People say that writing endings is hard, but I don’t think that’s true. Endings are only difficult if you aren’t sure how your story is supposed to end, and if that’s the case chances are you’ve either missed something or taken a wrong turn along the way. The end of a story is where you place the full stop that gives the sentence meaning; it’s the moments you tie your themes and ideas together and reveal exactly what point you were making all along. If you know what you’re trying to do then the right ending will reveal itself to you, and that’s only if you didn’t know what you were working towards going in.
No, endings are easy. But beginnings, on the other hand, suck.
It’s something I’ve grappled with a lot; what’s the best, sexiest, most intriguing way to start a story? After all, a clunky opening can lose an audience; you really need to nail it in order to make sure they stick with you. So many of the best TV shows or novels have weak beginnings because a first chapter has to do so much; you need to establish the characters, world and conflicts in a way that doesn’t feel like awkward table setting or an info dump. You need to give people a sense of the journey they’re about to embark on without giving too much away, you need to introduce intrigue and basically make a promise that it’s all going to be worthwhile. And all of that only matters if readers get past your first paragraph. So how do you land that hook and reel your audience in?
So many young writers, and I am as guilty of this as anyone, start in media res; with an out of context glimpse of a later, more exciting part of the story. In theory this makes the audience immediately engaged by teasing them with the good stuff; in practice, it often just comes off as a cheat, a desperate attempt to assure the audience that the story will get good if they can just stick through the boring early stuff.
I’m not saying in media res is an inherently bad way to start a story; Breaking Bad famously opened its first episode and many episodes thereafter with a form of it. But then so did Twilight. And in a recent episode of Rick and Morty, Morty bluntly tells a wannabe screenwriter who has tried to employ the trick that ‘stories should start when they start’.
Like anything, there’s no hard and fast rule; what matters is less what you do but how you do it. During my Master of Screenwriting I had this idea for a TV show about a couple of uni students who figured out a way to anonymously adjust internet banking numbers and turn anyone into a millionaire. My idea was to open the first episode with the main character lying in a gutter, covered in blood, dressed in an expensive suit, while hundred-dollar bills float around him. It would then jump back to a year or so previously, to show his life as a broke, party animal student.
My tutor at the time didn’t exactly roll his eyes, but I think it took him a lot of effort not to. I was thrown by his lack of interest in what was clearly an amazing, striking, iconic opening, but he went on to make a very important point; there was no real difference between the two presented versions of my character. One was rich, one was poor. They were still both the same reckless hedonist; the suit and cash revealed that much. That kind of juxtaposition needs to be very stark in order to be interesting.
Consider Breaking Bad. The first thing we see is a man wearing underwear, an apron and a gas mask driving an RV. The guy in the passenger seat is passed out. There are two corpses in the back, sliding around what looks like a drug lab. We hear sirens getting closer. Then the RV crashes. The man gets out. He’s terrified. He records a farewell to his family on a video camera, before picking up a gun and walking out on to the road, ready to face his pursuers.
Then we cut to a month earlier. The man is a downtrodden, mild-mannered high school teacher who works at the car wash to make ends meet. The two characters are strikingly different and yet the change came about in only a month. How the hell did that happen?
It works on a couple of levels; firstly it’s irresistibly intriguing, secondly it pays off by the end of the episode so it doesn’t force us into an interminable wait, and lastly it suits the theme of the show; terrible circumstances can change almost anyone. Now we’re going to show you how.
My TV pilot Windmills, which won the Sir Peter Ustinov Award and was recently shortlisted for the Monte Miller, starts in media res. We see the burnt remains of a prestigious private school. In the centre of the school’s courtyard is a blackened, dead tree. Cops are everywhere, body bags are being carried out but the lead detective is fixated on the tree. In the middle of a concrete courtyard, setting it on fire had to be deliberate. So why? As he says this the tree grows back and we pull out to see the courtyard years previously, full of students in immaculate uniforms, leading into the start of our story.
I grappled with whether or not to have this opening; generally speaking, I’m of the ‘stories should start where they start’ school, but Windmills is a special case. The narrative spans years and travels from a high school mistake to a higher stakes world of organised crime. The progression, I believe, is organic, but one of the biggest criticisms that every version of Windmills has been met with is that it feels like two different stories. I decided on that opening as a way of being honest with the audience, a way of saying that as much as this might initially seem like a high school drama, that’s not the story I’m telling, so be ready. It wasn’t a choice made to be clever or get to the good stuff early; it was purely made in the name of clarity. Although the fact that it pulls you in nice and early doesn’t hurt.
But, generally speaking, when it comes to opening a story I always point to the first lines of two of my favourite novels.
Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.
This is the opening line of Red Dragon, the book that gave us Hannibal Lecter and spawned a massive media franchise comprising several more novels, a bunch of beloved films including one that cleaned up at the Oscars, and one of the more beloved TV shows of recent years. As our first introduction to this saga, it could scarcely be more less significant or pretentious; there’s no description, no ominous foreshadowing, no sense of who these people are, what they look like or what they’re doing. Crawford doesn’t even get a first name.
I love this opening. It gives us no time to decide whether or not the book is for us, it doesn’t attempt to dress up a mundane conversation as something more portentous or powerful; it just drops us into the action and implicitly makes us ask questions. Who are these people? What are they talking about? The scene goes on with essentially just dialogue; the back and forth telling us enough to intrigue us, but still not what we want to know. There’s no flowery language, not potent imagery, nothing but this conversation that begins our story, because there doesn’t need to be anything else. It’s stripped back, efficient, and confident storytelling. It’s also my preference of how to start; just jump in. Don’t worry about sounding pretty or profound or anything. Just start. Because sometimes the best way to pull your audience in is to not give a shit about pulling them in. Trust that the strength of your story will do the work, and you won’t have one of those clumsy openings that tries to do everything and only succeeds at making people bored early. This is the trick I tried to pull off with the opening to Sunburnt Country and a few other things I’ve done recently; except it’s not a trick. It’s the complete opposite. Just honest, robust, blunt storytelling.
That said, how you start always depends on what kind of story you’re trying to tell. The book I probably consider to be my all-time favourite, The Book of Joe by Jonathan Tropper, opens with the following line:
Just a few scant months after my mother’s suicide, I walked into the garage, looking for my baseball glove, and discovered Cindy Posner on her knees, animatedly performing fellatio on my older brother Brad.
Apart from being simultaneously shocking and funny, it tells us a lot. It introduces the trauma that hangs over the novel. It implicitly establishes the relationship between the two brothers and it sets up Joe as somebody who accidently stumbles into situations that have nothing to do with them, only to make them worse. It also tells us exactly what kind of book we’re reading; one that lets humour and heartbreak sit side by side in a succession of deeply awkward encounters. In short, it tells us everything we need to know going in.
I tried to do a similar thing with Boone Shepard:
I always take the time to appreciate the rolling green fields and pretty woods of the English countryside, whether I am viewing them from the seat of my motorbike or, as I found myself on the day this story begins, hanging one handed from the side of a speeding train.
