Category Archives: Theatre

Dan Writes Plays: Dying on Stage

“Wait, it’s been how long since I blogged about my old plays? Twenty-five months? Wow. And what have I been talking about in the meantime? No, aside from The Flash and Arrow.”

Huh.

Someone really took “My blog, my rules” to heart, I see.

Well, back to it. I mean come on, Dan, they were finally getting good.

Ladies and gentlemen, join me on a trip back to 2008, a time of antiquated things like hope, optimism, and American democracy… a time when I decided to take a crack at a genre I’d long enjoyed, but never experimented with… farce. And then I made it a murder mystery. I do like slapping murder mysteries onto things. This is Dying on Stage.

What’s it about?

Call it “Murder at the Muppet Show.”

PREMISE!

Who here remembers my go-to graphic for “Wacky premise?”

The Comedy Invasion is a struggling sketch/variety show (picture a non-televised Saturday Night Live, or a Muppet Show with humans and a musical guest) hosted by its creator Johnny Rayner and produced by his long-time business partner (and to his chagrin, only business) Mera Lucas. Tonight they’ve gotten a windfall that could turn their fortunes around… star of stage and screen Gareth Gardner has agreed to guest appear. If the show goes well, they’re on top.

So imagine their dismay when their asshole lead actor dies at the end of the opening sketch, apparently poisoned. It’s up to the remaining cast and crew to figure out who the killer is without Gareth or the audience noticing anything’s amiss. Cue hijinks!

So why’d that happen?

…I’m not sure I even remember.

I certainly am a big Muppet Show fan, but in the end it didn’t have that big an influence. There might be some traces of Kermit the Frog in Johnny’s occasional flustered ranting and role as MC. Resident comedienne Finnian Shale (an early case of me defying the “comic characters are men” stereotype and saying “Well, why can’t this role be a woman?”) certainly owes a debt to Fozzie Bear, especially given her big joke routine is a direct homage to one of my favourite Fozzie bits.

Maybe it had some influence from my love of sketch comedy in general, really. Back then I think I was using Kids in the Hall as background noise while writing. That would make sense. The continued presence of Premise Beach on my blogs prove I’m a bit of a Kids in the Hall fan. Maybe fondness for the brilliant and sadly forgotten late 90s show Viva Variety drove the notion into my head. Maybe it just came to me. I used to write sketches, especially back in the days of my old company, Mind the Walrus, and had some funny ones lying around that I felt I could be seen more.

No, wait, now that I think about it, I reused old sketches because I hadn’t written sketch comedy in several years and had slightly forgotten how. Hmm.

I guess at some point “Murder at the Muppet Show” became a fun idea and I decided to chase it, even though farce is a whole different animal than simple comedy.

I’m not positive when I decided to combine murder mystery and farce, but it works pretty well. The thing that drives a farce is high stakes. There is a secret, or a crisis, and any second it could come out, and if it does, lives will be ruined. And from there comes our pace, the desperate dance of lies and cover-ups that fuel the comedy. Hiding a body, or a series of bodies, while trying not to be the next victim provides those stakes.

How’d it turn out?

Really, really funny.

The opening scene was the biggest challenge. I needed a scene of pure pre-show chaos, where everything’s crazy and everyone’s high-energy and trying to get prepped, and at the same time it needed to accomplish two key things. First, introduce the cast of ten characters (well, introduce nine of them and hint at Gareth, who would show up in the next scene), and second, give as many of them as possible a motivation to kill Frankie, the lead character and first victim. Tricky juggling act but I think I got there.

Gareth Gardner works well as a hybrid of two archetypes: he’s every Very Special Guest Star from the Muppet Show (above this nonsense but still having a good time), and the Suspicious Constable from British farces, constantly spotting the holes in the protagonists’ cover stories.

Not all of the cast is super well developed, but given how fast some of them need to die I don’t see how that’s my fault. This thing needs to hit the ground running, so I don’t have unlimited time to spend teaching everyone what vain actress Veronica Horne’s hopes and dreams are. I just need you to know she’s narcissistic, weaponizes her sexuality, and the shier actresses don’t love her.

Bucky, the long-suffering intern, is as funny as he needs to be. Especially if you get someone hilarious in the role, like we did. Cliff the stage hand’s forced transition to leading man is a nice arc. I enjoy Finn. She’s so earnest and so bad at keeping a secret. Her habit of saying exactly the wrong thing at any given moment might be a bit of Fozzie Bear slipping back in.

Also, I got to end it with a line that had been in my head for a while… “If we spirits have offended, think but this and all is mended… No refunds. Goodnight everybody!”

There is one odd thing that happened. Some of the sketches didn’t get the laughs I expected, at least not at the workshops. And it’s not because the sketches weren’t funny, they were tried and true material. I’ve gotten laughs with Lost and Found and Celebrity Where Are My Pants before and since. It’s just that compared to the more rapid fire off-stage scenes, the sketches slowed the pace some. A weird effect that doesn’t really help.

But that might be more of a staging issue.

Would you stage it again?

Absolutely. That said, there were a couple of issues that came up during rehearsal, that we never got around to smoothing out. See, if I’m at a rehearsal and not on stage, I like to read. And the director took that to mean that I couldn’t be interrupted or asked questions. Which… makes no sense to me.

But anyway, it works. The major comic set pieces are reliable and not difficult to pull off. The pace is solid, and the full-on Agatha Christie Poirot-style “It was YOU!” revelation of the killer is enjoyable.

Man, why haven’t I done this one again…

Repeated theme alerts

  • Man and Woman Cannot Be Friends: Of course there’s a romantic C-plot between Johnny and Mera, because why not.
  • Writing about writers: I mean, there’s not a lot of discussion about it, but Johnny probably writes the show, doesn’t he? Someone must.
  • Something something pop culture reference: Well I mentioned the “Good grief, the comedian’s a bear!” homage, but here’s an obscure one. Bucky the intern’s real name is Hubert. This comes from the first “An Evening With Kevin Smith” DVD, in which one of the fans asking questions introduces himself as “My name is Hubert but everyone calls me Bucky,” and Kevin runs with it. “BUCKY! You don’t even need to ask a question now, man… what was your real name?” “Hubert.” [Kevin chuckles] “Bucky!”

Next time… how do you follow up the funniest thing you’ve ever written? You abandon comedy and get dark.

Danny Writes Plays: Writers Circle

Okay. So. Normally this would be when I’d pull out another instalment of Writers Circle Confidential. We’d watch this week’s episode, have some laughs, and then I and possibly a guest star would tell you all about it. But as you may or may not have noticed, we don’t actually have a new episode this week. We have a blooper reel.

And while there’s still plenty of laughs to be had, there isn’t much scintillating behind-the-scenes storytelling to be done on a blooper reel. Save that it’s a little clear Anna never quite got or embraced our Star Wars Phonetic Alphabet. (A=Anakin, B=Bespin, C=Coruscant, etc.)

So instead, let’s hop into the old Wayback Machine, head to 2009, and look at the original script of Writers Circle: the play. Yes, that means jumping the queue a little where Danny Writes Plays in concerned, but we’ll just look the other way on that. Agreed? Agreed.

What’s it about?

Phil Payton (returning from Two Guys and U-Boat of the Soul), Becky Porter (also from U-Boat), and Jeff Winnick (he was new) are the house playwrights for Taranto Theatre Company, working under producer and Phil’s ex-fiancee Tina Gellar (also from Two Guys and U-Boat). The end-of-season gala is approaching, and they’re all expected to turn in a draft of their latest scripts so that Tina can announce the coming season. There’s just… a few problems.

