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.

Top 5 Reasons to Put a Dramaturg on the Creative Team

Top 5 Reasons to Put a Dramaturg on the Creative Team

What if I told you there was a way to jumpstart your NPD process at a fraction of the cost of a staged reading?

There is a way – a standard protocol that’s used by almost every serious producer and significant regional theater out there, including NYMF, Disney Theatrical Group, Davenport Theatrical Productions and many others.

So what is that “secret sauce”?

They all put a dramaturg on their creative team. 

And so should you.

 

What is a Dramaturg?

 

I am a dramaturg. I am typically that smart person on the creative team whom no one is sure exactly what I do because I seem to be everywhere and do everything. This is not unusual for a dramaturg. Maybe that’s why there’s so much confusion around the term.

A dramaturg is a senior member of the creative team who works with the writer on the script and then functions as a “resident expert” on the play. They sometimes remain on the production team to help maintain focus on the message of the text and to advocate for the intentions of the playwright during the production process.

 

How I Work as a Dramaturg

 

I work in NYC as a freelance dramaturg, director and producer with a focus on developing new plays and musicals. As the Literary Manager for a non-profit producers’ organization called Theater Resources Unlimited (TRU), as the Associate Artistic Director of the Rhymes Over Beats Hip Hop Theater Collective, as the Dramaturg for MusicalWriters.com and as an independent commercial producer for my own company, I work with writers to develop their work through writers’ groups, by leading workshops, and by working one on one with writers to create new work.

This is what I do all day, every day: engage with writers on their creative process, work with them over a period of time to help them structure their script, craft their message, make it relevant for today’s audiences and then guide them through the submission and production process.

Including a dramaturg on your creative team can save you time and money and allow you access to a dramaturg’s resources and networks. Best yet, it will give you an experienced and trusted theatre consultant as you head toward the production of your script.

So in my best David Letterman imitation, here are my top five reasons to put a dramaturg on your creative team!

 

Top 5 Reasons to Put a Dramaturg on Your Creative Team:

 

Reason #1: A Dramaturg is Objective

 

As every producer knows, a writer is often the last person to understand what his play is really saying to an audience. They’re simply too close to the work. Every script can benefit from a new set of experienced eyes.

So many writers I’ve worked with walk away from our first conversation with new “a-ha” moments: new insights, new understandings, new messages, and sometimes new plot structures to better communicate their ideas in their script.

A dramaturg should be considered as a “first audience” of a draft, and their feedback as an expert theatremaker is invaluable, especially in the beginning stages.

Just ask Disney – their dramaturg and literary manager Ken Cerniglia was the freelance dramaturg for Hadestown, and the first-ever dramaturg to receive a shout-out at the Tony Awards.

 

Reason #2: A Dramaturg Saves Money

 

Quick survey: would you rather hire a dramaturg for a script evaluation or produce a staged reading to make sure your play “works”?

Well, that was a trick question.

You’ll end up doing both, of course. After your first initial table read, or “pizza” read, many writers believe the next step is to spend between $5000 or more on a staged reading to see how an audience reacts to their work.

Hold on, there.

Hiring a dramaturg for a script evaluation costs much less than a staged reading, and by getting feedback from a trusted source you may get that all-important first audience reaction at a tremendous savings.

Talk with the dramaturg first before the staged reading.

 

Reason #3: A Dramaturg is a Resource

 

Most practicing dramaturgs have either a M.F.A. in dramaturgy, a vast amount of dramaturgical experience under their belt, or both. Utilizing them opens you to their knowledge of structure, theatre history and theatre-making experience, and may add fresh ideas to your own.

Even if you have a M.F.A. in playwriting, you can still profit from a set of objective eyes on your work (see reason #1). Theatre is the ultimate collaborative art, and being open to talking about your work privately with a dramaturg is a first step.

You never know what new exciting ideas may develop until you have these creative conversations about your work. Welcome them. Invite the dramaturg into your process.

Also, with the dramaturg as a senior member of your creative team, they will invite others in their network (usually other theater people) to your staged reading.

