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What I learned from the Vivat Regina reading

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Categories: looking ahead, performance, vivat regina, Tags: , , , , ,

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Photo by Beckie Hunter.

I was extremely pleased with how the staged reading of Vivat Regina went this past Thursday. My actors did such a wonderful job bringing the story to life, I couldn’t have been happier with the representation of my work. I had a very nice audience who reacted appreciatively to it, making me believe the piece is in fact in a solid state. I’m so grateful to everyone who helped make this possible.

Readings should not only exhibit a piece, they should also teach you something about it as its writer. What jumped out at me in this more than anything else was that people responded to the humor of it. I expected them to like the plot and character arcs, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that pretty much all the jokes got laughs. And I was told afterward that the funny parts were some of the most enjoyable of the entire play.

I would not say I am a particularly skilled comedy writer. But I do understand the value of lightening up a serious narrative with humor. A story like Mrs. Hawking’s, that of a frankly unhappy person acting on their rage and resentment, can easily go too far into the territory of “grimdark,” like Batman at his worst. That can get overbearing and excessively heavy very quickly. So I am extremely happy to hear that not only were my humorous moments in Vivat Regina genuinely funny, but they helped balance the serious parts rather than take away from them.

A lot of the humor is based in knowledge of the Victorian period, like when Nathaniel say that Newcastle was his grand military station abroad, so I was concerned it wouldn’t read. But maybe my audience was just smart, because most of it seemed to come across! Also the humor in Mary and Arthur’s banter in the scene with their first meeting seemed to do a lot to make people enjoy it. I very much wanted Arthur to come off as charming, and I think him being an effortlessly funny and sharp-witted guy helped. That scene was very cute, and did a lot to warm people to the relationship to come.

One thing I did not rely on was making any of the characters inherently absurd. I want this to be a story about people rather than caricatures, and I don’t want anyone reduced to a punchline. Take Clara, for example. Clara is a major source of comic relief in this piece, with her biting wit and mocking critiques of our hero. But I very much wanted her to be a substantial person whose humor came from the clever things she said, rather than from her being an absurd person. To annoy Mrs. Hawking, she intentionally behaves like a parody of the gossipy, self-absorbed society woman her aunt believes her to be, but it is put on, not her true nature. I was extremely glad to see that read.

What I take away from all this is that I should make a real effort in the future to include humor in the Mrs. Hawking stories. That’s a bit of a daunting prospect, as I know comedy is not my forte, but I’m glad to have gathered that information. I want these pieces to be as enjoyable and multi-layered as possible, and the lighter moments really seem to add a lot.

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Rewards and challenges of serialized drama

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Categories: development, looking ahead, Tags: , , ,

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The reading of Vivat Regina this October marks the first time a sequel has been performed as part of the Bare Bones reading series. Sequels are somewhat rare in theatrical drama, but a story like Mrs. Hawking’s has so much long-term potential that it could hardly be told any other way.

In writing Vivat Regina, one thing was certain— the piece had to stand up on its own, even if you had no knowledge of the original. That meant boiling down the essentials of what the audience needs to know in order to grasp what’s important about the situation and the characters. I worked to establish their circumstances quickly— they are operatives in the Sherlock Holmes mode, except perhaps a little more superhero-style derring-do, and Mary is doing her best to learn from her more experienced mentor Mrs. Hawking. The nature of the characters, too, needed to pop quickly; Mary is eager and enthusiastic, but troubled by how long it’s taking her to pick things up, while Mrs. Hawking’s severe, uncompromising anger toward what she sees as a broken world must bleed over into everything she does. It’s wonderful and I think it adds a lot if you know what brought them to that point, but as long as you can grasp what they’re like and the tenor of their interactions, I feel like you can jump into the story and go with it without confusion.

In addition that challenge, there’s a lot of benefits to come from being able to tell multiple stories. Characters arcs have the time and space to grow organically, and it is possible to observe how these people evolve and change in a believable manner. Somebody like Mrs. Hawking, who is bound up in lots of old damage and psychic baggage, is of course going to take a long time to move forward out of it. The time to explore that baggage allows for her to actually grow and change, but allowing for the fact that it is a slow process to move forward from wounds that deep. It allows for full, satisfying exploration of the characters over time.

It also presents the combined challenge and advantage of having to set things up now to pay off later. A serialized piece will exist in a world that grows larger and deeper with every installment told, which can really enrich the storytelling. It increases the sense of immersion to see how connections grow and form, and hints of things that will become important as the development continues. In Vivat Regina, take for example the introduction of the policeman Arthur Swann. He is set to become a very important character in the greater plot, so I wanted to introduce him to the audience, but not reveal his ultimate purpose right away. So I wanted to demonstrate him as a person by giving him something to contribute to this story without necessarily having him perform his ultimate role right away. I think it is interestingly hinted at, though, which should get the audience interested in him as a character.

