Writers’ Circle Confidential: Origin Stories

You know the drill. Here’s the episode…

…now let’s get to it.

Hark now to the tale of how I, as head writer, made everything complicated for the production team forever and always.

“Forever and always” in this case being defined as for a few more weeks, but still.

So the episodes did not get written in anything even approximating production or airing order. One of our first priorities when we kicked off the project was to plan out the entire season, figure out what stories we needed, what stories we wanted, try to give all the characters decent coverage, plot a couple of long-term arcs. We then divvied up the writing between me and Keith, with my plan being to write the season finale last so that it could properly pay off everything we’d done.

And then having done all of that, I suddenly decided “Wouldn’t it be neat if we did an episode about how everyone became writers in the first place?” And despite the fact that we had a full season, decided to just go ahead and write it anyway, because I’m the head writer and give zero fucks, apparently.

Fortunately, it turned out pretty funny, and a planned two-parter read way faster than we expected, so it all worked out. It just… it created a little problem.

See, by then, every other script was written. Written and numbered, from one to thirteen. And since renumbering 10 shared files felt like a lot of work, I just went ahead and numbered Origin Stories episode 3.5.

So it’s episode four to the audience, and 3.5 to the production team. Which, you know, is just a bundle of laughs when the production team is chatting.

Fortunately, we’ve worked out a good solution all around. We just keep referring to episodes by their script number (which will soon enough bring us to episode 6/7), and since I handle the YouTube copy and the social media posts, only I have to worry about their broadcast numbers.

Which, you know, is basically just counting.

Episode observations

I don’t have too many set memories on this episode. It fell during one of the days in Super Fun Happy Good Times Week when I had rehearsal for Frost/Nixon, so it was 10:00 by the time I was on set. But there are a few random notes and Easter eggs I can share.

There are those who imply that Phil, the playwright, might have some passing resemblance to Dan, the me. This is, of course, nonsense and slander, and officially I have no knowledge how this rumour got started. But those who spread it tend to point at the supposed fact that I gave Phil three of my old jobs.

Which is, of course, madness. Sure, okay, regular readers or those willing to troll the archive will know all about my brief time at Canada Post and some snippets of my time as a projectionist, but I only trained as a blackjack dealer. Never actually worked as one. So there.

Goth Phil

Goth Phil judges you and your assumptions.

Moving along… due to the wonders of the filming process, Phil and Becky’s halves of their phone call were actually shot around two months apart. July was our “no Stephanie/Becky month,” meaning no Becky scenes, which was tricky, because there’s only one episode in the whole season that Becky’s not in. So in July, we knocked off just as many non-Becky moments as we could, including Phil’s side of the phone call.

Although it occurred to us in the moment that it would have been better to have both of them in the room… could have opened up some neat split-screen opportunities… but we’ll just call that a lesson for next season.

Now, while the halves of the phone call are separated by time, they were actually shot only 20ish feet apart. See, we didn’t have a lot of budget for locations… or anything… so with the exception of the writers’ room, we mostly hunted down what we could get for free. Like, say, my house. Which quite fortunately has two very distinct floors. Phil lives in my basement, and Becky on my main floor, although we mostly only see the kitchen. And yes, that’s my pimp chalice she’s drinking out of.

Speaking of my stuff… it was really simple turning my basement into Phil’s nerdy living room. It is probably not surprising that I own a fair amount of nerd paraphernalia. It was simply a matter of scouring the upper floor for Dr. Who merch, webcomic geek art, and the statue collection I call my nerd reliquary.

I'm comfortable with who I am.

I’m comfortable with who I am.

Most of which you can’t even see. We’d even gotten permission from Joel Watson of Hijinks Ensue to use his “Doctor is In” print, in exchange for reminding people that you can totally buy your own at his store, and it didn’t even make it into the shot. Redecorated the entire basement for nothing. Except that the table totally works better there.