Perpetually lovesick and depressed Phil is attempting to write yet another romantic comedy, but can’t focus on it, because he’s in love with his friend Olivia and can’t figure out how to tell her. Seemingly happy go lucky Jeff, on the other hand, is trying to write the latest in a series of epic tragedies, but is unable to find passion in anything, even his string of one-night stands, until he meets a woman named Monica, who seems reluctant to enter into anything long-term. Becky, who is working on a big-message period piece about Victorian society trying to pretend it’s something it’s not, has been keeping a secret: her boyfriend Alex that she refuses to introduce to the others is actually her girlfriend Alex. Alex, meanwhile, is easily triggered by the thought of life in the closet, something that Becky refusing to introduce her to her friends is setting off.

Whether he likes it or not, Phil is befriended by a stripper named Amber, who has decided to peel back the walls of his repression and find out why he can’t simply tell a girl he likes her.

Becky finally introduces Alex to Jeff and Phil, revealing to all three of them that’s she’s bisexual. Try to guess which of them takes it the worst. If you guessed the girlfriend, have a gold star.

Jeff and Monica repeatedly argue over religion: Jeff’s a strict atheist, Monica’s more spiritual… and when Jeff finally learns what’s been keeping Monica from committing to something long term… well, let’s just say it gets worse before it gets better.

And ultimately, with no plays written and everyone’s jobs on the line, everything comes to a boil at the launch gala.

So why’d that happen?

I was on a three week vacation through Asia: Singapore, Malaysia, and Tokyo. I find vacations, especially solo vacations like this one, are good for two things: reflection and creation. Far from home, away from my typical distractions, and if on a solo trip, no one to talk to, I either have revelations about my personal life, or come up with a new script idea.

In this case, both.

I’d been wondering if there was a way to weaponize the ridiculous banter my friend Ben and I get into. Close friends that, due to vastly differing philosophies, can look like arch enemies. Thus did Jeff Winnick come into being, named after Judd Winick, one of my favourite comic writers (would have been Jeffrey Bendis, named after Brian Michael Bendis, but there was some concern people would connect him to the cowardly soldier who dies at the beginning of the Firefly pilot). And what the hey, let’s bring Becky from U-Boat back, make it a trio.

As to the other thing… I’d also come to examine one of my close relationships. Came to see it more clearly. Came to realize that I wasn’t the hero of my own story, which is never an easy thing to come to terms with. And if there’s one thing Phil Payton proved to be good for five years earlier, it’s serving as a vessel to exorcise some demons. And so did Olivia become a stand-in for… someone else. Someone I discussed in an open letter to long ago.

Jeff and Becky’s plots required more creativity. Originally, she was going to be too open about herself, aggressively so, but it wasn’t until I reversed that idea that I felt I had a plot. Oh, and as for why I made Becky bisexual? We’d just done two really male-heavy plays. I felt somebody in the company had to serve up some female roles. So I gave Becky a girlfriend just to write in one more woman, and made her bi so that her crush on Phil in U-Boat could stay canonical.

How’d it turn out?

Overall? Pretty well. The three leads work. Their banter is staggeringly fun and easy to write. I think we’ve been proving that on a weekly basis lately. That said… there are some things that could stand to improve.

First off… it’s long. Super long. There are three protagonists, each with their own one-act worth of plot. It adds up. It adds up until a friend and I had to spend an entire night cutting whatever we could to get the runtime down to a mere three hours. It is the single longest thing I’ve ever written not intended to be episodic. Which, perhaps, is why the characters adapted so easily to an episodic format.

Phil’s story is 90% exposition. All the key details of his arc, from meeting Olivia to falling in love with her to her relationship with another guy to, most notably, the past trauma that has made Phil the way he is, all of it happens in the past and is described to Amber. And she’s only giving him a lap dance the once. The webseries gives more opportunities to explain Phil in ways other than lengthy backstory monologues.

It was explained to me by the good people at the Alberta Playwright’s Network that Jeff’s plotline lifts right out. Phil and Becky’s stories are all about honesty. They share a theme. Jeff’s doesn’t. But it would make for a decent one-act. So it may as well lift out.

And what the hell theatre company, in the world, has three in-house playwrights on staff? You find me that theatre company, and then you pop that company in the mouth. Or see if they’re hiring. One of those.

Would you stage it again?

It’s been a temptation ever since the first staging, since I wasn’t convinced the production was 100% worthy of the script, but it’s begun to occur to me…Why would I want to?

Yes, I could cut Jeff, or at least his plot, streamline Phil and Becky’s stories, punch up the exposition… but why? In the end, I’d have a (hopefully) two-hour show about Phil and Becky… but no Jeff. No Zoe. Nobody says “For Brent” even once. I’ve found a new vehicle for these characters, one that’s treating them way better than a single, if savagely long, play did.

So instead of dusting it off and taking another crack at a stage version, I’m giving myself (and the others) license to crib whatever I want and bring it into the webseries. Not, like, word for word or anything… I did that once and now it’s my least favourite episode… but plots and characters, those I can pinch whenever. This does not, thus far, include Jeff’s love interest Monica, and when we approach the end of the season you’ll see why, but I’m thinking Olivia is going to make an appearance down the road. And Alex is a strong maybe.

Repeated theme alert

  • The quiet protagonist the ladies inexplicably love: Phil’s a sad sack, but he almost married Tina, slept with Becky, and draws the interest of Amber the stripper. Bravo, me.
  • Something something pop culture reference: The play (like the series) opens with the leads arguing about Batman and Spider-man. I think that’s the worst of it.
  • Something something pop culture reference Into Darkness: Olivia, Phil’s crush, is named after Olivia Wilde. Becky’s girlfriend, Alex Hadley, gets her last name from Olivia Wilde’s character on House, Dr. Remy “13” Hadley. I like Olivia Wilde is what I’m saying.
  • “Let’s swap backstories for fifteen minutes like that’s not pacing Kryptonite!” Every. Single. Phil scene.
  • Writing about writers: This was, for obvious reasons, the worst example of this one.

Next week… an actual episode, and some frank discussions about crossing lines in the name of comedy.

Writing a Play Part 4: Workshops

Okay. You’ve had your inspiration. You’ve written your first draft. You’ve sucked it up and let people read it. Now let’s take it to the next level… reading it out loud.

Sounded better in your head

There are things you can’t know about your script until you hear it out loud. Sentences that seem hilarious on paper can fall flat when you actually have to read them out. Dialogue that seems fine in your head can be awful coming out of someone’s mou–there has to be a better phrasing… can sound awful spoken out loud.

Why yes, I do have examples.

One of my favourite webcomics is Something Positive. Like most webcomics I follow, it has a strong wit and a unique voice in its dialogue. What I didn’t know is that it wouldn’t really translate from the page. And then some fans did a short film based on one of the earlier stories, and some of my favourite lines from the story… fell flat. Now you could say that it’s because the film was shot by amateur fans and not Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but honestly, spoken out loud, the lines got clunky. Super clunky. Because they move a lot faster when you’re reading them in your head than actually speaking them.

Which is something to look out for when you have my unfortunate tendency to think wit can be accomplished with excessive verbosity. Um… “bein’ all wordy.”

The second example comes from something I did, instead of a well-meaning fan film that came out a little clunky.

It was one of the earliest drafts of Salvage. I handed it to two close friends for a review, got notes, came back with a second draft, and was chided for not cutting a section of dialogue that one of my readers had advised me to be rid of. I attempted to defend the section, at which point my friend decided to prove his point in the swiftest way possible: reading the lines aloud. My reactions were as followed:

“I don’t think it’s so– Well, if you read it like that, it– maybe it needs to– STOP IT! STOP IT!”

Took, maybe, 15 seconds to be utterly broken by my own dialogue. Needless to say, it got rewritten pretty thoroughly.

