WAR IS COMING! - Geeking Out About Lifting Each Other Up

This is part two of a series on my return to the theater following a twelve-year absence. Part one is here.

The first and most important thing I realized when I walked into the tech rehearsal for An Evening of Steampunk and Robot Theater was that we, the director and actors of Pancakes, were not alone in our struggles to produce a stage-ready show. All around me were directors who’d had to recast parts, actors who’d had to take on more than they had bargained for, and crew working their asses off to be the glue that held this collection of shows together. Everyone was having a rough time of it. And you hate to say that something like that makes you feel better, but it does. Solidarity, baby!

I think that, pretty quickly, our nine separate casts became one unified company of actors, and that really made all of the difference in the world. Not only were castmates learning to lift each other up on stage when something went wrong, but each member of the company was learning to be the shoulder to cry on backstage, the person to run lines with, the cheerleader to convince a cast that had been struggling that this was the time they were going to nail it.

Nowhere was this “we’re in this together” attitude more prevalent—and more crucial—than in the development of the play I wrote for the show, War is Coming.

If my experience casting Pancakes had been a struggle, what had happened with War is Coming prior to tech week had been an outright debacle. Not only had there been issues with the actors, but there had been a problem with the director as well. When we arrived on tech night, there was nothing to work with except the briliant prophetic robot that Sean O’Connell had created specifically for the show.

We had to think fast. Losing the show wasn’t an option. There was the running time to consider, of course, but there was also Sean’s robot—it would have been an absolutely heinous crime not to see that thing make its stage debut. But there also wasn’t any time for actors to learn lines, so that had to be considered. John Herman, who I believe had always been interested in staging at least one show in this manner, suggested we run it as a 1930s radio drama.

I’ll admit I was a bit hesitant at first. But the rest of the company was into it, so much so that nearly every actor who could physically be on stage at that point in the show ended up volunteering to be in it. So, I started warming up to the idea. This wasn’t what I’d intended when I wrote it, but it was the best choice we had.

By the time we ran it during dress rehearsal though, I was convinced it wasn’t going to work. The whole thing felt weird, impossibly awkward. People were laughing! They weren’t supposed to be laughing! But the people out in the crowd dug it, and so did the cast. And I’d begun to trust these folks. Why would they steer me wrong?

I made some changes to the script the next day in order to get it to sound more like a radio play than a staged reading. Most of the stage directions went into the trash, and a new intro was written after cramming some 1930s radio drama homework in (I listened to a couple of archived Orson Welles broadcasts, plus a 1950s horror-themed show). And after that, I began to feel a little bit better about things.

The moment I was sure we’d made the right move, however, didn’t come until later that night. It came when the crowd laughed at the joke advertisement I placed at the top of the play. I had finally embraced the humorous side of the show, the side that everyone else found way before me, and it worked.

See, I think what had bothered me at first about people laughing at the show, was not that people were laughing, but that it had become my job to figure out what the play was on stage at all. One of the things I’d been looking forward to most in this process was seeing how another director would interpret my work—previously, I’d directed all of my own scripts. That I had to find out the script was funny then and adjust it and figure it out, rather than just learning all of that as part of the audience—that was where the hurt came from. Once I got over that, it was smooth sailing.

As I said when I wrote about The Steampunk and Robot Anthology that was released to coincide with this stage production, I had been longing to get back to the more collaborative art form of theater after a long sequestration in the lonely hermit’s life of the author. But even when I imagined what life as part of a group of creators would be like, never did I imagine the feeling of family that would develop between me and the people I worked with. For me, the development of War is Coming was one of the truly special weeks of my life. It would have been so easy to toss my play aside and write it off as a casualty of the war that is a theater production cycle. But the people I was surrounded with didn’t let that happen, and I can’t ever thank them enough.

I still have some more to talk about, but let’s take a break for a while, huh? I don’t want to tire you out on this story. Next week, we’ll run a different feature. But, eventually, we’ll be back with more steampunk memoirs.

To be continued…