Never Stop Rocking Part II
Where was I? Oh, yes. Writing this shitty play.
There were two things that I thought would make this show work. The first thing was that Christopher Yustin, who would be voicing the puppet, had come up with a perfect voice. Deep, gravelly and hip, kind of like Rolph from The Muppet Show. Only a little more badass. It cracked me up the way he’d improvise bits of dialogue with the voice. When we’d go drink, he’d be saying shit like, “Who’s dick ya gotta suck to get a drink in this place?” “Aw, man. I’m so drunk I can’t feel my legs. (Pause.) Oh, shit. I HAVE NO LEGS!”
The second thing was that we could make this a real calling card. We’d solidify our cast base, and make everyone know about Nosedive and either a.) want to see as much of our stuff as possible, or b.) want to jump aboard.
Other than that, writing this shitty script was about as much fun as snorting barbed wire.
There were many reasons why writing “Never Stop Rocking” wasn’t a bit of fun. The first reason was that I felt like I had to accommodate far too many people. I never really thought I could just run with the concept and see what would happen (as was the case with “The Awaited Visit,” “Evil Hell Cat & the Liquid Lunch,” and “Jiffy Squid”). I had promised that the show would be too many things to too many people, and half of these promises completely conflicted with the other half of these promises.
Another reason was that the story itself was…well…schmeh. I wasn’t particularly wild about the story of Orpheus (no offense to the classics, it was just never particularly my favorite myth) and wasn’t too pumped to write basically a MAD Magazine parody of the tale.
Having everything mapped out (in part by other people) also sucked out any energy and enthusiasm I had. Just coming off the show “Ruins,” I was not as up for jumping right into a new play as I thought I would be.
I usually don’t write with an outline in mind until I’m about halfway through the rough draft. More often than not, I write the first scene, not knowing the title, the characters’ deals, or the story. I just have them interact, and based on that initial interaction, I get a vague, kinda/sorta idea of what sort of world/environment these characters live in. After a few scenes, I sometimes write the final scene (or a scene later in the play). THEN I outline the play, figuring what it is, y’know, about and where it’s going. The outline helps me fill the gaps I’ve created.
This isn’t the set-in-stone formula I use when I write, but it seems to work that way more often than not (it was certainly the case for “Allston,” “Ruins” and “Mayonnaise Sandwiches”).
With “Never Stop Rocking,” the outline was created first. There was no room to maneuver, no space to explore. So, by the time I decided to quit my internal bitching and write page one, scene one, none of the characters were characters. They were vague carbon-copy outlines of characters. From the getgo, it was all gimmick and no substance. All plot and no story. All zany without an ounce of funny.
Because of the very, very short time I had to write it, I had no time to, y’know, think about the show. It was all just color-by-numbers: have the characters say who they were, what they were doing and why they were doing it in each scene.
This wasn’t going to work.
But I had already told too many people that it would. And what was worse, they all believed me.
Later at a bar, Yustin talks to me in the Flazzum voice. I crack up. Fuck. Me.
I write the opening scene of the play (based on my very unwieldy outline). It sucks. The dialogue sounds nothing like me. It feels completely rushed, because it is. It has no creativity, no enthusiasm. It read very much like “okay, okay. Scene 1 done. Now onto the next one. Go, go, go!”
I ask Pete if I can push back the deadline (which had already been pushed back) another week. He says okay. I email him the outline to set his mind at ease.
Pete isn’t particularly calmed by the outline. He’s happy there’s progress to it, but realizes there’s NO WAY this can be done on a shoestring budget. There are too many scene changes. The puppet needs to walk around. The show requires extravagant costumes.
Plus, it reads like the plotline to a shitty MAD Magazine parody.
I write scene 3 and count the seconds before I’ve fulfilled my plotline obligations to the scene.
A couple sample outline entries for the play:
• Orf (lead singer of Orfanage) and Miss Kitty (his true love) backstage, being all cute and lovey-dovey; gives her a ring; she accepts (they’ll have Tom Petty playing at their wedding); interrupted by Flazzum in a wacky fashion.
• At the Threshold, a sucky club, Miss Kitty mingles with N’Suck while listening to Limp Dipstick — Miss Kitty asks someone when closing time is; she’s told The Land of Suck Never Sleeps
I know, I know. I’m as embarrassed and as unimpressed as you are.
You have got t’be freakin’ kidding me.
How do you write cool scenes for those descriptions? How can you make anything worthwhile with this crap? I didn’t know. But I was already four weeks late with the rough draft; I couldn’t rewrite the outline. I mean, I really couldn’t. I had promised the actors certain things that I couldn’t get out of.
