Onwards and Upwards
It feels a little strange to be writing about a play I was involved in yet wasn’t mine, but here we are. Yesterday Dracula: Last Voyage of the Demeter wrapped, officially marking the eleventh play from my company Bitten By Productions and the first not written by me. When we first entered pre-production I was looking forward to it being a bit of a break, but then I went and got cast in the show, so it’s not really been the restful time I thought it would be.
That said, there was a definite lack of pressure for me in this show. For once the play’s success or failure was not on me and while obviously I was invested in it doing well and believed in the project it was beyond refreshing to just be a cast member, to turn up for rehearsals, learn my lines, then go home again at the end of it without having to worry so much about marketing or set or costumes or anything.
Of course, Bitten By still remains the company I co-founded and as such I was always going to be more involved than the average cast member. And Dracula, in more ways than one, represented a big turning point for us. With a new script from a first-time playwright, a cast that were mostly people we hadn’t worked with before and essentially a whole new venue in the refurbished Voltaire, Dracula in some ways felt like a new start. In fact, the production I was most reminded of during the process was Below Babylon, our first major show, and there was a weird bit of déjà vu to again being a part of a violent thriller with an elaborate set, costumes, fake blood and a mostly new creative team.
But 2017 Sean Carney and Ashley Tardy are a much better writer/director team than 2013 Gabriel Bergmoser and Ashley Tardy, and so Dracula was in no way a step back. With great reviews and enthusiastic audiences every night (not to mention a completely sold out second week), Dracula was a total hit, and in some ways I felt like a proud father seeing my company take on a life of its own outside of just my ideas.
There was a time, not long ago, when I was at a bit of a loss with Bitten By. After the resounding flop that was A Good German, 2015 was a bit of a wilderness year for us, with a sense that the plays we put on were almost more afterthoughts, produced quietly with none of the budget or fanfare that we had approached earlier shows with. And without the grounding influence of founders Justin, Ash and myself working at the same place we seemed to be veering off in different directions. Honestly, at that point the company probably could have dissipated and I doubt anyone would have noticed.
Then, last year, stuff changed. We were still doing small, unambitious shows, but slowly we built a consistent core team of people all equally passionate about what we were doing, and as we went on the reviews got better and the audiences bigger. Now we’ve opened 2017 with two huge productions, both of which were critically successful and boasted multiple sold out shows. Granted, Springsteen and Dracula had the added bonus of both being about iconic subjects and based on well-loved Movie Maintenance episodes, but I maintain that neither would have been successful if they’d been shit. On the contrary, the heightened expectations of being about beloved properties would have made failure that much starker.
Looking ahead we have our next play Heroes already in rehearsal, a co-production with another company locked in for November, and potentially a third show around August. For the first time, we seem to consistently know what we’re doing and be doing it well. And considering the clumsy start to the company, that’s a very good place to be indeed.
Standing in the empty theatre last night with Justin and Ash, it was hard not to reflect on the journey we’ve had to get here and marvel at the fact that, after some middling successes and embarrassing failures, we’re at a point where our company is in better health than ever; finally something we can be unreservedly proud of. The future looks very bright at the moment, and on the back of another winner of a show, Bitten By Productions is becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Oh, and also two members of our team went and got surprise married last night. So if that’s not moving onwards and upwards, I don’t know what is.
Like most people my age, or any age really, I have a deep love of Star Wars. True, it isn’t the fantasy trilogy that most shaped my childhood (that would be Lord of the Rings), but it does mean a lot to me and I have fond memories of seeing the original trilogy in the cinemas when it was re-released in 1997, and the huge excitement for each new instalment in the prequel trilogy. While I had a vague sense at the time that the newer films weren’t as good as the older ones, that had little-to-no bearing on how many times I watched and re-watched Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith (even as a kid Phantom Menace could go jump off a fucking cliff) and how intoxicated I was with the whole mythology and singular feel of Star Wars. Even now, watching Revenge of the Sith presents a unique experience of being able to cackle at every hammy Palpatine moment and awful Anakin line and still somehow feel something in its final moments. Nostalgia probably has a lot to do with this, but I also believe it’s more than that, that there is something singular and elemental to Star Wars that manages to transcend its many, many shortcomings. Maybe it’s the realisation of a new modern myth, maybe it’s that those well-worn themes of good vs evil and overcoming our own darkness will never not be powerful, but whatever the case I have always seen Star Wars as something special.
Or at least, I have until recently.
