Saturday, 23 February 2019

Possible Breakthrough

Anyone who has read this far knows that "story" is what we, as audience, seek from a musical theatre piece. I know it's true but have resisted or, as I prefer to imagine it, have tried to adjust the concept of story until it includes what Oak Floors! is doing. (Or would, were it ever produced.) 
The story belongs to a group of people and the building that houses them. We might observe that with both, the adversary is time passing. We might claim love in a time of loneliness.
But that might not be story enough. So as soon as I finish this entry--and head over the gym to watch Scotties curling on TSN--I'm going try giving it all to Patty, a university student on the delayed-degree plan, who after all (or before all) was the image that got me going on the musical in the first place--Patty locked out and buzzing names to buzz her in and chatting for two seconds with five or six other tenants until the door just opens, a slow click, and Patty walks in.
What I mean is, maybe loneliness, if that's what it is, will resonate more widely if expressed through a single character rather than scattered like dust over everything in the play. 

Monday, 4 February 2019


Musicals rhyme. As you know, dear Reader, I've been packing a rhyming dictionary for two years working on Oak Floors! 
When it works, rhyme is beautiful, not to mention necessary for audience satisfaction. As when Eliza sings

I only know when he
began to dance with me
I could have danced, danced, danced all night. 

in My Fair Lady, or when Adelaide laments both her cold and her reluctant boyfriend in Guys and Dolls:

You can spray her wherever you figure
The streptococci lurk
You can give her a shot
For whatever she's got
But it just won't work
If she's tired of getting the fish-eye
From the hotel clerk
A person
Can develop a cold

Let's add this playful but cannibalistic exchange between Sweeney Tood and Mrs. Lovett (best heard and seen, as here in a West End revival):

TODD: What is that?
It's priest. Have a little priest.
Is it really good? 
Sir, it's too good, at least! 
Then again, they don't commit sins of the flesh, 
So it's pretty fresh.
Awful lot of fat.
Only where it sat.
Haven't you got poet, or something like that? 
No, y'see, the trouble with poet is
'Ow do you know it's deceased? 
Try the priest!
But for budding poets, like the 14 in my Creative Writing class, my advice is to avoid it. If there's anything to the equation I've been pitching--material (one's store of stories, experiences, desires, fears, etc.) + craft = art--the problem with rhyme is that it's a craft issue that diverts beginning writers from going for the heart(s) of their material. For these writers, rhyme is one of those things--like "poetic language," beginning lines with caps, elevated imagery--more to be cleared away than encouraged. 
I suppose that sounds pedantic. It is!

Tuesday, 29 January 2019


Almost four years ago, writing the history of Regina's Globe Theatre, I came across the story of Florence James. For decades she'd run one of the most oppositional cultural orgs anywhere in the States, her Seattle Repertory Playhouse in Seattle. Inevitably, she ran afoul of the McCarthy-lead House Un-American Activities Committee, the self-proclaimed Commie-exterminators. Hounded out of the U.S., she got a job with the CCF government here in Sask, hired as the first Drama Consultant of the brand new Sask Arts Board. 
For the next 15 years, Florence did everything for theatre in these parts--teaching, dramaturgy, producing, writing, directing, adjudicating, giving workshops, and so on. She knew what the province needed was a professional company. Having heard about Ken and Sue Kramer, she found them some Arts Board seed money to start that company in Regina in 1966. 
A few years later, Florence retired and moved to Ottawa to live with her daughter. Ken Kramer remembers that one day at Globe he got a call from the daughter, saying, "Ken, have you got something mom can do? She's driving me nuts."
Now it was Kramer's time to find some money to hire Florence. She did everything around the theatre--from pouring lemonade at intermission to giving notes during rehearsal. She even acted once or twice. Playing the maid in Three Sisters, Florence, whose vision was going, needed help to move about the stage, so Kramer wrote himself a role that allowed him to be her on-stage caddy.
But the point of my story is this: At one point, somebody said to Florence, "Isn't stuffing envelopes too trivial a job for someone of your stature?" to which Florence, bless her heart, replied, "There are no trivial jobs in theatre."
That's a story that makes me cry. 
And it enables me to embrace a task like the one I set for myself today: painting a 7-foot elm on cardboard. The flats of cardboard I'd retrieved from the Ace Courier dumpster the other day; the paints (tempura, in greens and brown) I'd picked up a week ago. My first-ever gig as scenic painter, and it turned out--take my word for it, dear Reader--pretty well.
It's the tree Pete will carry on stage at the top of a scene we're doing at the TicTocTen festival at Artesian on March 9. Pete's about to sit with his coffee and enjoy the park in summer, once he installs our tree.
Since the tree is made out of two flats, maybe Patty will carry the leaves on and install them, leading to her exchange with Pete . . .

