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

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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!


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?



Structuring “Mrs. Hawking part 3,” Base Instruments

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Been doing some serious work on the third Mrs. Hawking story, Base Instruments, as this summer I have real time to buckle down and write. As I’ve mentioned, this is a tougher project than usual because of the demands of writing a mystery to be performed onstage. But that difficulty is compounded by all the other things that need to be in it.

The Mrs. Hawking story is intended to be a serial, with all the advantages and disadvantages that involves. I love the the fact that our characters can develop overtime, building up rich journeys and the surrounding setting through what stories came before. With two adventures already under our belt, the world of Mrs. Hawking has started to take shape, including a larger cast of characters that we want to see more of. Nathaniel’s wife Clara and Arthur the police constable, both introduced in Vivat Regina, will be returning to continue their roles in Base Instruments. I also want to introduce Nathaniel’s older brother Justin Hawking, to further expand the literal and metaphorical Hawking family, and add in new sources of interaction and conflict.

But doing these cool characters full justice takes a lot of stage time! Though I will be building on what came before, at the same I want the stories to stand alone as much as possible, which means there has to be enough information for people to understand the relationships without necessarily having all the background. And this has to be balanced with all the stuff needed for the solving of the case. We need investigation, deduction, suspects. Lots of scenes are going to have to pull double-duty, advancing the pursuit of the mystery while still getting in the character moments with what’s looking to be the largest cast in a Mrs. Hawking play to date. It takes a lot of characters to include our heroes, our supporting cast, and all the suspects necessarily to tell an engaging and legitimate whodunnit.

The length of the play is also something to watch. Both previous two Mrs. Hawking stories come in at a lively hour and fifteen minutes. That’s actually pretty short for a stage play, but I find I like that. They move at a good pace and there’s no time for the audience to get bored. But Base Instruments is looking to be jam-packed with story to tell. I probably have a little bit of leeway to make it longer than the others, as seventy-five minutes is a fair bit shorter than is usual for plays, but I don’t want to make this story bloated, and take away the piece’s momentum.

So I’ve been working very hard on the structure for Base Instruments, which has held the bulk my attention at this stage of the piece. It’s generally a rule of thumb to introduce characters earlier rather than later, so I’m trying to find ways to get the majority of our cast in view up front. But the action and the investigation has to get going right away as well, so often it’s a matter of figuring out where people can come in around the detective work.

Striking that balance is turning out to be very important. Hopefully both the character interactions as well as the pursuit of the case will engage the audience, so interweaving them with the correct pacing will keep the story moving. I believe that finding the best blend of these threads will be key to making this play a success.


Costume interviews with Jenn Giorno – Mary’s new ballgown

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In our first production at Arisia ’15, we were very generously lent our leading ladies’ eveningwear by the costume company Pendragon Costumes. They are gorgeous and beautifully made, and we were really grateful to have them.


But for the recent performance at the Watch City Steampunk Festival ’15, we had to find alternatives to use. Given the elaborateness of Victorian ballgowns, and the fairly punishing quick costume changes I wrote into the script, that posed a pretty big challenge for our costume designer, Jennifer Giorno. When I interviewed Jenn about her design process, Mary’s dress proved a perfect example of how she attacked that particular problem.

Circe Rowan as Mary

Circe Rowan as Mary

Phoebe: “So what was your approach to building the new ballgown for Mary?”

Jenn: “Well, we had the same corset piece as before, at least, so I had to try to balance the quick change with what we could add to this to make it look like a unified ballgown. So the question was, what could we add that worked quickly and affordably? And of course it had to be in Mary’s signature blue.

“I basically started off with the bolero idea. I thought the easiest thing would be to try to use the same types of pieces as we used before. Her shoulders needed to be covered, and a bolero was the easiest way to add that, because it wouldn’t have been accurate to have an entirely strapless gown. I found the bolero on eBay, and I liked that it was lace. It would complement the color of the corset. It did what we needed it to do.”

2.1. "So it is safe to say that our writer is a man of some background, and was raised in the country."2.1. "But I thought you said there was nothing to identify it." "Ah, but there is. It simply requires the proper eye to see it."