Win-win.

 

Reason #4: Using a Dramaturg Opens a New Network to Development

 

And that is another key reason to include a dramaturg: they’ll help you gain access to their network. You’ll meet a whole new set of experienced theatre people who will want to hear about your show.

You don’t have to sit around and wait for your local theater to “discover” you. Why not hire their dramaturg as a freelance consultant? You can get their ideas and maybe gain an “inside advocate” at your local theater at the same time.

I always advise playwrights to be proactive in their quest to get their work produced. Don’t be passive; get out there and find new ways to access the gate-keepers. It’ll do wonders for your self-esteem and your work.

 

Reason #5: A Dramaturg Can Become a Trusted Production Asset

 

In a regional theater, dramaturgs and literary managers forge a critical link between artists and institutions, and institutions and their communities. Dramaturgs often work with various aspects of the production, such as crafting educational materials, creating marketing copy, facilitating conversations amongst the artistic team, and running a post-show discussion. If it needs to be done for a production, chances are a dramaturg can do it.

And they can do it for your production as well.

Often I’ll initially be hired as the dramaturg, but as my relationship with the writer grows I might then become a director, an executive producer, or a consultant on the team. I may help to create the show’s logo and website, to identify and develop an audience engagement plan, or sit in on some marketing conversations. I may even end up producing the show Off-Broadway.

I am always the advocate of the playwright and of the playwright’s intentions for the play, and will protect the show from any overly enthusiastic director, investor, or producer that may want to “rewrite” the work. (As Bob Ost, Director and Founder of Theater Resources Unlimited often says, there are three innate human needs: food, sex, and re-writing other people’s work.)

That’s the role of the dramaturg, and the basis of my relationship with the writer.

 

If you are thinking about contacting a dramaturg I have some open availability in the Fall. Contact me at cate@createtheater.com and we’ll get together to talk about your script.

 

 

How to Get to Broadway in 3 [Not So Easy] Steps

How to Get to Broadway in 3 [Not So Easy] Steps

Still Flying After the TONYs?

 

How many of you are still flying high after the 2019 TONY Awards ceremony? The encouragement to all performers to continue the work, to celebrate our diversity, and the overall pure celebration of this art form in general and our NY Theater community specifically was so clearly demonstrated and felt. I want to hold on to this positivity and feeling of limitless potential – especially when life clearly wants to show me the opposite.

Who here wants to feel that you too can get to Broadway? How do we – we, the little people sludging through the theater pipeline – escape the muck and murkiness and come out shining on the Great White Way?

How do WE get go Broadway?

I’ve given this a LOT of thought – after all, it’s what I do – and from where I stand, here are my observations from watching how many of my friends who were present (and on screen) at the TONYs got there.

Here are my three not-so-easy steps on how to make it to Broadway:

  1. Get an idea that’s highly relevant
  2. Be prepared to do the work – for a long time
  3. Don’t be afraid to self-produce your own work.

 

Get an Idea That’s Highly Relevant

 

What speaks to you? What story, mission or message is burning a hole in your heart to get out to the world?

THAT’s the story you need to tell.

Chances are, if it’s burning a hole in your heart it’s burning a hole in many other hearts as well. You’re just the message-bearer meant to bring it to everybody else. And remember, karma’s a bitch.

Now what do I mean by “highly relevant”? By that I mean a message that:

  • Speaks to a larger issue in our culture that is of great concern. By identifying and promoting a larger conversation you are participating in the current cultural conversation and sharing the right ideas at the right time.
  • Topical or Universal. If your story, mission or message cuts across the cultural and chronological divide, you have a timeless human story with a thread that resonates for human beings everywhere. Human beings love to watch inspiring stories about other human beings struggling to succeed with something that’s important to them.
  • Stories that engage both the audience’s head AND heart. As I tell all the writers I work with, write from your heart first and edit with your head afterward.

If the message is important to you and you can answer the question, “Why this story NOW?” then it’s a highly relevant story.