Also the greater trajectories of the main plot must have the groundwork laid for where they will ultimately go. The relationships between Mrs. Hawking, Mary, and Nathaniel have to take some interesting twists and turns, but I want to them to feel natural and believable to the characters. I need to hint at future conflicts and dynamics now so we see where they came from when they finally occur. I want it so that when you see these things finally manifest, you can identify what they grew from in moments of previous installments. It gives a feeling of completeness to the characters and a depth to the world.

But of course it’s up to you to decide how well I managed all this. You should come to the reading and check it out! Vivat Regina will be read on Thursday, October 2nd at 8PM at Unity Somerville, 8 William Street, Somerville, MA.

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“Glad to Be Your Man” — scribbling on the reappearance of Arthur Swann

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Categories: base instruments, development, looking ahead, scenes, Tags: , , ,

Base Instruments is likely to have a very large cast. That's not ideal for produceability, but more and more I suspect I just need to adapt these Mrs. Hawking stories into a miniseries or something, so I'm not worrying about that stuff when I'm just trying to figure out what happens in each installment.

Arthur Swann, a young policeman, was introduced in Vivat Regina, and though nothing happened beyond getting to know him a little, it was pretty clear he was positively impressed by Mary. Because I think Base Instruments will end up being a murder mystery, I think it will be necessary to have Arthur reappear in this story, especially since I'm planning on him becoming more and more of an important character. That means the relationship between him and Mary will have to progress. One of his traits is that he's supposed to be charming in a way that respects and admires Mary's capability and independence, which I want to demonstrate in his pursuit of her. However, I have to be careful to not push things too hard, as I want the attentions of Nathaniel's brother Justin to be a legitimate distraction for Mary in this story. Justin'll seem less special and remarkable if lots of dudes are throwing themselves at her. I may be able to rely on the fact that he's very good-looking and a gentleman, the sort of man Mary never would have expected to give her a second look, while Arthur is a bit more ordinary-seeming. But I can balance that out later. Here's a shot at looking what Arthur reappearing in Mary's life would begin with.

I really love him calling her "rare bird," given the significance of the bird motif in these stories. :-)