Blast from the past

Shifting to the flashback to movie night at casa del Winnick… we needed audio for whatever awful movie spurred Jeff to launch his moviemaking career. But even if there was a movie we could think of that no sane mind would ever consider to be less than fully terrible…

Ahem.

Ahem.

… if it wasn’t something we owned, we couldn’t use it. So as a placeholder, our sound engineer, Patrick “DJ Peens” Murray, used the dialogue between Zoe and Tina from the start of episode three, because it amused him to have Jeff complaining about how bad the dialogue was in something I wrote. And it’s not that the rest of the team didn’t see his point, just that if we used dialogue from last week’s episode, we thought people might notice.

So we found another way, a way that makes this scene even more self-referential.

Jeff, Becky, and Phil of Writers’ Circle: the Series are watching the DVD of Writers’ Circle: the Play.

In a perfect world, we would have used one of Jeff’s scenes, so that Jeff was complaining about having to watch the Jeff Winnick Story, but I got Peens the DVD late and didn’t have time to find a good scene. So we just grabbed scene two (which I thought was a Jeff Winnick scene, having forgotten we cut that one for time), aka. the first scene not reproduced nearly word for word in our first episode.

Insignificant tribute

The… well-fed missionaries that Becky chases off in her flashbacks are, as the credits reveal, myself and Keith, with Ian completing the “executive producer cameo” set elsewhere in her flashback. We are not holding bibles or books of Mormon, as I don’t really have either, but are instead each holding one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. Some of the only and easiest to find hardcover books I own.

Because man I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

It began as a simple fantasy parody novel, but grew into something much, much more. The Discworld is a fully-realised fantasy world that acts as a mirror of our own through twisting and subverting storytelling tropes. It’s filled with incredible, lovable characters I could never wait to read more about: angry detective Samuel Vimes and the rest of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch; conman turned unwilling civil servant Moist Von Lipwig; Granny Weatherwax and the Witches of Lancre; the bumbling wizards of Unseen University; Death and his adopted family. Forty novels, each designed to delight new and old readers alike. Terry Pratchett was a uniquely gifted writer, comedian, satirist, storyteller, and world builder. Since I first read Good Omens twenty-ish years ago, an end-of-the-world tale he wrote with Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett’s books have been an endless source of joy for me.

He died yesterday at the age of 66. Early-onset Alzheimer’s. The world… my world… is lessened by his absence.

Next week… Phil goes solo in Deconstructing Phil. Be well, everybody.

Writers’ Circle Confidential: Brent’s Non-Replacement

And welcome to another instalment of Writers’ Circle Confidential, your ticket behind the curtain of your new favourite webseries. You heard me. It is your new favourite now. Unless you just discovered Cracked: After Hours or something.

Just me this week. My cast are thus far shy about sharing their recollections with my tens, nay, elevenses of readers. Seen the latest episode yet? Well, what’s keeping you?

A lot to talk about this week, so let’s get to it. Allons-y!

Meet Zoe

As I said last week, a good way to hook your audience into your premise is through a new arrival. A character who is as unfamiliar to the setting as the audience, thus allowing us to discover the characters and status quo through their eyes. WKRP had Andy Travis, Cheers had Diane Chambers, Brooklyn 99 had Captain Holt, and we have Zoe, brought to ridiculously adorable life by Anna Barker.

It was a bit of a trick adding a new character to what was, for me, an old and familiar dynamic. I wrote three hours of play script based around Phil, Jeff, and Becky bantering with occasional interjections from Tina. Figuring out a fourth person and making her fit in was a challenge. We decided we wanted a geek girl, especially since she was going to be our blogger (that being a field of writing not already represented by playwright Phil, novelist Becky, and screenwriter Jeff), but Phil has his nerdy side as well*, and we didn’t want Zoe to just be “Girl Phil.” That’s not an interesting dynamic to add, and would be shortchanging our second female lead.

So Zoe gets to be the awkward one. The one who doesn’t quite know how to make herself part of a group. Phil is held back by depression and self-doubt, but Zoe is just adorably clueless at socializing. Well, hopefully adorably.

