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.