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.
Writing words about writing words.