Wednesday 23 November 2011

The Big Readthrough

Yesterday was weird day. But readthroughs are weird.

Just to clarify our terms, a readthrough is when a cast sit and read a script aloud to a bunch of TV execs to see if there's a show there. They can be hastily assembled, rough-and-ready affairs to see if the script is up to much. Or they can be more polished, semi-rehearsed events in which the show is being essentially pitched as a possible contender for a pilot or TV series. Yesterday was more the latter than the former, which was fairly exciting.

The exact details don't much matter for the purposes of this blog post. But it's worth noting one or two things that the sitcom writer has to deal with on such an occasion - and I'd be interested to hear the experiences of others in the comments section below.

So, I showed up at 10am for a day with the actors - and a director - building up to a formal readthrough in front of the powers that be at 4.15pm. It sounds like a long time, but in no time at all, it was 3.30 and the hour was nearly upon us. And so, it sounds daft, but the script really needs to be as tight as possible because there simply isn't time to make all that many changes on the day, or 'find it in rehearsal'. There is no time to rewrite sections or pages. Only time to tweak lines, cut bits out or throw in extra jokes.

We read the script once at the start, and there were some notes, and tweaks, nips and tucks - and questions from the cast about certain lines that weren't clear. Your job as the writer is to listen, not be defensive and focus on making the show as good as it can be. This may mean sacrificing your favourite joke because it's in the way of some other jokes that have plot attached to them. Remember that the shorter, sharpier and snappier the readthrough is, the funnier it will appear to be. It's better to be 26 minutes and really funny, than 32 minutes with fog patches.

After reading the script once and feeding back, we then marched through the script more slowly, stopping and starting and trying to fix other bits that don't quite fly. I did my best to ensure I was making suggestions via the director, who is in charge of all this stuff on the day.

The temptation is to change things again and again and again - right up until the final moment. It's best to avoid this. By the readthrough moment, the actors' scripts will be covered in crossings out, new lines and changes. Too many will be confusing, create errors in the readthrough and completely ruin the atmosphere you've been trying to create. As the hour approaches, it's better to commit to what you have and be done with it. Endless changes 'til the very end will undermine confidence and that might create unease in the cast - who might start to panic. I've seen panic (not yesterday, mind) and it ends in either actors starting to get louder and bigger; or going faster and faster; or going quieter; or inserting swearing that wasn't there before. It's not pretty, and usually not funny.

And then, it starts. And it ends. And there's nothing else to be said.

If you've written the script as well as you could, and stuck to your guns and offered the show that you want to write, you've done well. And it's now out of your hands. The show will be commissioned or turned down for a boatload of reasons that will never be explained to you. The official line may be 'Well, it was just so funny, we simply had to have it'. The actual reason may be that something fell out of the schedules and one of your cast is flavour of the month. It really doesn't matter. And you can't control this bit, so go home, have a curry, sleep well, lie in, wake up - and think of a brand new show.

Monday 14 November 2011

Should I do a free show at the Edinburgh Fringe?

A while ago, I posted about the benefits of putting on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe (here). I was thinking about this over the weekend after I'd suggested doing Edinburgh to some fledgling funny folks on Friday. The Free Fringe, I said, since it really is what it says on the tin. Free for performers to put on shows. It was pointed out, however, that producers were reluctant to scout at these shows and venues.

This got me thinking. It is undoubtedly true that the Pleasances and Udderbellys get a lot of attention from press, wider media and talent scouts. The reasons for this are obvious. There is greater screening and filtering for these venues, and so the overall quality is higher. That is not to say that every show at these big venues is superb, crafted and hilarious. Far from it. But producers are lazy, just like writers - and don't work all that hard to unearth new talent. Unlike writers, producers are very busy and hard-working and when you only have three or four days to 'see stuff' and find new talent, it seems like a more promising pool to fish from.

So why do a show at a Free Fringe venue?
So why do a show at a Free Fringe venue? Or a very cheap, unrecognised one? Here's the thing. Producers are in town for a few days at a time. But fellow performers are in town for a month. Impressing your peers in Edinburgh is as important as impressing the industry. Let's be honest, you're first outing at Edinburgh is unlikely to be picked up a producer at Big Talk or Objective and thrust onto E4. The main reason for the show is unlikely to be all that good. It may be fresh, have flashes of brilliance, and be sporadically hilarious - or consistently amusing without ever quite taking off. But bear in mind that there are a few dozen comedians and writers who are a little less fresh, with a few more years experience who are about to generate more frequent flashes of brilliance which are more consistently hilarious.

But other performers at your venue might see your show - and like it. And tell other people about it and bring you some audience. Or tell someone who has a 'best of' show that you could do a spot at, at which a producer might be in attendance. Equally, you might see someone else's ramshackle show, and like bits of it and realise they are good at things that you're aren't so good at. And that you could help them. You might work well together either now or in the future. They might do well, get some interest but want some help and could pull you on board. You might join forces, pool resources and come back the following year with something better, leaner and stronger.

The Loneliness of a Long Distance Comedian

The reality of writing and performing is that it is a lonely business - especially if you're not a gigging stand-up comedian - but for one month in Edinburgh, you're surrounded by similar people to you and this can be rather a nice thing. You feel like you belong. Okay, after a fortnight, the novelty wears off and everyone's tired, broke and angry. But you'll have forgotten that by November and be back next year, invariably with something better. After doing that for a three or fours years, maybe you'll finally be that an overnight success we keep reading about. And when those opportunities come, you'll be able to handle them and make the most of them.