In the spring of 1994, I was informed by my friends and collaborators David Sinclair and Duane Martin that, not only had they acquired a spot for our fledging theatre company Ceramic Pig for the Vancouver Fringe Festival, but we were going to be producing my play.
What play? I hadn't actually written a play. (I'm still not sure it's play, really.) I had written about 15 pages of nonsense in the form of dialogue between two unnamed characters on "Pokey" - my roommate's old 386 clone. A play? Not so much. When I sat down to write that first play I had no plan, no idea what I was doing really, but I had certainly seen a lot of theatre in my 25 years and was confident I could write something weird and funny. Which I certainly did.
Let me go back a step. I had originally started writing this play out of frustration. I had studied theatrical design at the University of Guelph (Ceramic Pig was made up of transplanted Guelvians) and was beginning to make a career for myself as a set and lighting designer in Vancouver. But I was finding myself dissatisfied with the kinds of projects I was working on. They just didn't thrill me as a theatre-goer. I felt like I needed to write the kind of play that I would want to go see. Surely I wasn't the only one who enjoyed oddness, absurdity and dark comedy...
So, with a production pending on my first "commission" I sat down to make something out of what I had barfed onto Pokey's monochrome screen a few months earlier. What began as two nameless, interchangeable characters chatting nonchalantly about Philosophy and the Seven Dwarfs, became
now what? - a sci-fi/theatrical experiment in tripping through various alternate universes in the space-time continuum. Yes, fine, not unlike Star Trek. (and yes, the title is pretentiously and inexplicably lower case)
This was (to this day) the one and only time I actually directed one of my own plays. As I brought in new pages to each rehearsal (which took place in my apartment's living room) I was a times greeted with stunned stares and silence as Duane and David wrapped their heads around what I was suggesting they were meant to do in each new scene. As the play asks "wouldn't it be weird if there were two people in an alternate universe having the exact same conversation", one of the two characters would suddenly find themselves in an alternate universe inhabiting the body of their alternate self with no context of the situation...
How to best divide the treasure after slaying a dragon.
Being interrogated for the murder of Michael Bolton.
On a spaceship under attack by killer dwarves from the planet Forgian-5.
In a world where only television exists and human contact is no longer allowed.
For the finale they landed in a world where everyone shouted and used improvised hand-signals for every word they said. Yeah. "Trust me. It'll be really funny!" I said, and to my credit, was not wrong.
At midnight the night before we opened I was at a Kinko's (a chain of 24-hour printing shops that no longer exist) trying to print the programs that I had done on my very own Mac LC475 in ClarisWorks. Which, of course, was software (that no longer exists) and that they didn't have at Kinko's. I ended up driving back and forth at least three times with a 3.5" floppy disk trying to provide a file type that could be opened and printed. Drinking more and more coffee and chain-smoking.
I have no idea how late I went to bed, but I don't think I got much sleep. The next day we were slated to open at noon - on a 6' x 8' stage in the front window of a small cafe on Commercial Drive, not far from "The Cultch" or the Vancouver East Cultural Centre (where, I assumed, the "real" theatre was taking place) Duane and David seemed fairly calm, as did our glorious Stage Manager Lorraine. I was a nervous wreck, convinced that people would walk out screaming and demanding their money back. However, on that fateful day, as I squirm restlessly in my seat, none of the twelve or so curious souls did left early. In fact, they seemed to enjoy themselves!
I remember a day or so later, sitting in the audience against the wall with a small camcorder to capture the show. Beside me were two middle-aged white folk, "real" theatre-goers it seemed to me. Each had their own Georgia Straights, and they were not speaking to each other in advance of the show. This was the moment of truth for me. Surely these two would be offended or impatient or disinterested or ask for the house lights so that they could go back to their artsy news-weeklies.
I was wrong. This woman was in stitches throughout - smacking her husbands knee at key moments - like when, in a name-calling sequence, one character accidentally escalates to "cunt" and immediately apologizes. I was hooked. It was what I imagine your first hit of heroin to be like.
now what? was unexpectedly raved about in the Fringe Review Publication that was written by David's fairly recently ex-girlfriend, and then it was named a "Pick of the Fringe" in the Georgia Straight. We sold out the rest of the run. And made about $700 each.
Things I learned or, have learned from experience and no longer do since then:
1. Silly is silly and works mostly because it's silly.
But it especially works when it is paired with clever. (see Monty Python) Comedy has many flavours and I've always been a fan of clever over silly. But silly on it's own its so much more universal... and not to be pooh-poohed.
2. Pop culture is mostly relevant to its own time and place.
Looking at it now, I'm not sure the play would even work without a refresher course on 1994 - Michael Bolton, Rosanne Barr, Seinfeld, Cindy Crawford, etc. Satire is a great and popular medium because it draws on current events and things that are top of mind, but in order for something to be timeless - (in other words produced well into the future) it cannot rely so much on passing pop icons.
3. It is unwise to START nearly every scene with the exact same set of 4-6 lines.
How on earth can you expect the actors to have any clue which scene is which and what comes next? And not skip ENTIRE scenes? 3b. If you go ahead and do this, at least ensure your play is weird enough that people won't notice the stuff they might miss.
4. A festival like a Fringe is the perfect place to experiment as a young writer. There is no one to tell you this won't work (except your cast I guess) so you can try everything and anything. See what works, what falls flat. See who comes, who laughs when, where, and why? Yes you might be reviewed. But often, like David's ex, Fringe reviewers are doing their job for the first time as well. They are not the higher authority on whether or not you should or shouldn't write another play.
5. Despite selling out the run, your play is NOT a perfect piece of subversive literature!
I remember the week after we closed, Duane telling me he was at a party where he met this woman who was an actual playwright. (not that I wasn't, but she was already identifying herself as one, I hadn't got that far yet). Duane had shared the script with her in his excitement and she blew his mind with the many suggestions she had on how to improve on it. And he was so excited to share them with me, insisted I should meet her and talk to her and I was... OUTRAGED! How dare she deign to tell me how to fix my play?
I have seen this response or reaction to comment/criticism many times since then from other writers and sometimes myself too, and I understand it is a natural reaction. There is NOTHING WRONG WITH MY PLAY!
(spoiler alert - there are so many things wrong with my "play" - I'll post it here if you're intrigued)
But I do still regret not taking her up on that conversation, and wonder to this day who the hell she even was... (I honesty have no idea) Lady Playwright, if you're reading this and recognize your role in this narrative, please identify yourself. I'd love to chat.