Tag Archives: theatre

Theatre: The Last Ship

There was, from what I understand, a version of this show some five years ago, but it didn’t do all that well. So it has been retooled and now… Well, in a way, the play itself lends the best metaphor: a ship was built, but then needed to be broken down and rebuilt. Or something.

The Last Ship isn’t a show I would have sought out; it just happened to be part of my seasonal subscription to the local theatre. Anyway, I like Sting, and I know a little about his background and therefore knew there had to be a pretty personal connection between him and the content of this show. He wasn’t as involved in the first version, only having been called in later in the run in an attempt to save the show. When it closed to be reworked, Sting remained the headliner in the hopes the familiar name would draw audiences.

Still, here is all I knew going in:

  1. Sting
  2. Ships

These aren’t, perhaps, the greatest selling points? I mean, if one thinks about the fact that the first version of the show didn’t even have Point 1… Who goes to see musicals about building ships? The Venn diagram of people who have an interest in manual labor crises from the 1980s, and/or have an interest in shipbuilding in particular, and have money to toss at musical theatre has got to be a pretty thin slice, doesn’t it? Adding Sting and his music as a new circle, well… I suppose there are more people interested in him and his work than the other things, but…

Okay, so the backdrop of this musical is Wallsend, 1986. The shipyard there is being closed down. The shipbuilders are told that a fraction of them will be hired at lesser wages to break apart the ship—the last ship—that was nearly finished but is now to be sold for scrap. Over this is laid the story of Gideon, son of a shipbuilder, who ran away from Wallsend 17 years before in hopes of avoiding the shipbuilding life. He became a sailor instead. I guess that’s better? But he left behind Meg, and as he returns to Wallsend, he discovers Meg has a 17-year-old daughter. Meg has become a fiercely independent single mum and pub owner, and she’s not interested in going back to being vulnerable. Another, smaller story is that of foreman Jackie White (Sting), trying to navigate his workers and their union through the rocky shoals of the industrial crises. Jackie has lung cancer, too, so that’s… a thing.

Here’s the problem, at least with this new version of the show (I wish I’d seen the previous; reviews make it sound way more entertaining): I was never really all that invested in any of the characters or situations. They are all pretty rote and lack much depth. The stories themselves are insanely simplistic; there is hardly any real tension and opportunities to highlight conflict are mishandled. If anything, I found the inflection of the show monotonous. The music wasn’t particularly catchy; I didn’t feel the desire to download the cast album and listen to any of it again, which to me is the sign of a good musical. Some of Sting’s known songs have been tweaked and used (gah, the guy two seats over kept leaning over and telling his date, “This is one of his songs,” every time something familiar got worked in). Much of the stagecraft is reliant on screens, which doesn’t make for particularly interesting visuals, the final scene notwithstanding.

There are a number of interesting characters whose potential are squandered. One guy named Davy doesn’t want to strike, wants nothing to do with the big plan to win back the shipyard, etc. I waited for him to betray the others or, really, something, anything. But he just comes crawling back, no hard feelings. A carpenter named Adrian quotes from literature, and that was fun. The one bit of humor in the show that worked for me was when it’s pointed out that no one ever understands him. The show could definitely have used more moments of levity like that one to give it some bounce. Sadly, as it sits (like a hulk in dry dock), it’s a bit of a flatline. No tide.

Sting, too, didn’t seem all that into it. Maybe he was tired, maybe his arm hurt (it was in a sling for some reason), but he gave the impression of not particularly wanting to be there. On the other hand, many of the actors were clearly giving it their all, and they had impressive voices and some also were skilled dancers. Which is to say, The Last Ship wasn’t all bad. It just… could clearly have been better? With a more interesting story, more depth of character… Which, after the fact, I went to read more about the history of the show and discovered that it probably did have those things in the original version. Based only on what I read, I think this retooling probably did the show a disservice. Meant to make The Last Ship more, what? Comprehensible? It actually lobotomized it. (Again, I can’t say for sure, not having seen the original production, but…)

It’s nothing I need to see again. Nothing I need to hear again, either. It will probably stick with me, but not for the reasons shows want to be remembered. Only because I’ll likely continue to try to figure out why it didn’t work, what went wrong. I’ll want to pick at it, deconstruct it. That’s my media studies degree at work, maybe, but with really good shows, that desire almost never surfaces. We only autopsy when we think there’s been foul play.

Once in a Lifetime?

We had an extra ticket to Hamilton, so we invited my 13-year-old son’s best friend to come with us because we knew she really loved the musical (well, its soundtrack anyway). She took pictures of the theater, the cast list, and said to me, “I’m taking pictures of everything because this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience! I’ll never get to see a Broadway play again.” To which I replied, “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. You never know.”