P: “I actually thought that one thing that made for a really nice change this time around was I liked her bare arms. It made her seem younger and fresher.”

J: “It does. Young women would have had shorter sleeves. Always the gloves, but shorter sleeves.”

P: “She had the gloves! It was a very elegant effect.”

1.5. "I don't believe we've met."

J: “Then I needed to match the bolero, to make it look like one unified dress instead of lots of separate pieces. It would have spoiled the effect if we had too many different shades of blue. I knew that we could make a petticoat easily, just a drawstring skirt, to mimic the pieces we used before. I made that out of a dark blue satin with a medium shine. The lace overlay was sort of a last-minute flash.”

P: “It tied it all together.”

2.1. "Oh, how exhilarating that was!"

J: “I loved the way it came out. I wanted to be able to do some sort of overlay, because they were so popular back then, and it would have been a little too plain for the standards of the time without it. Originally I was going to make it a full overlay, the layer of satin under the layer of lace. But then I liked the way the half-length overlay looked when I tried it all together.”

P: “I did too! It gave it more texture.”

J: “And it gave it another tier! Victorians loved tiers on skirts. And the fact that it was lace tied it to the bolero. It was a slightly different color of lace, but not so visibly, and it created a slight gradation of blues down the whole dress. And the way we ended up draping it in the back, it made a nice curvature with the corset’s bustle. So it looks layered and tiered all the way around, even though it’s a very simple design. It’s just a layer of lace folded over itself and gathered in the back.”


P: “It took an eye to figure out how to make those pieces work together. To figure out how those disparate elements could create the look of one ballgown.”

J: “One thing I’m really good at is being Costume MacGyver. Having a problem and finding a way to fix it using materials at hand.”

P: “Necessity is the mother of invention. Or desperation, as I like to say lately!”

1.5. "They were all officers!"

J: “Yes! But I was happy with how Mary’s outfit came out. But throwing that lace overlay in between the corset and the skirt turned out to be the one thing that I didn’t realize was missing from the look.”

P: “It was the last thing it needed to make it look like an ensemble. It came out beautifully.”

J: “Thank you!”

2.1. "I suppose we must act quickly, then, before he has the chance to bolster his defenses."

P: “And on top of all that, the quick-change could happen.”

J: “That was the most important part. Making sure it could come on and off quickly, with the things we had at hand. I couldn’t just go out and buy a two hundred dollar dress with a zipper in the back. Because of this, of all the outfits in the show, Mary’s ballgown is probably the least close to period. But the silhouette was there, and that was enough. I tried to keep it in the right spirit— the right bustle shape, the corseted look. It kept it sufficiently evocative, even though I know it wasn’t exact, and was still really pretty.”

Circe Rowan as Mary

Circe Rowan as Mary

More pictures of Mary in her ballgown can be seen in our Gallery section, as beautifully worn by Mary’s actress, Circe Rowan.


The colors of Mrs. Hawking

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Color choice in theater has always been very important to me. As a visual medium, it can add a great deal to the experience, and I think you can invest a lot of medium when color is carefully chosen.

1.1. "Is that the girl?"

1.1. “Is that the girl?”

Though not as a firm rule, we stuck to a very definite color palette in Mrs. Hawking. It was partially luck, as in many things, such as the costume design, we were limited by what we were able to acquire on our budget. But as anyone who is family with my own design tendencies would notice, I am often drawn to particular colors, in particular combinations when I’m working on the production design of shows.

Mrs. Hawking is mostly focused in a limited palette of six colors, specifically set up as dichotomies: red and blue, black and white, silver and gold. It’s not the first time I’ve sampled from that selection, as I find they’re highly evocative combinations. The trick is not to necessarily make the audience understand exactly what you intended with them, but to encourage them to draw connections and notice juxtapositions.

1.5. "Soldiers, miss?"

1.5. “Soldiers, miss?”

