Categotry Archives: development

Discussion of the process of developing the story into its best and most final form, including all the changes and versions that it goes through.

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Completed outline for Mrs. Hawking part 4!

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I have hit my first milestone in my process of putting together the fourth Mrs. Hawking story!

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For the month of June, Bernie and I worked on creating a complete outline with all the story events with the proper structure. Our goal was to have it done by the end of the month, and we completed it with one day to spare. That means I can successfully move on to drafting it, which is in some ways more fun than planning, but in other ways more challenging— because I have to move on from theory to actual execution.


A scene in the outline.

My plan, as it was last year when writing the previous installment Base Instruments, is to first chunk out all the scenes into self-contained sections. As I mentioned, the “scene” demarcations in the script tend to be based on location and time shifts. I break the scene either when the next action does not happen contiguously in time with the previous action, or when the location shifts and the set needs to change. But within those scenes there are often several dramatic actions that happen in the same place one after the other in real time. So I like to give each of those “sub-designation”— scene 3a, scene 3b, and so on. Not only are these useful later when scheduling rehearsal, but it helps chunk the writing work into smaller pieces that makes each one easier to tackle.

Part 4 is shaping up to be a complex play, with many different threads and fairly complicated scene structure. Not to mention all the challenges inherent to this particular story. On one hand, it means more action takes place in the same location, which will hopefully mean fewer scenic transitions during runtime. But it also means there are a LOT of sub scenes— the current outline suggests thirty-seven in total. Most of them will be pretty short, but that’s a lot of complex action to string together. And I have to get more than one cranked out in a day in order to finish by the end of July like I’ve planned.

I have a handful of early drafts of some scenes that I was imagining that did I for last year’s 31 Plays in 31 Days. But as is always the case, as the planning process proceeds, the less accurate to the current vision old stuff like that becomes. So I can use most of it in bare bones form, but it will have to be heavily edited, and one or two I’ll have to cut entirely because they just don’t fit anymore.

Fortunately, I’m off to a pretty good start already! And I’m excited to actually be making the play, not just planning the ideas in it. Now I’ve just got to make sure I properly execute all the grandiose dreams I’ve got in hopes that it’ll come out great.

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Our important new character in Hawking part 4

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I am busily working away at my plan to have Mrs. Hawking part 4—tentatively titled Gilded Cages —ready to go into rehearsal by the end of the summer. That means all this month Bernie and I have been working on the outline for the story, as I like to get the structure and shape of it down before I actually start drafting.

As I’ve mentioned, one of the toughest parts of this piece is dealing with the presence of Victorian colonialism. It’s a major factor in this story, and I want exploring the issues that stem from it to have an important place in the story’s theme. Without revealing too much, I will say we’re including a character who is an indigenous resident of a colonized place in Asia. It is incumbent upon us to be as respectful as possible in that character’s portrayal. This is particularly challenging because we will be adding this character to an already established cast, where the protagonist is a white woman. Even under the best of circumstances, there is a very real danger of what I refer to as my theory of The Problem of the Protagonist— in short, where the centrality of your main character necessitates subordination of any other character’s story, which can result in those supporting roles’ marginalization or dehumanization.

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But we want this character to be as well-rounded, human, and interesting as any other protagonist in this series. To do this, our rules for the character are as follows:

– She will have goals of her own, stemming from her own needs and desires
– She will have the agency to make active choices in order to meaningfully pursue those goals
– She will have an arc of personal growth where she ends up meaningfully different than she was when she began
– She will have personal flaws that are human and believable
– She will not be objectified, instrumentalized, or accessorized for the story of any other character
– She will not exist to be a lesson for any other character

To that end, we’re dedicated to doing our due diligence in responsibly depicting this character. We’ve been doing a lot of research into not only what would be present and realistic in this kind of person. The first step of that was reading, and a lot of it— reading into the colonial history of Victorian Britain, and what life and conditions were like in British colonies. We may be telling a stylized superhero story, but we really don’t want that to make us gloss over the colonial reality and make it seem less seriously horrible than it was. There’s a lot that’s fun about writing in this time period, but to represent the imperial progression as anything less than destructive would be dishonest— and honest exploration of hard truths is the essence of drama.

