Thicker Than Water – Notes on the Process


When we first began talking to people about what we were doing with this show, I’d always describe it as “a modified Mike Leigh” process. Which really isn’t very helpful unless you know who Mike Leigh is and have at least a passing understanding of his process. Even then, you’re still pretty lost because you wouldn’t know how we modified that process. The truth is, it’s not an easy process to explain in just a sentence or two, but in the interest of sharing with you how this show came to be, I’m going to try and briefly describe it. We hope you’ll find this an interesting peek behind the curtain.

Mike Leigh, for those who don’t know, is a British stage and film director and writer who develops the scripts for his plays and films using a unique process of improvisation. He starts by working individually with actors to create characters modeled on someone they know, then gradually brings the characters together in improvised scenes. Those scenes are refined through repeated improvisation and eventually become the play or film. Over the past 50 years, he has used this method to amass one of the most impressive careers of any director in any medium. If you’d like to know more about Mr. Leigh and his work, check out his Wikipedia and IMDB pages.

Michael, Nick, and I started slightly differently. For one, we knew that the two of them were going to be in the show and that their ages lent themselves readily to a Father/Son relationship. So we started there. I developed a list of questions and the three of us sat down and began talking about our fathers and our relationships with them. From these discussions, certain themes began to emerge. Then, instead of modeling characters off of people they knew, I gave them a book of Lee Friedlander photography and asked each to pick ten photos that resonated with them in some way and then we talked about them. Then I asked each to dive back in the book and pick five photos with people that intrigued them in some way. We discussed those and then whittled those down to two each and they wrote detailed backstories for each character. I then picked the final two characters from their backstories. Fired up creatively from the process, each completed an additional unprompted revision of their chosen backstory and then I began adjusting them to fit the two characters together as father and son. I began a timeline of key events in the intertwined lives of these characters that, by the time we were done improvising, reached 72 entries.

With the characters, primary relationship, and beginning timeline established, we began improvising scenes. Initially the situations were drawn from events directly in their backstories, then events implied by their backstories, events suggested by earlier improvs, additional events they developed as homework, and where I thought things might be going. In all, we improvised 17 scenes (with between one and four “takes” per scene) stretching from June of 1957 to November of 1975 in the lives of our characters, all of which took place before the events that unfold onstage. With that foundation of “lived” events for the characters, I sketched in the events that would take place between that final improv, which was the last meeting of our characters, and the final scene to be improvised: the scene that is the play.

Then we began improvising the play itself: our 18th and final scene. We did 17 improvisations that totaled over 6.5 hours of scene time. From that, I structured the script using three different methods: direct transcription of improvised scenes, combinations of bits and pieces from multiple improvisations, and original writing. We locked that script and for the past two weeks have rehearsed it as you would a normal, scripted play.

The sum total of that process is Thicker Than Water: a 70 minute, realtime, single scene, full-length play in one act.

We hope you get as much out of seeing it as we got out of creating it.

And if you’re lucky enough to still have one, call your Dad. Life is short.


– John Dranschak, Co-Writer / Director