In one line I try to set up the tone of the book, (humorous and action packed), Boone as a character (someone for whom death defying scenarios are almost mundane) and the setting (England). It also throws the audience headfirst into the story and directly tells them that this is the proper start; no unnecessary preamble. Whether or not I succeeded is up to the reader.
In plays I often try to be a bit cleverer, starting with a line of dialogue that speaks to either the themes or overall plot. Moonlite, a play about the divide between truth and legends, starts with the line ‘I don’t believe him’. Heroes, about two best friends who try to use dark secrets to destroy each other, starts with ‘we need to talk’. The Critic, about subjectivity when it comes to art, starts with ‘maybe, in the end, it’s a matter of perspective’.
But then conversely, Chris Hawkins and Regression, probably the two best plays I’ve ever written, respectively start with the words ‘hello’ and ‘fuck’ so it’s hardly an exact science.
That, in the end, is probably the truth about openings; there’s no one way to do it, because stories are different and have different demands. What suits your story? A clever, layered opening line, a funny, quirky, surprising establisher, or a direct dive into the action?
I hate overly showy descriptions of weather or settings. I find them tedious. I’m someone who wants a story to get going and prove itself as worthy of my time. But I’m not everyone and my taste doesn’t always dictate the best way to proceed. My advice would be, if in doubt, take the Red Dragon approach. Dive in, start telling your story, and don’t worry about drawing out the beginning. You can always change it later, but you might just find that starting at the start is the best way to do it.
Creatives, inherently, tend to be dreamers with little grasp of reality. A passion and love for the make believe and a tendency to use stories to shape your understanding of the world are basically pre-requisites. Of course it’s all very well and good to wax lyrical about the values of those traits, but they also tend to be what hobble creatives when they reach the point of wanting to leverage their ideas into a viable career. After all, a mind full of stories is scarcely the kind that can identify brutal realities.
I’ve written at length before about how hard it is to make any money in the arts, how it requires almost pathological self-belief and refusal to listen to the people who tell you you’re not good enough. But one thing I’ve learnt is that you can save yourself a lot of pain if, early on, you educate yourself on a couple of tough truths.
A lot of people will tell you that art is a form of self-expression, and any time you see a tedious one-person show or pretentious piece of abstract performance art, you’re seeing that ethos in action. You’re also seeing an expression of profound self-indulgence. Here is the truth that so many people can’t seem to get their head around – nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, gives a shit about your self-expression. Your friends don’t. Your family don’t. The general public absolutely don’t. Even if they say they do, they don’t. At all. If you’re writing a script or book or whatever that’s very personal, then you have to ask why anyone else should care. We live in a world that is absolutely overflowing with entertainment options, and if you want to be a contender then you can’t be producing work that only your Mum will grudgingly come out and see.
Now that’s not to say that self-expression is a bad thing. It’s actually essential to good art. Self-expression is what makes your story unique and special. But it cannot be the only thing your piece has. Is your story funny? Sad? Gripping? Action packed? What does your story have that people might like to see? The trick you have to pull off as a storyteller is to disguise self-expression as something else entirely.
The Boone Shepard series is a zany, funny, action packed trilogy of quirky adventure novels with time travel and absurd cameos from heightened versions of famous people. They’re designed to take kids on a twisty, rollicking, entertaining jaunt through a world that’s a bit like ours but not really, with two central characters who, hopefully, are fun to be around.
But if that was all Boone Shepard was then I wouldn’t be so invested. I wouldn’t have spent a decade of my life working on it. The reason I care so much about Boone is that the three books are also deeply, deeply personal, exploring themes and ideas that mean everything to me. In a lot of ways, thematically, Boone is not all that different to darker work of mine like Windmills. The trick is that all those deep, meaningful, personal themes are not the selling point. They’re not what I mention when people ask me about Boone Shepard. I tell them about all the things that I think make the story appealing, and then trust that if and when they read it they’ll pick up on what I was trying to say. Basically a good story should be like a Trojan Horse; the heart of your intentions hidden in the shell of what someone else wants.
I used to be arrogant when trying to get my work published. I would send agents and publishers manuscripts that I figured would work just because they were there, without ever stopping and seriously interrogating why somebody would spend money on this thing. A reader might be willing to risk twenty bucks on a book that could be bad, but a publisher spends thousands of dollars on editing, printing, designing and marketing a book. And that’s where things get really hard; you’re not asking somebody to spend twenty bucks on a story, you’re asking them to spend thousands on an investment. If you can’t justify making that investment to yourself, then you really can’t expect someone else will.
I made a lot of mistakes early on. I sent out work that wasn’t ready and I took meetings with important people to discuss projects that had absolutely no chance of being picked up. Those people, if they remember me at all, won’t remember me as someone worth taking seriously. That makes a hard task nigh impossible.
If you’re a young writer, I suggest patience. Don’t take the word of a couple of friends telling you your script or novel is a masterpiece. Get an anonymous manuscript assessment. Put it in the drawer for a year before you come back and reconsider if it’s really where it needs to be and use the year in between to work on other projects. At every turn ask yourself what you have that people want. Think of your story as a product; is there any demand for what you have, and if there isn’t how can you change that? Basically, remove your perspective from the equation and look at your story as if you’re a publisher. How much would you be willing to spend on this thing?
Even once you’re 100% sure of what you have, stories are subjective and chances are you’ll start a handsome collection of rejection letters. But believe me, you’ll feel a lot better about yourself if you’re trying to sell a story that you know in your heart is worth that investment, rather than one you’re just throwing out there in the hopes that it might stick somewhere.
Last year was the first year in which writing really became a job for me. Between various creative projects, freelance stuff, Movie Maintenance and creative writing tutoring I didn’t have a single source of income that wasn’t directly tied to storytelling. Which is the dream, right? I mean, obviously I’m pretty ambitious and have bigger designs, but making a living from writing work was something that, not long ago, seemed pretty far off.
The problem, of course, is that making a living from something means it’s your job and the thing about jobs is that sometimes you get over them. Sometimes stuff gets ahead of you and you find yourself burnt out and at a loss. The things that used to excite you don’t anymore.
I’m well past the point of fretting about whether or not I’ve ‘lost it’. At least once a year I have a mini crisis with my writing, wondering if I’m as good as I used to be, wondering if I’m ever going to get better, wondering if it’s actually what I want to do and so on. Inevitably, I’ll find a new project that excites me or something good will happen or I’ll just get over myself and these times pass. I don’t let them drag me down anymore because history has proven that, once I’ve had some time away, I’ll be back to storytelling with renewed energy and focus.
The thing is, I burnt myself out badly last year. My production company did four plays, three of which I’d written. I co-produced a web series, launched a line of radio plays, celebrated the release of my second published novel and wrote my quarter of an anthology that I collectively published with some friends. Well, actually, there were two anthologies. And none of this is to mention my work for Den of Geek or Sanspants Radio. The point is, I wrote a lot last year, most of it for money, a lot of it stuff I wasn’t especially proud of. And that takes a toll. Because when you’re working to a deadline, no longer writing for yourself, some of the sheen has to go. And that’s something I don’t think I’d ever anticipated.