Keith's notes on next week's episode show we're pretty confident.

Keith’s notes on next week’s episode show we’re pretty confident.

And thus, as Tina briefs Zoe on the group, we get our new introduction to the characters. A bit more thorough as to who they are, a bit more fun as Tina imagines them at… not their best. And results in a delightfully hilarious banshee-wail from Matt Pickering as the Coffee Shop Douche.

Some of us have started using it as a ring tone.

*Phil’s nerdy side is evidenced by the fact that when Phil and Becky enter the writers’ room, he is trying to explain why, in man of Steel, Krypton’s atmosphere has the same basic effect on Superman as Kryptonite.

Cutaways

Now, the method with which we re-introduce the main trio at the top of the episode brings us to a point of controversy amongst the Writers’ Circle Brain Trust (aka. myself, Ian, and Keith).

There’s an easy shorthand to figure out who wrote each script. If it’s just two (maybe three) people in one location, odds favour Keith being the primary writer. If it’s filled with cutaways (or has Tina in it), you know it’s one of mine.

I love cutaways. Ian, our director of photography, hates them. And me for writing them, which I will quite unapologetically continue to do whenever it suits me. See, I’ve been working in theatre for 20 years now, and that means dealing with the limitations of stage. There are simply things that can’t be done, or at least not done well, on stage. One of those is little comic asides like the ones you see in the stairwell sequence. Lord knows I’ve tried to work some conventions that are meant for the screen into stage plays, with what could charitably be called moderate success. Now that I’m writing for the screen, I see no reason to write things that could easily exist on stage. So I cut away. I include flashbacks. We see both sides of a phone call. And I’m loving it.

(Also watch that scream from the Coffee Shop Douche again and tell me it isn’t worth it.)

This, however, lead to an interesting complication. The cutaways are basically never shot on the same day as the rest of the episode. Since we don’t shoot episode-by-episode, we just figure out when and where we can do each shot, and fit them all in.

As a result, episode three basically encompasses the entirety of our shooting period. Phil’s flashback in the stairwell was shot in June, on our very first shooting day, the day after our first table read. Becky’s flashback was shot months later, in November. Look at that shot carefully. Most of this was shot in summer (as will become clear next week in further cutaways), but it is winter out there. The first half of the episode was shot on a completely different day than anything in the Writers’ Room, which was shot in a… very special time period. Let’s talk about that now.

Clearly, the staircase scene was tiring enough to shoot on its own.

Clearly, the staircase scene was tiring enough to shoot on its own.

Hell Super Fun Happy Good Times Week

Like I said, most of this was shot in summer. Which meant one dreadful thing: working around people’s vacations.

Well, I don’t know what we expected. We made the shooting schedule in June, of course people already had vacations booked, I already had a vacation booked and it was a last-minute travel deal. But still, this proved more challenging than we’d guessed.

We gathered up everyone’s availabilities, from the leads to the recurring characters to the one-off guest appearances, and having done that, discovered something horrifying.

There was only one window when all four of our leads (not counting Tina, who is credited as a lead, but has the least screen time) were available at the same time: a five day stretch in early August. This meant that every single scene where Phil, Becky, Jeff, and Zoe are all in the writers’ room (and some that only had three of them) had to be done in this one five-day period. And on four of those days, we’d only have four or five hours of shooting time, since people had day jobs.

We swiftly branded it Hell Week. And then I swiftly re-branded it Super Fun Happy Good Times Week, so as not to get people into more of a negative frame of mind than we needed to. Also because I loved shoot days and really wanted that to be infectious.

One 13 hour day on the Sunday, then whatever we could get done between 7:00 and 11:00 Monday to Thursday nights, typically followed by production chat with Daisy. And beers. Keith and I usually wanted beers by then.

(Once he wanted me to stick around for a beer specifically so that he could blame me personally for the title “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice.”)

The minor miracle? We got it done in four days. We had five, but we did it in four. Our cast are that good.

