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.
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.
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.
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: