Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Rob here again, with some scribbles.

When I'm thinking about a piece — examining my own work, or giving feedback/critique on another piece — I like to think about the structure using the analogy of the layers of the earth. You probably remember from elementary school seeing a cross-section of the earth: the red-hot core at the center, the rocky mantle surrounding it, and the relatively thin crust which covers everything.

Each show has its own "layers" — and if you feel that the little world you've created isn't spinning quite properly, there are different places to investigate to see why that might be.

At the center of everything, of course, is that "burning core" — the passion that drives the show. This is not the "meaning" or "message" (ugh) of a piece — this is the fire in you that caused you to write it — the fire/passion/energy you hope to pass on to the audience.

This is the most important, the most, most, most important. You need this passion in order to fire up everything else. This doesn't have to be something that is "deep and meaningful." But it does need to be truthful. That doesn't mean heavy or quote-unquote "dramatic." Great comedies are truthful — they hit something deep within us. 

This passion needs to keep you going (and everyone who is working with you) over the long stretch. It's the fire which engages the audience and moves them, changes them.

If people keep asking you, what is this show about? (not meaning the plot), then investigate that core.

The next layer up is the mantle. I think of this as the dramatic action by which you are expressing the passion of the core. It's your story, your plot, the tale which will convey the fire of your intention to us.

If the story is difficult to follow, if cause-and-effect seem unclear, or if your story is just not conveying the essence of your passion, then dig in to this layer.

The outer layer is the "crust." This is where you have your dialogue, lyrics, scenes, songs. Because, of course, you could convey a particular dramatic action with many differently written scenes or songs. 

The flow of a scene, the impact of a song -- all these are outer layer concerns. Is the scene truly conveying the dramatic action that lies beneath? Is the song saying what it should? (If you have determined that your underlying "mantle" of dramatic action is sound.)

When everything is working together — inner passion, strong structure, flowing and clear outer layer— the world is alive.

Very often, when writers are trying to "fix" a world that's out of balance, they only look at the outer layer. 

If there is no burning passion at the inner core, then no matter how pretty and polished the outer surface is, it's a dead, cold world. We've all seen shows like that. Shiny blue marbles with no reason to exist.

Let's say you have your inner passion and it's burning hot. But if, say, your "mantle" is out of whack, you could write song after song after song for your "outer layer" — but things still wouldn't feel right. This is when you have a feeling of instability, of things never "landing" or settling in.

Sometimes, of course, it really just is an issue with the "outer layer" — you do want a lovely, engaging surface on your world. Trees and mountains and bubbling brooks and all that. If it's just a question of how it's all flowing — if the songs and scenes are really expressing the actions that you've built underneath — then keep polishing that surface. That kind of theatrical delight is one thing that makes musicals so engaging, after all.

But when your world isn't turning the way you'd like, make sure you've made a journey to the center of the earth to see how all the layers are functioning.

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