Well, as of a little over a week ago, the script is pretty much done. As expected, I didn’t have time to update on my process while knee-deep in that very process.
When I last updated, we’d decided to destroy the world – to eliminate all of the adults through some mysterious rapture. Okay. Cool. So we started with a situation as a concept.
And, uh, that was a choice. I documented here.
Theatre is made up of time. It is our most precious commodity. You can make brilliant theatre with no money and lots of time. (The inverse doesn’t exist, except sometimes SNL.)
The challenge, I learned, with starting from a world is that gobs of the time goes to discussing the rules of this world.
Instead of building character or story, my actors debated whether or not there would be electricity. There was a general disbelief at the level of havoc our nuclear facilities would have on the environment in the post-apocalyptic scenario, because Fukushima happened when my oldest collaborator was nine.
This didn’t mean that the process was unsuccessful. It meant that I often felt frustrated, and that this frustration was my own fault. It also meant that I was more of a source for the story than I normally am. A third of the play takes place in a communitarian compound before the main crew is expelled – these story choices, which would normally emerge from a devising process, I had to invent.
This gave me an insight: Devising by adapting a specific property works because it’s something that gets the entire team on the same page in an efficient way. This is true even when we’re adapting a technical element like a set design or genre or even just a picture that a student brings to class (and not a text like The Jungle Book). Research-based work is challenging because everyone needs to have done the same research. Because I came into class with the sandbox defined, I spent my time sharing about what the sandbox meant to me.
Now, I should mention that we have about 60-70% of the rehearsal hours that my favorite HS-aged company has, and 3 hours per week generating material is not the same as doing two or three or more 3-hour sessions with a group of collaborators. In a perfect world, I’d have more time.
I do think that work created collaboratively can often become about or reflective of the collaboration itself metatextually. (And this isn’t a bad thing: one reason there’s a push for diverse voices of playwrights in American theatre is the accurate presumption that there is something autobiographical in the work that lends authenticity.) In the case of the Apocalypse Project, the first third of the play takes place on a communitarian compound, which is chaotic and loud, and intentionally has the characters discussing lots of subjects simultaneously. And this is what my classroom-theatre feels like.
To build a lot of this, I would give them a prompt, ask them to come to a circle, and ‘popcorn’ out something like, “Rumors you’ve heard about something that’s happening in the country.”
The caveat for this specific activity is that each rumor is independent of the others, so that if someone suggests something that does not fit with the reality we were building, it would evaporate. Someone could say something like, “California fell into the ocean” without it shaping the discussion, so that someone else could say, “There’s no water in LA. They call it The Boneyard.”
One activity that was fruitful had the students writing a character name and then something about them on an index card. “Mr. Avers, a cartographer.” And then we’d draw from this stack and they would improvise a dramatic monologue or scene.
Often I had specific prompts for improvised scenes. Sometimes these prompts directly pointed at the play (“Scrapper does something to get kicked out of the compound”) while others were exploring the concept through something next to the play (“Show me the world’s worst president.”)
I should mention that we always establish early on that anything we create belongs to the room. I try to have multiple students inhabit different characters throughout the process. While occasionally it becomes obvious that one actor MUST play a specific character, the shared creation of character prevents hurt feelings when it comes to casting.
In my entire career at Skybridge, I have never had problems with casting, knock wood. That said, this time around I realized that I needed to cast the play before finishing the text. I needed their voices in my head. I needed to know who was comfortable with what.
I had an hour to cast. I pulled monologues from the play for each character, printed a packet for each, and gave it to them in advance. I gave them a cover sheet that asked them their comfort for a variety of actions onstage, including killing, dying, and, of course, kissing and falling in love.
The kissing/love questions had the biggest impact on the play. I was surprised that, with one exception, they were as uncomfortable falling in love onstage as they were with a stage kiss. Based on the auditions, I had to overhaul the action to align with who was comfortable with what.
And Then What
I took a day off of work, rented a motel room, and gave myself a writer’s retreat to finish the play. I’ve never done this before. It was both glorious and hellish.
I had a workshop lined up for when I got back. I had a couple days for tweaking and revisions before printing.
We’ll continue to revise in rehearsal.
A Couple More Notes
- I have a heavy hand in my plays because I want a unifying vision. If you are looking for ways of replicating elements of my process, I would recommend creating work that has more of a mosaic final product. The amount of emotional toil that went into Deleted Scenes, Twelve Huntsmen, and even Two Truths and Lies was less than this or Icarus because the moments in the plays were created largely independent of each other until I connected all the dots.
- Theatre is art in time, and with this kind of intense process, it’s REALLY important to know how much time something is taking. It is also practical: I don’t want to leave an actor backstage for 45 minutes or f**k up rehearsals and spend ten minutes on something trifling without realizing it.
- A page of dialogue with a ‘standard’ format is about a minute of stage time
- A better gauge is word count. We clock in at about six minutes for 1000 words.
- I know that I’ll have a higher word count for moments where there’s simultaneous dialogue, which is part of my style.
- I know that there will be a lower word count / page count for more action/stage direction, and I try to account for this in my formatting.
- My philosophy is to make a play where not every actor has the same line load, but every actor has something interesting to do. The fewer lines you have, the more interesting they need to be. In Romeo & Juliet, the Prince has the fewest number of lines, and you best bet they’re some of my favorites. One ‘the crew’ leaves the compound in the Apocalypse Project, the other actors become sundry strangers others meet along the way.
- The Apocalypse Project feels less finished than my other work, but I like the heart-space it occupies. It took me about three additional days to understand what I was doing with the ending, and now that I know, it’s what I want to say.