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Photos for the 2011 Madison and FringeNYC performances

By Lumi Photo. See the whole album here.

Pictured: Liz Angle, Jamie England, Tim Irvin, Andrea Kleiner, Matt Korda, Paul Milisch, Veronica Raulin, Matthew A. Schrader, Colin Woolston, Christopher Younggren.

Costumes by Sydney Krieger, props by Kirk Stantis.

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Posted by on July 13, 2011 in Publicity

 

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Rehearsals begin

Props to illustrate travel by air, train, and foot

The rehearsal period for the FringeNYC production of You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery! commenced last night at Mercury Players Theatre’s MercLab. The play had its world premiere at MercLab and it will be returning there July 15 for an encore run.

The first rehearsal was a read-through of the script and my first chance to hear modifications Rick Stemm and I made. There were three major changes:

  • An airship chase sequence Rick devised that, if the cast’s reaction is indicative, will be a hit with audiences.
  • A livelier opening for a scene at a gentleman’s club (one of two the audience can choose), where the investigator and his friend are accosted by a pair of club members.
  • A modification to one of the endings, replacing the threat of a doomsday device with a supernatural threat — a reference to Victorian spiritualism.

Rick and I made some minor dialogue changes and additions that all worked when I heard them spoken. All but three of the original cast members are returning, and I was pleased with what I heard from the new actors. Emotionally the evening was an interesting blend: fondly remembering the entertaining adventure of last fall and feeling thrilled and a little jittery about the upcoming adventure, where so much will be new for me.

 
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Posted by on June 6, 2011 in Rehearsal

 

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Pleasant surprises from the opening performances

Third of three posts I originally wrote for Dane101.com.

I was entertained immensely by the first two performances of You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery, a play I wrote with Rick Stemm that’s appearing at MercLab until the 25th. It was a thrill to see such exemplary work in the actors’ physical humor and character-driven comedy, and in the steampunk-influenced set design by Morgan Boland and costume design by Sydney Krieger. I had been to rehearsals last month and so was familiar with some of the unscripted bits director Sam White and the cast introduced, but there were several bits that were new for me and some overall things I wasn’t expecting but was nonetheless happy with.

The audience is essentially another character. The audience makes choices and participates in the other interactions we wrote into the script of course, but the connection between the audience, the Narrator (Jamie England), the Detective (Christopher Younggren), and the Doctor (Matthew A. Schrader) is much more tangible than I was expecting. It’s especially noticeable with the Detective, who doesn’t solicit choices like the Narrator but does somewhat antagonize the audience. Given this role for the audience, I sometimes wonder if the Detective is truly the protagonist or if the Doctor, who has to not only navigate the story’s challenges but convince the Detective to take part in the play and give the audience a satisfying show, is a sort of covert protagonist.

Christopher Younggren and Matt Schrader had some entertaining ad-libs in response to the audience the two nights I was there. Rick was in the front row those nights and at one point in the opening performance the Detective asked him something like “Are you proud of that?” in relation to some absurd line. The second night, when the Detective said something to elicit an audience “awww,” he said to Rick “Awww – you wrote it!”

The actors’ gratitude was as fulfilling as the audience’s responses. I expected that the most enriching part of this process would be hearing the audience laughing at funny lines and performances. But being thanked in person and in the program by the actors, hearing how much joy they were getting from the script, and seeing them develop friendships through their work on something I helped create were delightful as well. I’d seen all of the actors in other plays and was happy I could provide something they could have fun with and use to show talents they might not normally have a chance to.

The stage manager introduced the play. Like she did as the director of Rick’s and my Blitz Smackdown play, Bonnie Balke had some excellent aesthetic and practical ideas for the production of You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery. An example of the latter was using the program to identify the choices people would be called on to make over the course of the story. Given her contributions, how this play explicitly acknowledges that it is a play, and the challenge of literally not knowing what’s happening at each performance, I like the fact that our stage manager is the first person the audience hears from.

There is room for (relative) subtlety in the play. The Detective makes a crack near the end about being past the point of subtlety but there were comparatively understated moments (compared to things like a mime fight or a limerick contest, that is) that got good reactions. I’m thinking particularly of some amusing non-verbal communications from Daniel Torres-Rangel with respect to two props he carried in the first act, or the audience-wide sympathy Veronica Raulin got with a disappointed facial expression in the second act.

This production would get 13 Bartie nominations if it was eligible. Previously I thought 12 nominations, but it would also be a contender in the “Best Stage Kiss” category for an unscripted kiss I saw on the September 10 performance. It might even be eligible for “Most Thought Provoking Production,” as in “How is it possible that such a brilliant assembly of talent can exist?” This play has an excellent ensemble cast and outstanding entrances, sound design (Colin Woolston), lighting design (Spike Garrett), portrayals of non-homo sapiens, set design, costume design, belly laughs, poster design (Al Hart), and funny performances by actors/actresses. It’s a great comedy and could probably inspire its audiences to pursue a career in theater.

I give a pretty decent interview. These actually occurred prior to opening weekend. I’m not exactly known for being talkative but nonetheless managed to get some laughs in interviews with Alan Talaga and the Wisconsin Guys.

I’m warning up to the idea of an Aerosmith song appearing in a Victorian adventure spoof. No elaboration needed.

 

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“Now the real work starts”

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.

Auditions

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.

Cast read-throughs

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.

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2011 in Development

 

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Origins

The following is based on a post I originally wrote for Dane101.com.

