Theatre Thursday: So you want to be a playwright, part 2

This is the second part of a playwright’s advice to people who want to become playwrights. Part 1 appeared last Thursday.

The first part of this article appeared last Thursday, and it just got too long for one piece, so here’s the rest of my advice to beginning playwrights and other people crazy enough to want to be involved in a life in theatre.

Write every day, and then write some more

Write, write, write, a little bit or a lot every day. And don’t feel compelled to just dive into a full length and go. I didn’t. The best approach — and, oddly enough, most marketable — is the so-called 10-minute play, for which there are contests all the time, and I think that my first four or five produced works were all within that limit.

Working with plays of this length makes it a lot easier to write every day, but there’s another big advantage to the form.

It teaches you how to write perfectly formed scenes, because 10 to 20 minutes really is the ideal scene length for any play, although some may go as short as seven. If you can do a strong beginning, middle, and end in that length of time, then you can essentially write 9 to 12 short plays that chain together and advance the overall plot and, ta-da — full-length!

Side note: this formula is also the secret of writing for film or TV. If you want to do half-hour, for example, perfect writing the seven-minute scene. For one hour, aim for nine to thirteen minutes.

The best description I’ve ever read of a one act or short play is this: The playwright’s job is to bring a stick of dynamite on stage at the beginning and then somebody strikes a match at the end. And… scene.

This is exactly the approach I took to that full-length I mentioned after having written a bunch of 10-minute plays, and I think it’s why I ultimately wound up getting produced. Well, that and I copied the elevated linguistic style of late 19th century playwrights, since the play was set in 1865.

Character first, plot later

Also, in structuring your plays, do not focus on plot. Rather, focus on your characters. Define each one in terms of who they are, what they want on a day-to-day basis, who or what they would kill to actually have it, who they think they are, who the other characters think they are, and so on.

Toss all of these into the pot and stir, and then you’ll have your plot — because if you let your plot drive your characters, then you just get sitcom or soap opera, and that’s crap.

Jumping back to Shakespeare, Richard III is a great example of this. The story is not about what Richard does to become King of England. Rather, it’s about why he does it.

We enter the story through his insecurities and needs, and then follow his personality, which drives everything else he does, from having his own brother drowned in a barrel of wine to ordering his nephews be executed in the tower of London to accusing his brother’s widow of being a witch, and so on.

But every one of his vile acts comes out of his needs and wants because the only thing he must have is the Crown of England. It’s a singular focus, but it makes for a very strong character and powerful play.

Also, to Shakespeare’s credit, he actually created this arc and these needs for Richard over not one but three plays — Henry VI part 2 and  part 3, and Richard III.

If you’re really adventurous, check out what’s known as the Eight-play Henriad, which includes Richard II, Henry IV part 1, Henry IV part 2, Henry V, Henry VI part 1, and the aforementioned three plays.

And then… go read August Wilson’s Century Cycle, which actually covers a slightly longer time period — and much bigger changes — than Shakespeare’s Henriad. And yet… is still driven by the needs of the characters involved.

I’ve written a play, so now what?

Look for playwriting groups or classes in your area, then join one. The best ones will involve no drama besides what’s on the pages and will be safe spaces that nonetheless provide valid criticisms and suggestions on the work.

The best format is generally just a bunch of writers sitting in a circle and, at each meeting (usually weekly) everyone brings pages — usually 10 to 12 (there’s that short play advantage again), then assigns roles to the other playwrights and the piece is read and then discussed.

And don’t worry whether the other writers can act or not. Sometimes, as with watching bad plays, you can get a really good idea of whether your dialogue works when it’s read really badly. If what you’re trying to say comes through, then you’ve succeeded, so try not to bite through your arm during the reading.

The best of the writers’ workshops will also periodically hold fully readings of works that the teacher and writer think are developed enough, generally beginning with one class session dedicated to a read-through of the entire piece, often with invited actors, and then a public reading designed to elicit feedback.

I cannot stress the importance of all these things enough in developing new work. No one can create in a vacuum. Bonus points: Sometimes, you can get lucky in casting an actor, and their performance will actually inform how you rewrite and tweak the part. I can’t tell you how many times this has happened to me.

Okay, now I’ve finished the play. So now what?

Okay. You have that play or that stack of short plays, so what do you do with them? The best route, really, unless your aunt is a theatrical agent or your cousin is a producer, is to enter contests and/or if you’ve been involved with a small theatre company as part of the doing all the things part, see if they’re open to considering your works.

There’s a lot of material out there, especially at the larger theaters, and if you submit directly if they have an open policy, it can take years to get a response. I think I once heard back from a theater something like six years after I’d submitted, and by that time, although they mentioned the title when they rejected it, I didn’t even remember the play off the top of my head.

Most importantly, never give up. My personal record for length of time between developing a play and seeing it produced was about twenty years — and that was actually the second full-length I’d ever written, which I started on the heels of the first one, which was produced within a year or two of me finishing it.

It was also the strangest collaboration ever, because I was essentially working with a dead playwright — myself from twenty years earlier — and fixing mistakes I’d made at the time. Ultimately, the whole thing turned out amazing.

Someday, I’m actually going to go back and try to figure out how much of the original “final” draft I threw out and how much was totally new.

Image: Moliere, by Mcleclat, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Theatre Thursday: So you want to be a playwright, part 1

Here is a playwright’s advice to fledgling playwrights who want to know what they should do to get good at their craft.

Recently, an old friend forwarded some questions to me from the grown-up child of another friend of his. They recently graduated college and want to become a playwright, and they had four questions.

I answered those and started to include answers to an unasked fifth question that was soon longer than the other answers combined, at which point I realized that I should share this with everyone.

Of course, how I really wanted to respond to them was with a hearty Michael Scott, “No. No! No, dear god — No!” Why would anyone want to become a playwright now, when we don’t even know what the state of theatre will be in five years.

It’s entirely possible that only Broadway and the larger regional theaters survive. On the other hand, we could see a lot of small theater companies pop up to replace the ones we’ve lost and could end up with a huge needs for playwrights — as long as those playwrights don’t expect to make a living at it.

So my best advice would be go into real estate or become a plumber, and then let playwriting be the side gig that you enjoy doing.

But here is my advice, and this also applies anybody who wants to go into any aspect of theatre, like acting, any of the creative design, directing, producing, etc. Just substitute your discipline where applicable.

Curtain up…

Learn theatre history

Study western theatre from the Greeks to modern day, and theatrical traditions from other parts of the world. Japan has a particularly rich theatre history, as does China.

So does every other part of the world. African theatre came out of ancient rituals but — surprise! — that’s exactly where western theatre came from, too. Indigenous peoples in the Americas and Australia had their own forms of theatre, with Incan tradition being particularly rich.

Keep in mind, though, that theatre and traditional culture in all of those continents was muzzled and replaced with the European version once the invading colonizers arrived. In modern times, Latin American theatre is basically western theatre, as is the case with Canada and Australia.

Sometimes, an historical style can be the perfect way to stage a modern piece or ideal style in which to write a new one. For example, I saw a production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge that was staged as a Greek tragedy, and it worked. Blood was raining onto the stage by the time it was over.

The director and producers also wisely reduced the cast size since they were not working in the heyday of Broadway in the 1950s, when plays would frequently have fifty or more actors on stage. The incidental neighbors and passersby were cut and were not missed.

Also keep in mind that some country’s traditions do not tell their stories in chronological order, while in others, movement is just as important as dialogue. These can all become brushes in your palette and the hues you use in creating your own works.

Read plays

Read lots of them, from all eras and areas. Definitely read as many of Shakespeare’s works as you can. Books with is complete works are easy to find and not that expensive — there’s one sitting on my coffee table right now, and I think I have a couple more floating around.

