Pseudo Broadway

by limebirdkate

One of the projects I’m working on is a novel about a struggling actress on Broadway. I wrote the first draft during a NaNoWriMo having done no research about Broadway or acting.

After reading it through over the weekend, I became afraid that my main character was unlikeable. I thought she might be too negative, too much of a complainer, and I didn’t think anyone could handle her for 300 pages.

So, I brought a sample to my writing group and asked them to focus on my protagonist. I explained the problem I was having and that I needed to find out if she works or not.

After I finished reading, Liz, the grandmother in the group, sighed.

It isn’t a good sign when she sighs.

She said, “This doesn’t ring true at all.”

At first I thought she was referring to the character. Of course I was disappointed. Even when you expect bad news, you don’t really want to hear it.

I said, “What about Jessie isn’t believable?”

Liz laughed. “Oh, not your protagonist. I was talking about your setting. All of that Broadway stuff. None of that would happen the way you’ve written it.”

I took a few minutes to shift gears. Liz continued on with her explanation telling me that actors wouldn’t say those things, schedules wouldn’t be like that, lighting wouldn’t be handled that way, yada, yada, yada.

Liz is an amateur actress, in case anyone is wondering. She performs at a local theater (which houses about 150 people) and helps backstage. Sometimes she even gets to travel to the next town over to perform in that theater. Last role she had was a street merchant (?) in Our Town. She knows everything there is to know about the theater.

I waited for her to finish her critique/criticism. I said, “Well, I haven’t done any research yet. Actually, I was thinking I might go to Broadway and see about…”

“Are you kidding me?” Liz interrupted. “You will never get backstage on Broadway. No one will talk to you. Just do your research at the local theater. They do it the same way.”

Then Wendy-the-opera-singer got in on it. “Yeah, unless you know someone, you’ll never get backstage. Might as well go to the Rep (our local theater).”

I tried to argue my point, defend myself in some logical way, but I had no foothold. Fact is, I don’t have a plan of action. It’s just a random thought I had about doing research. I never really let myself think that it wouldn’t be possible.

Two things are happening here, in my brain. One is that I’m feeling shut down. The other is that I’m feeling analytical, curious.

Let’s go with the second one for now.

They’re insistent that the research would be exactly the same in my hometown theater as it would be if I went to Broadway. But I’m of the initial opinion there is a difference, a huge difference. I don’t think the local repertory theater has the same atmosphere. I think the stakes are different for actors on Broadway as opposed to other theaters. The history is totally different, and I’d be willing to bet some things in terms of auditions, sets, rehearsals are different, too.

But then I think about how a writer’s job is to use her imagination to create worlds and bring her readers to imaginary places as well as real places, not to mention historical places. We certainly can’t be visiting outer space or Middle Earth or the Civil War, so we have to rely on storytelling, imagery, and vivid detail to bring the reader into the setting. To make the reader believe he has stepped right into the thick of the Roman conquest.

Maybe I’m not giving my writer self enough credit. Perhaps if I know the gist of a general day in the life of an actor, I could craft Broadway well enough on the page.

How about you? If the actual place of your story’s setting is difficult to visit, would you do your research at a lesser-known instead?

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20 Comments to “Pseudo Broadway”

  1. My novel is set in 1894 Colonial Australia. I can’t go there, but I spent months researching, reading through newspapers, picture archives, anything I can get my hands on. If I could afford to buy tickets to actually visit the countryside, I’d be there in a heartbeat.
    If I were you, I’d take the advice of your friends, get the feel of it at your local theaters – and not put any stock in going backstage at Broadway, or holding out hope that anyone related to the business would talk with you. But if I could afford the time and money to actually go to Broadway, I’d do it. But then again, I’ve never actually seen a Broadway show performed, so that is on my bucket list anyway 🙂

    Ah, critique groups – they really know how to put a writer in their place, don’t they? I love mine, but it can be so tough hearing that kind of feedback!

    • Hi Heidi,

      Wow, 1894 Colonial Australia! That sounds awesome, actually. And I bet researching it is painstaking, but interesting.

      I know what you mean, one of my to-do dreams is to go to Broadway for a performance, too. No, I s’pose I shouldn’t hold out hope to get backstage. I certainly won’t delay the novel for the research.

