When I sat down to write for the very first time, I wound up staring at a blank computer screen for an hour before I gave up and moved on to something else. Writing was daunting. As an improviser, I am used to creating things in the moment, with other people; not sitting in a chair, making up something by myself. What if the things I wrote were terrible? What if I ran out of ideas? And so, I froze. When I tried again the next week, the same thing happened. It was my secret shame: a vicious cycle of frustration, guilt, and procrastination.
One of my favorite quotes about writing sketch (which isn’t saying much because, as you can imagine, there are very few quotes about sketch-writing) comes from Chris Earle, one of the most popular directors from the Toronto Second City. From his essay “How to Bottle Lightning for Fun and Profit”:
“Writing from improv was the way I’d spent a lot of my childhood: thinking up silly little scenarios and playing them out with my siblings in our parents’ basement; classic scenes like Cops and Robbers, Zombies from Space, and of course House. We just never bothered to write the scripts down afterward … In one sense, all writing is improv.”
Suddenly, writing sketch wasn’t the exercise in self-doubt that it had been before, but merely an extension of a craft I had been honing my entire life.
In the early writing stages of Forever Alone, I discovered that, like quotes about sketchwriting, there’s little written information available to a director or performer looking to put together a sketch show. As such, a lot of our initial decisions were shots in the dark, aiming to hit a target that was five months in the future. Mistakes were made. But through this process of trial and error, I’ve learned three tenets that I think are valuable to anybody starting on their sketch-writing journey:
Writing has a stigma attached to it. The idea that writing is sitting, pen in hand, in front of paper, and having to pull a story out of the aether is scary. Writing, however, is a skill. And just like any skill, it takes practice to get better. The more you force yourself to write, the easier it becomes. Once you start practicing, the next step is to…
2) Write What You Know
One of the most oft repeated bits of wisdom about writing sketch is to carry a notebook with you and write down any ideas for sketches that sneak into your head during the day. When you write about what you know, the writing is more truthful, genuine, and, frankly, better. Eventually, you build trust with yourself that other people will share your sense of humor, too. Soon you’ll have a large batch of genuine, honest sketches. But…
3) Don’t Get Attached
For every five to eight sketches that you write, only about one will be strong enough to make it into the rewriting and rehearsal stage. That means for a show with 10-15 sketches in it, there are about 120 sketches that didn’t make the cut. You have to be willing to let your ideas go.
All three of these tenets require an immense amount of trust between you and your group. Once you’ve built that trust, you have the foundation of a show. The show itself becomes more than just a collection of sketches: it becomes a showcase of the personalities in your group.
The process of putting together Forever Alone has involved a lot of hard work, collaboration, and long hours. The end result is a show that I am immensely proud of. I hope that you can come and experience just a little bit of the joy that we found in creating it.
Jimmy “Hero in a Half” Snell