A very important note: Don’t be afraid of the language. Pay attention to the psychology of his characters because he was a master at it. If you follow what the characters need, the language will become clear.

I once played your basic Shakespeare cop in a comedy, and even though the character only had a few lines and mostly served for physical comedy in other scenes, the Bard put enough bread crumbs in there that it gave me my entire character arc and needs — the dude was only interested in the money — and that gave me something to play.

This production also demonstrated how completely adaptable Shakespeare’s works are. The play was The Comedy of Errors and the director staged it in a very colorful 1980s sitcom world. I wound up playing my character as a traditional cop, but with a very heavy stage Irish accent, and had a huge scene-stealing moment in which I and three women in the cast suddenly started River-dancing before being chased off stage by one of the sets of brothers.

Yes, this is the one with not one but two sets of identical twins, separated at birth, and while the director cast two actors with a very strong resemblance as the older brothers, she cast as the younger siblings one black actor and one very white one but dressed them identically — and it worked because the world allowed the audience to just buy into the conceit.

Now, if Shakespeare’s language is a problem at first, watch some of the better film adaptations, because good actors and directors can put the message across — anything by Branagh or Zeffirelli, for example. Do try to avoid Olivier, though. While he’s acclaimed as an actor, I find his Shakespeare performances to be dull and bloodless. No pun intended.

Try to read plays from all the major theatrical eras — Greek tragedy and comedy, medieval Miracle and Mystery plays, Commedia dell’Arte (although those weren’t so much scripted as improvised from stock characters using loosely planned scenarios), and all the major playwrights around Shakespeare’s time, mainly the Bard, Moliere, and Calderón de la Barca or any of the Spanish playwrights working in that era.

Take a quick trip through the Restoration (both comedy and drama). You can find a list of 10 plays you should read here. Be sure to veer around that bit during the Enlightenment when not a lot original was being created but Shakespeare was being bastardized, and then pick it up with Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, O’Neill, Williams, etc.

On certain playwrights, avoid the plays everyone knows and go for the obscure. For example, with Arthur Miller, skip The Crucible and take a look at the aforementioned A View from the Bridge or After the Fall. With Neil Simon, if you must… (sigh — his stuff comes from a place of such white privilege…) The Prisoner of Second Avenue does at least get a bit deeper into relatable problems.

Once you get past those (i.e. the end of the American Classical phase in the 1950s), look for playwrights who speak to you.

Next up, pick the playwrights you like, and steal their style. There’s no shame in this as a beginning playwright — as long as you’re not stealing their plots, of course. I remember modeling my first attempted (never finished) full-length on the general moods and character types of Tennessee Williams, and to this day, my works are still mostly influenced by Williams, Wilde, Joe Orton, and Tom Stoppard, along with various film directors — for stage, mostly Nicolas Roeg, because I picked up his knack for telling stories out of chronological order, instead telling them in what I call “emotional order.”

Read more than just plays

I’ve always been interested in history and so read a lot about the subject and historical figures, and with only two exceptions, every one of my full-length plays has been based on historical events or real people — although one of those exceptions was a black comedy set during the American Civil War, and the other was inspired by, although not based on, events in my father’s life.

Since history tends to repeat itself, always look at history from the perspective of how it relates to our times, and either mimics current events or provides a contrast. And look at history from other than the victor’s version. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a western written from the Natives’ point of view, at least not on stage — and the few western films that did look favorably at America’s indigenous population still had to have a white character taken into the tribe as the POV character.

Of course, you don’t have to stick with history. Reading about science can lead to important moments in time, as well as very interesting characters — Tycho Brahe certainly had an interesting life (and ridiculous moustache), for example.

Mythology can be a rich source of stories no matter where in the world it comes from. Greek and Roman theatre were pretty much steeped in their mythologies, and all of the MCU and DCEU superhero films are just modern western mythology, even if some of the characters are blatantly lifted from other western mythologies. Yes, I’m looking at you, Thor and Loki.

Even beyond this, just read about a subject that interests you. It can be computer gaming, skateboarding, scrapbooking, parkour, hiking, knitting, kayaking, camping — literally whatever. That’s because reading about these fields of interest can immerse you in those worlds and can suddenly give you ideas for settings and characters for plays.

If you know enough about a subject by reading up on it, you can then create an authentic world on stage and populate it with real, relatable people. For example, the world of knitting, which seems like the most innocent and innocuous hobby in the world, can be fraught with politics and controversy — and the most prominent knitters around today are not senior citizens, but 20-something women. Who knew?

Go to the theatre

Go see plays as much (and as safely) as you can. And while it’s always a nice treat to catch the latest touring musical or prestige play, you’ll learn more by seeing new works produced by small and mid-sized theaters (when they’re back in business again), because some of them will absolutely suck — and you’ll learn more sitting through one bad play than you will sitting through twenty Broadway hits.

Why? Because after a play that just misses the mark, it’s your turn to ask, “Why didn’t it work?” Was it the production and acting getting in the way, or was it the story itself?

If the former is the problem, that can give you great insight into how to actor- and director-proof your works without being obvious. If it’s the latter, then you get to be the dramaturg and fix the story in your head.

Not to mention that I have gotten more great ideas while watching bad plays — and ideas that had nothing to do with that play, but which might have been inspired by one element on the set or a particular character or costume — that bad theatre is perversely worth it in getting a creative education.

Do theatre

It’s always been my belief that anyone who wants to be involved in theatre as a writer (or actor, director, or designer) should do as many jobs as possible at least once. That includes helping to build and strike the sets, running sound or lights or both, directing a play, even if it’s a short one, and acting.

Yes — if you want to be a writer, you need to act in at least one production. It doesn’t have to be a major role. You just need to go through the process, including performing in front of an audience, in order to understand what you shouldn’t do to your actors.

For example, never write a costume change for a character who is onstage at the end of one scene and onstage at the beginning of the next unless you know that a designer can create a quick-change version. Otherwise, start the subsequent scene with some other character or business to give the actor time to change.

Or, if you’re writing for a smaller theater with a limited budget, try to keep it all confined to one set with as few operating doors as possible — did you know that working doors are one of the most expensive things you can install on a set? I didn’t find that out until I wrote a farce with eight of them.

Once again, I got rolling on a subject that just became too long for one post, so check back next Thursday for the second and final part of my advice. Thanks for reading!

Image: Moliere, by Mcleclat, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Theatre Thursday: Brush up your Shakespeare?

I was recently listening to yet another fabulous Matt Baume podcast on his Sewers of Paris channel, an interview with Jeffrey Masters, trained Shakespearean actor who instead shifted to journalism and podcasting when he came from New York to L.A. and realized that Hollywood didn’t give two warm shits about the Bard.

Kind of a shame, really, but a question did come up in the podcast, clearly asked by a non-actor.

“Isn’t Shakespeare harder to do?”

And Jeffrey eventually end-ran his way around to the answer I would have given: No. In fact, Shakespeare is actually much easier to perform because, face it, he was so much better a writer than any of our modern English language playwrights, and I’ll peg “modern” as having started as soon as British theatres reopened after the restoration of King Charles II.

Honestly, given the choice between having to learn all the lines for a major role in Shakespeare or a one scene walk-on by… name any major Broadway playwright of the 20th or 21st century — O’Neill, Hart, Miller, Simon, Shepard, Hansberry, Norman, Churchill, Hellman, Miranda, Vogel, Rebeck, Wasserstein, Kushner, Mamet…

Well, while a lot of them are amazing writers, with the first five only doing “White people theatre” and the last practically being a Jewish neo-Nazi, if we leave all of that out and just focus on the words…

Shakespeare is still far, far easier to memorize, learn, and put some real emotional power behind.

