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J. J. Brown, Wordslinger

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Theater

So, I’m listening to the rain…..

…….as it descends upon the earth in a torrent. There’s a mini-lake in my backyard now, typical of what happens when there’s too much water in the ground and nowhere for the excess to go. It’s definitely one of those days where staying inside is the best idea. Since I don’t have a lot going on that requires my presence away from the house, I think I’ll stay in, snuggle with the cat, read a book and work on some writing.

I’ve got a number of projects on the fire – a novel, a novella, a stage play, among other things – and I haven’t been as attentive to them as I should have been. Now that I’ve got a little breathing room, I think it’s time to turn my focus on the written word.

I’d written a two act stage play a few years ago – a comedy involving the gods and goddesses of ancient mythologies. It’s a little heavy on the Ancient Greeks, but that’s only because I’m more familiar with those archetypes. I’m revising the entire play now, incorporating characters based on other mythologies, so as to have a better representation.

After all, a hotel that caters to the ancient gods and goddesses of myth should be all-inclusive, right?

Right.

Although he doesn’t make an appearance, Poseidon (Roman name, Neptune) is referred to at various points throughout the play. Since water is his primary domain (although he is known to be a shaker of the earth), today seems a good day to dive back into that play and see what turns up.

Title and cast list of Hotel Mt. Olympus.
Title and cast list of Hotel Mt. Olympus.

So, I’m in another play…..

……a one-act, more specifically, which lasts about 15 to 20 minutes. There are four other one-acts in this production, thus it’s referred to as the one-act festival. It’s held every year and seems to have a fairly good turn-out.

Which makes the time frame about the length of a two act play (two hours).

This is actually a nifty idea, because you can get maybe four or five playwrights’ work staged and exposed to a receptive audience, instead of just one. It enables unknown playwrights especially, since you could also mix them in with well-known playwrights, whose work has been established.

The stage where the one-acts will be performed, but not with this backdrop.
The stage where the one-acts will be performed, but not with this backdrop.

I’m having a lot of fun with finding my moments within my character’s speeches and today, I made my director cry. Which I suppose was the point – my character is blind, and is writing an email home, feeling very insecure about what may occur upon her arrival. So there’s a lot of emotion and empathy coming out.

That’s part of an actor’s job – to make you feel what the characters feel. Same thing with a writer. Or songwriter.

The arts are about creating empathy between you and the subject. It can be uncomfortable, it can make you mad or upset or happy or melancholy. No two people will have the same kind of experience, even if they see or read the same things.

In a play, there is a symbiotic relationship between the actors on-stage and the audience that is watching them. My job, as an actor, is to make you feel what I’m feeling. If my character, in the moment, is feeling something so powerful, that you start to cry, then I’ve done my job.

Even if it’s a tiny sniffle, I will consider that I did my job and transported you to another plane of emotional existence.

It’s an experience that’s harder to pull off via film or TV – not impossible, just harder.

Go see live theater, even if it’s a musical you grew up loving as a kid. It’s an experience that is always good to share with friends and family.

 

“The stage is set, the curtain rises. We are ready to begin.”
Sherlock Holmes, The Abominable Bride (2015)

So, I’ve been revising my Ancient Greek Comedy….

…..and I got stuck because of Zeus. Why, you ask, would the primary god in Greek mythology be such a problem that you got stuck when writing about him?

Good question.

By rights, he should be a fun character to give life to on the page. He’s larger than life (because he’s a god, naturally), bombastic, can shape-shift into any creature or element he wishes, has the power to control the world and his fellow gods and goddesses.

Zeus should have been a piece of cake to write about.

But he wasn’t.

He started out as a Burl Ives caricature, then I took him out and made him a light/sound effect so that I could reduce the number of characters I had on-stage. Then I added him back on-stage, as a physical character, but with light and sound as his voice. A director read the work and came back with several notes, including one that gave Zeus his voice back.

‘Great,’ I thought, ‘This should be easy.’

It wasn’t.

I had gone through the first twenty pages, revising dialogue and cutting out unnecessary words (and this is how I know I’m a novelist at heart – I’m very wordy). I re-structured character motive and added new directions. All was going well, it was clicking along at a nice pace and I was enjoying the characters and their interactions.

Then I came to Zeus, his first entrance and everything came to a screeching halt.

I typed in his name, hit the Enter key to start his first line and………nothing.

Zip. Nada. Silence.

I put it aside, as I always do when I encounter difficulty. I still kept notes, writing down ideas that could be incorporated into the script. I even began to design a soundtrack, to help with the creative flow. Also, there’s a Greek Chorus and the Greeks were all about music, so it made sense to let that side develop.

But I was still stuck and Zeus, uncharacteristically, was stubbornly silent.

An article I’d read recently about character development had been ruminating in my thoughts – I don’t recall the title of the article or where I’d found it, but I will edit this post to add it should I be lucky enough to find it.

