6 Tips for Getting Your Solo Play to Broadway
I recently wrote my fourth solo play, a comedy about how no one should ever have children, and how, after my wife and I had a child, I learned that I was right! Anyway, “The New One” is going to Broadway and the biggest question I’m asked since I announced the run is “How did that happen?”
I’m not sure. But if I take a step back and try to answer the question, I’d say, “There was no single step.” It was a series of steps over years. And, even then on top of that, it’s luck. It’s your 10,000 hours of preparation meeting 12 other people’s 10,000 hours of preparation meeting $3 million laundered through the Cayman Islands … meeting luck.
So what are those steps? For me, it began with my first solo play, “Sleepwalk With Me,” 15 years ago. If you want to try writing a solo play, I’d suggest that you:
+ 1. WRITE IN A JOURNAL
Document your life. The good stuff. The bad stuff. But mostly the bad stuff. What’s wrong with you is more interesting than what’s right. I’ve always felt like we go to solo theater to be told secrets. When I was developing “The New One” I was writing in my journal all of these secret feelings I had about being a new dad. Feeling like everything I did was a mistake. One day I wrote, “My wife and daughter love each other so much … and I’m there too.” In the margin I wrote, “This could be something!”
I shared it with my wife, Jen, who’s a poet, and she encouraged me to say it onstage. That line ended up forming the foundation of the whole play.
+ 2. SHARE IT WITH YOUR SMARTEST FRIENDS
Jen and I are each other’s first readers. I also share my work with Ira Glass [host of “This American Life], my director Seth Barrish, and my brother, Joe. The question I always ask is not whether they like it. That’s pretty useless. What I ask is “When were you bored? When were you most excited?”
+ 3. HIRE YOUR WIFE
O.K., you might not be able to hire your wife, but I think it’s wise if you’re writing autobiographically to include the people closest to you in the process. One day I asked Jen to brainstorm with me for a section I was writing about some of our daughter Oona’s first-year milestones. She pulled out her poetry notebook and read me this:
An infant reaches for something — I don’t know what — pushes it farther away and cries in frustration
each time she reaches, not realizing she is crawling for the first time.
She is just like her father.
Now I recite that poem in the play verbatim.
+ 4. PRACTICE
Over the course of two years I’ve performed “The New One” in 60 cities in three countries and I’m still making changes. The show will run for 12 weeks at the Cort Theater and I will have my binder backstage after every performance, making notes on what could work better. The script is a living, breathing item that changes constantly and the audience has everything to do with that. By the way, an “audience” can be any number of people. It can be a living room of friends, an open mic at a coffee house, or the speech at a bar mitzvah. These are not joke examples. These are memories. Now what do you do with the feedback?
+ 5. REWRITE
When I studied dramatic writing in college my professor John Glavin printed out the screenplay for “American Beauty” and told me, “Notice that it says draft 12.” I remember thinking, “That must be an anomaly.” But it isn’t. Everything I’ve produced on stage or screen went through 10 or 20 drafts. Believe it or not, you’re currently reading the 12th draft of this.
Rewriting is a badge of honor. For a year the final story in “The New One” took place with my wife and daughter on a beach. And one day Ira Glass said to me “It shouldn’t end there. It should end somewhere else.” (I won’t say where).
I had already toured 30 cities with artwork of myself on a beach. I had made a promotional video with live seals in La Jolla, Calif., on a beach. Now the beach story is gone.
+ 6. BRACE YOURSELF FOR CRITICISM
Revealing yourself can be lonesome. When an audience doesn’t respond, it feels like they’re saying, “Not only do we not like your show, but we don’t like you as a person.” And sometimes they are saying that. So don’t hang out with those people.
Sometimes those people are in your family and you have to hang out with them; it would take another set of tips to deal with that. The point is, you’re taking a risk for a reason. You’re doing it for the people who might feel better about something in their lives because of something you’re willing to admit about yours.
So if you’re interested in having a solo play on Broadway, that’s where I’d start.
And after all that, if you’re lucky, your 10,000 hours will form a perfect collision with 12 other people’s 10,000 hours and a theater will open up because “Network” decided to move from the Cort to the Belasco and the stars will align and on that day you’ll have yourself a Broadway show!
And you will walk up to the theater for the first day of rehearsal and a young beautiful couple will walk by and look up at the marquee and say “Who’s Mike Birbiglia?”
6 Tips for Making It Small in Hollywood. Or Anywhere.
In the summer of 2016, I went on a 30-city tour with my movie “Don’t Think Twice,” a comedy about an improv group that has to decide whether to stay in show business when one member is plucked for a “Saturday Night Live” type of show. At every Q. and A. session for the movie, people would ask the same question: “If I want to be a comedian [or actor or writer or improviser or film director], how do I get started?”