Why?

Well, number one is that Shakespeare did tend to write his stuff in iambic pentameter, so that you had lines on a regular meter: “ba-DUM-ba-DUM-ba-DUM, ba-DUM-ba-DUM-dum.”

Note that there are five emphasized syllables there — the “DUM” bits, and each of those is preceded by an unstressed syllable. We can ignore that dangling “dum” at the end. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes it’s not.

But fill this phrase up with words, and here’s an example of what you get:

To be or not to be, that is the question…

Of course, he didn’t always do this, and really messed with things in MacBeth. For example, the witches spoke in trochaic tetrameter — four syllable feet with the first emphasized, as in “BUBB-le, BUBBLE, TOIL and TROUB-le.” But what really made things weird in the play was one particular and yet very common word…

Which appeared three times in that paragraph.

It wasn’t just the rhythms and beauty of Shakespeare’s words that made his stuff easy to learn and perform, though. It was that he gave his characters rich inner lives and strong needs, and that went from his leads all the way down to his spear carriers.

One great example was when I played every single spear-carrier in The Comedy of Errors, and although it was really only two characters combined who physically appeared in multiple scenes but only spoke in a few, Willie Shakes had me covered, because he left enough breadcrumbs in those lines to give me a motivation and a through-line.

Basically, my character was a rent-a-cop only motivated by the money, which became really important in those moments when I suddenly had to deal with the leads in the show.

“He is my prisoner, if I let him go, the debt he owes will be required of me.” Note that “prisoner” is two syllables here; pris-ner. And I still remember that goddamn lovely line almost twenty years later — which my director made me deliver in an over-the-top bad 50s Broadway Irish accent.

Don’t ask.

But somehow my plea worked, the wife of Lead #1 paid me off, and life was good for my character from then on.

Another time I stuck Shakespeare in my head came after that show and when I somehow managed to lock myself out of my own car radio, but my dealer couldn’t fix it. Since it was in the days before Bluetooth and I had a 20-minute commute from home to Dreamworks SKG every day, I did the only logical thing.

I learned every single monologue delivered by Gloucester aka Richard III in all of the history plays he appeared in — which, was basically all three Henry VI plays, plus the Richard III one. And then I recited them over and over on the way to and from work for months.

Now? I don’t remember a lot, but that’s only through lack of repetition.

As for other roles by other playwrights I’ve done? Good luck. They have neither rhyme nor reason and, quite often, no greater motivation or inner life if they are not the lead characters.

A quick example of a play in which I also played a jailer character was Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out,” which in general was an amazing story documenting exactly why A) Jailing sex-workers and drug users was totally ridiculous, and B) Why the way they were treated upon release all but guaranteed they would wind up back in the system.

Anyway, I was one of the two guards dealing with her in prison in the flashback wraparound, and while it kind of felt like there was supposed to be a “good guard”/”bad guard” dynamic going on because I was kind of nice to her in one scene, there really wasn’t enough to hang that on.

Why? Because in all my other scenes, I was just as dickish to her as the other guard. I was a fucking prop, and nothing more. Boring!

Simon, O’Neill, and the other perpetrators of WYPIPO theater? Okay, I guess that your stuff was really important when Irish immigrants and Jews were in the non-represented classes, but guess what?

Just during or after WWII, the Irish (my people!) fucked their way such a big dent into culture that we actually earned our “whiteness” after having been considered sub-human up until the 1920s. No, seriously — Irish immigrants used to be classed about one half-step above people labeled as Negroes. Don’t ask — it was a really, really ugly era in American history.

Meanwhile… Jews were also treated equally badly and, again, it was only after WWII, and when the horrors of the Holocaust were finally revealed that Americans did yet another “Oh, shit… that’s fucked up dance.”

End result? In the late 40s and 1950s, American Jews took over the film and TV industry (in a good way) and changed the face of American humor forever.

Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Lenny Bruce, Shelly Berman, Sid Caesar, and on and on and on? Do any of those names sound familiar?

But… back to the point… if you’re afraid of Shakespeare and speak English, then you do not belong on stage at all, period.

Flash back to the aforementioned list of Jewish creators and, guess what? Every single one of them was probably deeply steeped in Shakespeare.

I know that Brooks, Allen, Bruce, and Caesar were, at least.

Again, though… the problem with trying to learn dialogue from modern playwrights is that there is no damn poetry in it. Not that I can’t memorize those lines. It’s just that it takes a metric fuckton longer to do so.

And… no matter how many words you write, they are never going to be as pretty as those from the Bard of Avon.

BTW, as a produced and published playwright, I include myself on that list. Yeah, I probably have written some interesting shit, but it’s nowhere as easy to learn as what the Bard put down,

Fight me!

Theatre Thursday: Fact and fiction

About six hundred and eight years ago, Henry V was crowned king of England. You probably know him as that king from the movie with Kenneth Branagh, or the BBC series aired under the title The Hollow Crown.

Either way, you know him because of Shakespeare. He was the king who grew up in Shakespeare’s second tetralogy. Yes, that’s a set of four plays and since it was his second, Shakespeare sort of did the Star Wars thing first: he wrote eight plays on the subject of the English Civil war.

And, much like Lucas, he wrote the original tetralogy first, then went back and did the prequels. Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V were written after but happened before Henry VI, Part 1, Henry VI, Part 2, Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III.

Incidentally, Henry VI, Part 1, is famous for having Joan of Arc (aka Joan la Pucelle in the play) as one of the antagonists. Funny thing is, that name wasn’t slander on Shakespeare’s part. That’s what she preferred to call herself.

Meanwhile, Richard III, of course, is the Emperor Palpatine of the series, although we never did get a Richard IV, mainly because he never existed in history. Well, not officially. Richard III’s successor was Henry VII, and Shakespeare never wrote about him, either, although he did gush all over Henry VIII, mainly because he was the father of the Bard’s patron, Elizabeth I. CYA.

If you’ve ever seen the film My Own Private Idaho, directed by Gus Van Sant and staring River Phoenix and Keanu Reeves, then you’ve seen a modern retelling of the two parts of Henry IV.

Now when it comes to adapting true stories to any dramatic medium, you’re going to run into the issue of dramatic license. A documentary shouldn’t have this problem and shouldn’t play with the truth, although it happens. Sometimes, it can even prove fatal.

But when it comes to a dramatic retelling, it is often necessary to fudge things, sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. It’s not at all uncommon for several characters to be combined into a composite just to make for a cleaner plot. After all, is it that big of a difference if, say, King Flagbarp IX in real life was warned about a plot against him in November by his chamberlain Norgelglap, but the person who told him the assassin’s name in February was his chambermaid Hegrezelda?

Maybe, maybe not, but depending on what part either of those characters plays in the rest of the story, as well as the writer’s angle, they may both be combined as Norgelglap or as Hegrezelda, or become a third, completely fictionalized character, Vlanostorf.

Time frames can also change, and a lot of this lands right back in Aristotle’s lap. He created the rules of drama long before hacks like the late Syd Field tried (and failed), and Ari put it succinctly. Every dramatic work has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and should have unity of place, unity of time, and unity of action.

A summary of the last three is this, although remember that Aristotle was writing about the stage. For film and video, your mileage will vary slightly.

The story takes place in one particular location, although that location can be a bit broad. It can be the king’s castle, or it can be the protagonist’s country.

It should take place over a fairly short period of time. Aristotle liked to keep it to a day, but there’s leeway, and we’ve certainly seen works that have taken place over an entire lifetime — although that is certainly a form of both unity of time and unity of place, if you consider the protagonist to be the location as well.

Unity of action is a little abstract, but in a nutshell it’s this: Your plot is about one thing. There’s a single line that goes from A to Z: What your protagonist wants, and how they get it.

