Sequels are rare in theatre, and for good reason. In film, it’s not uncommon for a first instalment that didn’t do well to get a follow up because people discovered it later via home media. In theatre, unless you’re a big fan of grainy recordings with bad sound, that option isn’t really there. Short of your play being a genuinely massive hit, there’s probably not much point doing a part two.
I learned this with the Babylon Trilogy – an ambitious but very flawed early project from the fledgling Bitten By Productions. Over 2014 and 2015 we produced three sequential plays; Below Babylon, Beyond Babylon and The Last Supper, all crime stories set in a post-apocalyptic future exploring the gradual collapse of an empire from the inside, utilising recurring characters and rippling consequences across the three plays. I was aware at the time that we couldn’t expect any audience members to have seen the preceding instalments and ergo each play had to be both a standalone and a single chapter in a grander story. My fix was to include lengthy recapping monologues in the second and third plays that bogged both down with exposition.
The sweet spot to theatre sequels is to aim for works that complement but aren’t beholden to each other. Think Martin McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy; three separate stories set in the same town packed with subtle references and set-ups but never relying on the audience having seen the other shows. Together they create a melancholy portrait of a decaying town where desperation and resentment curdles into violence. Separately, each play is a funny, sad, shocking gothic drama in its own right.
I was trying to achieve something similar with Babylon (at the time McDonagh was unquestionably my idol) but every play was directly informed by the one beforehand and I struggled to get around this in an elegant way. The Babylon Trilogy was a massive learning curve, but I’m the first to admit it was too big too early.
As of last week, I’ve tried again. Of all the scripts I could write a sequel to, The Lucas Conundrum (now available from Australian Plays) isn’t an obvious one. Produced in 2016, it was neither a massive hit (critically or commercially) or based on a known quantity that might justify a return to the well. It was a vicious, foul mouthed satire of blockbuster filmmaking written as a way to essentially comment on the state of Star Wars. It wasn’t my best work and would have been largely forgotten even by me if the cast and crew hadn’t done such an exemplary job bringing it to life.
It’s rare that I see a production of one of my scripts and am genuinely surprised. Conundrum was one of those cases. Ashley Tardy and her cast of four – Greg Caine, Alicia Beckhurst, Chris Grant and Angelique Malcolm – took a mean and immature text and imbued it with layers of pathos, warmth and heart that utterly elevated the material. To this day, both my parents still say it’s their favourite of all my shows. Most people who bring it up do so with a smile and a fond chuckle. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it was well liked and that was entirely down to the team who brought it to life. Thanks to them, it staked an unexpected claim in my heart.
Over the few years since that show, the blockbuster landscape has become more embattled and to me, more interesting. We’ve seen so many classic franchises brought back; sometimes with fanfare, sometimes with a shrug, and sometimes to be met with incandescent outrage from ‘fans’ who insist that the thing they love has been damaged beyond repair. The era of toxic fandoms and nostalgia fuelled reboots seemed ripe for a theatrical exploration, and the world and characters established in The Lucas Conundrum felt appropriate to provide the basis for the work. The idea started to percolate. Then, upon realising at the start of last week that I’d met all my deadlines and had a rare stretch of actual days off, I thought I might give it a go. I started writing on Tuesday. I finished Thursday afternoon. And I ended up with something I was really happy with.
The premise, essentially, is an imagined conversation between George Lucas and J.J. Abrams in a dive bar. What would they say to each other? Would the Lucas analogue have any respect for the man who took over his story? Would there be resentment that Abrams’ film was, at least initially, far better received than Lucas’ prequels? How would the Abrams analogue respond to the withering contempt of the man he once idolised? Then what happens if Rian Johnson joins the party?
Obviously the play is not about those real directors or, technically, Star Wars. To tell a story that I can’t get sued for I used Robert Stone, the vainglorious but deeply insecure protagonist of The Lucas Conundrum and his fake franchise to play out this little ‘what if’. Like Conundrum, it centres on a somewhat philosophical debate about artistic integrity and legacy, all building to a twist that pivots the story and leads to a chaotic (and hopefully funny) finale.
It’s very much its own story, with only one vague reference to the events of Conundrum. That said, for all that it stands alone I think it does further the themes of Conundrum and Robert’s journey, leaving him in a place that, to me, feels like the logical conclusion to an arc that began in the previous play. If you watched both back to back you’d get more out of them than if you watched them in isolation, but I don’t think Betrayal would suffer from a lack of familiarity with Conundrum. Realistically, it can’t. For it to work as a play that can find its own audience, its status as a sequel has to be incidental at most.
Writing it was a lot of fun. It struck me as I neared the end that it’s actually the first play I’ve written all year; things having escalated pretty drastically in 2019 means that I’ve had less time to write something just because I wanted to. And that, I think, is my favourite thing about Betrayal. It gave me the energising chance to write something purely for the fun of it.
I don’t entirely know what I’ll do with it yet. It’s a niche story and Bitten By’s slate for next year looks pretty busy already. My feeling is that it might be best suited to be developed and produced exclusively as a radio play, something that could be done fairly quickly and neither disrupt our planned shows for 2020 or force The Lucas Betrayal to wait for a time when its topics might lack the relevance they do now.
Whatever happens, I’m so glad I wrote it and I hope it will come to life one way or another.
Writing words about writing words.