Christine’s Note: This is a guest post by Jessica Bylander, a writer, editor, and playwright. We met as classmates through The Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars program and reconnected recently in D.C. 🙂
This summer I wrote and produced a sold-out show at the 2015 Capital Fringe Festival. My show – “Ambien Date Night” – was a comedy about a girl who starts dating the man of her dreams while lucidly sleep-walking on Ambien. It was VERY loosely inspired by real-life events (my aunt sleep walks on Ambien, drives to the store, and buys weird food). This was my second time writing and producing a show for Fringe, and it was a whirlwind of activity and emotions. Writing and producing my own show is the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done, and it kickstarted my writing like nothing else.
Producing my own show was a crash course in the art of hunkering down, getting stuff done, and rolling with the punches. Here are a few tips for writing a hit comedy.
- Take a leap of faith.
I love this quote from Amy Poehler’s memoir “Yes, Please”: “I believe great people do things before they are ready.” Sure, you should hone your craft first and make sure the work is something you’re proud of. But don’t wait for a perfect, mystical moment when the stars align and you feel the essence of Tennessee Williams flowing through your veins. I didn’t have “permission” to write a play. I’m not an actor, and the extent of my theater knowledge comes from my stint as stage manager for my high school’s production of “Tartuffe” and several chorus roles in our high school musicals. But I’ve always had a good ear for dialogue.
When I decided to write a play, I came across many helpful articles online. I use the standard screenplay formatting (Courier, 12-point font) for all my scripts (some use Times New Roman for plays, but my actors have yet to complain about the font). The rule of thumb in screenwriting is that a page of script equals about one-minute of run-time. My final script for “Ambien Date Night,” which ran 70 minutes, was just over 60 pages – I had a few tricky scene transitions and costume changes.
Screenwriting programs, like Final Draft, simplify the whole formatting thing, and some web-based programs, like Celtx, are free. Just be sure to save backup PDF copies of your files often in case of total website meltdown. (This happened to me, with a now-defunct screenwriting site that lost everyone’s files).
Once you’ve learned the basics, take a leap: apply to a festival (I submitted mine to Fringe), or enter a screenplay contest, for instance. As Poehler says: just do the thing.
- Make yourself laugh.
Comedy is so subjective. Trying too hard to tap into what’s trending, what you THINK today’s crowds will laugh at, or what you know yesterday’s crowd enjoyed, is a recipe for angst. It also risks coming off as inauthentic and forced. My goal with my writing is to make myself laugh. If I’m cracking up (or at least grinning) as I write, then I’ve done my job. When it’s show time, some crowds will guffaw at my favorite lines, others will titter, and some will stare blankly at the wall – and then crack up at things I didn’t even realize were jokes. Don’t write what you think people will find funny. Write what makes you laugh.
- Use characters wisely.
Comedies can be tricky to navigate, because you’re trying to tell a compelling and unique story, but also want to keep the audience cracking up along the way. First, accept that there will be quiet points in the script. Yes, some performances are “laugh a minute,” but it can be hard to convey a substantial plot that way. I like to add a comic-relief character or two. They bring most of the laughs and provide relief from the more straightforward protagonist, and lighten up serious moments in the script.
Also remember that all good stories need conflict and tension, meaning that comedies need antagonists, too. In “Ambien Date Night,” my antagonist was the main character’s edgy alter ego, who emerged whenever she was sleepwalking on Ambien. In romantic comedies, the antagonist is often also the love interest, according to the Screenwriter’s Roadmap.
- Assemble your team & set a budget.
You can’t produce a hit show by yourself. These are team efforts. There’s the director, of course, but there’s also sound, lighting, costume and set designers and ideally a stage manager to keep the ship afloat. Though I didn’t have a huge entourage, my play soared with the artistic and emotional support of my awesome director, who I found by asking a few ladies I knew in the local theater community.
I found my actors through an open casting call posted to a site called Dragonuk Connects, which is basically Craigslist for film and theater folk, and posted on local theater-related Facebook groups. My area (D.C.) has an active playwrighting and theater community on Facebook. Your area might have one, too.
Now is also the time to set your budget. There are a lot of moving pieces, and it WILL add up. My budget included the Fringe registration and application fee, rehearsal space (free space is hard to come by in a city), stipends for cast and crew (it was nominal, but it added up), costumes and set, marketing materials, printing costs (for so, so many iterations of the script), and random incidentals.
- Get early feedback.
Early in the play development process, a local theater company arranged a “living room” reading of my play so I could hear it aloud and work through some issues. This is called a “table read,” and is an essential step in script development. Good ear for dialogue or not, you get a better sense of pace and story arc when you hear it aloud. Look for reading series or play development resources in your area as you’re getting a draft together.
Once actual rehearsals begin, you’re not done writing yet. In a great article for the theater website Howl Round, D.C.-based playwright Stephen Spotswood offers tips for being “the playwright in the rehearsal room.” The key is to be present and open to questions and new discoveries – and to not be afraid of being wrong. But, at a certain point, remember that actors can’t memorize a constantly moving target and call it a wrap on rewrites.
- Sell yourself.
As with any story, having an unexpected, borderline insane premise is the best way to stand out from the crowd. The Fringe Festival, for one, is all about a grabby premise and title. The title of “Ambien Date Night” alone probably sold tickets and definitely generated buzz. We ended up in “The Washington Post,” on the NBC Washington website, and even on a local NPR show – all before opening night. A catchy title should be unusual, but not too hard to remember.
Among writers, there are those who have no trouble talking up their projects and those who are more bashful. Learn to sell the heck out of your projects. You worked hard on them and should be proud. For my play, I set up a Facebook page that I updated frequently, attended Fringe parties and walked the streets handing out promotional postcards, cross-promoted with other comedies in my venue, and sent out an email blast through MailChimp to friends and family when tickets went on sale.
When talking up your project, think of it less as bragging and more as selling one more ticket, copy of your book, website click, and so on.
- Brace yourself.
Not everyone will love your work. As I wrote in a recent post on my blog, the hell — and the joy — of putting yourself out there is that you WILL be judged. There’s absolutely nothing you can do to guarantee a 100% love fest when you put your work out there. Make peace with that, give yourself limited amounts of time to sulk and DEFINITELY don’t post comments on your own bad reviews online.
When the time comes, don’t forget to celebrate! Buy yourself some champagne. Take yourself out to a nice dinner (or have someone else treat you). Don’t hedge when someone compliments this amazing thing you’ve accomplished. Writing is hard labor masquerading as quiet desk work. Please don’t forget to celebrate your victories. Right before you move onto the next big challenge – and the next leap of faith.