Category Archives: inspiration

On writing comedy

As I have occasionally mentioned before on this blog, I don’t think I’m the most talented when it comes to writing comedy. I like to think of myself as a fairly witty person, who can make you laugh with a clever remark in conversation now and again. But when it comes to coming up with real jokes or funny lines, that’s more the province of other writers. In my writing program, I thought of genuinely funny stuff as much more the province of my friend and boss Bill Pendergast, or how Julie Weinberg had such a knack for dark comedy.

Still, I certainly enjoy it for its own sake, but even moreso, I like it as a way to add balance and lightness to a heavier narrative. I’ve always felt that even really serious drama needs something to keep it from going into the territory of “grimdark.” So, even though it’s not always easy for me, I am endeavoring to get better at it so that I can effectively include it in my own work.

My favorite comedy of all time is probably Frasier, which I thought managed to be extremely funny while still maintaining a level of intellectualism, narrative and character integrity, and did not resort to tired or offensive stereotyping in jokes. I’m very inspired by the style of comedy therein with its level of wit and cleverness. I’ve also been watching Cheers, which happens to be the series from which Frasier spun off, and is considered to be a required text for anyone who hopes to write comedy. Honestly I find Cheers to be a bit dated and not nearly as funny as Frasier, nor does it have anywhere near the dramatic integrity, but it has a heart and charm to it that inspired countless humor pieces that came after it. I’m hoping to learn from examples like these.

The funniest thing I ever wrote is probably The Late Mrs. Chadwick, my most performed ten-minute play. The main joke, the resolute refusal to compromise stiff-upper-lip British manners, is one that plays to my strengths. I was pleased to find at the recent staged reading of Vivat Regina that pretty much all the jokes played, and in fact were some of the audience’s favorite parts of the piece.

Most recently I’ve been working on a silly little side project, a fan fiction for Cabin Pressure, a BBC radio comedy that I find extremely funny. I started it just to have a little low-pressure positive feedback on something, and I’m determined not to stress about it, but I have been making an effort to make it not only funny, but as much in the style of the source material as possible. It has a particular kind of dry British humor that is very distinctive. I do find myself struggling to come up with bits and gags. I’m positive it’s not as funny as any of the originals, but I do think I’ve managed to capture the characters’ unique voices. Some commenters have even said things to that effect; my favorite so far was the one who said if the creator John Finnemore retired, they’d tune in if I were the replacement! 🙂 That’s encouraging. But I know I still need more practice. Like any aspect of writing, you got to put in the work!

Musing on muses, part 1

Artists have a long tradition of drawing inspiration for their art from various muses, and the more I think about it, the more I realize I do as well. The traditional artist-muse relationships tends to be a man being inspired by a woman, but I have always been prone to drawing creative energy from people, particularly men, that stirred something in me because of their awesomeness of some variety.

Those who know me well, or have known me for a long time, may be aware of how deeply my imagination was captured by Draco, the dragon character from the movie Dragonheart, my all-time favorite film. My love beyond reason and sense for this character strongly shaped my vision of heroism and goodness, which in turn has very deeply influenced how I write heroic fiction and drama. When I fell for Bernie, his particular brand of honesty, decency, and fortitude found itself creeping into my work in the same way. And it isn’t even always men for me. crearespero’s awesomeness, for example— the way she looks, her acting talent, her dreaminess, her athleticism —has made her a frequent muse of mine, from her playing Hamlet in my production to the visual model she provided for how I see Mrs. Hawking. Hell, I even cast her to PLAY a muse, when she was Andromeda in To Think of Nothing. A recent example for me was the case of Adonis, it was inspired by Chris Evans in the most classic way possible– his extreme beauty motivated me to make a piece of art. I feel like this is not something that people think that women do, or at least nobody pays attention to when they do, but it’s definitely part of how I practice my art.

People in general have a tendency to ascribe meaning to those things they find beautiful, be it a flower, a mountain, a piece of architecture, or a person. It’s often something as simple as the very well-documented phenomenon of how we tend to expect a good-looking person to be nicer and smarter than their more ordinary-looking counterparts. I know that I’m prone to it, both in the more mundane and the more poetical ways.

In Adonis, I went kind of meta with this. I know this phenomenon contributed to the existence of the story. But it’s in both the subtext AND the text as well. A major theme is the examination of what comes of what comes of somebody’s gaze interpreting another person— what it drives the gazer to do, and the effect it has on the gazed-upon. But more than that, some of the characters are ACTIVELY endeavoring to manipulate this in order to affect how people act. The story is about how they can raise a revolution of peasants and slaves to overthrow the most powerful empire in the world. In order to accomplish this, Aidan’s sister Morna, the mastermind behind it all, is working to position Aidan as a source of inspiration for the populace— if he can capture their imagination as this beautiful, heroic figurehead for the rebellion, their belief in him could translate to belief in the cause.