Now, my own twist on the beginning, middle, and end thing is that this is a three act structure that gives us twenty-seven units. (Aristotle was big on 5 acts, which Shakespeare used, but that’s long since fallen out of fashion.)

Anyway, to me, we have Act I, II, and III. Beginning, middle, and end. But each of those has its own beginning, middle and end. So now we’re up to nine: I: BME; II: BME; III: BME.

Guess what? Each of those subunits also has a beginning, middle, and end. I’m not going to break that one down further than this. The beginning of the beginning, Act I: B, has its own BME, repeat eight more times.

The end result is 3 x 3 x 3, or twenty-seven.

And that’s my entire secret to structure. You’re welcome.

But because of these little constraints, and because history is messy, it’s necessary to switch things up to turn a true story into a “based on true events” work. Real life doesn’t necessarily have neat beginnings, middles, and endings. It also doesn’t necessarily take place in one spot, or in a short period of time.

So it becomes the artist’s job to tell that story in a way that is as true to reality as possible without being married to the facts.

Although it is also possible to go right off the rails with it, and this is one of the reasons I totally soured on Quentin Tarantino films. It’s one thing to fudge facts a little bit, but when he totally rewrites history in Inglorious Basterds, ignores historical reality in Django Unchained, and then curb stomps reality and pisses on its corpse in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I’m done.

Inglorious Misspelling is a particularly egregious example because the industry does a great disservice in selling false history to young people who unfortunately, aren’t getting the best educations right now.

Anecdotal moment: A few years back, an Oscar-winning friend of mine had a play produced that told the story of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. They were a company composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese Americans during WW II, and joining the company was the alternative given to going to an internment camp.

Of course, being racists, the U.S. government couldn’t send them to the Pacific Theatre to fight, so they sent them to Europe, and a lot of the play takes place in Italy, where the regiment was stationed. And, at intermission, my playwright friend heard two 20-something audience members talking to each other. One of them asked, “What was the U.S. even doing in Italy in World War II?” and the other just shrugged and said, “Dunno.”

So, yeah. If you’re going to go so far as to claim that Hitler was killed in a burning movie theater before the end of the war, just stop right there before you shoot a frame. Likewise with claiming that the Manson murders never happened because a couple of yahoos ran into the killers first.

Yeah, Quentin, you were old, you were there, you remember. Don’t stuff younger heads with shit.

But I do digress.

In Shakespeare’s case, he was pretty accurate in Henry V, although in both parts of Henry IV, he created a character who was both one of his most memorable and one of his more fictional: Sir John Falstaff. In fact, the character was so popular that, at the Queen’s command, Shakespeare gave him his own spinoff, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Hm. Shades of Solo in the Star Wars universe?

Falstaff never existed in real life, but was used as a way to tell the story of the young and immature Henry (not yet V) of Monmouth, aka Prince Hal.

Where Shakespeare may have played more fast and loose was in Richard III. In fact, the Bard vilified him when it wasn’t really deserved. Why? Simple. He was kissing up to Elizabeth I. She was a Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII who, as mentioned previously, was the son of Henry VII, the king who took over when Richard III lost the war of the roses.

The other time that Shakespeare didn’t treat a king so well in a play? King John — which I personally take umbrage to, because I’m directly descended from him. No, really. But the idea when Willie Shakes did that was to draw a direct contrast to how Good Queen Bess did so much better in dealing with Papal interference. (TL;DR: He said, “Okay,” she said, “Eff off.”)

Since most of my stage plays have been based on true stories, I’ve experienced this directly many times, although one of the more interesting came with the production of my play Bill & Joan, because I actually accidentally got something right.

When I first wrote the play, the names of the cops in Mexico who interrogated him were not included in the official biography, so I made up two fictional characters, Enrique and Tito. And so they stayed like that right into pre-production in 2013.

Lo and behold, a new version of the biography of Burroughs I had originally used for research came out, and I discovered two amazing things.

First… I’d always known that Burroughs’ birthday was the day before mine, but I suddenly found out that his doomed wife actually shared my birthday. And the show happened to run during both dates.

Second… the names of the cops who interrogated him were finally included, and one of them was named… Tito.

Of course, I also compressed time, moved shit around, made up more than a few characters, and so forth. But the ultimate goal was to tell the truth of the story, which was: Troubled couple who probably shouldn’t have ever gotten together deals with their issues in the most violent and tragic way possible, and one of them goes on to become famous. The other one dies.

So yes, if you’re writing fiction it can be necessary to make stuff up, but the fine line is to not make too much stuff up. A little nip or tuck here and there is fine. But, outright lies? Nah. Let’s not do that.

Talkie Tuesday: Nine English words people just made up

Languages evolve the same way as anything else: Growth and change. What becomes useful survives and what doesn’t dies. English is no different, although it’s a language that loves to grow via consumption — taking in bits of other languages or finding new uses for old words.

Sometimes the words are just made up by writers in their works — and sometimes, those words go on to become a part of the language.

The words below are listed in alphabetical order, but don’t go looking for Shakespeare’s name. While he’s often credit with creating hundreds of new English words, he really didn’t. Rather, he was really good at collecting them from what he heard, then using them in his plays to make the dialogue sound realistic — it was how the people were talking in the streets.

The problem happened when the first Oxford English Dictionary was created, and the entries had to include an attestation to first printed use. Well, at that time, guess who that often was? And so Shakespeare wound up being credited as the source of words that he, at best, curated.

That doesn’t diminish his genius one it, though. Now here are the words.

Blatant

Source: Edward Spenser’s poem, The Faerie Queene

This word first appears in the form of the Blatant Beast, who works for Envie and Detraction, two allegorical figures. Of them, the poem says:

Vnto themselues they gotten had

A monster, which the Blatant beast men call,

A dreadfull feend of gods and men ydrad.

While the original Blatant Beast represented the worst sort of slander that could be spread about a person, the word eventually lost its beastly origins and came to mean offensive or in your face — “a blatant disregard for the truth.”

Chortle
Source: Lewis Carroll’s poem, Jabberwocky

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…

These lines open Carroll’s brilliant gibberish poem that is, nevertheless, somewhat understandable because the grammar and parts of speech follow English rules and rhythm perfectly even if the words don’t quite. In that opening line, it’s quite obvious that “brillig” refers to something about the place we’re at, and slithy toves are creatures (nouns) that do actions (verbs) in a particular place — the wabe.

While Carroll’s Alice books were more likely than not a satire of “modern” math written by a rather conservative mathematician, they nonetheless also reflected his fascination and extreme talent with words. Jabberwocky also uses familiar structure — traditional math — with nonsense expressions standing in for all the standard variables as a reflection of Carroll’s disdain for what was happening to math at the time.

As for “chortle,” it appears in this sentence, after the hero has slain the Jabberwock: “’O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ he chortled in his joy.” Here, the word can be taken as a portmanteau of chuckle and snorted.

Cyberspace

Source: William Gibson’s short story Burning Chrome

This one took off and took on meaning fast, becoming deeply entrenched in our culture particularly after the rise of the internet. The short story was first published in the magazine OMNI in 1982.

The first instance in the book is here: “I knew every chip in Bobby’s simulator by heart; it looked like your workaday Ono-Sendai VII, the “Cyberspace Seven…”

The term didn’t really take off two years later, when he used it in his novel, Neuromancer, and it’s defined thusly: “The matrix has its roots in primitive arcade games… Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.”

Sounds like the internet, doesn’t it? Sort of, but in Gibson’s vision, it went a little bit farther. Think Ready Player One — VR that’s interactive to the point that your own mind is projected into it.

Neuromancer was not the first cyberpunk novel or even the first work in the genre, but Gibson was its most famous author, and he boosted the aesthetic into the zeitgeist.

