I didn’t blog a word about this one. I just got caught up in what was going on, and by the time I recovered, it had been over for a couple of weeks. And unless you’re connected to me via Facebook, you had no idea what was going on.
So here’s what went down. I wrote another VBS play between January and May of this year, directed it between June and July, and ended up taking a part when I ran out of actors and performed in it during the first week of August.
And it, namely a wild-west themed production called An Unpleasantness At Lonesome Gulch, was worlds better than my first VBS show, The Terrible Misfortune.
Not that Misfortune was bad. It was a hoot and people loved it. But when I wrote it, I just put it together, trying to put little Biblical lessons in each episode that hopefully the teachers could use as object lessons. Not to mention that our associate minister built a pirate ship out of a haywagon that included masts and rigging and a working wheel and rudder. Lots of things for the extras to do when the main characters were busy onstage.
But I was determined to do things righter with Lonesome Gulch. We had a VBS planning meeting in either late December or early January, can’t recall which, and I told the crew my master plan. I wanted to write a VBS play that would directly mesh with the lessons being taught so the teachers could use it to draw a direct parallel from the play to the Bible lesson if they wanted. All I knew was that I was going with a wild west theme for the play, and I needed the overall theme and the daily lessons.
They rewarded me with those very things at the meeting, and while it was a challenge to fit The Creation, Jesus’ Ministry and Miracles, The Crucifixion, and The Resurrection into an Old West town, I think I pulled it off. And some of the actors were thrilled to find out that there was more to their parts than simply The Good Guy or The Doctor. For example, The Mayor of the town represented the Pharisees – devoted to the law but wanting to put his own spin on things. The Bad Guy represented the Roman Empire, and the slimy sidekick who kept whispering bad ideas into his ear was none other than Satan. The Doctor represented non-believers, and the guy in the white hat was you-know-who, the son of the man who built the town. And the guy named Pete was… well, you can probably figure that one out.
Like any production, it had its ups and downs, but in the end it all came together much like Geoffrey Rush’s character in Shakespeare In Love said it would. “It’s a mystery!” It’s the magic of theater, that’s what it is.
Directing these plays the last three years (we did “The Terrible Misfortune” two years) has really put a bug in my ear to direct something at the local community theater. I really enjoy doing it, moreso than acting, I think. And in my last role, as Bob Ewell in To Kill A Mockingbird, I gave a performance that I don’t think can be topped. At this point, I’m not sure I want to even try. But we’ll see what the next season brings… and there is the prospect of being in a Shakespeare play at some point in the future, something I have long wanted to do.
So I’m slowly looking at scripts to see if there’s something I’d like to direct. Probably a farce, since both VBS shows bordered on farce. I’ve also flirted with the idea of writing my own farce. Yeah, I did try to write a Christmas show, and it turned out so bad that I have it under lock and key until I can operate on it and make it better. There’s less decorum in a farce, and it is a lot more forgiving since the audience applies extra dollops of Suspension of Disbelief to the nonsensical goings-on. I don’t know I’ll actually do it… but it could be loads of fun. Hey, maybe I should do a Shakespears play…
Anyway, the immediate plan is for me to whip the two existing VBS shows into shape, put them into book form, and make them available through Lulu.com to other congregations looking for an unusual show without having to buy the same package everyone else in town is using. Following that, it’ll be time to start working on the 2009 production, which is going to have an outer space theme with the working title “The Incredible Adventure of the Frozen Man.” Yeah, I’m starting earlier this year.
And in between that and the launch of something else coming up soon, maybe I will have the time to start moving ahead on directing a play at the local community theater. We’ll see.
With all of the noise of the fair out of the way, and slogging through September (always a busy month, and is probably the toughest month for writing – well, maybe next to December), my intentions were turning toward getting that stupid Christmas play finished and out of my way so I can either go on to something else or get out of the biz entirely. They got a jump start over the weekend.
