Sunday, January 5, 2020

On Revision

VICKY: I think “bully” is a thing that you do. It’s not a thing that you are.
Joshua McElroy as Sherlock Holmes
(Great Lakes Theater)
The first play I wrote for production was Breaking Point, a one-act adaptation of my daily comic strip for the college newspaper. The fact that I was also directing the script was an early lesson and made me hesitant to ever direct my own work ever again.

The problem is, I don’t know whether I should be a playwright who should have an eye to revising the as-yet un-produced work, or a director whose responsibility is to the text as it exists.

Breaking Point was problematic, and thank goodness it was and that I saw that. I recall that the ending was entirely unsatisfying, especially to the women in the company. I can’t even remember what happened, but I do know the argument was quite simply, “this doesn’t make sense, no one behaves like that.”

I knew in my heart of hearts that people do behave like that, because the moment in question was something that actually happened to me. Did it, though? And does it matter? We were producing a play, not a documentary, and if everyone says it doesn’t make sense, you have to at least entertain the idea that it really doesn’t make sense.

Breaking Point (1989)
I revised. My first revision. The ending was much more satisfying (especially to the women in the company) and in fact got the biggest reaction from the audience. Lesson learned. Revision is good.

But it’s hard. You have established a reality for yourself, it was hard fought, and now you have to change your reality. The Vampyres featured two major monologues by the protagonist, John Polidori, at the beginning and the end. The first monologue was not working, not at all. The director asked me question after question after question about it, trying to make it work. I changed a word here or there, but I was deeply unhappy with the criticism.

Over Christmas 1996, I just rewrote the entire thing. It was better. Our actor could make it work.

When we revived the show in 2005, I cut both monologues. They were both tedious, maudlin, unsympathetic, and unnecessary. Why did I ever think we needed them?

(Side note: I believe it is a testament to my fascination with Brian Pedaci, who originated the role of Polidori in 1997, that I believed they were worth including. I could listen to him recite a dictionary. Looking back, I would rather listen to him recite a dictionary.)

We held a reading of the second draft of Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street on Monday, September 30, for the Great Lakes Theater Education Committee. Obvious plotting errors from the first reading had been cleared up. Comments about character had been taken to heart, and I had found ways to make Vicky was a stronger protagonist. She wanted specific things and stood up for herself in a manner which was appropriate -- learning to stand up for herself is, of course, an important theme of the story.

The Vampyres (1997)
One major point of contention, however, was the character of Barney and her relationship with Vicky. Barney is headmistress of the orphanage, and the titular bully of the play, or so it is assumed. It is this relationship, in which the abuse runs from adult to child which made people justifiably concerned. We are creating a play about bullying, not domestic abuse. Yes, the two are associated, but you can understand how that might take the conversation where we do not want it to go.

When it was recommended that the bullying be peer-to-peer I was a bit distressed. I had already plotted the mystery, created the characters, and written the play. To suddenly introduce other characters, other girls in the neighborhood, perhaps, to antagonize our narrator … it would be like starting all over again. Comments were offered in good faith, and I spent the past few months going over it in my head. I didn’t know what to do, and I was running out of time.

Then, over Christmas, because Christmas is when I have all of my best ideas, I had an idea. What if Barney isn’t middle-aged? What if she’s the same age as Vicky? What if they were once like sisters, but now Barney has been appointed to manage the asylum while the headmaster is away on a holiday? It’s the Victorian Era, such things could certainly happen.

Chennelle Bryant- Harris as Vicky
(Great Lakes Theater)
Making Barney an aggressive boastful nineteen year-old was easier than I first thought it might be. But questions remain and they should be answered to provide more context to the mission of the production. We have incorporated tactics for coping with bullying behavior, with some of them even put into practice. Can we also address possible causes for this behavior?

Potential causes include:
  • Problems at home 
  • Bullied themselves 
  • Struggle with personal issues
Perhaps Barney doesn’t even like the name Barney. Her last name is Barnaby, Barney is a nickname. Calling someone a name, if they don’t like it, is a form of abuse. Sherlock himself is guilty of it as he insists on calling Vicky “Watson” even when she asks him not to.

Rehearsals begin in one week!

To be continued.

Read the third draft of "Sherlock Holmes Meets the Bully of Baker Street" at New Play Exchange.

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