The lovely Carly Milroy was kind enough to contribute to the How To: Create A Solo Show series with this entry inspired by her show Pee Stick debuting at the The Butterfly Club 7pm February 17 through to the 21st.
Tickets available here. Great article available below. 🙂
A blank page is the worst. UGH! Sitting in front of a blinking cursor waiting to be inspired is the most frustrating feeling, and I’m pretty sure lots of us have been there at some point. You’ve told your friends you’re going to write something. “Oh great! What’s it about?”
“Um. It’s about… liiiife… and the human…. stuuuff…. Actually. When I know, I’ll let you know.”
Everyone will of course have their own creative process that works for them, but if they’re helpful here are some broad things that really helped me figure out how to write my first solo show: Pee Stick.
1) I BOOKED IT IN.
If you want to write a solo show, that’s brilliant! If you’re anything like me, your first instinct will be to put it off forever because it’s not perfect yet. (Fun fact, this great blog of Dan’s is what finally gave me the drive to just write something and put it out there!) I really believe nothing will reach its potential until you share it and draft and redraft it, so last year when I booked in Feb 2016 as a performance date to work towards, it really lit a fire under my bum to make the show happen.
2) I GOT SPECIFIC.
When writing Pee Stick, I started by incessantly tapping a pencil against my forehead. What do I want to say? What do I even care about? WHO AM I?
Finally, over a month later, I decided those ‘What do I have to say about the world’ questions absolutely needed to take a back seat. I think a show can’t define your values entirely, or narrate all your experiences or ‘sum you up’. Impossible. I knew I had to tell a story in one hour or less, so I thought I better get over myself and get really small, and really specific, with what I wanted this thing to be.
Specific things I did to get specific:
- I got a big sheet of butcher paper (my best friend) and started free-scrawling down things I like, things I hate, things I care about.
- I took a step back and circled the words that really stood out on the page to me. I remember some of these were WOMEN, FUNNY MUMS, PRESSURE TO SUCCEED, DOGS.
- I scrapped the words that didn’t match up (like ‘Dogs’, even though it killed me) because there’s only so much you can cover in one hour and because I’ll definitely do a show about dogs another time.
- I used the words that did match up to inspire my ideas. After heaps of talking with friends and the show’s fab director Maurice Clisby, figured out that the show would be about one girl, Annie, who takes a pregnancy test. All the characters are women, including two (hopefully) funny mums and a boss obsessed with success.
Those dot points make it look really simple but it took a lot of weeks, a lot of talking and a lot of changing my mind before landing on something simple that would hold my interest. I discovered if I couldn’t sum up what the show was about in a sentence, I probably needed to keep working on the idea.
3) I FOUND THE CHARACTERS.
Quick note: there are endless variations on what a show can be. Physical, storytelling, plot-based, interpretive dance-based, sketch, stand-up… My strongest suggestion before thinking about your own show would be to see heaps of live theatre and figure out what you like.
I like plays. For me, if I can’t see the characters I can’t write the words. So with Pee Stick I started by finding their voices. I filmed myself talking as a character for an hour. Then I transcribed everything and played around with that dialogue on the page, before changing over to a new character and starting again. I drew pictures of these six women in the show and figured out what they cared about, so I knew how they would speak and what they would say.
A friend of mine has to find the character’s costume and walk around in it before they know what to write. Another writer I’ve worked with has to know where the plot is going before they can think about the characters. Figure out how you get inspired, it’s all worth a try.
4) I PLAYED.
I got silly! In writing this show I tried to challenge what I thought I was good at, because almost any time I’ve thought ‘Oh I’m not that kind of a performer’ I surprise myself by just doing something new. There are some really ridiculous bits in this show. Annie giving birth, or her boss Colleen dancing to synth pop, or Annie’s mum doing a rap about parenting advice. Do what’s fun. It has to be fun. Even when the content is dramatic, dark, somber, what I write still has to be INVOLVING and keep me in the middle of it. If I’m not having fun delivering it, I know no-one else can have fun in that room with me.
On that note, I would also quickly say I have to care. I need to care intimately about the story and my characters. When I stop caring I know something has to change. One of my favourite things ever is a quote from Elaine Stritch: “You cannot tell an audience a lie. They know it before you do; before it’s out of your mouth, they know it’s a lie.” I really believe audiences are emotional geniuses and as a group they want to share the real stuff with you. To let them do that, first you yourself have to care.
5) I TESTED AND EDITED.
Test test test teeeeeest. I ran a test show with about 7 friends who see lots of theatre or have done their own shows, and afterwards we talked through their responses for about 40 minutes. The value of putting on a small test show has been proven to me time and time again. Get feedback from a small group of people you trust outside your writing or production team, and be open to listening to what they have to say. You don’t have to take it on board but if 4 out of 5 people say they didn’t connect with something, chances are you need to edit. I’m learning to love failing. Getting on stage and having something not work is extremely satisfying, because I can hear instantly why it didn’t work, and I can change it/learn from it.
Edit edit edit eeeeeedit. Down to a comma, down to the last lighting cue. This bit is so huge for me! I deleted anything that didn’t build on the story or add any new information to a character. There were lots of needless statements at this point in my script, so I got rid of them. They only dragged the show down and were boring even for me to read. Scrap bits. Punch the script up with something stronger (jokes, details, revealing dialogue etc.). Lose unnecessary props, costume changes, sound cues. Get ruthless.
6) I REHEARSED.
And I’m still rehearsing now! This show opens in two weeks (yikeso), so at this point I’m trying to be as familiar with everything as possible. Working on your own is tough – I’m really lucky to have the support of a director helping to see what’s working and what isn’t. When Maurice isn’t around and I’m rehearsing by myself, I’ve been filming scenes and watching them back. Time in the performance space (The Butterfly Club) has also been fantastic.
Other general stuff:
- The help of publicist, Emma Sharp, has been a lifesaver. It’s really tough arranging a media release, interviews, review spots etc. when you’re in the middle of writing a show (I’ve done it before and it’s poo). If you can find a publicist who will work off a royalty from tickets I’d very much recommend it.
- I produced this show, and like other stuff I’ve produced you’ll need a great spreadsheet to stay organised while you’re writing the show. Again, if you can find a producer I think you’ll have a much better time focusing on the show itself.
- I think it’s a great way to go if you start small and gradually take on bigger challenges. For my first solo show, I made sure Pee Stick was a five night run in a fairly low-stakes environment. I may take it to a festival, but for now I’m still learning about this show and I think most scripts have plenty of room to develop even when they’ve been performed in 100 different ways.
It’s been so much fun writing Pee Stick, I wholeheartedly recommend putting your work out there as much as you can and pushing the limits of what you think you can do as a writer or performer (I’ve found it super rewarding so far!).