Danny G Writes Plays: Pride and Prima Donnas

If this were an “inside baseball” examination of plays I have worked on, the actual performances, this would be when the story gets dark. This would be when my first theatre company split in two, like the Mystics and the Skeksis in Dark Crystal. Fortunately it is not. Just talkin’ about the scripts. So, without further ado (my stores of ado are low today anyhow) here’s Pride and Prima Donnas.

What’s it about?

Okay. New leaf here. No angels, demons, or shadow governments. Just normal people with normal people problems. Shouldn’t need Premise Beach at all.

Director David Locke has returned to his home town after a stint in New York, and is back working for his old theatre company alongside his producer friend Jacob Garrison. For David’s first show back, Jacob’s picked out something special… Dance Into the Fire: The Duran Duran Rock Opera.

Here we go.

So close. I was so close. But, since we’re here… Doctor Simon Duran builds himself a love android, Electric Barbarella, but then falls for Rio, who he sees dancing on the sand. In a fit of jealously, Electric Barbarella kills Rio, then Duran, then herself. A tragic love story set to synth-pop hits of the early 80s. What’s not to like?

Anyhoo, before long David’s been introduced to his crew, stage manager and loyal soldier Caitlin Markov and tech director Ted O’Shea, and has to assemble his cast. As Doctor Duran, Monroe Morrison, veteran of the dinner theatre circuit prone to clowning around and ad-libbing. As the Baladeer, arrogant Method actor Shane Thompson. As Rio, former chorus girl Lena. And as the android, Tiffany Neuworth, whose bubbly, cheerful, seemingly airheaded exterior masks the fact that she’s a gifted performer and possibly the smartest person in the company. It doesn’t take long for the cracks to form.

Shane and Monroe hate each other immediately as their acting styles mix like cheese and diesel. Jacob is trying everything he can to get in bed with Tiffany, or at least get her naked on stage. Lena and Ted start an affair that quickly turns sour. And David has difficulty masking his contempt for the show and everyone in it. Well, except Caitlin and Tiffany. Tensions build to a head as rehearsals continue.

So why’d that happen?

David Locke was my first spin at an archetype I’d play with a couple more times over the next few years: the guy who thinks he’s smarter than everyone else and expresses that through hopefully amusing angry rants. I’ll cover why I gave that up later, but at the time, David served as a vehicle to satirize the theatrical process.

Write what you know, they say, and theatre was what I knew, what I’d known for nearly all of the 90s. I’d seen shows threatened when the lead actors broke up, last minute recasts, successes and failures of differing acting techniques, and the beautiful miracle of a cast coming together and making something wonderful. So I decided to try writing about it.

As to the show within the show. My musical upbringing was… difficult. I missed out on the popular music of my youth as my parents were trying to raise me on country and folk music. My rehabilitation was… difficult, and involved some regrettable choices in the late 80s, but the point is that I didn’t actually get into the pop music of my youth until university. Toto, Soft Cell, Thomas Dolby, maybe I’d heard them here and there back in the day, but they were all like new discoveries. And my favourite? Duran Duran. So I conceived a musical based around their hits to serve as the backdrop for the script.

How’d it turn out?

This is another script that’s been put up a couple of times. As such, it’s had some revisions, but unlike Apocalypse it was ultimately a case of adding rather than cutting or replacing. Additional moments to further flesh out the cast and crew. Additional chaos to the end of act one, where everything truly begins to collapse. The scene had opened with four simultaneous arguments, each taking turns playing out, a device better suited to television or movies, something where cuts and edits can happen, rather than stage, where people have to stand awkwardly until it’s their turn to talk again. So I blended the dialogue together, making them all flow into each other. Much better effect, but way harder on the cast. Which one day I might be persuaded to care about.

Ultimately I think it works well. It’s not a full on farce; too many breaks in the pacing, especially with the new material. In order to fully explore the characters I needed to take the occasional breather from rehearsal antics and just let the cast talk to each other. And, reading it now, those are some of the better scenes, so trying to push it to full farce would be a disservice. It’s the moments when David stops yelling at his cast and starts being a person, revealing his passion for theatre, that the audience gets any investment in Dance Into the Fire being a success. And without that I’d just be wasting everyone’s time.

So by and large I’d still call it a success, but there is one detail, one flaw I refused to see throughout both productions. For the climax, I included a montage of scenes from the musical to show that they’ve pulled off the show. Various people suggested cutting it over the years. I didn’t listen. It didn’t help that one of the primary voices suggesting the sequence be cut had a tendency to equate “simpler” with “better,” the same logic that led to a blown sight gag when I directed Two Guys the season Pride was remounted. After letting that logic screw up the horde of ninjas, I was in no mood to hear anything remotely similar to “don’t do it, because it might be hard.”

