Friday, September 29, 2023

Belmont diary: Three little words

Oh, those words. The three little words that are the essence of beauty. The three little words that are the most magical in the world. The three little words that puts a catch to the breath, a flutter to the heart, and a flush to the cheeks.

I'm speaking, of course, about the words "END OF PLAY." (Why? What did you think I meant?) And I got to type those words today as I completed the script for Bringing Down the House, the large-cast comedy commissioned by Belmont Day School in Massachusetts.

Okay, so I actually typed those words a couple of months ago when I completed the first draft of the script. But today the play really is at an end because I just finished the final draft. All those months of hard work, all those months of staring at the screen and wracking my brain and typing and deleting and typing again, are done.

And boy, does it feel good.

The play is about a theatrical troupe that rents an abandoned theater so they can rehearse their brand new musical, only to learn that the building is going to be demolished the next day. In a flash, their rehearsal time is cut from six weeks to four hours, and craziness ensues as one interruption after another threatens to prevent them from mounting the one performance that could save the show.

And it's a monster. I'd say it was the biggest, most complex play I've ever written except for the fact that the last play the school commissioned from me was just as big and only slightly less complex (I guess they like them that way).

Like the last play, this one has a whopping 38 speaking parts. Unlike the last play, this one was required to include a dance number as well as a swordfight with real swords (I threw in an extra swordfight--this one with sledgehammers and protest signs--for good measure).

How do you get a handle on such a monster? Simple. You write an outline.

So that's what I did. And it helped. A lot. But well into the first draft, I still didn't know how to end the thing. I wanted a finale that was funny, of course, but it also had to be emotionally satisfying and--the toughest part of all--plausible.

I was stuck.

The characters, on the other hand, came easily. There's the upbeat composer who sees the world through rose-colored glasses. The gloomy book writer who only wears ash-colored glasses. The inept agent who talks a good game but never seems to deliver. The highly-strung director who's more concerned about his caramel macchiato than the suddenly truncated rehearsal schedule. And a whole slew of actors, from the coddled Hollywood star to the pretentious British veterans to the ever-hopeful chorus members.

I even included an annoying child star named Karlee who desperately wants a part in the show. I didn't plan to do much with her. I just thought she would be funny. So I threw her onstage, gave her a lively exchange with the director, then shuffled her off. Bing bang boom, she was gone.

Only she wouldn't stay gone. Karlee, as characters often do, took charge of her narrative and insisted on playing a bigger role in the play. 

I still wasn't sure what exactly. But that didn't matter. Karlee knew. As it turns out, what she really wanted to do was save the show. So I let her.

And just like that, I had my ending.

I can't say any more about that because I want to maintain the surprise for those of you who might want to read it. But I can share the scene in which she first appears along with the mother of all stage mothers, Sharon. Here it is:
KARLEE: Hey there, Mr. Davies!

CAMERON: Um, who are you?

KARLEE: Me? Why, I'm Karlee Keene and I'm here for my audition!

SHARON: Here are Karlee's headshot and resume. She's been in dozens of shows. Just dozens.

CAMERON: Sorry, kid--

SHARON: I'm not done. Here's a letter of recommendation from her voice teacher, a photo album with all her media clippings, a thumb drive with videos of her greatest dance performances, and her first baby tooth.


KARLEE: I've got to be in your show, Mr. Davies! I've just got to!

CAMERON: Sorry, kid, but the auditions are over. I've already cast it.

SHARON: Oh, but that's not fair! You haven't given Karlee a chance!

KARLEE: Who's playing the scrappy young orphan who brings joy to every heart with a smile and a song?

CAMERON: There is no scrappy young orphan.

KARLEE: Is there a scrappy old orphan?

SHARON: I'm telling you, Mr. Davies, you're missing the chance of a lifetime if you don't put Karlee in your show. She's going to be a star.

CAMERON: Look, lady, I'm sure you're kid's really talented, but there's no room for her in the cast. All the characters are adults.

SHARON: Oh, that's no problem. Karlee can play any age from three months...

KARLEE: (Acts like a baby.) Googoo gaga.

SHARON: To ninety-three.

KARLEE: (Hunches over and speaks in a croaky voice.) Now where did I put my reading glasses?

SHARON: A huge star, I'm telling you. Huge.

KARLEE: You've heard of a quadruple threat? Well, I'm a quintuple threat! I can sing, dance, act, and play two kazoos at the same time! (Pulls out the kazoos and plays them loudly and obnoxiously.)

CAMERON: Stop! Stop! Stop! (KARLEE does.) I'll tell you what. Give me your name and number and I'll call you the next time I do a kid's show.

KARLEE: Oh, but it's got to be this show, Mr. Davies. My childhood is slipping away as we speak!

SHARON: Why don't you song your audition song, Karlee? Show him what you can do.

KARLEE: All right. This is a little dittie called "Tomorrow" from Annie. (Poses and opens her mouth to sing.)

CAMERON: Nooooo!

KARLEE: What's the matter?

CAMERON: You've got the part! Just don't sing that song. Never never never ever.

KARLEE: Gee, thanks, Mr, Davies! 
Karlee ended up being my favorite character in the play, and she wasn't even in my original outline.

That's the thing about outlines. Sometimes they can be useful. If nothing else, they give your story a sense of forward momentum.

But you should never feel tied to them. Let the story grow. Let the characters take the wheel, if they want.

Sometimes it doesn't work out. If so, just delete that part.

But sometimes, the things you add late in the game end up being the best part of the play. Sometimes a new character will swoop in and take charge of the whole thing.

If they're any good, let them. The writing is easier when your characters do it for you.