Tuesday 18 October 2016

The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms - Part 2

Last time, I wrote about how the production week of a studio sitcom pans out, and how time to rehearse is alarmingly short. Read that first HERE. Okay? Up to speed?

It’s Day 1 of the production week. Probably a Friday. It’s 10am. The actors are all sitting at tables in a big square. Production staff are sitting one row behind, up against the wall (which is how they feel for most of the week). And so it begins.

Before you get to this point, you need to know this:

The script is going to change

Embrace this. When you read through that script on Day 1 of the production week, there will be problems with it. They may be small, they may be huge. They may seem small at first, but as you try to fix them you end up unpicking an awful lot before putting it all back together. You never know.

There will be notes.

Some will be obvious and you could hear there was a problem as the script was read. Other notes may come from the directors, the exec producer, or someone else important enough to tell you what's wrong with the script. The script will need to be fixed.

Ideally you won’t have to change it much, not least because you probably have some scenes already filmed on location that you have to keep in the show. You just don’t have the time or the budget to chuck entire location scenes, although this can happen (and did happen on a show I worked on recently). Hopefully, there’ll be enough for the director to rehearse with the actors on the afternoon of Day 1 and we’re into rehearsals. But not necessarily. (The worst day of my professional career was a Day 1 serious rewrite which you can read about in my book, Writing That Sitcom). The rewriting job needs to be done. Embrace it.

Also, prepare for this:

The funniest jokes – even the best scenes – might be written from scratch that week.

This is annoying because it makes you wonder why you bothered slaving over this script for months only to rock up and write the killer jokes on the day. But we all know you can’t just turn up to production week with the bare bones of an idea and write it on the day.

Having said that, I have heard stories of this happening occasionally. But apart from the fact that this is a very high wire act, it is not a trick you want to pull very often. It’s just not fair on the crew and the art department and everyone who has to make these ideas conjured up on the day suddenly appear on the screen. They will be very professional about it, and do the best they can, but they will hate you for it and try to avoid working with you again. Which is fair enough.

Fixing the script after that initial readthrough, however, is not the end of the rewriting. During rehearsals, scenes will need tweaking, trimming and tailoring to the actor’s strengths. You might need extra dialogue and ideally a joke to cover some physical business. Once the show is on its feet, a scene might feel like it’s flagging, or too abrupt. Or a line turns out to be a bit of a mouthful. Or an actor suddenly develops a problem with a line. (I’ve written about that here)

There will be changes, and it’s worthwhile being around for these because if you don’t rewrite it, someone else will. This, in my opinion, isn’t fair on the actors because they shouldn’t be expected to be writers as well as performers. (Don’t get me started… but more on that here) And what you may find happens is that a short term problem will be fixed by the actors or director in the moment, but a long term problem is created. You, as the writer, have thought about little else in the last few months. You have the story in your head, and if the rehearsal is a developing with a problem with a prop or a moment, and decide to cut it, they might not realise that this prop will be critical in four scenes time. Or the change will make a pre-shot location scene feel very odd or improperly set up.

This is why it’s worth being on hand during rehearsals (and on set, as I write here) to head off these problems. But if you are around all week, there might be another temptation (beyond eating too much snack food or drinking too much tea): To keep changing the script. We’ll look at that in the next blogpost.


There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.

Tuesday 11 October 2016

The Terrifying Process of Studio Sitcoms - Part 1

Earlier this year, I tried my hand at directing. It was a play I’d written a few years ago called The God Particle, which had already toured a couple of times. For the third tour, and with a new cast, I decided this was my chance to get a bit of experience doing something I hadn’t done before.

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy directing as much as I did, and in the end, I spent two very happy weeks with a couple of actors working through the scenes so that by the time the first previews came, everyone felt fairly well prepared.

The first two performances were to some truly tiny audiences in Twickenham and gradually we all grew in confidence. By the time we filmed the play as a DVD in May, the play had been performed at least 25 times. It was pretty tight.

I mention this for two reasons. One is that I’m subtley plugging the DVD which is out this month and available to pre-order right now. But here’s the main reason:

I’ve just been working on a studio sitcom and, as I’ve said on previous blogs, sitcoms filmed in front of audiences are more akin to plays than anything else. But even the ropiest, most amateur fringe play is rehearsed more than your average TV sitcom. Which is seen by millions.

For a start, there are normally six days allotted for pretty much everything: a readthrough, a rewrite, rehearsing, more rewriting, re-rehearsing, blocking, teching, pre-recording and then finally recording in front of an audience. The only head start you get is you might have a few minutes pre-shot on location. In short, it's terrifying.

But it gets worse.

The script might need a major rewrite. There might have been a readthrough a month earlier where it didn’t quite work and it turns out the rewrite is not much better. Or an actor might suddenly be unavailable and the script needs to change for very pragmatic reasons. Maybe it’s reading very long and there just isn't the time to overshoot.

If the script isn’t quite right for whatever reason on the morning of Day 1, it might take the rest of the day to fix it. The director may send the actors home, because there’s no point rehearsing scenes that are going to radically change, especially not with actors who are tired having been in studio all the day until 10pm or later filming last week’s episode. Either way, that’s a day of rehearsal gone.

Day 2. More rehearsals and a few more changes. On days 3 and 4 the script might seem to be locked down, but lines are still being tweaked. You still might have to write a whole new scene, or cut a scene in half or blend two scenes together. But whatever you do, you’ll have to have it down because on Day 5 there might be pre-records for future episodes.

Day 6 is the day of the recording in the studio front of an audience. (Yes, they are real people laughing. Not sound effects) By now, each scene might have been rehearsed for three days or four days at the most. On Day 6, there’s a slow run through in the morning and early afternoon for the benefit of the cameras, sound, props and the myriad of people who seem to appear from nowhere. Then a technical run through. Even at this stage, lines might be tweaked.

The audience come in, and it’s recorded. On that first take, some actors might be saying new lines for the very first time. Whilst hitting their marks, and getting everything else right. And that’s it. There will probably be a chance to run the scene again. But there just isn’t time to go over it again and again to tweak a performances. And how it’s done on the night is how it will have to be for ever and ever.

The pressure, then, is enormous. And yet somehow every studio sitcom is done this way, and no-one seems minded to change it. This partly because the system works. That said it only works because we still have technical crew who’ve worked on this format for at least thirty years. Moreover, changing the system to allow more rehearsal time won’t really happen because it will just end up increasing costs, and TV budgets faced a constant downward pressure, especially at the BBC.

So how does this affect the sitcom writer? A script that’s been months in the making, and weeks in the rewriting, is blown through in six days and it can be quite alarming to see it all happen so fast. Or it may be even more alarming to see something assembled so slowly and picked apart and pulled around so quickly.

There are some things that you need to know as you go into studio week and in the next blogpost, we’ll look at those.

There’s lots of technical writing advice like this in my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon. It's also available as a PDF here.