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Odd little name issue

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Categories: development, mrs. frost, Tags:

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In my copious, copious free time, I am picking away at the plot outline for Mrs. Frost, part five of the Mrs. Hawking saga. Among the myriad issues I’m running into— God, writing these plays is hard! —one small one arises that may be representative of the nature of many of the others. Malaika is returning in this story, after being introduced in the previous one, and I’m finding myself at the loss at how to slug her in the script.

“Slugging” refers to the name you use for a character when you indicate that a line is theirs. For example, Victoria Cornelia Stanton Hawking’s lines are slugged with “MRS. HAWKING,” and Mary Frances Stone is “MARY.” Like so:

MRS. HAWKING: One can hide anything from anyone if one so chooses.

MARY: You couldn’t hide it from me.

There are a number of conventions attached to how you decide on a slug, though most people just sort of decide on their own. For example, many people assert that there should be only one, consistently used slug for a character even if what they are referred to as changes, though I chose not to observe that— like I slug the same character alternatively “MRS. HAWKING” in the present day part of Gilded Cages, and “VICTORIA” in the flashback because it felt more accurate to me. Similarly, in those same flashbacks, Malaika is just “MALAIKA,” as she is a young woman and that is what she is commonly referred to as.

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In our current conception of Malaika, she is an ethnically Malay Singaporean, which means her name follows the culture’s traditional rules. Malaysian people do not have family surnames but rather patronymics. Her full name is Malaika binti Shah, or Malaika daughter of Shah. While these names are occasionally elided, giving us “Malaika Shah” for example, one is never solely addressed by one’s father’s name. Therefore, while young Victoria would be addressed as “Miss Stanton” by the customs of her culture, Malaika’s would call her “Miss Malaika,” or “Cik Malaika” in her own language. We see an example in the play when Malaika refers to her mother as “Puan Amina,” which is a respectful title for a married woman, basically “Mrs. Amina” or “Madam Amina.”

My concern is with deciding on how to refer to Malaika as a mature adult woman in a way that is on a level with Mrs. Hawking. The characters can in dialogue call each whatever is appropriate to their relationship, but the slugs should indicate their positions in their world. Even though Malaika is not from a culture that would call her by a different part of her name in order to be respectful, I’m worried it will sound disrespectful to our modern American ears to see her referred to by her first name when her peer Mrs. Hawking is called by the formal title.

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What I am currently leaning towards is making a point of having her known as “Madam Malaika.” It would take into account the customs of her culture, while utilizing a title that my American audience would recognize as one of respect. The naming convention might still make hers seem like the odd one out, but it takes care not to even implicitly suggest she’s not on a level with story’s other women in her age group, even if only because the audience doesn’t know the custom. Perhaps I could even make it text, such as have someone mistakenly refer to her as “Mrs. Shah” and she corrects them to make the distinction clear.

It’s a small detail. But I want to be very, very careful about how I frame this character. I know how easy it is to create disrespectful portrayals of minority characters, and I want to always put in the work to make mine the fullest, most human figures I can. This is one of the many ways I can show that thoughtfulness and care.

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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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.