Thursday, 18 July 2013

Preparing your script for a First Reading

written by Toksvig

When we do First Readings, it's really useful for us if your script is set out clearly on the page.

For some advice about how you might do this, see this blog post on How To Format Your Script.

In addition to that, it's really useful for us if you take a good look at your stage directions.

Usually, a stage direction is aimed at a director, to help them prepare a production, or at performers, to help them understand what your intentions are for their character at that moment.

They both have plenty of time to read a stage direction as they're going through a script, but in a First Reading, we won't ever have seen the script before.

So what tends to happen is that we're reading at a pace that seems to suit the scene, and then suddenly there's a big stage direction. Everyone stops reading the dialogue out loud, to scan the stage direction and see what it's telling them.

(We could ask someone to read out the stage directions, and then we have to wait while that information goes by. We don't really like asking someone to read out stage directions, because it puts another vocal character into the room, who wouldn't normally be in the show. It can change the natural pace of a scene, which is something we would much rather avoid.)

When preparing a script for a First Reading, it's incredibly helpful if you pare down the stage directions to the bare minimum. That means being extra-strict with yourself, and bearing in mind that you're only losing stage directions for the purposes of this one reading. Afterwards, you can put them all back in again if you want.

(Although you may find that you don't want. That's another great thing which can come out of a First Reading: you might find that you just don't want or need a lot of the stage directions you had put in.)

Here's an example of what this means:

You can take out anything that describes what kind of move a character makes, which is not vital to understanding their intention in the scene. For example, if your script reads:

John: Sheila, I'm not going to tell you again!

John picks up the gun and points it at Sheila, moving towards her with a menacing look in his eye.

Sheila: Don't be ridiculous, John. You're not going to shoot me.

You might want to rework it like this:

John picks up the gun.

John: Sheila, I'm not going to tell you again!

Sheila: Don't be ridiculous, John. You're not going to shoot me.

The actor can just skim the stage direction before they speak, and mime a gun as they say their line, which means there is no loss of pace and we're all very clear what's happening. (Arguably, because of Sheila's line, John's actions are clear even without the stage direction.)

You might also want to think about stage directions that do what the dialogue is already doing, or stage directions that describe location in more than a few words, and so on.

Leave us with just enough to understand, and no more. Because if the dialogue isn't making it clear what's going on in the scene, that is a really useful thing to discover from a First Reading.

Once you get the hang of editing stage directions like this, it's a very quick and easy thing to do, and it will make the reading so much easier for us, and more successful for you.

How we can help you

written by Toksvig

The Writing Process

I’ve been looking at the kind of support available to musical theatre writers, and wondering what kinds of things The Larder can offer that will best support the process of making a musical.

There are already showcase opportunities out there, and producers who want to help hook up shows with productions, but I’m talking about the fundamental process of making a show, from the very beginning.

Here are three ways in which we’re currently offering support for the earliest stages of making a musical.

Creative Counselling

Once you’ve decided on something with a realistic goal, you’ll start sketching out the story in the way you want to tell it.

This step isn’t just about outlining the show, it’s about beginning a new relationship. You might have a single process by which you create all your work, and that’s fantastic, but even then, this is still a new story.

Before you think about what the opening number should be, you might want to look more closely at the broad decisions you made at the Ideas stage.

How are you connecting with this story, how are you presenting it? What choices are you making as a storyteller?

Before you even write an outline, think about a Creative Counselling session, and spend an hour considering how you want to make this story yours to tell, bouncing ideas off someone who can be objective for you.

The First Reading

Now you’ve sketched out a rough draft. It probably feels like a massive accomplishment. And it is.

And now you have to change it.

As part of The Larder, in support of new writing, The Copenhagen Interpretation are now offering First Readings.

As a group of performers and writers, we have many years of experience ‘cold’ reading very early drafts, offering broad and supportive constructive critique on the aspects of the show that will be most useful when moving into a second draft, and avoiding the very detailed critique that isn’t helpful at an early stage.

See these blog posts to find out more:

Creative Counselling
First Readings

Have a First Reading of your show

written by Toksvig

A First Reading involves a group of performers sight-reading an early draft libretto, then offering some constructive critique.

For us, the point of a First Reading is not about seeing the show performed. It’s just about hearing the show for the first time, instead of sitting inside it as you read or write it on a screen or a piece of paper.

