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Friday, August 31, 2007

Fringe director diary: The big one

A long-ass installment in which you catch up on the progress of Law & Order: Musical Victims Unit.

Posted on Fri, Aug 31, 2007 at 1:23 PM

JUNE 6 I drop a note to Chuck Teed: “If I wrote a Law & Order musical for the Fringe, would you write the music?” The reply comes back within minutes: “Fucking right I would.”

JULY 18The mail brings news that the musical got accepted. I don't have a script and only two half-attached actor-musicians.

JULY 21I wake up feeling like shit, which is fine because there is a torrential downpour on the go. I manage to make it outside and downtown for about an hour in the late afternoon. When I get back I pour vodka and soda water into a Mason jar and put on Rock School. About half an hour in, the play’s story starts filtering into my brain and I begin assembling index cards on my living-room wall, just like real screenwriters, trying to rough out a structure.

I’ve decided I will try to write the play like an episode of L&O without commercials, AKA a spec script -- 42 minutes, four acts plus a teaser. The teaser is the bit before the credits sequence, the finding-the-body section of L&O, and the acts are the chunks between commercials. Law & Order has a very specific structure: 21.5 minutes each are spent on the crime-solving and the trial. You can set your watch to it: by half-past the hour you’ll be in the courtroom. Every act should end on a plot point (also known as an act break, because it comes before the commercial break) --- basically something should happen that changes the direction of the story. (Speaking of which, the Law & Order signature sound, officially called the “Ca-ching” but heretofore known as the “Chung-chung,” has rules too: only two in each half, and only when the story changes, not just location.)

I spend the early evening sorting the cards, spending way too much time on crap like “neon green marker = song.”

By 8:30 I’m pretty drunk and have switched to A Prairie Home Companion, but have also written the opening scene. When I finally stop writing to watch a 3am episode of Clone High, I’m surprised to discover 20 pages of script have fallen out of me.

Halfway in about eight hours.

This is how writing is working for me these days -- I think and think and think and then the push comes out of the blue.

What I don’t even realize until the next afternoon when I see a newspaper is that in the single hour I was out a man was murdered less than two blocks away from my house.

JULY 29Signs the universe wants me to finish the musical: I haven’t been able to get internet in the house since Thursday, the Simpsons at 10 has started back from the very beginning, tonight’s rerun was about police dogs and a random SVU was on CTV. (Dani Beck, hot as your makeout with Elliott was, you are a bad actress.)

First draft finished, 12:11am, Monday July 30, to the tune of “Give a Little Love,” from the new Rilo Kiley album.

JULY 30I send it out to Denise Williams and Chuck, my most trusted readers, who are a non- and total L&O fan, respectively.

Denise tells me she smiled through it but needs to read it again.

I spend the night re-watching the SVU season finale and figuring out names, which so far are things like “Victim,” “Witness” and “ADA.” Dick Wolf named Benson and Stabler after his own kids, Olivia and Elliott, so I start with a similar tactic, naming my detectives after my cats, Kate and Steve.

I haven’t heard from Chuck yet about the script and whether he thinks he could write the music. But I can’t wait -- the Fringe starts August 31. I draft a long-ass form letter and send it out to my top casting choices, promising them fun over money.

I approach mostly musicians. Two reasons: (1) I need to use the connections while I’ve got them and (2) I think musicians make great actors because they know how to perform but they don’t have any theatrical tics. My short film, i said the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud, starred Brian Borcherdt and Jill Barber. It worked out wonderfully.

I don’t audition anybody. I just send out the notes and the script and wait.

Predictably, there are a lot of conflicts. It’s summer, people are touring. Some people can make two shows but not five, some people will be away for five days in the middle of the rehearsal period, some people are away now. It’s hard to nail down eight people for three weeks for no pay.

But within a week get my cast together. Daniel Ledwell of In-Flight Safety signs up to play the police Captain. Tanya Davis is encouragingly stoked about playing the Assistant District Attorney. Steph Johns, my former office mate and Stolen Mink, promises to play the victim, Joan Tate, when she gets back from her cross-country tour. Amelia Curran makes a similar promise regarding Detective Murphy. She’s someone I never would have considered had I not judged a Halifax Dancing with the Stars-style competition as a fundraiser for Live Art Productions in the winter. Amelia was one of the celebrity dancers, and she was terrifically funny and wearing an electric-blue leotard, totally flipping the image of her I was familiar with, that of singer-songwriter of heartbreaking songs. But she’s got the gravity needed, cop-wise, and, of course, a terrific singing voice, so I presume she will be perfect.