 

Be Prepared to Write and Re-Write

 

Getting to Broadway is a marathon, not a sprint. If you only hold the vision of seeing your work being celebrated on a Broadway stage somewhere in the future, you’re in for many long, dark days stuck in the pipeline. Find joy in the process and understand that not every script needs to find its way to Broadway.

There are many smaller achievements to celebrate as you travel along en route. Learning to recognize and celebrate the little things that put a smile on your face gives you your daily inspiration to keep going.

  • Celebrate every “aha!” moment that comes from the daily work in the trenches (yes, I said daily). There’s joy in that delicious idea that manifests itself
  • Celebrate the YOU that’s becoming. You are DOING what you said you’d do for yourself, and in the promise you are growing into what you said you wanted – someone who writes successful plays or musicals. How many people that you know actually do what they dream? Remind yourself, “I AM a writer/composer/lyricist.”
  • Find the joy that comes with collaborating with other creative people. Part of becoming a successful writer is knowing and working with other creative and brilliant artists. Take joy in immersing yourself in all of the creativity that’s around you, until one day you realize this is where you belong. This is who you are.

A note of caution here: don’t feel compelled to listen to everyone. Not every opinion needs to be addressed by anything more than a brief acknowledgement. “Thank you, that’s interesting. I’ll think about it,” should be your most frequent response. However, if the same comment, in various forms, appears more than three times, it is probably something you should look at.

 

Don’t Be Afraid to Self-Produce

 

THE DREAM: I need to find a [producer, theater] to produce my script. I’m a writer, not a producer.

THE REALITY: You need to be your own producer – at least at first.

How many of you were always the last to be chosen for the softball teams? Doesn’t sitting on the bench suck? It’s the same here. Be proactive in your life. Start the momentum by producing your own work.

Overwhelming, you say? Take it easy. Start baby-stepping your way to success.

  • Save your money. No one is going to love your baby (your work) more than you do.
  • If you don’t have money, be creative about finding people who do.
    • Learn how to start a Kickstarter fund
    • Ask! Start with those who know and love you, and their friends and family.
    • Make relationships with theaters near you. Volunteer, donate, go to their galas. Show up on their social media. Be their local ambassador and build a relationship with them.
    • Find groups, companies, non-profits or institutions who resonate with your show’s message and target audience. Find ways to introduce them to your show.
  • Network! Join communities online (like createtheater.com) as well as your local networking groups. Believe that synchronicities are always around the corner, and they will be.

Whoever promised that achieving a life-time dream was easy? Was anything worthwhile ever easy? Is life really a Staples commercial?

 

If You Are a Writer, You Write.

 

Ask any of the recipients that earned their stripes – er, TONYs. Nothing is easy. Ever! Nothing is promised.

But as trite as it sounds, “the joy is in the journey,” and if this is WHO you are and this is WHAT you do – it’s worth all of it.

Do what you have to DO to BE who you need to be.

DO BE DO BE DO.

 

Ok, let’s get to work! 🙂

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The Need for Creative Producers

The Need for Creative Producers

Why I’m a Creative Producer

 

On May 13, 2013, in a speech at the Theater Communications Group (TCG) Gala, Emily Mann, longtime Artistic Director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, stated that the nonprofit movement was started because the commercial theater was “destroying theater as an art form.”

What??

This was an odd statement for Ms. Mann to make, having just received an honorary Tony award for the McCarter Theatre for its contribution to the vital function in the health of American theater, and having VANYA & SONYA & MASHA & SPIKE – developed at the McCarter – nominated for best play. Many in the commercial theater were offended by her comments, feeling that regional nonprofit theaters should be grateful to Broadway for allowing them to actually make a profit on occasion.

This in essence is the ongoing debate in the American theater.

 

Commercial Producers Help Drive NPD

 

In this era of almost nonexistent support from government and private foundations, sometimes regional nonprofit theaters are financially compelled to form partnerships with commercial producers to create new work – often works of significant value that, once having appeared on Broadway, provide enough necessary monetary success to allow the nonprofit theater a financial cushion it wouldn’t otherwise have.

