5 Top Takeaways from the “How to Write a Musical” Workshop

5 Top Takeaways from the “How to Write a Musical” Workshop

The World & The Want

 

Yesterday I taught my favorite workshop, the “How to Write a Musical That Works” Workshop through Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU) in NYC. Along with the Executive Director Bob Ost and a stellar panel composed of Dramaturg/Producer Ken Cerniglia (Disney Theatricals, Hadestown), Tony Award winning Director/Lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. (Ain’t Misbehavin’, Fosse, Big, Miss Saigon), Kleban and Larsen Award winning Librettist and Lyricist Cheryl Davis (Barnstormer, Maid’s Door) and former Artistic Coordinator of the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, Skip Kennon (Herringbone, Don Juan DeMarco, Time and Again), we hosted seven new musicals as they presented select song-scene presentations from their projects.

 

In this safe incubator environment, the teams came from all over – New England, Atlanta, Upstate NY, Long Island – to participate in our workshop and solicit feedback about their early developmental work. Some of the songs had just been writen the week before; most had never been performed. 

 

This is a three part Workshop, roughly divided into the “beginning,” “middle,” and “ending” of a script. This first Workshop, “The World and The Want,” spoke about the need for clarity in your storytelling in the very beginning of your script and the presentation of the “I Want” song.

 

Everyone had surprises that day. One person learned that her beginning to her musical didn’t work at all – she is headed back to the drawing board with lots of ideas now on how to make the opening number work. Another writer learned that his I Want song communicated something very different to the audience than what he had thought, and is revamping the beginning of the song. Another writer was happy to learn that we were excited by his presentation, but confused by a few points – he now will be editing his opening for greater clarity.

 

Top 5 Takeaways: The World and The Want

 

Here are the top five things that we learned from the Workshop on October 27, 2019:

 

1. Clarity of storytelling must be established from the very beginning of the show

  • Establish WHO these characters are
  • The audience wants to know who we’re going to watch, and what they’re about
  • SHOW don’t TELL. If you describe your lead character as “the Lady Gaga” of that time period, don’t tell us – SHOW US.

 

2. The Opening Number

  • Why is this day different from any other day?
  • Set up your world and tone immediately, and keep it consistent into the next scene (and the next)
  • Can characters we “know” be used in a different way to tell the story?
  • Don’t refer to pronouns like “this” in a song without having established what “this” is.
  • An opening number should immediately get us into the ACTION of the story

 

3. Don’t Betray the audience into creating the expectation of a group I WANT in your opening number by introducing different characters, and then explain that we never see them again.

  • If you introduce specific voices in the opening number, your audience expects to see them again.Your audience wants to learn whose journey we’re on from the very beginning.
  • Don’t set up the expectation of A CHORUS LINE if we will never see these characters again.

 

4. Every song must have a complete arc – a complete beginning, middle, and end – to it

  • A song must travel and push the plot forward
  • We need to learn something within the song – the ending idea isn’t the same as the beginning idea.
  • By the end of the song, we must be in a very different place than we were at the beginning of the song.

 

5. The style of the song must reflect the action and intention of the character singing it

  • The tone of the song must serve the character in that moment
  • A laid-back, jazzy rhythm doesn’t serve a moment when the character has a driving, insistent intention to her action.
  • Instead of a ¾ time, a driving 4/4 may be more active a choice.Sometimes it helps to read the lyrics of the song as prose to discover the intention behind the action.

 

Want more ideas for writing your script? Sign up for our newsletter

Pitching Your Show to Producers

Pitching Your Show to Producers

Pitching Your Show to Producers

 

Learning to pitch your show to potential producers is a skill set that can be developed like any other skill set. The secret is in learning to see your show from the producer’s perspective.

Recently I was the pitching coach for eight writers in Theater Resources Unlimited’s (TRU) Pitching Workshop, part of the TRU Writer/Producer Speed Date. The event is an intense experience, where twelve writers pitch to eleven producers within one hour. Like regular speed dating, you’ve got approximately seven seconds to make a great impression and two minutes to perfect your elevator pitch, engage in a quick conversation with a producer, then move on to the next producer and start the process all over again.

Needless to say this demands focus. Both parties are hoping for “instant attraction,” and sometimes that does happen. Options have resulted from our Speed Dates. But more importantly, writers get better and better at pitching their projects to producers and learning to discern what producers are looking for, what is most interesting about their own work and how to sell their ideas.

Your Elevator Pitch

An elevator pitch is a quick introduction to your show to a potential producer or investor, geared toward creating interest in the listener. It is more of a marketing skill than anything else, and like any skill it can be learned and gets better with practice.