The current blockbuster landscape is a fascinating one and will make for some very interesting film theory books in about two decades. A few years ago I remember saying that we were living through the ‘age of the geek’, with so many beloved yet previously somewhat derided properties getting big budget, popular reboots, more often than not infused with a winking sense of nostalgia designed to appeal to the inner child of all of us. Around the point of 2012, when a new Star Wars trilogy had been announced, The Hobbit was on the horizon, Game of Thrones had seized the cultural landscape like nothing else and the Avengers had revolutionised what a film franchise could do it was hard not to feel like a kid in an ever-growing candy store. If you could even vaguely be considered a geek or a pop culture enthusiast chances were there was something for you either in cinemas, on TV, or not far away.
Fast forward to the present day and just about every classic franchise has been resurrected in some way. Old horror properties litter the TV landscape, superhero films dominate cinema and we get a Star Wars movie every year. Dream come true, right?
A couple of nights ago I got home to a text that the first trailer had been released for The Last Jedi. Now back in 2014 when we knew a trailer for The Force Awakens was imminent I could barely sleep for excitement. I watched that trailer countless times on its first day, and I teared up in subsequent trailers (“Chewie, we’re home”). Even the Rogue One trailers got me pumped. And when I learned a glimpse of The Last Jedi was here my first thought was “oh yeah, cool I guess.” I didn’t even watch it immediately. When I did, I sort of nodded to myself and went straight to bed. Didn’t even remember I’d seen it until halfway through the next day. Its existence and the experience of watching it had next to no effect on me.
Then today I watched the trailer for the final season of Star Wars: Rebels, which was packed to the brim with epic moments and explosions and alluded tragedy and again, I felt nothing. Then finally it occurred to me; I don’t care about Star Wars anymore.
Back in the days of the prequels, Star Wars was special. The films came out in 1999, 2002, and 2005. Three years between each film, three years to speculate, get excited and crucially, to miss it. Star Wars was an event and part of what made it special was the promise that Revenge of the Sith would be the end, the final realisation of the vision Lucas had been sculpting since 1977. Of course retrospectively it seems somewhat naive to have ever thought a billion dollar franchise on this level would ever be put to rest for the sake of something as unimportant as artistic integrity, but at the time people believed it. It was a six part story that, once concluded, was to be put to bed.
Part of the reason the Force Awakens release was met with such fervour is that there was a genuine belief that we would never get an episode seven and the existence of one was basically a kind of geek holy grail. And sure, Force Awakens was well made and had decent characters and whatnot, but there was a sense to it that we had seen all of this before. Quite literally, considering how much it dedicated itself to emulating A New Hope. Then Rogue One, ostensibly the first real attempt for Star Wars to do something different, turned out to be little more than a basket of easter eggs positioned around thinly written characters and a dull story. And Star Wars: Rebels has its moments, but tellingly it’s only really worth watching to see a cameo from a certain favourite or a payoff to something seeded in the far superior Clone Wars.
Because here’s the secret; nostalgia is an empty emotion. It literally means yearning for something that no longer exists, in most cases our childhood. And sure, it has power, and being reminded of something that meant a huge amount to you as a child is difficult to turn your nose up at, but it can’t last. If you take away the nostalgia factor in Disney’s take on Star Wars, what are you left with? The storytelling is hardly exciting or revolutionary, the characters are okay at best and sure the films might be colourful or entertaining, but the same can be said of Marvel and with them churning out three essentially indistinguishable blockbusters a year isn’t everyone getting a little sick of it all?
The fact is, when you’re pumping out franchise films or television seasons at a rate of one a year or more, you don’t have time to miss that world or that feeling, and sooner or later those instalments start to feel inessential. Add to that a growing sense that nostalgia is the primary currency the franchise is trading in, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I miss George Lucas. Say what you will about his vision, but at least he had one. It’s easy to claim that he only cared about money or merchandise, but he also waited nineteen years to tell the rest of the story he wanted to tell, and even then only in chapters that came every three years. He didn’t have a different film scheduled every year.
The truth here is that Star Wars is no longer driven by any creative vision at all. It’s driven by the fact that everyone loves Star Wars and the products (because that’s what these new films undoubtedly are) are entirely built around reverse engineering the things people loved about the franchise at the expense of doing anything brave or new. And can I point out that Star Wars was originally successful because people hadn’t really seen anything like it before?
I’ll still watch The Last Jedi, of course, and probably whatever other films come. And I’m sure they’ll be competently made and full of crowd pleasing moments, because Disney will be extremely careful about protecting their four billion dollar investment. But I’ve officially checked out of the hype. I don’t really care anymore. Star Wars is now just another blockbuster franchise dedicated to giving people what we want at the expense of what we need; something new, exciting and thrilling, something that will ignite imaginations with possibilities the same way the original Star Wars films did. And hey, just because I feel that way doesn’t mean you will, but I am going to leave you with this question; what happens when that warm glow of nostalgia wears off?
Writing words about writing words.