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.

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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

I Sent My Grandma Into the Past (Full Show)

I recorded all three performances of the show but it’s always tough deciding how best to present the results. Do you upload the Friday show, which had a bigger & louder audience response but wasn’t necessarily as accurate to the page? Do you upload the Saturday show, which was more accurate to the script in some parts but in others had some “oops” moments? Do you pick and choose whole scenes from all three nights to best represent the show, as I did with Christmas Heist? Or do you hodge-podge together a Frankenstein’s monster of all three, editing and splicing dialogue from one night to cover another’s flub, and editing between nights wherever possible?

Ultimately, I have chosen to upload the entire Saturday show, mostly unedited – save for the obvious fade ins and outs. While it didn’t have as big of a response as the Friday show, it was better performed, had the fewest technical problems (read: the microphones were all on the whole show) and it was, for the most part, the performance that most represented the script on the whole, despite an ad-lib here and there, and poor Jordyn’s stumble in Act 2!

Without further ado, please enjoy “I Sent My Grandma Into the Past! (And Other Chronological Conundrums)”

Recovery

WE DID IT!

I Sent My Grandma Into The Past (And Other Chronological Conundrums) played March 30-31 and April 1 at the Mueller Civic Center to wonderful reception by the community.

As these things tend to go, I inevitably ended up with a pretty awful cold performance week, with it peaking in intensity on Friday and Saturday – two of the performance dates! All three performances would not have been possible without the help of Deana Roberts, who diligently kept me full of Theraflu, Mucinex, and a variety of cough drops, fluids and other helpful goodies.

But most of all, the cast and crew of I Sent My Grandma pulled out all the stops and gave phenomenal performances, despite some minor technical issues on the back end. No matter how hard I was trying to stifle a disruptive cough, I could not help but grin during Zach’s “beat poem” (Pictured above) which of all scenes probably had the loudest and most raucous audience reaction – and rightfully so. Zach’s over the top dramatic reading kept getting better and better each night as I could observe him playing off the audience’s reactions: the harder they laughed, the more of an affectation he put on.

Whether it has been Jamie Klotz, Christmas Heist or this, the thing I have always anticipated the most is the crowd reaction. If we’re eliciting any reaction, I’ve done something that has affected people, good or bad. Thankfully, the crowd was open with their laughter and reactions to the scenes.

The thing I’m most proud about in this script is what I feel to be strong, relatable characterizations. Every character gets a chance to shine and for the audience to learn who they are inside and sympathize with them. When the crowd cheered Grandma Margaret’s final interaction with her best friend Betsy, I knew we’d succeeded in making both of those characters strong enough for the audience to care. When the audience audibly cringed during Spencer and Zoey’s argument at the end of Act 1 as Spencer criticized Zoey, I knew that even though Zoey was the protagonist they cared about, they could tell she was still imperfect as person – and they cared about that. I’m really excited to be able to start developing stories with complex characters and hope to do so in my future projects.

So what’s next then?

Well, of course in August will be Never Been to Graceland’s premiere but as that is in post production, I am functionally project-less as far as having anything to write or start production on. I’m certainly going to take some recovery time after this show, but I do have a couple story ideas I’d like to pursue later this year and into 2018.

Stay tuned… I may have an announcement or two soon…