      Yes, critique groups certainly have a way of making you re-think the whole idea of being a writer. 😉

  2. I haven’t had to do any sort of research on a scale like that…like actually visiting Broadway, but I did have a thought that might help. Have you looked into some Broadway documentaries? I don’t know if there are any, but there is a documentary on just about anything so surely there is one out there, that might have good feasible and legitimate interviews and shots of the things that grandma is talking about (like maybe some good backstage examples of lighting, schedules, meal time, things like that). Then maybe you could couple that with visiting the local theater and see how it compares. If its completely way off then maybe you could see about getting to Broadway – and if not maybe just go by the stuff in the documentary. The bad thing about the documentary is it might not be 100% true to life unfortunately, but at least it might be a starting point or give you an idea?

    • Hi Laura,

      That’s a great idea. I hadn’t thought about documentaries. I will definitely look into that. Gosh…where would I start? Do you know? I don’t suppose Netflix would be a helpful resource, would it…? 🙂

      • I found this on netflix – “Show Business: The Road to Broadway” – it has 3.7 stars, but the description sounds good, “Go behind the scenes of four of the biggest shows of the 2003-04 theater season and find out what it takes to make it on Broadway — from the auditions to opening night to the season-ending Tony Awards. This documentary highlights the ups and downs of various Broadway musicals, including the smash hit “Wicked.” The stories behind these big productions are full of amazing struggles and successes that rival the splendor of the Broadway shows themselves.”

        I also found this PBS series about Broadway on Amazon — http://www.amazon.com/Broadway-American-Musical-Tim-Breese/dp/B0002V7THY — On the PBS Site – http://www.pbs.org/wnet/broadway/ …. It’s hosted by Julie Andrews so that HAS to be good, right? I’d check out a few documentaries or something, to get some different views (thats the bad thing about documentaries, they can be slanted to show you only what the director wants you to see) .

        Whatever you do to get your research done on broadway I do wish you luck!!

      • Thanks, Laura! Wow, that sounds pretty interesting even if I weren’t researching Broadway.

        I’m glad you brought up that point–that documentaries will be slanted–and to try to get a few of them that talk about the same things.

        Oh yes, Julie Andrews has definitely got to be good!

        Thanks again!

  3. It depends how much of your story takes place in the inner workings of the theatre, how much of the plot is central to back stage knowledge or do you just want to create a feel of the place? I’d see if there are any documentaries you can watch or you could see if any Broadway actors / crew members would be willing to talk to you. I doubt you’ll be let backstage but they could answer your quesitons, see if you can stalk them on Twitter 🙂

    • Hi Victoria,

      Well, I’d say 2/3 of the book has to do with the ins and outs of Broadway. I do have scenes that take place in dressing rooms, costuming, backstage, downtime, rehearsals, etc. Basically, the protag lives Broadway so….

      Oooh, stalking on Twitter! Now, that’s a fun idea! Thanks! 😉

  4. I think they’re right, actually.
    I took an acting class in college. I was horrible at it, but, yeah. You do learn a lot about staging and such. It is surprising how alike a community college play and and a Broadway stage production can be, from backstage. Just like movie making is really unglamorous behind the scenes too, whether it’s a local commercial or a big budget Hollywood movie filming.
    I would befriend the local drama teacher, or whoever is running the show, and volunteer to help out in some way. You will learn a lot, and you’ll be able to use it.

    • Hey M.K.,

      I guess I should take comfort in the idea that a local theater is similar enough to Broadway. That would make the research job easier!

      I must have this grandiose idea in my head of what Broadway is all about, and that it would have to be off-the-charts-different from your run of the mill theater. Gotta be my romantic eye coming up with that image!

      Luckily, the people at the local rep theater are pretty accessible. So, it wouldn’t be a problem to pick their brains.

      Thanks for the helpful advice!

  5. Great post Kate! I’ve never really had this experience, so I can’t really give you any advice! I’ve never got to that stage in my book where I’ve had to go back and properly research.

    I’m hoping that when inspiration strikes and I want to write the most amazing book, that I will have the gusto to do all the proper research. What happens if you’re writing about an event in the past, how would you possibly be able to go and experience that?

    Like Victoria said, I think that twitter stalking is a great idea! Might be able to wangle an interview with one of them? I’m sure you must be able to find someone who would be willing to help you with your research. Good luck!