By December I wasn’t writing. I couldn’t. Whenever I tried it came out clunky and awkward. So I just… didn’t. I didn’t try to force it. I went away on holiday and just waited. It would come when it came.
I started slow. I wrote a novella over the new-years period, a sequel to Sunburnt Country that had no reason to exist other than it being a story I wanted to tell. But even after that, I had no burning story to tell next. I had ideas, but those ideas were all being held at bay by responsibilities. Deadlines to meet and all the rest. So I just didn’t write.
It didn’t help that Moonlite pretty much dominated my January, or that it was a singularly difficult, stressful season of theatre, difficulty and stress that didn’t abate once the show was actually underway. When people asked me what was next after Moonlite I didn’t answer because there was no answer. I hadn’t thought about it. I was just focused on getting to the end of that show.
Meanwhile things were falling by the wayside. I had so much to get done but all of it would be handled tomorrow. That was my ethos through January; ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’. Never mind that I was supposed to hand in a second draft of Boone Shepard 3 by the end of that month. I’d do it tomorrow.
Then, last Thursday February 1st, one day after the Boone deadline I had not met, I attended one of the weekly Words and Wine nights I do with the Melbourne Young Writer’s Studio, the first of the year. Words and Wine, where incidentally I am writing this, is basically what it says on the tin; a weekly catch up of writers where, for two hours, we drink wine and write words. That’s it. Last year I treated W&W as my holiday, the place where I wrote things that I wanted to write.
At the start of last week’s session we were given a challenge, to come up with three loglines for new stories on the spot. My plan was to cheat and use pre-existing ideas, then I looked out the windows, into the dimming sky, and an idea struck me. An idea about an aging astronaut who wants to return to the stars.
So I wrote that story, something I came up with on the spot, something that, from concept to completion, took less than two hours. I wrote that story and it was the best thing I had written in ages.
After that, I could focus on Boone. I could approach it from a new angle and finally get productive, finally get the rewrites done I needed, including some scenes I literally teared up writing because I was plumbing some character depths I’d never before touched with Boone Shepard. I got back on top of my freelance jobs and then, two days ago, I learned that I was one of three people shortlisted for the 2017 Monte Miller Award, which got me on to the Pathways Program – a collection of the best unproduced scripts in the country.
Despondency and flatness were gone so quickly. Not because I wrote that short story and it changed things, because I kept in mind at all times that, even if it seems counterintuitive, telling stories will always be what makes me happy and, if I’m in a funk, then chances are telling stories is the way out of it. It’s just about finding the right story.
Writing is the best thing in the world. It also sucks as a career. You make very little money, you’re constantly rejected and it takes a long time for anybody to take you seriously, if anybody ever does. But if you are a writer you’ll persist because, honestly, what the fuck else are you going to do?
The last couple of months have reminded me of all the worst things about what I do. The last week has reminded me of the best.
And if you’re interested, below is that short story.
I get nervous before every single one of my plays. The degree of nervousness varies; it’s always worse if it’s one I directed and it’s especially bad if the show has had a bumpy production, but whether I’m feeling mild uncertainty or full blown terror, I have never gone into any opening night with a sense of breezy confidence. And even if the show seems to go off without a hitch, even if we get all the laughs and gasps and tears we wanted, that nervousness comes back in full force over the next few days as we wait for the reviews to come in.
The worst was the hours before my very first play, Windmills, opened in 2010. I had gone through the rehearsal process happy and excited by how it was all coming together, but when opening night arrived I was a nervous wreck. This was back in my acting days and I had a lead role in the show as well – I was shaking like a leaf when I walked onstage for my first scene.
What characterised that fear, a fear that has lingered to some degree ever since, is the simple fact that you can never be sure how something is going to be received. When Windmills was performed I was eighteen and utterly untried as a writer. It was the first time my work was going before an audience and as such the first time my belief that I was good enough to do this would be put to the test. And while I have learnt a lot since then, I still don’t know whether any given show will have the effect I want it to. To some degree, a play is a Schrodinger’s Cat – it’s impossible to know until people come out of it just how well it works.
Of course it’s somewhat subjective. If you trawl the depths of IMDB you’ll find savage putdowns of the most beloved and respected films. Rotten Tomatoes, for all its flaws as a system, has shone a light on the fact that there is no such thing as a story for everyone. The percentage of people who dislike something will vary, but even the most impeccably crafted piece of art will have detractors.
I don’t want to go too far down the path of the subjectivity argument; there are, after all, people out there who believe Rogue One is a masterpiece. The truth is that I think there is value to consensus, even if it doesn’t account for the reaction of every individual. If most people like your play, book or movie then you’ve probably done something right. You can’t please everyone, but that doesn’t mean you should write off any and all criticism as being ‘just someone’s opinion’. After all, listening to well-argued negative feedback is how you get better, even if you don’t always agree with it.
The reason I’m writing about this is, somewhat predictably, the opening of Moonlite. I’ve made no secret of the fact that Moonlite has been one of the most stressful shows I’ve ever been involved in; from compromised availability of the cast and band to a venue that simply put, isn’t a theatre, nothing about this show has been easy. And when opening night came around I was partly certain it was going to be a mess. Would people be pissed off by the noise from upstairs? Confused by the flashback-based narrative structure? Offended by the fact that, despite being sold as a musical, it doesn’t really follow any of the rules of musical theatre?
I was ready to be laughed at. I was ready for withering or patronising reviews telling me what an idiot I was for ever thinking I could make something like this work. I was ready for Moonlite to be a massive failure on every level.
But of course, there is one fundamental difference between Moonlite and past plays that haven’t come together, and that difference is that everyone involved has worked their arses off to make this show happen. And everyone is a professional who knows what they were doing. Is Moonlite perfect? Of course not. But it’s sold out its season, had rave reviews and by all accounts been massively entertaining for the audiences we’ve had. We had a vision for this play; for it to be a raw, rough, rollicking journey through the story of a larger than life character, a story told with heart, humour and catchy, toe-tapping songs. And I think we’ve delivered that. The cast give brilliant, dedicated, emotional performances. Dan’s music is phenomenal. The band are brilliant. And I’m really proud of my script. Nobody has let the team down, everyone has done their job and in any play that is all you can ever ask for.
Are there people who don’t like Moonlite? Nobody’s told me as much, but I’m sure there are, just as I’m sure there are people who are indifferent or ambivalent towards it. But by and large the lesson I’ve learnt from this play is one of ‘if you build it, they will come’. If you put in the work, if you are tough on yourself and make sure you’re operating as professionally as possible, then chances are you will have a quality product. Not one everyone will love, but one you can be proud of. If you know what you want to achieve and put everything towards realising that vision, you probably will.
Arrogance will kill any creative project; just half arsing it and hoping for the best. If you produce a script you don’t believe in or phone in a performance or basically assume that somebody should like something just because it’s there then your project is doomed to fail. Call it Rogue One syndrome.