Now, that’s not to say everything worked that smoothly. A lot more scenes got pushed into September than we wanted. Our October launch date got pushed back to January (not wanting to compete with Christmas) as we were approaching our planned launch date and still hadn’t finished principle photography. As you may have guessed from me mentioning that scene we shot in November.

But still… getting through all the Writers’ Room scenes with the four leads took a chunk out of our to-do list, and let me saunter off to direct Scorpio’s production of Frost/Nixon with a clear conscience. Although not being on set for shoot days made me sad every time.

Next week! “Introducing the characters” enters week four in Origin Stories. Watch the episode on Thursday, then join me here on Friday.

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 Frenzy

So there came a time, after Christmas and into the first days of January, when I found myself in kind of a bad place. Always feeling run-down, ill, and completely unable to maintain a positive mood for more than a couple of minutes.

It has been seven years since I’ve had THAT little fun at a New Year’s Eve party.

I think I know what the problem was. See, right at the beginning of this rough patch, I ran out of synthroid, the pill I take to replenish the thyroid hormones that my immune system targets when it could be taking less than four god damn months to get over a cough sorry, sorry, digressed a bit there… anyway, it’s the pill I take every morning so that I have anything approaching a metabolism. I’d had to switch to my hoard of older, lower dose pills while I went through the process of getting a re-up from my physician.

Ugh. See what I did there? I could have just said “I was under-medicated,” but instead I spent an entire paragraph making sure you knew this was a physical ailment, not mental. I don’t know if it was out of fear that people would assume I suffer from depression (which is a crap fear to have, that should be less embarrassing than needing to take pills for my cholesterol), or from not wanting to be one of those people faking a mental illness or disability to get attention or justify crap behaviour (“It’s not my fault, it’s my self-diagnosed Asperger’s”), but… you know what? On January 28th we’re having a conversation about this. But for now I’m moving on.

Getting out of a place

Right around the time I returned to a proper dose of synthroid, I also decided that it was time to stop looking without for solutions to my bad headspace, and look within. It was time to double down on the thing that always made me feel, well, if not always happy, per se, at least satisfied. Writing. Creating. Storytelling. So I threw myself into whatever writing project I could find. I blogged about movies, Oscar-bait or Hobbit-based. I finished a first draft of a short one-act play for a possible anthology show. I took a stab at a skeleton of an outline for a screenplay my Writers’ Circle co-writer and I want to do this year. I felt… calm. Fulfilled. Myself again. Ready to let go of some of the anxieties and bad thoughts that had been dragging me down. Not all of them, no, it was a three small writing projects, let’s not ask them to work miracles, but still, a start.

Of course, then my projects all hit the usual wall: the wall of needing someone else’s input. The short play was done (for now), I’d gotten as far as I could on the outline without input from my co-writer, and I was back to blogging about old plays. I wanted more. Writing, creating, this was my way out, and I wasn’t ready to stop, sit back, and play Assassin’s Creed until it was time to do a new draft of something.

I needed a new project. And, yes, sure, there are some ongoing projects I could have been paying attention to, at least I think there are, I haven’t checked in a lot lately, but… something got into my head.

The Spark

An old idea. One I’d cast aside a long time ago, but found that there were aspects I didn’t hate. Sure, nearly a decade ago, I couldn’t pull it off, certainly not for the stage. This wouldn’t be a dust-off or a quick polish job. This would be, if anything, only slightly less drastic than the process that turned Jade Monkey into Tyler and Selena. And it would be easy to look at everything else I’m doing, stage, internet, and possibly screen, and say… why bother? Leave it in the past. Move on to the next thing. But first, as we established, all of my “next things” are waiting on workshops, other feedback, or meetings with partners. And second…

There was one scene. One scene that I felt should have been the turning point. Where the protagonist finds his first taste of redemption, where the character I wanted to be the Kaylee-from-Firefly of the cast (the sweet one whose affection for the main character tells us we can like said character as well) is rewarded at long last. And in my first attempt… it failed. It failed as purely and utterly as everything else I tried to do with that story.