It got me thinking about the first time I had the treat of seeing a touring Broadway production. It was My Fair Lady with Richard Chamberlain as Henry Higgins. I’d always loved the movie and was so excited to see the play. And I guess I had the same feeling as my son’s friend—that this would not necessarily become a regular event in my life. (Though I also got to see Camelot with Robert Goulet as Arthur that same year.)

My son and his friend came out of Hamilton very happy and talking about how they’d like to do drama in high school. I’m so glad we were able to give them this experience, but I’m also a bit sad that for many people it really is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, if that. Sure, some people aren’t at all interested in theater (their loss, in my opinion). But for those who might be, it can be inaccessible. It was to me for the longest time. I was fortunate that my school took us to the symphony, the planetarium, and other amazing places. But with schools trimming arts programs to the bare minimum, these outings are less and less common as well.

I understand why theater is expensive. The work that goes into it: sets, wardrobe, tech, acting, directing, choreography… And a lot more. Even the community theater productions I used to help with were quite involved, so something on the scale of a Broadway show? Yeah. And I know many shows have student discounts, or even special showings for schools or other groups. I just… I think this girl’s remark surprised me. I think people (like me) who go to the theater regularly begin to take it for granted. And that’s a shame.

So what’s the point of this post? 1. To observe that, for some people, going to the theater is a dream and/or rare experience. And that’s too bad, but I don’t actually have any suggestions to change that. 2. To also observe that, for those who do go to the theater often, it’s nice to remember the value of that. And even nicer to take along someone who doesn’t get to go, or has never been. Because their joy is infectious. And will be a fantastic reminder of all the reasons you’re lucky you get to go.

The King and I

Yesterday I took my 6-year-old daughter Evie to her first ever theatre experience (excepting her own dance recital): The King and I. She loved it, as I hoped (and deep down knew) she would. Evie loves music, so I was sure a musical was the right thing for her. I explained the story a bit before the show so that she went in with a semi-understanding of what was happening. Evie also showed a fair interest in how the stage work was done: the orchestra pit (behind which we were sitting), the backdrops and set changes . . . I told her a bit about what a “scene” is, and she asked what the actors do when they aren’t on stage. “You’re either in a scene or you’re not,” I explained. “When you’re not you wait until it’s time for you to go on.” We talked about wardrobe and quick costume changes. Evie says she’d love to design costumes for plays and movies. And she is artistic, so maybe she will. But it was just such fun to share my love of theatre with her.

“How do you know so much about it?” Evie asked. I explained that I’d done some of it in college, and had a friend who used to do fashion design (I’d been her model) and had worked in theatre wardrobe departments. That I used to help at a community theatre, that I had been part of an acting troupe. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it until I started talking about it.

After the show was over, Evie said it was too bad there wasn’t a way to go back and meet the actors. I told her sometimes, in some theatres that’s possible. If you know someone, or if you have a special pass, &c. But then, as we were exiting the auditorium, the door to the wings opened and out came Anna and the King! Evie was speechless. I told the actress it was Evie’s first ever visit to the theatre, and she asked Evie how she liked it. Evie said it was wonderful, and then couldn’t find her tongue again. But the whole experience made a big impression on her. She came home singing “Getting to Know You” and talking all about the show and meeting the actress. Now she really wants to see Mary Poppins next summer, too. I do so hope she continues to enjoy the theatre!

This Is Me (Part XVII: The Shakespeare Thing)

I borrowed my love of Shakespeare from Lynn, my best friend’s mother. She was (is) like a second mother to me, always encouraging my creativity. And when I was still really young—eight or nine—she made me a calligraphy sign with a matte she had hand cut flowers into: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”

It’s from Hamlet, crazy Ophelia carrying on, but the words inspired me, and the fact that Lynn had thought to give them to me made me feel loved.

Much later I would perform Hamlet a few different times, then teach it to 9–12 year olds. Who loved it. So many people get tripped up by the language, but get the kids (and adults) past all that and the stories are fantastic. Stuff of soap operas.

In high school we were required to read the four major tragedies, one per year: Romeo and Juliet our freshman year, Julius Caesar our sophomore year, Macbeth our junior year, and finally Hamlet our senior year. Somewhere in there we also read Twelfth Night.

Because I was in honors English Lit, we did a bit more than the other classes. Our freshman year we rewrote Romeo and Juliet—I and one other writerly student were the writing team—into a New York mob/gangster story. (Yes, before Baz did it!) I then played Lord Capulet with a ponytail, sunglasses, a Hawaiian shirt, and a thick Brooklyn accent. Our teacher videotaped it. For the next three years, freshman would come to me and say, “You’re Lord Capulet!”