The red and blue dichotomy, roughly indicates the upper classes versus the lower classes. Mrs. Hawking’s parlor is painted red, to indicate its richness. You only see red in the costumes of the well-to-do, respectable characters, like Lord Brockton and Mrs. Fairmont. Nathaniel even has a red cravat with his day look in the opening scene.

1.3. "Please, for my husband's sake, and for my blameless child whose only  crime is the folly of his mother."

1.3. “Please, for my husband’s sake, and for my blameless child whose only crime is the folly of his mother.”

1.5. "They were all officers!"

1.5. “They were all officers!”

1.1 Nathaniel is the first character we lay eyes on in the world of Mrs. Hawking.

1.1 Nathaniel is the first character we lay eyes on in the world of Mrs. Hawking.

By contrast, the working class people wear blue. I’ve actually always considered blue to be Mary’s signature color, and she sets the tone for the rest of the play. She is the primary example in this mostly middle- and upper-class setting, but it carries over into Grace Monroe, the other explicitly working class character.

1.4. Mary figures out what she's going to say to

1.4. Mary figures out what she’s going to say to

1.5. "Good luck, madam." "To you as well."

1.5. “Good luck, madam.” “To you as well.”


Black and white were juxtaposed against silver and gold. Black and white was about blending in, conforming to expectations. Black tuxedoes, white aprons and shirts, Mrs. Hawking’s widow’s weeds and stealth suit. The character who must, or want to, fit in, or even hide, use it to recede from notice.

2.3. "Now I want you to leave."

2.3. “Now I want you to leave.”

2.2. "Oh, hecky-pecky!"

2.2. “Oh, hecky-pecky!”

1.2. "I shall be frank. I've no idea what to do with you."

1.2. “I shall be frank. I’ve no idea what to do with you.”

Silver and gold, however, are about standing out, commanding attention. They feature in characters who have the power or the presence so that others notice them, give them the time of day. You see them mostly in the characters who are used to having some control over things, even if in the show it’s taken away. Nathaniel’s eveningwear is in a sharp silver, as the skirt of Mrs. Hawking’s ballgown, which also subtly ties them together. The silvery gray of Colchester’s coat speaks to his pretensions. Gold features in Brockton’s frock coat costume, and is a prominent tone in Sir Walter’s waistcoast. These people are using their power to command attention to themselves.

1.5. "It seems, Miss Stone, that we have dressed you in entirely too becoming a gown."

1.5. “It seems, Miss Stone, that we have dressed you in entirely too becoming a gown.”

2.2. "Lord Brockton-- the undersecretary? He is here?"

2.2. “Lord Brockton– the undersecretary? He is here?”

2.5. "He's lightning quick, and I'd wager he's the same body we was tracking the other night."

2.5. “He’s lightning quick, and I’d wager he’s the same body we was tracking the other night.”

2.5 "Suddenly he threatened to ruin me unless I kept the boy for him."

2.5 “Suddenly he threatened to ruin me unless I kept the boy for him.”

2.5. Big finish-- the villain breaks in with a gun.

2.5. Big finish– the villain breaks in with a gun.

When choosing these things, it’s not so much that you are trying to get the audience to consciously pick up on all your reasoning for them. It just unifies the images before their eyes in a pleasing way, and gets them thinking about what is connected to, or contrasted with, by uses of color.


Costume interviews with Jenn Giorno – the menswear

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Did you admire the lovely Victorian costuming in our production of Mrs. Hawking? It was the work of Jennifer Giorno, our primary designer and the actress who portrayed Grace Monroe, and my very dear friend. She, like me, believes very strongly in the power of costuming to help tell the story and define the characters.


I had the chance to sit down with Jenn and ask her how she approached the fairly challenging task of emulating historical fashions on a tight budget that had to stand up to the rigors and quick changing of theater. She had some fascinating things to say about the process, on a wide variety of costuming issues! So I’ll be breaking it into parts, and today’s section will be on one of my favorites, the menswear!

The menswear of Mrs. Hawking was designed after the very regimented styles worn in Victorian England. There was a separate uniform for respectable gentlemen’s daywear, the morning and frock suits, and eveningwear, the white and black tie tuxedos. It’s a very visually recognizable style, so it would be clear if we did it wrong. Given that we were working mostly with found, borrowed, and thrifted items, it’s amazing just how dapper our gentlemen turned out!