I won’t ever stop being nervous before the openings of new shows. But I will know, going forward, that as long as I can rest assured that I’ve done the best I can, I can stand by the product and know that if people don’t like it, at least I tried. Basically, my big, life changing message is this; do the work, reap the rewards. It won’t always pay off, but it’s a damn sight more likely to if you do your job properly. That’s all.
Yesterday I was rushing to fill out a major application for Bitten By Productions and I stumbled on a bit of a dilemma. The application required details of every previous show the theatre company applying had done, including reviews. For us, this would range from Reunion, the tiny, unassuming comedy I put on with friends back in 2013, to Moonlite, the play with songs that has sold out almost its whole season and has a cast of trained musical theatre professionals, which opens tomorrow.
Moments like this, moments that literally require you to chart years of creative development, are great for reflection, but the problem here is that said charting came as part of trying to convince a major player in the theatre scene to give us a lot of money for a future production. And frankly, I don’t especially want to hold up some of our earlier works as examples of what we can do now because they’re not.
I was lucky enough in that every play we’ve done has at least one positive review and even the reviews that were more on the fence came from early shows rather than anything we’ve done recently. Showing signs of clear development probably isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it does make me think. After all, we advertised plays like Below Babylon and A Good German with just as much conviction as we did far stronger recent shows like Springsteen or The Commune. To me and anyone who has seen all over even some of our output, the improvement is obvious. How could it not be? Over years of growing and learning if you don’t get better you’re doing something wrong. But the problem here is that, to the average punter who might have seen one of those early plays, there is no reason to believe that Bitten By Productions is now worth taking seriously. Not when you parted with your hard-earned for a show that might not have seemed worth it.
For creatives, this is a dilemma with no clear solution. I strongly believe that the only way to really improve is to put your work out there, gauge the reaction, learn from your mistakes, and continue. Sure, you can study writing for theatre and learn all the practices and conventions and whatever, but that will never teach you as much as sitting in a darkened room, hearing the gasps of audience members around you, or else reading a savage review or seeing friends lie through their teeth to your face about liking a show. It’s these tough experiences that make you learn, that cut your ego down to size and teach you that you have to stop thinking about art as self-expression. Nobody gives a fuck about your self-expression. Nobody should have to pay thirty dollars to see you express yourself. If you’re going to ask that of anyone then you have to offer them something else. What does your play have? Will it make them laugh? Cry? Shuffle to the edge of their seat, wide eyed and enraptured?
The truth of course is that opinions are subjective and not everyone will like your work even if you do everything right, but you will be coming from a much stronger position if you are able to justify to yourself why a total stranger should see this play. This requires interrogating the worth of every aspect of your script so that when faced with criticism you can at least justify why you made the choices you made.
In early plays I didn’t ask for much feedback. My tokenistic substitute for this was giving the scripts to people I privately knew would only say nice things. Essentially I, on some level knowingly, cut myself off to criticism because I believed I could do this and that my work deserved your time and money. In the process I took advantage of the support of friends and family, all of whom helped produce and put on plays that were simply not ready. And when the negative feedback came, I shrugged it off. I felt bad about it, sure, but I rarely engaged in what it was saying.
Engaging, here, doesn’t mean agreeing. It means listening and considering. You can think feedback is wrong. But you have to be able to articulate, at least to yourself, why it’s wrong. That is one of the biggest and most valuable lessons I’ve learned.
But, of course, it doesn’t heal the damage of those early mistakes. It won’t win back directors, producers and established actors who came and saw my plays on the recommendation of friends and probably walked away vowing never to trust that friend again, let alone see anything else written by that Bergmoser kid.
Of course this begs the question of at what point your work becomes consistently ready for consumption, and to that there is no answer. The best I can offer is that I used to look back on plays that were about a year old and cringe, now, when thinking over just about every script I’ve written since 2015, I can find something of value or at least justify why I made the choices I made. Not everything I wrote in that time was good, but the scripts I didn’t feel good about didn’t see the light of day. That might be the biggest difference.
I wish I could tell everyone who came and saw Below Babylon or A Good German and the rest that I’m a better writer now and my new work will be worth their time. But I can’t so I have to take the hit. And furthermore, if I could go back and tell my younger self not to produce work that wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t. The lessons I learned in that time, for me personally, made it all worthwhile.
It’s not a one size fits all thing. I wouldn’t recommend everyone make the choices I made. I’m impulsive and impatient and I’m lucky now to be surrounded by collaborators who temper those traits. If you have a play you want to produce, be honest with yourself, get it into the hands of people who will rip it to shreds and listen to them before you decide how to proceed. Because I can promise you with the weight that comes from experience that you will not get away with just throwing a show on and hoping for the best. But you will certainly learn from it.
For as long as there have been classics, people have been paying tribute or adding to them. Shakespeare has been reimagined so many times and almost all the Greek epic poems or plays soon got sequels from new writers, if they weren’t already an addendum to or reimagining of a previous piece. Basically, there has always been, and will always be a hunger for more of the stories we love. As such, a current media landscape dominated by nostalgia, long running franchises and reboots is hardly a new thing.
The truth here is that film and TV are relatively young mediums, and we’re only just reaching the point in their life cycle where returning to the well is becoming an ubiquitous thing, especially in TV. And unlike reimaginings of Shakespeare plays, in the cases of most television classics they’re recent enough for many of the key creatives to still be alive and active, meaning we’re seeing a glut of stars and creators returning to the characters that made their careers. From The X Files to Fuller House, Will and Grace to Roseanne, many long dormant properties are coming back and this is only the beginning.
It’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, streaming services mean that TV shows cut down in their prime can be revived, sometimes years after the fact (please save Hannibal), but on the other hand shows that had their time, had an impressive run and were considered classics are returning. When a series ended on its own terms after many seasons, do we really need more?
Recently I’ve been re-watching a lot of Arrested Development and Community. The two shows have a lot in common; both were clever cult hits that struggled in the ratings, both were unceremoniously cancelled and both were later revived by streaming services in victory lap runs generally considered to not hit the heights of their respective heydays. Nonetheless, both shows are still technically alive; Arrested Development has a fifth season coming this year and Community remains in active talks for a movie.
The other day I did a bit of an experiment with both shows; after watching a classic episode from an early season, I put on one from the revival. I turned off the first episode of Arrested Development’s fourth season after five minutes and laughed maybe once in the episode I chose from Community’s sixth. The contrast was stark and unflattering; neither show, in the end, was near its creative prime.
And yet, I’m still excited for more.
