The Only Way to Do It Is to Do It
My name is Dave K., and I just finished revising a script for the Baltimore Rock Opera Society.
Yes, Baltimore has a rock opera society. It’s a DIY theatre company and arts collective that produces original, full-length rock operas with no shortage of opulent spectacle, inspired by comics, video games, heavy metal, and the Brian DePalma cult classic Phantom of the Paradise. I’ve been a member since 2011, and have worked on two scripts prior to this one, but those were collaborative editing endeavors. For this script, the text was left to me, with guidance from the directors and dramaturg.
Writing for the stage is a weird process; as much as the playwright is tempted to take ownership of the work, it ultimately doesn’t belong to us. Plays are community property, and aren’t truly complete until they’re being performed in front of an audience. Most other forms of writing are meant to be absorbed in isolation, and even film—certainly a community effort intended for the public—has a built-in separation between the product and its audience. With live theatre, the only things separating us from the actors are the social contract and the power of story, and it was my job to shore up that second item for the BROS’ upcoming spring show, Amphion.
Originally written and produced in summer 2011, Amphion is a story about love and empire and the dangers of unbridled ambition, set in 6th century Constantinople during the negotiation of a peace treaty between Emperor Justinian (of Rome) and Shah Khosrow (of Persia). The show’s title character is Justinian’s official songsmith (a thing we made up), who falls in love with the daughter of the Shah’s ambassador and complicates everything. There’s also talk of a magical half-lynx, half-gazelle creature called the gazellynx. Some people may think that’s dumb. To them I would say no, you’re dumb.
If you’ve never written for the stage before, the formatting constraints can be frustrating. Much like a screenplay, you have to leave certain scenic/visual details vague to allow for free interpretation from the director and actors, but stageplays have to allow for different venue layouts, as well. Theatres come in all shapes and sizes, especially in the DIY community, and elaborate stage directions can get in the way if the piece is produced in a space that can’t support them.
What you are left with is character arcs, tone, and dialogue under your direct control as a writer. It’s like trying to cover an AC/DC song; the limited variables make it seem easy, but the lack of things to hide behind creates unexpected challenges.
Granted, I was revising an existing script, which is easier than conjuring a new one, but there were still plenty of hurdles. When this show was originally produced, BROS was a new theatre company rehabilitating a venue that was literally crumbling at their feet. To say that the script suffered for that distraction would be an understatement; the love story had no dramatic tension, the negotiation scenes went on way too long and made no sense, and there were too many secondary and tertiary ideas being thrown around without allowing time to develop them. Also, frankly, there weren’t enough dad jokes in the script. These were all things that I was brought in to amend.
Other, more fundamental changes were made as well. We added the character of Justinian’s wife Theodora, a real and totally awesome person whose absence from the original script was a huge oversight, and changed Amphion’s gender from male to female, thinking that a lesbian love story would do three things: a) add a third major female character to the show, thereby making it more inclusive, b) raise the stakes of the love story that was the show’s major selling point, c) tell a kind of story we’d never told before. Over the course of three months, I made those changes, treating those characters as respectfully as I could, showing what I’d done to people with good critical judgment and uncompromising honesty, and doing my best to not sound like a complete idiot.
In fact, those changes were what I was most excited about. It may seem suspicious, and even insensitive, for a straight, white man to think himself capable of writing what are essentially Middle Eastern lesbian characters with any kind of gracefulness, and I’m expecting to take some heat for even trying. It’s heat I’m willing to accept, however. These kinds of stories are worth telling, and we need to get better at them. At the risk of sounding like a millennial Yogi Berra, the only way to do that is to do it.
I also felt that BROS, as a company, should demonstrate our willingness to tell these kinds of stories. Like a lot of DIY theatre groups, most of us are white. The bulk of our influences and general aesthetic is based in largely white subcultures (nerd culture, punk rock/heavy metal, etc.), and we’re also a mostly-volunteer organization, which limits us to members whose personal circumstances allow them to work unpaid.
This is worth mentioning because we are making art at a time where questions about who gets to participate in the arts (in terms of education, press, and funding) are a source of much tension in the also-largely-white Baltimore arts community, which has been touted with varying degrees of earnestness as a potential savior of the city’s terrible reputation. Sensing that our hard work will be regurgitated into a tourism pitch by a city we don’t even fully represent has made for a lot of uncomfortable, and sometimes hostile, conversations among working artists around here.
I can’t change what BROS is or what made it, nor do I want to, but I think it’s important for us to be open, and to show openness, to stories that challenge us and force us to expand. Writing them, getting them in front of an audience, and then listening to that audience is how we will learn. If all goes well, members of that audience (which, in BROS’ case, is fairly diverse) will see that we aren’t douchebags and sign up to work with us. Worst case scenario, we get called out for something and identify an opportunity for learning and growth. And if nothing else, it’s at least a more active. if potentially clumsy, learning process than endlessly lashing our own backs over identity politics.
These, by the way, are editorial remarks, and should not be taken as an attempt by me to speak for the Baltimore art scene or BROS. I was asked to do a very specific job, with specific parameters, and this is the headspace I entered to do it. If these last few paragraphs seem uneasy and tenuous, it’s because they are. That is the nature of live theatre. A play isn’t finished until opening night, which is a maddening concept for someone used to writing fiction, but also exhilarating in a way that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Come what may, I’m proud of the work I did and the people I did it with, and I will not flinch when the curtain goes up.
- One Day As Lion: A Review of Justin Sanders’ for all the other ghosts - September 9, 2016
- The Only Way to Do It Is to Do It - April 25, 2016