In the company of my in-laws, my wife and I went to see the local community theater production of Joe DePietro’s Over The River and Through the Woods. I had no idea what to expect from the show, being unfamiliar with it and the author (other than DePietro wrote the Off-Broadway oft-produced hit, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change). Three things happened while I was at the theater:
First, as I always do when I go to the theater, I got the theater bug again. This time, the bug told me I really had to get the silly Christmas play done (although I am planning to audition for To Kill A Mockingbird later this season).
Second, the play we saw told me that my instincts for the Christmas show were in the right place. The show is a bittersweet comedy about a young man leaving his extended family for a job on the other side of the country. The first act is very funny, and the second act is more dramatic and emotional. This is exactly the structure that A Father Christmas has. It doesn’t so much mean that I’m chasing a hit here (although I could always hope, I suppose) as it tells me that I’m on the right track with the way I’m writing the play.
Third, after the show I talked with one of the cast members who is also on the board for the theater and asked about when they would want to see scripts for the 07/08 season. She told me I should have the script in by February. Of course I thought that this was way too much time, that I could have this thing written and put to bed by Thanksgiving – but on the other hand, I told myself I could have the play done by Thanksgiving of 2005, and look what happened there.
So anyway, even though I was intellectually motivated before, I am now emotionally motivated, I have validation of what I’m doing, and I have a deadline. What more could I need? Time, of course. Which I’m going to steal, bit by bit, as necessary.
I even stole a bit of time last night to do some work. The details are below. I hope I can fill in even more details over the next few weeks. I’m on the downhill side of writing the play, and it should pretty much write itself at this point. As always, time being the issue.
Time to practice my thieving skills.
A Father Christmas
Act Two, Scene One
Pages, 9/17/06: 2
Total pages: 111
Now I’m all alone
No one left to help
Chip the stone
And now this awful weed
Begins to grow
(via iTunes shuffle play)
So The Terrible Misfortune is history – for another year, anyway. By the end of the play’s single run, there was talk of doing it again next year, and speculation that another congregation might use it for their one-day VBS as well. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Friday. Rehearsal. The same principles who showed up on Wednesday showed up Friday, so the cast was written in stone. The associate minister continued to make improvements on the ship – it now had its name painted on the sides and back in a perfectly piratical font (which turned out to be the stencil set the grabbed because it was on sale at WalMart). Cannons were painted on the side. The Union Jack/Jolly Roger switching mechanism was in place. We got through the entire play, in order, beginning to end, even though squadrons of mosquitoes were beginning to arrive by the end. Oh, and my mother came. My wife parked a car near the stage with the passenger window opened and she sat in relative comfort watching as my words were brought to life and I played the part of the narrator. The minister – who played the pirate – said that was one of his two highlights of being in the play: watching a proud mom watch her son at work.
There was also one of those happy accidents that you only get when directing a show. When the Pirate captain and some crew members walked on stage, the captain made a sudden stop and the others piled into him. It was so funny I told them to make that part of the blocking for the scene.
Saturday. Performance day, but first, one more run through. Some cast members were feverishly (and with my permission) making crib notes on file cards to take on stage with them. If we’d had four or six weeks to rehearse, I would’ve had a cow, but with only a week, and only a couple of days since the cast was set, I had no problem doing it. At my request the assistant minister put up a tiller for the youngest cast member to work for her onstage business. Parts were ragged, but other parts worked quite well.
And then, performance.
The way the play was designed, there would be a 10 minute episode, then the attending kids would break and go to Bible lessons. Come back for an episode, then more lessons. While there wasn’t preaching in the play (well, not until a mention of the Bible at the end), there were object lessons in each episode that could be used at the teacher’s discretion.
So the first episode went well. It’s that learning curve thing. Through repetition in rehearsals and the simple act of learning lines in order, Episode One went quite smoothly. I dropped a paragraph of my opening speech, but I put it into my introduction of Episode Two and the audience was none the wiser. Similarly, Ep Two went quite well. The minister noted something he hadn’t expected – some of the smaller kids in the audience looked fearful when the Captain talked and threatened his crew. Hmmmm.