Wednesday, 16 January 2019


Somebody said Patty was an old name that, therefore, didn't work for the 20-something university student (on the delayed degree plan) in Oak Floors! Maybe so, but Patty is still Patty.
In an hour I'm going to meet an actor/singer to hear her try out three of Patty's songs. This is to check the vocal range and to see what character emerges through the song. 
Carter is working on the music, producing lead sheets (melodies and chords) that notate more sophisticated harmonies than I provided with my simple piano versions (that, no matter how simple, are a challenge for me to play).
There's also a Patty in the Frontenac, where I live, but I didn't know that when I came up with the name.
If Patty becomes a problem, I'll try Abbey.

Friday, 11 January 2019

How Long

I'm always saying how long it takes. As in, "How's the musical going?" "Well, it's a long-term process." 
Last night I met with Carter Powley, a musician who has agreed to convert, for a fee, my simplistic piano versions of 15 tunes to lead sheets--melodies with chords (more sophisticated, harmonically) and tempo markings. Any skilled musician will be able to play the tunes with the lead sheet alone. And down the line, a Music Director for the world premiere of Oak Floors! could use the lead sheets as a basis for full scoring of the tune.
This is the kind of moment that keeps the project alive and moving ahead. Slowly.
Here's another one: I got home from the meeting to find a memo from Frontenac Apartment management. (There is already a song in the show called "Put It In a Memo.") This one offers "rental incentives," which gives me an idea for a song made of monologues in which my characters offer incentives . . . No idea yet how or why they would do this, or when, but it's one of those promising notes for future development and, therefore, another alive-and-moving-ahead moment.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Getting It On

Robert McQueen notes that to build your show, you have to get it on its feet. In the case of Oak Floors!--now somewhere into its second draft with three songs cut, two more written (lyrics only) in the last month--exactly. I can read the thing, let somebody else read it forever. But until I get it on its feet, with music, in front of an audience, it will never reach whatever potential it might possess.
Today I finished listening to the cast recording of Fun Home. Devastating. Worthy of endless study for music and story structure.
That brings me back to McQueen, who directed the Toronto revival last year. He's coming to Regina soon to co-teach, with Globe Theatre Artistic Associate Stephanie Graham, a one-week musical theatre intensive workshop in the middle of Feb. Yours truly will be on hand.
However great that week will be, it's not an on-its-feet thing for my Oak Floors!
What is, is the TicTocTen Short Performance Festival in March, at which I and one actor and one musician will do one piece from the play. A little scene in which Pete, the complainer, goes on about the size of trucks these days, until he ends up driving off in one. (Frivolous, to be sure. Especially after having evoked the wonderful Fun Home.)
Little by little. Thursday I'm meeting with the musican/composer Carter Powley about his work producing lead sheets or piano reductions of 15 or so songs from Oak Floors! Tonight I'll read a chapter or two in Music and Words: Creating the Broadway Musical Libretto, by Lehman Engel with annotations by Howard Kissel. Tomorrow I'll work on Act Two of the play, then drive to my first creative writing class of the semester, the Broadway revival cast recording of Porgy and Bess playing along. 
By all these means--the work, the reading, the listening, the meeting--the cause advances, one hopes.
Of course, every so often (maybe daily, maybe not for a month, maybe in the middle of the night) I wonder just what the hell I think I'm doing. As I've said here before, the answer is easy: I'm digging the challenges, the impossibility, the slow accumulation of clarity re my project, the belief that this is what I've always been  working toward. 
We'll see.

Monday, 10 December 2018


Since my stint in Cypress Hills in early September, the text of Oak Floors! turned over by about 5% at most. That changed today. It was the middle of last night when I woke up with an idea for a rhythm with which, guided by the Flaneur, we could hear five characters (four individuals and a couple) identify themselves and their stories in about a hundred words each. The scene establishes their isolation from one another. Which is about to change when Patty gets down to business. Jettisoned is the long-time opening scene in a downtown park, where miscellaneous urbanites, busy at their newsfeeds during their lunch hours, sing of the walls--different ones in each case--that tend to hold us but, paradoxically, give us something to sing about. That scene was one of the first ones to get written down, over a year ago. I've long wanted it to work but, for now at least, it's out.
Why I call all this a breakthrough is that the rightness of the new opening derives from emotion rather than analysis. It feels satisfying, and I'm pretty sure it will tomorrow too.
I notice, too, that the new opening addresses some of the concerns I may have been pooh-poohing in previous entries. I'll leave it to you, dear reader, to check back and see.