The next step was to consult with people who might have some better perspective than Bernie or I do. This character will be native to a colony in Asia, and we are aware of how many stereotypes and denials of these characters’ full humanity exist in literature and storytelling. We are determined to do everything we can to write this character as an interesting, complicated, and the hero of her own story.

So our other research method has been to consult with Asian-American theater artists on whether or not we were on the right track with our plan for the character. We asked them to approach it if they were going to be playing the role— would they feel like they were embodying a real human? Was her journey given sufficient dimension and weight? Was her struggle conceived of honestly without reducing her to the difficulty of the circumstances of her life?

So far, we have friends Eric Cheung, Naomi Ibatsitas, Michael Lin, and Mara Elissa Palma to thank for taking the time to give their thoughts and insight on how to best depict this character. Their ideas and suggestions have been invaluable in not only shaping this to be a respectful portrayal, but a dramatically compelling one as well. It is a generous donation of time and emotional labor, so I am extremely grateful.

The goal is to have this outline settled by the end of June of 2017. That’s not to say it can’t evolve in the drafting process, but a strong sense of direction is very helpful for me to keep arc and theme in mind. So getting this right is very important. Not only do I want to do right by the material, but a richer, more human cast will only make the story more powerful.

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The challenges of plotting Mrs. Hawking part 4

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Categories: development, gilded cages, Tags: , ,

Bernie and I have begun work on Mrs. Hawking part four, tentatively titled Gilded Cages, and we’re running into some challenges. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as we’ve had this happen with each subsequent installment, but this one has presented some difficulties that are thus far unique.

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The biggest thing to deal with is the fact that we’re writing a colonial story. Part four is going to be split into a present day case in 1885, and a flashback story to Mrs. Hawking’s youth in the colonies. We haven’t decided WHICH colony, though, as we are still doing research to figure out if there are any historical features that would serve our turn. What I’d really like to display is that some terrible event that happened during Victoria’s childhood demonstrated to her how corrupt and broken the system is, which helped to shape her worldview in the present. A natural possibility is witnessing something of the horrors of Victorian colonialism. But I really don’t want to just turn the suffering of the local people to be just a lesson for my white hero, or make her into a white savior for those same. And I definitely don’t want to sidestep the issue and just end up tell a story set in a colony that’s only about the white invaders.

What I’ve got here is a Problem of the Protagonist, to use my own theory– when the need to centralize a particular character ends up objectifying or dehumanizing other characters. Because my hero is white, it runs the risk of turning any characters I include of the local people into objects who exist only to facilitate my protagonist’s story. And I definitely do not want to do that with characters of color.

I’m going to put in the work on this. I’ve got a lot of researching and developing to do yet. But I do know a good way to keep a character human is to give them their own arc, demonstrating that their story is one worth following, and affording them agency in the story, making them take actions in the service of achieving their goals and needs. So, while I’m by no means certain yet, my current idea I’m exploring involves having a local character whose personal mission is the central arc of the flashback’s story. This character, who’d probably be female, could have the protagonistic qualities of wanting something, taking actions to pursue it, and driving the plot with their efforts. Perhaps if she drives the story, and other characters are in the position of being reactive to that, I can avoid making any such person being subservient to Victoria’s development.

I’m not sure yet. I’ll have to do more work. But I’m resolved to figure out how to do this in a respectful, conscientious way.

Vivat Regina and Base Instruments by Phoebe Roberts will be performed January 13th-15th at the Boston Westin Waterfront Hotel as part of Arisia 2017.

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Mrs. Hawking TV show bible posted!

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The show bible for the Mrs. Hawking TV pilot is now available!

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As you may know, the Mrs. Hawking story could be adapted to many different kinds of media, but I can’t help but think that serialized television is the ideal form. To that end, the first stage script has been adapted into a pilot for a TV series on this website, now updated and in polished form.

But when you’re trying to a script for a TV show out there, a useful tool to have for pitching it is the show bible. That’s a short, five-page document outlining the important broad strokes of the series. It describes the setting, the major ideas, the important characters and their journeys, as well as giving an idea of the direction the storytelling is going to take. So we decided to put one together to accompany our pilot.

