Heroes Must Die: The Workshop
Last time I spoke about how to get a show produced, the long process of building up your skills and credibility, necessary because you lack the wealthy and connected parentage to make it happen, or maybe you already used up your wishes from a genie who caused a cruelly ironic backfire. This time I want to talk about the specifics of how we workshopped the show in preparation for its actual debut next year. In this case I use workshop generically; there was no official workshop it was accepted to (though those do exist). I just leaned on my friends and connections to stage a test scene in front of an audience to see what worked and what didn't, learn where the successes and problems would be, and otherwise get a head start on this project.
My work has a track record of being ambitious, which is industry speak for fucking insane. Large casts, audience interactions, special effects, multiple fight scenes, and any form of experimentation that will surprise audiences and ruin actors are my bread and butter. This show had four levels of insanity to it:
• Decisions made by players of the game will change how the show flows
• Decisions made by the audience at the show will also change how the show flows
• Said decisions will be made by game-like puzzles involving the audience pushing buttons as if they were playing the game
• The video game world will be brought to life through kuroko, the black-clad stagehands that came out of Japanese puppet theater. You may have seen them in goofy internet videos (also Japanese).
Point 1 was impossible to test as the game wasn't ready. Point 2 I wasn't worried about because I had already executed successfully in the choose-your-own-adventure show I co-wrote and produced. Points 3 and 4 were new territory and absolutely needed to be tested, to see how they’d work with the audience and how much work would need to happen in pre-production and rehearsals.
I needed a fairly serious team even for doing just a single scene. I needed actors, of course, ideally ones who could fight. I needed my stagehands (ninja, I called them), ideally those familiar with puppetry or movement. I needed a director willing to take on the challenge, and I needed puppetmakers and propmasters to build all the special effects. Uh, also, I had to write the scene.
I hit up my friends, former collaborators, and others that I knew to start and set up a read-through. I also invited puppeteers to attend so they could hear it and we could talk through what I had in mind. The read through was a success. The show was funny and had good pacing. The actors were excellent, and four out of five reading ended up being in the final production. I also tapped one of the actors, one of my superfriends who I try to cast in everything because she can act, sing, and most importantly (and how we met) fight, to do costumes.
I had a good chat with the puppeteers. They seemed to think everything was possible. A 12 foot tall skeleton monster? Doable. Platforming scenes? No problem. Cutting someone in half with fountains of blood? Sure, we’ll find a way. I begged a puppeteer who had helped with my musical, a set designer whose work I had scene elsewhere, and a few friends who expressed interest from an open call. I also ended up recruiting my neighbor, who had no theatrical experience and no formal art training, but was a goddamn wizard with his hands. He had casually mentioned some things he had made over beer sometime, and I asked if he’d be interested here, and he ended up producing about half the props for the show (while also being a dad of five. Busy man).
Writing a Scene, Finding a Space
While I wanted to write something similar to what would be in the final show, I really had two main tasks – made it doable in our short timeframe, and include a sampling of the craziness we’d need to accomplish. So while I worked to have good story structure, characters you can identify with in the short time we have with them, and lots of jokes and action, the focus was on working in examples of everything we needed – audience aided fight scenes, working monster puppets, video game UI elements, and lots of blood.
Finding a space to perform was crucial. The theater I had my musical at volunteered their space. It was a bit small for our needs but I was very appreciative of the offer. We did our best to fit into the schedule they had, and found a performance venue at the Cabaret, a variety show produced monthly by a friend of mine and one of the talents there. She put us at the end to get our own special slot. Built in audience for us, highly marketable coolness for them, win-win.
Problems, Problems, Problems
With a six week timeframe to make all the props, rehearse the scenes, and actually run it, things were already looking tough. And then the problems – i.e. life, reality, how things always go – set in.
First, I lost my director. That was a huge blow. I not only admired his work and was sad to lose him, but this was nearly halfway through the production schedule, so we lost two weeks. While unavoidable personal things came into play, I did remind myself to get 100% committed schedules from everyone up front in the future. This happened elsewhere, too – some puppeteers found themselves with less time than they thought, stagehands had to back out, etc. While everyone was either up front about limited availability or ran into surprise issues, it was still very difficult. I and others involved called in a few favors from trusted friends, and I was truly amazed by the amount of talent that stepped up with less than a month left.
The theater space also proved to be an issue. Were constantly kicked around the schedule and fought with half a dozen other productions to find space to rehearse. This is fairly normal in the theater world, especially when you are fortunate enough not to have to pay for space, but it didn’t make life any easier. Lots of communication eventually sorted things out,and the theater staff were able to accommodate our needs in a short timeframe and help greatly with the set.
For all issues, the biggest saving grace was my superfriend Morgan, who not only stepped up to direct (in addition to acting and costuming, remember) but helped pull in actors, coordinate rehearsal space, and so on. Yeah, too much for one person to do, but she got it done, dammit, and well. So, never underestimate the power of a dedicated few.
All in all I was incredibly pleased by how it went and was impressed by the level of talent brought out. Most importantly, I learned everything I needed to know, such as:
• All the physical special effects totally worked – we had stage ninja moving flat platforms in front of black boxes for platforming scenes, black fans with blood spurts painted on them to be unfurled when people died, and giant, incredible-looking puppets. However, they took FOREVER to build and learn how to work, so I know we’ll need extra production and rehearsal time and a devoted special effects director.
• The audiences were way too smart with the interactions. They never missed a button push. I can afford to be more complicated with them come full show. I also need to encourage them to collaborate to be successful, and make it clear that things change if and when they get it wrong.
• This show requires crazy talent – everyone has to understand props and movement and fights and choreography in addition to acting/puppeteering. It also requires crazy commitment and that needs to be hashed out up front with a large and devoted team.
• Audiences definitely bought into the video game world and effects. They were more interested in the story and how the jokes and interactions served the performance than any kind of video game in-joke or the novelty of them by themselves. This is as it should be but still good to know.
Also, the show was great. I’ll have a video eventually.
If I could give one piece of advice to anyone trying this, it would be: don't. But wish us luck anyway!