Glad to Be Your Man
by Phoebe Roberts

MARY STONE, house maid and assistant society avenger
ARTHUR SWANN, a policeman

London, England, 1883
~~~

(Officer ARTHUR SWANN leans against a lamp post. He notices MARY as she walks by.)

ARTHUR: As I live and breathe. Evening, rare bird.

(MARY turns.)

MARY: I beg your pardon?

ARTHUR: Don't you remember me? Because I couldn't forget you.

MARY: You're that policeman. Who needed some help with a ruffian.

ARTHUR: And you're the girl what gave it to me. Mary Stone.

MARY: Goodness. It's been more than a year, hasn't it?

ARTHUR: I'm like to recall a maid who can swing a poker like that. You know, ever since that night I've been keeping a weather eye out for you, hoping you might come back again this way. But you never have.

MARY: I'm sorry, I've had no cause.

ARTHUR: Shame on you, then. Who knows what trouble I might have gotten into without you around to watch my back? Could you bear to carry that on your conscience?

(MARY laughs.)

ARTHUR: So, then. Can you stay a spell to visit?

MARY: Forgive me, I've things to do.

ARTHUR: More important business, eh? Like German spies slipping away in the night from embassies?

(MARY fights to keep her expression neutral.)

MARY: I… I don't know what you mean.

ARTHUR: Well, it isn't as if us walking bobs often receive tips about when to bust up foreign spy activity. And when it comes after I've only just met a remarkable young lady clearly staking out the embassy…

(MARY laughs breezily.)

MARY: Staking out? Oh, heavens.

ARTHUR: I may look like just a pretty face, but there's a tick or two working behind my baby blues. Thank you kindly for that, by the by. My captain was fair chuffed with me.

MARY: Sir. I really don't know what you're talking about.

ARTHUR: No worries, miss. I'm not about to say anything, have no fear of that.

MARY: Perhaps I'd best be on my way.

ARTHUR: I won't keep you. Only I hope if you've a moment sometime, you might spare it to have a chat with me. And you know… if you ever need another copper to show up at the right time… I'd be glad to be your man.

MARY: Well… that's kind of you, I suppose.

ARTHUR: If I might see you again, I'll do a lot more than that.

(He tips his cap.)

ARTHUR: And remember, the name's Arthur Swann. In case you ever need it again.

8/20/14

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Sparking a romance

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

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As you may have gleaned from reading Vivat Regina, I want to explore the idea of a relationship between Mary and Arthur Swann, the police officer she meets (and makes use of) in that play. All I wanted to do in that story was start a connection, but that meant I had to take care to get it off on the right foot.

I like the idea that romances begin because of something special that two people see in each other. Mary of course demonstrates she is brave and tough and quick-witted in a way Arthur didn’t expect, but Arthur shows he finds the fact that Mary saved him intriguing. He is not threatened by Mary’s capability, but impressed by and delighted with it. That immediate respect he shows makes an impression on her. Moreover, he’s not without wit and charm himself. These things altogether spark something that ultimately turns to romance.

I had Mary save Arthur to deliberately turn that damsel in distress trope on its head. Also I wanted to contrast it with the first meeting of Victoria and Reginald as the Colonel describes it in “Like a Loss.” Both men are impressed by the women’s display of courage and independence. But while Arthur wants to encourage and enable her to take her own action, Reginald’s impulse is to cocoon her protectively so that she doesn’t ever have to be brave or fierce or stand up for herself again. Arthur wants to nurture Mary’s strength, while Reginald wanted to neutralize it in Victoria. This makes for an interesting way to explore the effects of feminism, or the lack thereof, in our characters’ lives.

I haven’t figured out the whole trajectory of Mary and Arthur’s relationship, but I think it’s off to an interesting start. Especially in contrast to Mrs. Hawking and the Colonel.

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The art of names

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Categories: development, influences, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

 

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I have to say, one of my favorite parts of the writing and character-creating process is coming up with names. I like it when I can make them subtly significant, if only in my own head, or at least give my characters names I’m going to enjoy saying over and over again.

I’ve written about how Mrs. Hawking’s name is supposed to be deliberately disassociated from her in-universe, but behind the scenes it was carefully chosen. Her married name, Hawking, came first, because it’s a good solid English name and conveys her bird-of-prey nature. It took much longer to choose her first name, but I went with Victoria because I’ve always loved it, the “victory” meaning connotes her warlike nature, and because of the connection with the regnant queen. Stanton, her maiden name, also took some time to determine, and was chosen mostly because I like the way it sounds.

The character of Mary Stone basically just walked into my mind and introduced herself by name. I love when that happens, it feels as if I’m writing about a real person. Thinking about it, I think there was some influence from the fact that she is in some ways a gender-swapped analogue to Dr. Watson, and Watson’s wife is named Mary. I think Mary’s name fits her so well I’m kind of sorry that her surname will change when she gets married. I have given some thought to who her eventual husband will be, and while I don’t want to mention anything about him yet, I chose his surname with the specific intention that I shouldn’t mind using it to refer to Mary. Her middle name, Frances, came from Frances Kimpel, my model for Mrs. Hawking. I very nearly made Mrs. Hawking’s middle name Charlotte, after Mary’s model Charlotte Oswald, but I didn’t think it sounded right with the rest of our hero’s name. I plan on paying tribute to Charlotte’s name in another way in the future, though.

When I noticed that both she and Mrs. Hawking were named after prominent English queens I decided I would continue on with that trend where appropriate. That’s where her eventual Moriarty, Elizabeth Frost, got her name from. I’m kind of sorry that Nathaniel’s wife Clara doesn’t fit the mold, but I think it fits her too much to change. Their daughter Beatrice doesn’t quite, as there is no English queen by that name, but it was the name of the youngest Victorian princess. Reggie, their son, is so called because of course Nathaniel would name his son after his hero.

As for Nathaniel himself, he is named after my friend Nat Budin. Not for any particular reason, except that I like both Nat and his name.

Stephanie Karol, who read the roles of Celeste Fairmont and Grace Monroe in the Mrs. Hawking Bare Bones reading, commented that I seem to like naming patriarchs “Reginald.” Both the Colonel and the head of the society family in The Tailor at Loring’s End both have it. I like the name, but it does have kind of an old-fashioned masculine sound to it.

Cedric Brockton sounds solidly British and upper-class, perhaps to the point of parody, but I like the way it sounds. Ambrose Hawking came from the same impulse. It might be a little absurd, but I guess I have a taste for names like that.

Gabriel Hawking came from the fact that Gabriel is one of my all-time favorite names. I wanted something powerful and striking, given that the mention of the name has a rather totemic quality when uttered in this story.

Justin’s first name came from something silly. I remember thinking that Ryan Kacani, the actor who played for Nathaniel at the Bare Bones reading, looked like a Justin to me for some reason. So I gave that name to Nathaniel’s brother.

Johanna Braun, the name the client gives in Vivat Regina, was chosen because it translates from German basically to “Joan Brown,” as plain and nondescript a name as they come. There is a reason I wanted it to be so generic, but I won’t say what it is here.

Arthur Swann, also a character introduced in Vivat Regina, is also named in the vein of English royalty, though King Arthur is fictional. Also it’s my granddad’s name and I always liked it.

There’s also a bit of a bird theme going on. The Hawking family, Arthur Swann the police man, Clara’s maiden name being Partridge. It doesn’t have any specific meaning, but the presence of a bird name means that they are a character to watch.

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