The Reading

So gather your friends, hand out scripts, read it out loud. It’s hard to predict how you’ll react or what’s going to happen. Me? Frequently, my nose runs. No idea why. It’s like the emotions triggered by people enjoying something I wrote set off leaks in all of my face-holes. Kind of annoying, not gonna lie.

When they laugh, how it sounds, it’s all hard to predict. Personally, I swap between trying to savour hearing the words out loud and following along in the script so that I can catch the more obvious flaws. And then… down to business.

Once the script is read, you need people’s reactions.

It’s, at best, organized chaos. You have a room full of people (depending on how many people you invited) that hopefully will all want to sound off on what they thought, and keeping it all orderly can be a challenge.

Now, in my case, I had a fiction writing class back in University with novelist Aritha Van Herk. Aritha is a nice person and an impeccable teacher, but part of her technique is that she is merciless. Aritha Van Herk will tear you down to rubble and rebuild you, stronger and better than you were. And the way this happens is that everyone reads each other’s stories, then in class everyone tears into the story to discuss what’s wrong with it. And maybe, if you’re in the second or third year, what’s right with it, but the focus is on the former. And the writer just sits there and takes notes. Because it’s not like you can find everyone who reads your book and explain what you meant to say.

Clem Martini, my playwriting prof, believed more in positive enforcement. He’d still spend the bulk of the time on how a script needed to improve, but would open by discussing what worked.

But back to Aritha. The most valuable thing I got from two years of fiction writing class was a thick skin. By the time I started playwriting class with Clem, I wasn’t afraid to have people read my stuff and tell me what they thought. In fact, I was starting to thrive on it. However, the flip side is that I also sort of got into the habit of being a passive observer in the commentary portion, which some people find baffling.

Results

Steer into the chaos. Mine your readers for everything you can; which characters work, which don’t. If it’s a comedy, do the jokes land? If it’s a mystery, how obvious is the ending? Do people care about the story? Get everything you can, because there is going to be a lot. Unless your draft is miraculously rock-solid this early in the process (I have managed that precisely twice, similar to the number of plays I buried never to see the light of day), there will be a lot of stuff to work on. More people means more opinions and more flaws you never saw and strengths to play up.

The most recent example. My last workshop, for the farce I’ve been working on, went exceptionally well. It got the laughs it needed (if a farce isn’t funny, that’s the ball game), the main characters all worked, it was a hit. People enjoyed it, some wanted to direct it, some might even consider staging it, but there was still an ass-ton of rewrites necessary. One character had to be cut, and a full third of the cast had to be completely rewritten. Only two characters escaped without needing tweaking. Fortunately, my two favourites, so go me on that one.

Workshopping isn’t an easy process. You need a strong stomach, a thick skin, and a tough… neck, or whatever? Ran out of body part analogies. But the insights you gain on how your script is doing are invaluable.

And if you can get past the “What if nobody likes it” fear, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Me, I can’t wait to finish this draft so I can think about doing another.

Guess I’d better get back to that.

See you all Friday for Writers’ Circle: Confidential, when we’ll be talking about handing one of my oldest characters over to another writer.

Writing a Play Part 3: Showing it to People

And we return to this series.

Okay. So, you’ve had your idea. You’ve painstakingly assembled your first draft. And if you’re clever, you’ve done a cursory edit or two in order to catch the little mistakes that happen when you start a conversation on one day and then finish it the next, or because you had a couple of drinks to spur the creative process, or because your spell check doesn’t flag it when you write “are” instead of “ate.” Simple stuff like that.

Now we reach the hard part… you have to show it to people.

Here’s my process. I doubt it’s everyone’s because if every creative person followed the same process that would just be freaky weird.

Step One: the trusted few

As I discussed last time, sending the first draft out is a slightly harrowing prospect, because I can never tell how well it turned out. But it takes less than a minute after emailing the script out for me to go from “Oh man, what if it’s awful” to “Why haven’t they told me what you think?” Like a switch flicks in my head from “panic” to “desperate need for feedback.”

Sadly, it turns out the other people in your life aren’t hollow simulations who only come to life when you need things from them. They’re actual people with their own dramas and commitments, so there can be a leeettle bit of a wait at this point, and I have yet to figure out a way around it, since I doubt I’m going to get decent feedback if my readers are reading the script begrudgingly. Also people take a weird amount of offense when you sabotage their lives so they have more time for your stuff.

Still, there’s an inherent eagerness to start talking about the script with people properly. This is something that’s been in my head for weeks, probably months. I want to be able to talk about these characters, what they go through, why I’ve had relatively obscure Beatles songs stuck in my head for two weeks. If it’s a comedy, I want to know what they found funny. Does the story hold up? Do they care? I need to know all of these things.

And from there, it’s back to work.

Step Two: time to fix it up

It would be amazing if everyone I sent a new script to came back and said “This is great, I can’t think of anything wrong with it.” But that never, never happens. Okay twice. Almost twice. But that’s okay. The entire point of the close group the first draft goes to is that they will be honest with you/me about the script. And as good as it might feel to hear people say nice things about something you wrote, the way the script improves is when they tell you what didn’t work and why.

The greatest purpose of a first draft is simply to exist. Defeat the blank page and get the story down in some form. Fixing it from there might not be a breeze, but at least you have a framework in place. Build on your strengths, and eliminate your weaknesses, and I don’t know, you guys, this paragraph is starting to descend into obvious cliches, so I’m-a… I’m-a move on.

Next time… hearing it out loud.

Writing a Play, Part 2: The first draft

“I didn’t want to start writing something of my own because to do that I’d have to start writing something. I love writing but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, ‘You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over, giftless. I’m not your agent and I’m not your mommy, I’m a white piece of paper, you wanna dance with me?’ and I really, really don’t. I don’t want any trouble. I’ll go peaceable-like.”
-Aaron Sorkin

A long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place you’ve probably seen in your dreams–damn it. One day I will be able to say “A long time ago” without lapsing into Nightmare Before Christmas. Just not today.

Right, anyway, about seven months back, I said I was going to talk about the playwriting process as I began to work my way through my newest script. I did this despite knowing that first drafts take time and that I had a busy summer ahead of me. And that’s why we’re only now getting to part two.

Because a first draft is hard, you guys. Super hard. Especially since I’ve never really mastered outlines.

The trick with outlines

An outline is a decent idea. Helps you prep and organize your story. Figure out what the important story beats are, how to get to them, what they accomplish. A scene-by-scene breakdown that gives you the shape of your story and lets you plan out how to tell it.

See, I know this, I know all of this, and yet when it comes to starting a new script I throw all of that knowledge away and choose to just wing that mother every time. Every time.

And sometimes it’s a much worse idea than others. I got to the intermission of Jade Monkey and found I had no Earthly idea what to do in act two. And god DAMN but that is apparent if you actually read it. In a more recent script, an entire character got added because I realized that only one of the existing cast could be in the next scene, and he was going to need someone to talk to. And the new character may have become my favourite in that script, but… I begin to wonder if maybe that script was less… positively received than I thought at the time. But that’s another thing.

Anyway, outlines are good, outlines work. Especially if you’re co-authoring something. Lethargic Lad was extensively outlined so that Munsi and I could work on separate scenes while still writing the same play. My next co-written project will be the same. But here’s why I think I’ve never mastered them in my solo efforts.

“Is it because you’re lazy and impatient?” I hear you asking, and fine, yes, you could paint it that way, but… last time I talked about how before I commit to writing an idea, I bounce it around in my head. Let the characters take shape. Figure out what the key scenes I’m going to want to see are. Well, by the time I’ve done that, it’s like I can hear the character’s voices in my head, and the only way to shut them up is to write down everything they’re saying. And I tend to want to dive right into that rather than spend time on what feels like busy work.

