Lamar Giles
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For Writers: What you can learn from the MAD MEN

Courtesy of USAToday

Last night I caught INSIDE THE ACTOR’S STUDIO and the special guests were the talented creator and actors behind one of TVs most popular series, MAD MEN. If you aren’t familiar with the 1960s period drama about an advertising executive who is a portrait of duality, no worries, this lesson won’t be lost on you.

Towards the end of the episode, during Q&A, a drama student recounted her experiences in amateur productions, explaining how invaluable she found the weeks and weeks of rehearsals her troupe participated in before a performance. She asked how much rehearsal time the MAD MEN cast had before they shot their scenes. The answer shocked her and most of the audience.

There were no rehearsals on the MAD MEN set.

Jon Hamm, the show’s star, explained that they participated in a weekly table read (think middle/high school English class, where everyone takes a role and reads Shakespeare aloud from their desks), then the next time they got to practice was during the lighting set up right before they shot. No true rehearsal, just a chance to familiarize oneself with the material, then go home and make sure you knew your #&$* before the cameras rolled.

As important as that fact is, it pales to the reasoning behind it. Matthew Weiner, the show’s creator, explained that every minute they’re on set costs money, so there’s no time to waste. Although he pointed out that if a guest actor doesn’t know their lines, he will fire them (at costs of up to 100,000 dollars for the time it takes to replace them and reshoot) because unprepared people cost more in the long run.

Consider that. The amateur actor (that’s not meant as a dig, just pointing out that the student who asked the question is not yet a professional) admitted that extensive rehearsals increased her comfort. The pros let her know that they don’t get that luxury. Yet, MAD MEN is one of the most critically acclaimed, award-snatching shows on television. A lot of that has to do with stellar scripts, but without talented (and prepared) people to do the work on a tight schedule, the scripts wouldn’t mean a whole lot.

How’s this relate to you, dear writer? After all, you won’t be dressing up in a retro suit and pitching ads for LIFE cereal and Vick’s Cough Syrup. You’re not performing.

That’s where you’d be wrong. You’re not an actor, but your profession requires that you perform on demand. Or, it will. When you crossover from amateur to pro. Think about it. Deadlines. Proposals. If you want to be a book-a-year writer, then you have to be prepared to write fast, fast, fast.

You have all the time in the world to write book 1, your baby, that masterpiece your Muse faxed you from Heaven. As soon as you sell it to Massive Publishing House X, you’ve got people to answer to. Deadlines to hit. It’s a role you better damn well know.

If not, you will be replaced. It will cost them less in the long run.

But, if you can manage to do the job in the time allotted, not second guessing, and trusting that preparation is better than comfort, then who knows…maybe when they come up with INSIDE THE WRITER’S STUDIO*, you’ll be able to shock a few amateurs with what you’ve accomplished.

*Yes, I’ve fantasized about it. And yes, I’m the first guest. ;)

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