Last summer at BlogHer’11, LTYM: NYC Director Amy Wilson and I facilitated a workshop on reading your writing called “From Page to Stage.” I spoke from my experience as LTYM founder/National Director, and once stage actress. Amy spoke from her extensive professional acting experience (on Broadway, film, and television) and especially from her experience translating material from her successful one-woman show “Motherload” to her funny and insightful book “When Did I Get Like This.”
Below I’ve listed some excerpts from our session notes that I think might help our LTYM readers edit and prepare to read their work on show-day.
WRITING FOR THE STAGE VS. WRITING FOR YOUR BLOG (OR BOOK)
- Writing for the page is about saying more, going deeper. More detail. Look more closely and tell us what you see. It’s about showing, not telling–saying less. So when I wrote my stage show, I was cutting whole paragraphs that I could get across with a pause, a raised eyebrow, a “So.”
- When you take something that you’ve written for your blog, or anywhere else, and you go to perform it, the first thing you need to do is read it out loud for yourself with a highlighter. Any phraseology you trip over, highlight it. Anything that just feels flowery and non-aural English [editor's note: i.e. doesn't sound normal], highlight it. Then go back and either rewrite it, or cut it.
Example: a writer I heard on NPR just this week, talking about her childhood:
Making Silly voices, as a child, was something I was known for…and I’m driving in my car, five seconds behind, saying, wait, what? What is the subject of this sentence? What might make for complicated writing on the page, in a chewy, interesting way for listeners, will leave them in the dust. Better for her to have said “When I was a kid, I was known for my silly voices…” Not as flowery, but much easier to understand aurally.
- The other thing you might want to cut is anything that you can SHOW us instead of telling us.
“He paused for a moment.” “I felt so sad.” “I just stood there, taking it in.”
- Use the white space of pauses. Don’t be afraid of them. A pause can take the place of several sentences.
- Like Amy says, read it aloud and see what trips you up–then fix it or remove it.
- Also ask yourself What is the message of my piece–what is the main story or point I’m trying to drive home? Once you’ve figured out your purpose for telling your story, look for things that get in the way, or that you are forgetting to say.
For example–look for places where you stop the action to comment on the story–like that really funny aside, or that long beautiful description of the fall colors that has nothing to do with moving the action forward, and might actually get in the way. Trim it down or take it out. Yes of course you can have some description, some funny quips, but in live readings all you have is your story–no sets, no lighting or music–momentum is everything and is worth sacrificing some of your brilliance for–for the audience’s sake of getting your message. I describe it to my cast like this: I want to be on the edge of my seat for your story, or at least captivated in some way. Have someone listen to you read and if they sit back in their seat or tune out during certain bits–those might come out.
- Let the words and the moments stand for themselves–instead of forcing the funny or the dramatic by getting huge and loud and animated. I think the best readers converse with their audience. An acting teacher of mine used to say that a good auditioner comes into an audition (or reading in this case) with an air of welcome to my home. This totally didn’t work for me at the time, because at age 21 it was “welcome to my parents‘ home,” which is a decidedly different thing. But now I love it–welcome to my home, welcome to my story.
THINGS THAT CAN GET IN THE WAY:
- What makes good acting and what makes good writing are kind of the same thing. Don’t “help” it. Apply your writing instincts in that way to your acting (or your writing). Just like good writing doesn’t need emoticons or LOL’s to indicate what’s funny or sad, neither does good reading aloud of that writing. It doesn’t need goosing or silly voices to make it work, it needs TRUTH, same as good writing.
- Over-rehearsing is another thing that can get in the way. For some people it gives confidence, for me kills the spontaneity.
Amy: If I play devil’s advocate with this point: I love to rehearse, but it can be tricky. It has to LOOK like you’re thinking it up just then. Think great stand-up comedy (Seinfeld: what is the deal with that?)
Ann: I will play Devil’s advocate to your devil’s advocate–since the vast majority of us in this room are amateurs and not professionals. First and foremost, do whatever makes you most comfortable on stage. If you do it so many times it’s memorized, you might forget to experience the piece as you read it in real time. I’d rather see a nervous performer fully inhabiting and maybe even flubbing some of her words, than a perfectly polished recitation any day. I guess what I’m hearing myself repeat is a distinction between performing a piece and sharing from an authentic place. For a seasoned actor this might be one in the same, but for the rest of us–tell your story from your most honest place.
QUICK TIPS FOR READING YOUR WRITING:
- SLOW DOWN. (This is one I have a lot of trouble with) Don’t rush to the safety of the end of the paragraph. Leave room to breathe and for your audience to find themselves in your story.
- “COIN IT” it in the moment…Say the things you’re saying as if you’re saying them for the first time, as if you’re realizing it right now as you’re saying it out loud. We all know that we blog to find out what we think, we don’t always know the ending of our post as we begin to write it. Make sure you’re not acting the end of your story at the beginning. As the reader, you too have to make it as if you don’t know what’s going to happen yet, have not learned the lesson of the story yet.
PLAYING TO/WITH A LIVE AUDIENCE
- Find a private moment immediately before going on stage and take three deep breaths.
- Give the audience a moment to take you in. If you get up to the mic and start talking immediately, they’ll still be looking at your hair and outfit and miss the first few lines–especially true for women.
- I came up with this one: Immediately before you go on stage, instead of rehearsing lines or beats/pauses in your head, think of that message you want to convey–what you want the audience left with. For me with my piece 35th trimester it was something like raising babies is hell, but I swear it gets better, don’t get divorced just yet. You don’t even have to think of words–your head might be a complete blank if you’re really nervous–but you can think of that feeling you want to share with your audience–welcome to my home. Welcome to my story.
- Stage fright is NORMAL and can even be YOUR FRIEND. Be nervous. Cry. Giggle, it’s okay. That’s why we’ve come. We’ve come to see a genuine moment. That’s live performance. People don’t want to read your perfect self, but your real self. A perfect blogger is pretty boring. In the same sense, people don’t want to see a perfect, safe acting job, they want to see you be real, to risk, to reveal something of yourself. Whether the story is funny or sad.
- They may laugh where you didn’t expect them to. They may not laugh at all where you thought you had something killer. DON’T WORRY. Leave room for spontaneity.
Editor’s note: Most importantly, HAVE FUN! For many LTYM readers this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.