Yesterday I was at the Bartell to hear the five Participating Theatre Companies announce their 2010-2011 seasons. I heard some intriguing plans, among them Jeffrey Hatcher’s Jekyll and Hyde, A Christmas Carol performed in the style of an old time radio drama (a “surprise” announcement from MTG), The Seafarer, and the theatrical psychological thriller Dead Certain. The big highlight for me, though, was when Mercury Players Theatre Artistic Director Rachel Jenkins-Bledsoe announced that Mercury would be opening its sixteenth season with You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery!, an interactive, choose your own adventure style play Rick Stemm and I wrote.

The two people we faced in the Blitz Smackdown Round III finals, Megan McGlone and Sam White, are also involved: Megan as co-producer with Bryan Streich and Sam as director. For the benefit of other playwrights I have written generalized steps corresponding to the series of events and connections that led to this very exciting news, along with annotations specific to my experience.

1. Join a playwriting group 14 years before you want to see the play go up.
In 1996, two years after Mercury’s founding, I joined Playwrights Ink, a monthly writing group. It was an indirect route that led me there. Earlier that year attended a writing for radio workshop by Mind’s Eye Audio Productions and from that, a writing group formed that produced shows for WORT’s Access Hour. I wrote and performed short sketches for that project and one of the other writers suggested Playwrights Ink to me, which at the time was workshopping one-minute plays.

2. Write short plays produced in your community.
My first two produced scripts were performed in 1997 for Playwrights Ink’s Festival of One-Minute (or thereabouts) Plays, at the estimable Tom Peterson’s Brave Hearts Theater. I had other short plays produced by Playwrights Ink as well as by Mercury: in 2004 for Gotterdrama-rama and later for Short Shorts.

3. Obtain employment at a company where you’ll meet creative people at least 5 years before the play is to debut.
I met Rick Stemm in 2005 at the Dane County software company where we both work.

4. With a coworker from the company in step #3, collaborate on at least three scripts. If you’re an ISFP or INFP, find someone who’s more on the extraversion side. At least one of the scripts should feature an iconic character from detective fiction.
The first script Rick and I collaborated on was for a short movie to open a mystery-themed conference and featured three great detectives: Holmes, Spade, and [Nancy] Drew. We later worked together on 48 Hour Film Project scripts in 2007 and 2008.

5. See enough productions in your community to acquaint yourself with the abilities of local actors.

6. Respond to a “24-hours from page to stage” call for writers 4 years before.
I had been aware of Mercury’s Blitz for years but it wasn’t until 2006, Blitz VII, that I felt I was ready to write for it. Rick wrote for Blitz in 2007 and 2008.

7. Based on the work produced in steps #2 and #6, obtain an invitation to participate in a competitive variant on #6, where writers and directors meet and select cast members before the writers start the script. By step #8 this event should take place the night before the “standard” event.
In 2008 I was invited to write for Blitz Smackdown Round II, where Megan McGlone directed the play I wrote.

8a. Respond to the general call for writers for the “standard” “24 hours from page to stage” event if the following conditions are true:

i) You must write with a partner to participate
ii) You receive the call before receiving confirmation you’ve been invited back to write for the competitive variant event described in #7.

8b. Respond to the invitation and tell the producers you’ll be writing with the co-writer from step #4.

8c. Obtain an invitation for you and your co-writer to participate in the competitive variant event.

8d. At the event, get assigned a director with improvisational experience.

8e. Select an actor who, based on what you’ve seen of him in other plays (step #5), you know will be a good fit for a role modeled on one of the iconic characters from step #4.

8f. Write a well-received choose your own adventure mystery in under 12 hours.
Steps #8a – #8f reflect my experience with Blitz Smackdown Round III.

9. Begin expanding the play created in #8f.

10. Attend a performance of a play whose staging will provide an influence for your play.
In our case this is The 39 Steps. I had seen a production prior to its Madison run so when I was offered comps to see it and write about it for Dane101, I suggested Rick go in my place.

11. At the performance in step #10, tell a board member of the theater company that produced the events in steps #6 – #8 of your plans for the expanded script.
At the performance of The 39 Steps Rick attended he saw Mercury board president Bonnie Balke and told her of our Smackdown script expansion project.

12. Go to a benefit for the theater company referred to in step #11 and pitch the script to the Artistic Director. Obtain an invitation to submit your play by a deadline that’s tight but doable.
This is what happened between, Rick, Rachel Jenkins-Bledsoe, and me at Mercury’s benefit at High Noon Saloon in December, the day before my birthday.

13. Work on the script earnestly, making use of a cork board and index cards to keep track of scenes, and submit it by the date requested.
The diagram in the photo illustrates the structure we devised and put on the board. So, SPOILER ALERT, I guess.

14a. Go to a performance where you see a director you met when you joined the writing group from step #1 and who…

i)  Has been telling you for years to write a full-length play
ii) Has years of experience with new play development
iii) Directed for the event where the initial version of the play was performed
iv) Lives close to a performance space used by the company from steps #6 – #8, #11, and #12.

I met Sam White when I joined Playwrights Ink and he acted in one of the first things I wrote, a one-minute play in which he played “beer incarnate.” In expectedly saw him at Lone Star, where he told me he’d be interested in directing the expanded Smackdown script.

14b. Obtain a statement that the director is interested in directing your play, especially if it’s performed at the space near the director’s home.
Sam’s known for espousing “big choices” in actors so it’s eminently appropriate for him to be directing a play where choices are among its biggest features.

14c. Notify the Artistic Director you talked to in step #12.

And so it was that at the end of April, Rachel told us Mercury would be producing our script at MercLab, 930 Fair Oaks. In addition to having Megan and Sam involved we also have Bonnie has stage manager. Our writing duties aren’t completely finished: we’ll be listening to script readings and making adjustments to create an exceptionally hilarious one-of-a-kind experience starting September 9th.

And if, after reading my Blitz Smackdown III post and this one, you still don’t believe in the theater god(s), I don’t know what’s going to convince you.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2011 in Development

 

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