In addition, one other factor drove me to include the scenes from the play. In Kevin Smith’s film Jersey Girl, Ben Affleck steps forward at a town hall meeting to deliver an impassioned speech to the townsfolk. As he starts talking, his voice fades out and the music swells up, and his big speech is not heard, but simply implied in the reactions of the crowd. Which to me felt like cheating. Cheating, and a little bit of cowardice. I was convinced that to make a show about a Duran Duran rock opera and never show any of it was like doing a Star Trek movie with no spaceships in it. However, after the second run was complete, another writer friend, whose first novel is great and available for purchase right this second, explained my error.

In the end, the show goes spectacularly. So everyone claims as they rush off stage to the sound of applause. By deciding to show clips from the play, I put the responsibility of earning that conclusion on the show’s cast. In short, the selected scenes actually have to be spectacular or the entire ending feels hollow. Whereas if we don’t see the actual production, it can be every bit as amazing as the audience can imagine. So, yeah… the smart thing would have been to use cheering and applause as a sound cue, and let the assume assume it all worked out.

Would you stage it again?

Probably, yeah. I’d revisit David’s dialogue a bit. If he must be angrily ranting at the cast the whole time, I’m convinced it can be better. And I’d take all the scenes from the show within the show and scatter them throughout the rehearsals. That way, we still get to see bits of the show, avoiding that feeling of copping out on the premise, but still leaving the final product up to the audience’s imaginations.

Overall though, I’m still fairly happy with it, and it’s part of a cycle of connected plays that starts with Two Guys and continues through two more scripts we’ll be talking about down the road, all sharing characters who are part of the theatre group staging Dance Into the Fire.

This show also tends to spark interest in seeing the rock opera itself. I’ve never given it a whirl, but that has less to do in my interest in writing the show and way more to do with my interest in not getting sued by Simon Le Bon. If I thought there were a way to stage it with the blessing of the band (and their label, who likely hold more sway over the song rights), I might go for it, as I do have a vision of how it might go. The actress who played Caitlin (both times) had a different vision, and took a shot at getting the rights to make it, but it proved a stickier wicket than she’d hoped. I think she used an internet site to apply for the rights to use the necessary Duran Duran songs, but got told that the rights to the works of Queen were unavailable. An answer that’s like the movie Tree of Life: confusing and of no use to anyone.

Repeated Theme Alerts

  • “Man and Woman Can Never Be Friends.” It’s not enough for David to respect Caitlin professionally, he has to ask her out in the end. She says no. He takes it well.
  • “Plays about plays.” The second time this trope reared its head, and the only time where none of the characters are writers. I can only assume it’s because in 1999 I hadn’t yet become a devotee of Aaron Sorkin and his fondness for writing about writers.

Next time in this series… the superhero/supervillain period. It starts better than you’d think.

Danny G Writes Plays: Apocalypse Soonish

I accidentally forgot to blog for like two weeks after my “I’m a white dude and here’s why I’ve failed to care about non-white dude problems” post. Clever, Dan. Leave that one up just as long as possible. So to make it up to you, gonna try to burn through a few “Danny G Writes Plays” posts all quick-like.

Also I want to rinse Illuminati in Love out of my brain. Blurgh.

And so, ladies and gents, Apocalypse Soonish.

What’s it about?

Twin siblings Michelle and Gerhardt “Gerry” Olin-Gellar learn that they are the Gog and the Magog, destined to lead the forces of Heaven and Hell in final battle at the end of time, scheduled for Thursday around 4:00.

Again with this nonsense, Gibbins?

Alright alright alright. We’re currently at the apex of my “wacky premise” period. Anyway. The angel Uriel and the demon Uziel descend/ascend to Earth to inform Michelle and Gerry (and Michelle’s amorous best friend Steve) of their roles as Magog and Gog respectively, and introduce them to their generals: Azrael, the Destroyer, head of the Heavenly legion, and Kraken, the Other Destroyer (the perils of being introduced second). However, the prophecy is unclear over who is fighting for which side, and both sides find that they’d rather have the driven, focused Michelle and not the goofy slacker Gerry. Thus Michelle must choose which side she will fight for, with Uriel and Uziel trying to sell her on Heaven and Hell and Steve trying to convince her that neither side should get to rebuild the Earth in their own image.

Also, Azrael and Kraken are totally hooking up. Have been for decades if not centuries. I’d just seen Shakespeare in Love for the first time and was in the mood for some star-crossed romance.

And the Horseman of Death, referred to as Mr. Black, is keeping an eye on things.

So why did that happen?

I cannot deny the influence of David Belke’s Blackpool and Parrish. I want to. I have tried. I made the mythology more complex (the Gog and Magog angle having come pretty directly from the classic graphic novel Kingdom Come), created my own character dynamics, ensured that each character was my own creation and not resembling anyone from B&P… but there are still two people learning they’re leading the Apocalypse later in the week, and still a normal human caught in the middle trying to get the whole thing called off, and I even borrowed the (false) realization “I’m the anti-Christ” as a punchline bit that I’d loved when Belke wrote it, so… no. I cannot deny the influence of Blackpool and Parrish.