Freelance

Source: Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe

You’ll probably figure out the origin of this one as soon as I explain the premise of Scott’s 1819 novel. Set in England in the Middle Ages several centuries after the time of the Norman Conquest, it tells the story of one of the last remaining Anglo-Saxon noble families in the country.

The story is contemporaneous with Robin Hood, and the hero, Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, is a knight. This is one of the first modern stories to popularize the whole idea of chivalry and jousting tournaments with the English-speaking world, and now you probably have guessed how the word “freelance”  came up in the work.

Since these knights jousted and fought with lances, a “freelance” was someone who held no allegiance to a king or prince but, rather, was available for hire.

Mondegreen

Source: Sylvia Wright’s magazine article The Death of Lady Mondegreen

This one is almost charming, but the word itself has taken on an entire life online. The term refers to terribly misheard song lyrics, with one of the most cited being people hearing Jimi Hendrix’s “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” as “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

In Wright’s case, it was her mother who had misread a poem to her when she was a girl. The poem was Percy’s Reliques, and the correct line was, “layd him on the green,” which came out of her mother’s mouth as “Lady Mondegreen.”

Needless to day, it wasn’t until years later that Wright figured out the error and wrote her article, ushering the word into common usage and a great source of memes.

Nerd

Source: Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo

While Seuss himself didn’t define this one, it popped up in college slang with its modern meaning a year later in 1951, and while Merriam-Webster seems to think that this argues against Seuss inventing it, it actually makes perfect sense.

Families were bigger then and babysitting was an ubiquitous occupation, so it’s quite plausible that a high school senior or college freshman picked it up from reading to a younger sibling or babysitting client and the word made its way from there.

Here’s its original appearance in the book:

And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-troo

And bring back an It-kutch, a Preep and a Proo,

A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker, too!

Again, it’s not defined, although the word “seersucker” was and still is a well-known fabric with somewhat square and nerdy connotations, so that may have helped define it to those college kids who took off with it.

Pandemonium

Source: John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost

Milton was the author who went ahead and wrote the origin story for Dante’s Inferno (okay, Divine Comedy, but no one ever reads the other two parts), and here he tells the story of Satan, the war in Heaven, and all that yadda yadda.

To him, Pandemonium was the capital of Hell, and the word was derived pretty simply: from the Greek prefix pan-, meaning all, and demonium, referring to the realm of the demons. So the word simply meant “Place of all demons.”

Scaredy-cat

Source: Dorothy Parker’s short story The Waltz

It’s the “scaredy” part that she coined here, although it’s been firmly welded to the word cat, so that it never appears separately or in any other compound. You’ll never hear “scaredy-dog,” after all.

The modern definition is somebody who’s afraid of everything, but in the context of the story, it has the typical Dorothy Parker sarcastic bite to it. In the story, she’s a woman at a dance feeling sorry for another woman is currently dancing with a man she doesn’t want to.

But then Parker’s character realizes she’s probably going to be asked yes and doesn’t want to, visualizes all kinds of scenarios on how to get out of it, including referring to seeing him in hell first or having labor pains, but she concludes with, “Oh, yes, do let’s dance together — it’s so nice to meet a man who isn’t a scaredy-cat about catching my beri-beri…”

Ultimately, she realizes that she has no choice but to politely comply.

Yahoo

Source: Jonathan Swift’s satirical novel Gulliver’s Travels

Long before it was an internet company that’s pretty much since past its prime, “yahoo” was coined by Jonathan Swift as the name of a depraved and filthy group of creatures Lemuel Gulliver encounters in his travels.

They are obsessed with digging through filth and mud to find pretty stones, making them stand-ins for the author to mock the petty materialism and elitism of 18th century Britain. There’s also one wild theory that their appearance in the book was based on contemporary reports of the Sasquatch coming from Native Americans at the time, but that could be specious.

And there you have it. Nominated for the list but cut upon investigation: The allegation that Dorothy Plath coined “dreamscape,” when it’s fairly badly attested, along with claims that Alexandre Dumas fils created “feminist.” Not only did the word exist before he used it in 1872, but he used it in a pamphlet that was extraordinarily misogynistic, so no credit to him.

What are your favorite invented words? Let us know in the comments.

Sunday Nibble #68: Son of what a drag

If you think that drag was created by RuPaul in 2009 with the premiere of Drag Race, you‘d be wrong. Drag goes back a long way in history, at least to the days of Greek Theatre with a stop on the way at Shakespeare.

In modern times, performers like Charles Busch and Divine made careers out of performing as women to varying degrees of camp. Both were slightly preceded by Charles Ludlam, although Ludlam’s drag tended to be incidental to his plays and not his main routine.

But… there’s someone who’s been doing drag since long before any of them, and who is probably more famous internationally as their drag persona than they are as themselves.

If you are from certain parts of the world, then you’re probably already familiar with Dame Edna Everage, outspoken Melbourne, Australia housewife. Well, she also self-describes as “investigative journalist, social anthropologist, talk show host, swami, children’s book illustrator, spin doctor, Zettastar, and Icon.”

In case you’re wondering, a “zettastar” is one quadrillion times as famous as a mere megastar.

Of course, if you are familiar with Dame Edna, then you’re already know the secret: Dame Edna is a character performed by Australian writer, actor, entertainer, and painter Barry Humphries AO CBE, who has been doing the role since 1956.

That’s going on 65 years now, if you can believe it. Of course, Humphries himself turned 87 this year, but he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen Dame Edna several times live. Hell, I actually saw Charles Busch perform in his plays a couple of times, too. But Edna gives one hell of a show. It’s just her on stage, holding court and doing a combination of scripted routine and insanely good improv interactions with the audience.

At some point, usually near the end of the show, she’ll sing and hurl gladiolas into the audience. At about the midpoint, she’ll introduce another performer, usually one of her “grandchildren,” who will do their own routine — this appears to be designed to allow Humphries to have a brief intermission, since it’s a full-length show that runs without a break.

Traditionally, the show ends with Edna exiting and video following her backstage, where Humphries is lurking in the shadows. He’ll wind up locking her in her dressing room, and then he’ll come onstage as himself in a tuxedo to take her bows.

It’s a brilliant evening and while Edna can be vicious toward certain classes, like politicians and the like, the gentle teasing she does with her audiences always comes with great affection. It’s clear that she’s just having fun but with no malice.

My favorite joke of hers ever, though, happened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. It’s part of the Center Theatre Group (CTG), a non-profit arts organization comprising parts of the Music Center, as well as the Kirk Douglas Theatre, located in nearby Culver City which, as the name might imply, is its own municipality, separate from Los Angeles.

Around here, you can’t always rely on the “city” designation, though — Universal City, Studio City, and Century City are not, in fact, separate entities. Temple City and City of Industry are.

But back to the joke. There were a few empty rows in the orchestra for the performance, and at one point Edna referred to them. “Do you see all of those empty seats, possums?” she asked the audience, using her favored nickname for fans.

“Well, do you know why they’re empty? They belong to what are known as ‘subscribers,’ who are are all very old people who’ve come to the theatre for years. They buy those seats for the season, and then they die.”

A truer statement has never been made about CTG.

Humphries was born on February 17, 1934. Almost exactly three years earlier, on February 20, 1931, another famous drag performer named B. Morris Young died at the age of 77 after having a career performing in drag that lasted almost 50 years.

His persona was a singer known as Madam Pattirini, and while not a lot is known about his performances, it has been reported that he had a very believable falsetto and many people in the audience never even realized he was a man.

There’s a reason I’m not linking to Pattirini, Young, or the brand of gin named for his character. The secret here is just too good to reveal early, so don’t google anything yet! I can show you a commercial for the gin, though.

