One Weekend Down

So “SideQuests: The Princess & The Peasant” is a thing. Opening weekend has come and gone and we have one brush-up rehearsal and three remaining performances before the show is a wrap.

At the time of my last post, we had just held our first read-through. The show has come through extensive changes since then, not least of which was the title.

I did, in fact, find the subtitle “The Un-Adventures of Blink” to be a little too video game-y, so three or so weeks before opening – and before most of the marketing had gone out – we changed the title to “SideQuests: The Princess & The Peasant,” which makes way more sense and is an easier sell, especially when making comparisons to films like “The Princess Bride” in terms of tone.

The new title also is a bit of an intentional misnomer – obviously for most of the show the assumption is that the titular Princess and Peasant are Rana and Blink, respectively. In the final scene in the show, where the subtitle is actually uttered, it’s revealed that it’s actually about someone else entirely.

The script is about the right length, but it’s only thanks to the help of our stage manager Nate Hein and the stage crew that the show is able to be pulled off in roughly a page-a-minute. I would be remiss not to also thank the costume designers Stacey Martin and Jenna Harrington, who dedicated at least, if not more, time to the show than even the primary cast members in pulling out some elaborate designs. Similarly, Daryl Person and Dan Van Bibber made many of the set pieces possible, and a massive team of cast & crew pulled out all the stops to paint the scenery on the revolving flats and static backdrop.

The cast went through some minor shake-ups as well. For a good chunk of the early rehearsals, Skeeter Bite Productions vet Jake Pannill (Indiana Jake from back in the Week in Hot Springs days, Gus in The Christmas Heist) was playing Sir Billiam, but he unfortunately had to drop out. However, that opened up an insane and not-entirely-coincidental spot for Zach Cox, who had originally played Blink back in 2016, to jump in and join the cast as Sir Billiam.

And wow, what a change Zach’s energy brought to the show. His cocky yet cheerfully charming portrayal of the pompous, arrogant and selfish Sir Billiam added a whole new dynamic, especially in his interactions with Breanna Remington, who played Billiam’s squire, Rowan, and Blink himself, Jesse Powers.

Jesse had, only a couple years ago, played the role of the young brother “Billy” in “I Sent My Grandma Into the Past.” Billy was essentially a Dennis the Menace-esque 50s-era troublemaker archetype, and with that show being Jesse’s first, he played it very timid. Man, what a difference 2 years makes. At age 15, Jesse is able to carry the whole first half of the show without much problem. His portrayal of Blink is a little more awkward and shy than Zach’s more assertive approach in the short film, so he has his own spin that you absolutely buy into as soon as you hear him start to speak.

Zach joining in partway through – and bringing that sort of quiet earnestness that he had brought to Blink, Spencer in “Grandma,” and Robin in “Christmas Heist” – really made me reconsider the character of Sir Billiam and as we rehearsed, there was a gap in the show where we needed some dialogue to cover Blink’s filling up Rowan & Billiam’s canteens, so I dashed out some new dialogue between Billian & his squire to not only fill time, but also allow Billiam the one moment of letting his guard down, and it ended up becoming one of my favorite parts of the show.

I really will have to sit down and write a lengthier blog about the character of Rana, probably after the show’s run finishes, so I can talk spoilers, but suffice it to say that in SHCT newcomer Abigail Kreilaus, we found someone who could really take that character and run with her, and surprised the hell out of me once we cracked what made her tick.

The character of Lexi, too, who had only really come about in the last month or so before auditions, found shape in Paetyn Van Bibber, who has really just blew me away throughout the run at her intuition as a performer at such a young age. As a nod toward the Jamie Klotz’s Diary movies, I pulled out the purple hoodie that had been purchased (and never used) for Jamie Klotz’s Diary 3 and passed it on to Lexi – and although it’s not mentioned verbally in the show, a prop work order for the Narrator character canonizes Lexi as Jamie’s cousin.

And that little frog puppet, who had made his way into my life back in 2009 for “The Frog Gump,” got his own little hat to match the one worn by Craig “CR” Gates, who plays Gorf in the show (which had been Oliver Juhl’s role in the short.)

If I can be a bit candid, I have been disappointed with the attendance over the first 3 nights. They’re very much “on par” for our previous normal summer shows (excluding the musical HMS Pinafore), but for the sake of the 40-odd cast & crew, who have put their heart and soul into this show, I had really been hoping for more, and am really banking on the Arts & Crafts Festival to drive more people to the show next weekend.