A First Reading is the chance to allow a little distance between yourself and the work, to see if it’s starting to have legs, and let it take a few steps on its own.

We deliberately don’t rehearse these readings, just read the script ‘cold’ off the page. The benefits of doing this are to show the script in all its glory, without having rehearsed anything to enhance it.

A First Reading is about finding out what the first draft is made of, warts and all, so you know where to go with the second draft.

We’re experienced sight-readers, so you’ll get a smooth reading. We’re all able to pitch in and play multiple parts, making clear choices and distinctions so that you get as clear a reading as possible.

A First Reading is about looking at the bigger picture of the story, the major character arcs, and the core emotional drives.

We read the lyrics out loud, as if they were dialogue. Although something is certainly lost by not hearing the lyrics with the music, other things are gained.

Hearing lyrics read aloud allows the writers to focus fully on the storytelling and character voice in the lyric. We can look at song structure, and it can also be useful in considering music choices. Logistically, not having to provide a piano or CD player frees up the kinds of places we can do a First Reading, and that can save both money and admin time. For all of these reasons, we limit our First Readings to reading all the words out loud, be they dialogue or lyric.

We’re all familiar with early work, and many of us also write or direct. Your First Reading will happen in a warm, supportive and experienced environment. We can give you general constructive critique, or you can ask us for comments on specific aspects of the show.

Most importantly, First Readings are an affordable way to get professional and experienced critique on your work at a very early stage, enabling you to make informed choices about how to move forwards.

You don’t even have to print out scripts: we prefer to read e-versions on iPads and phones, to save time, money and trees. First Readings are quick to organise, quick to do, and invaluable for developing new work.

For more information, email Jenifer on never[at]acompletelossforwords[dot]com

To find out more about the performers, visit The Copenhagen Interpretation website.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Acquiring rights for adaptations

written by Toksvig

Someone asked me about obtaining rights to something you want to adapt. Before I start, be warned that this is based solely on my own experience, and your mileage may vary enormously. Also, I'm talking about something that immediately and instantly falls under legal agreements and, as such, you're wise to ignore what I say and hire a good lawyer to advise you. I am not a lawyer. Nor am I a legal professional. This stuff can get really complicated and tricky. And expensive. Note that every situation is unique, and should be approached as such.

Here's my personal tuppence ha'penny. It's quite long, I'm afraid.

Is it in the public domain?

Films, novels, poems, paintings, comic books, cartoons, TV, plays - whatever it is, the first question you should ask yourself is whether or not it's in the public domain.

Basically, copyright protects a work for a specific length of time - usually for the creator's lifetime and then a number of years beyond their death - after which it is said to be in the public domain, and freely available for anyone to use, adapt, collaborate with, in full or in pieces.

I recommend using Google for the latest info on copyright duration, because it can differ according to what kind of property you're looking at. (Photographs differ from books, etc.) Here is a link to the government's Intellectual Property Office that worked the day I wrote this blog post.

Who owns / controls the copyright?

Once you've established that it's not in the public domain, you have to find out who owns and/or controls the copyright.

If only one creative person wrote, painted or otherwise created the source material you're looking at, then find out who represents them, and make contact. Some tips for that are below.

Bear in mind that it's often not as simple as the copyright being owned by one writer, end of story. There are often layers and layers of copyright ownership, especially in movies, which may themselves have been adapted from a novel or something else.

The Original Source Material

Do yourself a favour and find out what the original source of the story was, and then make an informed decision about whether you're interested in adapting that original source material, or adapting someone else's adaptation of it.

For example:

The Princess Bride is a novel that claims to have been written by S Morgenstern. First, you'd have to discover that the name is a hoax, and it was actually written by William Goldman. This novel is the original source material.

Don't assume that it's the original source material just because it's a novel. Many novels and plays are adaptations of other stories. Shakespeare adapted history and folk tales. Even the Bible stories aren't necessarily the original source material. For Noah's flood, see also the earlier tale of the flood of Gilgamesh, and so on.

The Princess Bride was adapted into a movie, during which process, several bits of the novel got left on the cutting room floor. If you wanted to make that story into a musical, you could either choose to adapt the original novel and make your own cuts in the process, or you could say that you liked the cuts made in shaping the movie, and you could adapt the movie.

