A few weeks ago, a childhood friend recommended a book to me called Red Rising. I read it, and liked it, but couldn’t help but feel like there was nothing particularly original in it. Nearly every character, plot beat, and twist instantly conjured to mind another book or movie that had done the same thing, usually better. It felt like going to one of those New York City cafeteria’s like Bread & Butter, where nearly every food you could ever desire is available, but at a lower quality, and once you’ve consumed all that sushi and pasta and chicken wings and fruit salad to your heart’s content, you feel a little ill. By the end of this giant mashup of The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Tooth of Crime, Star Wars, Divergent, Game of Thrones, and Red Faction, I felt like my imagination was left woefully unstretched.
But really, I enjoyed it. In that tub-of-ice-cream-kind-of-way (what’s with these food analogies?? I should go eat lunch… no wait, finish this.) The writing was fantastic, the exposition minimal, and the world-building was vivid. Heck, I’ve been thinking about it so much I even created my second tumblr just as a place to create memes about it. My reaction is similar to how I feel about The Hobbit films– deep inside there is something brilliant just struggling to get out, but man, it’s just not there.
Anyway, why am I talking about a book I read to preface a new play? Well my friends, inspired by my new-found hyper-awareness of common plot beats and character archetypes across dystopic tales, I wrote a satirical play making fun of it all. I tried to keep the sarcasm to a minimum and have the play come from a place of genuine love for these kinds of stories– I hope I’ve succeeded. So far the common word I’m hearing from my readers is that it’s “fun.” Good adjective, that.
The last time I wrote a ‘parody play’ was my very first, La Salle d’Or, playing with the way stakes get pumped up in even the simplest stories. I took the story about a boy asking a girl to a school dance and morphed it into a larger-than-life quasi-musical about saving the world.
Nine years after that first play, I’ve decided this is both a comfortable and fruitful territory for me, so expect more genre send-ups in the future!
Dystopiapiapia was written and edited in a mad rush of 3 days (15 rough pages in one day, even dealing with a puppy foster dog!). It’s timely completion was aided very much by Nick Douglas at Slacktory in a Thursday evening of mutually-assured-writing. As I have every year since 2012, I used the deadline of the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival to force myself to produce something new. No dice for the last two years, but maybe the third time’s a charm?
I’m actually quite happy with Dystopiapiapia and would love to see it get a production, so I’m going to pursue as many one-act competitions as I can. Ideally, an existing theater group would produce it and I could just enjoy watching it come to life, but honestly, I’m interested enough in making this happen that I would happily produce it through WhAT (like my Sims play) if the opportunity arose. Take a glance and let me know what you think!
I mean, I’ve made videos and stuff (check the Slacktory videos on my media page), but this is the first one I’m taking (somewhat) seriously. But I know your first question: why am I posting stuff about a film on my theatre page? Good question friend! Two answers: 1) Because the film is based on my play, ‘The Following is Based on True Events (from a Video Game)‘, and 2) Because I don’t really have a better place to write about this. Sure, I could put it on my media page, but if you look at it, well, it doesn’t really want anything text-based.
A little background: from the day I finished writing this play, I thought it could work as a short film. There were a lot of things that that we did in the play with the projector and, well, Dan pretending to be a mouse clicker, that are quite simply better-suited to post-production. I didn’t pursue this for a while, but then one day brought it up to my good friend Alex Schmidt (who introduced me to Nick Douglas at Slacktory), and he said that he’d be thrilled to help me make it happen, so he set off to try to find a director. There were a couple times when it looked like it might happen, but then something would go wrong and we were back at square one. Then in December, something silly happened: Nick Douglas sent me an e-mail with the jist: ‘hey, I love your Sims play. Would you mind if Slacktory made a short film out of it?’ Alex Schmidt and I had to laugh a little; why had neither of us thought to ask him in the first place?
Fast forward to Monday January 27th. I’ve recast TJ Clark and Mike Finn who played Mortimer Goth and Bob Newbie, respectively, in the original play. We’re in the apartment of a friend of Nick’s who has a sizable green screen. Nick is running sound. I’m directing and camera-operating. Alex Schmidt is there doing every conceivable other task, from operating B-camera, to fixing falling green screen, to running to Wendy’s to get burgers (for the burger scene). We filmed from 10 AM to 2 PM and everything went great (I think). We worked out a SAG New Media contract, used two $100 Panasonic Handycams, and I’m thrilled we were able to use nice audio equipment (audio is always the quickest way I’m able to tell if something is professional or not). The only real problem was lighting, since the apartment wasn’t really set up to handle greenscreen so we relied on a skylight, providing inconsistent lighting.
Anyway, I’ve got a ton of lead time on this– it’s going to be a 5 minute-or-so sketch video, and doesn’t need to be done until The Sims 4 comes out sometime in the Fall. Since I can take my time and really do this right, I thought it would be neat to chronicle my progress; I’ll articulate my thoughts, problems, and questions as I progress through the post-production process, and hopefully you’ll give me your advice and ask me the kinds of questions that will lead to a better product. It’s also nice to imagine that many of the struggles I’m bound to go through in the coming months will be common ones, and hopefully solutions we find to my issues will be helpful to others as well.