2.2. "Why, yes, sounds a capital idea."

Phoebe: “What do you like about Victorian menswear?”

Jenn: “I love frock coats, I love mourning coats. If men still wore morning coats as as everyday thing, I’d just be so distracted, always! Because I love the cut, even more then regular tails.”

P: “We got that in there, with Nathaniel!”

Jeremiah O'Sullivan as Nathaniel

Jeremiah O’Sullivan as Nathaniel

J: “Yep! It’s so sleek, it’s so good-looking. For me, one of the important things was distinguishing the high-class characters from the low-class ones, or the ones who were pretending to it. So Colchester is a trumped up thug with delusions of grandeur. He wears a bowler hat, which isn’t quite the thing, but it’s close enough to being the thing, so that’s what he goes to. And his coat, it’s a little bit shapeless, but it’s still a nice coat.”

Brian Dorfman as Colchester

Brian Dorfman as Colchester

P: “We joked that Brian made it look too good!”

J: “Yeah! But it definitely looked less crisp than all the other men. And in this performance we had him half-untucked. And in he’s not wearing a vest or tie at all, which really speaks to his low-class.


Jordan Greeley as Sir Walter Grainger

“And with Grainger, it was subtler. He’s technically nobility, but he’s country, so he wears a lovely waistcoat, but his evening suit and shirt aren’t quite as nice and don’t fit quite as well. We even have him in a scene where he’s a little unbuttoned. So with the men, it was trying to be accurate, but getting color choices that spoke to the characters, and making the subtle class distinctions.

“Nathaniel’s looks, his daywear is gray, his eveningwear is black and silver. It speaks to him as a proper, clean-cut character. It says he wants to make a good impression and for people to like him.”

2.3. "Am I to take it that you've been going out on these... ventures... for some time now?"

P: “And to our modern eyes, I think it gives off signals that we can interpret as that he’s a good dresser. I’ve always thought Nathaniel cared about fashion, he’s interested in it and keeps up with it.”

2.5. Badass disarm.

J: “Yes, it’s important that Nathaniel, and Brockton as well, come off as a good dresser.”

Francis Hauert as Lord Brockton

Francis Hauert as Lord Brockton

“Brockton’s also showier about it. It’s part of his persona as the blackmailer. He likes to flaunt his power, and his dress is one of the ways he does it. The daywear in gold and black, and the nightwear in red and black. High class, but also a little sinister.”

Andrew Prentice as Ensemble

Andrew Prentice as Ensemble

“We didn’t go with proper white tie, even though that would have been appropriate. It would have had them basically all looking like penguins! That just would have been too generic. We wanted those flashes of color in there from their vests and cravats. It adds texture and speaks to their personalities.”

I’m with Jenn; I love men in sharp suits and eveningwear. It added so much to the visual impact of our male characters to have them dressed so sharply.

2.2. "What ho, gentlemen! I was hoping I might interest everyone in a game of cards."


Act II photo gallery by John Benfield from Mrs. Hawking at WCSF ’15

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Photos of Act II of Mrs. Hawking at the Watch City Steampunk Festival ’15 now have been posted in our gallery section! Courtesy of John Benfield’s ready camera!

2.2. "Looks to be a service knife."

2.2. “Looks to be a service knife.”

2.5. Battle of the stick weapons.

2.5. Battle of the stick weapons.

2.6. "I hear you help women in rough spots."

2.6. “I hear you help women in rough spots.”

So check out the second half of the photos of our show! And, if you didn’t get a chance to see the first half, they have their own gallery. And, if you’d just like to get a good look at our characters in their costumes, we have a fabulous character portrait gallery taken by Damian Hickey.

Thanks so everyone whose hard work made these beautiful images come together!


New gallery – Act I of Mrs. Hawking at WCSF ’15

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Thanks to John Benfield, we have a beautiful set of photos taken during the performance of Mrs. Hawking at the Watch City Steampunk Festival ’15 in our Gallery section!

