You Could Make it Plainer

No, we’re not odd, its true
No fam’ly could be saner
Except one uncle who…well, maybe let that pass
In all you say or do
You couldn’t make it plainer
You are your mother’s daughter; therefore you are class

-Maurice in “No Matter What” from the Beauty and the Beast, the Broadway musical

I understand the impetus to write new songs for musicals based on animated films. Sometimes it’s necessary to expand the singing portion of the production. At other times it’s in order to solve an issue posed by the dramatic structure.

For this song, the creative conversation probably involved the desire to not only give Maurice a song, but to solidify his emotional connection with his daughter before they are separated. However, the song feels like it delays the plot rather than advances it. In addition, the film dialogue it replaces is remarkable for its casual tone. It’s a conversation that could have happened any day. Belle encourages her father by saying she’s always believed he’ll “become a world famous inventor” and Maurice expresses his love for his daughter telling her not to worry about not having someone else she can talk to because “this invention’s going to be the start of a new life for us.”

By making the characters literally profess their sanity, “No Matter What” has the effect of protesting too much. Exploring each other’s eccentricities isn’t the point of the scene, rather it is to present their unconditional love for one another. For this father and daughter to conjure the issue of social acceptance into song here seems unnecessary given the clarity and strength of their relationship which could be conveyed in a much better way as evidenced by the film. If this dynamic was in question, then perhaps the song would be more appropriate since the intended effect of song in a musical is to give voice to that which cannot be spoken. Instead, “No Matter What” draws attention to insecurities that are likely not so deeply rooted as to merit a melody.

Mostly, I just wanted to say that last line isn’t likely to catch on as an affirming adage for young women.

Dramaturgy is Like…

Of all the dramaturgy analogies listed in this post from students in Carnegie Mellon’s undergraduate dramaturgy program, this is my favorite.

Dramaturgy is like being that one scientist in the Godzilla movies who says “for god’s sake, don’t do that!” and then they do it and Godzilla destroys the city and everyone blames you anyway.

If you often find yourself asking of a given piece of creative work “why?” or more accurately “WHY?! Dear Lord, that is terrible! WHAT did you do? WHO allowed this to happen? HOW did they think this was okay?” you might just make a good dramaturg.

Speaking of Godzilla, you know what could have used a dramaturg? This 1998 gem.

Stars and Stories

This morning, the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA) announced the winners of the 18th Annual Thea Awards. Among the winners of the awards which recognize industry achievements in the creation of engaging places and guest experiences, Disney was, naturally, well represented.

Winning the Award for Outstanding Achievement-Attraction Refresh was Star Tours: The Adventures Continue which has been making daily flights from Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios to a handful of random destinations with a random assortment of characters since this past spring. Eleven variables across four different sections makes for a total of 54 possible visually stunning combinations. Side note: it’s really the best 3D experience I’ve ever had with an incredibly crisp display and non-intrusive or distracting dimensionality. Since the attraction opened on June 3rd of this year, I’ve been on the attraction over a dozen times and I have yet to experience the exact same combination as a previous journey.

You can see the full list of combinations numerous places online. This one  not only offers the complete list of potential itineraries but a spreadsheet on which one can mark completed trips. Technically, since the “rebel spy,” central to the attraction’s narrative is indicated by a Cast Member-selected image of one of the simulator’s riders, the combinations are truly endless.

Obviously, it’s a vast improvement over the original attraction which offered one trip all day every day with a degrading film reel. Like the other George Lucas-produced attraction in Disneyland, Indiana Jones Adventure, which possesses the potential for some 150,000+ combinations albeit on a more minute scale, Star Tours: The Adventures Continue will help drive the future development of attractions with branching narratives and customizable experiences.