In any case, the article asked a lot of good questions and what I remember is this – what is your character’s over-riding arc? What is their question that needs answering? What is their need?

I began to ask this of my play’s characters and some interesting things began to come up, things that had been below the surface.

And then recent events and Zeus’s own well-documented behavior in his own myths began to shed some light on the subject. Now I know his questions, his arc and his need.

The darkness always comes before the light.

Title and cast list of my play.
Title and cast list of my play.

So, I had the opportunity to see a performance of Frankenstein…..

…….featuring actors Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) and Johnny Lee Miller (Elementary), alternating the lead roles of the Creature and his creator, Victor Frankenstein. The novel by Mary Shelley has captured the imagination of people the world over and has been given countless adaptations for film, television and stage, either adhering to the source material or being a loose interpretation. The novel has also been an inspiration in popular culture, ranging from comic books to video games to toys and models.

This stage adaptation written by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle premiered in 2011, at the National Theatre, where it was filmed live and screened in selected theaters across the world. It was given an encore screening by Fathom Events on October 25, 2016, with Cumberbatch as the Creature and Miller as Frankenstein.

It was tragic and beautiful, haunting and horrific. Unlike the Universal classic with Boris Karloff, this adaptation of the novel, Frankenstein gives the Creature his voice and soul as he struggles from his (re)-‘birth’ to find his place in the world. His loneliness and desire for companionship and belonging defines the Creature, even as he is constantly rejected for being physically different than those around him. He is called ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting’, a ‘monster’ and is brutally thrown out, even as he secretly offers his catch from hunting and kindling to keep an old man and his family well-fed and warm.

His desire for love comes in the form of another creation by Frankenstein (Miller). Because of a hellish nightmare of the two potentially having children, he destroys the female creature before she becomes fully animated.

The tale of Frankenstein and the Creature transcends its original time – it is a cautionary tale of blindly following science (Jurassic Park is another example of this); it is a story of a man running from his responsibilities to his creation, thus setting off a chain of events that leads to the deaths of those he holds dear; it is the story of trying to find one’s place in a strange world, of trying to make connections and find love; it is the story of brutal rejection and vilification instead of compassion and empathy.

I first read the novel in high school, as I’m sure many of you have. I don’t recall much of my initial impressions of it, but this theatrical production moved me to tears. I wept throughout a performance that had been filmed five years previously. As cruel and angry and hateful as the Creature became, I understood his hurt, his rage, his desires, his difference.

But where he had been abandoned and abused and vilified and had no one to turn to for any kind of support, I have been blessed with friends and support. By no means has it been perfect, but from the Creature’s point of view, it might be.

Frankenstein isn’t just the first science fiction novel to be written. It is a novel about humanity – those who throw it away (Frankenstein), those who find it (the Creature) and how people react to it in those who are not like themselves.

The first step to de-humanizing a person is to take away their identity, their humanity.

There is a reason that the Creature in the novel has no name.

We are the Creature. And we are Victor Frankenstein.

And I continue to weep.

frankenstein

Recommended:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley (Biography) by Miranda Seymour
Romantic Outlaws (Mary Wollstonecraft & Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) by Charlotte Gordon

So, I’ve written a play for the stage……

…….and am currently in the process of revising it. I’ve discovered, in this revision process, that I am a bit wordy, that I could say the same thing in half the words used and still have it make sense and be funny. The fact that I am wordy is not surprising to me – I’m primarily a novelist, and words tend to breed like bunnies in novels. Still, it’s a good idea to cut unnecessary ones as much as possible.

The play in question is a comedy, my vision of a hotel that caters to the gods, goddesses, and other people of ancient mythologies and what it might look like on any particular day. Given that there are a number of deities walking about, one can expect the unexpected. Like a Rat Pack-wannabe god of wine. Or a seer on Prozac. Or a Gorgan whose frozen victims become her celebrated works of art. Of course, one can expect a lot of egos to be thrown around, too.

And today, I had the most brilliant brain-wave of how to complicate things a bit, thanks to the recalcitrant and egotistical god, Zeus, and his Roman counterpart, Jupiter. Things are going to get interesting at this mythic hotel.

I can’t wait to check in and see how it turns out.

Title and cast list of my play.
Title and cast list of my play.

So, the final curtain looms…..

……as my show enters its last weekend. The last few weeks have gone by in a blur and it seems inconceivable that there are only three performances left. Each performance led to something new in my character, a discovery of her humanity and motives. Although it’s not written in the script, I felt an underlying sense of guilt and fear that drove her to her final destination. There were specific lines that alluded to her distress, but the nature of her personality drove others away from her, a self-defensive measure on her part.

This show, The Mousetrap as written by Dame Agatha Christie (adapted from her short story Three Blind Mice, which in itself is adapted from the radio play written in honor of Queen Mary’s 80th birthday), premiered in London in 1952. It has continued to play in front of audiences, celebrating its 64th anniversary this year in the same theater.

