A guest entry from Justin Levine, writer of BONFIRE NIGHT
“Kill your darlings.” – William Faulkner
Cutting down a script is like tending a garden. You plant your seeds and in just days you have a plethora of sprouts all trying to squeeze in and get their sunlight. It’s exciting, it’s alive, it’s bursting with seemingly unlimited potential. The truth is, if you let every seedling that sprouts grow into a full plant, you will end up with a garden bed full of weak, undernourished and crowded plants. When the plants first sprout, you are supposed to pull all but one seedling per plant. That way, the remaining seedlings will have more space, get more nutrients and grow to their fullest potential. In the same way, if you cram your play with ideas, you run the risk of having your piece filled with weaker, unfinished story lines and arcs. Sometimes, it seems that none of your ideas can be sacrificed. It’s daunting.
For the NAMT festival, the writers are charged with creating a 45-minute cut of their show,either a section of the piece or a 45-minute “trailer” version. Both have their challenges. If you show a section, while you lose the ability to complete character arcs and storylines, you have the opportunity to leave the audience wanting more. With a 45-minute version of the show, you have to cut down your show by at least 50% and still manage to convey the most essential ideas, without sacrificing the pace and style. I chose to do a section of the show. It wasn’t an easy decision, as there are clear pros and cons to both options. My first instinct was to cut most of the book and make a concert version of Bonfire Night. It seemed the simplest and most entertaining option. The problem, however, was that I didn’t write an opera, and much of the storytelling is in the book. My biggest fear was that without the ending of my show, my presentation would lack the payoff of the story’s closure. Ultimately, it became clear that Bonfire Night is best served by giving the first half of the show the room it needs to set the tone and pace, without sacrificing story.
I’ve learned that with both options, you are working on a “trailer” of your piece and whether you tell your whole story or part of it, the job is the same. In 45 minutes you have to give audiences a taste of what’s in store. It’s an opportunity not only to show people what you’ve already created, but also to demonstrate the potential for growth in your piece. What initially felt like a sacrifice caused me to focus on fewer ideas, giving room to those that are more essential to the storytelling.
To read more about BONFIRE NIGHT and the other shows in this year’s Festival, go to www.namt.org/festival.