Danny G Writes Plays: Knoll

So I tried to think of something interesting to talk about, and all I could come up with was a spoilerific discussion of certain choices made in the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary special. But that would have been a lengthy diatribe about Doctor Who’s magical rules of time travel in order to address a criticism not from any of my current or potential readers, but from an internet entertainer whose work I enjoy when she isn’t disliking Stephen Moffat. In short, I’m not certain how interesting it was actually going to be. So, lacking any other pressing topics, here’s a look back at one of my scripts that’s actually almost timely.

There was another 50th anniversary last week: the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. So let’s look back at the script I wrote about just that: the conspiracy comedy Knoll.

What’s it about?

It’s the assassination of JFK, told from the perspective of the second gunmen from the grassy knoll.

Saul and Roscoe have been hired for a job. An assassination that will change the course of history. They have to kill President John F. Kennedy, while letting Lee Harvey Oswald take the fall. The play follows them over the course of a week, from getting the job, to setting up on the titular knoll, to the aftermath two days later.

So why’d that happen?

I mentioned earlier that in University I was super into conspiracy theories, yes? This led me to buy The Big Book of Conspiracies, an illustrated guide to the 20th century’s most popular conspiracy theories. It’s a fun read, if dangerously easy to buy into if you’re of a sort that’s eager to find evidence of sinister plots and hidden aliens. It’s got MKUltra, attempts to kill Castro, claims that the moon landing was faked, claims that the moon landing found evidence of alien visitation, stuff about Mars (including hypotheses that the orbit of Mars’ moon, Phobos, indicates it’s either hollow or artificial), dark secrets of Catholicism, a theory that ends in the sinister phrase “Earth is a farm, we are someone’s property,” and, of course, an entire chapter devoted just to the assassination of JFK.

At one point, I was big enough into this book that I considered trying to adapt it to the stage. Have various men in black guide you through the choicest conspiracies in the book. More of a performance piece than play, I guess. I got most of the way through a scene before I lost faith in the project, both its stageability and the odds of it attracting lawsuits from the publisher. Getting actual adaptation rights from Paradox Press, a division of DC Comics, a division of Time/Warner, seemed far too much of a struggle. So I put that aside and worked on other things.

A while later, in playwriting class, I toyed with an idea called “Conspiracy Cafe,” in which the second gunman from the Kennedy conspiracy hides out in a diner for a spell. I remember almost nothing about it. Don’t think it went over well. Don’t imagine it could have, because from there the concept morphed into Knoll.

How’d it turn out?

Pretty okay. Okay enough that it’s been performed four times: at the 2003 Pumphouse One-act Festival, at the 2003 Vancouver Fringe festival, back in Calgary for the 40th anniversary of the assassination (which was a day I really began to wonder why we were so bad at marketing, as the local paper did a full page on the anniversary and we weren’t mentioned once), and then the son of someone I’d been in a writing class with bought the rights to perform it in the 2006 Calgary Fringe. Despite its flaws, this is one of only two scripts that someone else has bought from me thus far.

Which is not to say there aren’t flaws, because there are. This is the show where I became concerned that I was getting complacent, becoming too proud of my banter and wordplay and not really pushing myself to improve. A writer’s circle I joined a few months before this script was staged for the first time proved those fears were accurate, and that the script needed more depth, the characters needed to be something other than a vessel for repeated use of the word “ooze.” I thought that was funny. It was not particularly funny.

Also the playwright running the circle was adamantly opposed to Canadians writing plays about America, but that’s his thing. Did cost us when he turned out to be adjudicating the one-act festival it premiered in.

Would you stage it again?

Probably, yeah. I mean, we did just hit the 50th anniversary, it even feels like the time. But it might still need some polish. I did my best (at the time) to add more depth and feeling, but I could probably go further. There’s still an over-reliance on what I hoped would be amusing comic banter. There are still opportunities to expand on who these guys are; that is, who the script needs them to be, not who the Big Book of Conspiracies says they are.

Yeah, Roscoe and Saul are taken right out of… I hesitate to use the phrase “real world…” let’s say published theories about the “real killers.” According to some authors, Dallas PD officer Roscoe White (whose chin was a close match to Oswald’s chin in the infamous backyard photo) left a journal confessing to being the real assassin, naming a co-conspirator named “Saul.” Further, they write of a man photographed leaving a Russian embassy in Mexico and labeled “Lee Harvey Oswald” despite looking nothing like the real Oswald. LA County Chief of Detectives Hugh McDonald, who said the photos were sent to the FBI the day before the assassination, claimed to have found the man in the photos in London, where he identified himself as “Saul” and also confessed to the killing.

Almost got sucked back down the rabbit hole there… anyway. These days I’d be more inclined to try to build these two as characters rather than believe I was telling an untold true story or somesuch. But still, it’s a fun piece.

Repeated theme alert

  • Still overusing the word “creepy.” Well, I only use it twice before breaking out the thesaurus (“shady” gets a few uses), but it’s a word I could have stood to let go by this point.
  • As mentioned, this was the breaking point for my style up to this point. I began trying to wean myself off the “banter” style I was so clearly fond of.

When next I visit this topic, we’ll look at how I tried to push myself into deeper emotional territory, why I considered the result my best script ever, and why I was so, so wrong to think that.

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