On Big Fish, inclusion and family-friendliness

The Big Fish musical that Andrew Lippa and I wrote has been staged hundreds of times across the US. Logistics are all handled by our licensing company, which provides the script, score and other materials. Usually, the only time Andrew and I hear about a given production is when someone tags us in Instagram.

Occasionally, however, something comes up that merits our getting involved. This is one of those cases.

This week we learned that an upcoming production of BIG FISH at the Palisade Playhouse in Pittsburgh has been canceled over a disagreement between the director and the theatre. Specifically, the director planned to include a same-sex couple as part of the background action during the song “Stranger.”

In defending their decision, the theatre argues that, “the script did not include any reference to the LGBT+ community.” That’s correct; nowhere in the script does it say that any character is gay or lesbian or trans. But nor does it say they aren’t. A director’s decision to signal that two silent characters are same-sex parents isn’t changing the text. It’s providing context and framing. It’s directing.

BIG FISH is a musical about parenthood, family and love. These are shared experiences of all human beings.

The theatre continues: “This added moment of focus created questions about whether the director’s addition would convey a message about gay marriage in a way that would be seen as inclusive to some but exclusive to others.”

Which feels another way of saying, “We didn’t want to risk offending anyone.”

And look, we get it. BIG FISH has been produced hundreds of times in the U.S. in part because it’s so family-friendly and unlikely to offend. There’s no sex or violence. In some cases, we will allow for words to be changed or omitted. We do this because we want as many people as possible to get to experience it – both as an audience and as part of a production.

But “family-friendly” shouldn’t mean ignoring reality. Let’s remember that in America there are all kinds of families, including ones with two dads, two moms, people of all gender identity, color and creed. Family-friendly is something bigger than it once was.

This notion of “thinking bigger” is something Big Fish’s hero Edward Bloom would certainly endorse. After all, his friends include a giant, a witch and a werewolf.

When we see #bigfishmusical videos on Instagram of high schools doing Be The Hero, it reminds us that the show we wrote inevitably changes with every production, every player, every choice. That’s theater. It exists only because people come together to put on a show.

We’re sorry the show won’t go on at Palisade Playhouse, but look forward to working with the director and company to find a new home for their production.

  • John August and Andrew Lippa


Scriptnotes: Ep. 350

John and co-host John Gatins sit down with Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom to discuss the experience of writing the third season of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, from breaking story in hot tubs to adjusting genital-related dances in compliance with Broadcast Standards and Practices.

With spoilers aplenty, we discuss the challenges of a TV protagonist’s Act 2 “rocky shoals,” the nuance of exploring mental illness with comedy, the process of writing surprising musical numbers, and the opportunities of turning the rom-com genre on its head.

Recorded live on May 9th.


Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 5-23-18: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Putting Words on the Page

Scriptnotes: Ep. 349

John and Craig discuss the digital tools of the trade. From outline to first draft to production rewrites, screenwriters find themselves facing different challenges. We talk about what works for each of us. We also speculate on what impact Highland 2’s gender analysis tool will have.

Then we answer listener questions about following the “rules” of formatting, from creative scene headers to “hey reader” notes and tips for introducing characters who play important roles later in the script.


Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 5-15-18: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

True confessions of a knife-juggling bear

This profile on me by Dan Jackson in Thrillist was originally supposed to be about Arlo Finch and Launch, but grew into a bigger piece on the many different projects I tackle simultaneously.

John August presides over a mini-empire steered by curiosity, fortified by experience, and fueled by brain power. With only 24 hours in a day, the multitasking writer of movies like Charlie’s Angels, Big Fish, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory scribbles out scripts for big budget Hollywood blockbusters, outlines sequels to middle-grade fantasy novels, maps future episodes of his hit podcast, designs apps for other creative professionals looking to optimize their time, and finds time to invent fonts. If you were granted a golden ticket to tour the laboratory that is his bald head, you’d find a jolly team of meticulous, laser-focused Oompa-Loompas.

That’s not really accurate, though. My inner Oompa-Loompas aren’t laser-focused. They’re a rowdy bunch fighting for control of my various gears and levers, each with a different idea about what the factory should make.

Over the years, I’ve gotten better at managing them, in part because I’ve recognized that I am them. There’s not a me separate from my interests and fears and jealousies.

I’m the product of these competing impulses, not the master.

But I’ve gotten good at recognizing when an Oompa-Loompa has an interesting idea, and then marshalling the forces to try it.

“I’m really curious about how things work, and generally the only way to know how things work is to actually do the thing,” he tells me over the phone one morning. “Rather than planning the thing or reading up about the thing or interviewing someone about how the thing works, I’ll tend to just start doing the thing and then figure it out as it goes along.”