Part of this comes down to nostalgia; re-watching both shows instantly transports me back to the place I was in my life when I first discovered them, and that’s a potent thing, but unlike a belated sequel to a beloved film, a TV revival offers something a more. An actor friend of mine once said that TV was a preferred medium for him because it gave actors the chance to develop a character over an extended period of time, which, in turn, means that we build a relationship with them. Over several years and sometimes hundreds of episodes, we get to know and love the ensemble of a given favourite show and as such going back always feels like revisiting old friends. There is something inherently comforting in re-watching favourites, a reminder that no matter how far you have come in life, hours of entertainment with the fictional people you love are still there for you to go back to at any time. And if you follow a TV show for years it becomes more than just an instantaneous time portal; sometimes the lives and growth of these characters over an extended period of time can parallel your own, and so the attachments we forge become something more personal than that of recalling a single special moment.
In the case of a beloved film that we watch over and over pleasure comes from the familiar, from knowing every line, shot and beat. In TV it’s different; when there are so many episodes we often forget certain gems and while there are always favourites we go back to, the process of a true re-watch often yields a thrill of rediscovery, or a new appreciation for things we didn’t like the first time. It’s comfort food with the added bonus of a potential for new flavours. Seen through that light, how can we not get excited at the prospect of spending more time with these old friends?
Of course, it comes with an element of risk. In 2013 I was so excited for the final season of Skins, a show that meant a huge amount to me as a teenager. This last run would revisit characters from the early seasons (Skins changed cast every two years), picking up on them in their young adult lives. This, to me, was thrilling; the characters of Skins were so special to people of my generation because they were teenagers at the same time as us, sharing (albeit heightened) similar experiences, heartbreaks and woes to what we were all going through. The prospect of seeing those beloved characters living lives that reflected our own years later? The power of that can’t be understated.
And for the first few minutes it worked; I remember seeing Effie and her friends hanging out and drinking wine on the roof of their shitty apartment between work and uni, seeing my own life reflected back at me in a way I hadn’t since the early years of the show. It really was like seeing an old friend, a friend who I could still relate to because we were in similar places in our respective lives years after we last saw each other. There was a unique and special feeling that while I had been growing and changing, these characters had too.
But then, of course, Skins fell victim to its own worst impulses. It went for unrealistic, sensationalised drama over the power of relatability and as such I stopped watching the final season before the end of its six-episode run. I felt betrayed and angry. I wished Skins had not come back at all.
And yet, if you told me today there would be a new season revisiting those characters, I don’t know that I could promise you that I wouldn’t be watching.
As more and more shows are revived, I find myself speculating on what else could come back and, in the process, start to wonder if I’m going to see more of the TV show that has possibly had the biggest influence on me, that show being Scrubs. Scrubs was the first show I ever fell in love with and it shaped my style and sensibilities like no other; it taught me how to blend pathos, humour and relatability but it also taught me that sometimes it’s better to quit while you’re ahead. The first four seasons of Scrubs are TV classics (three is the best), and after that it descended into cartoony, unfunny tripe. Scrubs did manage to regain some quality in its eighth season, building up to a TV finale that I still think might be the best of all time, one that balanced the melancholy of saying goodbye with an assurance that life, for these characters and for ourselves, will go on. It was perfect but then they had to go and fuck it all up with a ninth season that sold itself as a reboot but did very little to let go of the past.
And yet, now, years later, despite knowing that Scrubs had the perfect ending and ruined it with an unnecessary addendum, I still want more. I want to see my friends again. I want to laugh with JD, Turk, Elliot and Dr Cox. I want to see where they are in life and if the fantasies JD had in the season eight finale did come true or if, true to Scrubs form, something more complex happened. I want this despite knowing that I don’t need it, despite knowing that there is no reason to believe a 2018 Scrubs reboot could recapture any of that early magic if it couldn’t do it in 2010, despite knowing that the season eight ending was so good because, at the time, it was an ending as is still considered the real finale by the vast majority of viewers.
TV characters often feel real because of the sheer amount of time we spend with them, because we see them weekly, because we stick with them through the good and bad, through the classic episodes, the forgettable filler, the jump-the-shark moments and the emotional goodbyes. We forge an attachment to them that can become a yearning to see them again, a yearning that means we ignore the fact that nine times out of ten it’s better to leave the stories we loved behind so as to keep on loving them.
The problem with connections like this is that they create a weight of expectation that belated revivals can scarcely live up to. Harry Potter, Skins, Scrubs and so many more now all have an asterisk hanging over them, that footnote of “yeah they were really good except for the unnecessary follow-up”. Even if we can turn a blind eye to the Cursed Childs and Scrubs season nines of the world it doesn’t mean they’re not there, a constant warning that it’s always better to say goodbye when saying goodbye still hurts, rather than when we don’t care anymore.
If a Scrubs reboot happened I would watch it. I would watch it despite knowing that I shouldn’t, because I’m only human. Likewise I will of course watch Arrested Development and the Community movie and any other reboots of old favourites that come my way. But, if you gave me the choice? I would rather they never happen at all.
It was about a year and a half ago now that Dan Nixon and I first sat down for drinks at the Grace Darling and discussed the prospect of a gay bushranger musical. Dan had invited me to grab a beer with him so he could pitch me a project, and the moment he said the words ‘Captain Moonlite’ I got excited – after all, it had only been a couple of months earlier that I had first learned about his story on an episode of Shut Up A Second and had started thinking of how to get it out there. The idea of a musical theatre show seemed more fitting than most.
After a few beers and a lot of excited ideas being thrown around, Dan said something to the effect of ‘it’s a little odd though, two straight guys writing this play’.
At the time we laughed it off, but the words stuck with me. Back at VCA we had often been asked about our scripts ‘why is this a story that only you can tell?’ Usually the answer was something to do with personal experience, but it becomes a harder thing to justify when you are writing something that is miles divorced from your own life.
This very discussion starts getting into thorny territory, the question of what themes, ideas and situations a writer has the right to explore, whether it is inherently arrogant to delve into experiences that aren’t your own, but personally I think doing so sits at the core of being a storyteller. In his play The Pillowman Martin McDonagh suggests that ‘people only write what they know because they’re too fucking lazy to make something up’, and while I don’t necessarily agree I think there’s something to that. After all, if people only wrote what they knew we never would have gotten Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. Furthermore we never would have gotten some of the great dramas or crime films written and directed by people who never experienced anything close to those events. In general, the problem with writing ‘personal’ stories is that in most cases the only person who finds your life interesting is you and it’s arrogant to assume that anybody else will.
So if it’s arrogant to write outside of your experience and arrogant to write within it, what are you supposed to do?
My theory has long been that it’s not what you write, it’s how you write it. Whether two straight men writing a musical about a gay bushranger is wrong comes down to how it’s done. Likewise even the most mundane life can take on significance and pathos if it’s presented in a way that is engaging and interesting. I believe that writers of all backgrounds have the right to explore whatever the hell they want, but crucially they have a responsibility to do it well, especially when it’s engaging with a real experience that isn’t their own.
Of course, saying that is a lot easier than doing it.
In 2013 I wrote a play about a Nazi officer in a concentration camp falling in love with a Jewish inmate. It was an idea I had had since high school, one I believed was challenging, compelling, powerful and all those other adjectives you apply to historical dramas exploring sensitive territory. The problem was that none of those adjectives were true; my assumption at the time was that purely by writing about this subject matter I was doing something somehow brave or with inherent artistic value. Consequently, when the play came out a year later, we were rightly eviscerated in our first review. A Good German remains a source of shame and motivation for me, a constant reminder of what not to do.