An elevator pitch takes approximately two minutes. That’s it. You’ve got a mere two minutes to make the producer lean in, smile and ask for more information.

Many of my writers, in this recent workshop and in others I’ve coached over the years, spend way too much time on their synopsis. Others undersell themselves, leaving major awards from their other work left unspoken, or merely get so flustered under the pressure to persuade someone whom they perceive has the power to make or break their show that they repeat themselves or stumble over their words.

Relax. You’ve got this. It’s all in the preparation ahead of time. 

Just as an actor has to always be ready with a couple of great monologues to perform in an instant to showcase his talent, you as a writer should always be ready with a prepared elevator pitch “just in case” you are introduced to someone with the potential to move your show forward.

It’s a Conversation

Always remember that your pitch is the beginning to a conversation, so make your style conversational. Some writers are such good wordsmiths that they try to memorize their pitch word for word and recite it as a speech, or worse, have the pitch written down and then read it verbatim. They then sound “market-y” and artificial, which is definitely not in their best interest!

I recommend that you write your pitch on index cards using bullet points in the beginning. This keeps my writers on track and focused, yet still maintaining that all-essential eye contact and smile during the conversation.

The Pitch Template

A good organization strategy for your pitch should follow this template, written by TRU founders Bob Ost and Gary Hughes and used in our workshops and in my own personal coaching.

1. The Attention Grabber

The first thing necessary is to grab the producer’s interest in those first seven seconds. You want to give them a reason to remember you and to engage with you in a conversation.

Sometimes this is most effective by asking a question:

  • “What do you do when …”
  • “What happens when …”
  • “Did you ever have an experience where …”

Sometimes you can make a statement to move your listener and get them on the same emotional wavelength:

  • “Imagine yourself …”
  • “How would it feel if …”
  • “What would you do if you were faced with …”

Some writers make a statement that is surprising in some way, or use a quote, a song title, or anything the listener can readily identify with that describes the content of their show. Especially helpful is when you can help the producer make comparisons with something they’re already familiar with, for example, “This show is Once meets Torch Song Trilogy…”

The important thing to remember is that at the beginning you must engage your listener and start a conversation, not talk at them. This is a brief – very brief! – introduction to you and your work, useful for marketing your show to someone. Your goal is to get them to smile, lean in, and want to hear more.

2. A Brief Synopsis

As a writer you’ve spent months, perhaps years, writing and rewriting your plot to get the structure right. It’s natural that you would want to share the entire story with someone, since it’s so doggone interesting and engaging.

It probably is, but this is a two minute pitch so time is of the essence. You want to choose your words carefully and leave out anything that doesn’t absolutely need to be said.

Often a concept synopsis is more helpful than a true plot synopsis. A producer wants to hear the essence of your show, not a play-by-play retelling of each detail in every act! And don’t tell them what they’ll feel in the show; instead, evoke the feeling itself through the careful choice of your words in the pitch.

What can be included in this brief synopsis?

  • The 5 W’s (who, what, where, when and why)
  • The 6th W (want), which is the main characters’ wants and why they can’t get it (the obstacle)
  • The major conflict
  • The universal theme
  • What the audience will see when the curtain goes up (the world)
  • An overview of the dramatic arc of the show, or the emotional high point (climax)
  • Don’t forget to tell the genre of the show and the sound of the music (if it’s a musical), or if it’s a dance-heavy production, the style of dance.

Remember, less is always more and time is crucial here. You don’t have to address each of the above bullet points, but know which ones are most pertinent to communicate the idea of your show. Know your basic dramaturgy and be prepared to answer the above questions if they come up.

Also, you may not be the best editor of your own synopsis. Try it out on a few friends and listen to what they find engaging or unnecessary.

Both steps 1 and 2 should take approximately one minute or so of your time, in order for you to really sell your show during the last minute.

3. Benefits

Don’t tell ‘em, sell ‘em! Show why your show has significant advantages and why they should produce it:

  • Timely and relevant – this show must be produced now! There is a recognized audience for this material
  • Premise – illustrate how your premise is unique or special in some way that will make it stand out
  • The show is based on a pre-existing property or well-known source material, which has recognized branding
  • Stars associated with the project (directors, actors, composers, etc.)
  • Previous production history (share photos, reviews, audience quotes)
  • Give other benefits that producers find attractive:
    • Cast size (if it’s on the small end – otherwise don’t mention it)
    • Unit set, minimal set requirements
    • Developmental steps or awards
    • If there’s money behind your project, please mention it during the pitch (no need to be specific yet)
  • Always give your brief bio, especially if you’ve won awards or have other work that’s been produced.

