Tuesday, 2 July 2013

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!

1 comment:

  1. My friend Michael Conley added this on Facebook:

    I've always loved Blake Snyder's take on ideas:

    Seven Warning Signs I might have a BAD idea:
    - Fear of telling anyone about it.
    - Fear it might be stolen.
    - Fear that saying it out loud might spoil the “magic”
    - Fear that if I don’t write it fast, I’ll lose it
    - Lack of basic logic points - which I chose to ignore!
    - Lot’s of great “scenes,” but no story
    - Not researching to see if someone already did this

    Seven Warning signs that I might have a GOOD idea:
    - I love talking about my story; I’m eager to share what I’m working on and get reactions to it.
    - I have no fear my idea will be stolen! No one can tell this story like I can, and in fact someone I tell may give me insight I didn’t have before.
    - I increase the magic when I say it out loud. It lets the world know I’m a writer with lots of great ideas.
    - I can’t “lose” an idea; it will only get better the more I work on it.
    - I look for potential flaws in the logic knowing they are an opportunity to make my story stronger.
    - Even if someone wrote my story before, I can come up with a new twist that will make my version the best.
    - I have a great story and that means I have great scenes - they serve my story, not detract from it!