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A story between the lines — subtext in the Hawking series

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Categories: gilded cages, scenes, Tags:

Subtext has always been an incredibly important technique for telling these stories properly. The art of conveying information with just-below-the-surface cues rather than explicit reference is a challenging one, but is always a component of the drama I find most compelling. I used to struggle with it enormously, so that I’ve dedicated myself to its continual practice. When you’re telling a Victorian story, characters are not always going to feel free to say exactly what they mean, so it’s an absolutely necessary skill to depicting the characters in a genuine, compelling way.

Gilded Cages 2.1

Because I’m continually testing myself on this, I challenge myself to retrace my own process, as it were, to vet it for the level of meaning and effectiveness. Subtext is hard in that because it’s not frankly conveyed, it’s easy to miss, so there must be a lot of effort in choosing the words to suggest the ideas without giving them away. I find drama so moving when it works, so I am always trying to improve my skills at incorporating it!

Here’s a “deleted scene” from the flashback sections of Gilded Cages, one that was recorded as a quick audio drama by actors Cari Keebaugh and Jeremiah O’Sullivan. Here I’ve annotated the scene, entitled “Now Where You’re Standing”, to illustrate why the characters say the things they said, what their intention was behind their lack of free communication and understanding of each other’s position. The relationship between the characters of Victoria Stanton and Reginald Hawking was one that was never on the same page, and I have to sell how they related to each other, how such a profound misunderstanding could come about. And that relies intensely on them plausibly failing to connect with each other, even when they think they are.

So, did I do a good job getting my point across even though it wasn’t explicit? Did I pick the right words? Was I too subtle, or not subtle enough? You be the judge! And be sure to listen to our stellar actors’ recording of it, as they convey a lot of what’s below the surface that the plain script never can!

Now Where You’re Standing
From “Gilded Cages”
By Phoebe Roberts  

VICTORIA STANTON, daughter of the lieutenant territorial governor 
CAPTAIN REGINALD HAWKING, hero of the Indian Rebellion 

Singapore, 1859 

~~~ 

REGINALD: Excuse me, but— might I cut in? Miss Stanton here has promised me a dance, you see. (whispered) I hope you don’t mind. 

VICTORIA: No. Thank you for that. 

REGINALD: I thought you looked as though you could use the rescue. 

His impulse is always to rescue her. He doesn’t see her as a person who can handle herself. She doesn’t yet realize, so she doesn’t yet mind. 

VICTORIA: I hate these stupid parties.  

She’s already identified him as someone she can put her emotions plainly out on the table for. She does this quickly because she has so few others like that in her life.

 REGINALD: That’s clear. Unfortunately, now you’ll have to suffer a dance with me. And I’m afraid I’ve no idea what I’m doing. 

He is trying to make the evening easier for her by pulling her out of an uncomfortable social situation. But I don’t think until he’s actually got her in his arms that he realized how badly he wanted it— the opportunity to be that close to her. The intensity of it is what ends up frightening him off.  

VICTORIA: It’s just dancing. 

This indicates just how little it matters to her to be in this position that’s having such an effect on him. Already, their impressions and positions are not matching up.

REGINALD: We don’t all know ballet. 

He remembers the little details about her because he’s so impressed by how unusual she is. 

VICTORIA: The way you ride and fence, and you can’t do a box step? How ridiculous! 

She genuinely does admire his competence and skills. He is not totally mistaking that there is some connection between him, though he massively overestimates it.

REGINALD: Well— thank you— I think. 

He is flattered by her compliments, even though he acknowledges that they’re couched in her typical judgmental manner.  

VICTORIA: Did you learn in the cavalry? 

She finds him interesting and admirable enough that she actually wants to know things about him.  

REGINALD: It made a man of me, but I’ve been in the saddle all my life. Perhaps a trade is in order— your stars and your dancing, for my horses and navigation tricks. 

I like the idea that Reginald was a great horseman, to the point where it’s something Victoria respected him for even late into life. Also, by encouraging them to exchange skills, he’s encouraging their enmeshment. It’s more time to spend together, more opportunity to bond.  

