Friday, October 23, 2009

How to Put On a Show / The RvD Process

Recently, an actor gave me a false sense of importance by sending me the following email...


Some friends of mine are putting together a sketch show right now and I was wondering if you could give us any advice on putting a show together? How does RvD go about it? Does each person do their own work and that's it or do you work on drafts as a group?

Anything you could offer up would be great.


I ended up writing a massive response--I am clearly not used to being taken seriously, and apparently I had all kinds of pent-up advice welling up inside of me. And I said some things about process that might be of interest to readers of this blog.

Here it is. If you want to encourage my false sense of importance, you can read it.


Hello, [anonymous friend],

To start, I would ask these questions about your group:

1) Are the people who are writing also performing?

Whether you answer the first question yes or no, I think there are strengths and weaknesses either way. I'm probably biased as a writer, but I think there's some truth to my feeling that you're going to have a better show if at least some of the writers are not performing. What ends up happening otherwise is that many writer/performers write things that showcase them as a performer. Not necessarily bad on its own, but most people become so blind with infatuation over what they're doing (or trying to do) and they have no perspective on whether it's funny or interesting or not. Often it's not. So if the answer to this first question is yes, then I would either ask an outside person like a director to join your group to keep everyone in check with what's actually resonating. You can bring that person in during the writing, or after all the material has been chosen.

2) Do you have a director, and if so, is that director part of your group?

For all the reasons stated above, and to protect the performers from getting their feelings hurt by another performer or performers, I recommend getting one, especially if the writers are performing. Because you can kind of have your head in it too much when you've been essential to the initial creative stages. The director can say things that other performers can't say without hurting feelings, so I highly recommend this.

3) Is there a similar sensibility between everyone involved?

I don't think success depends on a yes or a no to this question, but knowing the answer will help you manage your own expectations for what your shows might look like. I belong to one sketch group with 2 other writers and our comic sensibilities are different from each other. This can be frustrating, obviously, when creative differences turn into arguments and unresolved disagreements, but it also has maybe made the shows appealing to a larger range of people. RvD is more like-minded, although we definitely have our share of disagreement--fortunately, everyone is thick-skinned and trusts that everyone is just trying to help, not tear each other down.

RvD's process:

I'm an active writer/director for three groups, and all of the processes are a little different. I'm making some assumptions about how many people are writing this show, so correct me if this is not a group of 4 or more people who are writing, but RvD's is the process most likely to fit your own group. I'm not necessarily suggesting that you follow this model to a T, but since you asked, here it is.

We meet once a week for a few months. For the first 3 or 4 weeks, everyone is encouraged to write individually throughout the week and then bring in a scene or two or however many to read with the group. Although our shows have all eventually had themes (with the exception of Palindrome, which was a collection of stuff that we liked that hadn't fit in our other shows), we don't start out with a theme, so at first everyone is invited to write scenes about whatever they want. The writer will divvy out the roles for everyone to read, including someone for stage directions. When it's my scene, if there are few enough roles, I'll try to avoid reading so that I can listen to the scene to see what words people get hung up on, what things get laughs, and just take a more birds-eye-view in general (otherwise, I'm too focused on when I need to speak again). Except in very rare circumstances, the writer is forbidden from making apologies or explaining anything before reading the scene. Because we are a rude bunch of people, we sometimes mock each other gratuitously about typos and jokes that don't work. (This is not a recommendation, just the way it is with us.) Afterward, we have an open and candid discussion of the scene, saying what we loved or hated and brainstorm ways of making it more successful. That person is free to use or reject any of those ideas, but it's often a good thing when they DO incorporate those ideas. If someone is too protective and sensitive about their own work, it usually makes for a lower quality. In a group the size of RvD, if 5 other people are telling you there's a better way to go, there probably is. Typically, unless the rewrite is major, people don't usually bring back rewritten scenes until much later in the process, once we've picked a theme for our show and that scene looks like a contender.

Once we have a bunch of scenes to pick from, we see if there are any themes going on. We identify one or two and then start generating more material on those one or two themes. After a month or a few weeks, we look again at what we have, pick the best stuff, weave it together (we like having "seamless" transitions which are unique, although there's also something to be said for the standard, relatively unconnected sketch show), and then cast it. In the case of Mrs. Gruber's Ding Dong School, once everything was put together we did one last line-by-line readthrough of the script to tighten jokes and add some new ones.


Of course, the Second City's model for writing shows is completely different, as I'm sure you already know. In that case the writers are the performers, and my impression is (you might know better) that a lot of scenes are never really written down, but are performed over and over again until they're more or less set. Still, in the case of the Second City, the director is a crucial part of that.

Another "group" I'm with is just me and one writing partner, and we have very similar enough voices that we often feel comfortable writing collaboratively, in the same room, line-by-line. Othertimes we'll bring completely new scenes, like RvD does. Or we'll talk about ideas first, then go home and write them. In the most successful meetings, those ideas become so collaborative that by the time we're done with them, we can't always remember who had the original kernel and who came up with which plot twist, joke, etc. I think this kind of relationship is rare, and is an indication of a good thing going on, at least for us.

I guess the key thing with any group is to be honest and candid with each other, and to give and accept feedback without intimidation, which is hard to do when you know that someone loves something they created and you think it's just OK or totally flawed.

That's just kind of the creative side of it. There's a whole practical side, too, like picking a venue, marketing, props, budget, all that stuff. In some ways it sounds like more work than it really is, not because it's not a lot, but because it's usually fun, even when it's not.


I now end with the same apology I gave to her, for writing such a long post. I will now go back to feeling unimportant again.

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