There are upsides to adapting the movie. For one, you get a story which has already been adapted into a genre that requires a more succinct narrative than a novel, so you might feel that much of the work of the adaptation has already been done for you.

Plus, the movie of the book may be a more familiar version of the story to a broader audience than the novel. If the movie differs in any way from the novel, your broad audience might feel hard done by that the scene they loved in the movie isn't in your musical because you adapted the novel, and it's not in the novel but was added for the movie.

Some of the downsides of adapting someone else's adaptation are that you might find it inhibitive being limited to choices that someone else has already made about the story, and you will certainly find that it is much more challenging to get stage adaptation rights to a movie than a novel.

If you go right back to the very original source material, you might find it more freeing to make a clean creative approach from scratch. You might also find that the movie with which you fell in love is nothing like the novel at all, and in fact, what you fell in love with was the adaptation itself.

You should choose as your source material whatever feels right to you, but it's really useful to be informed about where in the process your choice of source material stands, and who might have a claim to the rights in that material along the way, starting with the very original source. It's likely they will all have some ownership or control, from that person onwards.

The Rights Holders

To adapt the novel of The Princess Bride, you'd have to find out who William Goldman's literary agent is, and contact them. If you can't find the info on Google, which is often tricky, you can try calling the book publisher and asking them whom to contact.

If you wanted to adapt the movie - well, in this case it just so happens that William Goldman adapted his own book into a screenplay, but it could just as easily have been a screenwriter, who may have a literary agent. There might have been several screenwriters, some of whom may have been fired from the project but still retained some copyright in the work.

To get even more complicated, some or all of the screenwriters may have signed over their copyright in the work to the film company, so you might have to contact the film company that released the movie, since they may own some or all of the adaptation rights in that screenplay.

A quick Wikipedia will tell you that The Princess Bride has several distribution companies: 20th Century Fox, Vestron Pictures and MGM. You then have to go through what can feel like an endless process of Googling and calling people (abroad) to find out exactly whom you should be contacting to inquire about rights.

It can be frustrating, time consuming, expensive, and you may never reach the right person.

Here are a few tips and tricks I've discovered along the way, that have helped me get my request to the right sort of person, in the right sort of way.

Ask if, who, and how

For movie companies, ask to speak to the legal department, and then when they put you through, ask to speak to the person who deals with stage adaptation rights. See if you can actually speak to the person in question, not their assistant.

For literary agents, ask to speak to the person who represents that author. You'll often be put through to their assistant. In this case, don't ask to go further. Just start making your enquiry via them.

Once you get to the right person, ask:

a) if they are in fact the right person to approach about this work.

b) to whom you should specifically make your approach. Get a name, make sure you have the spelling right, and find out what their direct email address is. Or, if you can only get this far, at least find out who their assistant is, how they spell their name, and what their email address is.

c) how they prefer to be approached. You can helpfully suggest an email with a basic enquiry and some brief info about you. Then if they want something else, they'll tell you, but otherwise they're not having to think about it, just saying yes to you.

Always be as brief as you can. THEY DON'T CARE about your creative plans to make a masterpiece that changes the face of musical theatre for ever. They care that you know what you're talking about, won't cause them any extra work, and might make them some money.

(It's okay that they don't care. It's not their job to care. If they did care, they would interfere in your creative process, and that would be bad.)

Types of rights: exclusive and non-exclusive

Rights can be granted as exclusive or non-exclusive.

These two mean exactly what they say on the tin: being granted some kind of exclusive right to something means that no-one else will be granted that same right. Being granted a non-exclusive right means anyone else could also be granted that same right.

My personal advice is always to ask for non-exclusive rights first, for several reasons.

1. Responsibility

You don't want to give yourself a huge responsibility before you've even started addressing a project. Suddenly being the only person in the universe who is solely responsible for bringing to the stage this story which you think is the most incredible thing that might just make the best show ever - you do think that, right? - is just more responsibility than you need at the start.

2. Relationship

You're not setting out to get married to the material tomorrow. You haven't even said hello yet, let alone gone on a first date with the story. Give yourself, and the story, a little time to get to know each other before you make a big commitment. You might find you don't get on as well as you thought you would, and it's better to be in a place where you can politely say thanks, but this isn't working out, without feeling like you're going back on some big promise.