The truth is they should probably pick someone more successful to ask — I make small films, small one-man shows Off Broadway and small comedy specials for Netflix — but I’m the person who showed up to talk to them. And now I’m the person offering you unsolicited advice — so if you don’t need it or want it, this is not for you. Anyway, I’ve boiled my answer down to six ideas.
+ 1. DON'T WAIT
Write. Make a short film. Go to an open mike. Take an improv class. There’s no substitute for actually doing something. Don’t talk about it anymore. Maybe don’t even finish reading this essay.
+ 2. FAIL
Don’t worry about failing. There’s a great video where Ira Glass explains that when you start in a new field, your work won’t be as good as your taste. It will take years for your taste and the quality of your work to intersect. (If ever!) Failure is essential. There’s no substitute for it. It’s not just encouraged but required.
+ 3. LEARN FROM THE FAILURE
This is where it becomes important to find a community of people you respect. People who have good taste. People who might not be good at something themselves but know what good is. They might be in a theater company, at an improv school, or live in your dorm. They aren’t the easiest thing to find. When I was in college, every Wednesday I drove my girlfriend Maggie’s Ford Taurus to an open mike at a Best Western 40 minutes away, to enter a lottery of 30 comedians trying to win one of the nine spots to perform in front of the other angry 21 comedians.
It sucked. People didn’t like my comedy there. I didn’t love theirs. It wasn’t a fit. But then I got a job working as a door person at the DC Improv comedy club in Washington, and that was a fit. Around the same time, I was cast in my college improv group. So all at once, I met people whom I could bounce jokes and ideas off of. They’d give me candid feedback, and I tried to listen. I wasn’t great at it at first. It’s hard to hear criticism. But I’ve learned that harsh feedback, constructive feedback, even weird, random feedback, is all helpful, if you know the essence of what you’re trying to convey.
I once heard an interview where Ron Howard said that he tests the rough cuts of his movies with a ton of audiences. He doesn’t do it to be told what the movie’s vision should be, but to understand whether his vision is coming across. If not, he makes changes. Your vision is not being conveyed a majority of the time. With “Don’t Think Twice,” I workshopped the script like the way I workshop my standup: I invited friends over to read it out loud in my living room and then fed them pizza. The pizza was excellent. The script often wasn’t. So I’d get my friends all drunk on pizza and then ask them hard questions like: “What do you like least about the script? Be honest. I can take it.” That’s where I learned the most.
+ 4. MAYBE QUIT
You might not be meant to be a writer or performer or improviser. You might be meant to teach kids math or raise money for a food bank or start a company that makes Rubik’s Cubes for babies. Don’t rule out quitting. There is going to be an insane amount of work ahead, and your time might be spent better elsewhere. There was a great column in The New York Times recently where Angela Duckworth writes, “Rather than ask, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ ask, ‘In what way do I wish the world were different? What problem can I help solve?’ This puts the focus where it should be — on how you can serve other people.”
+ 5. BE BOLD ENOUGH TO MAKE STUFF THAT’S SMALL BUT GREAT
Eight years ago, I made a network sitcom pilot based on my life. It was a dream come true. A sitcom about my life? What could be better than that for a standup comedian? Well, it didn’t get picked up. I was devastated. But here’s the kicker: Failing to get that sitcom was the single greatest stroke of luck that’s happened in my entire career. The show wasn’t truly my comedic voice. It was watered down by network and studio notes to the point of being like dozens of other bland sitcoms.
After that, I no longer wanted to create projects for the Hollywood gatekeepers. The networks. The studios. Since then, I’ve created a handful of pieces for “This American Life,” self-produced three Off Broadway one-person shows, toured hundreds of cities around the world, and written, directed and starred in two feature films. All outside the system. Based on that work, I’ve been offered small movie roles by people who work inside the system. Which is to say: Leaving the system behind and creating something of your own may actually be thing that gets you into the system, hopefully on your own terms.
The point is, forget the gatekeepers. As far as I’m concerned, what you create in a 30-seat, hole-in-the-wall improv theater in Phoenix can be far more meaningful than a mediocre sitcom being half-watched by seven million people. America doesn’t need more stuff. We need more great stuff. You could make that.
+ 6. CLEVERNESS IS OVERRATED, AND HEART IS UNDERRATED
Plus, there are fewer people competing for heart, so you have a better chance of getting noticed. Sometimes people say, “One thing you have to offer in your work is yourself.” I disagree. I think it’s the only thing.