Yet, while grateful for the funding, nonprofits are ever cautious about accepting money from “the dark side” for fear of loss of control of the artistic product, and for fear of betraying the mission under which the organization must adhere.

Commercial producers are usually driving these partnerships, lured by the opportunity to develop new work away from New York at a reasonable cost. However, as Ms. Mann’s comments show, everyone isn’t always perfectly happy with the arrangement.

That was in 2013. Has anything changed today?

 

Regional Theater and the History of New Play Development

 

During the 1930’s and 1940’s there was a feeling that there were important stories to be told that wouldn’t and couldn’t be produced by the commercial theater, because of the economics of Broadway.

The resulting Regional Theatre Movement during the 1930’s and 1940’s, led by its three founding matriarchs of Margo Jones, Nina Vance and Zelda Fichandler, proposed a new nonprofit model supported by and created for local communities, which would have the artistic mission to create new work and produce new interpretations of the classics, to bring about a “new renaissance” to the American theatre in the twentieth century.

These participants of the Regional Theatre Movement felt that it was their mission to create “art” as opposed to the mission of the commercial theatre, which they often perceived to be merely to generate income.

Somehow, developing “art” made their plays more “noble” than the work that was developed in the commercial sector.

Even today, in the eyes of the nonprofit theatre, Broadway sometimes still is an entity not wholly to be trusted; it is the “other”, a center of crass consumerism.

Founding leader Zelda Fichandler was burned once in an attempt to bring an Arena Stage production of The Great White Hope to Broadway; forever after her response to such partnerships was “Broadway: no.” Some nonprofit artistic directors feel the same to this day.

 

Commercial Producers Can Be Artists, Too

 

Commercial producers take offense at being perceived as merely “money men” (and women) – they consider themselves to be just as creative, smart and “hands-on” as the nonprofits, investing in the life of the play for the long haul.

Here’s the deal: a commercial producer must look beyond a single production to guide the entire life of the play from conception to (hopefully) an enduring life in the regional, educational and community theaters.

A producer’s enthusiasm and belief in a production is the fuel that drives the play forward. Many new plays are driven by a commercial producer who receives permission to produce the play from the playwright, or the playwright’s agent.

The producer then spends years (typically 7-9 years) on the development end for the play, hosting readings and developmental workshops to help each play find its own signature voice. Thousands of dollars are spent gathering a committed team of professionals in preparation for rehearsals to begin.

They do this all without being paid, without drawing a salary on the project for years – all because they believe in the work, just as much as the “art-driven” nonprofits do.

 

Commercial Producers Develop Work

 

Commercial producers with a dramaturgical sensibility can creatively bridge the gap between the nonprofit and commercial theater and encourage partnerships between the two that are beneficial to both.

Producers skilled in dramaturgy can bring to life the voices and images that accurately reflect our American experience at the beginning of the twenty-first century – and secure their future in the American theatrical canon for posterity.

Jill Rafson, then Literary Manager of the Roundabout Theatre in New York City, called for 2013 graduates from The Commercial Theater Institute – an organization that trains new producers – to become “Creative Producers.” She said that “Creative Producing” was the most underdeveloped skill in the industry, and that only through the insight and leadership of Creative Producers would emerging playwrights be challenged to develop more innovative and original work.”

 

Another successful guest lecturer in the program, commercial producer Kevin McCollum, pointed to a dramaturg in the class (me) and told the rest, “You all should know what she knows.”

 

Producers breathe life into a script. Playwrights need producers to mount their plays and to project their voice into the larger culture for them.

Creative Producers, using the skills and knowledge of dramaturgy, are necessary to help develop original new plays and to contribute significant new work into the American theatre canon.

 

Make Friends with a Non-Profit

 

If you’re a writer, make friends with a regional non-profit. Make connections with directors and producers who have contacts at theaters everywhere.

Submit everywhere. In reality, it’s a numbers game.

Learn dramaturgy – it’s an essential skill set.