But I always end up being the eternal optimist, and I am already looking forward to what other projects I might be doing on the horizon. I had been worried for a long time after Graceland that maybe I was done for, and had used up all the good ideas, but now that I’ve possibly found some fun new collaborators through this show, I have been inspired with some new ideas. As usual, most of them probably won’t go anywhere, but I am excited to just have ideas again at all.

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This Frog Puppet’s Come a Loooong Way in 10 Years

Hey so writing on this thing is a thing I still do like once or twice a year… apparently when a show or movie is coming up. Gotta justify that domain name and hosting cost just a little, right?

We held auditions back on April 23rd for the summer production for Southern Hills Community Theatre’s 7th season, SideQuests: The Un-Adventures of Blink.

I first started brainstorming the story for SideQuests in late 2014, well before I had written The Christmas Heist, just shortly after the very first outline of Never Been to Graceland, and even before we’d finished filming Jamie Klotz’s Diary 2.

The concept was literally as simple as this: what would a story look like where you followed a background character? This at its core isn’t a new idea: one need look no further than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as an example of this premise at play. Certainly there’s no shortage of minor characters and reluctant heroes developing into something more significant or commenting on the absurdity of the larger story.

But what if you took that a step further? What if there was a character who wasn’t only a character of no importance, but actively pursued that as the status quo. Dropped into a fantasy backdrop, I thought a series a short films filmed in summer 2015 would make a great way to try this concept out.

An early logo draft for SideQuests from 2015-ish.

Even as early as March 2015, I had several characters outlined: Blink of Springshire, Princess Rana, Sir Billiam, and Lord Phil (later Lord Poe). The initial plan was to film 4 different shorts, each representing a different style of video game side quest and commenting on it. There would be an overarching plot that would play out as well in the background – the larger story of political intrigue in this fantasy kingdom, with the idea that the “real story” was merely peripheral to whatever Blink was doing.

  • -There was a Fetch quest, where Blink would seek out a magic lamp for a wizard and would in turn receive several potions from the wizard
  • -A Delivery/Trade quest, which spoofed the Legend of Zelda-esque item trading and would have Blink running from town to town progressively getting more frustrated at how many errands need running;
  • -A Random Encounter quest, which played with the idea of procedurally generated game missions, with Blink and Rana encountering NPCs that spoke in looped dialogue and fractured sentences meant to serve up random quests, as well as copy-pasted enemies and NPCs, with Rana, an “important” character finding this extremely bizarre and Blink, a nobody, not finding anything odd at all;
  • -And an Escort quest, which would essentially be the culmination of Rana accompanying Blink throughout the 4 episodes and it being revealed she was in fact a princess the whole time, thereby upending Blink’s entire mode of thinking
The frog puppet that appears in SideQuests as a short film was first purchased for an unfinished short in 2009 called “The Frog Gump.” Bits of this were released as part of Skeeter Bite Scraps.

By the end of March 2015, I had gone as far as writing a partial script for the Escort quest – from Blink getting the potions from the wizard to him first seeing Rana, to him serving up the potions to Sir Billiam and his “fellowship” of traveling adventurers. By the time I finished with the 11-page script, I realized that I had barely touched on the actual Side Quest itself and had instead cracked something more interesting and substantial than just some quirky video game references.

Having stopped writing the shorts in pursuit of a longer, larger story that tied better into the material I’d written, I called off the planned filming as I was wrapping up post-production on the first cut of Jamie Klotz’s Diary 2. Then The Christmas Heist began ramping up in mid-to-late 2015 and I put SideQuests on the back burner, although I think I may have mentioned it offhand to the cast at the time.

After Heist, my headspace was pretty different from when I’d started writing Graceland, so I pretty much scrapped everything and started over on Graceland‘s script. In mid-2016, to distract myself as Graceland was coming closer and closer to reality, I had continued developing the world of SideQuests, fleshing out the characters of the Royal Advisors, Sir Billiam’s Fellowship, the process of Princess Rana’s Appraisement (later, the Proving Ceremony) and a sweeping, overarching story. But my biggest struggle was trying to understand what made the character of Blink tick.

The final logo for SideQuests

The initial idea of him avoiding being anyone important is not actually as simple as it seems. It’s totally at odds with everything in a writer’s bones, and to have him be internally consistent, I had to sit and think about, in every scenario, how is he going to avoid actually doing anything of importance? And as a reader, you want to root for the protagonist. Even anti-heroes and reluctant heroes have their cheerleaders. I kept getting this weird feeling that Blink was unlikable in some way.