The next evolutionary step in attraction development, in my view, will be active audience participation and recognition. Riders will be implicated within the context of the narrative to an unprecedented degree. This will be accomplished through hand-held implements on the ride vehicle, RFID enabled accessories with personalized information, and technology that will allow visitors’ every movement and sight lines to be tracked throughout the experience in order to trigger unique effects and story lines. A simple example of this would be to imagine instead of Indy telling the occupants of your ride vehicle to drive a certain way, he called the occupant of the driver’s seat by name. Or by turning the wheel one way, a rider or group of riders were able to determine a different track for their experience on the attraction. These possibilities are coming. Through refreshes of existing attractions like Star Tours and brand new experiences like those that will be developed for the future Avatar-themed land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida, “NextGen” technology is transforming themed entertainment and providing the basis for narratives that are yours and yours alone.

Star Tours is an admirable start and worthy of the Thea Award. While there have been no official plans announced to update the original Star Tours attractions at Tokyo Disneyland or Disneyland Paris, I can’t help but wonder when even more combinations will be added to Star Tours. The infrastructure is already there; why not let us visit Alderaan as appears in the destination posters upon the attraction’s exit? And when we do exit, why not have a couple of stormtroopers call out that “rebel spy” by name and escort him off into Tomorrowland? The story shouldn’t have to end when you unbuckle your seat belt.

Each of Disney’s winning projects and individuals will be honored as part of the Thea Awards gala March 17, 2012 at the Disneyland Hotel. I wonder what I’m doing that night…

UPDATE: A day after Star Tours: The Adventures Continue won a Themed Entertainment Association award, the Oriental Land Company, which operates Tokyo Disneyland, announced it would revamp the original attraction for a debut  in 2013.

Looking Forward

…to potentially sitting next to James Franco in a class at Columbia University as one of his classmates did the other day…although I think he graduates this year.

Yesterday afternoon, I was accepted to the MFA in Dramaturgy program in the Theatre Division at Columbia University! So many things to do and consider in preparation and there will be some big changes, but I expect most of those to be exciting ones.

SWTX PCA/ACA Conference

I am off to Albuquerque, NM to present a paper on fundamentalism and the loss of self in Firefly focusing on the character of Shepherd Book. Kj and I would be more than happy to share the paper with anybody who would like to read it, in fact we would appreciate any feedback. There’s always the thought that we will go to a journal to try and get it published. We’re really proud of it and looking forward to present on Thursday.

From Albuquerque, I will be flying to New York for an interview at Columbia University for the MFA in Dramaturgy program within the Theatre division. So, there is much to be excited about this week!

With all the preparation I’ve been doing for the trip, I haven’t had time to sit down and post my thoughts on the second episode of Dollhouse “The Target”, but I will be sure to do so as soon as I can. I want to watch it again to pick up things I may not have caught the first time. In short, I liked it even though it followed the structure of “The Most Dangerous Game” to a predictable degree. While I liked the back story depicted in this episode, I wanted to linger for a little while longer in the mystery of it all. I can’t say I wasn’t on the edge of my seat though and again, the episode made me anxious for more.

Taproot’s Tuesdays

Clocking in at 34 pages and about 16,000 words, my production packet for Taproot Theatre’s production of Tuesdays with Morrie is locked and sent off with loads of information to be devoured by actors and artistic staff.

The play is based on the autobiographical book by Mitch Albom and chronicles the relationship with Albom and his professor Morrie Shwartz who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease and the lessons about life that both learn in the process.

Rehearsals begin soon and the play, directed by Karen Lund, is set to go live for audiences March 27-April 25 with previews on March 25 & 26. Look for my display in the lobby!

Big River

Way back in my freshman year of college, I took an Acting 101 class as a kickstart to my double major of Theatre and English at Seattle Pacific University. The class was taught by the incredible Karen Lund. The first day of the class we went around the room in a circle telling everyone why we were in the class. When it came around to me, I stated that I was a) a Theatre major and it was obviously a requirement-that whole “acting” thing involved in Theatre and b) one of my career aims was to become a professional dramaturg. Karen replied to my admission: “Oh good! I’ll hook you up!” with a glint in her eye. My interests have evolved slightly with time, but role of the dramaturg is an important one, whether for theatre or film and I hope that in the future my talents in this field can be broadened and used in a full-time capacity, whether in film or television.