VICTORIA: And sabers. Make it even. 

He gets a glimpse of her martial impulses, though I think he never understands the extent of it. He would have been intensely surprised if he’d ever learned she became a fighter.  

REGINALD: Hm. If you like. Though I daresay we may get it from your father if I do. 

He doesn’t mind teaching her, but he thinks it’s just a lark. While he mostly gets how much and why she hates her father, he does feel he ought to warn her off of getting herself in trouble with him. Again— his impulse is to protect her from everything. 

VICTORIA: Blast my father. I hate him. I hate all of them. 

She trusts him enough to be honest with him. This isn’t something she tells many people. She isn’t a good liar, especially now, but she mostly just avoids people entirely.  

REGINALD: That’s hard. 

The vitriol of her feelings is slightly off putting to him. He is sympathetic, but it hints at how he’s going to encourage her to bottle up her ugly feelings later in their lives, at least in a public context. Reginald is much more accustomed to putting up to get along— he thinks that’s how life works. It is one of the early wedges in their relationship that she will eventually hate him for.

VICTORIA: Is it, now? Well, Captain, why don’t you spend nineteen years stuck here with them, and we’ll compare notes. 

She has no qualms about being sharp with him. This mild level of it is intensely attractive to him. Eventually it grows to the point where he cannot avoid confronting the painful notion that she hates him, but when they mostly got along and she drew him up every now and again it really pushed his buttons.  

REGINALD: Thank you, but the last few months have been enough. 

He backs down gracefully, and accepts the rebuke without complaint. He actually likes that she’s a little sharp with him.

VICTORIA: Getting to you, is it? 

She is pleased and smug that he’s conceding that the place does kind of suck.  

REGINALD: It’s not here, precisely. It’s— what I have to do. 

Reginald is referring to how he’s being treated as the “rebellion-quelling expert” but sees the signs of unrest brewing, and how they’re reluctant to make the changes he’s recommending to head it off. He’s not telling her much of what is actually bothering him about being there– bad feelings are to be bottled up, again –but he in turn trusts her enough to be honest that he’s not been feeling good about it. 

VICTORIA: You mean be paraded about like a show pony? 

She recognizes this part of the problem because it’s the only one she’s seen— plus he mentioned it specifically in the cellar in scene 1.5. 

REGINALD: That’s certainly part of it. It’s not what I signed on for, that’s for sure. 

He acknowledges what’s correct about her observation without going into specifics about what she’s missing. Ugly feelings are to be bottled for the comfort of others!

VICTORIA: What did you sign on for? 

REGINALD: To tell the truth? To do something that mattered. Something that was hard, but I work at it. Something with a purpose, to the good of the world. 

He’s quoting her own words back to her to show her that he meant it when he said he related to them. 

He also uses a phrase, “to the good of the world,” that we hear Nathaniel use in Base Instruments to describe how he sees his work helping Mrs. Hawking. More and more I find myself giving them the same words; I like the implication that he shares a lexicon with the Colonel; perhaps that’s who he learned much of it from. 

VICTORIA: I see. 

Victoria recognizes her words coming from him and is a little pleased to hear them. At this point she appreciates the implication that they are the same. Also, she likes when people seem to be telling her she’s right.  

REGINALD: But it’s been some time since I thought I was doing any good. 

Again, he is vague on details— he is not an emotionally open man. But this dissatisfaction’s existence is not something he’s confided in anyone else, speaking of the closeness he feels with her. 

VICTORIA: Well. You’ve done me a favor just now. Nobody else would have pulled me out of that rat trap. 

Victoria, sympathetic to his obvious distress, attempts to buck him up. But her reasoning is noticeably immature, citing the fairly small thing he did to cater to her childish impatience, in a manner that centers her whims. She doesn’t realize his worries are on a completely different scale. It underscores their age difference— he’s a grown man of thirty-one, while she’s still a child at nineteen.  

REGINALD: Surely there must be some obliging friend. 

He downplays his action, quite reasonably seeing it as a small gesture. 