Hell, half the time I DO try to write an outline, I end up filling it with swaths of dialogue anyway. Wait. Wait. Hang on. That doesn’t sound like a problem. That sounds like what I should do every time, doesn’t it… except, well, no, there is a catch. See, I have found in the past that when I write a chunk of dialogue out of sequence, it’s not always easy fitting it in later.

Take my latest, for example. One of the first things I wrote was a joke about a possible (and terrible) new name for the event management company at the center of the story. For obvious reasons, the joke had to go towards the end of the play, so throughout the process of cranking out the first draft I had this block of lines waiting to be sewn in. And by the time I reached that part of the script, the characterization of two of the leads had shifted, one of the other characters had a different name and was no longer onstage for that scene. I managed to salvage the joke, but it still took some work.

In fact, a lot of things had changed.

It might not be the story you intended

Turns out a lot of things got thrown out in the process. When I’d finally finished a draft, I went back and looked at the character notes I’d included in my “Dramatis Personnae” page, and was stunned about how much stuff I’d decided was important back in summer that I’d just straight-up forgotten about over the next few months. The bride was going to be a fellow event planner who couldn’t shut her work-brain off for her own wedding. The groom was going to be in a panic about everything being perfect. Neither of those things happened, and frankly, there just wasn’t time. The script isn’t that short as it is. If I included every little twist and complication I’d dreamt up in the early planning stages, this thing would’ve ended up three hours long. And I’m trying to cut back on three hour plays.

If the creative juices are going, if the characters are coming alive, the story might go in directions you hadn’t anticipated. Entire subplots have sprung up in plays because characters evolved in a way I hadn’t expected, or to put it another way, because when it came time to actually write the scene, suddenly new twists arrived that seemed too good to pass up.

You can plan and plan, but it’s in the first draft that the characters come to life and your story is truly born. It’s in writing the thing that you learn what the thing is, or at least what it could be.

But it’s a slog

In most cases, it also takes a great long time to do.

Edits are easy. I’ll cover that later, but the fact is you have a complete story to work with. Even if you’re tossing out whole sections, like I did with The Spy Who Left Me, at least there’s a framework. It’s easier to change something than create it, easier to polish a character’s voice than imagine it.

The first draft… there’s days or even weeks when no matter how much I think I’ve figured out about the script to come, I’m drawing a complete blank on the scene I’m actually working on. When a night of writing ultimately ends up being less than a page, then off to bed in defeat.

And then sometimes, like, say, August and September, when I was in rehearsal or on the web series set basically every day for six weeks, I can’t really work on the script at all. So when I come back to it, I need to reread the whole thing to get back into the groove.

Or so I tell myself. I’ve lost more than one night of writing to re-reading and tweaking everything I’ve already done, and I can’t honestly say that it was necessary every time. But sometimes when I just don’t feel like I have any new lines in the tank, a refresher does help me get back into everyone’s head a push forward. Even if it is just for a page.

And of course there are nights where I’ll poke away at the script for hours, barely making progress, when suddenly somewhere around midnight everything clicks and I’m hammering out pages like crazy while thinking “I really do need to get to bed, but I just have to finish this sequence.” One night I actually had to get back out of bed after a half hour because the scene was still playing out in my brain and I needed to get it down as soon as possible.

Turns out there’s a reason for that. As you get tired, the part of your brain that takes in and filters new information begins to shut down in preparation for sleep, leaving the other parts of your brain to fire away unimpeded. Your frontal lobe stops providing distractions or poo-pooing your ideas, and so the ideas begin to flow.

Which means that, and if you know me at all you know this is not a sentence I take any joy in saying, my colleague Ben is right: write drunk, edit sober. A few whiskeys have the same effect as approaching the sleep portion of your circadian cycle. And so, on this last draft, I gave that a try as I entered the home stretch of the first draft. And by “home stretch” I mean “last half or so.” Possibly “last two thirds.” I mentioned how busy I’d been last summer, right?

The waiting game sucks, let’s play Hungry Hungry Hippos

And then comes the hard part. The draft is done, and there’s nothing left but the dreaded “showing it to people I trust so they can tell me what they think.”

I never know if a first draft is any good. Never. It is an absolute mystery. As I’ll soon cover, in 2007 I wrote two scripts back to back: one was the worst first draft I’d ever done, and was immediately discarded, and the other was the best first draft I’d ever written and could practically have been staged as-was. But at the time, I could not have predicted either outcome. I thought the bad script had potential, and naturally was lacking a little in self-confidence when that one tanked and I started showing around the better one. Are the characters good? Do the jokes work? Is the story interesting? I cannot tell. The part of my brain capable of figuring these things out shuts down when faced with my own work and just throws up a test pattern saying “Well it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

And so I find those select few that I can trust for honest and useful feedback, send the script to them, and wait for them to find time to read it. Which… can take a while. And that can become frustrating, since my brain flicks from “Oh god, what if they think it’s horrible” to “I have to know what they think” the second I click “send” on the email.

Next time in this series (with hopefully less of a lull in between): the script is done, time to beat it with hammers until it’s good.

Danny Writes Plays: Quarter Century

Okay, before we get into this, an apology regarding my last post. When I was picking backlash movements to speak out against, I chose Kony 2012 because some of the complaints I’d been hearing at the time made no sense to me (specifically the “He’s not even in Uganda” thing, which is still a stupid excuse for a counter-point). However, that meant trying to duck around the biggest complaints against it, those of dramatically over-simplifying the issue (“Just go get him. Why didn’t we think of that. Oh right we did,” said the African Union) and of being the very model of ultimately pointless slacktivism.

What I should have done in order to demonstrate how joining a backlash can ally you with the wrong people is go after the “people,” if we’re going to use that word, attacking Anita Sarkeesian for daring to talk about how women are represented in video games. Because the last few weeks have demonstrated that this bandwagon is filled to the brim with disgusting misogyny, and if you’re going after Ms. Sarkeesian for stating that Princess Peach doesn’t exactly have a lot of agency instead of going after the assholes sending her death threats, you are on the wrong side. Which, sorry Invisible Children, just can’t be said about people pointing out that Kony 2012 didn’t exactly accomplish a lot.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s all watch me tear apart something I wrote eight years ago. Quarter Century, ladies and gentlemen!

What’s it about?

In short, the quarter-life crisis, which I thought I’d come up with myself but was a full fledged Thing by the time I wrote this.

It’s about a group of friends at various points in their 20s: Xavier, or Avi, is a freelance writer married to Miranda, who just got hired by a major law firm right out of law school. Riley, Xavier’s childhood best friend, has recently come back to Calgary after grad school out east. Theresa, Miranda’s older sister, is a psychologist who frequently gets stuck dealing with everyone’s emotional crises while trying to attract the eye of Bobby, the group’s youngest member, who can’t seem to settle on a job, major, or girlfriend.

Xavier’s frustrated because he and Miranda are growing apart, as she’s swamped with her career and he’s busy fighting against becoming a proper grown-up. When Riley’s friend from grad school Angela shows up in town, things get complicated. She and Xavier start to bond over their mutual disdain for being what everyone thinks they should be (or what they think people think they should be–well that sentence got away from me), which starts evolving into something that could ruin everyone’s lives.

Also which involves Bobby being set up on a date with a guy, which he ultimately enjoys, and is very confused about that.

So why’d that happen?

Why’d I write a play about a twenty-something writer struggling against being a grown-up? Because I was a twenty-something writer struggling against being a grown-up. I looked at the awkward difference between growing up and growing old, and thought there was a story there. I took it out, put it away, dwelled on it, dusted it off, kicked it around, and finally got a draft together during U-Boat of the Soul.

And at the time, I was rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer from start to finish, so I attempted to let a little bit of Whedon-style wordplay slip into it.

How’d it turn out?

That’s… a trickier question.