I don’t second-guess whether it’s a good idea, or get fixated on what might go wrong. I don’t ask permission. I just assume I’m not any worse than someone else, and I’ll figure it out. That’s how I started writing my first script, my first musical and my first novel.

But I also leave a lot of projects half-finished. Sometimes they finally come into being years later (Writer Emergency Pack), yet often they don’t (an animated short; a new stage musical; my next directing project).

Giving yourself permission to move on to a better idea is tough. You’re always wondering if you’re one draft away. This will be the one that does it.

But as I look back over the past 20 years, most of my successes — both creatively and commercially — have come from the projects I was excited to do rather than the projects I felt an obligation to start or finish.

I’ve also had things I love fail. It’s heartbreaking.

But the projects I never really cared about? They’re worse in a way, because it was just wasted time.

If I have any general recommendations, it’s to aim to fill your day and your mind with interesting things, even if it’s messy and unfocused. Or as the article puts it:

It’s like watching a dancing bear juggle knives.

Such a life is unlikely to go quite as planned, but at least it’ll be exciting.

All About Family

Scriptnotes: Ep. 348

John and Craig partake in another installment of How Would This Be a Movie? Which story is destined for the big screen: The millennial mother with her surprise, Youtube-guided childbirth? The couple that has the same fight for decades? The Japanese families-for-hire?

We also follow up on the logic of multi-cam formatting, Georgia’s success in diversifying crews through training programs, and effective character descriptions.

Tickets are now on sale for our next Scriptnotes Live Show on Tuesday, May 22nd at the ArcLight in Hollywood, with guests including Lisa Joy and Jonah Nolan of Westworld.


Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 5-8-18: The transcript of this episode can be found here.

Scriptnotes Live in May

Our next live Scriptnotes will be Tuesday, May 22nd at the ArcLight in Hollywood. Tickets are on sale now, with special guests to be announced soon.

All of our live shows are benefits for great LA charities. This one is for Hollywood HEART, which runs special programs and summer camps for at-risk youth.

When we were trying to figure a venue for the event, I asked on Twitter for recommendations. Friend-of-the-show Eric Webb went way beyond, compiling a list of most of the major auditoriums in LA. I’m including it here for anyone else who finds themselves needing a venue.

Seats Venue
3156 Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
2703 Pantages
2345 Million Dollar Theater
2252 Walt Disney Concert Hall
2103 Ahmanson Theatre
2000 Los Angeles Theatre
1976 Orpheum Theater
1897 Saban Theatre
1850 Wiltern Theatre
1800 Fred Kavli Theatre (Thousand Oaks PAC)
1800 Royce Hall (UCLA)
1700 Mayan Theatre
1600 Valley Performing Arts Center Great Hall (CSUN)
1600 Theatre at Ace Hotel
1152 Grauman’s Chinese Theatre
1413 Alex Theatre
1400 Riverside Municipal Auditorium
1341 Regency Village Theatre
1300 The Rose
1270 Wilshire Ebell Theatre
1235 Bovard Auditorium (USC)
1200 Ricardo Montalbán Theatre
906 Tower Theatre
900 Forest Lawn Museum/Hall of The Crucifixion-Resurrection (Glendale)
739 Mark Taper Forum
686 Pasadena Playhouse
618 Egyptian Theatre
610 Geffen Playhouse
600 DGA Theatre 1
600 Leo S. Bing Theatre (LACMA)
538 Eli and Edythe Broad Stage
551 Bing Theatre (USC)
500 Bram Goldsmith Theater
496 Tom Bradley Theater (LATC)
473 WGA Theatre †
430 Colburn School Grand Building Auditorium
425 Aero Theatre
400 Janet and Ray Scherr Forum Theatre (Thousand Oaks PAC)
400 Vista Theatre
390 Campus Theatre (CSUN)
360 El Portal Theatre
350 Harmony Gold Theater
341 Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre Complex (USC)
330 LA Film School †
303 Nuart Theatre
300 Kirk Douglas Theatre
300 Landmark Theatre
296 Lupe Ontiveros Theatre (LATC)
294 The SilverScreen Theater (Pacific Design Center)
280 Alfred Newman Recital Hall (USC)
278 James Bridges Theatre
270 Roy and Edna Disney/Calarts Theater (REDCAT)
222 Downtown Independent Theatre
220 Annenberg Auditorium (USC)
200 Renberg Theatre (LA LGBT Center)
155 DGA Theater 2

† = previous Scriptnotes live show venue