Making The Lord of the Thingies

A week ago was the last performance of The Lord of the Thingies, the Christmas panto that took up a significant amount of our time these last few months. There’s a lot to tell, and I’m still too tired from having a sudden and terrible toothache at 6 a.m. to be particularly coherent about it; so I’m going to write several posts, all of them probably extremely confusing and repetitive.

The project began a long, long time ago. We started writing in October 2005, but the actual beginning of the panto lies even further back. The idea first fell while we were writing Star Warts, the previous Christmas panto that we did, sometime in 2004. In theory that show was written by myself and Mr. Morden Michael, Verena’s then-fiancé, but the reality of it is that Verena wrote at least half the show, and more than half of the good jokes, but never got credited. (I suggested in might be an idea, but was overruled. I didn’t have much authority as a director – this is a problem we’ll come back to later.)

By the way: I’m not going into these personal details because I want to spill my personal life all over you. I do indeed enjoy occasionally peppering my posts with remarks about my life, but this isn’t a celebrity memoir; the reason I mention this stuff in this particular post is to illustrate the difficulties of doing amateur theatre, with an eye to maybe helping a few people involved in doing this kind of thing. Besides, some of these points may also apply to other forms of collaborative art.

Star Warts was a success as a show, and introduced some pretty cool ideas that hadn’t been done that way before by Chaincourt (our theatre company). It was a non-traditional panto in the sense that it wasn’t about a fairy tale or any of the usual topics: instead, it was about Star Wars. It featured mostly parodies of modern songs, which the audiences loved – and I think it was also pretty good in terms of what it did with the plot, and how the scenes were built to utilize the entire stage. I know a lot of people who loved it.

Still, it could’ve been better. A lot better. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, the writing. Most of it was done by three people sitting around a laptop: Michael, myself and Verena. What makes a big difference is who was sitting at the laptop, in this case Mr. Morden I mean, Michael. To put it bluntly: Verena and I are writers. Michael is not. Ideas would be thrown around, possible lines would be suggested – and then they would immediately be typed up and we’d move along. I would always be unhappy about this and try to work on the lines a little longer – because when you’re writing comedy, even the tiniest difference in the phrasing can make a huge difference.

To take an example from The Lord of the Thingies: in Moria, Footolas (our extremely dumb version of Legolas) stumbles over a book. The original lines go like this:

(Ara = Aragorn, Gand = Gandalf, Boro = Borrowmir, Foot = Footolas, Gam = Gamly)

Ara: Gandalf. Light, if you would be so good.
Gand: Sorry dude, batteries must have run out.
Boro: Oh, great. Let’s just head for the exit. It wasn’t that far.
Foot: Just follow me, my superior Elven instincts will see you safely out of here.
(Sounds of shuffling and stumbling in the dark)
Foot: Argh!
Gam: I wonder were his superior Elven instincts have led him now?
(Lights go on again, Footolas is tangled around a big book)
Gand: Right on, it was just a short-circuit.
Ara: What have you… found?
Foot: A book.
Gam: Really? Wonders never cease. We can see that it’s a book!
Ara: What does it say?
Foot: Can’t say. It appears to be dwarfish.
Gam: Let me have a look, laddy. Hmm… the writing seems to be somewhat slurred.
Gand: Can you read it, dwarf-dude?

This is a fairly funny scene, especially when played out on stage, and the audience loved it. But there was one detail which was greatly improved during rehearsals. One day Johannes, who played Footolas, when saying “A book.” accidentally swallowed the “A” and ended up saying “Book!” We couldn’t stop laughing for about five minutes – Footolas is notorious for constantly pointing out the bleeding obvious, and this just made the character’s light-hearted stupidity even better. So we told Johannes to keep it, and the audiences responded really well. It was hard for the actors not to corpse.

And all of that just because of a single word. Just because we took out the “A” a good joke turned into a fantastic one. (If you disagree, I don’t care. The audience loved it and I’m happy. *g*) This is something that happened during the rehearsals and not during the writing, so maybe the example is bad; but that kind of optimization happens all the time during the writing process. This is extremely important. And on Star Warts, it didn’t happen enough. There were so many lines which were amusing, but which could’ve been hilarious if more work had been put into them. When Verena and I work together, that happens constantly – one of us comes up with a line, the other improves it, then we add another idea, and we end up with something great. The best lines in Star Warts came from precisely that kind of cooperation between Verena and me. Unfortunately, there was interference (and bad spelling) from her fiancé. Am I being nasty? No, not really. Blunt, yes. Nasty, no. If I really let all the stuff out that I’ve got in my head, it would instantaneously destroy the entire internet.

The lesson in all this? Except that relationships are difficult and the past is an ugly country that needs to be burned down, hacked to bits and fed through a meat grinder so that I don’t have to think about it? (As Hartley famously did not say.) Working with people is not easy. That may seem like stating the obvious, but it is something that you should keep in mind if you’re going to work in amateur theatre. Not everyone is talented at the same kind of thing; unfortunately, however, some people think they are. And it’s really difficult to tell them otherwise; after all, they’re not getting paid for this. And you may have to work with people you don’t like, or people you’re not comfortable around. This can make things considerably more difficult than you had anticipated.

