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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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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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
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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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Phoebe talks Mrs. Hawking for New England New Play Alliance

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Categories: development, performance, Tags: , ,

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I was lucky enough to give an interview about Mrs. Hawking for the New England New Play Alliance!

In it I discuss my thoughts behind what’s engaging about theater, the appeal of Mrs. Hawking, and how I hope to speak to geeks, theater and otherwise, with their passion and enthusiasm for the stories they love. This interview, and the details of Mrs. Hawking’s upcoming performance this weekend, will be released this Tuesday in issue #49 of their digest.

Thanks to Patti Cassidy of Boston Play Cafe for this interview!

Mrs. Hawking by Phoebe Roberts will be performed on Saturday, May 9th at 2PM and 6PM at the Center for Digital Arts at 274 Moody Street, Waltham as part of the 2015 Watch City Steampunk Festival.

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What the Arisia production taught me about the Mrs. Hawking script

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Categories: development, mrs. hawking, performance, Tags: , , ,

One of my excellent writing mentors, science fiction and fantasy author Mark Edwards, said that in the scramble to get the play put together, I would forget that I actually wrote the script that I was trying to put up— that is, until the Wednesday before the opening, when it would hit me like a ton of bricks and I’d have to fight the urge to change everything at the last minute. Even when you’re at the point of the script development process where you’re actually staging it, as the writer you’ve still got to see what the new circumstances can teach you about the script so that everything that worked in theory still works when you get it to the point where it’s actually a living, breathing entity.

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Theater is meant to be an experience, so a script has to hold up under the pressure of physical realities, timing, and audience. It doesn’t matter how beautiful the written words are, what really matters is how they play with actors, properties, and effects. This can be a two-edged sword; on one hand, sometimes production can elevate a script, but even a beautiful script that doesn’t work in practice or is unengaging to watch isn’t good theater. So now that Mrs. Hawking has finally been produced, I have information about it is a play that I didn’t have before.

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Samantha LeVangie and Frances Kimpel rehearsing an exit by window. “Hawking out!”

First of all, I am pleased to say that the piece played very well. I tweaked it a bit before going into rehearsals– mostly wording choices, and details like making sure Mary only calls Nathaniel “Mr. Hawking” for the first part of the play –but made no major changes. In performance the dialogue sounded natural and in-character, the story moved at a nice clip, and the world seemed to draw the audience into it. Though Mrs. Hawking is not as funny as its sequel Vivat Regina, and a few of the jokes early on didn’t get laughs due to what I believe was the audience not having relaxed into it yet, by fifteen or so minutes in they were definitely audibly reacting. One of the biggest moments for them was after the combat scene in the climax, first when Mary goes up against a mook with her poker, then Mrs. Hawking takes out a second one with a head bash and a choke hold. That got a real round of applause! All credit for that goes to Arielle Kaplan, the fight choreographer, and of course actors Frances Kimpel, Samantha LeVangie, Bobby Imperato, and Andrew Prentice.

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Arielle Kaplan instructing Frances Kimpel on the proper way to strangle Bobby Imperato.

It ran, interestingly, a fair bit shorter than I expected it to, at an hour and fifteen minutes when I’d originally guessed an hour an a half. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the page count of the production script. After some thought, I actually don’t think this is a bad thing. The play moved along at a brisk pace, and as they say, it’s always better to leave them wanting more. Also that helped us get into and out of the performance space well within our time allotment, as the production ended before we’d originally expected it to.

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Jonathan Plesser expresses frustration to Samantha LeVangie at the notion at the idea that Mrs. Hawking may have fired Mary.

Of course feasibility of production was a huge concern. When I originally wrote it in graduate school in 2012, I made the decision to just worry about trying to tell a good story. That meant I ended up going with some fairly challenging elements for the sake of punching it up– the quick change into fancy gowns for the ballroom scene, and the infamous moment in the club scene where Mrs. Hawking had to climb the set into the air. I felt they added enough to the story– plus I’m pretty attached to them at this point –that I wanted to try to make them work. You have no idea how relieved I was when we pulled it off.

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Of all the plays I’ve ever directed, Mrs. Hawking was the most piece-intensive, particularly when it came to props and costumes. Transitions between scenes required a great deal of work and precision so that they happened not only correctly but quickly. My biggest fear with the runtime was that excessively draggy transitions would kill the momentum of the story. But my cast and crew really stepped up, and nailed all of their marks when it came to carrying furniture on and off, moving props, and changing clothes. I even heard from an audience member that the pauses between the scenes provided nice “breaths” when taking it all in, allowing them a moment to process and even to whisper to each other over what they’d just seen. That was a nice unexpected reaction! So while it takes some work to manage them right, the required transitions were doable. Great to know!

So I have come to a place where I’m extremely pleased with the state of the script. I think this is serious proof of concept, that this script has what it takes– it plays well, it draws audiences, it engages them once they’re there, it’s doable on a tight schedule, in a tight timeslot, on a small budget. What more could I hope for than that?

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The challenge of writing Base Instruments

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The third installment of Mrs. Hawking is now underway. With Bernie’s help, I have begun the challenging process of plotting it out, and it’s clear that this will significantly harder than what I’ve done before.

First of all, Base Instruments will be a true mystery, as opposed to a caper like the first two stories. In Mrs. Hawking and Vivat Regina, our heroes are presented with a problem rather than a question. “Foil a blackmailer and return a kidnapped child.” “Bring a monster to justice who is hiding behind diplomatic immunity.” They knew what they were going after, and their challenge was to figure out how to accomplish it. In a mystery, however, they have to investigate to find out the answer to what’s gone on. That’s a very different story design process, as it requires the slow unfolding of the truth based on the gathering of clues, which is really tough to do in a theatrical medium. Think about it; most mystery stories require lots of people to interview and places to investigate, while in theater you have to minimize both locations and characters in order to make staging feasible. The few theatrical mysteries tend to be of the “locked room” variety, to keep both suspect pool and number of settings down.

Bernie and I are trying to use that “locked room” model after a fashion for that very reason. Still, this play is going to have a LOT of speaking characters, there’s just no way around it. We’ve got our three leads, of course, and we’re starting to build up a cast of supporting characters we want to recur and develop– in this case, Nathaniel’s wife Clara and Arthur, the policeman Mary befriended. I also want to include Nathaniel’s brother Justin Hawking, and of course there’s going to have to be all the characters specifically involved in the mystery.

But we’re trying to concern ourselves more with telling the best possible story than with “production stuff” yet. Writing a compelling mystery will be tough enough on its own. I’ve been watching a ton of mysteries lately for research, and we’re going to be working out a lot of kinks. Wish us luck! I want the next installment of this story to continue the upward trajectory of the last two.

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