Episode Three and things got kind of shaky. The day was getting long, people were getting tired, and we were sailing into that strange grey-skied territory where the lines weren’t learned quite so well. A couple of lines were dropped, but everyone recovered, and I gave praise to all for getting through. Episode Four, the wheels began to wobble and the train threatened to come off the rails, to mix a metaphor. While I listened, the dialoguing cast got lost and then vamped their way back to where they needed to be, dropping a page of text in the process, almost making the minister late for his entrance.
Episode Five. Well, we all got through it, although quite a bit of it was vamped, and the minister decided to ad lib during the scene where the treasure was revealed to make jokes about some of those in attendance, yours truly included. The big moment of the end was made even bigger when the mother who volunteered to act got most of her big line out: “Three cheers for…” and promptly forgot the name of the character to be cheered. So she said, “YOU!” and pointed. Big laugh. She was laughing so hard that tears were coming out of her eyes. I think I might write it in. The minister said that was the other highlight of the play’s run.
And as for the kids that were afraid of him, the minister talked to one afterward, and she told him that her favorite part of the play was when the captain cried (he blubbers when he sees what’s in the treasure chest and realizes he’s not a very good pirate after all).
The assistant minister was talking of doing the same play next year with a longer rehearsal time and more advertising in the community. The minister’s mother-in-law talked about doing the same thing at their congregation, a one-day VBS with a play, and I volunteered the script if they wanted it. A number of people in the congregation thought it was really neat that I was able to write something like that. Since our congregation is primarily blue collar, I don’t think that most of them really have any idea of what it is I do, whether it’s writing for a living as an advertising copywriter, or writing fiction for myself.
Also, and perhaps most importantly: this writing was for God. And it felt good.
And strangely enough, I have an idea for a sequel to this show.
But for now, my eyes are drifting up to the top shelf of my computer desk, at a maroon binder. Inside it is A Father Christmas
So you take her to the pictures
Trying to become a fixture
Inch by inch trying to reach her
All the way through the second feature
Worrying about your physical fitness
Tell me how you got this sickness
(via iTunes Shuffle)
A whole lot. A whole fat lot.
We rehearsed last night for the first time on the hay wagon that has been skillfully and adroitly converted into a pirate ship by our assistant minister. It comes complete with three sails, a bow, a secret compartment, a ship’s wheel, a flag that changes from a Union Jack to a Jolly Roger, and places to hang backdrops that become the hero’s home (Episode 1) and a desert island (Episode 4). Coming soon to the ship: the name on the bow (“Terrible Misfortune”), a breakaway panel for a sight gag, a tiller (yeah, I know, but our youngest cast member was thrilled when I asked to have it put on just for her), a big backdrop, a few finishing touches, a removable plank for walkin’, and maybe some cannons painted into the sides.
We did scenes 4 and 5 first, since we didn’t get through them last time, then went inside (darkness and mosquitoes had set in) and did 1 through 3. The cast came together, and even though it’s rough, rough, rough, I can see where it’s starting to gel. With only a week and four rehearsals, it looks like it’s going to work, even though the performance will no doubt be rather ragged. If we had another two weeks to rehearse, it would be great. But we’ll make do. Next year we might have a month to rehearse, and might even be doing the same play – but that’s a story for another time.
What I can’t believe is how much fun I had directing this thing. It was fun on Sunday night, and I had a blast last night. Some of it was the joy of serving the Lord, I’m sure, but it was fantastic watching the cast start to work together and take initiative with their characters, bringing my words to life. Talking to the assistant minister about the ship set and what remains to be done with it. Throwing in sight gags and bits of business (like the tiller) for individual cast members. Just being around a bunch of enthusiastic people with great ideas of their own for making this whole thing work.
I’ve decided that this directing thing is all the fun of theater without having to memorize lines and go out in front of an audience. I don’t know… if it’s this much fun when I get the Christmas play to the community theater stage, I may never go back to acting.
I am now so incredibly psyched to get A Father Christmas finished and to the play selection committee that I can’t stand it.
This is great stuff. Great. Just great.