Now, in those days, drag wasn’t necessarily connected to the gay community. This was mainly because no such thing existed at that time. Drag was still a part of Victorian era theatre on both sides of the Atlantic.

Yes, there were certainly gay drag performers, but it wasn’t an exclusively gay thing. Young himself was almost certainly not gay. He was married and had ten children. He just enjoyed performing as a female Italian diva.

Maybe it was just a way to make himself stand out a bit among his siblings, which was probably necessary. Why? Because he was born #35 out of an astonish 56.

Or maybe it’s not so astonishing when I tell you that his first initial, “B,” stood for Brigham, and his father was Brigham Young. Yes, that one — the guy who was Joseph Smith’s successor as leader of the Mormon Church.

Now, as far as can be told. B. Morris Young didn’t start performing as Madam Pattirini until after his father had gone off to… well, one heaven or another or something. Okay, until after Dad died.

But you’ve read it correctly. Brigham Young’s son was a drag queen.

Theatre Thursday: The ghost light is still burning

I haven’t performed on a stage in public for one year, three months, a week, and a day now and at this point I don’t know when I will again. Except for the main company, the rest of the improv troupes that used to be part of the whole have disbanded and although our Monday night Rec League group has met and practiced via Zoom the whole time, it’s just not the same.

As I see live theatre start to sneak back into reality, it just reminds me of how much I miss the experience of performing — and the great irony of that is that I never set out to be an actor or improviser in the first place. My goal was always to be a writer. I just fell into the acting accidentally.

Like probably everyone, I’d done a couple of elementary school plays, but didn’t really think of those as acting. In my first, I was one out of six lumberjacks with construction paper axes and no, I have no idea what the play was, except that I don’t think it was Little Red Riding Hood but it was staged right in the classroom.

In my last year of elementary school, we did do a production of The Pied Piper of Hamlin and we did it on the actual stage in the auditorium. I actually had a fairly featured part — a young boy named Obi. Since he was lame, he wasn’t able to follow the piper with the rest of the children, so he was the only one who knew what could happen and was able to tell the adults.

I had a big speech and everything, although we had a glitch. There was a student who transferred to the school a fairly short time before the performance but, in the interest of having everyone participate, the teacher cast him in a speaking part. Not having had enough time to prepare and rehearse, he totally forgot his lines — which were all in the same scene that was my big one.

Since none of us were particularly good at ad-libbing, the production sort of slid off the rails until someone finally ran on and handed him the book — although he did wind up repeating the speech that was my cue, which got awkward, since the only thing I knew to do was to repeat my scene as well.

When I did get into drama class in middle school, I really sucked at it, so that made me performance shy except for playing piano and keyboards for a couple of musicals. In college, I had no intention of pursuing theatre, except that the music thing came up to lure me back in.

One of the theatre professors heard from one of my friends that I owned a synthesizer, so she contacted me to ask if I wanted to play in the combo for the musical she was directing that fall, which was my first semester of freshman year.

It sounded like fun, so I figured, “Okay, what the hell,” and did it, and it was a game-changer. There were four of us in the combo — piano, bass, drums, and synth. The musical was an odd little show called Philemon, originally produced off-Broadway in 1975, although it never really went on to become a hit, more on why in a moment.

What’s most notable about it, though is that it was created by the same team that had created The Fantasticks fifteen years earlier, and that show still holds the record for longest continuous run of any show in the U.S. The off-Broadway premiere was in 1960 and it didn’t close until 2002.

It could be argued that San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon had a longer run, premiering in 1974 and not closing until 2020. However, it did change venues and it was also a very topical review, so the numbers, performers, subject matter, and lyrics were changing constantly, so it could just as rightly be argued that it wasn’t really the same show or in the same category.

But I was talking about meeee! Back to Philemon: It’s actually a very dark show. Set in third century C.E. Antioch during the Roman occupation, the premise is simple. The location is a Roman prison (concentration camp, perhaps?) holding arrested dissidents, Christians among them.

The rumor is that a famous Christian leader, Philemon, is coming to liberate them. The Romans would really like to figure out who the Christians are but in order to do it, they need a fake Philemon. It just so happens that an amoral street performer and clown, Cockian, has just been arrested, but the head of the camp has an offer for him.

You’ve probably figured out that the offer is to pretend to be Philemon and flush out the Christians, and the story goes from there. The songs were actually surprisingly good and fun to play, and since we were sitting behind the set which was covered with scrims, we could see everything onstage while the audience could not see us — at least not until our curtain call moment, when a change of lighting revealed us.

One of my favorite stories from that play involves a number in which I played a single note as undertone during a monologue, slowly bending the pitch down. I quickly figured out the trick of putting a pencil under the key so I could just focus on the pitch bend, but noticed something else during the course of the run.

This monologue was a speech given by a character who had been discovered to be Christian and sentenced to be flogged to death, and the actor in the role convinced the director to let him do the scene nude — which actually made sense in context. Of course, they kept it tasteful for the audience and most of the rest of the cast was sitting under the upper level of the set at that time, so they couldn’t see anything.

The band, however, had front row seats for Liam’s backstage entrance and butt-ass naked climb up the ladder to that platform, so we got to see everything. But that’s not the interesting part.

No — it’s that I started to time how long I had to play that single note while we were in dress rehearsals, and it started out at about two and a half minutes. But then, once the audience came in, Liam’s performance got more and more dramatic and emotional every night. By the time we closed, that note was almost six and a half minutes.

That’s called milking it.

The next semester, my friends from Philemon talked me into going to the theatre department’s first meeting, then egged me into auditioning for the next play. Figuring that there’d be no way in hell I’d get cast, since I wasn’t even a theatre major, I auditioned — and got cast in a fairly prominent speaking role.

Well, damn. And then I became a theatre minor, did a bunch of shows in college with both the theatre department and the school’s student drama club, and enjoyed it all immensely. But after graduation, I hung up my performing hats for a while and just focused on writing.

I think, by that point, I’d taken to just performing in real life, so didn’t really need an artificial stage. Plus the format of the writing workshop I belonged to consisted of all the writers getting together weekly and then doing dramatic reads of each other’s pages, and I got quite a lot of practice at cold reading and acting, not to mention a chance to perform. I was involved with various groups like that for years, right up until I made the switch to improv.

Of course, writing would eventually bring me back to performing, and this happened after I had joined the writing arm of a theatre company that was on the verge of collapsing. That would have been Actors Alley at the El Portal Theatre, and once it did blow up, somebody else created The Company Rep from its ashes.

At first, I just stuck with the writing group, but after they had moved to a larger theater and announced that they were doing Camino Real, I just had to jump back in again, and so I did. I auditioned, got a really great part that was mostly non-speaking, so very physical, and although I’m sure that show was sheer torture for the audience, it popped me right back on that performing horse again.

The Company Rep didn’t last too long, but I did manage a few really fun roles as well as tech gigs during that time. And then, the biggest irony was that when I got into improv, it was with the company that occupied exactly the same 99-seat space within the El Portal Theatre that Actors Alley had died in and The Company Rep had been born in.

Full circle, then, when the improv company shut down in 2020.

“We’re actors. We’re the opposite of people!” That’s perhaps my favorite line from Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which is a wonderfully loopy meta take on Hamlet. Indeed, the whole Stoppard masterpiece is just one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays as seen from the POV of two minor characters who are summarily dispatched by the melancholy Dane when he turns the tables and alters a letter.

But it’s true. It’s probably the case for a lot of actors, but when we’re not onstage, we can be introverted, awkward, and shy. Throw us on stage, though, with or without a script, and that’s when we’re given permission to come alive.