VICTORIA: And who would that be? One of the officers’ idiot daughters? Some blockhead soldier? 

She has few peers in this military posting in Singapore, and she doesn’t get along with many people. It’s also a preview of the attitude that dominates her later in life, that, as Mary puts it in Mrs. Hawking, “the women are fools and the men are beasts.” 

REGINALD: I’m one of those blockheads, you know. 

He is not offended or defensive here; in fact, he is being self-deprecating in a manner he often is with her. He means more, “Are you sure you don’t mind hanging out with a blockhead?”  

VICTORIA: (dismissive) You’re different. 

This is not an important statement to her. She fails to see how important it might be to him.  

REGINALD: Do you think so? 

Reginald is quite touched to think that she sees him as special— particularly because he very strongly sees her that way. Her stating this is part of what makes him able to believe that she might be falling for him the way he’s falling for her.  

VICTORIA: You don’t think you know everything. 

Most of the people who talk to Victoria like to lecture her, or tell her about how something she’s doing is wrong. Reginald does not do this— at least not at this stage. Eventually a thing that will deteriorate their relationship is his insistence that people have to put away their feelings to get along in the world.   

REGINALD: That’s certain. But… aren’t you lonely? 

Right now, Reginald doesn’t feel certain of anything, since his career is not turning out the way he thought it would. And he’s not quite sure what emotions he’s developing for her right now, so he’s generally feeling off-balance. 

VICTORIA: I like to be on my own. Besides, I’ve got Malaika now. And Elizabeth too, I suppose. 

Victoria, though suffering for her isolation, does not feel loneliness in the manner that most people do. A good analogy might be that it’s like she is starving, but does not realize because she does not feel hunger. She is unable to see how much her lack of connection to others harms her.  

I also love the way she takes Elizabeth completely for granted— who has, up to this point, completely supported and been there for her. Victoria truly loves Elizabeth, but sees her more as a nagging older sister than a friend she chose for herself. Malaika is the only person she realizes how much she cares about.  

REGINALD: Just your governess and your maid? 

Reginald feels a sudden wave of pity for her thinking that her only friends are people who are paid to be around her.  

VICTORIA: Who else is there?  

Victoria does not see the problem; she doesn’t recognize that her situation is kind of pathetic.

(Pause.)  

REGINALD: You know, miss… it won’t always be like this. 

He is acting from the impulse to rescue her again— in this case, specifically from the loneliness and dissatisfaction of her situation. 

VICTORIA: How do you mean? 

REGINALD: You have your whole life ahead of you. You won’t be here under your father’s thumb forever. 

He’s actually attempting to be frank here, at least as frank as his ethos allows him to be. He wants to give her some hope, specifically the same hope he feels— that the two of them loving each other could be the thing that saves them from the disappointment of their current situations. But he is not a person who can speak plainly of those feelings, so he is attempting to say it without saying it.  

VICTORIA: (scoffing) Ugh! 

Victoria is not really hearing the message. She thinks it’s a sort of generic “chin up, it’ll all turn out in the end” admonition.

REGINALD: It might be hard to see now, but… before long you’ll be past all this. And someday, we’ll be looking back on it all and laughing that we ever thought it mattered.    

By use of “we” he’s unitizing them, suggesting that by the time she’s at that point he will still be in her life in a way that they’ll be able to look back on things together. In a way, it’s him floating the idea of them as a “we” to see how she reacts.  

VICTORIA: And you’re certain of that?  

But she is misses the full significance of the “we”— but at the moment the notion does not offend her. And she has come to like and trust him enough that she is open to the possibility that what he’s saying on the surface— that eventually she’ll be past this —is true. 

REGINALD: I have to be.  

He is holding to hope that the future will be better because of how great his current disappointment is. If he doesn’t believe it will all be to future good, he’ll be really depressed.  

VICTORIA: How? 

REGINALD: Somehow, now where you’re standing… I find it seems very close. 

This is a slip. He’s actually being almost TOO literal here. And it frightens him how honest he is in that moment. 

(Pause.) 