Sangamon River it overflowed
It caused a mudslide on the banks of the operator
civil war skeletons in their graves
They came up clapping in the spirit of the aviator
(via iPod Shuffle)
The Terrible Misfortune is finished, completed with a session on Saturday (Episode 4) and then Sunday afternoon (Episode 5), in time for casting and first rehearsal Sunday night after evening services. The total page count is 47, and I think the two scenes are about of equal length, with 5 being the larger of the two. I’ll likely do some cutting as we go, especially to Episode 1, because there’s a lot of stuff in there where I was just feeling my way along until I got a handle on the material.
Having a list of actors made things go faster in the end, as did the simple fact that, the closer I get to the end, the more I have inside of my head for the project. The cast helped because as I went on, I found myself writing parts for specific people, and it just flowed.
Because this balloon goes up on Saturday, I combined casting and first rehearsal together. Instead of having people read for parts, I gave individual parts to those who had parts written for them, and then had actors switch roles around until I settled in with whom I wanted where… mostly. I thought my cast would be too big, but I’ve got a couple of surplus actors, and a stage so small that I don’t have room for the roles I do have, let alone set dressing. Must think about that.
We ended up getting through three of the five episodes before the bewitching hour took half the cast. The ones on permanent assignment have their scripts. The next rehearsal is Wednesday night. I’m wondering if it can all come together in a week without having some folks with scripts in their hands for the final performance, but I keep trying to comfort myself with the words of Geoffrey Rush in Shakespeare in Love; “I don’t know how it comes together, but it always seems to. It’s a mystery.”
Or words to that effect.
(And to think I want to do this again next year, with a longer play, a big set, and paying customers. What am I? Crazy?)
Beatrice, she got a phonograph
and it won’t say a lonesome word
Beatrice, she got a phonograph
and it won’t say a lonesome word
What evil have I done
what evil has the poor girl heard
(via iPod Shuffle)
A Father Christmas
Act Two, Scene One
Pages, 3/25/06: 4
Current Total: 95
What can I say? Trying hard to keep the streak alive. The defense finished with the antagonist, and just put the protagonist on the stand. He’s explaining what he does for a living. Basically, he’s an insurance salesman. But of course, the play isn’t about insurance.
Well I know, I know, you’ll probably scream and cry
That your little world won’t let you go
But who in your measly little world
Are you tryin’ to prove to that you’re
Made out of gold and can’t be sold
(via iTunes shuffle play)
Friday night when I got home from work, I found out my daughter was apprehensive about driving herself to rehearsal for the play she’s assistant directing. After all, it was not just any Friday night, but the evening of St. Patrick’s Day, probably the second most popular drinking holiday after New Year’s Eve. She batted her eyes and asked me to drive her in, reminding me that I had said I ought to start going to the theater with her and sit in the auditorium and write, since that’s how I started A Father Christmas.
(Besides that, the whole genesis of this project happened at this theater. I went to a Christmas show that my wife was in and was talking to another cast member after the performance. She commented that it was really hard to find a good Christmas show. Apparently most of them available are adaptations of A Christmas Carol, or a general goof on the holiday, or are older than dirt. I thought to myself, “I bet I could write a good contemporary Christmas play.” And after sending the idea back, it kept returning with friends until I finally started work on it.)
So I unplugged the iBook and went. And nailed down some good writing time. It was a real inspiration to be able to look at the stage – even if it was set for an entirely different play – and “see” my set and the actors on the stage.
So Friday I got three pages – but it was heavy going. The opening statements of the lawyers for both sides of the court case, so it was long and text heavy.
A Father Christmas
Act Two, Scene One
Pages, 3/17/06: 3
Current Total: 78
I worked on taxes Saturday, but Sunday I carved out a couple of hours in the afternoon and batted out more pages. For some reason, it felt like I had written ten, but the number was actually half that. No problem, still five more pages than I had before I started. The lawyer for the plaintiff questioning same.
Act Two, Scene One
Pages, 3/19/06: 5
Current Total: 83
Hopefully I’m rolling again. I’ve got a commitment tonight, but tomorrow… well, let’s just say that House is not on tomorrow, so the odds are looking really good.
