Second of three posts based on stories I originally wrote for Dane101.com.
There’s been some interesting activity since I announced that Mercury Players Theatre would be opening its season with a comedy Rick Stemm and I wrote: You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery! A Choose Your Own Adventure Theatrical Tale. It’s shaping up to be a pedigreed production, with a talented, well-respected, and enviable cast and crew. So I feel an imperative to not only create a good script for its own sake but to ensure — to adapt a line I wrote for the script — that this affair shall be worthy of their talents. What follows is an account of what Rick and I have been doing with the script since May.
Initial meetings to first read-through
The first week of May we had separate meetings with Mercury Artistic Director Rachel Jenkins-Bledsoe and our play’s director, Sam White. Among the topics we talked about with Rachel at Brothers Three were a read-through of the script — something essential for the development of a new play — and her advertising ideas, using the familiar look of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. A couple of days before the meeting Rick and I had started a list of alternative titles to The Adventure of the Choose Your Own Adventure, which is what we used when we submitted the play, and told Rachel that we would come up with a more interesting title by the end of the week.
Two days later we met with Sam, who introduced us to The Malt House, and were happy to find out that his vision of the script’s execution was similar to ours. He had some initial advice for us. Raising stakes for characters in a play is standard and Sam advised us to raise the stakes for the audience —making each choice more desirable and therefore more difficult. Another thing he pointed out was that our script had two primary conflicts: the detective and the villain and the detective and the narrator (the latter conflict being a key element of the original), and we had resolved the former but not the latter. Also, Rick had a fight choreographer in mind for the play and Sam approved.
By the end of the week, we had identified You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery! A Choose Your Own Adventure Theatrical Tale as our selection. We had wanted something that directly addressed or even challenged the audience and also thought a multi-part title was more fun and evocative of the Victorian era. Other titles on our short list included The Adventure of the Improbable Plot, The Adventure of the Steampunk Strategem, and The Adventure of the Triple Threat, but the one we proposed is the only one I had seven reasons for liking:
- Evokes curiosity
- Implies interactivity
- Works with or without a subtitle
- Funny twist on the Choose Your Own Adventure concept, which is “you’re the hero”
- Multiple meanings: Holmes to narrator, Holmes to audience, audience to authors
- Specifies the genre
- A frame for sequels (You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Love Story, You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Christmas Carol, You’ve Ruined Shakespeare)
June 9, three weeks after Rachel announced You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery! as Mercury’s season opener and a week before Blitz Smackdown, Rick and I went to MercLab for the read-through. Also attending were Rachel, Sam, producers Megan McGlone and Bryan Streich, and stage manager Bonnie Balke. We got valuable insights on how to enhance the script, either through direct feedback or our own conclusions from hearing the lines, and after a follow-up meeting between Rick and me at Vintage Brewing Company, we spent the next three weeks revising.
Revisions following first read-through
I had approached the plot of Ruined/Mystery more as a frame for genre spoofing, jokes, wordplay, and metatheatrical antics, and not something to be taken very seriously, but the mystery that drove the play’s action was of surprising interest to people at the read-through. So we enhanced the danger of the situation, introduced the primary villain earlier, and added dialogue to remind the audience of the progression of clues that led to a particular scene.
Another significant change related to Katherine, a character we brought over from the original Smackdown play but didn’t change significantly: she was in the expanded script mostly to introduce the case and provide comic sensuality, and was gone for the final two thirds of the play. But Lauren Peterson made such a strong impression with her reading of Katherine that, when she asked why we didn’t bring Katherine back in later scenes, we immediately recognized this was a flaw we should remedy. At our follow-up meeting, Rick volunteered to write new endings and bring Katherine back for each one.
Other changes related to dialogue: clarifying, tightening and rewording lines that looked OK on the page but didn’t sound right when spoken. I removed my excessively indulgent references to the works of other authors, leaving behind only mostly indulgent ones. Also, a couple of the audience interactions I wrote probably wouldn’t work in performance, so we took them out.
We also made additions to the script, including some new jokes. Two of the new jokes came from Pete Rydberg’s ad-libs in the play’s Sancho Panza role. And we learned that MercLab has a projector, so we revised some stage directions to take advantage of that.
Rick and I were welcome to attend auditions, which were the last Sunday and Tuesday of June, and give input. Also at the auditions was the latest addition to the team, assistant director Esther Schwarzbauer. The auditions were fun to watch: they started with joke-telling, then script sides with key character interactions, and finally combat. During the first night I devoted part of my attention to the new endings Rick had sent me that evening; the endings had taken the longest to write since the enhanced danger needed to be established first. At a meeting afterward we got some additional suggestions from Sam, whom Rick observed knows the script at least as well as we do. Sam also says You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery! A Choose Your Own Adventure Theatrical Tale with more majesty than Rick or I could.
One of the things Sam suggested was to bring the villain in even earlier. I wasn’t hot on the idea of bringing the primary adversary onstage before the fourth scene, but late during a meeting after the second night of auditions I figured out a way to do it that made sense — characters and plot points that make sense being so vital to the experience of this play — and Rick and I worked out some additional villain lines before we left. The next day we went back and forth with the script again and I sent a revised copy to the production team, in a message with the subject “Updated Ruined/Mystery script – now with more evil.”
By Thursday the final cast list was ready and it’s one I’m thrilled with. Jamie England will be playing the narrator, Christopher Younggren the detective, and Matthew Schrader his associate. The company will include Colin FX Garstka, Tim Irvin, Matthew Korda (whose roles will include the villain), Veronica Raulin, Karen Saari (who was in the original Smackdown play and is Katherine in this one), and Daniel Torres-Rangel.
Sam had scheduled three read-throughs prior to the start of rehearsals, so Rick and I would have a chance to make changes. I was very entertained by the first reading and was happy that many of the new laugh lines got good responses. (Rick was vacationing on Lake Superior, where he pitched our script to the artistic director of a local theater.) Afterward there was some discussion about what to do if the audience got out of control and started proposing choices that weren’t in the script, and Bonnie offered to come onstage in that event and demand “Is your name Christian Neuhaus?!”
Sam told the cast that they should give script suggestions to him and he would forward them to us. It’s a good approach that keeps me from feeling pressured into making changes, but it also means I won’t be bribed or sweet-talked into making changes either. After the first read-through Sam gave me some notes related to the increased tension we had added to the script. One of them was the helpful suggestion that, after spending effort adding danger to the script, keeping an early line of dialogue where detective tells Katherine she is not in imminent danger may not have been a step in the right direction.
I made some minor changes in time for the second read-through. By that time the production team included UW Opera costume designer Sydney Krieger, Morgan Boland as set designer, and Kirk Stantis on props. After the reading Sam gave us some excellent ideas about improving the humor of the script that were consistent the style we’ve created. Rick and I worked on edits until the end of the week, resulting in more changed pages than there were for the previous set of rewrites, among them a new Narrator line to introduce an act break. Final read-through was Sunday, and I was satisfied that the latest changes worked. Future script edits will be written in by the actors, so we’re probably not going to rewrite whole speeches.
It’s been fun to collaborate Sam, whom I’ve known for more than a decade and who acted in one of the first plays I wrote. I’ve come to see him lately as a kind of amalgam of King Henry V and Falstaff, combining readily-apparent authority with joviality. It’s a little incredible for me sometimes to consider how invested in this script he and the other talented people associated with You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery are. The quote in the title of this post is how Sam concluded his message announcing the cast. The time has come now for the cast and crew to take the lead, as the script becomes a performance, and I wish them well.