A Mammoth Theatrical Experience

It’s been like a fever dream. One minute, I’m wrapping up a full remastering of the entire Skeeter Bite Productions archive (more on that in a later post!!!) the next, it’s four months later and we’re almost ready to open the first show of Southern Hills Community Theatre’s 6th season.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that because it’s being staged in Hot Springs, “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” has anything to do with the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, but in fact it does not. The show, instead, draws from the experiences of Kathe Holen, whom I had worked with on The Christmas Heist when she played Mrs. Phyllis Falkowitz, and has an archaeological bent, not a paleontological one. Kathe and her husband Steve, as it turns out, are archaeologists and were among the co-authors of a paper presenting evidence that mammoth bones found in California may have been broken by humans almost 130,000 years ago.

That paper, published on April 26, 2017 (just a hair under a year ago as of this post) in the scientific journal Nature, rocked the archaeological world and was featured across the mainstream media. You name it, they covered it: Washington Post, NBC, ABC, NatGeo, NPR, CNN, Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, LA Times, The Atlantic… the list went on and on…

I had read about it and knew the Holens had co-authored it, but I guess, to be frank, I didn’t understand the weight of it until later. It’s probably a good thing though that I wasn’t as intimidated as I probably should have been when Kathe approached the board of SHCT with her script for “A Mammoth in Harmes Way.” While the script was not at all based on actual events, the inspirations are clear with an emphasis on controversial findings, backlash and skepticism in the scientific community, and accurately depicting real archaeology.

Among that was peppered a potent blend of fictional mystery, drama, romance and even hints of social commentary on women in science as journalist Beth tagged along on an expedition with Dr. Robert Hedlund, and his team of archaeologists and volunteers, unraveling not only a scientific puzzle, but a larger, darker secret surrounding the Harmes Way excavation site.

We were just on the tail end of the summer show HMS Pinafore, when I first read “Mammoth.” What immediately struck me about the script was the earnestness and honesty with which it was written. There were no cheap narrative tricks… there was zero cynicism. You could sense authenticity in every line.

Quite a good chunk of the plays SHCT have undertaken in the first five years were shows written by playwrights, men and women who churn out several scripts a year full time to keep revenue flowing. Formulaic is a generous description. But don’t get me wrong, they have their place – sometimes you want to go to a theater, turn your brain off, be entertained, get fed the right emotional beats, and leave without remembering the name of the show in six months.

Ten points for wistfully longing for the good ol’ days. Twenty-five points if they reference Shakespeare anywhere in the script. Fifty points if it’s a holiday show that’s an adaptation of “A Christmas Carol.” One hundred points if the plot is about staging a play-within-a-play, doing a radio or TV show, or writing scripts and things going awry.

The other night, I sat down to finalize the last of the Skeeter Bite archival transfers: I Sent My Grandma Into The Past, The Christmas Heist, and Christmas Radio. I hadn’t watched “Radio” since probably mid-2014. How much our little theatre has grown since then! Isaiah, who plays one of the leads, Dr. Robert Hedlund, in “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” was 15 or 16 years old when we did “Radio.”And I thought the last four months flew by, let alone the last 5 years!

It had been the first show which I had written part of (the bookends surrounding the radio play adaptation of A Christmas Carol – said script racks up 185 points at least, thankyouverymuch!) and the first show that I had directed. The Christmas Carol portion wasn’t anything to write home about, but those bookends, if I can humblebrag a bit, were pretty all right! Not great but I still think they’re kinda charming.

In particular, toward the end of the show, there’s a moment where Sam Martin, playing the Orson Welles knock-off Richard Ives, berates the radio station’s cast for all the production woes. But Isaiah’s character, Jack, stands up to him, telling him that despite everything, the little troupe had done their best with what they had.

At the time, it was an intentional coda to the whole season. It was the last show of SHCT’s first season. Sure there plans for the next year, but who knew how long the theater would live? I didn’t know if I would ever get to write or direct another show again. Betsy had taken a chance on me without knowing whether I even could write and I wasn’t going to waste it.

I knew when I read “Mammoth” that I wanted to take the same sort of chance on Kathe that Betsy had taken on me, and Kathe had expressed an interest in having me direct it if we thought the show was good enough to stage.

Kathe and I had a great sit-down meeting where we explored in great detail all the questions that I always ask myself whenever I am writing and directing my own material: Who are these characters? What are their motivations? What’s going on between the lines, before and after scenes? Why does this character know this piece of information and how did they learn it? How does one character feel about another even though they may never speak a line between them? Thinking about a story in a deeper, more self-critical way that’s equal parts objective and subjective was a lesson I myself had learned the hard way, especially on Never Been to Graceland. Knowing how it had been inspired by so many real elements in her life, I wanted to save Kathe the heartbreak of losing something beloved dearly late in the game like I lost AJ’s subplot in Graceland. Thankfully it wasn’t anything we had to really worry about!

After the dinner theatre was done in late October, we held a read-through of the revised script, with some theatre friends joining us and filling in roles. Hearing it out loud just confirmed that the show was ready to be staged.

So here we are, less than 24 hours out from opening night. But it’s more than that. It’s the first show of our 6th Season, the first without Betsy (follow her over on the As We Go blog), Kathe’s first, and for me, the first thing I’ve ever directed that did not originate with myself. That might not seem significant, but this year marks the 15th year working by and largely only on my own material. I’m thrilled that “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” is the first major project to break that trend.

Looking back, that scene from Christmas Radio takes on less of a manifestation as a coda than something resembling a recurring mantra: no matter what anyone else says, no matter how many things might go wrong, and though I might not do things as well as a more experienced or trained director or writer might, but we’re going to do the best with what we have and hope folks enjoy it.

I’ll be back after the show to write more about the podcast I started with Gurdip Ladhar, TCBCast, and share some neat behind the scenes stuff from “A Mammoth in Harmes Way” as well as start outlining what the next couple years are gonna look like project-wise.

-Justin

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