3. Riches

Non-exclusive rights tend to be cheap, or even free. Exclusive rights tend to cost money.

So you could start by saying:

"I'm interested in acquiring some non-exclusive rights in your novel…"

Some. Not even all. Just some. 

Length of rights granted

It can really help to limit the length of time for which you're asking rights to be granted. How long you need the rights for depends on your intention for the show.

If you want to do a quick adaptation of it for a charity concert next Wednesday, you don't need the rights for more than a week.

If you have longer term hopes for the show (not plans, yet - no first date yet, remember?) then you could just talk about the first stage of the process, because that might be the only stage you actually know about.

A first date with a new adaptation might be a rough first draft, culminating in an informal reading to see if you like the piece, and some friends like the piece. Or a potential collaborator likes the piece.

So you might go on to say:

"I'd like to do a musical stage adaptation, beginning with a very rough first draft culminating in a private reading in six months. This would give me the chance to explore my approach to the adaptation."

And you could invite the rights holder to the reading. Or production, or industry showcase, or you could just offer to send them something to look at.

Six months might be too long for you. Maybe you'd prefer a couple of weeks to sketch out an outline? Or write a couple of songs. It all depends on how long it takes you to see if you like something. How long you want to devote to the project. How far in advance you can be sure you'll feel that you've made the right commitment to the right show.

Or maybe the rights holder seems reluctant to let you have six months, so you suggest less time, and offer to send some material after a couple of weeks.

It's all about negotiating with them, so be very certain that your first suggestion to them is actually the best choice for you, and be prepared to compromise that if need be. It's good to know what you'd be willing to compromise whilst still reaching your goal, and what you wouldn't be able to compromise.

Of course, you might want to say that you've been commissioned by the National Theatre to adapt the latest Times Bestseller, and you're asking for exclusive rights for the next five years. In which case, get a legal professional and let them sort it out for you.


When it comes to money, it's really useful to think about your application for rights in terms of the rights holder, who is obviously going to be interested if there's likely to be an income for them.

If you're asking for non-exclusive rights to prepare material for an informal private reading, within a very limited time frame, then there's clearly not going to be any profit in that at all. So their decision will be based on whether or not they care about, or are interested in, you adapting their work. And whether or not an adaptation by you might some day make them some money.

When you're granted non-exclusive rights to, say, a novel, the rights holder can still say yes to that big film company which suddenly wants to make it into a movie. So they're not that worried.

Exclusive rights are different. They'd have to say no to that big film company, and that will potentially lose them a lot of money. As insurance against that sort of thing happening, they may ask you for a fairly substantial chunk of money if you're asking for exclusive rights. And you (or your producer) may be willing and able to pay it, which is fine.

I would put some examples of amounts here, but there really are no ball-park examples. The amount of money might be anything from a penny to a million quid, depending on what the property is, who you're dealing with, who you are, what kind of deal you're asking for…

You simply have to weigh up the potential financial value of the whole experience, and see if the request seems fair and reasonable. And affordable.

What if they ask to see some stuff before they grant rights?

Ask them what they want to see, and send them a reasonable amount of stuff, without overloading them with material, and without overloading yourself with work that may come to nothing.

You could send them a page outlining your ideas for the adaptation. Maybe also send them an mp3 of a song, with a lyric sheet. (Not a score.) Link them to your other work online. Give them enough of an idea of you and your intentions for their property.

Mark everything you send them as very clearly your copyright, and send a copy of it to yourself, someone else - preferably a lawyer or legal professional - so that you have an independent record of having sent it.

Here are some other frequently asked questions:

Should the writer or the producer go about getting rights?

If the writer gets the rights, and then approaches the producer, what the producer does is option the work.

If the producer gets the rights, and then approaches the writer, what the producer does is commission the work.

The difference between the two is important. A commission might carry with it some expectations of future ownership for the producer in the show, even when they're no longer producing it, because they were instrumental in obtaining the rights and hiring someone to adapt the material for them.

An option is simply that: the writer (or writing team) already has the right to adapt the material, and they offer a producer the option of putting that show on. The producer didn't have the idea for the show, and didn't go about acquiring the rights.

Again, it's worth stressing that this is a very complex legal area. Getting professional legal assistance for this stuff is vital.

