Monday, January 21, 2008

Not Feeling the Melodramatic Love

There's a small theater here in Dallas called Pocket Sandwich Theatre. The main item on their menu is pocket sandwiches, so it's not just a clever name, my friend. They do a wide variety of plays, but their bread and butter is the melodrama.

A melodrama is a silly play where the audience is invited to participate by cheering the hero, booing the villain, and sighing wistfully for the damsel in distress. These plays are crammed so full of bad jokes that they're in danger of collapsing in on themselves, and they are acted so broadly that no scenery is left unchewed. A piano player provides the musical score, and popcorn is provided (at 50 cents a basket) so the audience will have something to throw at the cast. It's intentionally bad theater, and it's a hell of a lot of fun.

My friend Sean and I have been going to PST (as we aging hipster doofuses like to call it) since the mid 80s. In fact, it was the summer after my freshman year at Texas Tech that Sean and his girlfriend of the time took me to see Fu Manchu: The Melodrama, and I was hooked.

All through the 90s, we were regulars at PST. Our table of choice was the "moose table," a booth along the back wall decorated by an enormous stuffed moose head. And after seeing dozens and dozens of the melodramas, Sean and I came to realize, 'Hey, I bet we could write one of those!"

Our first effort was in 1992. We decided it would be fun to write a swashbuckling pirate play, so we went to work on Blackbeard: The Melodrama. Our plot was pretty threadbare, but we had one gag that was guaranteed to kill. It was my idea to start Blackbeard off as a regular looking guy. Then, near the end of the first scene, he loses an eye. Sometime in the second scene, he gets his hand cut off. All through the play, he loses body parts until the last act, when he shows up with an eyepatch, a hook, a pegleg, etc. It was comedy gold, I tell ya!

We met regularly at Jason's Deli, which was right next door to Pocket Sandwich Theatre, and we hammered away at our plot, trying to stretch it out to the requisite three acts. And just about the time we got our first act into shape, PST announced their brand new play, Captain Blood: The Melodrama. And one of the gags involved a man who starts off relatively normal, but who loses body parts over the course of the play until he's left with an eyepatch, a hook, a pegleg, etc.

(To this day, I still maintain that it was an unfortunate coincidence. Sean, however, is convinced that somebody overheard us and stole our ideas.)

We were a bit disheartened and abandoned our efforts for several years. When we started talking about writing another melodrama, I suggested we try to come up with a genre that hadn't already been done. Sean suggested we meet somewhere else besides Jason's Deli.

Monster movies and science fiction had been done to death, so Sean and I brainstormed to come up with something different. Sean wanted to do a film noir, with gangsters, a private detective, and a femme fatale. We played around with the idea for a few weeks, but we just couldn't think of anything to do with it. Then, one night, we happened to catch Stalag 17 on AMC and inspiration struck. I suggested we write a melodrama making fun of WWII POW movies, such as Stalag 17, The Great Escape, and Bridge on the River Kwai. Sean suggested making our emcee General Patton, and we could have him stand in front of an American flag when he was introducing the play.

One by one, we came up with great bits and hung them on the basic plot of Stalag 17 (with a little bit of The Great Escape and Casablanca thrown in). A group of American POWs, led by the dashing and handsome Colonel Francis Blake, have made several failed attempts to escape from Stalag 18. A couple of British pilots, recently shot down over Wankendorf, are brought to the stalag and interred there until they can be taken to Berlin for questioning. But one of the pilots is actually the beautiful Marie LeVoleur, a cross-dressing assassin in the French underground. And, as it turns out, she and Blake were once romantically involved. So, in order to keep her from falling into the hands of the Gestapo, they come up with a ridiculously convoluted and totally retarded plan to help her escape. We named our play The Great Escape from Stalag 18: The Melodrama.

Now, the TV show Hogan's Heroes had been a parody of Stalag 17 as well. In fact, the character of Sergeant Schultz had originally appeared in Stalag 17 (although he hadn't been nearly as buffoonish as his television counterpart). I knew comparisons between our play and Hogan's Heroes were inevitable, but I wanted to downplay them as much as possible. When Sean pitched our play to Pocket Sandwich Theatre, he emphasized that it was a parody of WWII POW movies, and that it was based on Stalag 17 and The Great Escape.

So in September 2005, we submitted our play to Pocket Sandwich Theatre. In December 2005, they told us that they'd loved it and wanted to add it to their 2006 lineup. They eventually scheduled it to run through July and August. Sean and I were, in a word, ecstatic.

We met with the director in March, and the first thing he told us was, "I really like this play. It's just like Hogan's Heroes!" He also gave us some notes and requested some modifications. Some of them rankled me a bit, but most of them were sound and made total sense. (He wanted us to flesh out one of the bad guys, bringing her into the play earlier and giving her a proper come-uppance at the end. He also suggested shifting some of the bits around so the play would flow better and the acts would be more balanced. He suggested some subplots that we could weave into the main story to pad it out a bit.) We made the requested changes and the play went into production. And, much to my chagrin, it was billed as "a spoof of 1970s WWII television comedies."

It was my first real theatrical experience, and I have to admit that it was a blast. All of the actors seemed to love their parts (Sean and I had labored to make sure just about everybody had at least one memorable bit). The director had come up with some slapsticky interpretations but, as I mentioned before, lowbrow is the name of the game with these plays. I had no complaints.