REGINALD: Victoria… I— I— beg your pardon, miss.  

 He is embarrassed and a little frightened by the intensity of his feelings. He was just trying to sound her out a little; he was not ready to “confess” in any way. His apology is for being so ungentlemanly forward.

VICTORIA: What? 

 Fortunately for him, though, she genuinely doesn’t get it.

REGINALD: Thank you for the dance, Miss Stanton. I hope the rest of your evening goes on better than it began.   

 He is retreating back into formality.

VICTORIA: Are you going? Why?

REGINALD: Please understand me, miss, when I say… it’s almost closer than I can bear. 

 He cannot help but be a little more honest here in the face of her confusion. But because he cannot just say these things, which is what allows them to grow, even fester, in a way that traps them both.

(REGINALD exits.) 

 

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BONUS SCENE “Hard Truth,” and building a universe

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Categories: development, mrs. frost, scenes, Tags: ,

 

Gilded Cages, scene 1.5

It’s been really exciting seeing the new part V: Mrs. Frost script stand up in rehearsals. Due to the schedule on which this one was written, there was not a lot of breathing room between finishing it and beginning to rehearse. We made a movie this summer, so perhaps we can be forgiven, but it meant I didn’t have that chance to sit with it for a while, shed the stress of the push to finish, and enjoy what I’d accomplished with fresh eyes.

But something I’ve worked very hard to do in this story is to make it feel like a living, breathing, fully-fleshed-out world, beyond just what is needed for any one individual story. When you do multiple installments of a piece, it has to feel like the characters are rounded individuals who have more to them than just what’s relevant in one given moment. So I spend a lot of time developing them and their backstories, in order to feel like they have arrived organically at their current places based on a genuine human history. That means figuring out things that happened to them outside even what makes its way into the plays, and using how those experiences informed their needs and actions now.

By this token, I thought a lot of what Mrs. Frost brings into this story. She has a lot of complicated and not always positive history with the other characters, and she is famous for using what she knows about people’s secret selves against them. This is relevant for how she deals with Nathaniel, who she attempts to break down psychologically by manipulating his insecurities and fears. And a powerful tool she has for this is her experience with his hero the Colonel, over whom he is obsessed with the fact that he didn’t know as much as he thought.

Gilded Cages, scene 1.5

To that end, I had to hammer out some important things about the interactions of Frost and the Colonel. Some of that made it into this extra scene, which takes place just after the Colonel started traveling abroad more as a way to get out of the house, and of Mrs. Hawking’s way. I had my amazing cast members do a rough recording of it, with Arielle Kaplan as Mrs. Frost (then Mrs. Cameron), and Jeremiah O’Sullivan as Reginald Hawking, in a scene I’m calling “Hard Truth.”

Warning: possible spoilers for part IV: Gilded Cages.

It’s always amazing to hear the actual actors perform these on the fly. It really helps solidify the moment in my mind and make it come to life, like it was something that really did happen in the history of the characters. I feel like we bring more texture to the full performances when the characters are so grounded in such rich development. And when you come to see Mrs. Frost, see if you can spot the moment the title character makes reference to an important moment from this scene.

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When character moments are earned

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Categories: character, development, gilded cages, Tags: , ,

Scene 1.4 of Gilded Cages represents a striking landmark in my growth as a writer– specifically, the first half, where Mary and Nathaniel are cleaning out the Colonel’s study and he tells the story of how he and Clara met. I love it, and am proud of it, for a lot of reasons.

Photo by Steve Karpf

Firstly, it may be the most purely character-focused scene in any of the Hawking plays to that point. I am of the school of narrative design that holds that “Plots reveals character”— your figures are confronted by events and how they react to those events allows them to demonstrate who they are. I like this approach because it keeps the narrative structured and engaging while still fostering the development of character. You’ll notice that the majority of the Hawking stories are built according to this idea.