What about a story about a real living person? What about the copyright in work that's devised in the rehearsal room by the performers?

Ask a lawyer.

(Worth noting here that the performers who devised the original material which became A Chorus Line still receive a royalty in the show.)

Terminology you might come across

Advance: payment up front that is recoupable later on
Billing: how the original author's name is presented on all print / publicity
Commission: a request for a specific new work from a producer to a creative artist
Duration: length of time
Exclusive: no-one else can have that same agreement
High-profile: very valuable / famous / celebrated
Non-exclusive: anyone else could have that same agreement
Option: a limited opportunity to exploit a property
Property: a novel, a film, a piece of creative work
Rights: literally having the right to do something, permission
Royalty share: a percentage of profit
Territories: countries, parts of the world
Warranties: guarantees (eg: a clause in which the author warrants that they have the right to grant you these rights in this work) 

Once again: this is intended as a general guide only. It's not specific advice, and I am not responsible for anything that goes horribly wrong for you if you're just relying on this info. Really, don't listen to me. Ask a legal professional. I reserve the right to continually edit this, and encourage you to comment on it with your own experiences. Also, like all the posts on this blog, this information went out of date the moment I posted it.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

EVENT: Ideas Lab

written by Toksvig


We're not gathering on August 4th after all, since there didn't seem to be enough demand for this, and we are all about giving writers the support they want.

However! We are rethinking how to make this event work for you, so give us a shout about that if you have any thoughts.

Have a look at this blog post on why it’s okay to share your ideas, and this YouTube video on having lots of ideas.

Twitter #ideaslab

Why it’s okay to share your ideas for shows

written by Toksvig

Under English law, you cannot copyright an idea, and there’s a reason for that.

If ideas were limited under copyright, we would still be using the very first knife and fork ever conceived. Made of dinosaur bone.

Actually, to truly understand why it’s important that ideas should be free, we need to look at the concept of ‘the artist’s voice’.

Here’s an idea for a show: a story based on a fairy tale.

They’re popular stories. It’s a great place to go for solid narrative. But let’s be more specific: a story based on Cinderella. Or even more specific: a story from the point of view of the Fairy Godmother type character.

How about this: a story from the point of view of the Fairy Godmother if she were a man in his seventies who lives in a house-share in London.

That’s pretty specific. Here’s mine:

“The Fairy Godmother lives in a retirement home for Olde Magickals, with the last two generations of Tooth Fairy and the no longer quite so wicked Witch of the West. As pets, they keep a couple of aging werewolves with no teeth left. They decide to go out on one last Magickal fling which goes horribly wrong.”

And here are some great responses I got from my storytelling friends. Who got wonderfully carried away:

“Fairy godmother feels put-upon, unappreciated, tired, old and dreams of escape - Cinderella provides that escape.”

“A dance musical where the ghost of Rudolf Nureyev returns to a squat in Clapton, somehow still with access to his millions, and reinvents the dance world with random acts of kindness.”

“The Fairy Godmother plans to open a factory in a small, struggling village that promises the women of the town the makeover they've always wanted - but she dies before her idea can come to fruition , leaving the plan to her would-be successor and her adopted son, a nuclear-active orphan.”

“Cinderella's wicked stepmother Kelly-Anne had stolen Austin's memories once she found him in bed with her new husband. (It's the back story, you can fill in how the fairy godmother ended up in a house share in London.)”

"He's actually been the the fairy godmother of the prince's family for ages, has recently become concerned about inbreeding with all of the available princesses, so he's going a different direction for the happily ever after this time."

"Gerald sighed, easing out of his wig and stilettos after the third christening this week."

"The fairy godmother desperately wants to be the godfather, so by night, dons a sharp suit and sticks cotton wool in his gums then buys cannoli. Lots of cannoli. And tells Cinderella she should buy a hotel in Vegas."  

"The fairy godmother shares the 14 floor apartment with the bitter and resenting ghosts of all the wishes that went wrong. Each have a musically complicated story to tell with particular emphasis on the aesthetics of failure."

"The Fairy Godmother knows his time is coming when his magic will fade and his body will die. He's looking for a way to explain himself to posterity so sits down to write the story of Cinderella: we are soon unsure if the story is really his own memory or just a fantasy he's spinning to protect himself from remembering who he really is."