For Julius Caesar I was Cassius. For Macbeth, the Third Witch. And for Hamlet I was at one point Ophelia, then asked to switch to Hamlet. For Twelfth Night, I was Viola. (I was also Thoreau in The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail.)

When I went off to uni, I took some drama/acting classes to fulfill a requirement and had my teacher suggest I make theatre my major; only majors could take the higher-level courses, you see. But even as a non-major, I was able to participate in showcases. I did stuff from Sexual Perversity in Chicago (something about a naked la-la is all I recall), Holiday, Picnic . . . And when I did a scene from Crimes of the Heart with a thick Southern accent then came off stage and spoke in my normal voice, I got yelps of surprise—it seems everyone had assumed the accent was my normal voice. (I’m a natural mimic, which is why my kids love me to read to them; I do all the voices.)

My Winedale Class
My Winedale Class
Oh, but Shakespeare. Still and always my favorite. I once saw William Shatner interview Patrick Stewart, and Stewart said something about how Shakespeare came naturally to him, he never had any trouble with the language. It made sense to him. And that’s how it was for me, too. I read and understood. The language barrier simply didn’t exist for me. But then, that was true for poetry as well. I am programmed for these things.

So then I found out about Winedale. And signed right up. And we did Hamlet! But the First Quarto, which is somewhat different from the known text.

The class was actually titled “Shakespeare Through Performance,” and a lot of kids had signed up thinking they would be watching a bunch of Lawrence Olivier movies or something. But a few of us had friends who’d done the course, so we knew the truth. And we were stoked. Once a big group had dropped the class, a core group of us were left. For months we would live together on weekends, practice almost every night . . . It was such a camaraderie.

The auditions were a bit strange. Everyone would participate in the show, and everyone would have two parts: one for the first night, a different one for the second. We were given Kenneth Patchen poems to memorize for the auditions so that Doc Ayers and Madge could decide what our roles would be. My poem began: “Because to really ponder/one needs wonder” . . . I was cast as Corambis, which was the name of the character most people now know as Polonius. (For the second night I was the Murderer in the play and a mere herald, the idea being I shouldn’t be given too many more things to memorize.)

When I perform, I can’t ever remember it afterward. But I suppose I did well since I had people coming up after the show to thank me. I knew that, because the audience was laughing when they were supposed to, it must have been all right. And I was able to cover when Hamlet almost forgot to join me on stage for our discussion of cloud shapes.

Later, having moved to Massachusetts, I was asked to teach Shakespeare at a summer camp. It was surprisingly a very big hit. “My kid won’t stop talking about Shakespeare!” parents kept telling the camp director. And, “I wish we’d learned it that way. I might have liked it more.” I taught Hamlet the first summer, Romeo and Juliet the second, Taming of the Shrew the third, and Macbeth the fourth. Then we moved.

My Hamlet and Macbeth students opted to rewrite and play with the stories. My R&J and TotS students wanted to do the pieces as written. I always gave the class the choice. First rule: Don’t shove it down their throats. If you do, they’ll only gag on it and spit it all up.

I found that discussing the plays opened the door to discussing much bigger issues: suicide, abuse (cuz Petruchio isn’t really very nice to Kate). In every instance it was the kids who broached the topic. But my natural counselor instincts kicked in, and it made for interesting conversation. Later, the girls would ask me for advice about this or that boy, and one of my male students wanted to talk in private about a friend who cut herself, while another wanted to relieve himself of the story of a friend’s brother’s suicide. I like when my students trust me and are comfortable with me.

I don’t have students any more, and I haven’t done any Shakespeare in a long while, but I still enjoy him whenever I get the opportunity. Joss Whedon’s Much Ado was a real treat. And I do believe it’s better to either watch or perform Shakespeare than to read his plays. (Sonnets, you ask . . . Well, I’ve read them . . . But it’s the plays I really like.) Not sure what the educational system hopes to accomplish by having kids read a play, any play, really. Maybe to introduce them to the form? What it looks like on a page? But then, too, plays published for reading versus those published for performance often look different.

I always reminded my students that Shakespeare wasn’t writing to be lofty. He was trying to crank out the next blockbuster play (since there was no film in his day). We treat the work with such reverence, but that’s a bit silly. Better to come at it with a sense of fun. We wouldn’t treat a copy of a Michael Bay script as something to be venerated. No more should we Shakespeare’s plays. To put things on a pedestal automatically makes them distant and untouchable. Shakespeare should be something you get into, like a pit of mud. Wallow in it, splash around. You’ll enjoy it a lot more that way.