The bible is now posted on this website. It was hard to boil things down to their essentials, but actually all the writing about the characters and planning out the story in the blog was incredibly helpful for figuring out what to say! Check out the bible to get an idea of how we’d translate this idea to the screen.

Until then, there’s always the stage plays! Be sure to check out our shows Mrs. Hawking and Vivat Regina at the Watch City Steampunk Festival in Waltham on Satuday, May 7th! We’ll give you some cinematic action performed live for your enjoyment!

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The mistake in Vivat Regina

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Categories: character, development, vivat regina, Tags: ,

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When I was in graduate school studying playwriting and screenwriting, one of my mentors, the great Boston theater artist Kate Snodgrass, said that everything that in the text of a play is intentional. Whatever writing choices made it into the final draft have to be treated by us, readers and critics, as specifically included on purpose by that writer. It’s all part of the world of the story, and nothing can be chalked up to as accidental, or a mistake.

With all due respect to Kate, I don’t always agree with that. As a writer, I find that the process isn’t always one smooth delivery of brainchild onto the page. I do tend to be a very intentional writer. It’s just my style to do a lot of advance planning, and I always have a motivation for why I made the choice that I made. Doesn’t mean it’s a good choice, of course, but I did it on purpose for a reason!

But even I end up with stuff in my finished projects that weren’t part of my grand design. Sometimes I have a really good part A and a really good part C, so I end up hacking together a part B because it gets me from one to the other. Or sometimes I include something that struck me on a whim at the moment, when if I’d considered it a little more deeply, I might not find it consistent with the overall vision.

One such small moment exists in Vivat Regina. There’s a little recurring bit throughout the piece of how Mrs. Hawking doesn’t like keeping tea biscuits in the house. It’s mostly there as a joke, a way to make fun of her for her weirdness, to give the characters, particularly Mary and Clara, a way to relate to each other.

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“You haven’t even any decent tea biscuits!” Rehearsing with Circe Rowan as Mary and Samantha LeVangie as Clara.

Why is this a mistake? Because– why would Mrs. Hawking have a problem with tea biscuits? It’s not immediately obvious, so you as the audience might be wondering. When I as the writer think about it, it gives me pause as I realize— she actually doesn’t have a reason. At least, she didn’t when I wrote it. Because I didn’t include it because it grew out of some feature that I wanted to make part of Mrs. Hawking’s character. It’s there not because of something about her— it’s there because of something about me. Which is a massively amateurish thing for a writer.

I thought that was funny, without thinking about it too much, because I hate keeping crackers and little munchables around because I eat them all immediately. But that’s my issue, that’s not true of Mrs. Hawking. It’s just not who she is. And that’s a problem, because I included a feature of a character that didn’t derive from that character’s unique nature. It’s a sign of immature writing to make all of your characters reflections of you rather than independent, complex people. So in writing in that little bit, I made a rookie mistake.

Upon reflection, I decided to keep it. It’s funny, it adds something to the interactions. But that means it’s in there. It’s part of the fabric of the world. My challenge now is to find the truth in it. Even though it came from me rather than the character, now I need to find something about the character that makes it true.

Right now, I’m leaving it up to the interpretation of the actors. I’m trying to take in what they bring to the piece to find inspiration for the real meaning. But that just shows you, artists are fallible. Things can work in their despite your best intentions for a grand design. But luckily, in theater you are collaborating with so many other talented people that they can help bring order to the chaos, meaning where there was none.

I leave it up to you whether or not we made it work.

Mrs. Hawking by Phoebe Roberts will be performed January 15th at 8PM and January 16th at 4PM and Vivat Regina by Phoebe Roberts January 17th at 1PM at the Westin Waterfront Hotel as part of Arisia 2016.

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Finished draft of Base Instruments!

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I am pleased to announce that Base Instruments, part three of the Mrs. Hawking series, has a complete draft!