Endless nights on an endless sea
Where nothing lives between us
Just the breakers on the ocean
Separating you and me
(via iPod Shuffle)
JCF’s Christmas Play
Pages, 10/10/05: 6
Current Total: 16
All of the protagonists are introduced. The last thing I wrote before quitting was a knock on the door. When our hero (or it might be his wife – I may change things up a bit) answers the door, the secure little world I’ve created for them will get turned upside down.
Figuring a minute per manuscript page, we’re 16 minutes into the play now. This is likely to run shorter because when I write a play (see Old Loves Die Hard), the success of it lives and dies on the pacing of the dialogue. I tend to write it fast and snappy except for the more dramatic parts. So the director will have to make sure the show moves.
I’m really conscious of length right now, because there’s a lot to do in this first act. My first impulse is to let my pre-editor kick in and leave out stuff that isn’t really needed, but who knows… I may get something I need by putting it in. I may suppress it and write everything in that tickles my fancy and then cut it later. I put in a couple of gags last night that I will probably end up cutting.
However, there seems to be an unwritten tradition in theater that the first act is the longest. I guess when people come into a theater and settle, you can push the amount of time they sit because they’re ready for a show. After that, things really need to move. This is great because, while I’d like to split the show into two perfect 45-minute halves, the realist in me doesn’t think it’s going to turn out that way. I think I’m looking at that or longer for the first act, and a shade under that for the second.
Those considerations aside, one thing I noticed while I was writing last night was my Sense of Funny. This is different from Sense of Humor, although SoH certainly influences SoF.
Sense of Funny, I have decided, is what goes on in the brain of a writer who is writing something humorous. While their fingers dance across the keys and words appear on the screen, something in their brain says, “now do this and people will find this funny.” It’s not what the writer finds funny, but his sense of what the audience will find funny. I don’t sit there and laugh at my own jokes as I’m writing because I’m not that kind of a guy. But there’s this sense that has kicked in while working on this play, a little voice (don’t start!) telling me that this is funny, or if I did something else or added a bit here, it would make something funny, or cause something already funny to be funnier.
I’m not really sure how that works.
Humor is a fascinating thing to me. If you think about it, the reactions you get are related to being frightened or surprised. People often laugh as a release after being frightened, especially if the fright was in vain (e.g., at a movie or in a Halloween haunted house – doesn’t often happen after you nearly have a head-on with a careless driver).
That’s a lot of what makes up humor – the unexpected. The other night I was going to accompany my daughter to a restaurant after a performance of Anne Frank. She was worried that I might not want to hang out with a bunch of teenagers. So I said, “Don’t worry. If there aren’t any adults around, I’ll give you a sign.” Then I coughed and said, “Sorry, my Tuberculosis is acting up.”
This nearly put her on the floor. She expected the cough business, but she didn’t expect me to dredge up Tuberculosis from the vaults of memory to ice the cake with. It made something mundane funny.
Humor can also disarm other unpleasantness. The film Robocop is a classic example of this. It’s a brutal, grim movie that would have been unwatchable if there hadn’t been so much dark humor scattered throughout. Like when the young executive is machine gunned by a malfunctioning Law Enforcement droid, a line given to the Old Man of the company is classic understatement: “I am very disappointed,” he says, almost over the body of the deceased. Jaws is another great example, where Spielberg uses humor – three guys on a boat getting drunk and comparing scars – just before turning on the tension full bore as the shark returns to attack them.
Humor can also raise the stakes in a drama. I was in the green room on opening night with two teenaged boys who play SS flunkies. They had no prior theater experience, so it’s been fun watching them learn. We were watching the first act of Anne Frank on the closed circuit TV set up for the actors, and they were shocked when the audience laughed at something.
“Hey!” they said, outraged. “They’re not supposed to laugh at this play!”
“Sure they are,” said another actor. “Some parts of this play are really funny.”
Then I said, “Besides, their laughing now will make it hurt even more when we go in and haul the families off to a concentration camp.”
Using humor, the authors of the Anne Frank play cause the audience to see the Franks as real people… and subsequently, they bond with them. And when real life intrudes and only Otto survives, that makes it all the more powerful.