Well, for starters, one of the biggest Whedon-homages worked out pretty well. Based on the Angel episode where an argument between Spike and Angel about who’d win in a fight, astronauts or cavemen, infects the whole group, I had a running gag in which the gang is arguing about who’d win in a fight, Santa’s elves or Snow White’s dwarves. I think it’s still pretty funny.

Moving past that… there’s an inherent problem in looking at something you wrote about how hard it is to be in your mid-20s when you’re entering your… this hurts to type… late 30s. Xavier’s complaints do not ring as true as I once might have believed.

Which isn’t the worst thing in the world. I don’t think they were ever supposed to ring true. This was my first dalliance with tragedy, after all: Xavier’s Peter Pan complex is his fatal flaw, just as Macbeth’s was ambition. Often in tragedy you’re supposed to know that what the protagonist is doing is a horrible, horrible mistake.

Some of Riley’s dialogue is clunkier than I’d like. That was something I struggled with for a while: I let the Joss Whedons and, more importantly, Kevin Smiths of the world influence me in the wrong way, and what I thought would be a clever and sophisticated style of dialogue just gets clunky in places.

I think Angela still works. I hope she does. Angela loathed being the perfect high school teen so much it drove her into self-destruction mixed with self-mutilation. Her and Riley seem like nice people, I wish they didn’t hate themselves so much. But I guess if they didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a story there.

There are parts that work, there are, but… well, no avoiding it now… I hate, I hate, I HATE the ending.

Xavier and Angela almost have sex, Riley catches them, at which point we learn that Angela and Riley love each other but never told each other, hooray for them, that I don’t hate so much. Xavier and Miranda then have it out, at which point, out of god damned nowhere, Xavier decides to skip town and wander the South Pacific until he finds himself.

Which, okay, is something someone might do, but… what? It just… the plot finally gets moving somewhere, and I pull the plug and exile the lead character to the Phillipines or whatever? Where did this even come from? The plot just got out of first gear only to throw down a smokebomb and vanish, leaving nothing but a series of kind of forced farewells at a bus terminal and curtain call. Did I just get bored? Is that what happened?

Would you stage it again?

Okay. Having had some time to come down and reassess, there may well be a may to fix this one. First of all, Xavier’s gonna have to be rewritten fairly substantially. “I don’t want to be a mature grown-up, I don’t know how” just doesn’t work as well as it once did. Even Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen have stopped going to that well. Instead, focus on a less empty, whiny motivation: Xavier and Miranda’s life to kicking into high gear, with adult jobs and parties and talk of children ramping up, and Xavier’s suddenly remembering all the things he said he’d do by the time any of this started happening. Running off to the South Pacific will be less of sudden bombshell if it’s established that he always planned to travel more before he settled down.

Second, is that all I want this story to be? Xavier destroys his life? Because right now other than a bunch of side-chats, that’s all that’s happening. With some streamlining (which, sadly, might mean cutting Bobby, even though I really wouldn’t want to) I can get this down to a tragedy in one act, or possibly a comedy in two. People have said that that’s what this story is missing: a second act, set six months later, where we see what happens when Xavier comes home. Can he win Miranda back? I honestly don’t know. But maybe that would make this a more complete story than it is right now.

Ultimately, this feels like a few good ideas and decent characters wrapped up in a story that I kind of half-assed. And maybe it deserves better.

Next time, either the worst first draft I ever wrote, or the best. Depends on which script I decide to look at.

Repeated theme alert

  • Man and woman cannot be friends: Of course Theresa has a crush on Bobby and Riley and Angela are secretly in love with each other. Why wouldn’t they be.
  • Fun with pop culture: Miranda works for the firm of “Birch, Shore, and Wambaugh,” named after three of my favourite lawyers from TV shows by David E. Kelley: Alan Birch from the first season and a bit of Chicago Hope (before he, Mandy Patinkin, and David E. Kelley all left the show and I stopped caring about it), Alan Shore from Boston Legal, and the undefeatable Douglas Wambaugh from Picket Fences. It would have been Cage, Shore, and Wambaugh (using the other lawyer David E. Kelley wrote for actor Peter MacNicol, John Cage from Ally McBeal), but someone at a workshop said “Because her work is a CAGE. GET IT?” and that had to go.
  • All in all I prefer it when I let Aaron Sorkin influence my writing style. Nothing against Joss Whedon, I just can’t do his thing very well.

Danny Writes Plays: U-boat of the Soul

This is a big week. An awesome week. On Sunday, July 13th, we rolled cameras for the first time on Writer’s Circle: the Webseries, the ongoing adventures of playwright Phil Payton, novelist Becky Porter, screenwriter Jeff Winnick, and blogger Zoe Jordan, as they share a sort of support group for writers hosted by their agent Tina Gellar.

And appropriately enough, we have reached the point in the Danny Writes Plays saga where I first thought “I should write another play with that Phil guy.” So let’s take a look at U-Boat of the Soul.

What’s it about?

Playwright Phil Payton was last seen in Two Guys, a Couch, and the Fate of the World, co-writing a spy play about Dirk Rhombus and his assistant Trina (based quite clearly on his girlfriend Tina). We rejoin Phil years later: he is now writer-in-residence for a theatre company, reporting to his now quite firmly ex-girlfriend Tina. They broke up for good and all six months ago, and three months after that the company commissioned a new script from him. It’s due tomorrow, and he’s barely started. Years after the unnamed Dirk Rhombus comedy of Two Guys, he’s decided to return to that well in a desperate attempt to crank out something, anything, that will fill this contract.

Turns out, one of the company’s other producers, Jacob Garrison (previously seen in Pride and Prima Donnas) has found a rising talent in Becky Porter, and is pushing for her to potentially replace Phil. Director David Locke (also from Pride and Prima Donnas) wants to keep Phil around (if only to prevent another Dance Into the Fire: the Duran Duran Rock Opera incident), but thinks Becky’s not only a strong talent, but a potential way for Phil to get over Tina. Frustrated that Tina’s willing to fire him and that David’s trying to hook him up with his possible replacement, Phil retires to his office in an attempt to write an entire Dirk Rhombus adventure in one night.

Only problem… Dirk hates this plan. Having popped up here and there to explain to the audience such crutches as exposition, supporting cast, pop culture references, and scene changes, Dirk starts berating Phil, claiming that he can do better than this, and takes Phil on a journey to show what Dirk’s adventures can teach audiences about the world, and Phil about himself.

PREMISE!

Fine. That… was not unearned.

Trina returns, but refuses to be Phil’s punching bag for his feelings about Tina. Jacob becomes Dirk’s boss, reluctantly pulling him out of retirement, despite thinking the espionage world no longer has a place for him. David becomes Jacques, the informant who warns that Dirk’s mission is not all it seems. And Becky becomes Katya, another lead who echoes Jacques’ warnings while also attacking society’s demonization of female sexuality (and through that, Phil’s fear of dating Becky) by deconstructing the “femme fatale” archetype. Phil’s gonna learn some things, and if you pay attention, you just might as well.

So why did that happen?

Sick of hearing about my divorce yet? Don’t worry, we’re almost through.

When my now ex-wife and I split up, I was concerned that, as someone who wrote primarily comedies and romances, this might impact my ability to do what do, a concern Phil shares in this script. A few months later, needing an idea for a writing contest, I pitched this concept to a friend, having already held workshops for Salvage and The Spy Who Left Me. He stared at me quizzically for a moment, then said “Seriously? You’ve tripled your output!”

A year and change later, I needed a new idea, so I came back to U-boat. Despite having made great strides in getting over the divorce, I thought the concept had legs, so as long as I was being indulgently autobiographical anyway, I filled it with characters from past scripts, references to other past scripts, and got to work.