In the end I just thought the biblical apocalypse shenanigans were going to be a fun playground to write in, and I was basically right. Also, after Trigger Dandy, the Two Guys and their superspy Dirk Rhombus, Gary asking for dating tips from the Devil, and Alex Payton ruling the Destiny Syndicate, I decided it was high time for a female protagonist. A strong one if possible. I concocted an idea where a woman falls for and starts dating her best friend’s guardian angel, but it never really clicked and I abandoned it. Instead, Michelle Amy Georgia Olin-Gellar, MAGOG for short, came into being.

From there, it was about developing an angle, which eventually became primarily about free will, and the thesis that it cannot truly exist in a world of pure good or pure evil. From there, I found ways to make Hell seem more sympathetic than you’d expect, and Heaven much less so, while never quite painting either as a good choice for rebuilding the Earth.

How’d it turn out?

The first flaw people pull out is that “Gerhardt,” correctly pronounced with a hard G, would not shorten to “Gerry” with a soft G. My bad. After Gary and Greg in the last two plays, I was short on G names and needed one to spell “Gog.”

At the time people loved it. Said it was the best thing I’d ever written, which felt great as I was then unaware just how low the bar was. It’s still very jokey, and there are still pop culture references*, but less easily dated than Illuminati. Hell, we were able to remount this one almost three years later without having to rewrite every single pop culture reference to be more current.

But I did have to do some polishing for the 2002 production. I cut some of the jokes, smoothed out some bits that had made me cringe, added more free will stuff, and cut the Star Wars monologue in half, keeping the bit about the importance of choice and losing all the fluff and nonsense that had preceded it. And the director cut the Dragnet-esque “What happened to everyone” bit I’d had at the end on day one. The end result was smoother, sleeker and funnier, and created at least one decade-long fan.

Neither production ever played Mr. Black (Death) the way I’d envisioned. I’d always intended, as I wrote in the stage directions, that Mr. Black basically look like Agent Smith from the Matrix. Dark suit, very formal, slow and precise in speech. But since stage directions are the first thing any competent director throws out (I ignore stage directions that I, myself, wrote down, so why shouldn’t anyone else), both productions went the full Grim Reaper robe-scythe-hidden face route. That’s nothing to do with the script, just thought I’d mention it.

I dunno. In the end it’s… okay. Moderately funny, and funny is 90% of what it’s trying to be. It’s awfully talky, but then everything I write is fairly talky. It’s how I roll. Usually I make it work. Some of the ideas are neat, but the jokey feel to the dialogue is a bit smothering. It’s a distinct improvement over the last two, but looking back there were clearly still miles to go.

Repeated theme alert: “Man and woman can never be friends.” Michelle is and remains happy just being friends with Steve, but he wants something more. In this script, Steve’s hopes of a romantic relationship end up presented as harmless. To Michelle, anyway. Not sure I’d be able to play it that way again.

Would I stage it again?

A new feature I hadn’t thought to include before now, since the answers seemed so obvious to me. Trigger and Two Guys? I would and have remounted them both. Angel and Illuminati? No way. Apocalypse Soonish?

I once said that I wouldn’t be done staging this script until I’d played all the characters I could. See, after the vanity project that was Date With an Angel, Coffee With the Devil, I adopted the policy “Never write a character you wouldn’t play yourself,” and after giving it a whirl in Illuminati in Love I think I came way closer to pulling it off here. They’re all fun in their own way.

But I don’t know. The dialogue is just kind of awkward. I’m not certain how well the story or the climax holds up. In one script we’ll get to soon, I decided to only way to fix it was to burn it down and start over with the core concept, but I’m afraid that if you strip this one down you’re just going to end up with Blackpool and Parrish.

I’m way more fond of this script than the two that preceded it. But it’s still a clear product of my early period, before I learned some important lessons about humour, story, and character, and I’m not sure I’d want all those old bad habits dragged back out for people who’ve started to actually respect what I do to see. I think this script is like the old friend you meet for a coffee then don’t talk to for another 11 years. You don’t have anything against them, but… you’ve just moved on since then.

Next time… we encounter a whole new Danny G trope, “plays about making plays.”

*This time I made it all the way to page 54 before throwing in a Simpsons quote. Progress?

Danny G Writes Plays: Illuminati in Love

Okay. Now it gets real. Trigger Dandy and Two Guys have been performed enough and enjoyed enough I feel justified in calling them “classics,” and more to the point they’ve been done recently enough that I can remember them pretty solidly. But that’s over for a while. Now we’re at the point of my writing career when we’re not only talking about plays I’m less than fully proud of, but I have to read them first to discuss them properly.

Because I no longer have a copy of Date With an Angel, Coffee With the Devil, that’s why I didn’t read that one first.

Right. So. Illuminati in Love.

What’s it about?

We are solidly into the “wacky premise” period of my writing. So, here goes. Alex Payton is the current chairman of the Destiny Syndicate, a group of five people who form the shadow government that secretly controls the Earth. Alex rules North and Central America. Ariana Rigaldi rules Europe, Arcady Rachmaninoff controls Africa and the Middle East, Kimiko Takahashi handles Asia, and Vincent Hoffman gets what’s left of the southern hemisphere.