Sometimes it’s helpful to remember the acronym SAFE (Stars, Audience, Financials, Environment) as a way to think of possible benefits your show may have.

4. Concept Recap

At this point you are almost out of time (I hope you’re still relaxed, smiling, and not out of breath! ) and you need to summarize your pitch.

Briefly recap your original concept with only one or two sentences. Remember, you’ve got a really great show here that you’re presenting to someone!

Ending Your Pitch 

After your two minutes are up, thank the person for listening and offer to follow up with them by sending them an invitation to a reading, sending them the script or music files, forwarding them to your website, or leaving behind a packet of information for them to read later.

Then BE QUIET and LISTEN.

Have a Conversation

Now it’s the producer’s turn to ask you questions. Hopefully there are a few, as that shows your pitch has successfully engaged his/her attention and interest.

Answer any questions they present honestly, and again offer to follow up with more information and then do so. Speak with passion and confidence, and always leave them wanting to hear more.

Your job is to create both a favorable impression about yourself and your work to a new contact that may be interested in your show. Get them to want to read your script, to come to a reading, to advise, to recommend to a friend – or even to produce or invest in the show personally. It happens all the time.

Don’t be caught off-guard. Be ready with your practiced pitch.

Need some help with YOUR pitch?

Contact Cate to schedule a practice pitch session or ask about group coaching: cate@createtheater.com

 

Breaking Up With Aristotle: Alternative Plot Structures

Breaking Up With Aristotle: Alternative Plot Structures

 

To Aristotle With Love: We’re Done

So many contemporary playwrights claim to have “broken up” with Aristotle.

As is, “Ari, we love you and all, but you’re so old school. We’re done.”

The energy of the “action plot,” where a protagonist has a goal and takes action to obtain that goal, is the plot of Aristotelian tragedy, and the most common organizing principal used when plotting.

Whether structured as an episodic early point of attack plot or crafted as a climactic late point of attack plot, it’s still following an active protagonist through his idealized “want” to achieve (or not to achieve) his ultimate high stakes goal. We identify with the protagonist on some level as our “hero,” and experience his journey vicariously through that emotional identification.

This is the plot of The Hero’s Journey. It’s the most common plot structure taught in grad school, film school and found in myth and novel from contemporary times to the days of the Greeks.  But it’s far from the only way to construct a plot.

Alternative Plot Structures

Searching for other structures, I came across film theorist Charles Ramirez Berg’s article A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the “Tarantino Effect.” 1

Berg noticed a trend of an increasing number of modern films that didn’t fall under the dominant energeic plot paradigm. He decided to classify films by these different plot types, and has come up with twelve categories, suggesting that this is just the beginning and not an all-inclusive list.

In theater we know that many types of plots exist, and though character goals can be a part of these plots, it’s not the only way in which to plot a story. But I found Berg’s attempts to categorize them fascinating, and great food for thought.

According to Charles Ramìrez Berg, films can thus be divided into 12 categories, arranged into three main groups based on the ways they deviate from the Hollywood paradigm:

  • plots based on the number of protagonists
  • plots with nonlinear temporality
  • plots that violate classical rules of subjectivity, foregrounded narration, and the narratives of goal-orientation, causality, and exposition.

PLOT BASED ON THE NUMBER OF PROTAGONISTS

1) The Polyphonic or Ensemble Plot – multiple protagonists, single location

2) The Parallel Plot – multiple protagonists in different times and/or spaces

3) The Multiple Personality (Branched) Plot

4) The Daisy Chain Plot – no central protagonist, one character or prop leads to the next

PLOT BASED ON RE-ORDERING OF TIME; NONLINEAR PLOTS

5) The Backwards Plot

6) The Repeated Action Plot – one character repeats action

7) The Repeated Event Plot – one action seen from multiple characters’ perspectives

8) The Hub and Spoke Plot – multiple characters’ story lines intersect decisively at one time and place

9) The Jumbled Plot – scrambled sequence of event motivated artistically, by filmmaker’s prerogative

PLOTS THAT DEVIATE FROM CLASSICAL RULES OF SUBJECTIVITY, CAUSALITY AND SELF-REFERENTIAL NARRATION

10) The Subjective Plot – a character’s internal (or “filtered”) perspective

11) The Existential Plot – minimal goal, causality, and exposition

12) The Metanarrative Plot – narration about the problem of movie narration

Different Plots, Same Dramatic Needs

Instead of a particular plot structure, let’s talk about serving the dramatic exigencies demanded by plot:

  • a dramatic arc that grounds the audience in a particular world (the beginning),
  • gradually builds in emotional intensity (the middle)
  • to a climax where certain “truths” are revealed and understood by an audience, and in that understanding, the dramatic action is resolved (the end).
  • It’s about the journey that you take the audience on, and how you make them feel on the way.