This is going to be an even more major theme in the next part of the story—particularly what a hard role it can be to play. I started picking at that notion in this scene I wrote for 31P31D. Aidan has very few positive associations with his status as the object of gaze, which makes it difficult for him to take this “muse” position on. This will also give a source of conflict for Diana and Morna, as it’s Morna’s idea, and Diana finds it to be making unfair, mercenary use of Aidan when it’s so hard on him. By contrast, Morna sees their situation as desperate enough that they no choice but to utilize this effect he seems to have, when they have so few other resources to accomplish their herculean task. I think it’s a very interesting issue to explore, especially since I’ve seen what an effect it’s had on me.

Someday, if all my dreams come true, I can imagine myself on the set of the film with my muse about to play the character I wrote for him. And I will probably weird him out as badly as Stephenie Meyer weirded out Robert Pattinson when she met him on the set of Twilight. But I’m okay with that, because then I’ll know I’ve made it. 😉

In part 2, I’ll talk about how things have inspired and influenced me so deeply I never even realized they were working on me. 🙂

The myth of Adonis

I am working away furiously on my new film script Adonis, set in a matriarchal alternate history Ancient Rome. It’s a hard road, but it’s coming, and I’m really starting to believe in this project. I need to get it finished so it can be read on the last Sunday of the month.

I have so many thoughts about this story, about the process of putting it together. I can’t spare the time to write them all down now, because I need to hit that deadline. But it’s challenging and at times even wringing. But I think it will be worth it in the end.

I gave this piece its title because the myth of Adonis always stuck in my mind. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because it was one of the rare touchstones in our culture referring to a beautiful man. I wasn’t always as invested in the beauty of men as I am now, but since becoming so, the character has stood out even more for me.

Trigger warning: sexual assault

I read Shakespeare’s version, the poem Venus and Adonis, when I was sixteen or so. The goddess is so taken by his beauty that she cannot hold off from pursuing him, even in the face of his disinterest. In fact, she basically harasses him until he gives in. I’ve never seen anybody else take away what I did from the poem. But even since then, I’ve never been able to stop from asking the question that occurred to me from my very first reading of it– “How was that not depicting a rape?” I guess that was inspirational, in part, for this piece– or at least, for where to take the idea when I started developing it.

I wonder what Shakespeare’s intention was. If he meant to depict a rape. More likely, I bet he meant to depict a man who was basically bullied into sexual activity he didn’t actually want, but had no concept that for a man that could be rape. I’ve been reading a lot of male survivor narratives in order to write this movie, so I can treat it with accuracy and respect, and it’s actually very common for men who have been assaulted by women to describe with the definition of rape and never actually think to use the word– because they don’t realize it could apply.

My story doesn’t have that problem. My story calls it what it is. I am doing my best to deal with it in a respectful and meaningful way. I guess I never could let go of how much it bothered me that nobody ever seemed to acknowledge what happened in that poem. Hopefully I’ll do better now.

Redesigning the Bethany Loring dress in The Tailor at Loring’s End

I’ve been resisting it for some time, but I think I really do need to redesign the dress in The Tailor at Loring’s End.

As I’ve mentioned, my big inspiration for the look of it was the green dress Keira Knightley wore in Atonement, specifically the long, straight silhouette and the hip swag. They don’t often these days design really iconic dresses for movies anymore—not like they did for the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly —and I thought that was the only such example to come out of the movies in years. If this movie got made, I would want this dress to be iconic in that way, so that people remembered it and saw it as a tribute to that classic sort of costume design tradition. “The Bethany Loring dress, in cornflower blue, with lily shapes beaded on the bodice.” I was even pleased when I realized that what I was imagining was roughly appropriate for the 1930s, given that most of Tailor takes place in 1934.

imageWhat I hadn’t taken into account, however, was the fact that the other part of Tailor takes place back in 1917— and the dress was actually designed back then. Which made my mental image of it totally wrong for the era in which it was made. This frustrated me, as I was actually pretty attached to my mental image, but it was just too far off even for artistic license. I ignored it for a long time, as I didn’t want to deal. But now that I’m writing a treatment for Tailor, the problem jumps out at me again.

Fortunately, since writing it I’ve become a fan of things like Downton Abbey, which as given me more of an eye for the look and design style of 1910s gowns. I think I can reasonably translate my vision of the dress into something that wouldn’t look totally, utterly inconceivable for the time. Especially since the major design elements I’m imagining— a cowled overlay on the neckline, a beaded bodice, and the Atonement-inspired hip swag —all could be reasonably included on a 1910s evening dress.