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I had some friends over to read it, as I love to do when evaluating a play, and the response was great. Now I have a direction for the edit! Thanks to Jane Becker, Charlotte Brewer, Matthew Kamm, Tegan Kehoe, and Samantha LeVangie for their great feedback! The stuff I need to fix isn’t huge, fortunately, but it will require some deft tweaking in order to improve, and that level of subtlety will be challenging. And hearing the whole piece together means I learned some interesting things about this new installment of the story.

Jeremiah O'Sullivan as Nathaniel

Jeremiah O’Sullivan as Nathaniel

Base Instruments turned out to be very much Nathaniel’s play. It wasn’t exactly intentional, but with so many of his close family members featuring, it was only natural that he would end up being the most central character. Even though I want the series to mostly belong to Mary and Mrs. Hawking, it became clear in the writing of the previous two plays that Nathaniel was going to serve as the third lead. And since those first two dealt with the two of them primarily, it was all right if Nathaniel came to the forefront by piece three. Not only does he have the most stage time, his arc plays out with more characters than anyone else’s. I like to think he’s getting really developed.

Justin, Nathaniel’s brother, proved to be very charismatic, as I hoped he would be! Similarly to Clara in Vivat Regina, he was the cool new character Base Instruments added to the cast. I’ve become very devoted to the idea that these pieces need comic relief to balance the drama, and both he and Clara brought some of the lightest moments of wit and humor. I don’t know how often he’ll be able to come back, given the direction the series will take from here, but it will be a real shame if I don’t figure out how to fit him in again.

In fact, the structure of the play changed in an interesting way because of the expansion of the world in this manner. While the two previous installments mostly just followed around Mrs. Hawking and Mary, mostly together, Base Instruments had enough threads going on that its scenes skip back and forth between them. It gives the story a breadth and texture, allowing a much more complex series of events to happen, with a more careful pacing as the threads break each other up. And frankly? It’s pretty damn cool that one of the most engaging scenes in the play happens between two secondary characters, one who’ve we’ve only just met in this piece. That can only be possible when the world and its dynamics are very rich.

My plan is to dig into the edit and get it done in the next few weeks. After that I’d like to have a second reading, to make sure the changes improved and tightened things. Then it will be posted here on the website, and I can truly say I’m completed the first trilogy in the Mrs. Hawking saga!

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“What if the Colonel did black ops?”

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Categories: character, development, Tags: , , ,

As I mentioned in the entry on Early Installment Weirdness, it is common for your conception of who a character is and what they’re like to change the more you work with them. While a fair bit of this happened with the more central characters, particularly Mrs. Hawking herself, you know which person ended up changing the most in my mind? Everyone’s favorite Ghost Character, her late husband Colonel Reginald Prescott Hawking.

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Back when I was imagining Mrs. Hawking as more of a straight-up Sherlock Holmes type— more purely calculating, intellectual, and reserved —I imagined that it might be intriguing if her interior life was something of a black box. I thought it might be engaging if she remained largely inscrutable in her feelings and motivations, leaving the audience to guess from her actions alone. The Colonel, correspondingly, was even more opaque— a distant, detached figure who by virtue of his absence and Mrs. Hawking’s complete lack of interest in him would never be fully understood.

But I really could not stick to this view of them. As the Batman influence became more and more prominent, it became clear that Mrs. Hawking actually had LOTS of strong feelings and motivations, which no matter how much she kept bottling them always threatened to burst out. Maybe it’s a weakness on my part, but I found it much more satisfying to actively, obviously explore her inner life. And by that same token, it became much more interesting to me to make the Colonel a more complex, human figure.

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The first step of that was the devising of his central tragedy— that he really loved Victoria, and was incapable of understanding how that love managed to hurt her. And from there, all these things about him started to assert himself. He was actively excited to have a family with her, and when that was no longer possible he was extremely sad. He realized that she didn’t seem to want anything to do with him, and so decided removing the burden of his presence from her life would be the kindest thing he could do. A lot of people ask me how Mrs. Hawking managed to hide her society avenging work from him for twenty years. The answer to that is partially that he was away a lot, in his capacity as a prominent commander of the British empire. But because we made him more interesting, we found ourselves getting more interested in him. And that means now I wonder a lot about how he spent that time.