If only theatre weren’t still dead right now. But, as I said in the title, the ghost light is still burning, so there is still hope that we’ll be back, bigger and better than ever. Hey — a little plague couldn’t stop Shakespeare, right? It’s not going to stop us.

Theatre Thursday: Of plague and playwrights

Although the possible anniversary of his birth in 1564 and the definite anniversary of his death in 1616 isn’t until tomorrow, April 23, I thought it was worth re-running this tribute from April 23, 2020, in which our world became a lot more like the world Shakespeare was plunged into ten years before his death. He’s been gone for 405 years, but only physically, of course. He’s left an incomparable imprint on all of western literature and the English language that we feel to this day.

We’re not really sure whether April 23 is the day that William Shakespeare was born, but it was the day he died. I don’t have any particular connection to that date otherwise, but I feel that I now have a stronger connection to the Bard, because both of us had plays shut down due to a plague.

For Shakespeare, it was in 1606, when the theaters were shuttered right after, or perhaps during, his premiere productions of King Lear and Macbeth. By the time productions resumed in the winter, and had moved out of the open-air theaters, the all-boy companies who had portrayed women onstage were a thing of the past, and shows were often candle-lit.

After the plague year, Shakespeare only wrote one more tragedy (Anthony and Cleopatra) and one more history (Henry VIII — although he may have written that one earlier, since Elizabeth I died in 1603.).

Otherwise, everything that came after was based on myth or legend, and this is when he created some of his most atypical works: Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Pericles (often considered Shakespeare’s weirdest), Cymbeline (a very black comedy), The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest, and The Two Noble Kinsmen (probably co-written with John Fletcher.)

Now, while the play I had shut down is probably far less consequential than any of the Bard’s, it was still difficult. The only mitigating factor was that theater in California went dark a couple of weeks before we were scheduled to open.

However, I was fortunate in two things. First, that the director, theater owner, cast, and I all gathered on Zoom to toast the cancelled opening night and get to know each other — unlike all but one of my other shows, I’d been unable to attend rehearsals for this one. Second, later on, the director, cast, and I got together on Zoom for a private performance of the show.

Now, granted, it’s a very physical farce that pays tribute to Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton, and other writers who have influenced me. So, let’s just say that it loses a lot of that physicality when it’s just talking heads in little boxes. On the other hand, the cast still gave it their all, and my faith in the director’s choices and the actors’ abilities was not misplaced.

As a writer, it’s a rare thing when seeing your own work performed can still move you emotionally, mainly because you’ve lived inside it for so long, so it technically doesn’t have any surprises. And yet, with a brilliant cast, the humor or the drama all come flying back at you because they bring their own surprises.

I only create the characters in my head, but the  premiere cast makes them their own and cements that interpretation, and that is why I love the collaboration of theater, even if sometimes it can’t happen directly.

When I do get to develop a work through rehearsal, incredible things happen. But even when I only get to give occasional notes or am inspired to do rewrites, incredible things still happen.

That’s the magic of theater, and no plague or disaster or worldwide shutdown can ever stop that permanently. It can only put it on pause, but the art-form will keep coming back, over, and over, and over again.

Finally, in honor of the possible birthday of Willie Shakes, here’s a little music video version of a number from a show I was lucky enough to see onstage before everything shut down, and which I absolutely love. The show is a musical comedy called Something Rotten, and it posits the idea that Nick and Nigel Bottom were rival playwrights to Shakespeare in 1595.

Jealous of his fame, they enlist the help of Nostradamus’ nephew to use his psychic powers to figure out what Shakespeare is working on so that the Bottom Brothers can steal it. Needless to say, Thomas Nostradamus falls short of the mark, to hilarious effect.

The interpretation of Shakespeare is… unique, to say the least, but it fits the conceit. Here is the always fantastic Christian Borle as the Bard, in a role for which he won a Tony. Enjoy!

Image: William Shakespeare, public domain via (CC) BY-SA 4.0.

Theatre Thursday: A Bard’s dozen

I am a huge fan of Shakespeare, so keep that in mind and… here we go…

One of the most remarkable things about Shakespeare is that the psychological truths in his plays are so universal that they offer themselves up for endless adaptations and recreations. They can be staged as faithfully as possible to the actual look and feel of whatever era he was writing about, or be stretched and bent into just about anything else. A lot of people may not know it, but the seminal 1950s science fiction film Forbidden Planet is somewhat based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and when you can easily leap from 17th century romance to 20th century science fiction, it says a lot about the original writer.

The other amazing thing about his works is this, and something I cannot emphasize enough to someone who fears getting into Shakespeare: Yes, it may be hard to read his words on the page, but watch them acted by brilliant performers, and you’ll be sucked in in a second. The language barrier will vanish while the emotional power will take you over.

Here then are half a dozen straight adaptations of his works, followed by half a dozen that only took inspiration but still delivered powerful stories because, after all, the Bard of Avon was a powerful story-teller.

Straight Adaptations (Most to least faithful to the original era of the story)

  1. Romeo and Juliet (1968)

Probably one of the Bard’s best-know works, which also gave us West Side Story and  Romeo + Juliet, this tale of star-crossed lovers was best told and most accurately cast in Zeffirelli’s version. Unfortunately, years later, the actor Bruce Robinson, who played Benvolio in the film, took part in the #MeToo movement, when he revealed that Zeffirelli sexually harassed him on set.

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999, Kevin Kline)

This is one of the most over-produced Shakespeare plays ever, possibly because it’s really the least substantial, but at least this version managed to nail things down definitively with an amazing cast. I mean, come on… Kevin Kline, Roger Rees, Sam Rockwell, Stanley Tucci, Rupert Everett, Michelle Pfeiffer,  Dominic West, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, and David Strathairn…  how much more stellar could you get?

  1. Henry V (1989)

Branagh. Shakespeare. Say no more. He is one of the most definitive Shakespearean actors — in fact, he can rightly tell Laurence Olivier to fuck right off (because, honestly Olivier wasn’t that good as Hamlet or Richard III.) But Branagh has brought us multiple Shakespearean adaptations, from Hamlet to Henry V to Much Ado, and all of them are brilliant. Still… his turn as director and star in the pivotal film in Shakespeare’s amazing “War of the Roses” cycle knocks everything else out of the park.

  1. Hamlet (1990)

Despite the allegations about Zefferelli mentioned above, he still gave us a version of Hamlet that rang true, even if Mel Gibson was way too old to play the hero and Glenn Close was way too young to play his mother. Branagh did it six years later, but his exercise was way too academic. Zefferelli’s is visceral and gutsy, and definitely blew Olivier’s bloodless 1948 attempt right out of the water. Unlike Branagh’s, Zefferelli did not adapt the play mostly uncut — which is why his version only runs 2 hours and 14 minutes, while Branagh’s is just over 4 hours.

  1. Richard III (1995)

This is my second favorite Shakespeare play starring one of my favorite actors, Ian McKellan, and the reimagination here is brilliant. It takes this War of the Roses and sets it in an imaginary world where the UK went through a civil war in the 1930s and the fascists won — at first. McKellan plays the humpbacked anti-hero with all of the nasty glee necessary, and is aided and abetted by an amazing cast. (Full disclosure: My actor’s dream would be to play Gloucester/Richard III through the whole cycle of plays he’s in, from all of the Henry VI’s through Richard III… He’s just that amazing a douchebag of a character.)

  1. Titus (1999)

And this is my favorite Shakespeare play, despite most Shakespeare scholars considering it problematic, but in Julie Taymor’s adaptation, it takes off and sings. Her first and most brilliant move was setting it in a Rome that is not specific, but is eternal — it could be anywhere from the time of Julius Caesar to the time of Mussolini, or maybe even Fellini, and it all works. On top of that, the cast is amazing: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming, Colm Feore, Harry Lennix, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Angus Macfadyen. If you’re not sure about Shakespeare, this is probably your best entry point.