Wacky premise, anyone?

In terms of my classic story structure, 1) Establish premise; 2) Hijinks ensue; 3) With sexy results, it goes like this. 1) Alex is secret ruler of mankind, a fact that is giving his best friend Greg an ulcer; 2) Alex meets Janice, a prosecuter, and they have their first date right as an unknown country tests a weapon of mass destruction unlike any the world has ever known; 3) Alex tries to win over Janice while discovering which of the Syndicate allowed this weapon to exist.

Hoo boy.

So why did that happen?

Two reasons. First, I wanted to create a character for Chris Munroe, who’d proven to be a comic asset in Two Guys and Date With and Angel. Specifically, I wanted to create a brandy-swilling Eurotrash supervillain type character for him, and that became Arcady.

Second, I wrote this back in 1998. I was not yet 22. But there’s more to it than the foolishness of youth. Two factors influenced this script. First, in my early 20s, I was deeply into conspiracy theories. Not in a paranoid, “they’re out to get us,” “chemtrails are mind control” way. I was just fascinated with the idea that the world might be weirder, more complex, and more exciting than we give it credit for. Second factor? I had just founded my own theatre company, which I was learning would put up whatever I wrote. So, I wrote this.

How’d it turn out?

I made it to page three before the cascade of references to pop culture and 1998 current events started to make me queasy*.

I had a problem with pop culture references for a long time. I thought they were funny. I saw Clerks and thought monologues about Star Wars were great writing. I was wrong. So wrong. I know that now. I did not know it then. I never thought about “will this script still work in twenty years,” just “will it be funny in six months.” And even then some of the pop culture references got stale between first readthrough and opening night. It took a while to give up that crutch completely, but it was never worse than this script. I think. I hope. And there are other problems as well.

Years after this, a friend taught me the difference between jokes and humour. Humour is creating a situation that’s inherently funny. A joke is taking a moment and giving it a punchline you hope is funny. Arrested Development is filled with humour. Two and Half Men relies on jokes. These days, if I want a scene to be funny, I go for humour. Back then, I really depended on jokes. Lots of jokes. I wish… man, but I wish more of them were funny.

Also Alex narrates chunks of the story. I have never really mastered narrators. And if I’m barely competent at it now, 15 years later? Just imagine how bad I was at it then. Actually no. Don’t imagine that. At all.

The meet-cute is weak. I put way too much stock in instant attraction (I was engaged to someone at the time, and it was very much a “love at first sight” story) and had little idea how to build an actual romance. And it shows from every step of this thing, from the fact that I’m assuming this relationship is worth fighting for when they’ve only had two-thirds of one date to the rushed way I get them back together in the end.

Yes, in the end she takes him back, thanks in part to a heartfelt speech in a gibberish language from a newt-like alien named Quoxl. Yeah, you read that right. Quoxl the newt-man. Weak sauce deus ex machina, yet possibly the most fondly remembered part of the whole show. Also Vincent built the super-bomb. The southern hemisphere guy. It’s painfully obvious it was Vincent from the moment he’s introduced and I don’t know why I ever thought it wasn’t.

So there we have it. My second solo script? I giant wad of easily-dated references to current events and pop culture surrounding a barely written rom-com. Ultimately I would call this a cautionary tale of every single habit I’ve worked to shake since. We had fun with it at the time, but it was mostly due to the cast. Several of the cast were great. I wish more of them had stuck around. But given the material we gave them I guess I can hardly blame them.

When next we visit this series, things improve with the end of the world.

*Made it to page 30 before I hit a Simpsons quote. That’s something, I guess.

Danny G Writes Plays: Date With an Angel

This week is a strange week. This week is GISHWHES, The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen. As a participant, it means this week is filled with bizarre and brilliant things. Things I can’t elaborate on until the contest closes. But trust me, we’ll get into it.

In the meantime, I present the story of my first solo script. Gonna… gonna get embarrassing up in here. Ladies and gentlemen… Date With an Angel, Coffee With the Devil.

What’s it about?

Gary has a secret: he’s in love with his friend Lacey, but doesn’t know how to tell her. Or how to get her away from her boyfriend Trevor.

Huh. In love with a female friend but keeping it a secret while hoping she magically falls for him. Didn’t I just say last time that nobody likes that guy? And he’s the protagonist? Awesome. Great start.

Anyway. The show is told largely in flashback, as Gary tells his story to a sympathetic bartender after it’s all gone wrong. Gary likes Lacey, Lacey’s with Trevor, Gary unloads all of his problems on his best friend Becky (who harbours inexplicable feelings of her own for Gary, the poor thing)… when he gets an offer of help from an unexpected source: Lucifer, the Morningstar, Satan, the Prince of Lies… who insists Gary call him Ted. Ted’s a nice name.

Where you going with this, exactly?