I stack the rest of the cast with people who don’t normally act but I know will be awesome: Matt Charlton as the falsely accused yet dirtbaggy perp (“Thanks for thinking of me...when you think of jerks” he emails) and my Coast colleague Mike Fleury as the witness, Wyatt Smith (I know of his singing prowess from the office’s karaoke Christmas bash, and his accent proficiency from day-to-day office life).

Matt Lumley I met in an otherwise useless writing class last year, where he was an actor who performed one of my shitty scenes. He blew me away, and I’ve been wanting to write him something for a long time. There’s even a file called “Untitled Matt Lumley Project” on my computer, full of a script that looks suspiciously similar to my first film. Anyway, he’s happy to come aboard as Detective Steve Nolan.

I tell them we will start rehearsal around August 17.

AUGUST 4Chuck emails me: “I am on page 6 and have tears in my eyes.”

From laughter.

This is good.

I write and ask if he can compose and record the music by August 16. He is doubtful.

I make him a little package with a hard copy of the script plus a DVD of the musical episodes of Scrubs and Buffy the Vampire Slayer for inspiration.

AUGUST 13Chuck calls and emails with ominous messages. He’s started figuring out music with his friends Chris Fudge and Peter Cullen, leaving me with such encouraging missives as: “Don’t punch me in the face, but we had to change a few things”; “We had to kill some babies”; “Don’t be mad, but...”

I decide I will take the Acadian Lines to Hampton, NB, where they live, to sit in on the weekend recording session.

AUGUST 18I arrive at the Hampton Irving just shy of 8pm. I left Halifax at 12:45.

When we get to Chris’ house Chuck decides he needs some booze so we drive to the liquor store. As he navigates the car down the steep driveway, he asks, “Do you have permission from Dick Wolf to do this?”

“A little late to be asking that question,” I say.

AUGUST 19Less than 24 hours later I am on my way home with new lyrics to input. Anything they’ve changed has made the songs better. Any tune I used to write them has since been forgotten, replaced with country hoe-downs, a crazy rock song and an epic finale. They’ve done an incredible job in a tiny amount of time.

AUGUST 20I hold the first rehearsal at the office. Every single girl in the cast is still on tour so we are four people short. I play Murphy and divide the rest of the girl parts between Matt C and Danny. I also provide a six-pack in an effort to distract the boys from how nervous I am to be in a leadership position.

Danny tells me In-Flight just booked a show on opening night...in Shediac, NB. I mentally begin working on getting Sean MacGillivray to fill in.

I tell them the music should be on hand tomorrow.

AUGUST 21No music yet.

AUGUST 22The music arrives over email at the end of the day, just in time for me to slap together a CD. Steph Johns is back from tour and takes her place as Joan.

We read through the script and play the songs with their temp vocals as recorded by Chuck, Peter and, um, me.

AUGUST 23Amelia and Tanya are back too. It’s an interesting process, to keep starting over and adding new people.

I’ve discovered that even though I sent everyone the script upon inviting them to the show, no one has read it—they just signed up on faith, or something.

(Amelia: “Wait, who do I kiss?”)

This is both flattering and ridiculous.

AUGUST 30We have come a remarkable distance in 10 days. We’re now fully choreographed and everyone knows their lines and songs to the point where they can have fun with them.

Today is our technical rehearsal. I haven’t thought much about lights and such.

I throw up in the shower.

The DANSpace room is easily double the space we’ve been working in. People practically have to run in from backstage.

We have a final, exhausted rehearsal that night, sitting around with beer, just testing the lines. Everyone’s on their game, but a little sick of seeing one another in this context.

AUGUST 31Opening day. My big jobs today are to find a table and a gavel. Krista at the Khyber hooks me up with the former; the dollar store in Scotia Square turns up the latter. I should thank the dollar stores of HRM, actually -- all of our guns and handcuffs and badges came from various locales around the city.

In the morning I send out a note saying I wish I had an inspirational speech in me, but instead I offer the tagline from Friday Night Lights: Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.

It goes over like gangbusters.

Three hours to showtime.

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