And that started to stick in my craw a little.

I didn’t want this scene to be awful. I thought there was potential for a moment of beauty here. A moment where the joy of the characters could seep through to the audience. And maybe I’m wrong, maybe that moment’s impossible, but damn it, I could get closer to it than this. And I wanted to at least try to see it realized.

And that notion lingered. How this moment could be improved. It grew from a “what if” into one of those things, where the only way to exorcise the idea from my mind was to write it down. So I decided… take a crack at it. Write that one scene. See how it turns out. And if you think it’s closer to the effect you wanted… keep going.

That was a few days back. I’m still at it.

Friends old and new

There is something… liberating about this project, for the simple reason that I’m not writing it for anything. It’s not a stage play. Scorpio Theatre needs not worry or care about it. It’s written to be filmed, but I haven’t picked a medium. If it’s not too long, maybe it’s a movie. If it keeps stretching, maybe it’s a series. I don’t know and it doesn’t yet matter. I’m just… writing it until I feel it’s written. There’s miles to go and mountains to climb before it’s even worth thinking about rolling cameras. Couldn’t begin to afford it now, have other things I want to do first if we start convincing people to give us money to make things. I’m writing it for the joy. For the rush. For the indescribable way the characters become like friends, and the pleasure of spending time in their world.

That’s when writing stops being a chore and becomes a passion. As, one by one, the cast becomes people I like, that I care about, that I want to see triumph. Well, after I’m done being awful to them in the name of the story. First things first.

It’s been a good feeling. Good enough that I’m not even sweating the fact that eventually I’ll be done, and will have to deal with wanting to do something with it, yet being largely unable to. Or the fact that despite throwing out every word of the first draft and starting over on a white piece of paper, there might be enough flaws in the basic premise that it can’t be saved. I’ll cross those bridges when I come to them.

For now, it’s just nice to be tinkering away, spending time with friends old and new, hoping that nobody thinks the amount of time I’m spending at home with my computer and DVDs is a bad sign and threatens an intervention.

Thought a “here’s the writing projects taking all of my time” post would be a better than a “here’s why there hasn’t been a blog in three weeks” post, which has been my usual approach.

‘Till next time, then.

Danny Writes Plays: Quest

“Then I know what I must do. It’s just… I’m afraid to do it.”
-Frodo Baggins

Been a while since the last time I did one of these, hasn’t it? Yeah, well, there’s a reason. Because the last time I talked about Quarter Century, and the play after that… I’ve been putting it off and putting it off, because to continue this series meant re-reading what some claim was the worst thing I ever wrote. And man but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. But there’s no point in doing this if I start holding back no, so here we are. Yesterday, I cracked open a script called Quest for the first time in nearly eight years.

Are you ready for your nostalgic look at past works to get real? Because today we’re talking about failure. Pure, unadulterated failure. Sure, I had bad things to say about Illuminati in Love, because who wouldn’t, and yes, I had to resort to a speed round to sum up everything that was bad about The Course of True Love and the Curse of the Jade Monkey (why is the title so god damned long), but here’s the thing… every script I’ve written about so far?

They all got staged.

Hell, some of them got staged twice. I not only decided Jade Monkey was worth a second go, I took it to a Fringe festival. But not this one. This one never made it past the first workshop, and frankly shouldn’t have made it that far, but my first-draft readers broke out the kid gloves and I learned of my folly too late.

Let’s get into it.

What’s it about?

“WE NEED YOU TO DO THE THING, AVERAGE GUY. ONLY YOU CAN DO THE THING.” -mentor figure, every goddamn movie
Lindsay Ellis

21st century con man Tobias Rose and his partner in crime Freddy Hale steal from the wrong people, and get dragged into the final struggle of a Tolkien-esque war between good and evil, one in which both sides have begun to fade as wonder and magic were worn away by science and reason.

PREMISE!