Writing is a skill that is difficult to understand for a lot of people. When we were doing The Lord of the Thingies, we got oodles of complaints. Some of them came from the usual backstabbing bullshit any large group will eventually be infected with: people just don’t like you, because you have the wrong hair, or the wrong name, or the wrong girl/boyfriend, or the wrong sense of humour – and then they try to undermine everything you do. But other people complained because they honestly believed the lines weren’t funny, or didn’t work. When they saw that the audiences loved the play more than just about any other we’ve ever done, a lot of them changed their minds. But that was on opening night. Before that, we had weeks and weeks of people dragging down morale by saying that the jokes didn’t work.

That doesn’t mean those people were idiots. Some of them are basically quite nice. (Most of the real idiots threw stones from afar.) But they’re not writers, and they don’t understand how writing works. This is a particularly acute problem when it comes to writing for the stage, where some things only work in the presence of an audience. We could see that it would be funny, because we knew how it worked. They didn’t – not until the audience started laughing their butts off.

All of this would’ve been considerably easier if there weren’t so many people being professionally grouchy about this show because a) it wasn’t traditional enough b) it was a student production, and some people have a problem with that because they don’t want students to have any success, even though they are students themselves. Weird, but true.

This kind of ridiculous and childish infighting isn’t unique to Chaincourt. If you want to direct an amateur show, you have to be prepared to deal with it, or it’ll kill you. It may not be as bad for you as it was for us, Chaincourt currently being in one of its death/rebirth moments (the group has existed for about 40 years, but my theory is that it goes through cycles of being brilliant and being shitty), but it is something you need to be aware of.

In our case, directing the show wasn’t a problem. We knew what we wanted. The real problem was getting through all the whining and self-important complaining. In the end we were proven right – but the process of getting there nearly killed us. I kid you not. It was an incredible amount of effort, and having to fight so many people made it all much more difficult. I had already decided this would be my final show with Chaincourt, but what we went through was a pretty good confirmation. I don’t regret having put all the work into Chaincourt that I did; but professional conditions would be so much better.

Let’s not be unfair: there were more than a few people in this production who were utterly professional. Henning (our Gollum), Matthias (our Frodo) and Fabian (our wonderful lights technician) are three good examples of people who were utterly perfect to work with. I enjoyed working with them immensely. That’s the kind of people you need. People who can follow directions and can also suggest their own ideas, but aren’t disappointed when you say no. Their input improved the show greatly, and simultaneously they never bitched when we rejected one of their suggestions.

Speaking of Fabian, a short digression. There’s a scene, typical panto stuff really, where Gandalf (or rather Randy Gandy) comes in and tells the audience about the ring. Only he can’t remember the word “ring” and tries to describe it: small, round, you can put them on your finger… the idea, obviously, is for someone in the audience to shout “a ring!” During rehearsals, we would shout in the most absurd stuff and see how Gandy reacted. (I always suggested “churches.”) During one rehearsal the following exchange occured:

Gand: You know, they’re small and round, with a hole in the middle…
Fabian: Donut!
Gand: No, not a donut, it was shiny…
Fabian: Shiny donut!

That still brings a lunatic grin to my face. Yes, I do have an absurd sense of humour…

Anyway, back to the story. We started writing The Lord of the Thingies in October 2005. Verena and I did most of the writing, but we were joined in the process by a friend of ours called Sebastian. It was all a little strange – originally we just invited him to suggest a few ideas, not to become a co-writer/co-director, but somehow he decided he wanted to do that and we didn’t say no. (Touching very uncomfortable subjects here, but at least some semblance of the truth is required if anyone’s gonna learn something from our experiences. I’m not saying he meant to do this – but that’s kind of how it happened. Clarity in communcation is extremely important, and we weren’t clear enough about these things.) Adding Sebastian to the group wasn’t a disaster, and he did contribute many funny lines and ideas – but it also caused a number of problems. Verena and I had a very clear idea of what the panto should be like, and Sebastian’s vision (and approach to the work) was quite different from ours. This caused some conflicts and made the entire process much more stressful, especially since we felt that the panto was our baby and didn’t take well to suggestions involving changing things which we’d decided upon months or even years ago. If you do a play with your friends, I think it’s important to be very clear about who does what, or you’ll end up wanting to kill each other. Directing requires vision, and that vision needs to be clear.

Speaking of that kind of conflict – a couple of days before the first show, there was a huge fight during a rehearsal, with people saying the show didn’t work and demanding that scenes be cut. It was extremely frustrating for me and Verena, because we knew it would work when an audience was there, and Sebastian was far too willing to compromise – in the end, I stormed out of the rehearsal room and went home to write a scathing email to our Yahoogroup.

And you know what? It helped. I thought people would get angry. They didn’t. Instead, they suddenly started truly committing to the show. The next day, for the very first time during the production, we had a real team spirit going. People were putting effort into the thing, working together, solving problems. Apparently what they had all needed was a thorough kick in the butt. I was surprised, but happy.

The Lord of the Thingies had the biggest audiences of any Chaincourt show in the past few years. The people who came loved it. Even a lot of the naysayers did. People who usually just get dragged to pantos by their significant others and hate it told us that they really enjoyed this show. People who have seen every panto ever done by Chaincourt said this was the best one. In fact, a lot of people said that.

We did it.

I’m not saying this to show off, though I am proud of the show. I’m saying it because it demonstrates the importance of sticking to your vision and working your butt off for it, even if other people tell you it sucks or it can’t be done. Doing something new and ambitious can be done. It is important to remember that, especially when you’re working on this kind of show – because with so much working against you, every little bit of confidence and hope is a great help.