I’m at a bar with the Nosedive crew, pissed at hell with myself for having only written about a third of this play, which was boring as hell. Not funny, not fun. Just dry and full of low-brow puns (N*Suck and Brood being the most “inspired” and “scathing” parodies in this useless piece of shit). I ask for another extension, and provide some mock enthusiasm to set their minds at ease. Pete is still nonplussed at having the puppet walk.
I try to change the subject as quickly as possible. Yustin starts doing the Flazzum voice. He’s loving the idea of this play more and more. My heart sinks.
Pete (or someone; I can’t really remember) reminds me that we have to include another element (some character we talked about early on). Oh. Fuck. I had completely forgot. He wasn’t in the rough draft. He wasn’t in the outline. I would have to add him in (if the script is this late, I felt the need to accommodate EVERYBODY).
I said (with mock confidence): “Oh, yeah, dude. He’s totally in the script. Just you wait.”
What was making things worse was that my mind was drifting to other projects. This idea for a novel, an idea for another play. Both actually got the creative juices flowing, both made me enthusiastic about writing. But I felt too obligated to work on “Never Stop Rocking.” I couldn’t work on anything else UNTIL I finished the rough draft. I had a pantry full of pudding but a plate full of broccoli that had to come first. And the broccoli had gotten unpleasantly stale. And I think there were worms crawling around on it.
I knew I was doomed. I was trying to push back the deadline for this thing because I realized that the Nosedive gang would not like it. I mean, at all, folks. Or worse, they WOULD. And on the flip-side, the longer I waited, the more anticipation the Nosedive gang would have. Expectation for this thing grew with each week I pushed back the deadline.
And, the longer I pushed back the deadline, the longer I had to wait before I could write something that interested me.
I was really not liking this whole writing thing.
Two of the actors offered parts in this show started losing interest. I don’t blame them, of course, because you can only wait around for an Off-off Broadway theatre company that doesn’t pay you for so long before you try to start looking for work elsewhere.
It was just as well. I realized that, as this was the first script that I was writing for specific actors, that the roles were decisively NOT for these actors. The more I try to write FOR Yustin, the less the character resembles anything Yustin is like as a person or as an actor. When I don’t give (say) Christopher Yustin any thought during the writing process, he plays the role perfectly, as if it was written for him all along. Don’t ask me why this is; it’s just part of my chemical makeup as a writer, I guess.
In June, I throw in the towel. A bunch of us are at The Raven again, and I tell Pete it’s not going to happen. It’s the first time (with Nosedive) that I failed to deliver on what I explicitly promised. My job in Nosedive is the most clearly defined: write the damn plays. And I didn’t. On one hand, it sucked. But on the other, it was a huge relief. I mean, HUGE, folks. I would never have to finish this shitty play and I could take it out in a back lot and shoot it.
The other fun thing was having to explain (over and over and over again) over a series of days that this project—that we’ve been boasting about and promoting for months now—was not going to happen. Not in the fall, not in the spring, not in the ever. It took months for me to convince Yustin that I wasn’t just going to “sit on it” for a bit and return to “Never Stop Rocking.”
It was the only script I’ve written that I’ve deleted from my computer. Nobody has a copy of that incomplete draft. Thank Christ.
Amidst feeling relief and regret from abandoning “Never Stop Rocking,” a bigger problem arose: what the fuck were we going to do for our next play? There was nothing written.
So, in about four weeks, I wrote “Two Parties,” our fifth (and possibly weakest) production. It was two to four months behind schedule (we like to have shows go up every six to eight months. “Two Parties” got staged 10 months after “Ruins” closed). Many Nosedive members were VERY disappointed (they were expecting a zany puppet show and instead they got “Ruins”-lite). But hey, at least I finished the fucker.
“Never Stop Rocking” was extremely informative for me and my writing. First of all, it is now an article of faith at Nosedive Productions: Never Again. True, I love the collaborative form of theatre, but collaborative in that you bring many people in to Do Their Thing. I don’t (and can’t) collaborate on scripts. I can’t write parts for specific actors. And if I try to write something specifically populace and crowd-pleasing, it becomes anything but. Oddly enough, the two plays I wrote primarily for myself (“The Awaited Visit” and “Mayonnaise Sandwiches”), when I didn’t think ANYBODY would get it (they just being two big in-jokes between myself and I) ended up being the most audience-friendly and reviewers’ fave.
After we closed “Two Parties” (in March 2003), nine months after I threw in the towel with “Never Stop Rocking,” Aaron Epstein, the photographer Nosedive hires, asked me, “So, when are you guys gonna do that play about Orpheus with the puppets?” I nearly punched him.
Writing for commission,
James “Pinocchio” Comtois
June 25, 2004