Also, and let’s get this out of the way right up front… I was curious to see if I could write a nude scene and get away with it. Other writers might have no problem writing nude scenes, but having been directly involved in every production of one of my scripts up to that point, I knew that I’d never manage it unless I could look the actor and/or actress in the eye (as much as I’m ever able to, anyway) and say that yes, this is important. This is necessary. And since I was having Katya hold court against North American society’s idolization of sex/crippling fear of nudity (unlike enlightened, topless Europe), something that I’d been fuming about ever since Janet Jackson exposing her breast (not even the whole breast! There was a pasty!) at the Superbowl was viewed as a worse scandal than George W. Bush inventing a connection between Iraq and 9/11 to justify a war. I decided to call out society’s fear of women’s bodies, using Katya’s to drive the point home. (And also Jacob’s, because fair is fair.)

How’d it turn out?

All in all? Pretty decently. The humour’s solid, the only pop culture references are there to be made fun of for being pop culture references, it’s not a bad show. I mean, the whole thing’s pretty rushed. Didn’t even have an intermission, if I recall correctly, and I think that I do. Not that there’s a problem with the spy stuff being sped through, as the Dirk plot only matters as far as it provides the chance to deconstruct the Dirk plot.

Actually, about that.

The whole naked Katya-“why are women’s bodies terrifying” scene? It works. I believe that. It’s a good scene, it makes important points, it even works in the larger play’s context. Sure, Katya’s topless way longer than she needs to be. I can’t deny that. This was pointed out to me about a week before the original production opened, but by then it was too late to fix the problem on a script level. If this script were to re-surface, I’d find better places for Katya to ditch the bra and find her robe.

And the thing is, the scene works because it’s the best deconstruction of spy stories and the best attack on society. The rest of the scenes have their laughs, and advance Phil’s arc the way they need to, but by and large they’re over too fast and don’t say enough. Every scene should have the punch and insight that Katya’s scene does. Every character, inside Phil’s head or not, should be as interesting as I think Katya is. Especially Katya’s “real world” counterpart, Becky.

One time, Brian Michael Bendis wrote an essay claiming that the Green Goblin was not only the greatest Spider-man villain ever, but the greatest overall comic book villain, yet you’d never guess that from his ridiculous first appearance. So it is with Becky. She might be my favourite of all the female leads I’ve written, and you’d never guess that from this, her first appearance. It’s impossible to look at this script and not see it through the filter of Writers’ Circle, both the play and the impending webseries, and Becky the awestruck fangirl just does not measure up to the character we’re going to be filming over the next six weeks. It’s okay if she’s a fan of Phil. I’ll even grant that it’s okay if said fandom makes her want to date Phil, although come on man, are we inserting our own fantasy women again already? But she can and should be more than that.

Would you stage it again?

Not as it is. It can be deeper, stronger. It can say more, do more, and have well-written characters other than Phil and Dirk. Each time I get better at writing Phil, Becky, and Tina, I want to go back and make their earlier appearances work on the same level, and that would take some doing. And, yeah, like I said, if every scene isn’t as deep or cutting as Katya’s… well, why aren’t they? They just should be.

So, this one would need a polish. Not a full overhaul, and not a “burn it to the ground and start over on a white piece of paper,” but definitely a polish.

Repeated Theme Alert

  • Man and woman cannot be friends: Becky likes Phil! David likes Tina! Everyone wants to date everyone! There are only six people in this cast and one of them’s fictional!
  • The quiet, average guy the ladies unaccountably love: Well, one of the ladies stopped loving him, and at least Becky has an excuse. There actually is something interesting about Phil.
  • So how is this one about your divorce? Don’t, don’t, don’t even start with me right now. You know. I know. We all know.
  • Writing about writers: It wasn’t long after this script that a friend said “Maybe give the meta-narrative stuff a rest for a while.” Wasn’t terrible advice.

Danny Writes Plays: Tyler and Selena

So, we’re entering the final stages of pre-production for a webseries that two friends and I have been working on for a year now. Soon, very soon, we start filming, which is exciting. The chance to see these scripts we cranked out brought to life, and to share them across the Internet. Which of course will be followed by months of stress about how we’re going to get people to watch them, but that’s a tomorrow problem.

Day’s gonna come when I’m going to be talking a lot about the show on this blog. The obvious starting point seemed to be to do a “Danny Writes Plays” entry on the script that we adapted into the series, but… well, I haven’t made it that far, and skipping ahead seems like it kills the flow. So, may as well start catching up.

Which brings us to this: The Very Long Night of Tyler and Selena.

 What’s it about?

Office drone Tyler Jenkins is trying to juggle a special dinner with his girlfriend Cindy and prepping for a big meeting the next morning, when Cindy unexpectedly (to Tyler, at least) breaks up with him, and instead of dinner Tyler leaves to drink alone. At the bar, a woman named Selena bursts in trying to stay unseen. Selena, and her duffel bag of unknown but unpleasant contents, are on the run from notorious killers Vic and Jess, and after trying to do her a favour, Tyler finds himself stuck in the middle, with little choice but to stick next to Selena until he can find a way out… a plan Selena doesn’t care for at all. They run from hideout to hideout, finding safe haven where they can with Selena’s friends and informants, but it slowly becomes clear that there’s no easy way out for either of them, and they’re in for a very long night.

So why’d that happen?

So, remember a while back, when I talked about The Course of True Love and the Curse of the Jade Monkey, and how it had so many flaws I saw no choice but to burn it down to the basic premise and start over on a white piece of paper? Well, here we are. This is when that happened. Average guy, woman of mystery, dragged into quest, hopefully with a few layers of stupid and terrible scraped off.

Step one: I made Selena basically the anti-Maya. Where Maya was instantly and inexplicably attracted to Jordan, inserting herself into his life, Selena basically wants nothing to do with Tyler, but puts up with him out of a shred of respect for the fact that he’s only in this mess because of his misguided attempt to help her.

Step two: no more globetrotting. I saw a play at the Vancouver Fringe called The Doctor is Sick, in which a doctor, who was prepping a lecture on the evolution of cockney rhyming slang, escapes from a hospital and goes on an adventure among the underbelly of the city. I thought, if this show could have constantly changing locations and taxis and whatnot done through minimalist set, surely I could too, and made this story take place over a single night, albeit many, many places.

Step three: realizing that the Macguffin doesn’t matter. The Jade Monkey had a complicated and ridiculous backstory, but neither Tyler nor the audience ever learns what’s in the duffel bag, only that it’s both valuable and terrible.

Step four: no Travis. Well, I ended up backsliding on this one. Intrepid reporter Travis Thompson does, in fact, make a return appearance, but what’s important is that this time he wasn’t given his own subplot. Travis exists solely to advance Tyler’s story: indicating that all was far from well between Tyler and Cindy, then returning to give Tyler key information. He services the plot, rather than trying to steal the spotlight.

Step five: better villains. I’d been experimenting with “funny yet menacing” villains for a while, but for this one… for this one I finally admitted to myself why. And the reason was, I was trying to find my own spin on Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I didn’t want to just copy them, so I tried Helena Von Drax and Manservant, Big Jim the mafia henchman, and Rose and Stern the goons. But then Terry Pratchett wrote The Truth, his 25th Discworld novel, which certainly seemed to have characters based on, or at least modeled in a similar vein to Croup and Vandemar, so I said “screw it, then,” and thus came Vic and Jess, Things Dealt With. Vic, short for Victoria, was the chatterbox, and Jess the strong, silent partner. Although I did what I could through reputation and unseen fights to imply that neither of them were to be trifled with.

Step five: less exposition. Not no exposition, just… less. Well, it was a start.