Almost TOO dignified this time around…

After stealing both the MacGuffin gem (it’s actual name, the Gem of Anarra, wasn’t less silly, so let’s call it what it was) and a fairy who’s been imprisoned in a PDA (remember those? They used to be a thing!), Tobias’ colleague and occasional lover Pauline is killed under mysterious circumstances, and when Tobias tries to find out who killed her and why, he ends up crossing paths with the trapped fairy’s friends: two sorcerers (Victor and Natasha), and the last of the elves (Ellianna), who are trying to stop the Adversary (basically Sauron from Lord of the Rings, and equally unseen) from regaining his lost power and drowning the world in a new style of dark magic, one fed not by wonder but by fear and cynicism.

While at first Tobias only cares about finding and killing Pauline’s murderer… well, that and getting enough money to pay off a debt to a mobster… Freddy’s nagging and a recurring hallucination of Pauline that acts as his conscience drive him to use his con artist skills to aid Ellianna and company. Also he thinks Ellianna is pretty cute, because why not at this point.

Also the bad guys are all orcs. Or rather, are all descended from orcs, but distantly enough that they’re basically just mob goons: strong and dumb.

So why’d that happen?

“Not with ten thousand men could you do this. It is folly.”
-Boromir

A few reasons. The fairy trapped in the palm pilot was from a dream I had. The fairy was stuck inside the PDA, but since I’d rescued her from her captors, she was willing to try and help me hook up with her friend the elf, but did advise this was a bad idea due to the elf’s baggage. For good or ill (mostly the latter), this all ended up in the play.

As to the rest… in late 2001 and early 2002, I could watch whatever I wanted at Westhills theatre for free. But there wasn’t much playing. So what I ended up doing was rewatching two movies over and over: Fellowship of the Ring and Ocean’s 11. As such, a sketch idea wormed its way into my mind: what if instead of Gandalf the Grey, the Fellowship of the Ring was led by Danny Ocean? While it soon became clear Ocean’s Fellowship wasn’t going to be worth writing down, I guess the notion got stuck in my head, and a few years of loving con man movies later… this happened.

How’d it turn out?

“You folded with a focus and intensity normally seen only in successes.”
-Ray Smuckles

Short answer is “not well.”

For a long time now, I’ve held this one up as a cautionary tale. At the workshop, it was generally agreed to be one of the worst things I’d done (and wasn’t that fun to hear in a group setting), but until then? I had no idea I’d gotten it that wrong.

But I see now. Time, distance, and practice have shown me why Quest failed so utterly.

For starters, it’s like 90% exposition. Ninety percent. That is not okay. Alright, that percentage is a rough estimate at best, but the fact is, people spend more time standing around talking about the premise and the world and what’s been happening than actually doing anything. For something that’s trying to blend Lord of the Rings Ocean’s 11, there is barely any action and staggeringly little charm.

And despite all this exposition, nothing is developed. Why are Tobias and Freddy so close partners? If Tobias is already willing to move on and flirt with Ellianna, how could Pauline’s death have affected him so deeply that he’s imagining her talking to him? We know what the Adversary’s plans are, but do the good guys have their own plan, or is “stopping the bad guy” really the sum of their ambition? I don’t know, and I wrote this bloody thing!

The “curse your sudden yet inevitable betrayal” moment happens during the traitor’s second scene. We have just met this person, how could we possibly have anything invested in whether or not they’re a traitor? In fact, it’s hard to get invested in anyone. They show up, have a stock set of characteristics (Victor’s sarcastic. Really reaching new heights there, Young Me), three of them have a token sad story from their past which end up just being more chunks of exposition in a story drowning in them… I don’t think a potential audience was ever given a concrete reason to care about Tobias, or have any investment at all in what he does. And since he’s driving the story, that is a problem.

The plot is surprisingly barren and moves way too fast. Thirty minutes after finding out magic is real, Tobias knows how to break a seemingly unbreakable curse, with no more explanation than a quick joke about “There’s always a cheap knock-off in Chinatown.”