About a year and a half later I took Karen up on her offer and emailed her asking what she might have in mind and firstly, if she remembered me. She absolutely did and after an interview with one of her associates I was hired to do research, create actor’s packets, write dramaturg notes, make the lobby display as a contracted dramaturg for Taproot Theatre Company just north of downtown Seattle.

This Spring marks my third season with Taproot Theatre as dramaturg for hire. Our upcoming production of the musical, Big River based on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, is the fourth production I have been intimately involved with there. I’ve worked previously on It’s a Wonderful Life, Seven Keys to Baldpate and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Karen is an amazing director to work for. She is constantly surprising me with her various exploits in theatre as well as the television world. She is on a first name basis with James Burrows and has thus guest directed several episodes of Will & Grace. She has worked on several new pilots including one with Nathan Fillion, who played the evil priest, Caleb, in the seventh season of Buffy as well as our favorite captain of a Firefly-class starship in the show of the same name. Last time I saw Karen she pulled out her phone to show me a picture of she and Nathan hugging on the set of that particular show-looking like they were ol’ buds. Taproot Theatre itself also has another association with Buffy in that Dean Batali, a story editor and writer on the first couple seasons of Buffy worked quite a while at Taproot before-from what I can tell-leaving for the default, “creative differences.” I’m still investigating that one.

I recently submitted the following article to be published as the “Dramaturg Notes” in the Big River program in a few weeks.

Big River: A Boy’s Story

Audiences became introduced to the dynamic duo of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn with the publication of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876. Huckleberry Finn lived on in its follow-up novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn published nearly a decade later in 1885. The latter story tells of a young boy and his river and the adventures that ensue with their union. While Twain may have set out either to subvert the conventional children’s stories of the time or simply to carry a character through his formative years, Twain’s novels have become essential to modern American literature. His novels have also sparked tremendous controversy within academic and social spheres for Twain’s treatment of race, rebellion and the language of his time especially in the two aforementioned novels about boys in the south. Of Tom Sawyer, Twain is said to have felt strongly that it was “not a boy’s book.” It was a publisher who convinced him “to treat it explicitly as a boy’s story,” and sell it on that basis.

In my research of the books’ contexts and the controversy that often surrounds them, I came to see these statements as demonstrating a very important distinction between the “boy’s book” and a “boy’s story.” Why should we assume that just because a story features a young boy on some “coming of age” journey that it is intended for youth? A similar case arises when the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm are considered. We are used to these fairy tales being marketed toward a younger audience, developed in children’s picture books and Walt Disney movies. Upon reading the original texts, one is quick to realize how very dark and gruesome these stories are—many which would garner an ‘R’ rating at the cinema.

While neither Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer nor Huckleberry Finn, which serves as the inspiration for Big River, possess such a degree of grisliness, commentary and public opinion have exposed the harder side of the story including its difficult lessons on moral and social responsibilities.

I know I am not alone in my expression of prudence over the portrait of boyhood and human experience as represented within the pages and in the character of Huckleberry Finn. In the essay, “Mark Twain as Orator,” from a journal published on July 10th 1910, Charles Vale writes:

A caricaturist represented Mark Twain’s fellow-passengers on the “Minneapolis” as all engaged in studying his various works, and assigned Huckleberry Finn to a small boy. That was an egregious mistake. Boys love it, no doubt: but it needs ripe experience to appreciate its irony, its humanity, and the subtler phases of its humor.

Perhaps the only character as well known as Huck is the river itself. The Mississippi River twists and winds its way across the landscape of Huck’s youth as he floats along. At times the river is wild, other times tranquil, but all the while the river is free flowing like the life Huck longs to live.

Huck and the River itself together paint a rich portrait of a lifestyle far removed from many modern readers, but that very pair also serves to take its readers on an enthralling, meaningful journey of growing up, through the grime of human experience, the joys of boyhood and the kind of humor only Mark Twain could bring. “Life teaches its lessons by implication,” Twain said, “not by didactic preaching; and literature is at its best when it is an imitation of life and not an excuse for instruction.”

My hope is that you, the audience—as has been the desire of the cast and crew—may come to understand Big River in a historical context even through such a lively and colorful medium as a musical. Enjoy this show, as we imitate life on our stage.