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Aug 15

Revising With Your Company From a Distance. Like One Does.

(Quick caveat: I was one of the founding members of Toronto’s Monkeyman Productions, so you’re going to hear a lot in particular about my work with them.)

We’re in the very earliest stages of production with our fall show, Uncharted Zones; I thought a good place to begin in talking about my writing process would be with what’s driving me mad currently. 😉

Our company’s collaborations are always in flux, depending on the needs of a particular show. We’ve done public readings of scripts in the past, we’ve done group sessions where the whole company came together before there was even a cast and tried to solve as many problems as we could at that point, and of course there have been many playwright/director conferences (some even without the lubrication of being set at a friendly pub). This time around, we’re lucky enough to have a full cast early on and a significant amount of time to devote to workshopping the individual sections that will eventually come together into a show (a good month and a half, where usually by the time we have actors, we’re asking for final drafts as soon as possible). So it gives us some interesting options to play with – and I do mean ‘interesting’, as in ‘interesting times’.

Since I’m in Ottawa, we can’t just gather everyone involved into a room. Well, we can except for myself – the past couple of Saturdays, actors, director, dramaturg and SM have been gathering for rehearsals, and for my sake they’ve been making audio recordings and then sharing them on our common Dropbox account so I can listen in afterwards and both make my own notes and take down the ones they’ve come up with. (I also upload current drafts to a folder in the same account, and we use a Google Docs spreadsheet for sharing notes and revision progress.)

It’s interesting to be a fly on the wall in this way, and completely different from when I’ve attended rehearsals in person as the playwright. It can be a bit voyeuristic – people tend to forget that you’re ‘in the room’, and sometimes I hear a more honest and direct response to my work than I’d get otherwise. (Primarily from the actors – my fellow company members and I are used to blunt honesty, tempered with geeky love and bad puns.) And while my director does occasionally address the microphone during discussions, in general there’s not as much of a tendency to ask me questions directly – which can be helpful. At this stage in the process I’d rather hear what other people think and keep my opinions to myself. After all, they change so often!

Of course, that whole honest response thing also takes a bit of a thick skin – which is a necessary tool for a playwright regardless. You have to realize that everyone involved has a sincere desire to improve the play, and everything that’s being said is in an attempt to make a better show for all involved (most particularly the audience, and at some point I’ll have to write an entry about the collaboration that the audience brings to a play). You have to have faith in the process and the people you’re working with. This doesn’t mean there won’t be differences of opinion – and it’s important to have faith in yourself as well as the process, and to stick to your guns when that’s needed  – but it’s important to open up and accept the critiques and suggestions and possibilities that are being presented. The whole production is poorer for it if you don’t.

So I’ve been listening to these recordings – a three-hour rehearsal will generally take me four or five to get through on my end, as I work with Word 2010 open (I’ve only recently started taking full advantage of the Review features, so my script is full of highlighted passages and inserted notes/comments), the Google Docs spreadsheet I mentioned before, and a browser window handy for split-second research and proving that I’m right. (Though of course, even when I am right, I’m only crowing about it to myself – a possible downside to this revision at a distance.) But for the most part, I’m fascinated and engrossed, taking notes like my fingers were the Flash’s feet and learning tons as I go through this process.

And let me tell you, one of the coolest things in the world is when in the course of a discussion, a thorny problem with your script is revealed, but a moment later someone makes a suggestion that is so perfectly and utterly right … and it’s a discovery that you might have never made on your own, or that may have taken you weeks and several extra drafts. It’s one of those aspects of the artistic process which I feel theatre does better than any other art form, and I’d really hate to be missing out on it just because I happen to be sitting in another city.

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