Here’s some things I currently know very little about that I’m going to have to learn a lot about:
To start, I’ve decided to upload all of my footage at private links on youtube so that I can peruse what we captured at my leisure and use youtube’s comment section to call out anything from takes I like to issues that will need addressing. If you’d like to make such comments, you’re more than welcome!
Here’s some of the software I’ll be using:
If you plan on following this, thanks~! I look forward to your feedback and hopefully teaching each other a few things. I’ll also be charting these posts over at Filmpunch. So what am I doing right now? Watching all that footage (obviously), but also watching lots of tutorials regarding After Effects and Premiere Pro.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
The only full-length play I’ve yet finished, ‘Mr. Nice Guy’, is a play I sincerely believe deserves a full-fledged production. I wrote the original version of the play in late 2007 when, during a slow rehearsal of Vaclav Havel’s The Memorandum, I was pushing myself back and forth on an office chair and realized my abdominal muscles were actually getting quite sore. Then I imagined how ridiculous it would be to try to market an office chair as a workout device. Then I found myself wondering what kind of person might not only feel justified in selling such a thing, but revel in their own brilliance for it. The idea merged with a different play idea I had brewing, one about my dad being a ‘yes man’ who could never say no to anyone, and I used that play’s title as the stage name of the lead character: Mr. Nice Guy (aka Felix Hasselbury).
That Christmas Vacation I splurged out 90 pages of what struck me as a fascinating premise to explore: a couple consisting of an attractive no-nonsense female (Sybil) and Mr. Nice Guy’s number-one fan (Michael) seek to sue Mr. Nice Guy when his latest product (the Abjacker 2010) gravely injures Michael. Felix, a master deflector, spins this anger into job offers, and the rest of the play follows Felix’s flailing attempts at seducing Sybil while Michael deals with the crushing disappointment of a childhood hero who has no time for him.
The play was given a further boost of energy when, during auditions, I asked an actor I had cast in a previous original play to give the part an ‘absurdist’ reading– something wacky and really out there to stretch the other auditioners’ imaginations. I had already promised the actor, Nilus Klingel, that I wouldn’t cast him, so off the simple direction ‘maybe give him a crazy accent’, he came out guns blazing with something totally and wonderfully unexpected. What I had pitched as basically a fast-talking, greasy, used-car salesman came out of him like the lovechild of a Strongbad/Ron Burgundy/Antonio Banderas/Gob Bluth orgy. It clicked– he had the casting room in stitches, and agreed to do the show.
Ultimately, the 2008 production was a ton of fun, but unfortunately suffered from a lack of rehearsal time, a refined script, or an audience (I think twelve people saw the play in all). You can see bullet points of that production in this video, as well as the commercial we filmed to open the show here.
Over the past 5 years (still can’t believe it’s been that long), I’ve found myself often wondering how the show could be redone. In that time, I’ve taken scribbly stabs at how I might revisit the play, I’ve written a short prequel called ‘Felix Hasselbury Gets a Job‘, and I’ve edited together a ‘Roofie-Os’ commercial out of 50 minutes of absurd, mostly improvised footage spawned by a song I wrote for my comedy duo ‘A Crooked Boner.’
Finally, starting last month, driven by some unknown force, I took an honest pass at reworking the play. Is it improved? Certainly. Could it use further workshopping and refinement? Indeed! But that’s what’s so wonderful about doing a play reading out loud: it instantly calls attention to poorly-worded lines, jokes too-in-love-with-themselves, and dead-end subplots. I had the pleasure of hearing my words read in the middle of a pot luck picnic in Prospect Park (say that five times fast) by Alex Schmidt as Michael, TJ Clark as a Jamaican/French version of Mr. Nice Guy, Elizabeth Bull as Sybil, Beryl Tayte Johnsen-Seeberger as Assistant, and Morgan Shaw reading the stage directions. We also had an audience nearly as large as the one for the original show!
So it’s on its way. Onward to the next draft, and soon I’ll start sending this monster out into the world of competitive submissions. Wish me luck.
I need to write more and submit more plays to more competitions. I’ve been telling this to myself since I came to live and work in NYC nearly 3 years ago. Thus far, the best I’ve been able to do is consistently submit to the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival every year. So yeah, shifting gears from all the board game design and architectural competitions I’ve been involved with over the past few months, I managed to craft a new short play.
This started when Liz and I were talking about how we should formally introduce ourselves to the new neighbors in our apartment building. Liz suggested that she might bake a pie for them. For some reason, my immediate reaction was — “Don’t do that! They’ll think it’s poisoned.” Why did I think they would think that? I have no idea. But it was a fun impetus to start writing about the kind of person that would immediately assume that a welcome pie from some neighborly neighbors was poisoned.
Below is the script as it stood when I submitted it last night, after a few drafts and a couple readings with some very generous friends (Elizabeth Coulombe, Daniel King, Nilus Klingel, Morgan Shaw, Danton Spina, Ian Nicholson). I’d love to keep up readings for future plays– it makes such a huge difference to hear my words said out loud, and it’s also just a boatload of fun.
Anyway, while I’m quite happy with it as it stands, I do think there’s some more opportunity to play with the following:
Loosely based on the relationship in August Strindbergh’s ‘Miss Julie’, I’ve got something going on here. Not sure what though.