It's just this little chromium switch, here... (derspatchel) wrote,
It's just this little chromium switch, here...

on being a seat-of-yer-pantser

Don Quinn, the cartoonist who wrote nearly every episode of Fibber McGee & Molly, often wrote each week's script at the very last minute, staying up all night with a big pot of coffee and several cartons of cigarettes.

Douglas Adams was known to finish episodes of the original Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series on the day of transmission, madly pounding away on a little typewriter in a small room and handing the individual carbon copy sheets over to the cast and crew as soon as he was done with each page.

10 minutes before our first TOMES OF TERROR live radio re-enactment last night, I was sitting in the church office with Renni, going over some last-minute "while we're here" revisions to her host segments, the final draft of which I'd just finished that morning. Renni is playing The Librarian, the only original character in this show. Taking a page or two from the old EC horror comics, I created a host character to introduce the three radio re-enactments, tie things up at the end, announce intermissions, and read the rules involving cellphones and oubliettes.

"Ok. Page 2, line 16. Let's strike that first 'so'. Next, page 3, let's cut lines 43 through 56. The joke's good but we need to tighten this up more."

"How about if I use a different word here to describe the monkey's paw?" Renni asks. "Just something other than innocuous. Something like curious. Or vulgar."

"Oooh, excellent," I says. "Change the line to 'a most curious artifact... a twisted and vulgar souvenir from another land.'"

And then it's go time. And I feel great.

Writing by the seat of one's pants is a harrowing experience. Some people can't do it. It's just too much stress, especially if you're already got eighteen other things over which to stress. But for some, it's an environment in which they thrive. It can be addictive. The adrenalin rush combined with the feeling of immediate results just gives a fellow a thrill unlike anything else.

Perhaps it's because when you go down to the wire, you don't have the time to stop and second-guess yourself. You have decisions to make and you make them. You have cuts to make and you make them, and can't agonize over which of your children to kill. You don't have the luxury of whining "But the joke works..." because you're running long and something needs the axe.

There really is something quite empowering about taking a pen to your script, quickly looking things over, and going schoop, schoop, schoop out of some of the lines, when the results still look good. I felt in charge. And honestly, writin-type folks don't always get to be in charge of the final product, so I relished that.

However, this situation only feels good to the seat-of-the-pantsers involved. You've got a director, a crew, an audience waiting for the final product. Most importantly, you've got people who are counting on you to provide them with things to say. And even if you've established your reputation as someone who works down to the wire but provides results (a reputation I do not believe I have earned, mind you, and one that's not entirely desirable) and even if you're working as cool as a cucumber, feelin' all Elvis and shit cause you are TCB, mama, you can't expect everybody else to share in your cucumberness. There's a fine line you walk when you play this game, and you run the risk of pissing everybody off if you fail.

But oh, what an exhilirating game.

Regardless of if you play this game or not, there's one moment that happens afterwards that just makes everything all right. This is what I mean:

We've started the show. The Librarian's theme music is up, music that I will grow to really like during the course of the performance. I'm standing backstage listening to Renni do her thing onstage for the first time. Renni is great, she's got the character down -- heck, she nailed the cold reading the first time she saw the first draft -- and suddenly I start hearing the laughs.

And it was galvanizing.

There's someone out there onstage -- a character I created.
Speaking words I wrote.
And getting laughs.
Big laughs at certain points.
From an audience.
Some of whom I don't even know!

It was one of the most wonderful feelings in the world, right there. Every time Renni nailed a line, every time the audience responded to something I didn't think would get a good response, and when they laughed heartily at "'s a literary reference" I got this grin on the face, you know, that grin that just won't go away... and I had to go onstage in two minutes' time.

And at the end, when she pulls out the final speech, she gets one of the biggest laughs of the night with her final line. I'm awfully proud of that final line; it's oddly enjoyable to leave your audience with a memento mori. And it's a rare memento mori that leaves things on a high note and a laugh, as it were.


The show went great last night. The obstacles that popped up were overcome or improvised away; if a cue was dropped here or there it did not destroy the scene, and if you were to listen to the performance from, say, behind the closed doors of the kitchen, the tightness of the lines with the live sound effects and music cues sounded professional. Damn professional.

I had a lot of fun playing Fibber McGee. Our cast's comic timing is spot-on. Several supporting characters got exit applause, even. I enjoy getting laffs as an actor. It's a good feeling in and of itself. But most of the time, when you do get those laffs, it's someone else's words.

So when you get laffs for something you wrote... something you're not even performing yourself...

It's like being kissed. Often. And by someone who knows how.

So come see the show tonight. We go "ON AIR" at 7:30 pm, First Congregational Church of Somerville, just a few blocks up College Ave from Davis Square (between Davis and Powderhouse.) Tix are tenbux, seven for younger and older folks. You will love it.
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