Wednesday, 25 February 2015

"It Doesn't Work"

Rob Hartmann here again.

 “It doesn’t work.”

 How often have you heard (or said) that about a show, a song, a scene— your own or someone else’s? It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot — and one that I always like to question when it comes up.

 What exactly do you mean when we say, “It doesn’t work”? That’s what I ask. Does it mean “I don’t like this [for whatever reason]” “It’s not clear to me” “I don’t think it will connect with our audience.” When you’re getting notes on new work from someone else, sometimes it means those things. Sometimes — and this is what happens to me with my own work — it’s just a gut feeling that what’s on stage isn’t clicking the way we want it to.

 The sign for me that something isn’t clicking is that I find myself unable to look directly at the actors onstage — I can only stare at their shoes. It’s agonizing, really (although oftentimes the audience seems to be enjoying that moment just fine… while I am admiring the costumer’s shoe-prowess, unable to face the actors.)

 In trying to discover why a moment isn’t firing on all cylinders, something I’ve found useful is to look at “the thing before the thing.” The song might be fine in isolation — but in the show, is the moment before the song setting it up properly? Often, strengthening or clarifying that moment before a song allows the song to do its job.

 It’s also good to drag a friend in who hasn’t laid eyes on the piece before — sometimes you discover that everyone in the rehearsal room has become too familiar with the piece, and thus hasn’t realized that, say, some crucial bit of information isn’t coming across clearly which then muddles up the “non-working” moment or song. Fresh eyes and questions from a new person can often lead to the lightbulb “a-ha!” moment when you realize what it is that isn’t coming across. And again, it’s very often a hiccup in the “thing before the thing.”

 Something to keep in mind, too, is that musicals live on the stage. I have been reading musical scripts for years and years and years, and still, musicals are very difficult to assess on the page. Many times when you read the script of a show which is strong onstage, what’s on the page seems thin compared to a play. When you think about it, it’s obvious why that’s the case: a musical’s power comes from the words wedded to music and movement. Just reading the words alone isn’t going to give you the entire sense of what the created world of this musical really is. You’re seeing just a shadow.

 Even once a show is up on its feet, you have to ask yourself — is this a repeated phenomenon (is the scene dying an agonizing death every night) or did it just happen once? Authors can agonize over audience response to a reading: why aren’t they laughing??!! Maybe they didn’t laugh at that joke because someone in the room coughed exactly on the punchline. I’ve seen that happen — and I’ve seen writers intent on throwing out a good joke because “it didn’t work in the reading.” Well, it didn’t get a laugh on this day in this room in front of these people. Tomorrow, with no stray coughing, it will probably be just fine.

 I had a show running a couple of years ago in which the second act opener was fine (ish) but I knew it wasn't delivering what we had intended. I watched that song every night of the run (I had the shoes memorized by then of course.) It wasn't until the end of the run that I realized what the issue was: it was indeed the "thing before the thing." We had tried to write a comedy number for a particular character; but by letting the character so easily shrug off the events of the show in Act One right away so she could sing something funny, we had inadvertently destroyed the stakes for the character. The action stopped. We had been stuck on the premise of putting something comic in that spot — it was always our assumption that we should. We had to examine every assumption, every preconception.

 It’s not surprising to me that theatre pros who are called in to help a show when things don’t seem to be working are called “show doctors”. A musical is a living, breathing, moving creature. Diagnosing what ails a musical requires a keen eye, a good “gut sense” and a willingness to cast aside preconceptions. “Oh, you can never do [X], that never works.” (You can’t write a show about a barber who murders people and has his lady love bake them into pies, come on, that never works. And so on and so on.) Every groundbreaking piece was a crazy idea before it became a standard.

 So when you’re puzzling over why a song, a scene, a joke, a dance isn’t giving you the energy on stage that you intended, before you pronounce that “it doesn’t work!”, take a step back. Defining what “works” means first … that usually works.

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