However, I’ve historically had a problem with being so focused on plot that very little character ever gets to happen outside of the unfolding. It has a tendency to give the stories a hurried feel, as if there’s just no time for anything that’s not forward movement. Years ago I wrote about this, my fear of just letting my characters be my characters without actively pursuing plot. It’s out of my concern for things becoming boring or self-indulgent, presenting moments that are shoehorned in and of no interest to anyone but me. But the character journeys ARE the point, not an afterthought; getting to know these people and see where they go is the heart of the story.

So this scene, the first half of 1.4, was me making an effort to insert something purely about character and have it feel like it meaningfully contributed to the story, rather than be a pointless indulgence. I actually feel like I accomplished it. It teaches you a lot about the characters, and it’s engaging! By part IV, if I haven’t made you care about these characters and interested in them for their own sake, then I think I haven’t done my job right. So I can count on having won the audience’s attention for just watching characters they like be themselves and tell us a little more about them. By part IV, that time and attention spent is earned.

Gilded Cages 2018-37

And I do think it tells us a lot of great stuff about them. It showcases Mary and Nathaniel’s friendship, how close and comfortable they’ve become with each other, that they share cute and funny personal anecdotes and talk about romantic relationships. It’s long been part of Circe Rowan’s process that Mary is a reader of fairy-stories, and is enthralled by tales of romance and adventure, and you see it in the way she reacts to Nathaniel’s story. And Nathaniel’s funny, self-deprecating retelling adds a lot of humanity and levity to the play. I am amused by the implication that Justin’s been getting the best of Nathaniel since they were children, but this one instance little brother beat out big, in a romantic exploit no less, and Nathaniel’s never quite gotten over a little smugness over it. And one of my regrets about all of part IV was that I wasn’t able to find a place for Clara in the cast. Nathaniel talking about falling in love with her is a cute way to make her presence felt.

Gilded Cages 2018-35

It’s helped a lot by the performances. Jeremiah O’Sullivan as Nathaniel is incredibly charismatic, and his warmth, humor, and gentle self-effacement give everything he does a certain charm. And Circe Rowan’s Mary has this wide-eyed, enthusiastic quality as she giggles over her friend’s funny and romantic story, that I think sets the tone for the reaction of the audience.
And you know what? I did manage to loop it back into the larger narrative, as Mary’s asking because she’s trying to figure out how to navigate her own budding relationship with Arthur. So not only does it really give a moment where the characters are simply being themselves, it ultimately leads to a moment that does further the plot. If that’s not the perfect way to balance the best of both worlds, I don’t know what is.

It’s a real triumph for me as a writer who’s constantly trying to develop and grow my skills. To see what I mean, join us for th 6pm performance of Gilded Cages on Saturday, May 12th at the Watch City Steampunk Festival and catch it in action from our amazing cast.

Mrs. Hawking part III: Base Instruments and part IV: Gilded Cages by Phoebe Roberts and Bernie Gabin will be performed at 2PM and 6PM respectively on Saturday, May 12th at the New England School of Photography at 274 Moody Street in Waltham, MA as part of the Watch City Steampunk Festival ’18.

To donate to the Mrs. Hawking – Proof of Concept film project:




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A story in the layers

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Categories: gilded cages, themes, Tags: ,

Historically the writing of subtext has been a challenge for me. Partially it was just struggling with the techniques of it— how you embed meaning without actually referring to it in words —and partially it came from the fear that even if I did manage to include it, the audience would miss it. I often failed in the direction of overwriting it for fear that it was too subtle, and not having any effect on the story at all.

In recent years, thanks to focusing on it with serious practice, I think I have improved. My tastes run much more lately to subtler storytelling, so I’ve tried to take that route with the things I write. I’m pleased to say I think my most recent major piece, Mrs. Hawking part IV: Gilded Cages, is the most layered narrative I’ve ever put together. It depends in large part on people who are on different wavelengths not realizing they’re talking at cross purposes, who don’t fully understand the implications of their actions, and who don’t have the words or concepts to express themselves with complete accuracy. The fact that I managed to pull that off wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t grown in my ability to suggest things are happening that no party onstage is actually explicitly referring to.