The mistake I made, one born of pure arrogance, was never really interrogating why I wanted to tell that story. I think the premise is strong and, in the hands of someone more equipped to explore it, could have made for an amazing play. But one of the biggest lessons I learned from A Good German is that just because you have an idea doesn’t mean you’re the right person to realise it.
While A Good German proved that this isn’t always the case, usually an idea that is your own will have more personal meaning than one someone brings you, and so before I could write Moonlite I had to find my angle. Outside of it being a great story, I had to ask myself why I personally wanted to tell it. What could I bring to the table that someone else couldn’t, someone else whose life closer matched that of the subject?
In the end it’s a matter of theme. What is your story about? What are you trying to say? In the case of A Good German the answer to that question was some vague guff about grey areas of morality, and as such I needed something stronger for Moonlite. After all, if this play didn’t have something to say beyond ‘hey check out how zany this story is’ then it would fall flat.
As I researched I kept this question in the back of my head. I looked for the parts of Captain Moonlite’s life I related to, the actions he took that I understood, the moments that moved me, and then I interrogated why that was. Through this process, I found the story I wanted to tell, the angle I would approach from and the theme that would unify the show. My Moonlite is not about his sexuality, although that is a big part of it, but rather about the divide between legend and fact, the question of whether the truth is more important than the story when the story is what people remember. It’s a theme that has always fascinated me, one I have explored in other pieces of writing, and one that, as such, I feel I am qualified to tackle. Furthermore it’s one that suited the story of Captain Moonlite.
It’s for this reason that I have no qualms about my being the right person to tackle this version of the story, partly because I know for a fact that other people will have their own interpretations and they are no less valid than mine. There is no definitive take on a real person’s life.
Every story has, in one way or another, been told. Originality or individuality, to me, comes from the telling of the story rather than the subject. As such the first question any writer should ask of any project they’re working on is whether they are the right person for this story, and if so, why? You might find that it saves you from working on the pieces that don’t mean that much to you and lets you focus only on the ones that do.
All that said, Moonlite is yet to open so for all I know it could be a massive failure that leaves me singularly unqualified to write this blog. Time will tell.
Sometimes I feel like a failure. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to suffocate under the weight of how much I’ve failed, and I have to inject some healthy delusion back into my self-perception just to keep doing what I do. I feel like I have to justify my every decision and action to a world of people who are judging me.
I talk a lot about winning the Ustinov on this blog. This isn’t an attempt at a humble brag, but rather an ongoing process of working out what that award meant to me. Before winning that award I was desperate and despondent; the truth I’d kept at bay, that I had nobody’s word but my own that I was a good writer, was starting to come home and it was terrifying. Because when you devote yourself to one thing and the possibility arrives that maybe you’re not as good as you thought you were at that thing, it’s horrible. The value of winning the Ustinov, then, can’t really be measured in the opportunities it afforded me, but rather in the fact that, when I needed it the most, it gave me proof that I wasn’t barking up the wrong tree.
But if I’m being honest? I wish it had led to more. Sometimes I lie awake at night and wonder if I squandered the heat from the award, if I screwed up how I should have leveraged that validation into more of a career. It’s easy to blame other factors and people for this, but, like anything, it’s complicated and I have to wonder if I am fundamentally to blame for the fact that I haven’t sold a feature or become the showrunner of a TV show yet.
It always surprises me when people tell me how impressed they are with what I’ve done. Please don’t read that as false modesty, I’ve just never really been someone who knows how to process praise and as such I tend to awkwardly shuffle and try to smile without looking smug or constipated. Part of this is due to the fact that being told I’m amazing or whatever is so at odds with how I see myself. But then I remember that old truth; people never pay as much attention to you as you do to yourself. They see what you choose to show, and you’re hardly going to air all of your terrible insecurities to the world (unless you’re writing a blog like this).
Crucially, however, the fact that you don’t feel like the person people see doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. It’s the reason that biographies and autobiographies are both valuable; one is told from the inside, with all the biases that come with that, while the other can be more impartial, albeit without the same access and insight. Nobody will ever know us as well as we know ourselves, but conversely, we don’t always see ourselves that clearly, for better or worse. Self-awareness can only go so far.
On paper, I look like a success. At 26 I have two published novels, one of which was shortlisted for a major award, I have a production company that has been behind a whole bunch of very well received plays, I’ve won a screenwriting award from the International Emmys, and I’m the host of a podcast that has thousands of listeners worldwide. I work now exclusively as a writer and several of my stories have very exciting things going on that I can’t yet talk about.
I’m still broke and in debt. I still struggle to figure out how to make ends meet. I regularly see stories of writers my age or younger who have hit the big time and go on to bigger and better successes. And slowly, that old panic starts to creep back in. What if I’m wrong? What if I’m not good enough? What if the best of my career has already been and gone and I missed the chance to really make a go of it?
There isn’t any easy answer to these doubts, because they could be right. But I’m starting to see it as an ‘innocent until proven guilty’ thing, because I’m still very young. Sure, some writers find major success young, but most don’t achieve anything close to it until their thirties, forties or even later. Some never achieve any at all despite unquestionably deserving it. There’s no perfect or even obvious way to embark on a creative career because there are so many variables and the very question of your ability is subjective. As is the question of your success. Does working exclusively as a writer make you successful? It certainly puts you in the minority. What about having awards to your name? It looks good but it doesn’t mean much when you’re still figuring out how the hell you’re gonna pay rent this month. Being published? You try eating out on two dollars per book. Being on a popular podcast? Might cause more harm than good when you want to get into the industry but literally get paid to claim, without much to your name, that you can write better movies than the people you want to work for.
But in this industry you kind of have to take what you can get, because beggars can’t be choosers and unless you’re either absurdly lucky or absurdly talented, pursuing a creative career means consigning yourself to being a beggar for an indefinite amount of time. It doesn’t matter how much you might think you deserve something; that old problem of perspective will always trip you up. You might think you’re brilliant, but that doesn’t mean for a second that anyone else has to, and that’s a tough lesson to learn. The opposite could be just as true. The question then is how you decide to respond to that discrepancy of perspectives.
I get contacted a lot by young writers who listen to Movie Maintenance, often wanting advice or feedback. While I don’t give feedback on people’s writing (unless I’m getting paid for it, sorry) I’m always happy to give advice and that advice always amounts to the same thing; almost none of us know what we’re doing and success, if it ever comes, is an imperfect cocktail of luck, talent, inhuman persistence and lots of hard work. And as hopeless as it might seem sometimes, remember that you will almost always be your own harshest critic. Because where you see a failure, somebody else might just see an inspiration.