So it’s a romantic comedy in which a man seeks romantic advice from the devil. Naturally, Ted’s advice is ultimately less than helpful, Gary learns too late that Ted was never really on his side, souls are at risk, the Bartender turns out to be God, and there’s some kinda flimsy Deus Ex Machina which results in everyone surviving, nobody losing their soul, and Gary very much NOT getting the girl. Even at 22 I was pretty sure Gary didn’t actually deserve any sort of reward when this whole thing wrapped up, and that the real lesson was “Get over Lacey, you moron.”

So why did that happen?

I had decided, after my annual trip to gorge myself on theatre at the Edmonton Fringe, that the Devil always gets the best lines. Thus, I wanted to play the Devil in something, and get all the best lines. So I wrote a play in which I could do that. I’m not proud of this. In theory, it’s allowable to say “I wrote this play, and this is the part I want,” but saying “I wrote this play and this is the part I shall have” just feels skeevy to me now. But anyway. I wrote my show about Gary’s doomed struggle to win over Lacey, filled it with jokes whenever possible, ensured that Ted was getting some quality one-liners, and handed a draft to Jason Garred for feedback.

How’d it turn out?

Jason’s feedback included the most useful thing I’d heard or would hear before I started taking classes. “If you’d written every character to be your dream role, this would be amazing.”

Ted was funny. Gary was decent. Becky was so-so at best. Lacey and Trevor were paper-thin. Looking back I don’t think it was ever clear what Gary saw in Lacey, or what Becky saw in Gary. I think God as the Bartender worked okay, but I wish I could say I was confident in the ending.

I always try to write women as well as I can. I struggled long and hard to improve on that front. And whenever I doubt my progress, I think back to this script, to Becky and Lacey… and I feel better. Because there can be no doubt I’ve improved since I wrote those two. Yeesh.

This show introduced a recurring theme that would haunt me throughout my writing endeavours, one I didn’t even know was there until a friend spelled it out for me 11 years later when he explained it to the cast of a show I’d written. The theme? “Man and woman cannot be friends.” Simply put, create a friendship between a man and a woman, eventually one of them will want something more. I had no idea this was a central theme of my plays until he said that, but here it is, all the way back in my first solo project. “Man and woman can never be friends” is all over this thing. There is not a truly platonic relationship to be found.

It also fits into my preferred three-phase story structure:

1. Establish premise.
2. Hijinks ensue.
3. With sexy results.

Step three is optional, but that there is the bare bones of good comedy. And, in this case, mediocre comedy.

When we return to Danny G Writes Plays, we’ll see how I took “write every character like it’s your dream character” to heart.

Danny G writes plays: Two Guys

Time to continue my look back through my old scripts. Next up, my second collaboration with Jason Garred: Two Guys, a Couch, and the Fate of the World. A play-within-a-play, with the ridiculous turned up to 10.

What’s it about?

Brace for silliness

Phil and Chris are two friends attempting to write a play together. Phil wants action, adventure, and romance. Chris wants something weighty and philosophic. They settle on a spy thriller: the adventures of Dirk Rhombus, secret agent. The audience watches Dirk and the play come to life as Phil and Chris are writing it upstage. As Phil and Chris fight for control, characters twist and change, plot elements are introduced, discarded and re-written, the occasional musical number sneaks in despite Chris’ protests, but we eventually make our way through the tale of Dirk Rhombus and Canadian agent Janet DuBois’ battle against the fiendish Swedish supervillains Simone Saiz and Bjorn “The Barbecue” Berger.

We did like puns, didn’t we.

So why did that happen?

Simply put, we wanted a follow-up to Trigger Dandy, and we wanted to keep the band together. So we needed something with a similar cast size (bloody huge), similar levels of wacky (again, bloody huge), and that comic energy that had worked so well in the Trigger trilogy. The way I saw it, Jason and I had such differing senses of humour that anything we agreed on must be hilarious. So we hit this thing with everything we had. There were carless car chases (a concept it took three productions to make truly hilarious–the early directors weren’t great at big comedy), a fiendish mad scientist, references to pop culture (me) and Canadian government officials (Jason), and a key sequence in which Phil, having broken up with his girlfriend Tina, starts attempting to kill Trina, the character he clearly based on her, while Chris is forced to keep saving her as she’s become essential to the plot.

There were, of course, those who claimed that Phil and Chris were somehow based on myself and Jason, respectively. These claims were harder to deny when my mother insisted on saying “I watched them write this, and that’s exactly how it went.” This would not be the last time that I’d have to duck accusations of Phil and Tina being based on real people.

How’d it turn out?

It’s silly. It’s incredibly silly. But if you can make yourself okay with that, it’s also a great deal of fun. Of course, as we learned, it requires a director who understands “funny.” The first time we did it, I had to volunteer to block some of the sight gags myself as the director wasn’t quite getting it. The second time was co-directed by Jason Garred, so whenever the other co-director screwed something up (often–she habitually directed away from the joke), I was able to correct it through Jason. The third production I gave up and just directed it myself, despite my insistence on also playing Phil.

Damn it, young me, why you gotta be so stupid all the damn time.