When I finally sat down to start writing again, I tried writing it as a narrative. It was there that I wrote the first words that would define Blink and his journey right up front:

 

Blink is not a hero.

Don’t root for him because he will only disappoint you.  …

You see, Blink took a vow to never be a hero; to never be anyone or do anything important. As far as he knows, he’s the only person to have ever taken such a vow, and it has served him well. 

That was it. For Blink to work, you just had to say up front: look, this guy’s going to disappoint you. And then you have the freedom to deliver on that. I didn’t get far on SideQuests in that format, though, before Graceland beckoned.

What I did realize, though, was that although I’d been editing Jamie Klotz 2 well into 2015, I hadn’t actually directed anything on video since late 2014, when we had made The Black Owl – and that, too, wasn’t finished yet. So before I went off and made Graceland, I quickly wrote up a script using some scene ideas I’d had between Blink and Rana, got Zach and Isabel, who had been in The Christmas Heist, to play the characters, respectively, and we roped in Oliver Juhl to play the character of Gorf, a dentist’s son who’d been magically turned into a frog.

Dusting off my camera and abilities, we went out and shot the short SideQuests: Gorf in a single day, on August 14, 2016, just a mere couple

The frog puppet also appeared as one of Jamie’s blind dates that Kaitlyn set her up on in Jamie Klotz’s Diary 1 in 2013. The exact puppet will also be used in the stage version of SideQuests.

weeks before Never Been to Graceland would start filming. Graceland took over and once more SideQuests, even with all the footage on the hard drive, got set aside for the time being, and wasn’t even touched until after we’d wrapped I Sent My Grandma Into the Past, the spring 2017 show I’d written and directed for SHCT.

I started fooling around with the footage in April 2017 as a distraction from the editing of Graceland, giving it some warm Hobbiton-esque color grading but it wasn’t until November that I finally finished it, and I didn’t publish it online it until New Year’s Eve 2017, nearly a year and 4 months from when it had been filmed.

Around that same time, I’d gotten together a group of youth actors to help me do a brief read-through of some of the archival Skeeter Bite Productions scripts and material for a retrospective documentary that would eventually blossom into Skeeter Bite Scraps in 2018. We were able to record a read-through of the SideQuests “Fellowship” script.

The rear of the promotional cards

The positive reception of this material gave me reason to believe the story was still worth pursuing, so after the 2018 SHCT season finished, I asked the board if I could develop SideQuests into a full show for the 2019 season. There would be a bit of a time crunch to write the script but I already had nearly 40 pages of scripts, scenes and story written, along with a more fleshed out outline to follow, so they gave me the go-ahead.

And that’s pretty much how I got here. The script for SideQuests isn’t quite as long as The Christmas Heist, but it’s a bit longer than I Sent My Grandma Into the Past. I think it’s got the potential to be funnier than either. I am still a little worried about the title – it might be a bit TOO video-gamey but I managed to make that an integral part of the story, and made a point to include a definition of the phrase on our promo touch cards we’ll have the cast handing out.

One of the last and most fundamental changes to the story actually came within the last month before we wrapped the spring show, Leading Ladies. For quite some time, the story had had two separate Narrator characters that would jump in and out of the story, and ultimately they were to be become the rulers of the kingdom since they had the most knowledge of any character in the story. It was funny, but it seriously lacked the heart that had been present in the earlier shows I’d written and I was stumped how to bring it home in an emotional way. I finally cut one of the Narrators, had the other quit halfway through the show, and brought in a completely new character, a young girl named Lexi, that could serve as the audience’s perspective into this crazy fantasy world. Lexi’s love of video games helped to better clarify immediately in the first scene what a “side quest” actually is, and a twist in her story that not only could tie into the relationship that builds between two of the antagonists but also help give Rana someone to relate to, finally gave SideQuests the heart it needed.

It remains to be seen how the story will play out. Certainly there will be changes to the script as we’re rehearsing. In The Christmas Heist, there were at least a couple entire (albeit short) scenes that got cut or integrated in part to other scenes, and I’m sure SideQuests will evolve as well. But I can’t wait to share the story with everyone.

Oh, and as I did on The Christmas Heist, I filmed the read through in anticipation of the moment in which the big twist is revealed… which got a nice big reaction from the cast. You can see some open and covered mouths at the shocking revelation in store for audiences when we perform this puppy in June.