Bernie suggested he might have had cool adventures in his time abroad, perhaps serving in some elite capacity in special operations all across the empire. Maybe he led some kind of Howling Commandos-type special force. Who knows what sort of missions he could have run? And, seeing as they were in service to the engine of the British Empire, they might not all have been the most righteous causes. He’s a loyal soldier, but he’s not without moral understanding. How might the Colonel have felt about that?

It’s hard to bring this stuff into the story as we currently conceive of it. It’s Mrs. Hawking’s story above all, not the Colonel’s. But it certainly enriches thing to know what happened behind the scenes, even if we never completely tell the audience what it is. The little character moments it could inform could add so much dimension to our understanding of these people.

I had a vision of how maybe it was an old family legend among the Hawkings that the Colonel was once offered a knighthood and turned it down. Being the reserved person that he was, he never said why, or what for. Nathaniel would of course be fascinated by such a thing, and could ask Mrs. Hawking about it. But she would say she didn’t know why, because, to Nathaniel’s uncomprehending shock, she never asked. And a moment like that says a lot about all parties involved. A great little moment to reveal character.

Vivat Regina and Base Instruments by Phoebe Roberts will be performed at 2PM and 6PM respectively at 274 Moody Street in Waltham, MA as part of the Watch City Steampunk Festival 2017.

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Learning from Early Installment Weirdness

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There’s an interesting phenomenon that occurs when writing characters in a serialized story. You of course get to know them better the longer you work with them. But because your stories get completed at different stages of that development process, sometimes a finalized piece features a character in ways that aren’t part of the ultimate conception you have of them. This is often referred to as Early Installment Weirdness, to use the TV Tropes term— when the true nature of the story you’re telling evolves and solidifies in the process of telling it.

I’m pleased that we don’t have TOO much of this in Mrs. Hawking. But as I work on later installments, I do notice things in the original that I probably wouldn’t have included if I were writing it with the understanding I have now. Mrs. Hawking, for example, accepts the job from Mrs. Fairmont while allowing certain details of what’s going on to remain a secret. Vivat Regina shows that Mrs. Hawking will turn down jobs that she doesn’t believe to fit with her mission, so I don’t know if it’s totally her to take on a problem without all the facts. I guess it took some time to realize just how mean she was! Also, given her fierce distaste for interacting with people face to face, the fact that she’s so willing to take Mary’s suggestion to go in as guests at Brockton’s ball— as opposed to sneaking in unseen —is a little off as well.

1.3. "Mrs. Hawking sent you?"
Mrs. Hawking shaking down her own client turns out to be TOTALLY in character

Fortunately I don’t find these to be big problems. Maybe Mrs. Fairmont lied about her problem originally, and that wasn’t clear to Mrs. Hawking until she started investigating. Maybe her plan all along was to make Mary do the talking at the ball. But it does serve as a reminder to consider what’s really in character when I make storytelling choices. You generate more belief in the characters and their actions when they do not what you need them to do, not what the plot needs them to do, but what grows naturally out of the people that they are.

1.5. "Fancy that. You're in attendance this evening."
Would this asshole willingly put herself into a situation where she had to… TALK to people?

In fact, I think that’s the reason Early Installment Weirdness even happens. Because the more you work with the people and the world, the more they tell you who they are. And it usually turns out better when you work with whatever direction it takes. And it turns out that Mrs. Hawking told me she was meaner and more socially maladjusted than I suspected! Lucky for me, there’s a ton of story to get out of that!

Mrs. Hawking and Vivat Regina will be performed on May 7th at 119 School Street, Waltham, MA at 2PM and 6PM as part of the Watch City Steampunk Festival 2016 in Waltham, MA.

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Process of drafting Base Instruments

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At last, all that outlining for Base Instruments is paying off. I worked my ass off, with Bernie’s help, to figure out what would happen in each scene, and while that tactic can be grueling, I find it so much easier to actually draft the piece with that effort put in on the front end.

