I recently had a reading of a new play of mine, Crowning the Crone. At the end of the play, I was mortified by how long it was—over ninety minutes with no break! I began the talk-back with the confession of that recognition. No one disagreed with me and although there was really good feedback on other areas of the play, I remained focused on the length of the piece. Even as I prepare now for a post-reading revision, I’m still stuck on the length. While I’ve run into the problem once before, I hoped there was an easier way to deal with the challenge than just plodding through the script. I raised the question to the list, hoping to find some strategies to employ, questions to raise, shortcuts to take that would reduce the trauma of that “first cut”. Below, please find some of the remedies—some true gems—that I’m sure will greatly assist me and other writers in cutting the length of a too-long play.
The first thing I always do is look to see when I repeat myself. Though it may not be evident immediately that there is repetition, there usually is. So I copy the play and then go through and slash everything that doesn't have to do with forward thrust. Then I see what I have to put back in because either: 1. I'm intoxicated with the language; 2. It gives a character the flavor I'm looking for; 3. It enhances the mood.
I'm in the middle of the same thing. My script is due for a reading with Oracles on July 12. I've been shrinking in my chair as it grew to 130, 135, 140 pages. Printed it out two days ago, went to my local Starbucks with a red pen and sat myself down there with a venti chai tea and fresh eyes. I find that a change of location does wonders for objectivity. Read through the script, marking out phrases which were repeated (in meaning) in lines of dialogue, taking out Oh! and Umm-hmms where they could be acted instead of spoken, taking out chunks of interesting stuff which had little to do with the characters' Intentions (save some of the better passages for narrative short stories or another play I tell myself to assuage the pain) and lines which slowed the forward action, trimmed fat from monologues. If something needs to be said more than once, it wasn't said right the first time, I tell myself. Still much to do, but by jiminy the script was down to 115 pages by yesterday!
ROBIN RICE LICHTIG
In readings: I ask where did you find yourself least interested/uninterested/where did you drift off?
If there's general consensus, that's usually where the problems are. Sometimes people don't remember, so sometimes I prod them--what did you think about... (place I already know is to long or irrelevant), and that reminds them of other places. I don't cut everywhere I know I need to until I actually have a workshop or production rehearsals, because I think a lot of the minor cuts (I'm just saying what I'm acting,when I don't really need to) is easiest to spot when you have people working on the play for more than a day or two.
Just plug in and do it. But I've had the same problem—as have many others--and some questions you can ask yourself are: Was there any dead space during the cold reading? That is, places where the actors really didn't know how to approach the line(s)?
Are there any lines that are there just for exposition--letting the audience know something that the actors already know?
Are there exits or entrances that you've explained in too much detail? For instance: A: Oh, have you just come in from the garden? B: Yes, I have.
A: What were you doing?
B: Just weeding the peonies.
A: They needed it.
Sometimes a silence is as good as a line or two--or a gesture--remember,this won't be read, but acted. A: Oh, Joan, don't sit there! B: Why? A: John is coming in, and that's his favorite seat. Better:
A: Joan! That's John's favorite seat!
These may seem very simple and obvious, but sometimes they help. The audience makes leaps that you don't expect.
MIRIAM F. d’AMATO
I'm sooo glad you asked. Here's my strange method. During the reading I listen and make note of when my face turns bright red and I start to sweat. That's always the part I should cut. I think I'm embarrassed to bore people and the boring parts make me uncomfortable. Also the boring parts are usually about some unconscious personal problem I'm trying to work out. I keep having readings until my face doesn't flame. If you want to be more scientific about it, write down what happens to move the plot forward in every scene and cut any repetitions ruthlessly. The plot is the big engine that drives the work forward. If a scene doesn't move it, cut it. One more note - Save a first copy of your script and work from a second copy. That way you can cut with a cleaver and not care because you still have all of the first draft tucked away.