And even I managed to blow one of the sight gags! After being so insistent that only I could wring the maximum hilarity out of this show, I let one of the cast convince me that instead of having a horde of ninjas burst out and defeat the villains (Phil had been trying to get a horde of ninjas into the show the entire time, and finally succeeds in the climax), it would be just as funny to cut to a blackout and bring up the lights on a horde of ninjas standing over the defeated villains.

Well, it wasn’t. It just wasn’t. But it happened because I allowed it to happen. Damn it.

This was my last full-length collaboration with Jason. We’d reunite years later for the previously mentioned Cube Root of Death, but that was it. After Two Guys, I started flying solo.

With initially mixed results.

Back on the coast

Ah, Vancouver.

I’m currently on a brief sojourn to the coast, where I’m visiting family and taking a break from some of the stresses that have been hovering over me as of late. Well, not many of the stresses, actually… I plan to fit in some serious writing time now that I’m a 12 hour drive away from my video games, and can either be on my computer or watch Netflix, but not both. Reduces the diversions.

A friend recently accused me of being in the creative peak of my life. Okay, “accused” may seem like an odd choice of word there, but he has a very judgmental tone when discussing anything I like that he does not, or vice versa. If I mention a TV show I like more than twice in a day, I’m “clearly obsessed,” and likely wasting my time watching so much TV; when I remind him I don’t like olives, he acts like it’s a personal failing.

After which he will continue to advocate poor life choices, prostitutes, and beverages that taste of black licorice. Despite the fact that liking the taste of black licorice is a warning sign of psychopathy. And he wonders why I find his advice suspect.

Writing up a storm

Wait. Where was I? Yes. Creative peak, he calls it. Hadn’t thought about it like that. I’d only been thinking of it as “I’m surely working on a lot of things.” A new play for next year in its third draft. A webseries I hope to launch this fall, assuming my cohorts and I can get it written and shot. Two projects I try to avoid mentioning lest discussing them get me too excited about what could happen if these tempting yet unlikely ships come in. And my unnecessarily verbose blog. I do seem to be in a creative storm here.

And the truth is, that’s because it’s what I need right now. I lost the latter half of my 20s. Well, in a way I did. I wasn’t in a coma or anything, I just… wasted my time. Working as a projectionist and lurking in my dingy apartment, passing the time alone in the dark, waiting for my life to start. It took until two months before my 30th birthday to fix all of that, and I won’t go back to that place. I’ve become acutely, worryingly aware that I have much less time left to waste, so I’m on the hunt for ways to make the most of it. And love and family seem off the table (for now…ladies), so instead I’m on a quest to go places, see things, and above all create. Create as much as I can, and find a way to make it last. Get it to people.

But for any of that to happen I need to actually break away from my routines and write my cold, black heart out. Maybe find a way to keep my goals for the week in mind so that some of them actually get done. And a good first step is getting away, giving my head a little space.

So… Vancouver.

And maybe some day soon I’ll have exciting news. For now, though, it’s just me and the grindstone. And my niece. Who I should probably go say hello to. Ta for now.

Danny G Writes Plays: Trigger Dandy

Alright stop. Collaborate and listen. Danny’s back with a brand new edition.

Right. No. Sorry. That was the wrong way to apologize for a lengthy absence from blogging. One writing project sort of eclipsed all others, even though everything else I’m working on has a far better chance of ever seeing the light of day. Still… write what’s in your head, you know?

On that note, time for the first entry in a series I promised back in spring, before the Europe trip, before the rivers rose and the city briefly drowned: a look back at my various plays. To begin, we travel back to the before times, the longago, a time some of you may have read about in school called “the mid-90s.”

The Amazing (and Almost Accurate) Adventures of Trigger Dandy

It began in the room that would, more than any other, shape my entire life to come: my high school drama room, the classroom/theatre where my best friend Sean and I spent most of our time, especially by grade 12. Sean was doing his math homework there over lunch, and muttered something about trig identities. Our teacher, Mr. Stromsmoe, misheard it as “Trigger Dandy,” feeling it was a great name for a character.

Time passes. Our fall production of Waiting For Godot becomes my stage debut, playing opposite drama regular Rusty Bennett. One night, Rusty cut his foot on a bottle that had broken onstage. He didn’t let it hold his performance back, despite the bleeding. In the show’s post-mortem, Mr. Stromsmoe referred to it as the “blood, glass and Rusty” incident. He then turned to Sean and said “Hey, there’s a play for that Trigger Dandy guy.”

“Yes,” I thought. “Yes it is.”

Blood, Glass and Rusty

Before long, I had enlisted Sean and our good friend Jason Garred into the creation of a short film noir detective parody to take to that year’s high school drama festival. We had fifteen minutes to tell the story of private eye Trigger Dandy, trying to solve the abduction of his sidekick, Rusty Buster, and the theft of the Macguffin Diamond. We crammed as many jokes, sight gags and one-liners as we could into it, not wanting to waste a moment of our fifteen minutes. The result? Hilarity. Audiences cracked up at our debut performance at our school and at the festival. At the festival, our cast got a second wave of applause when they came back onstage to clear our set. And it wasn’t just a hit with audiences: our adjudicator also loved us, and gave us an award for writing.