    • Hi Beth,

      It’s funny. I love researching topics that I’m writing about. I think that if you’re interested enough in the topic to write about it, then you would inevitably be interested in researching it. The idea of poring through disintegrating parchments and dusty books sounds so cool!

      Of course, now we have the Internet, so it’s really just a matter of clicking some buttons and you’re back in the 18th century.

      Yes, I liked the twitter stalking idea, too. It definitely got my wheels spinning…haha!

  6. One common theme I see here through the comments is that of researching several sources. When I haven’t been to the scene of my story (which is many of them!) I research online, try to find videos on the subject, talk to someone in the business – find some little details that you can sprinkle your work with that will ring true to the reader’s mind.

    • Hiya Neeks,

      Yes, I am super grateful for today’s technology. Researching from the comfort of my own home is pretty cool.

      I guess I just really thought there would be a significant difference between Broadway and a local theater, and I wanted to make sure that my scenes are credible.

      But you’re right, maybe if I write it well enough, it won’t matter where I ended up doing my research.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  7. Ruddy marvelous post, as per usual with you. Very informative and honest – which is what I appreciate.

    I do what you do – have an idea and run with it. Sod the finer, more believable nuances until you get to the end then go back and fret then.

    I’m writing a novel set initially in Liverpool and haven’t been there for 5 years. Thank god for Google Street Maps is all I can say!

    I trained as an actress for five years professionally so know my onions when it comes to professional and amateur productions. Are they different? Err, yeah, I’d have said so. I suppose the biggest thing is scale. Whatever goes down with the am drams, is going to be at least 100 times bigger on Broadway. The technology involved is absolutely different. Big turn over theatres have state of the art. Local theatre companies rely heavily on more traditional methods. You consider staging on a different level with Broadway. There is a lot that’s the same.

    I think people are going to be different in how they react and perform in those two realms. Being a pro is not just a way of life, but is literally your life and your entire world. the am drams, although consuming, aren’t your everything. You have loads more encompassing your world.

    Whereas the advice was given you was to just go to the local theatre, I have to say that although it would be informative, it won’t answer everything. Best bet would be speaking to an academic at a University (college) as they would have a good knowledge of both settings.

    For now, I’d say scale up everything. In local theatre they’ll have three people doing the job of one computer or piece of machinery due to budget and style of theatre. Precemium arch is the most commmon I’d say.

    Alas, I am getting caught up in the subject matter as I know a bit about it and can see your plight.

    Researching a piece can totally put people off continually writing. There’s a scene in my novel that is set in Rome. I went to Rome last when I was 11 years old, I have my work cut out! Totally feeling your pain! x

    • Wow, Cat, thanks. I needed to hear that. In my heart of hearts I know this to be true–that Broadway is Broadway, and there isn’t anything else like it. Your reply perked me up, actually!

      Isn’t that strange–I am seriously hoping for the more difficult approach to the research. Yup, if I’m not insane then I’m not a writer!

      It sounds like I could split up my research, doing basic research through the local theater, and then somehow hook up with someone who knows Broadway personally to get the specific details hammered out. Yes, this means I will have to start walking the streets at Times Square! 😉

      Thanks so much, Cat, for reading the post and commenting. I appreciate it mucho!! 🙂

  8. I think it makes sense to do research at a local theater so that you can learn the ropes. Then you could try to connect with a broadway actor/actress online on their blog or twitter so you can ask specific targeted questions once you’ve done that original research. That way they can give you the inside track on how something is done without you having to go there.

    • Hey Kourtney,

      Yes, I think that sounds like a swell idea! The basic research is boring stuff anyway, right? So, I probably don’t want to hound a Broadway-person with general questions. Save the best for last! That makes sense to me. Plus, it will also help narrow down what questions I ultimately ask the expert on Broadway.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  9. Maybe as an addition to the documentaries, you could check for autobiographies written by Broadway actors. I have to believe someone (or several!) must’ve written one. That might give you ideas for the behind-the-scenes flavor you want to incorporate for that sense of realism.

    • Hi JM,

      Ooh, good idea. An autobiography has got to have some juicy tidbits in it! Right, I think I definitely need to find someone or something to help incorporate the “real” Broadway into the book. What is it they say about real life–you just can’t make this stuff up?! I believe that, and I think that’s why it’s important to get as close to the real thing as possible.

      Thank you so much for a great idea!

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