Earlier tonight I watched Twice Upon a Time, the latest Doctor Who Christmas Special and swansong for Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor as well as showrunner Steven Moffat. Just in case those goodbyes didn’t make it enough of an event, it also featured the brilliant David Bradley stepping into the shoes of original Doctor William Hartnell, something I’ve been hoping for as a fan for years now. It was a deep dive into the often tangled mythology of the show and for the most part they pulled it off well. But there was one moment that struck me. During a particularly reflective scene with Bradley’s Doctor the ethereal ‘Gallifrey’ music that always turned up during the especially important parts of David Tennant’s run started to play. It was a way to underline the significance of what was happening; a collision of the different eras of this show on the eve of a whole new beginning.
And I felt nothing.
That little snippet of spookily singing voices used to be an immediate goosebumps-giver in the times when I was intoxicated by Who mythology, the times I wanted to know everything about the history of the Time Lords and got giddily excited any time the show made reference to its past. In the last few years however, moments like this have been so par for the course that they’ve lost any real meaning. Under Steven Moffat Doctor Who has become so in love with itself, so caught up in the epic importance of everything that’s happening (but mainly the epic importance of its central character) that any sense of mystery or power or intrigue has long since been sapped. For my money the show was at its best when it foregrounded the little people, when it was the story of the companions and their slow realisation of their own potential with the epic moments being the little treats rather than the whole meal. Basically, when the show was under the stewardship of Russell T Davies. In the years since his departure I have looked everywhere for that old feeling the show used to give me and never once got it.
But you know what? That’s okay. Because many new fans started the show with Moffat and fell in love with his grandiose, fantasy-flavoured vision, comparatively finding Davies’ more mundane, camp version kind of lame. The last few years I’ve been on a steady learning curve of realising that I can still enjoy Doctor Who even though it’s no longer the show I fell in love with because hey, the series is inherently about change and before long it will be different again. And beyond that, it would be impossible to replicate my version of Doctor Who because my version is so tied to a particular place and time. My Doctor Who comes hand in hand with memories of being in boarding school, of waking up at five in the morning on a weekend I was home with my parents to watch a whole bunch of Who before returning to school because my younger brothers wouldn’t let me take the DVD with me. It’s the summer holidays in which I hired all of Torchwood from the local video store and made my much cooler friends sit through it with me while I insisted with decreasing certainty that this really was good TV. It’s discovering torrenting and watching every new episode in my room at school, falling in love with Donna and having my heart broken at her fate. Ultimately, the way I loved Doctor Who can never truly be replicated because it’s so coloured by being part of a very particular time in my life; even if Russell T Davies and David Tennant returned it wouldn’t really be the same. As such, if I’m ever going to love this show again, I need to be open to whatever comes and willing to accept that just because it’s not for me anymore doesn’t mean it’s not for someone else.
When The Last Jedi came out I was initially apprehensive because I wasn’t really impressed by any of what Disney had done with the franchise thus far. Yes, I wanted my Star Wars back but I found it insulting as an audience member to watch the studio produce content that was designed to pander to my nostalgia, to evoke a past feeling rather than create a new one. Watching The Last Jedi I was struck by the fact that I seldom felt like I was watching Star Wars the way I knew it, but rather like I was watching something new emerge from the foundations.
Do I love The Last Jedi the way I loved the original films? Of course not. How could I? They were a part of my formative years and, like the friends we grew up with, the significance of that will never go away. But crucially The Last Jedi gave me hope that there might yet be something for me to love in Star Wars, something that honours the old but isn’t beholden to it.
Nostalgia, in the end, is as empty as it is powerful. It’s literally the yearning for something we can never have again, and when a film or book or TV show is emotionally tied to an important part of your life, they tend to take on magnified importance in your world. It’s the reason fans get so caught up in whether The Last Jedi was an insult to the franchise or Steven Moffat ruined Doctor Who. In the end a movie is just a movie and a TV show is just a TV show, but what we attach to those properties make them so much more, leaving the current stewards of the stories we love with an impossible task. Is it any wonder Rogue One just threw a thousand Easter eggs at us and hoped for the best? As fans we put so much pressure on the current iterations of our favourite stories to give us what we loved in the first place, but they can never do that. Often the best we get is a pale imitation that isn’t much more than a sugar rush; briefly exhilarating and swiftly forgotten.
The magic of The Last Jedi was that it let me fall in love with Star Wars again by burning down what I thought I knew about Star Wars. Somehow, paradoxically, this meant that when Luke Skywalker faced his destiny at the end, suddenly I felt that old magic come rushing back. Because if we open ourselves up to change rather than furiously clinging to the way we think things should be, maybe our love for those things can grow rather than be frozen in carbonite.
It's a risk that doesn’t always pay off; Doctor Who, for me, being the prime example. But every now and then in Moffat’s run came moments where I could see a version of this show that I might be able to love again. Those moments never crystallised into something lasting, but the fact that they were there gave me hope. And if I never truly love Doctor Who again then, well, I’ll always have those Davies seasons and I’m content enough with everything this series gave me to be able to let go a little and be open to whatever comes next.
It might suck. But then again, it might be brilliant. I’ll take either over stagnation.
I’m the first to admit that Bitten By Productions has a bit of a mixed record. As lovely as it would be to say that every show we’ve ever done was an unmitigated success, some of them were closer to mediocre and others outright sucked. Every year we’ve operated has yielded a variety of relative successes and failures; some sold every seat but weren’t great, others were fantastic shows but couldn’t find an audience, and the occasional lucky one managed both.
This year has not been perfect, but the flaws, for once, were more operational than with the quality of what we put on. At the start of the year I wrote a bit of a retrospective of our output so far, starting with Reunion and ending with The Critic. Rather than wait until we have the same number of shows as were covered in that first retrospective, I thought I’d look back over our 2017, a year that had its ups and downs but came out as by far the best year we’ve yet had as a company.
To be fair, I did touch on Springsteen in the last retrospective, but that was mid run and it was hard to be objective, or at least, as objective as I can be about something I wrote and directed. Which is to say, not very much.
Still, Springsteen was special, not least because it centred on a topic that means a huge amount to me. But it was so much more than that. The themes of the play were as personal as even a show like Regression, which I occasionally agonised over letting people see, and that odd mix of tribute and emotion made it a bit of an outlier in what we’ve done so far. But, in the hands of a pitch perfect cast, it worked. We had crowds of Springsteen fans coming to see it, we sold out multiple shows, some of which we needed to bring in twenty extra seats for and it went on to be adapted into a radio play that hit #3 on the iTunes performing arts charts, which received many reports of tears on Twitter to boot. It was a success on every level; with the critics, the audiences, and the ticket sales. That is a rare outcome.
But beyond that, it was just a wonderful, wonderful experience. Those rehearsals were raw and emotional, built around all of us exposing some pretty rough things in service of bringing these characters to life. I feel that it not only brought us together as artists, but as friends, and it’s hard to ask much more from any project than that. Springsteen was the kind of play that left the team behind it with a special, singular bond, the kind that only comes from having gone through hell to produce something we could all be immensely proud of.