1.1 Nathaniel is the first character we lay eyes on in the world of Mrs. Hawking.

1.1 Nathaniel is the first character we lay eyes on in the world of Mrs. Hawking.

1.3. "You haven't seen nothing?"

1.3. “You haven’t seen nothing?”

1.5. "Soldiers, miss?"

1.5. “Soldiers, miss?”

These are great to have because they capture something of the magic of all parts of the production working together. We see the actors inhabiting their characters. They wear the gorgeous costumes designed by Jennifer Giorno. They stand in front of the beautiful, ingenious set, built by Bernie Gabin, painted by Samantha LeVangie, with input from Carolyn Daitch and Joe Gabin. The production design, which I and other helping me worked so hard on, all works together.

The images from Act I are now available for your viewing pleasure in the Gallery! Act II will be added soon, but in the meantime, enjoy this lush glimpse into the world of Mrs. Hawking.


Gallery of character portraits from Mrs. Hawking at WCSF ’15!

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Thanks to Damian Hickey, the CDA photographer at the Watch City Steampunk Festival, we now have a beautiful gallery of in-character portraits from our most recent performance of Mrs. Hawking!

Francis Hauert as Lord Brockton

Francis Hauert as Lord Brockton

Brian Dorfman as Colchester

Brian Dorfman as Colchester

Circe Rowan as Mary

Circe Rowan as Mary

These shots are really gorgeous, and I’m very proud of the cast for their ability to evoke their characters in their modeling. Not to mention Jennifer Giorno’s lovely costume design! This is the first section of our new Gallery page, which will be soon followed by shots from the performance itself. But for now, enjoy these gorgeous portraits by Damian Hickey, and see how a combination of good photography, talented actors, and beautiful costuming can capture the spirit of these characters.


Mrs. Hawking on the highlight reel of Watch City Steampunk Festival ’15!

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Mrs. Hawking is accomplished at the Watch City Steampunk Festival ’15!


We had our two performances to excellent audiences this past Saturday, and I couldn’t be more pleased and proud. Thanks to everyone who came out to see us, as well as our hardworking cast and crew who made these wonderful shows possible!

Soon we’ll be reporting in more detail about how this production turned out. In the meantime, check out this highlight reel from all the cool steampunk activities that happened at our venue, the Center for Digital Arts. In addition to shots of scenes 1.1 and 1.3 of our play, keep an eye out for Sarah Jenkins (Mrs. Fairmont), Jordan Greeley (Sir Walter), Frances Kimpel (Mrs. Hawking), and Morgan Ong (Ensemble) in their photo sessions!


Mrs. Hawking THIS SATURDAY at Watch City Steampunk Festival!

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In just two days, our newest production of Mrs. Hawking goes up at the Watch City Steampunk Festival!

We’re reaching the end of our tech week, and things are really coming together. It’s going to be an amazing show. So please come join us for one of our two totally free performances in downtown Waltham!


by Phoebe Roberts


Two performances
as part of The Watch City Steampunk Festival 2015

presented by The Chameleon’s Dish

FREE to the public
Seating first come, first serve

2PM and 6PM
Saturday, May 9th, 2015
At the Center for Digital Arts
274 Moody Street, Waltham, MA

Mrs. Victoria Hawking – Frances Kimpel
Miss Mary Stone – Circe Rowan
Mr. Nathaniel Hawking – Jeremiah O’Sullivan
Mrs. Celeste Fairmont – Sarah Jenkins
Lord Cedric Brockton – Francis Hauert
Sir Walter Grainger – Jordan Greeley
Mr. John Colchester – Brian Dorfman
Miss Grace Monroe – Jennifer Giorno
Ensemble – Andrew Prentice, Morgan Ong

Director – Phoebe Roberts
Stage Manager – Eboracum Richter-Dahl
Technical Director – Bernie Gabin
Costume Designer – Jennifer Giorno
Sound Designer – Neil Marsh
Makeup Designer – Indigo Darling
Violence Designer – Arielle Kaplan

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