Playwriting Opportunity: Two-Handers for Suitcase Theatre

This is a call for new theatre scripts with two characters.

1. Scripts should be for two characters only.
2. Only new and previously unperformed scripts should be submitted.
3. The play needs to have about 15 minutes playing time, as up to three scripts will be selected to provide an hour’s performance.
4. There is no theme as such, although the performance will take place on Valentine’s Day, 2014 and writers might like to bear this in mind.
5. The location of the performance should also be taken into account. The plays will be performed at Connah’s Quay [Flintshire] Labour Club in a convivial atmosphere, where the audience may well be sitting at tables. Although there is a rudimentary stage, it is likely that directors of the plays may well prefer to use the floor area. More details about the staging of the pieces are available on request. In any case writers should avoid complicated stage settings such as integral doors, sash windows and so on.
6. Closing date for the receipt of scripts is 6.30pm, Monday 9th December.
7. Scripts can be submitted as hard copy to Suitcase Theatre, Garden Cottage Leeswood Hall Mold or by e-mail to mike.suitcasetheatre@hotmail.co.uk.
8. In order to cover the cost of copying and printing, all scripts should be accompanied by a contribution of £1, which can come in the form of 2 x second class stamps or as a cheque made payable to Suitcase Theatre. All scripts will be acknowledged, and those received on or before Saturday 23rd November will receive feedback, which can be used if the writer wishes to make any alterations and re-submit.
9. Suitcase Theatre will also provide three workshops, with practical advice and tutoring for writers, the first [free] drop-in workshop being on Monday September 23rd between 4.30pm and 6.30pm in Buckley [Flintshire] Library.
10. Suitcase Theatre may call for the writers of successful scripts to re-draft and re-write where appropriate. All writers will be notified by email of the outcome of the selection of scripts.
11. Scripts need to be accompanied by clear details of the writer’s e-mail and/or postal addresses and telephone numbers. Writers should also include disclaimers, acknowledging that the script is his or her own work and previously unperformed and an agreement for Suitcase Theatre to perform any submitted script. Suitcase will pay royalties to the writer of any performed script.
12. Successful scripts will be directed and performed by members of Suitcase Theatre, a community theatre company based in North East Wales.
13. mike.suitcasetheatre@hotmail.co.uk

From Short Play to Short Film

So it looks like, barring any last-minute upsets (and this is me knocking on wood because with this business you just never know), my 15-minute play “Warm Bodies” will soon be moving into pre-production as a short film. I’ve spoken with the producer and director, and they are supposedly e-mailing a licensing agreement for the work. Hasn’t popped into my inbox yet, but these things always take longer than anyone plans for. Someone in an office somewhere has a stack of stuff to type and send, etc. And so it goes.

Of course they’ll probably have to change the title, since there was a feature film not too long ago called Warm Bodies . . . After talking to the producer and director, answering their questions about the script, I feel I can trust them to manage it properly. As it stands, they’re hoping to get on with casting sometime this weekend. I’m curious to see what the finished product might look like. And I wish them the best in submitting to festivals once it’s done.

ETA: Licensing agreement now in hand. And so the production machine trundles forward . . .

My First Podcast

I just participated in a workshopping of a 10-minute play as part of the Ten Minute Play Workshop, and the workshop was audio recorded for podcast. I’ve never been part of a podcast before. (Yes, I realize for many of you it is a routine way of life, but not for me.) As someone who can’t stand to hear or see recording of herself, I doubt I could make myself listen to it, but for friends interested in (a) playwriting, (b) theatre in general, and/or (c) what I sound like here is the link. (There is also a blog write-up if you don’t want to listen.)

The Goal of Writing

Many people will tell you the goal of writing is to tell a story. Preferably a good story. And bonus points if you tell it well.

Those people are wrong.

The goal of writing is to take a picture from the writer’s mind and put it in the minds of others. It’s done with words, but the picture is the goal.

In a sense, every writer is a cinematographer. Every writer wants to make you see what s/he sees. Artists do it with paint, photographers with cameras (used to be film, but no more), writers with words. A picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps, but what’s lovely about using words instead of paint or film is the fluidity. A painting or photograph is static, even when it gives the impression of movement. But words are always in motion. And no two people will visualize the exact same thing, not until that book becomes a movie anyway.

So if the goal of writing is to take a picture from the writer’s mind and put it in the mind of the reader . . . And yet the reader will never be able to see it exactly as the writer does . . . Doesn’t that mean all writing is a failure? Maybe. But it’s wonderfully freeing to know, as a writer, that there is no exactly right way to do your job. Only that some ways are better than others. And it’s freeing for the reader, too, to know there is no right way to do his or her job, either. (Unless you’re reading for English Lit class and your instructor has very definite ideas about things. But that’s something else again.)