Until the last dress rehearsal, that is. I knocked off work and met Sean up at PST to watch them go through it one last time before opening night. Everything went swimmingly. It was pure magic. And then, they got to the last scene and suddenly our hero Colonel Blake is delivering this plodding, unfunny speech about how they'll keep trying and trying and won't rest until everybody has escaped, so get back to digging and blah, blah, blah.

Our original ending had been a takeoff on Casablanca's "This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship." The director apologized to us and said he'd tried to make our ending work, but he just couldn't, so he'd written this other one.

I was furious. I hated the new ending, and didn't see where it was any kind of improvement over the original. It was just a clunky, unfunny coda. People accused me of being defensive, but it wasn't like I felt the original ending was sacrosanct or anything. I was just pissed that the director had taken it on himself to rewrite it instead of asking us.

Opening night, the audience was packed with people who love me and Sean. (There was also a celebrity in the audience... no one I know, but apparently he has a show on Nickelodeon or Disney Channel or something). We took our usual seats at the moose table. Stephanie attended the show with me, looking astonishingly hot and making me feel like a real stud. The director invited us to come backstage for a toast before the curtain went up. I was never involved in anything remotely theatrical (unless you count a decade of marching band), so it was all swanky. Add to that the tens of dollars that Sean and I made for our writing effort, and I was really feeling pretty goddamned glamorous.

Despite the new ending (or maybe because of it... what the hell do I know?), the play was apparently a success. Most of the performances sold out. Sean stayed in touch with several of the actors, who wanted to know when we were going to write another one. The guys at PST started bugging us for a new one as well. So in December 2006, Sean and I got together and discussed our next magnum opus.

We still liked the idea of doing a film noir gangster movie type thing, and we brainstormed plot ideas for hours. We riffed on movies like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, but we couldn't think of anything funny to do that didn't come off like a fifth rate Carol Burnett sketch. I suggested doing something akin to Scarface or The Godfather, about a young man's rise to infamy in the world of organized crime. But still, we couldn't help but feel like it had all been done before.

Then, Sean hit on the brilliant idea of making our hero a masked avenger, like The Shadow or The Spirit. He envisioned some guy in a dark trench coat and fedora wearing a mask and wielding guns. Playing off of that, I suggested we go with a radio serial theme. Our emcee could be the radio host and could remain a character throughout, narrating the action. One of us (I can't remember which) came up with the idea of adding horribly dated commercials to the mix ("Sophisticate Cigarettes, now with asbestos to prevent lung fever.") As we hammered out our plot, our noirish story became rather outlandish. Our hero evolved into a shadowy mystic who was orphaned in the Himalayas and trained in the inscrutable arts of the Orient. After several rejected names, we finally settled on Captain Phantasm. His opponent, whom Sean dubbed Dr. Noir, was a maniacal French genius whose scheme was to poison the Metroville City water supply so he could sell his bottled water to the masses. The first and second acts ended with dramatic cliffhangers, and the second act even featured a musical number with lyrics by me and Sean. It was gold!

In September 2007, Sean and I finally finished Captain Phantasm vs. the Nefarious Dr. Noir: A Melodramatic Serial in Three Parts and sent it in to PST. Then we sat back and waited for a response. And waited. And waited. And waited. Sean followed up with them to make sure they'd received it.

We finally heard back from PST a few weeks ago. It seems the person who is now responsible for reading the new scripts is the man who directed The Great Escape from Stalag 18. He emailed Sean to let him know that he'd gotten behind in his reading, and hadn't managed to get to "Capt. Nefarious" yet. So we won't make the 2008 schedule, but we will "go into next year's consideration."

So we'll see. Sean's the one in touch with PST, so I'm unloading all my prima donna demands on him. "Tell them they can't make any changes to the script without consulting with us." "Tell them we want to be involved in writing the promotional material." "Tell them we don't want any brown M&Ms in our candy bowl." I'm sure they'll come back with suggestions/demands of their own.

But I'm not really feeling the melodramatic love this time around. Despite that, Sean and I are about to start on our third and likely final collaboration (not counting the Blackbeard fiasco). It's a murder mystery entitled Dial M for Melodrama, and we're going to be ripping on geezer mystery series like Murder She Wrote, as well as all those Law and Order and CSI shows.

And if Pocket Sandwich Theatre says no, I guess we can always act the goddamn thing out with hand puppets and post it to YouTube...


Professor said...

The Pocket sandwich theater sounds like so, so, so much fun!!!!! My dad is gonna be in Dallas in the spring so I might have to send him that way! And kudos on your first play's success- despite the ending- damn directors think they can take eover everything- um, can he say writers strike? hahaha!

I just wrote a melodrama skit for the girls varsity basketball team division pep rally.... uh, yeah. playin to the masses... yeah, right. Show time is Feb. 12. during 7th period. Be there or be square. Will Mastermind Mustang save the girls? Will Prince Porcupine quill them all? Stay tuned...

Irb said...

Hooray, Mastermind Mustang!
Boo, hisssss, Prince Porcupine!

If your dad goes to Pocket Sandwich Theatre, be sure to have him mention my name! Not that he'll get anything for it, but it'll make me look good ;-)

Farrago said...

Consider yourself a successful playwright! Whether or not anyone outside of that neighborhood in Dallas or your blog is aware of it, you've had a play produced and performed in public. That's pretty damn something to be proud of, and the director's tinkering with it is just par for the course for that sort of thing. You have to be a bit of a whore for it all. And if he didn't remove your names from the writing credit on the poster, where's the harm?