Playwriting without a safety net

For nine years, Plan B Theatre Company in Salt Lake has produced SLAM, a 24-hour theatre experience.  I’ve been a SLAM playwright for eight of those years.  Most of us who have done it describe it metaphorically in terms suggesting a circus–tightrope walking without a safety net, into the lions’ den without a whip or chair.  It’s terrifying, exhilarating, exhausting and terrifying; also terrifying. 

What happens is, we show up at the theater at 8 on a Friday night, are given headshots and resumes for three actors (sometimes up to five, but this year, three), are shown a set, and, most of the time, are also given a title.  We then have to write a ten minute play using those actors, that set, and that title, a hard copy for which we deliver the next morning at 9.  The actors rehearse all day, and perform, off-book, that night, at 8. 

This year, we weren’t given a title.  I’ve whined enough about not getting a title, but I did find it much more difficult, and frustrating.  Anyway, the theater’s in Salt Lake; I live in Provo.  I drive home Friday night, and usually have something sort of blocked out in my head by the time I make it home.  Write all night, put it through four or five re-writes, catch an hour sleep, and then deliver it to Jerry.  Jerry’s Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan B. 

You don’t have time for self-doubt or second guessing.  You don’t have time to experiment.  You go with the first idea to pop into your head, and you write as quickly as possible.  Usually, the hard part for me is getting it down to ten pages.  My first drafts tend to be thirteen or fourteen pages long–cutting is difficult. 

So Friday, I had nothing.  No title, no ideas.  Here’s what I had: a set consisting of four benches.  A wonderful director, Christy Summerhays, who I’ve worked with many times before and adore.  These three actors; Jason Tatom, a wonderful actor who I’ve worked with ever since Gadianton, in ’94, Kalyn West, a terrific actress who I don’t know at all, but who I saw as Sally Hemings in Plan B’s production of Third Crossing, a play I liked a lot, and Claire Wilson, a fifteen year old who I’d seen in The Scarlet Letter.  So, relationships: Father, Mom, Daughter?  No, Kalyn’s too young-looking.  Some other family? Couldn’t think of any.  Father, Two Daughters?  Maybe, except, again, no ideas.

Then I thought that the benches looked a bit like benches in some public place, like, I don’t know, the DMV.  And I thought three random people who aren’t related might be there, at the DMV.  I think waiting in line at the DMV is a frustrating experience, so the play might work as a comedy.

I thought it might be interesting to have Kalyn play like a college professor deconstructing some ‘incident’ that took place at the DMV, have it be maybe a futuristic thing where law enforcement had been turned over to literature professors.  I even had a nifty Jennifer Love Hewitt joke in there.  “Ever since President Love Hewitt reformed our legal system. . . ”  Surefire!

Just didn’t work.  Couldn’t find a hook, couldn’t find a story.  Finally, I just went with a straight comedy, three frustrated people at the DMV, with a teenager gaming two grown-ups.  I wrote it in three acts: Jason and Claire, then Kalyn and Claire, then Jason, Kalyn and Claire. 

Jason is a wonderful comic actor.  I wrote some funny stuff for him, and he sold it.  But the first Kalyn scene didn’t work as well, which I realize on re-reading the scene was entirely my fault, and not hers at all.  What happened was, for Jase I wrote some good set-up, set-up, payoff jokes, with a solid kicker.  For Kalyn, for some reason, I wrote set-up, set-up, fizzle.  I couldn’t come up with a punch line for her character.  There was some fun stuff about ‘rules’ and ‘rule-breakers,’ and I could hear it in the audience; they liked the character and wanted to laugh, but I didn’t structure it right–I didn’t give them the punch-line release line they were craving.  I feel terrible about that.  She’s a great actress–not her fault she was badly served by her playwright. 

The last scene worked well, because Claire Wilson is a fifteen-year old comic genius.  I had her sing that awful Maroon Five song about having moves like Jagger, only with suggestions in the script that she didn’t know all the lyrics, so it was “something something duh duh duh moves like Jagger.”  That’s what I wrote.  She ran with it, and was terrific. 

Sitting in the house for SLAM, you have one prayer–please let mine not suck the worst.  I thought I didn’t.  I actually thought all five scripts were good, very different, but good.  I’d call it a five way tie.  Best of all, I survived, we all survived.  And I can’t wait to do it again!

4 thoughts on “Playwriting without a safety net

  1. Hygge Man

    Great read. Thanks for sharing. It sounds like a lot of fun–you know, the way a hurricane can be fun. I’ve worked w/Kalyn before. A more talented ball of energy I don’t know. She’s great.

    Reply

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