So use it, but don’t abuse it. And if you’re into writing comedy, watch out for your Sense of Funny. Feed it well on all kinds of comedy, and it will serve you well.
Listening: Jules and the Polar Bears, “It’s a Shame” (via iPod Shuffle)
1) I wonder what would have become of Anne Frank’s diary had she survived the holocaust.
I’m thinking that Anne might have become known as a writer in her own corner of the world, but the diary might have languished in obscurity. it was her intent to have the diary published, but she was planning on submitting it to a project that was collecting War Diaries. From there it would have been lumped in with dozens or hundreds of others, and may not have ever resurfaced to see the light of day. With Anne still living, Otto Frank may not have been driven to get the book published, and it may have been decades before some version of the diary was made public.
Perhaps the Diary was the most important thing she would ever write, and her death paved the road for it to become the document that we know today. Would the Diary mean as much to us if Anne had survived? I have my doubts. Life is full of ironic things like this. It doesn’t seem right, but that’s the way things operate.
2) When does a standing ovation mean something?
I’ve been in my share of theater productions where the performance was given a standing ovation. Most were musicals, which have a greater likelihood of generating a Standing O just by their very nature of spectacle.
Those didn’t mean a whole lot to me outside of, “Oh, that’s nice.”
But opening night during our very unique curtain call – we don’t all appear from the wings – rather, the lights come up and we’re all standing there like ghosts, staring blankly into the audience – there was nothing. The audience stared back. Then, slowly, applause started, and grew, and then people were standing up. Even though I was onstage for probably less than a minute, shouting in German and pushing characters out the door, a lump formed in my throat and I hoped I wouldn’t start crying before I got off stage (the next night, the two girls who played the Frank sisters and my daughter, who plays Miep, all got offstage and burst into tears).
There has only been one other standing ovation that means as much to me as that one opening night. In fact, I think it means a bit more. Years ago I was in The Boys Next Door, a play about four mentally handicapped men sharing an apartment, playing the doughnut loving Norman Bulansky, who gets a girlfriend, the equally incapacitated Shiela. One night a standing ovation started in once particular section of the theater and spread from there. It turned out that the group that started the ovation were all parents of mentally handicapped children. That told me that we had gotten the show right, and is one of the many reasons why that particular show is the best one I’ve ever been in, and was one of my best performances.
3) Why do I do this everytime I’m in a play?
Of familiarity to regular readers – every time I’m in a show, I start talking about writing that Christmas Play, and then submitting it to the board to see about producing it as a future Christmas production. Well, the bug started to hit me even though I was on a really short rehearsal schedule (how long does one need to learn four or five German words?).
This, time, however, I did something about it. I took my iBook to the theater with me, and in the long stretch of time between when I get to the theater (I go in with my daughter to save on gas), I opened up the moldy old file and started working on it.
So I’m writing again.
I’m not sure how long it’ll take to get this written. It won’t be a long haul like a novel. I’d like to have it done by the end of the year for a couple of reasons. First, doing this means that I will be writing the play during the Christmas season, which can only help things (my brother has a story he’s been working on for years – but he only works on it on Christmas Eve/Christmas Day because the mood has to be just right). Getting some kind of draft done by year’s end means I can get it to the theater board, hopefully in time for them to consider for the 2006/2007 season. I suspect that they’d want it done as a director’s special, which means someone would have to sit in the director’s chair… and that person would probably be me.
So I’m pleased to bring the return of the progress chart to
the Foundry White Moments. I’m not going to go into word counts here, because writing a play is totally different from a novel. But I will keep a page count posted just to show that some kind of progress is being made. And so I can use all of you out there as another excuse to see the project through.
Okay, let’s go…
JCF’s Christmas Play
Previously Existing Pages: 1*
Pages, 10/7/05: 4
Pages, 10/8/05: 5
Current Total: 10
Listening: Something by Pat Metheny on the iPod Shuffle
*there were actually four pages done, but that draft seems to have disappeared from my hard drive.