Buoyed by this, we thought the only logical response was to keep going, write a sequel. Well. It’s not like you never made questionable decisions at 17.

Potatoes in the Mist

Sean began to pull back from the process, but Jason and I plugged on and, by the end of our first year of University, wrote our Trigger Dandy sequel, Potatoes in the Mist.

Wacky titles seemed the way to go. Shut up.

An older Trigger Dandy reunites with his old sidekick, Rusty, to investigate a potato cult, planning to summon their Evil Potato Goddess with what turns out to be a piece of an alien starship engine, oddly British aliens working with Trigger’s estranged girlfriend from BGR (as its fans had come to call it).

PREMISE! (All of that made perfect sense at the time.)

We attempted to get the band back together, as it were, and stage our follow-up back at the old high school. This ultimately had less to do with rational thought and more to do with anxiety over University, and my failure to research what I might actually have to do for my preferred major. I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond again, and that meant going back to the only place I’d ever felt like a big shot: my old drama room.

Sadly, putting on a show at a school you no longer attend is trickier than it seems. I had yet to master the art of self-producing (the secret is get someone else to be the producer), and it became clear that we weren’t going to get the show up and running by the end of the school year, and attempts to pick up where we left off quickly collapsed the following September. We thought no more of good old Trigger Dandy.

For, like, a whole year.

Cube Root of Death

Jason and I eventually felt the need to be creative and theatrical again. At his suggestion, we answered an ad in Fast Forward, a local weekly newspaper, calling for people to be part of a group doing radio plays. We joined up, went to meetings, wrote a few sketches… and nothing really happened. One of the other members, also frustrated with the general lack of action in the group, suggested the three of us split off and form a sketch comedy troupe, grabbing what actors we wanted on our way out (particularly one Mr. Tebbutt, whose acquaintance was the single greatest thing we gained from the radio drama group). We had some meetings, wrote some sketches… and nothing happened. Jason and I decided enough was enough: we were setting a concrete goal. We were going to dust off and stage our Trigger Dandy plays, and by god we were going to take them to the Edmonton Fringe.

But first, we needed a third entry. Something to make it into a full trilogy. A prequel: an origin story for Trigger Dandy. A spy parody called The Cube Root of Death, in which a young Trigger Dandy gets wrapped up in an adventure with British secret agent Max Forky, out to foil the Australian mad scientist Tarkin Drubik, who is planning the rule the world with hypnotic cube puzzles.

We did enjoy our puns.

In June of 1997, The Amazing and Almost Accurate Adventures of Trigger Dandy played for one night only. The laughs were big and frequent, but the triogy had its flaws. Potatoes in the Mist was twice as long and half as fast-paced as the other two, which is not what you look for in a concluding chapter. It would also be the first and greatest warning of my coming struggles with pop culture references: several of our “jokes” boiled down to simply quoting Star Wars while doing something silly. At the time we thought it clever. I would later see it for the hackery it was.

Years later we’d replace it with a new third chapter: Doom’s Pointy Talon, in which an aging Trigger Dandy, retired from the PI game, is drawn back into the field by FBI agent Rusty Buster. We kept the strangely British aliens we’d introduced in Potatoes, devised wacky encounters, slipped in a Matrix fight scene (still had a few pop culture issues in 2002, it seems), and made a far more satisfying trilogy.

It’s still not perfect: it’s tricky to do a three-act play when the acts are twenty minutes tops, and some of the jokes are a touch corny. Some of the others are highly corny. But for something I wrote at 17, or co-wrote in any event, it holds up okay. And it holds a definite appeal for most people who work on it. Maybe one day it’ll be back, but I’m not holding my breath.

When I next return to this series, we’ll look at how Jason and I tried to keep our Trigger Trilogy cast together.

Danny G Writes Plays: Prologue

So I’ve always been a creative sort. No, that’s the the wrong word: imaginative. I’ve always been burdened with an overactive imagination. As I grew up, stories and adventures that were at best loosely based on what was actually happening in real life were constantly playing out in my head. Spies and super heroes and fantasy versions of me that were less easy to bully. Also Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Specifically from the claymation special that runs every year. Don’t ask me why I thought Rudolph needing to be rescued by the Justice League was a tale worth telling over and over. I don’t know anymore. Like you were oh so clever at age eight or something.

Given that, creative writing classes were a perfect outlet. I could take these characters and stories that were flying through my head and put them all on paper, possibly even to be enjoyed by others. Possibly. Not probably. It took some time before I really started learning to make storytelling something I did for the reader’s enjoyment in addition to my own satisfaction.

After junior high, there was a lull in my writing habits. English class may have had the occasional creative outlet (especially under one of my favourite teachers, the incomparable Mr. Bowen), but nothing really devoted to creative writing. In grade 12, though… an opportunity presented itself. I teamed with two friends to write a short detective parody. I learned the thrill of hearing a full audience laugh at jokes I’d written. Of seeing a script of my own creation brought to life on stage.

And I never looked back.