I LOVE to cut. It's absolutely my favorite thing in the world to do. In fact my process of joy in writing goes something like this: (First draft). Me: "I'm up to page 20!" "I'm up to page 50!" "I'm up to page 467!" (subsequent drafts): Me: "I'm back down to page 200!" "I'm down to page 150!" "I'm under 100 pages!!" ... so you see what I mean. I don't actually MEAN to overwrite, it's just--that's my process for figuring out what it is I'm talking about. I can't get it, unless I say it over and over for long periods of time, then usually a character makes a point, and I realize-- oh, That’s what I've been after all along!. Usually, I can cut everything up that moment and I'm where I want to be. Did that make any sense? Basically I think there are two answers to how best to cut. 1) (warning: this will sound a little disingenuous, but)-- figure out what your play is about. Seriously. Boil it down. What is this thing in a nutshell?
Then... every scene needs to be about that. Everything needs to be geared toward that. Chart it, if you have to. I make maps. I logic it through. Then you can see what's chaff, what doesn't pertain. Read Ibsen. He was a GENIUS at that. Read Hedda in a good translation. There isn't a line that doesn't illuminate the story in some way. That's worked for me. And... 2) It's the old rule of screenplay writing (where EVERYTHING has to be shorthand, and no scene can go over 3 pages)-- "get in late and get out early." Meaning-- start into the scene as late as you can possibly go and get out as quickly as you can. Instead of atmosphere, charm and exposition-- pull the gun. And then once the gun is pulled, leave the scene before somebody catches you. Two relevant points from my own work as illustrations, and then I'll stop going on (at length...). SPLITTING INFINITY, my latest work, is about an astrophysicist who goes after evidence of God, through physics. In its first draft (overly long)--the end of the first act was the astrophysicist saying "I think I'll go after God with physics."
What I ultimately realized was-- this is what my play is about, this is what was going to appear in the publicity about the play, and any potential audience member who had read a review, or even a little bit about the play was going to know this. I would therefore be wasting their time by spending a whole act to telling them something they already knew. (Side note—this is my only complaint about PROOF, which is-- I knew that this was what the play was about, now I've got to wait for after intermission for it to START). So I proceeded to have her make this decision at the end of the first scene. Leaving myself LOADS of time to get her into much more trouble, AND (you knew it was coming)-- cutting about 30 pages. -- That's the "get in late" example. The "get out early" example is from my play AURORA'S MOTIVE. Aurora Rodriguez was (true story) a woman in Spain in the 1920's who decided to give birth to a daughter, on her own, and raise her to be a leader of Spain. And she did--astoundingly raising a prodigy daughter who published 13 books and 65 pamphlets before she was 17, a column in the newspaper, an officer in the socialist youth party, admired by Havelock Ellis and H.G. Wells. And then when the daughter was 18, her mother shot her. In an early draft of the play, the mother did the shooting-- and THEN TALKED FOR TWO MORE PAGES. At which point a great dramaturge friend of mine said: "After she shoots her, I don't care what anyone says. About anything." And from that moment on, the gunshots ended the play. It was produced in Chicago in a fabulous production, and that Gunshot/blackout ending worked beautifully. Lots of gasping. Some crying during curtain calls. Delicious. I credit that dramaturge. So. That's a long way to tell you how I make things shorter. But that's about how long it usually takes to get to my point in my first drafts...
If you got the "too long" feeling during the reading rather than when you looked at your watch afterwards, the material immediately preceding that "long" feeling is the prime suspect. Maybe you have an entire scene or a 2 page exchange that you don't need, that is either a repetition or a digression. The other prime suspect is the starting point. We frequently begin at what seems to be the beginning rather than in the more exciting middle-- where the audience is kept busier, invited to imagine backwards as well as anticipate forwards. They usually like that, or at least prefer it to the feeling that they have already guessed what they are being told and don't need to hear it.
Q. Are there any other useful resources??
So many good tips in reply to these questions and other helpful resources:
How many rehearsals do I go to?
What do I say in rehearsals?
Which play do I send to which theatre?
What stage directions do I put in/leave out?
How do I know that the the idea for a play I have hasn't already been written?
Do I give character references of all my characters at the beginning of the script? If so how much do I give?
How do I describe my set requirements?
How Can I choose my own music for the play?
Are correct punctuation and grammar and correct spelling really essential?
The Diary of a Lazy Playwright
Other Resources for Playwrights
Writing a Musical
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