Of course this is all a pretty minor thing. If the movie ever got made, even in my wildest dreams, an actual costume designer would be making those decisions instead of me. Still, the design elements are referenced in the script, and some of them are even plot-relevant. To a certain extent, there would be a need to interpret my vision. So I’m glad I’ve finally come around to the changes it would be necessary to make.

Musing on the Duke of Amsterdam

I’m really excited to be able to include the character of Lillian Holland in my new musical. I knew as I was writing “Mrs. Loring” she was going to be a particularly interesting figure, and it was made more so when interpreted in performance by . Lenny is basically the perfect person to play her, so much so that I should have her pose for pictures in costume, and she really stimulated my imagination about the possibilities of the character. Her story really struck me as not being done by the end of “Mrs. Loring.” She was profoundly affected by the events of that story, and it would certainly propel her journey.

I think Lillian thinks about Elizabeth a lot. Elizabeth surprised her at a point where she thought she couldn’t be surprised by anything. This fragile, fainting society woman turning out to have guts and defiance beyond anything Lillian suspected. Lillian is a revolutionary at heart, and in its own way Elizabeth’s plan and actions was one of the most subversive things she’d ever seen. And even though they didn’t know each other long, they shared one of the most intense experiences of their lives, which bonded them. Elizabeth was not the sort of person she would normally have become close to, but extraordinary circumstances create extraordinary friendships.

And then Elizabeth dies. She catches Spanish flu in the epidemic of 1920 and died less than a year after the end of the story of “Mrs. Loring.” I haven’t totally decided whether or not Elizabeth lives long enough to be released from the asylum– Bernie thinks she probably was well enough to get out soon after the end of “Mrs. Loring,” but I’m currently not sure –but what I do know is that the fact that she died right after having made a remarkable personal transformation hit Lillian hard. It made her realize how much time she’d been forced to waste locked up, and that lit a fire under her. And that, in turn, made her light a fire as well. Literally!

I think that’s how she got out. I think she actually set the place on fire. She talked about it for years, mostly only cynically, until she realized she had to get out there NOW. She didn’t manage to completely burn the place to the ground, but she started a real, honest-to-goodness building fire, and in the resulting conflagration she busted out. And she took Amelia Page with her, the little anxiety-ridden girl, and the only other veteran of the “Mrs. Loring” adventure. Amelia was another one who showed shocking guts, and Lillian felt like she couldn’t leave the only other person who fought beside them in that hole.

They took off for Chicago. I think the two of them made it there together and then mostly parted ways. Amelia will always be a fragile person, and one who needs other people. I think she found a boarding house to live in full of other single women with whom she formed the chosen family she needed in order to feel safe and be happy. But she and Lillian check in on each other now and again, and write the occasional letter. I think they feel kind of like war-buddies that way. Where once Lillian dismissed her as an irritating, broken female, and she in turn feared and despised Lillian, now they have a real bond.

Lillian herself, however, follows a very different path. She doesn’t want to be ever found by her blue blood family, so she changes her name from Lillian Holland to Lou Amsterdam. And she immerses herself in as different a world from the one she ran from as possible. She opens up a speakeasy that she calls the Puzzle House, as a wry reference to her time in the institution. She invites jazz musicians to play there, artists, poets, bohemians of all stripes, and makes it a haven for misfits who have been tossed out by society. She’s in charge and noticeably butch– I picture her as wearing men’s tweeds suits and fedoras while smoking a pipe –so she gets the nickname of the Duke of Amsterdam. She meets Rita del Rey, a beautiful jazz crooner, through the performances and the two begin a relationship. And I think she’s really happy for the first time in her life.

This is where she is when the musical I’m writing begins, and a new young girl who needs to find her place and her strength gets to tell her story. I think Lou will serve as the one who encourages Josie, the new protagonist, to believe in her own strength and significance even though the world will try to tell her she’s nothing, that she doesn’t matter. I think that’s something impressed on her by the example of Elizabeth, and so going from one story to the next, it’s a notion she is in a good position to pass on.

The very first exploration of this situation came out when I was writing 31 Plays 31 Days this year. You can see a proto-version of Josie in this piece here. This scene doesn’t have sufficient direction or point to it to be included in the new piece, but there’s some neat ideas for dialogue, so maybe I’ll be able to incorporate it in some form.

I owe a lot of this to Lenny, who came up with much of Lillian’s trajectory in a conversation we had after she read the part in the staged reading. I’m really grateful for her ideas, because when it came time to tell a new story, it was incredibly inspiring.