It’s how you make them feel.

I’ve seen circular plots revisit an action three times, each time ramping up the emotional intensity for the audience with new information; it works. I’ve read plays that were more character studies than plays, but the structure worked because the character was approached from different perspectives, each one more intense than the one before. It was very interesting. (Admittedly, this works better for plays than musicals, which need clearer plots and subplots to be successful.)

An audience goes to the theater to experience something different from their own life. As long as a play takes the audience on an interesting journey, holds their interest and engages their emotions or their intellect in an enjoyable (not confusing) way, plot structures can and should be as inventive and creative as possible. There’s more than one hero’s journey.

So – have I encouraged you yet to play around with structure? Take Berg’s 12 categories and start brainstorming.

What structures would YOU like to experiment with? Post your thoughts in the comments below.

1A Taxonomy of Alternative Plots in Recent Films: Classifying the “Tarantino Effect.” Charles Ramírez Berg, Film Criticism, Fall 2006; 31, 1/2; ProQuest Direct Complete pg. 5

Like talking structure? Sign up for my weekly newsletter for more tips on writing, producing and dramaturgy.

Story vs. Plot

Story vs. Plot

Where in the Story Does Your Plot Start?

 

A discussion about the difference between plot vs. story is anything but an academic question. Instead, like most talks about structure, how a plot is designed defines how the audience experiences the story.

An early point of attack gives you the musical Les Mis, where you see the epic story in its totality play out in front of the audience. There is little or no need for exposition, since the audience sees every important moment play out in front of their eyes.

A late point of attack gives you Oedipus Rex or just about any contemporary drama or musical that you can think of.

 

Plotting Your Story

 

The “wright” in playwright means “maker.” It is useful to remember that plays are constructed; they have a shape that is chosen for a reason by the author.

A story is a chronological sequence of events: this happens, then that happens, then that happens next.

A plot, by contrast, is carefully constructed by the writer to create meaning out of those sequence of events. A playwright sifts and sorts, edits and rearranges the sequence of events in a story to tell the story in a certain way to create a certain experience for a certain audience.

This is the craft of playwriting . There’s a reason that plot is #1 of Aristotle’s six elements. A writer uses his or her own unique perspective to create a meaning, a message, a takeaway for the audience. A writer is not a historian nor a journalist.

And a weak plot will get the dramatist nowhere fast.

So let’s ask the question again: Where in the story does your plot start?

 

Early or Late Point of Attack?

 

It’s a generally accepted saying that in writing a play today you have to “get in late and get out early.”

In other words, start the plot or scene as late in the action as you can, show the action, and then get out of the plot or scene as quickly as possible. This is how most contemporary dramas are built, with a late point of attack. (Classical plays also have a late point of attack,fyi.)

This climactic structure with a late point of attack allows the plot to focus on building the “suspense,” or on engaging the audience’s attention in an entertaining way while playing out the dramatic question that forms the spine of the story. A late point of attack begins in the midst of the conflict, and we find out important details about the past on the way to a much greater conflict in the rising action.

Contrast this structure to the opposite, the early point of attack. In Les Miserables, written by Victor Hugo in the 19th century, the action covers many years, over a vast sequence of events that all play out in front of the audience’s eyes and ears. An episodic structure like this unfolds scene by scene onstage, with little backstory. It too has a dramatic spine, but this plot takes us from the very beginning of a story and allows us to experience each moment leading up to the main climax for ourselves, with little to no exposition needed. Shakespeare also uses an early point of attack, as his average play length was three hours. (You can show quite a bit of history in three hours.)

Plots with early points of attack tend to emphasize the past, and understanding the causes of events that took place. Those with late points of attack seek to make us understand the dynamics that lead up to a conflict and the repercussions that followed.

One is not better than the other. It is simply two ways a playwright can attack a story.

 

A Writer’s Checklist: Plot

 

A plot is a roadmap to get you where you want to go, and a blueprint for what you want your audience to experience at the end. A plot builds a definite structure from the story’s sequence of events.