Are you affiliated with a regional theater, I’d love to hear your side of the debate. Email me at cate@createtheater.com, and I’ll feature you on another blog post.

How do YOU feel about commercial producers working with regional theaters to develop new work? Let me know your thoughts..

 

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Planning for Your Success in 2019

Planning for Your Success in 2019

Winter Doldrums?

 

Do you find winter to be your most creative season?

It always has been for me. There’s something about being more at home and quiet that ramps up my creative energy to flow into more artistic pursuits.

Maybe because I’m more still I listen more? Who knows. But my best writing, ideas and projects have all had their origins in this time from January to April.

Getting back to my previous post, February is when I’m in the thick of it. Ideas are coming so fast and furious they sweep me away. Like most of us, January’s work on planning our year get down and dirty in February.

The rubber meets the road. It’s do or die.

Sometimes I do… and some years I die. That’s honest.

BUT when I DO – when I take ACTION – it’s a great year!

My whole year is determined by what I do or don’t do in the first quarter.

Is that true for you too?

 

Scripting and Planning Only Go So Far

 

Like actors that blossom when they stand up and step into their character, what makes or breaks us is the discipline to take action and build momentum.

In other words, our routines can make or break us.

I’m working with two writers right now. Both are very talented and full of ideas for the new musical they’re writing.

  • Writer A is mainly a songwriter and performer. He’s never written a musical before, but has a routine in place of coming to the computer every day after he gets his daughter to school. We meet every week like clockwork, on the same day at the same time, interrupted only when he occasionally has to tour. After six months he has an exciting Act One and is working on Act Two.
  • Writer B has extensive musical theater experience as a performer, director and producer. She has a wonderful idea for a new musical and is determined to see it on stage. However, more often than not our weekly sessions are moved or often rescheduled to the next week. Life seems to constantly interrupt her daily writing schedule, rendering it haphazard or nonexistent. After three months of working together she’s still struggling to write her outline.

Your Routine Frees You To Fly

 

I’m the last one to deny that often I’ve been more Writer B than Writer A. But even so, I recognize that my routines make or break me. It’s not what I do now and then that determines my life, but the action I take consistently that creates success, or not.

Writer A is his own hero. He is creating his future as he sees it in his mind.

Determine your own priorities and responsibilities. I know you know this – I’m now acting like that nagging voice in your own head that sounds like your mother. (Annoying, I know.)

If you want to see your plays onstage you must take regular and consistent ACTION to make that happen. No one can do this for you. You can pay someone, but really, it is your baby and it’s up to you.

 

A Checklist for Success

 

  1. Write every day at the same time in the same place. Establish a routine that works for you. Make it consistent, day in and day out.

Plan for your own success daily. Once you finish one play start the next one, so when an agent or producer inevitably asks to see your other work you have something to show them.

  1. Feed your creativity regularly. Keep a journal or notebook to capture your great ideas before the wind blows them away to someone else. Do interesting things every week to inspire and delight you.

Happiness is a wonderful inspiration of creativity. Keep your inner artist happy.

  1. Network, network, network. Meet people in the industry and learn about what they do. Make friends with people from every walk of life – they feed your writing and may possibly become your chief supporters in the future.

You never know where your next coincidence will come from.

  1. Submit, submit, submit. It’s a numbers game. Keep it a game by challenging yourself to collect the most rejections of anyone you know.

Because the reality is that the more you submit, the more opportunities you’ll create.

  1. Keep learning and growing. Like an actor must continually keep his instrument tuned and available by taking classes and learning different styles of acting, dance, vocal techniques, etc., a writer also must continually keep learning and advancing in his art. Writer’s groups and workshops in person and online are available everywhere. Take advantage of them. 

Not only do workshops provide inspiration and knowledge, but they also provide built-in discipline in the form of assignments AND you meet really interesting people from many different walks of life.

 

 

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I’d love to hear your thoughts! We’re all in this together.

Share it with us here in the comments as we support each other on this journey.

Are you interested in joining a community that has your back, holds you accountable to you goals and inspires you on the way?