At the end of the day, a writer should be trying to make himself or herself clear to the reader. If I’m picturing two people at a restaurant, it’s easy to say that much. But now everyone is picturing two random people in various types of restaurants: Is it upscale? A dive? Is it day or night? Two men? A man and a woman? Two women? Are they friends, lovers, enemies, coworkers?

When writing a script, each scene begins with a “slug” that tells the director (and location scouts, and art department, etc.) where and when the characters are. For example:


When writing prose, you can’t start every scene this way; it would be silly. But you should start with it in mind so that the reader knows where s/he is and what s/he’s looking at.

In a script, if it is the first time you’ve seen a location, there will be a description. Not too detailed—broad strokes except when something is important to the plot. What does David’s bedroom look like?

Remarkably tidy room, blank walls; looks unused, impersonal as a hotel room except for the stack of library books on the floor beside the bed.

That’s how I might write it as part of a script; in prose, I would naturally not pare it down quite so much. But that little bit already says a lot about David, doesn’t it? Readers (or viewers) suddenly know more about him in that brief bit of description than any amount of dialogue might have conveyed. (And the director, the actor, the art department all know more, too.)

Because prose changes locations without a transitioning camera, it’s even more important to make it clear to a reader where the characters are, what they are passing through. The reader can’t see it if you don’t put it on the page. And with nothing to “look” at, the reader becomes lost in a kind of void. I read a story recently that had people in a car, then in a restaurant, then going on to another location. Back in the car, I assumed, though it wasn’t clear. And when at one point a character went to set something down, I found myself thinking: Setting it down where? Where are they? I was lost. I was not seeing the picture the writer was trying to paint for me.

Every writer uses words to paint pictures. Poets, novelists, screenwriters, playwrights. In the cases of screenwriters and playwrights, the goal is to have those pictures made real, either on stage or screen. (At that point, like a painting or photograph, the screen version becomes static and definitive. The stage, however, remains fluid, as there can be many interpretations of the material, and even differences within the same production from night to night.) Admittedly, novelists may wish to have movies made of their books as well. But first things first: you have to paint a picture for your readers. You have to make them see it. When they can see it, they can feel it, they can connect. And that is the goal.


Thanks to everyone who supported me by downloading my free e-books over the holiday weekend. I hope you’ll also consider leaving reviews on Amazon (particularly if you liked what you read)!

Last Wednesday night—or really, very early Thursday morning—I finished the first full draft of The K-Pro. It needs a lot of editing. But it’s nice to have one complete draft to work with. Meanwhile, I’m also still planning to finish that sequel to “St. Peter in Chains” too. And possibly (probably) write another Sherlock Holmes story, since those are what I get the most requests for.

And so here, as we near the final month of 2012, is where I stand with my goals:

  • Finish “St. Peter in Chains”
  • Finish The K-Pro
  • Finish the spec script
  • Get at least one more play accepted for production somewhere

I did finish (and publish) “St. Peter in Chains.” I have finished a draft of The K-Pro, which sort of counts as “finishing” it and sort of not. (Admittedly, though, when I made that goal I thought it would be a short story, not a novel.) I finished the spec script some time ago (for all the good it’s done me). And “Warm Bodies” got accepted to a second festival—and also for publication in an anthology—but I’ve had no new plays accepted anywhere, so again I only count that as a semi-realized goal.

What are there, five weeks left in the year? It’s been a pretty good one, but it could rocket to the top of all-time best years if I could just get some good news for Christmas or my birthday.

Playwriting Opportunity: Traverse Fifty (Scotland, Open to All)

As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations we are searching for the best voices from Scotland and beyond. We want to find 50 writers who embody the spirit of invention, adventure and risk taking that has come to define the Traverse over the last 50 years.

The Traverse Fifty is a year-long writer’s attachment to the Traverse Theatre. Throughout 2013, we will run a series of tailor-made events for the writers, including panel discussions, workshops and one-on-one dramaturgy with our artistic team. The programme will culminate in a New Writing Festival featuring the work of the Traverse Fifty. At the end of the process we will offer three seed commissions.

Who we want:
50 brilliant writers of any age, from anywhere. You must have had no more than two professional productions staged.

How to apply:
Submit a 500 word play for Edinburgh and a 250 word covering letter outlining why the attachment would be beneficial. To submit your script please go to www.traverse.submittable.com

For more info on the project please visit our Traverse Fifty page.

Deadline: 12pm, Friday 14 November 2012.

For more info email Catherine.Makin@traverse.co.uk