jr. made at a Q&A after a screening of Sherlock Holmes at the Director’s Guild of America a while back. He was responding to the question ‘how long in advance do you start memorizing your lines’. He emphatically retorted something to the effect of “why would I memorize lines that I’m not going to say?” and continued on about the process of rewriting a script and how for Holmes lines were still changing the morning before the scene was going to be shot.
With film, you’ve got to get it right the first time, once you shoot it, that’s pretty much it, you’ve blown your load and your budget. And try as you may, script problems can’t be fixed in post, you’ve got to get it right before you shoot it!
I’m all about script development. When I’m working on a film or theatre production, be it as a writer or a producer, there are many development steps I insist on before moving forward with a production, like table readings. staged readings, zoom readings and writing workshops. There are many writing groups where writers get together and share pages and ideas before their script is completed. There are other collectives that are always looking for new works to read on their reading nights like We Make Movies (NY and LA), Naked Angels (NY) and WildSound (Toronto). Even if you are not in one of these major cities many of these collectives stream readings and accept scripts from anywhere, and they work out the casting on their end. If you don’t feel ready for a public opinion you can simply have a few friends over to read the piece in your home.
With theatrical writing it is crucial that you hear the writing out loud with different voices. Especially if you’ve written a piece for yourself, I advise for the reading to have someone else read your part, that way you can listen to your writing and see how strong it is without your delivery. Sometimes things look good on the page but when you hear the dialogue it can sound clunky and unnatural. Even when you are in the production stages of a film (since there is rarely a rehearsal period) I would suggest at least one table read with your full cast if possible.
The beauty of theatre is the luxury of time for process and development. If something doesn’t work one night, you can change it the next night, and you get to see how it lands on the audience. You can go over this process of trial and error with the writing, directorial and casting choices, props, wardrobe, there are no limitations on what you can try one night and then throw out the next night. This is the difference between a good piece of theatre and a life changing event in the theatre.
When I first mounted a workshop of my solo show Year of the Slut there was one joke that just wouldn’t land. The director didn’t like it in rehearsals but I pushed to keep it in. After two performances and no audience response I knew I had to cut it, and so I did. The show went on to have two more productions over a two years and each time the script went through revisions and re-writes to push the production to be tighter, clearer and a more solid piece of theatre.
A few years ago I saw a play that was held at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. I first saw the piece opening weekend, and then again for the last show. A friend was starring in the play so I was privy to hearing snippets of the process and how the show literally changed every night; new blocking, new scenes, scenes cut, actors cut…Literally in two months of performances the same show had never been performed twice. Even at last night’s closing performance there was a new scene inserted. I’m not a reviewer nor do I want to give a critique of the piece, I simply want to comment on the process involved with being great. The first time I saw the piece I enjoyed it, the writing was good and the cast was solid. Last night’s performance, after having 2 months of process with an audience, went beyond my expectations – the pacing had picked up, the holes in the story were filled in, there was more dynamic action and it was all seamless.
In November of 2019 when I was working on the play With a Little Help…It’s John Belushi in New York City my director invited me to see a preview of the LAByrinth Theatre Company’s production of Pulitzer Prize Winning and Tony Award nominated playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ new play Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven. I was excited to see actors on stage with script in hand for one of the scenes, because this legendary writer was taking full advantage of this process to get the play right. That is one of the reasons new plays have a preview period, to work out the kinks in the script and the story and the performances. Gurgis was re-writing all through rehearsals and previews to push his work to be great, and that’s why he is one of the great playwrights of our time.
Don’t be afraid to play with the work, try new things, let it breath and go through the process to develop your writing, characters, conflict. Push yourself to be great in your work, it doesn’t deserve anything less than everything you have.
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