Photo by Steve Karpf

The downside, though, is that very thing subtext made me afraid of all along: the audience missing it. Mostly I believe people grasped the ideas I was trying to go for in the piece— that Reginald’s well-meaning overtures coexist with the fact that he doesn’t understand consent or that he’s behaving in a patriarchal manner. That young Victoria doesn’t realize that she’s acting out of white privilege, and Malaika doesn’t see the dangers that creates for her in their relationship. But every now and then I’ve heard from somebody who didn’t pick up on those things, and as a consequence they didn’t follow aspects of the narrative. I’ve had a surprising number of people ask me, “Why was Mrs. Hawking so miserable with her husband when he was so nice?” I mean, I think it’s partially that we have a problematic cultural tendency to pressure women into giving men a chance because they’re “nice”— but also I think because we kept a lot of the harmful aspects of Reginald’s behavior subtext as opposed to stating them explicitly, I think people missed it.

The story doesn’t quite work, honestly, without the subtextual aspects. It doesn’t make its point without them. But it’s still a richer, more sophisticated piece to have these ideas woven in subtly, even at the cost of some of the audience missing them. I guess, if they’re detectable by some and missed by others, that probably means I can finally be confident that I’ve done subtext right.

Mrs. Hawking part III: Base Instruments and part IV: Gilded Cages by Phoebe Roberts and Bernie Gabin will be performed at 2PM and 6PM respectively on Saturday, May 12th at the New England School of Photography at 274 Moody Street in Waltham, MA as part of the Watch City Steampunk Festival ’18.

To donate to the Mrs. Hawking – Proof of Concept film project:




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Script release: Mrs. Hawking part IV: Gilded Cages

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Categories: gilded cages, Tags: ,

Team Hawking is pleased and proud to say that we have accomplished our performances at Arisia 2018— including part III: Base Instruments and the world premiere of part IV: Gilded Cages! We’ve been told it was our strongest program yet, which has been an incredible honor, and is so gratifying to all the hard work every member of the team put in.

Photo by Steve Karpf
Photo by Steve Karpf

Now that our new show has debuted, I’m releasing the script here on the website. I am deeply proud of this piece— it may indeed be the best in the series to date —and I think it not only plays well but is also interesting to read. The layers of meaning in many of the scenes are to this point unprecedented in this story, bring us to a new level of complexity. I think that even to those who have seen the show, reading at one’s own speed will allow some of the layers to be understood in greater depth.

Many of the scenes depicting important relationships— particularly Victoria and Malaika’s, and Victoria and Reginald’s — are meant to play one way on the surface level. But then, when one begins to pull apart the implications of the interactions, they take on a very different cast that adds new dimension. Also, there are a number of callbacks, parallels, comparisons, and contrasts between the present and the flashbacks of the story which are meant to make points about the characters. Arthur to Reginald, Nathaniel to Reginald, young Victoria to present-day Mrs. Hawking. These things may have gotten missed in seeing one performance of a fast-moving stage show, and I really think they add so much depth.

Photo by Steve Karpf
Photo by Steve Karpf

As always, I’m grateful to all the people whose advice helped us to make the script what it was. Those who helped develop the story to the most powerful level it could be. Those whose perspective on how to most effectively and sensitively depict the issues of the colonial culture. And those whose support and belief in the project enabled it to become a reality.

So be sure to check it out on our Scripts page, for the first piece of our second trilogy, Mrs. Hawking part IV: Gilded Cages!

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Gilded Cages now added to our TV Tropes page!

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Categories: gilded cages, supplemental, Tags:

As you may know, Mrs. Hawking has a fairly extensive page on TV Tropes, a website that breaks down the building blocks of narrative and identifies their use and effect across many types of media. Tropes from Gilded Cages have been added to the mentions of elements from our previous three installments!

The image at the head of our Tropes page.

Some examples of the new material added because it occurs in Gilded Cages:

All Girls Want Bad Boys: Subverted with Arthur. He’s just about the sweetest, most straightforward guy you could imagine, and he’s presented as a romantic and attractive figure.

The Cassandra: Elizabeth is always warning Victoria about the consequences of her reckless actions. She’s always right, but still everyone ignores her.

