What I Learned Staging My Debut Show


Writer and performer Joseph Aldous shares what he learnt from staging his debut show 'Get Happy' at Pleasance Theatre.

Joseph Aldous is a writer & performer based in London. His first play, Get Happy, won the Carlo Annoni International Playwrighting Award. Get Happy premiered at the Pleasance Theatre London in March 2023. His writing has also been longlisted for the BBC Writersroom and performed at the Soho Theatre, Theatre503, VAULT, and the Customs House.

Getting a solo show from page to stage is a big job. I freely admit that I didn’t grasp this at all when I wrote Get Happy, my debut show as a writer-performer. I approached the process of putting it on, once the script was written, with a kind of blissful, freewheeling, probably quite annoying naivety, unencumbered by worries about venues or money or all of that complicated stuff. Surely that will all just happen.

Simply put, I learned a lot when I actually started doing it.

While putting a show on as a writer-performer is liberating and exciting – the feeling of creative freedom, the ability to translate thought into action through such a clear avenue – it’s also bloody tough. There’s a pervading sense that to do it, all you need is a blank stage, an hour, and some good old-fashioned vigour.

While this is definitely the case sometimes, Get Happy is not that kind of show. It’s a play that benefits from lighting, set, and sound to fully breathe - and there’s a sentient Alexa in the middle of it, so there are a lot of cues. It’s my hope that all this makes it a show that’s exciting and creatively satisfying, but it also takes work. And all of these elements of the play take time and graft that happens way before you actually do it.

So when it came to staging the show, the first thing I learned is how much production takes place before the show goes up. Get Happy premiered in March 2023, but the work was happening for years before that. Underneath the tip of the iceberg is a deep, dense mass of redrafts, R&D’s, production meetings, funding applications, coffees, emails back and forth with theatres, interviews, more coffees, and a fair bit of excitement and anxiety.

Throughout this process, I also learned how unbelievably wonderful and vital it is to work with people you love and trust, who have the sense to see beyond your urge to just get it on. Yes, that is an obvious thing to say. But in a climate where getting theatre on can feel like a smash-and-grab operation, with sometimes-quick space availability and fairly small lead-in times, you can feel like you’re missing out if you don’t take opportunities.

But while you might be ready, everybody else might not be. Funding might not be totally secured, marketing and PR companies might not yet be on board, and the show might not have time to be built. By leaping at the first opportunity, you might unintentionally hamstring your show. Keep the faith. It’ll happen when it’s right.

Once you get to rehearsals – yes! Incredible! Oh, god, I hope it’s still funny – the one thing that comes into sharp focus immediately is the gear switches between work you have to do. Alongside everything suddenly feeling very exposed (it’s just you up on that stage, baby), jumping between acting, writing, and thinking about the whole production has strong Whack-A-Mole vibes.

Because of this, I started to grasp how to be flexible, and quick, with changes. As you build the play, new problems arise. Scenes need rejigging, lines needed tweaking, and sequences that were so cool in my head (honestly, so cool) had to be reimagined for the space we were in. We ran it, and it was way, way too long. We cut the play down pretty judiciously at the point, and it was better for it.

And then, when the show approaches and things start to feel very real, probably the biggest thing to do is get out of the way of the team doing their jobs. You can’t be on top of everything – and you really shouldn’t be, because that’s stifling and weird.

So I learned to focus on my own work, the writing and acting part of things. I learned to embrace the inevitable breakdown of confidence when it came (in my case, about four days before the show – thank god I have a kind, patient director who has particularly absorbent material in his shirt’s shoulders). And I also learned to step away from the production when needs be. I strongly recommend booking yourself a ticket to see Carly Rae Jepsen mid-way through your rehearsal process, it’s a great break and she is wicked live.

When the play was actually happening, it was wild, and joyous, and the biggest thrill to finally have audiences see the whole team’s work, for the first time. But despite all the good stuff, I learned that performing a run of a one-person show can be pretty lonely. There’s a sudden moment when everyone else working on the production leaves, and it’s you and the stage manager. The dressing room beforehand is weird, and quiet, and surprisingly tough.

But in a one-person show, the audience is the other half of the performance. It’s for them, and it’s with them. So the final thing I learned, through this weird, exhilarating process, was to properly be with the audience while it was happening. That sounds desperately obvious, but you can’t know it until you’ve really done it. It’s a kind, compassionate thing. A two-way street. And when it works, it’s absolutely beautiful - and all of that learning is worth it.

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