Friday, July 7, 2023

Belmont diary: The story takes shape

The biggest challenge in fulfilling a play commission is balancing the needs of the school with the needs of the story. Anyone who's ever written a play, a book, a screenplay--anything fictional, really--is familiar with that point when the characters come to life on the page and start hijacking the story for their own purposes.

That's when the writing is fun, when the characters take on a life of their own and tell you where they want the story to go. But that's not always where the school or other commissioning body wants it to go.

What's Opera, Doc?

I'm at that point with my latest commission, the backstage comedy I'm writing for Belmont Day School. As I explained in my previous post about the play, one of the requirements was that the play-within-a-play needed to have a magical/fantasy theme. But they also wanted it to include a swordfight. What would it be about?

Well, my first thought was a medieval-type fairy tale. There's a lot you can do with them. The problem is that they're overdone. And there's nothing inherently funny about them So I racked my brain a little more. Who has swords, believes in magic, and are inherently funny?

That's when the idea came to me. Vikings! They used massive broadswords, but they're still swords. I could easily include some sorcery or a dragon. And come on. Those horned hats? Hilarious! And, other than that Wagner opera that Bugs Bunny made fun of, there really hasn't been any stage musicals set in that long ago era.

So I ran my idea past Chris, the theater director who commissioned the play. And he ran it past the school's DEI director. And she responded that they would prefer that I not go in that direction as it could be interpreted as mocking Nordic people.

Which is true, and shows how carefully we have to tread to not single out any particular ethnic group for mockery. Although I thought in this case it might be acceptable because all those Andersens and Hansens and Larsens are often the first to make fun of their Viking forebears. (And I should know. I'm almost a quarter Nordic myself.)

A new idea

Chris responded with a suggestion of his own: aliens. Which I liked, except that aliens don't typically use swords. But someone they fought against might. And that led to my next brainstorm: Pirates vs. Aliens. Kind of like that 2012 movie Cowboys and Aliens.

The difference is that the movie, despite being based on an exceedingly silly premise, was presented in a serious, straightforward manner, whereas my Caribbean-set version will be very silly indeed.

Besides, pirates don't make fun of any particular ethnic group, do they?

I even came up with a fantastic title for that play within a play. But that'll have to wait for another blog post....

Stanislavsky who?

Another challenge with this commission is that the school is very specific about the number of lines per part. That's because they've already lined up their cast and asked each of the kids how many lines they want to have.

As it turns out, they asked for 11 large roles (50 lines or more), 17 medium roles (20 to 50 lines) and 7 small roles (fewer than 20 lines). But there has to be a total of 38-39 roles, so I need to add 4-5 roles to those categories.

The problem is that a well-written story can't have 11 heroes. You really need to center the story around a single protagonist who drives the narrative. Otherwise the audience will lose track of the goal and you'll lose any sense of forward momentum.

At least, that's what they tell you in screenwriting. In theater, however, you can cheat a little. Because, let's face it, theater audiences don't expect as tight a story as movie audiences do. By splitting the role among a trio of characters who created the musical (a composer, a lyricist, and a book writer), I can sort of have three protagonists. The director of the musical also has a major role, and by having him quit halfway through the story, I can justify bringing in a second director.

But the story can't be a mess either. Five protagonists is as far as I can stretch things. And those five will get the bulk of the lines, leaving fewer for the rest of the roles.

So what do I do? Simple. Build up those other roles so even if they're not big, they're entertaining to the audience and a whole lot of fun to play.

Well, maybe that's no simple. But that's part of the job. And one I look forward to tackling.