It has been a privilege and a joy to work with my fellow cast mates, who have provided a lot of support and laughter in the last few weeks. I am grateful to my director, for casting me in this part, for reasons I mention in a previous post. I had the best stage manager and costumer and producer to help shape, guide and fashion us into a wonderful presentation.

For their privacy, I will not identify them or post their pictures – I feel I need to ask their permission.

But I will leave you with a photograph of our set, where we played out our parts and made our discoveries and connections, both within the context of the play as our characters and outside the play, as actors, as friends, as comrades in arms.

The set of Monkswell Manor, from The Mousetrap, by Dame Agatha Christie.
The set of Monkswell Manor, from The Mousetrap, by Dame Agatha Christie.

So, one of the best ways to improve your writing…..

……is to get involved with and work in theater.

As an actor, you learn to develop character – background, secrets, moments before – that lead to a richer performance and the constant discovery of new things. As a director, you learn how each scene works and flows together, with tweaking here and there to create a cohesive narrative. And, of course, there is the playwright, who puts the words in the mouths of the characters.

Building sets gives you a rough sense of how the play’s world looked. Adding props and furniture gives clues to the characters, their histories, their connections. Costumes and make-up show how characters might look in 17th century France, 11th century BCE Greece or Rome or Egypt.

Every aspect of theater can and will carry over into your writing. I’ve always found myself relying on my theater background not just for inspiration, but for ways to forward my story when the way seems blocked.

Also, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

So, I recently got cast in a show……..

…….which I’m terribly excited about. I had stage-managed this same show about twenty some years ago, and had convinced my director then to allow me to be the shadowy killer so as to maintain the air of Whodunnit. The play in question is a mystery, there’s a juicy murder or two, a cast of suspicious characters and, of course, the Reveal. This is another form of collaborative creativity – by working with other actors, director and stage crew, you enter another world and invite the audience to join you.

Acting, like writing or music or dance or any other artistic expression, is hard work, whether it’s on stage or on film. It requires discipline just as much as talent. An actor learns about the craft through reading of scripts, observing other actors work, and taking classes to enhance their skills, ranging from accents to stage combat.

As with writing, I’m always asking myself questions. In this instance, why did my character arrive at this particular destination? Was it tied to the past? Was it a meeting place? There was an incident that involved my character years earlier – did present circumstances come about because of guilt from a tragic decision? This is the behind the scenes work that goes into each role that is seen onstage. If done well, it looks easy. If done poorly, it looks not so good. 

Is there a fun part to all of this work? That’s simple – yes. The fun part is working with one’s fellow actors and discovering the relationships the characters have with each other. The fun is finding the rhythm of the play both as an individual actor and as a group. The fun is feeling that energy as it is shared with the audience, which is then bounced back to the actors. The fun is knowing that, for two hours, you took a risk and performed live in front of people you know and people you don’t.

The fun is living as someone else, with their history riding inside you.

*****
Editor’s note – this blog post is published concurrently on Citizens Journal Ventura County.

So, one of my favorite creative past times…..

……is theater. I grew up acting in school plays, then college productions and local community theater, with an occasional dabble in building sets, costumes and make-up. I even did extra work on a TV movie, which is another story entirely. Theater, like film and TV, is a collaborative effort. You need each person to fulfill a role or task to make the final product work smoothly (technical, sound, lighting, effects, other actors, writers), even if it’s a one person show.

This is true of every creative endeavor. Granted, you are the only one doing your work (whether it’s learning lines or creating a sculpture or any other artistic expression), but the act itself is a collaboration of all that you had learned up to that point. Look at any acknowledgements page in any book and you will find the word “collaboration” or its sibling “collaborative”. There will then be a list of names or groups the author then gives his or her thanks to – because while the act of writing is solitary, the process of putting a book together (from research to final edits to publication) is not.

There is the stereotype of the writer as being an odd creature, solitary, slightly disheveled and not quite fully present in the moment. They are distracted by their thoughts and scribble madly on a pad of paper, relying on copious amounts of coffee (or, in some cases, alcohol) to keep the pace going, finally producing a perfect manuscript. What no one sees is the relentless edits, the hours of researching a particular historical incident, the mapping out of the plot and the creation and naming of characters.

None of this is done in a vacuum – writers groups, editors, beta readers, other writers are there to help give an objective opinion and offer support when the going gets tough. What theater teaches us is that in order for a production to work smoothly, there has to be teamwork. For an author to create her best work, she has to have the teamwork of her editor and beta readers and groups to encourage necessary changes within her story. The same goes for a photographer, her crew and the model. It is all a team effort.

The more creative endeavors you try, the more you’ll realize that it’s this teamwork is where you gain your greatest strength.

*****
Editor’s note – this blog post is concurrently published on Citizens Journal VC

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