It wasn’t perfect, of course. The venue was about as awful as any we’ve ever used, and the staging/set were pretty uninspired, which might be part of the reason the show translated so seamlessly to a radio play without losing much. Furthermore the use of live music didn’t work as well as the use of Springsteen’s own songs, another area where the radio play improved on its source.
But hey, in the end the show was rewarding and satisfying in a way few theatrical endeavours are. And to boot, I felt like I hadn’t fucked up telling the story of one of my idols, and that’s arguably the most important part.
Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter
I mentioned before that you can’t be objective about your own play, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Objectivity isn’t the only way to approach something; often, when we’re able to admit the failings of a personal project, we have a singular insight into why something worked and why it didn’t.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I can’t be as analytical about Dracula as I can the rest, because it wasn’t my play. As the first Bitten By Productions show that wasn’t written by myself, Dracula was a change of pace in a lot of ways, and I’m inclined to think it was a welcome and necessary one. Longer, with a new focus on set, costumes, and special effects, Dracula was our most visually striking show since Below Babylon, and audiences responded. It was also our most financially successful show, due to great reviews and the boost offered by name recognition, and it boasted a brilliant central performance from Greg Caine, who managed to make Dracula sympathetic, terrifying, hilarious and riveting – often all in the same scene.
Do I have reservations about it? Sure. Mainly with a few behind the scenes things that don’t need to be aired in public. But the truth is, as I also acted in this play, it’s pretty tough for me to view it with any kind of impartiality or personal analysis. I was involved enough to be too close, but not enough to really examine where it worked and didn’t. That’s a job for a writer or director, not an actor.
Following on so closely from Springsteen, Dracula completed a one-two punch of big hits, also going on to become a highly successful radio play. At this point it was hard not to feel on top of the world about where our company was. Which of course, is usually the moment a rude awakening comes along.
I hope that somewhat ominous previous sentence doesn’t imply I’m not proud of Heroes, or in any way ambivalent about it. Neither are the case. But Heroes’ success was of a different, more complicated kind to the two previous shows.
The production of Heroes started from a place of hubris, which is never a place to start anything from but then, to be fair, you only tend to recognise hubris in the aftermath. To understand this, you have to remember that The Critic, our last play of 2016, had also been very successful; not on the same level as a Springsteen or Dracula, but it had enjoyed healthy audiences and glowing reviews. This meant that Heroes came in the midst of what seemed like a wave of success, and as such I got cocky.
Reteaming with Dexter Bourke, who previously directed The Last Supper in 2015 was a no
brainer. I gave Dexter full autonomy, letting him handpick the cast he wanted and essentially handing the whole project to him while I focused on Dracula and the impending release of Boone Shepard’s American Adventure. Usually this wouldn’t be a problem, except all of this happened just a month and a half out from opening night.
Heroes isn’t a long or complicated play, but it is a two hander and that means that two actors have to learn a huge amount of dialogue. With only a limited amount of time to learn, explore, and develop their characters and the script, it’s hard to expect the best from anyone and when I came in to watch a rehearsal one week out from opening, what I saw was decidedly not the best. It was, frankly, panic inducing.
This part of the story had a happy ending. The Heroes team, who were a dream to work with, immediately gauged my unease and asked what could be done. Then, to their unending credit, they did it. Heroes opened to well-deserved five-star reviews.
What it did not open to were good audiences. This is another area where hubris got me good. I figured that after Springsteen and Dracula people would flock to see our shows. That turned out to be untrue, especially when the show was a strange little thriller with no name recognition and two actors we had never used before coming only a month after our previous play. Heroes boasted the first time since Reunion that a Bitten By show performed to an audience of one, an embarrassing inevitability of indie theatre that I thought we were long past. And, while there were some decently populated shows in there, generally it was pretty sparsely attended. The audiences who saw it seemed to love it. There just weren’t that many who saw it.
But the overall ending for Heroes was still a happy one. Matt, one of the actors, suggested we take it on the one act play circuit, and it went on to win multiple awards for best actor, script, and production at various festivals. By the end of its run, thanks to the prize money, it had matched Dracula as Bitten By’s most financially successful show.
Mistakes were made and lessons were learned. But ultimately Heroes joined the first two shows of the year as a huge success, one that is a testament to the ability of Dexter, Matt and Blake to surpass the ridiculous schedule I imposed on them to put together something special, something that blew people away in theatres all over the state.
Around the time of Heroes cooler heads had prevailed regarding our schedule of plays. While I always loved the idea of having multiple shows in rehearsal at the same time, that creates an oversaturation that may in part answer for Heroes’ less than stellar theatrical run. At the start of the year The Commune, our first ever co-production (with Angelique Malcolm’s Class Act Theatre) had been scheduled for November and very swiftly all my ideas about having a show between Heroes’ May season and The Commune had been shut down. Instead we had time, time to think, plan and, most crucially, workshop.
For The Commune we did something new; a two day workshop over the course of which we took the script to task, refining, re-writing and tweaking until we had something rock solid, something we all had a little ownership in. With that done, rehearsals started in earnest and I took a step back.
I had fears about The Commune, fears that grew as opening night approached. With a made-up mythology centring around weird names and strange rituals, would it be met with laughter rather than discomfort? But, in the hands of arguably the best cast we’d ever assembled for a show, it was fine. Tension built beautifully from the first moments, and Ashley Tardy’s assured direction imbued the silences with menace, yearning and weighty implication. Reviews were great and several people who have frequented our shows said it was the best yet.
Whether that’s true or not, it’s hard to say. The Commune was possibly the most well executed of our plays, but I don’t think it ever really reached the same depth as something like Springsteen. Nonetheless, it engaged and thrilled audiences, and that’s all we could ever ask for.
But, like with Heroes, The Commune struggled to fill houses. I don’t really know why. Maybe the time of year, maybe the slightly higher ticket prices, maybe the subject matter. I will never be the type of person to guilt trip anybody over not ‘supporting the arts’ or whatever, because my attitude here has always been that we’re not asking for handouts, we’re providing a quality product that is worth your time and money. With The Commune that felt very much the case, it just didn’t seem to help very much. And short of being that annoying guy on Facebook clogging up your newsfeeds with endless plugs, there’s not a heap I can do about it.
But, like every show this year, lessons were learned. Namely that we need way better publicity (or any publicity) and maybe bigger, better venues where we won’t have to contend with the many limitations that faced us this year. What, to me, is indisputable, is that Bitten By Productions is now operating with a professionalism and consistency that we’ve never had before. It’s no longer just my whims steering this ship; with a full committee in place, the plays we choose and decisions we make are measured and well thought out. Now all we need to do is ensure that we are working at this standard across the board, in every aspect of a production.
But, mistakes and whatnot aside, 2017 was our biggest and best year yet, boasting four shows that I am fiercely proud of and the formation of a formidable team. Next year we’ll be working with new writers and new genres (musical), building on the foundation we have established to take this company to soaring new heights.
It’s been an awesome year. I don’t think I’m jinxing it to suspect that 2018 will be even better.
Just some thoughts.