Reimaginations (Nearest to furthest)

  1. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990)

Quick catch-up: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters from Hamlet. In the play, they are two old school pals of Hamlet, and they were brought in by the villain to lure Hamlet onto a boat-ride intended to lead to his death. However, Hamlet turns the tables, re-writes a letter and, instead, sentences these two to be executed in his stead. This play, by Tom Stoppard, makes R&G the lead characters, with the actions in Hamlet in the background, and becomes an existential comedy. In the film version, directed by Stoppard, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman essay the lead roles, with Richard Dreyfuss appearing as the lead player — more important here than he was in Hamlet.

  1. Ran (1985)

I saw this film at one of the revival houses in L.A. and went in knowing nothing about it, other than that it was directed by Akira Kurosawa. I was about one act into what I thought was some traditional drama set in the shogun era when my brain suddenly clicked and I realized, “Holy crap. This is King Lear.” And it was. Other than a gender swap up top regarding who inherits what, the rest of it is pure Shakespeare, and there are a lot of moments that really stand out visually, particularly the mad king wandering unharmed through a castle that is being pin-cushioned by arrows, and the summary execution of Lady Kaede, which indicates that maybe her blood pressure was a bit too high.

  1. Scotland, PA (2001)

Another odd little adaptation, but one which gets the source material entirely: This is Shakespeare’s story of ambitious monarchs writ large brought down to human scale, and it totally works. Yes, it’s set in a real place, and manages to reset all of the drama of Shakespeare’s original in the context of the petty squabbles inherent to a fast-food franchise. Surprisingly, though, this does not blunt the drama from the Scottish Play one bit.

  1. West Side Story (1961)

As if you didn’t know, this is Romeo & Juliet, updated and with an utterly amazing collaboration with seasoned pro Leonard Bernstein writing the score and newbie Stephen Sondheim providing the lyrics. This was lightning in a bottle, almost perfect in every way from Broadway onward, and the movie adaptation is one of the most incredible musicals ever filmed. The talent on tap is over the top, the numbers are choreographed to perfection (thank Jerome Robbins for that), and put this down as the second best adaptation of Romeo and Juliet ever filmed.

  1. 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

Also known as The Taming of the Shrew (see how the titles rhyme?) this is another Shakespeare update that is admirable for bringing the bard to a new and younger audience. It’s the same story in a different setting: Petruchio… er, Cameron, wants to date Bianca, but her dad is stuffy, so won’t let her date anyone until her older sister Kat hooks up. Enter Patrick Verona (see what they did there?) who will try to, well, tame that shrew. This all takes place at Padua High School, and it’s all a lot better than you might think it’d be from the description.

  1. Theater of Blood (1973)

All right. Question one: Do you like Shakespeare? Question two: Do you like Vincent Price? Question three: Are you a fan of horror movies? Well, if you answered “yes” to at least two of those questions, this is your lucky day. Theater of Blood is an amazing film in which Vincent Price plays a disgruntled Shakespearean actor who did not win a critics’ award, so goes on to bump off each of those critics following his most recent season of Shakespeare plays. The cast of critics is an all-star bunch of British actors of the 1970s, Price is abetted by the amazing Diana Rigg (what ho, Game of Thrones fans!) and we get the amazing combination of Price and Rigg doing Shakespeare, a comedy gore-fest, and a metric buttload of fantastic British actors, well, acting. Keep your eyes out for murders based on Julius Caesar, Troilus & Cressida, Cymbeline, The Merchant of Venice, Richard III, Othello, Henry VI: Part One, and Titus Andronicus. Price’s character fails, however, with attempts at Romeo & Juliet and King Lear. Oops… spoilers?

What is your favorite Shakespeare play or film adaptation? Let me know in the comments!

The horror, the horror…

With Halloween around the corner, it’s supposed to be time for horror films, but I’m not a big fan of the genre, especially not those of the “gore porn” variety. Saw and  Hostel and their ilk can fuck right off. But… there’s one classic that combines Vincent Price, Shakespeare, and a bit of gore in something that elevates it above the rest. Of course, it was made in the 70’s, so it had a lot of class.

I am not a fan of horror movies, at least not in their modern incarnations. Of course, a lot of classic horror — like every version of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc., actually isn’t modern horror. Neither are more recent examples, like Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, Alien, The Shining, John Carpenter’s The Thing, or Prince of Darkness.

It’s suspense. Those films were about the lurking potential danger of the monster. And even if in some cases the beast would lash out and kill, it was more about the group dealing with it in an intelligent way, and reacting emotionally to what was going on.

Once the genre started up in slasher mode, with each film trying to out-gore itself while including all of the tropes, I noped out. When we finally hit full-on torture porn in the naughts, I refused to watch any of them anymore. [Warning on that link: While the content is good, the author does terrible violence to proper use of the apostrophe. The horror!]

Still, there are two films that could be counted as somewhere in the zone between slasher and torture that I still consider favorites because there’s just something different about them. One of them you’ve probably heard of: David Fincher’s Se7en, and the fact that a particular uncredited actor in the film turned out to be a predatory monster in real life just adds to it. But again, this film isn’t about the murders. It’s about the journey the two detectives take in trying to catch the killer.

It’s the psychological manipulation that John Doe uses to drive David Mills to do exactly what he’s supposed to do that gives the film its zing. That, and theming the murders on a very well-known trope, the seven deadly sins. It’s intelligent horror not done as a mindless slasher film or an over-the-top splatter-fest. So, again, more suspense.

You’ve probably never heard of the other film, which is a Vincent Price vehicle called Theatre of Blood, but it is a classic, and it shares a lot with the much later Se7en. (Theatre came out in 1973.) In it, Price plays the serial killer with an agenda.

He’s a Shakespearean actor whose style is probably too classically old-school for the era. A quick search showed that the productions of the time at the Royal Shakespeare company favored modern dress and abstract sets. Their 1970s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona looks like a swinger’s pool party, and other productions of the time were equally anachronistic.

Of course, one could argue that Shakespeare should only ever be done in modern dress because that’s what the Bard did in his own time, but, frankly, it’s a lot of fun to have the period costumes with the language.

But I do digress.

In Theatre of Blood, Price’s character, Richard Lionheart, is bitter because a London critic’s society did not give him their best actor of the year award. He comes to their after-party to confront them and claim what he thinks should be his, but they mock him mercilessly. It’s his humiliation that drives his desire for revenge, and the method he uses is… priceless, pardon the pun.

He knocks off the critics one by one following the murders and deaths in the previous season of Shakespeare plays he starred in, and he exploits his knowledge of the critics’ quirks and weaknesses to do it. Being the consummate actor, Lionheart dresses for the roles, sometimes going full-on traditional, as when re-creating moments from Troilus and Cressida, Richard III, or The Merchant of Venice, or going modern dress for Julius Caesar, Cymbeline, Othello, Henry VI, Titus Andronicus, and a failed attempt at Romeo & Juliet. He goes full-on Richard Lionheart for the King Lear inspired finale, though.

Basically, it’s horror done with class and elan and, while there are some gory moments, the film doesn’t dwell on them or make them overly graphic. It’s more about a very clever killer we root for and yet, ultimately, a slightly more clever hero. That, and the fact that Lionheart’s victims tend to be major assholes in their own right.

Price is a standout, ably abetted by (pre-Dame) Diana Rigg as his dutiful daughter, and backed up by an amazing cast of British actors of the era. The film is a comedic gem, and if you’re a horror fan, theatre nerd of any stripe, but particularly if you’re a huge Shakespeare nut, this one is worth finding and then inviting a bunch of like-minded folk over for a viewing.