The concept for this show started coming to me almost immediately after Jade Monkey wrapped for the second time. But regular readers will remember, that’s also when I started work on Heracles for the 2004 Fringe tour. So I had to sit on this idea until Heracles was ready to rehearse. Which took around nine months. The second it was done and rehearsing, I jumped into Tyler and Selena. First draft was done in 11 days. Might be a personal record.

How’d it turn out?

Astute readers will also remember that the thing that started me down the road to scrapping Jade Monkey in favour of Tyler and Selena was the idea of doing it as a movie. And the movie idea was very clearly still in my head, because despite all that stuff I said about The Doctor is Sick, this is a screenplay. It is a screenplay that I shoehorned onto a stage.

That said, it mostly works. The staging difficulties caused by writing a screenplay for the stage do their damage, as every scene requires some exposition about where Tyler and Selena are, but I made that as organic as I could. The wit still mostly works. The characters are still good. It’s still a fun show. Not one of my crown jewels, but not one of my embarrassments, either.

Would you stage it again?

It could use some touch ups… the pacing’s not quite where I’d want it, there is still a clunky “Let’s swap backstories” scene, and Selena could use more of a story. Right now she’s drifting close to Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, only there so that Tyler can learn about himself. I’d want to fix that before anyone did something with this script, or at least try to.

Also, it’s a screenplay. There’s no getting around that. As a stage play, it lacks the visceral energy that The Doctor is Sick had, something it needed to make the cross-town adventure work right on stage. In a movie, you could get that energy by actually having the characters able to move any amount of distance. Well, and I could punch up the script a bit. That pacing issue I mentioned.

Of course the real issue is that I know nothing about making movies. Permits, equipment, and most importantly distribution are all mysteries to me. So after at least one go-nowhere attempt to film this thing, I’ve started replying to any query about doing this or any of my scripts as movies with “Sounds great, let me know how it works out.”

Repeated theme alert

  • Something something pop culture reference: Aaron Sorkin once wrote the line “Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal outright.” I hope he meant it, because on page 6 I stole a line from Sports Night.
  • Let’s sit and exchange backstories for twenty minutes like that doesn’t kill the pacing! There had to have been a more engaging way to convey how Selena ended up with this bag.
  • Tyler isn’t quiteThe quiet, average guy the ladies unaccountably love,” because for most of the play Selena’s tolerating him at best… but he’s close. Still, at least he actually does things to earn affection.
  • The funny yet menacing villains: a friend said to me, after reading the first draft, “You’ve done it. You’ve mastered the villains who are funny yet menacing. Now stop.” Good advice.
  • So how is this one about your divorce? A huge part of Tyler’s arc is about realizing he’s not in love with Cindy anymore, and that’s okay. So this one’s about letting go.

When next we visit this series, prepare for the return of some old friends from old scripts.

Danny G Writes Plays: Heracles: The Mythologically Accurate Adventures

Real talk: today is not going to be a happy day. Who Knows, the play I’ve been directing since March, came to an end on Saturday, and the empty feeling that was sure to follow is settling in. But that’s okay. That’s good. If this is the price to be paid for three incredible months of endless joy working on an amazingly fun play about one of my all-time favourite TV shows with some incredible people, so be it.

And on the plus side, today I get to tell you about one of my old scripts without the usual round of self-flagellation. Because today, dear readers, today… we talk Heracles.

What’s it about?

A laugh-a-minute (minimum) tour through the original myths of Heracles that inspired the legends of Hercules, but with none of the whitewashing and all of the accidental-family-murder and general unheroic behaviour kept intact and, by and large, made funny. After a quick summary of Zeus’ ascension to the throne of Olympus, Heracles is conceived (Zeus attempts to seduce his mother as a swan, then switches to her husband when that doesn’t work), battles serpents that his step-mother Hera threw in the crib to kill him, doesn’t quite learn a lesson about not killing music teachers, decides to be a hero… a lot. A lot of stuff happens. Let’s move to the next section. It’s a better story.

So why did that happen?

It’s a play I wrote over nine months stretching from September of 2003 to spring of 2004, but to trace its origins we have to go aaaaalllllll the way back to June of 1997. The Amazing and Almost Accurate Adventures of Trigger Dandy had just wrapped its one-night-stand debut, and everyone involved was riding high off the buzz of the laughter and cheers that were still ringing in our ears. So of course, the topic weaving its way through the wrap party was “What’s next? Let’s keep this Mind the Walrus thing going! Do another show! We could do this so much better now that we’ve learned a few things! What’s next?

And with Two Guys, a Couch, and the Fate of the World still a few weeks away from conception, we didn’t have a firm answer. Until an idea rooted itself in some of our heads. Somehow the champagne-fuelled conversation turned to the fact that nobody really gets Greek myths. People don’t even know, by and large, that Hercules isn’t the son of Zeus: Hercules is the Roman name of Heracles, so Hercules would be the son of Jupiter. And there’s a show we could do, we thought… dig up the original myths, warts and all, and make a Trigger Dandy style comedy about them. We even envisioned one of the scenes: Heracles would fight the Hyrda, the serpent who grows two new heads every time one is cut off, but get so into cutting off heads that the stagehands would start running out. Actual prop heads would give way to pool noodles, which would be replaced by paper plates, shoes, etc. until the stage hands finally gave up.

We did some research, looked up some myths, but ran out of steam before long, especially once Jason and I started breaking the idea for Two Guys. But I never let go of the idea. It was always in the back of my head, something I would eventually get to, time permitting. Hell, once Mind the Walrus was into its second season, I was envisioning a “greatest hits” play, the Mind the Walrus All-Stars, that would team up Trigger Dandy, Two Guys’ Dirk Rhombus, and Heracles against an alliance of their various nemeses, plus Ted the Devil from Date With an Angel, Coffee With the Devil. It was explained to me within seconds of theorizing this script that it was a horrible, horrible idea, and I never spoke of it again (until now), but what’s really interesting there is that despite not having written a single word of what I’d decided would eventually be called “The Mythologically Accurate Adventures of Heracles” (really, I do not know what my thing was with long titles), I was so convinced that it would happen that I had already included the main character in the Walrus All-Stars.

Anyway, years passed. In 2003, The Course of True Love and the Curse of the Jade Monkey went to the Edmonton Fringe. It was, shall we say, not a raging success. Small houses and brutal reviews that the cast told me not to read. None of that is surprising now, given the many, many flaws of that script, but after it was over, I started thinking about all of the sold-out hits I’d seen at the Fringe, and tried to figure out why they were hits and mine was not. Part of that process involved taking a long look at the script itself, and we’ll look at the results of that in the next instalment, but it also involved figuring out what the big hits had in common.

It seemed to me that the ingredients of a successful Fringe show, especially touring Fringe shows, were 1) one hour long; 2) fast-paced; 3) funny; 4) portable, meaning minimal set. So I tried to figure out what I could do that would fit the profile, and Heracles popped back into my head. Write it so that the whole thing could be done with three to five people, avoid set pieces, and make sure the jokes keep flying. The following month, while I was on my “impending divorce” vacation to London (trips to London help ease the pain), I stopped by the British Museum’s library to do some research on the myths, then bought myself a notebook at the Globe Theatre’s gift shop and started writing over dinner–that sounded really pretentious and I’m sorry. Those were the places I was when I broke ground on this script. I used geography for narrative inspiration. I’m sure I’m sorry.

Also I changed the title to Heracles: The Mythologically Accurate Adventures, so that the key word of the title wouldn’t get lost if the title turned out to be too long for the program again. You know, like “Jade Monkey” did.

And you’re damn right I used that hydra scene I mentioned. That scene was GOLD.

Now it wasn’t a quick process. As I said, it took nine months to get a draft of this script written and typed up, a process spurred somewhat by us getting into the Montreal, Winnipeg, and Edmonton Fringe Festivals. And when it was done, I had ninety minutes of material for our sixty minute show, so there were a lot of edits to be done by the time we reached Montreal.