"The Fairy Godmother has withdrawn from the wish granting business because he feels he has been contributing to the endless cycle of consumerism driven by media-inflamed wanting and wishing; he has broken his wand and follows a meditative practice of non-attachment. But he discovers that he has unwittingly caused the death of hope - the universe slides toward its end in lukewarm entropy because there are no wishes to push anyone forward. He realizes he must take up his wand once more and start putting girls in pretty dresses and glass shoes, or the advancement of humankind and all of creation will cease."

The existence of the artist’s voice means that no two stories will ever be told in the same way.

It’s the reason Shakespeare’s plays have endured: they’ve been reinterpreted by thousands of unique artists.

So the first reason why it’s okay to share your idea for a show is this: no-one else could possibly write the same show you would write.

In the 1999-2000 season on Broadway, two different adaptations of Joseph Moncure March’s poem The Wild Party were produced simultaneously, one on- and one off-Broadway.

Adapted by Michael John LaChiusa and Andrew Lippa respectively, the shows differ in style, plot, character, book and score to a great extent.

As shows, they are only rivals to one another in the eyes of musical theatre aficionados who are forced to choose their favourite, in the same way that any pair of musicals with some common element might be compared: Funny Girl and Hello Dolly for being Barbra Streisand vehicles, or Oklahoma! and Carousel for being Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals.

When I was commissioned to write a musical about Horatio Nelson, I realised that I knew absolutely nothing about what it might be like to be a late 18th century naval war hero. I went to a bookshop and stared at a shelf of twenty books on Nelson, and to this day it fascinates me that if every storyteller in the world, in any media or genre, were to be limited to writing stories inspired only by something in the life of Horatio Nelson, we would still never want for source material.

The potential for every world is in every story, and the potential for every story is in every world.

So there really is no way that anyone can actually steal your idea for a show. They might be inspired by something you say, but they will immediately form it into their own show, through their own creative approach.

Obviously, there are going to be moments that feel like an appropriate exception. If you happen to know that the rights for a high-profile property like, say, Harry Potter have just become available, and you’re thinking of applying for it, I would understand if you felt it prudent to keep that information to yourself.

(Although you know, the same thing about creative voice does still apply: if your creative voice is what J K Rowling wants for the stage adaptation, nothing and no-one can take that opportunity away from you. Likewise, if your creative voice is not the one she wants, then nothing and no-one can get you that opportunity.)

Not only is it okay to share your ideas for shows, there are some really fantastic benefits to sharing your ideas for shows.

For a start, it’s a much more comfortable conversation to have. People can engage with you if you tell them what you’re working on, and that’s incredibly useful in terms of exploring and developing your idea.

If you keep it all to yourself for months and years until you’ve written a draft you’re happy to share, you might find that there are some major structural issues you just didn’t notice – it happens to the best of us – and you might have saved yourself a lot of work just by having a ten minute conversation with someone over a pint.

Talking things out loud is the first step towards detaching yourself from them sufficiently to be able to consider them. It’s not a permanent detachment. You can always step back inside when you’re ready.

More than allowing you to hear your own creative voice, conversations about your ideas for shows allows other people to hear your creative voice. That’s a great way to start building new collaborative relationships, with writers, composers, producers, directors, designers, anyone.

It’s sort of a ‘soft pitch’. Instead of presenting a specific show to someone, which may already have gone quite a way down the road of development in your head, you’re simply opening up a dialogue about the kinds of things you like to write, the stories you’re drawn to telling, the styles and approaches you take creatively.

Those kinds of discussions can often lead to a mutual respect between creatives, and may well lead to a much more organic chat about possible projects you might pursue together, which you can then start developing together from scratch.

Talking about your ideas can not only help you develop them, but also be a great advertisement for you as a creative artist.

And finally, just in case you’re still a little bit worried about the ownership of your ideas...

Talking about them identifies them as your ideas. Even in this less than chivalrous day and age, it takes balls to steal ideas once someone has proclaimed them as their own in front of a group of their peers.

So instead of worrying about losing control of your ideas, set them free a little, let them roam around, see if they make friends. They’ll probably come back to you a little happier, a little wiser, and maybe bearing unexpected gifts…

*Big thanks to all the people who sketched out a story for this!