Somebody at the workshop said “You need a comic relief character.” I said “I thought I had one.” Tells you how funny Freddy ended up.

Everything interesting happens offstage, and is described to the audience so we can quickly move to our next burst of exposition. The final con to defeat the Adversary and win the day is full of holes. Tobais is only the smartest person in the room because everyone else is so reliably stupid.

It is a failure on every level. The world building is sloppy, the characters are cobbled together and uninteresting, it’s a story about the end of the world yet doesn’t feel like it has any stakes, everything, everything, is told rather than shown… and I misused an apostrophe on page 13. It is an eternal reminder that no matter how much I’ve learned, no matter how much I grow, it is still possible to utterly and completely shit the bed.

And yet… and yet now that I’ve cracked it back open, I kind of want to save it.

Would you stage it again?

“You lost today, kid. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it.”
-Fedora, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Or in this case, “Would you allow it to see the light of day,” and the answer remains no, absolutely not, not like this. Like I said, I kind of want to save it, but there isn’t enough in this script that works to build a second draft. The fact is, when the first readers were trying to softball their responses, they were right: this story does not work as a stage play. There’s so much exposition, backstory on the world, its rules, and the characters that’s needed for it to make sense, but right now it’s all happening instead of actually developing the characters, the story, or the stakes. Right now everything interesting happens offstage because it all felt too hard to do in live theatre.

Maybe the story can work. Or at least elements of it. The ancient war of light and dark stuck in an era where magic is dying, a la Flight of Dragons or Carnivale, could have some legs. I might have to lose the elves and the orcs/orc descendents, though, not sure how well that played. Well, definitely the orcs. That did not work at all.

Tobias would need to have some actual charm. Ellianna would need a personality. Freddy’s comic relief would have to actually be funny. The haunted-by-imaginary-Pauline thing has to go, because the idea that anyone might see that as anything but a knock-off of Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica was a pipe dream. But more than anything, to not be terrible, this story would need to have more room to breathe. Time to develop. Time to earn the audience’s interest. And a stage play ain’t gonna get it done. A novel, maybe. A TV series? Definitely.

Sadly, I have at least two other series I want to see exist in some form, and they’re both higher priorities.

One of which starts in a few weeks. For the curious.

One of which starts in a few weeks. For the curious.

Which means the notion of how this story could be told well will just have to lurk around the back of my head for a while. Which is how I got into this mess in the first place.

Repeated theme alert

  • Man and woman cannot be friends: Not sure if I should include this one, since Tobias and Ellianna were never what you’d call “friends,” but their end-of-play hook up is just SUPER tacked-on and brutally unearned.
  • Something something pop culture reference: The Pauline thing wasn’t actually stolen from Battlestar Galactica. It was stolen from Garth Ennis’ 1997 Unknown Soldier graphic novel miniseries, in which the lead character is thrown into a globe-trotting conspiracy centred around nigh-mythological black ops agent Codename Unknown Soldier because a pretty co-worker smiled at him, and was almost immediately killed. He then hallucinates her talking to him throughout the story. Not… not sure that makes it better.
  • Something something pop culture reference part two, Secret of the Ooze: Someone refers to the age of magic as being an age of “nobility and cruelty.” That’s an homage to a similar monologue that opens the first episode of Carnivale. “Before the beginning, after the great war between Heaven and Hell, God created the Earth and gave dominion over it to the crafty ape he called man. And to each generation was born a creature of light and a creature of darkness. And great armies clashed by night in the ancient war between good and evil. There was magic then, nobility, and unimaginable cruelty. And so it was until the day that a false sun exploded over Trinity, and man forever traded away wonder for reason.” That monologue shaped a lot of my vision for the world of this story, and the decline of magic.
  • “Let’s swap backstories for fifteen minutes like that’s not pacing Kryptonite!” This describes more of the script than it doesn’t.

Next time… from my worst first draft to my best, as I experiment with full-on farce.

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.