Here is my current process strategy. I have broken each scene down into discreet sections. On stage, changing locations is a big shift, so scenes tend to be demarcated by things that happen in the same circumscribed place (like the parlor, the ballroom, et cetera) in the same continuous time period. So, if Nathaniel and Mary are having a conversation just the two of them for a while, but Mrs. Hawking enters at a later point of it and they three talk together, that’s the same SCENE because of the location and temporal continuity, but I’m considering them different subsections. I find such chunking very useful, as it enables me to break down the task of writing everything into manageable pieces.

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A glimpse of my outline

My goal is to write at least one complete subsection a day until I have a complete first draft. Since it’s usually just a part of the scene, it will only works out to a few pages. I do well with breaking big tasks down into smaller, measurable milestones, so this is really helping me dig into the drafting.

The one thing I’m a little sorry about is that the more I learn about how this story is actually going to be put together, the more of the original scene drafting (much of it done during 31 Plays in 31 Days 2014) is not going to be useable. A shame, a couple pieces I liked there either won’t be room for, or just aren’t applicable anymore. Alas, but sometimes darlings are casualties of the process.

The only thing I haven’t yet worked out in the outline is the ending. I know sort of what I want to happen, but there’s a few mechanical issues I haven’t solved. But I think I needed to switch gears, so I thought switching to writing to waste less time. Still, the climax where they fix everything is still up in the air. But maybe actually fleshing out the piece will help inspire a great solution.

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“What If I Don’t Want To?” — early drafting of Mary’s arc for Base Instruments

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Categories: base instruments, development, scenes, themes, Tags: , , ,

I find that the overall plot of Base Instruments, which is a mystery, is proving to be hard to nail down. I’m very close now, though it certainly could still change as I test how everything works. The other day I worked out an important aspect of it through drawing a diagram and moving coins around on it that represented where the characters were at various points in the story. Proud of myself for figuring that out!

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I wrote this snippet for Base Instruments as part of 31 Plays in 31 Days 2014. I got the major themes and journeys hammered out pretty quickly, so here's something, getting at the idea that as much as Mary wants to be Mrs. Hawking's protege, she may not be ready for everything Mrs. Hawking's going to expect. This will be Mary’s major struggle for the piece.

What If I Don’t Want To?
By Phoebe Roberts

MARY STONE, Mrs. Hawking’s maid and protégé
NATHANIEL HAWKING, Mrs. Hawking’s gentleman nephew

London, England, 1883
~~~

MARY: Did you know that Mrs. Hawking studied ballet when she was young?

NATHANIEL: Is that so? I'd no idea, how interesting.

MARY: Apparently she once considered making a career of it.

NATHANIEL: Oh, really? Was she any good, then?

MARY: I don't know. But doesn't that surprise you?

NATHANIEL: I quite honestly don’t believe there’s anything she couldn’t do if she cared to. Why, does it you?

MARY: It’s, well… Mrs. Hawking doesn't often like things for their own sake, now, does she?

NATHANIEL: She doesn't like much of anything.

MARY: That's not what I mean. Everything's to a point with her. She practices skills to hone her craft. She studies facts in case it might serve her to know them. For goodness sake, she only reads for the points of reference. To think of her dancing for only the love of it… why, it's entirely new.

NATHANIEL: Goodness. I think I see what you mean.

MARY: Do you think… she’s always been that way?

NATHANIEL: I’m hard pressed to imagine her before she was so bitter.

MARY: It could have been that. Or… do you think she’s found it necessary? For her work, I mean. To care for nothing but that which serves her purpose because that’s the only way she’s capable of accomplishing the enormous things she accomplishes?

NATHANIEL: Goodness, I hope not. I mean to be of help to her, but I couldn’t bear to live as she does. Devoting herself to nothing but her work.

MARY: What if that’s what it takes?

NATHANIEL: Well, then I haven’t got it. I’ve a family, for heaven’s sake, and a hobby or two I’d care to pursue.

(He laughs, but MARY sits very quietly, eyes wide.)

NATHANIEL: Are you quite all right?

MARY: What if I haven’t got it either?

NATHANIEL: Oh, Mary. I’m sure you too can do anything you want to. If you put your mind to it, I’m sure you could become as honed and dedicated as she is.

MARY: No, Nathaniel… what if I don’t want to?

8/3/14

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