Flashback: About of Gilded Cages takes place in Singapore where Mrs. Hawking grew up, met the Colonel, and made her very first discovery of the injustice of the world.

The Mentor: Elizabeth is this to young Victoria in serving as her governess and companion, specifically in matters of deduction, analysis, and strategy.

As a person who finds it intensely valuable to analyze the tools stories use to reach their audiences, I really enjoy this website. And I’m really proud of Mrs. Hawking’s presence as an included work.

Is there anything you think we’re missing? Any tropes that jumped out at you as an audience member and fan? We’d love you to include them, so don’t hesitate to add them in to the page! And be sure to catch the Arisia 2018 performances to see how many new ones you catch!

Mrs. Hawking parts III: Base Instruments and IV: Gilded Cages by Phoebe Roberts are to be performed January 12th-14th as part of Arisia 2018 at the Westin Boston Waterfront.

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Completed outline for Mrs. Hawking part 4!

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Categories: development, gilded cages, Tags:

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

DSCF7972-HDR

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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Categories: development, gilded cages, Tags: ,

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.

Mrs. Hawking part III: Base Instruments and part IV: Gilded Cages by Phoebe Roberts and Bernie Gabin will be performed at 2PM and 6PM respectively on Saturday, May 12th at the New England School of Photography at 274 Moody Street in Waltham, MA as part of the Watch City Steampunk Festival ’18.

To donate to the Mrs. Hawking – Proof of Concept film project:




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The plan for scripting Mrs. Hawking part 4

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Categories: gilded cages, looking ahead, Tags:

So now is the time that my collaborator Bernie and I are seriously buckling down on the script for the fourth and next installment of Mrs. Hawking. We’ve been at work on it for a while now, but the demands of production pushed it to the back burner. But now that it will be time to debut part 4 for the next Arisia in 2018, we have made a plan to get it completely scripted.

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We mostly know what this story is going to be about. It will deal with themes of history and the lack of it, of honest communication versus silence, by juxtaposing a case in the team’s present with a story from Mrs. Hawking’s past twenty years earlier. It’s a challenging story to put together, not least because it will involve dealing respectfully with the effects of colonialism. But the technical demands of designing a story that meaningfully switches between the two make it really tough to fully explore both pieces in the hour and thirty minutes we’ve got to tell it. That means extreme efficiency and careful structuring, to keep just enough of the scaffolding of plot in place to enable us to capture the truly important moments of high emotion and character development.

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So our current plan is as follows. I’m a writer who works best when I have a firm structural design to follow, so our first step is to get a really detailed outline of all the scenes planned out. I want a scene-by-scene breakdown of everything that happens, from plot movement to the details of character trajectory. That will not only allow me absolute confidence in the story before writing, it really helps me figure out how to actually draft the scenes when I know what direction they’re supposed to take. Our deadline for the completed outline is June 30th, which gives us the rest of the month to finalize it.

For the month of July, I will devote it to actually drafting. I may end up treating it sort of like a 31 Plays in 31 Days situation. For the past five years, I have completed a writing challenge where I wrote a dramatic scene of at least one page in length every day for the month of August. I’ve found this a productive exercise, but as I have larger-scale projects I want to complete, it’s been most useful when I go into it with a plan of what I need to write. Armed with the part 4 outline, using the 31P31D structure will make it much easier for me to write out the scenes. I usually save this for August, but I’d like to finish this earlier than that, so my deadline for that draft will be the 31st of July.

August will be for editing. I like to have what I call reading dinners, where I invite actor friends over to read the piece aloud and give me their thoughts on it, in exchange for a lovingly home-cooked meal. It’s so useful for a writer to hear a script as an actor interprets it, so as to get an idea of how it would play onstage. And to get the thoughts of other experienced theater artists really gives the extra perspective needed to bring a script to the next level. So with one or two of those, I hope to get enough feedback to have a finalized, ready-to-rehearse draft by the end of that month.

So that is my plan! I’ve got the summer to accomplish this, so cross your fingers for me that I’ll hit all the targets I’ve set!

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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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