The first showing of our new show Survival was a couple of months ago, with two weekends of “previews” three weeks ago and first “regular” performance in about a month. For creation of new theatre pieces—whether for Broadway or for a house concert in Sebastopol—that’s nothing new. While a novel may in fact have a long period of previews in the form of redrafts and extensive editing in collaboration with a publisher’s minion, a theatre text faces an extra challenge: it aims for a group response—a vastly different creature than the sum of its individual parts. Add to that the vast diversity of today’s playwriting in terms of style and structure, and it’s no wonder that you want to send the thing out on a road test. An automaker would give a few more tryouts to a one-wheeled bus than to the normal kind. We’ve built more than a few one-wheeled buses in our day; some of them did the job.
But what happens in previews? Depends on the piece. Survival has been a challenge. It’s a solo show for Elizabeth, playing an ironic realist Lou and her “inner clown,” the ever-optimistic Bozo, impelled by response to the blast of disaster-ridden news we’re hit with every day. At the outset we knew only that it wanted to be about 50 minutes and low-tech for house concerts, and that it wanted to let us laugh at the things we all tend to scream about.—we really need those laughs.
But there was no story to be told—yes, a compelling character with a problem, but essentially a 50-minute stand-up comedy routine—though Lou was mostly sitting down—with new writing mixed with old routines that still, unfortunately, maintain their relevance.
But the stand-up comic can bounce from topic to topic, so long as he maintains a certain attitude and so long as his material is good, because the audience comes with the expectation that they’re there to laugh—unless they’re too drunk. In a dramatic piece, though, if it’s double-edged, ironic, with serious subject matter, they’re waiting for permission to laugh. If you don’t get the first few laughs, your audience may work very hard through the whole show suppressing their laughter, feeling it might be inappropriate. How do you find those keys? In performance.
After its first showing, we did a lot of rewrites—very little new material but mostly in terms of restructuring. The stand-up comic can move from the topic of atom bombs to his problem finding a parking place by simply bridging with, “Life is crazy, I was looking…” whereas a dramatic character needs a stronger impetus. At bottom, it was coming back to the most conventional element of dramaturgy: belief in the truth of the character, the thru-line, the impulses, the motive.
Audiences, if they’re asked, tend to be generous with prescriptions, but the trick is to listen carefully for the symptom that the prescription wants to cure. For example, someone mentioned that Bozo’s voice was too shrill, and indeed such a voice, in the abstract, can be unpleasant. For me, though, the comment illumined a deeper dilemma: Bozo’s wild perkiness was ungrounded. It lacked a center. Yes, Bozo was the perpetual optimist, but an optimist in a child’s world of perpetual bafflement. So that detergent-commercial assertiveness worked against the essence of the character, and a softer, more muffled tone gave her the reality we sought.
Similarly, late in the show Lou talks about her friend Allie, who despite infinite workshops and how-to books is still forty pounds overweight and suicidal. Someone mentioned that Allie’s voice sounded too much like Bozo’s, and again it led to an indirect path of discovery. In fact that was true. But what was their difference, given that both had an element of brainless-ditz factor? Again, it forced us to come back to a deeper sense of the character. It clicked when at last I suggested to Elizabeth, “Go into your deepest tragic-depression mask, and try to be cheerful.” Suddenly the character was genuinely funny: she was truly trying to heave herself out of the swamp. Her struggle was real.
A third example may suffice. The shifts between Lou and Bozo are very simple: taking off or putting on a hat, eyeglasses, and a red nose. We had tried various ways of making the change and reduced it to maximum efficiency, yet it seemed a series of dead spots. We’d run out of bright ideas. The first stage in traversing a dilemma, I’d learned long ago, was to acknowledge frankly, “We’ve run out of bright ideas.” It takes a while, but you come to that.
Then what? Simple: believe in the story. Here’s a woman transforming into another part of herself. Is that simple, pleasant, or wildly disconcerting? Elizabeth, in removing Lou’s glasses, had developed a moment when the world was wildly out of focus—very funny, but then you could see the actress’s focus going to “Now I put the hat on.” When we extended that first moment—bizarre disorientation—until the moment she landed in her new world—it was very funny because very true.
Still working on it. If the audience starts to wonder, “Well, what’s the plot?” you have two choices: give them more plot or make it clear that, “Friends, there’s no plot, just relax and enjoy what’s there.” There are comic bits that still don’t quite work, and something in the timing of the final cadence that needs an extra beat before the resolution. One would sorta think that, working together for 57 years, the answers would come faster, but maybe they do only if you’re wrestling the same old questions. What can be depended on pretty well is coming back to the same three demands: Make it simple. Make it present. Make it true.