I’m now working on my 30th script, including short plays and things co-authored. Over the days, weeks, and months to come, when I can’t think of any other story I’d rather be sharing with you all, I’ll be telling you about each of them: the basic story, how they came to be, memories attached to the productions. And for the scripts where I came up with a wacky premise and saw where it took me (this happened somewhat often, for good or ill), we’ll be joined by Dave and Kevin of Premise Beach.

Hopefully this will also serve as a chart of how I’ve grown as a writer, and maybe give me some reminders of where I still need to go.

Oh god. I’m going to need to re-read some of these. Including my early work. I’ve made a terrible mistake, haven’t I… well, too late. I said those words on the internet. No going back now.

See you next time, with my first (co-written) full play, The Amazing and Almost Accurate Adventures of Trigger Dandy.

The Writing Process

And after some computer malfunction shenanigans, we are back!

In a little over a month I’m going to be on a stage, talking to a crowd (hopefully) about writing. Creating a story and characters and all of that. And as of now I have no idea what I’m going to say. I mean, there’ll be three of us, so I should only have to cover 15 minutes tops, but still. I suppose I could talk about the various stages I go through as a writer. Let’s review them together, shall we?

Stage one: “Didn’t I use to be a writer?”
I have written or co-written 30 plays, ranging from “They tell me it’s great” to “This had better never see the light of day.” And each time I finish one, I inevitably start to worry that it was my last. I’ll have no ideas, no plans, and the notion that I managed to write down all those words in the last script just starts seeming insane. A fluke. Surely I can’t do that again.

Stage two: Inspiration
And then an idea will hit. It could come from anywhere. Dreams. Conversations. Watching something and thinking “I could do that better.” Usually not the last one because if someone else had the idea first, using it myself just seems icky.

In this stage, the very basics of the idea begin to form. The skeletal structure of the story, just enough to fill a thirty-second elevator pitch (examples from my past work: “Muppet Show murder mystery,” or “Man seeks romantic advice from the Devil”). The core characters will start to take shape. Maybe a few patches of dialogue. I’ll mull the idea over, talk about it with close friends, colleagues or anyone who gets in my radius when I’m “chatty drunk” at a party. Some ideas never clear this stage, and I’m probably better off for that, but if the idea is clicking, I’ll commit to it. Then it gets tricky.

Stage three: Actual work
Now I have to take this rough idea and turn it into a functioning story. This is where I finally figure out what the story is about. Now that doesn’t mean the plot: plot is just what happens during the story. What is the central theme? For example, the Dark Knight is about order vs. chaos. Inception is about letting go, or on another level storytelling itself. The Hurt Locker is about how you can lose yourself in the thrill of danger. Most of my recent plays are about getting out of your own way and letting yourself try to be happy. I don’t know, maybe I think if I write it down enough times I’ll actually learn to do it.

And yes, you also need a plot. Supporting cast. How will this resolve? Will the protagonist learn a lesson and triumph, or either fail to learn the lesson or learn it too late and fail? I prefer the former, a good friend and colleague prefers the latter, but neither is inherently better. Depends on execution. Which brings us to…

Stage four: Write it down
Depending on how long I ponce around talking about that play I’m going to write (do be careful: anyone can TALK about writing something, and it’s easy to get stuck on that step, but you have to move past that eventually) this is the longest part. When the idea’s really clicking, and the characters are well realized in my head, the characters basically write themselves. Sadly, they don’t write themselves in any useful fashion. Creating swaths of dialogue in my head is easy; actually writing it down is much harder and more time-consuming. But with time and focus (each their own brand of tricky), I eventually crank out a first draft. Now we enter the panic stage.

Stage five: Showing it to people
Is the script any good? I don’t know. I never know. First drafts have been called excellent or the worst thing I’ve ever done, and until that moment I couldn’t have guessed which would be which. Everything seems good while I’m writing it, at least for the most part, so I need someone to tell me what is and isn’t working. And the act of giving my script to someone to read is a weird two-step process: first I’m incredibly nervous to show it to anyone (on account of it might be terrible), but as soon as I’ve sent it to them I almost immediately switch to desperate to hear what they thought. From there, the editing begins.

Stage six: Draft upon draft
This one’s pretty simple, really. Get feedback, find out what needs fixing, then fix it. Repeat. I prefer to gather people for workshops, in which we read the script aloud and then people give me their thoughts. It does take a certain amount of guts to go through this process, but until you can hear people say they didn’t like something about your story without wigging out you’ll never improve.

Stage seven: editing forever
Art is never finished, merely abandoned. There will always be something that could be improved. I’ve come up with ways to polish a play while in the middle of a performace. Not an ideal time, because it’s too late to chage anything this time around and dwelling on it can make you miss your cue, but the point is the more you grow and evolve as a writer the more flaws you’ll see in your past work. Scripts I used to be incredibly proud of now embarrass me a little, but come on. I was 21.

There’s always going to be the drive to improve. The need to perfect a story. Because the better it is, the better the odds are that I can use it to trick people into liking me.

Look, I never said my creative process was easy or sane. But it seems to work.