Here’s a quick Writer’s Checklist for Plot:

  • Get in late, get out early
  • Stasis: start right before the inciting event. Identify the world of the play and start the action quickly.
  • Inciting event: generally happens within the first 10-15 minutes of a play or musical.
  • The inciting event immediately launches the rising action, the journey the hero undertakes to get what he wants.
  • Clarify wants of the main characters early in the play and their obstacles by the first 20 minutes.
  • Midpoint reversal
    • Surprise twist – end of Act 1 in musical, and halfway through a play
    • New goal or intensified goal accelerates the action
    • This could be a subtle event, even an internal (psychological) reversal
  • “11:00 Number” traditionally occurs right before the climax (in musicals) for fun or theatricality
  • Climax, with an anagnorisis (where the hero and others fully understand where the journey has brought them or taught them), and a peripeteia (a reversal of some sort), which brings about an emotional catharsis in the audience.
  • Resolution – plot points are resolved logically (no deus ex machina)
  • The Finale (in a musical) delivers the theme in a rousing tune that stays with the audience as they leave the theater.

 

Helpful?

 

Are you writing a play or musical? Would you like someone to look over your script, or to help overcome writer’s block?

I’d love to speak with you. Email me at cate@createtheater.com or post a comment below.

Writing Active Dialogue

Writing Active Dialogue

Let’s Get Some Action Going

 

Have you ever been reading a script when the action suddenly felt clunky, heavy-handed or, even worse, stopped mid-scene?

Probably it was the result of poor dialogue.

Like everything else on stage, dialogue must push the story forward and reveal character, plot points and exposition on stage. When inexpertly done, the action drops dead on its feet. Poor dialogue makes the audience disconnect, makes the plot unbelievable and results in actors overreaching in their attempts to make their character come to life.

It’s the worst.

 

The Rehearsal Process in Development

 

Recently I was directing a new play by a young, inexperienced playwright who was clearly overwhelmed by the production process. In a particular scene the actors were presented with some very poetic, very flowery dialogue. It was beautiful prose, but it definitely wasn’t something that would come out of anyone’s mouth.

My actor was talented and experienced, and everyone in the scene tried really hard to make this dialogue work – but it was extremely difficult to justify these words on stage. Our many suggestions for a modification of these lines were all turned down, and so we were left struggling with a very clunky, heavy scene that stopped the action mid-play. Not great for a comedy.

What to do?

 

Active Dialogue is not Prose

 

Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that diction was the 4th most important element of dramatic action. Although Aristotle seems to infer that diction was more part of the production process than the writing process (more pertinent to the art of the actor than the art of the poet), he also defined diction as the metrical composition of the play, the way that spoken language is used to represent the characters themselves.

Diction is the actual composition of the lines spoken; if Aristotle’s “thought” deals with what is said, then diction deals with how it is said.

In other words, Aristotle’s diction we now call dialogue – not only what a character says but how he says it. If the words don’t sound believable coming from a character in this moment, it is not good dialogue. If it sounds good on the page but completely wrong when spoken out loud, it is not good dialogue.

Prose is not good dialogue, no matter how eloquent it appears on the page.

 

How to Write Good Dialogue

 

Dialogue isn’t an issue with writers who know their characters. If you live with your characters for any period of time, you can write dialogue that accurately reflects who they are and what they’re thinking.

In writing dialogue, use this as a checklist:

  • Dialogue must accurately represent the character in terms of background (geographic, socio-economic, era, age, time of day and state of being)
  • The structure, or meter, of the spoken dialogue must stay true to the overall structure inherent in the play (that is, whether the play is written in verse, is a sung-through musical, is sparsely written with minimal lines, composed of long monologues, etc.) and true to the rhythm, pacing and tone of the script
  • Great dialogue reflects the internal action, or psychological action, of the character in that moment. What does the character want right now in this scene, in this beat, in this moment in time? It gives insight to the character through both psychological and physical choices, and changes to reflect a different intention.
  • Active dialogue moves the story, or the plot points, forward in every moment.

 

Is This Really How People Talk?

 

Always give yourself a reality check: is this really how people in the world of my play talk? Are these lines moving my plot forward, revealing something about the character or giving important exposition that the audience needs to know? Is it structured in a pleasing way? Typically, long monologues tend to stop the action, as will flowery, detailed passages trying to pass as dialogue.

So what happened in the rehearsal room after that? As a director it is my job to justify the words of the playwright, no matter how expertly (or inexpertly) written they are. My choice was to tweak the action of the character to read word for word the flowery prose from her journal, to reveal the “hidden poetry within her soul.” Since this character wouldn’t speak like this, I had her write like this to reveal something hidden within.

The audience bought it, enjoyed the scene and gave accolades to the young playwright. A job well done.

Ah, the hidden art of the director.