And a few more edits once we got there and found out we were two minutes heavy.

And a few more edits once we got to Winnipeg, and our audiences quintupled, and the additional laughter once again pushed us to 62 minutes. (The Edmonton techs were more chill, they’d just signal us if we needed to speed up the climax)

How’d it turn out?

Awesome. Purely awesome.

We remounted this one back in 2009 and it was still funny. Even in a total blackout, with no lights but a keychain flashlight, it was still funny. Maybe not every joke lands in every performance, but there are so very many that DO work that we never had a dud show. After the Montreal leg of the tour, I had to take over the role of Heracles myself, and let me tell you… having a sold-out crowd cheering a show I wrote, directed, and starred in was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The 2004 Heracles tour was exactly what I needed that summer, and the 2009 remount was a delight as well.

Would you stage it again?

The only reason I’m not saying “Yes, of course yes, can we do it now?” is the sad knowledge that if Heracles makes a comeback, someone else is going to be playing the title role. I had my fun. It’s someone else’s turn now. That said, yes, of course yes, can we do it now?

Next time: the play that had been festering in my head for the nine months that it took to write Heracles.

Danny Writes Plays: The Spy Who Left Me

Salvage wasn’t the only script I managed in 2003. Before it was even done being edited, I had another first draft ready to go. Well, sort of ready to go. Salvage was chosen to perform first because it was thought to be closer to ready for the stage. And they weren’t wrong: my other script from that year was when I truly learned to love the editing stage, as there were a whole lot of rough spots needing to be reworked.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Ladies and gentlemen, dear readers, The Spy Who Left Me.

What’s it about?

Five years ago, Tommy Wexland (why am I this bad with last names? I can’t explain it) suffered a blow when his wife Alexis disappeared without warning. Today, he’s juggling Mr. Kane, the new executive visiting from Chicago, his on-again off-again girlfriend Fiona visiting from England, and his overprotective little sister Devra, who’s wondering why Alexis has started getting mail delivered at Tommy’s apartment again.

Soon the invitation to a party delivered to Tommy but addressed to Alexis is unraveling the truth: Alexis was a spy who went rogue, Fiona is an MI6 agent out to bring her in, and the man from Chicago is behind everything. And Devra would like it known that she totally called that something was off about Tommy’s ex.

PREMISE!

Well it didn’t sound that weird at the time.

Why did that happen?

The weird thing is that at the time, if you’d tried to tell me I was writing this script as a way to deal with my wife and I splitting up, I’d have not only denied it but actually believed you were wrong. So let’s leave aside the obvious answer of “Impending divorce” and look at what I thought were the reasons I wrote this play.

Simply put, it’s Len Deighton‘s fault.

As my marriage was crumbling, I’d been reading Len Deighton’s classic 80s cold war spy novel trilogies, Game, Set, and Match and Hook, Line, and Sinker. The two trilogies (which apparently were followed by a third, Faith, Hope, and Charity, which I should really track down) deal with Bernard Samson, a jaded, middle-aged secret agent working for MI6, and a complicated chess game of defections and double agents between his employers and the KGB, particularly the East German branches. In Game, Set, and Match, while trying to recover agents from behind the Iron Curtain and recruit high-level defectors, Bernard begins to suspect that his wife, Fiona (influence on the script already apparent), might have been turned by the KGB. In Hook, Line, and Sinker, he learns that the truth is far, far more complicated.

From this came the story of Tommy, learning that his wife’s life was far more bizarre than he ever guessed, her abrupt departure from his life, and her return, which brought with it even more chaos than her leaving.

And once I’d finished the first draft, I finally read Spy Sinker, and realized that I’d come at this entire project wrong. You see, while the first five novels are told from Bernard’s point of view (in the first person, no less), Spy Sinker retells the entire story from Fiona’s perspective. And that made it clear: I’d been writing Alexis all wrong, letting the more colourful spy antics of Alias’ Sydney Bristow shape her, rather than the bleaker, more grounded world of Bernard and Fiona Samson. Alexis hadn’t been on a fun adventure the last five years. Alexis had been in hell. Her life must have been exhausting even before she went on the run, and that meant that I had to rewrite the entire second half to correct this.

At which point, the script became too weighted against poor Fiona (my character Fiona, not Fiona Samson… lord that makes this more confusing than it has to be). Now my test-readers were convinced that Alexis was the one to root for, and Fiona was no good. (Well, except one reader who kept her draft-one dislike of Alexis and now hated both of them) I felt this was too easy, and thus had to rewrite the first half to make Fiona more sympathetic and level the playing field.

The Devra scenes worked fine, though. Minimal edits there.

How’d it turn out?

Last year, on a Calgary Comic and Entertainment Expo panel I was doing on writing, someone in the audience asked what were our most embarrassing moments as playwrights. I forget what my colleague Ben said, but for me, there was only one answer: the night my ex-wife came to see this play. Suddenly the veil was lifted, and I was like I was seeing it for the first time. All the people rushing to assure Tommy that he was a good man, that he didn’t deserve all the things that had happened to him, and the fact that this ordinary schlub had two women–no, two glamorous secret agents fighting over him… the post-divorce wish fulfillment was oozing out of every pore of this thing and I could not unsee it.

Aside from that, though.

Other significant changes were needed to ready this thing for the stage. I had to ditch the narration, because once again having the leads narrate their story between scenes was just terrible, I mean god-awful, but unlike Jade Monkey I managed to figure that out before we started rehearsing. Kane’s comic henchmen, Rose and Stern, had to be made less wackily inept. But the end product was… pretty okay, I think? Sorry, I cannot see past the grotesque wish fulfillment aspects far enough to give any sort of judgement on overall quality. And maybe that tells you everything right there.

Would you stage it again?

Can’t say that I would. Not without a top-down rewrite. Back then I did a lot of “quiet, everyday guy dragged into bizarre circumstance” stories because that’s what Neil Gaiman did in Neverwhere, and I love the crap out of Neverwhere, but man I was not good at it. Instead of an everyman on a classic Hero’s Journey like Neverwhere’s Richard Mayhew, I came just shy of writing an Alias fanfic in which Sydney Bristow meets an obvious author-surrogate and falls for him because he has such a rich inner life despite the fact that he barely leaves his apartment. It’s sad it what it is. I can’t go back. I won’t.

No, if Spy Who Left Me were to return, it would have to change drastically. Tommy and Devra would still be at the center, but the story couldn’t revolve around Tommy. Other than existing as bait, the larger spy plot shouldn’t give two shits about Tommy. Also, around draft three, I had to make a choice. Either the play should be a straight-up wacky comedy, with villains right out of the Dukes of Hazzard, or it could be serious enough that ending in a shootout wouldn’t be a jarring change in tone. I picked the latter. Maybe I should have gone the other way. Maybe that’s how this play would work.

Also, I just learned that in 2011 the title got jacked by the first in a series of romance novels called the “Ex Agent” books. Not sure if that impacts this play or not, but… don’t love that turn of events…

Repeated Theme Alert

  • The Quiet, Shy Protagonist The Ladies Still Unaccountably Love rears his whiny, stupid head again. And once more I took a moment to make sure everyone knows he’s good at sex. I had friends, I don’t understand why they didn’t try harder to stop me.
  • Funny yet menacing villains round three. Kane was the heavy, Rose and Stern his comic henchmen. Rose and Stern were born from my regret that I didn’t make Supervillain’s unnamed henchmen the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (see what I did there?) of that play. They’re not terrible, but they do clash tonally with everything else happening.
  • So how was this one about your divorce? We… I think we covered that, didn’t we? I mean, how is it not?

Next time on Danny Writes Plays, a break from divorce-based therapy-writing to do something ridiculous.