Writing my new solo play: the mall Santa

You can check out the first part of series on writing my new play here.

I’ve known from pretty early on that there was going to be a mall Santa in this play. It seemed like such a perfect way to quickly get to what the story is about. But I didn’t want to just write what I thought being a mall Santa would be like, so I did some research.

There are some articles you can find on being a mall Santa online. For example, The Ultimate Guide to Working as a Professional Santa Claus, How Do You Become Santa Claus, and We Talked to a Former Mall Santa About What It Takes to Be a Mall Santa; all three are really good articles.

But those articles, as good as they were, didn’t offer quite enough information. So, I found a documentary called “I am Santa Claus“, which features WWE wrestler, Mick Foley, who wants to learn to be a Santa. In addition to Mick, there are a bunch of other Santa’s that are profiled. Some of them are just delightful, and a couple are kind of unpleasant, but it definintely gives a sense of what the Santa gig requires.

So, given that this play involves Yule monsters like Krampus, Perchta, Grýla, and Belsnickel. So what does a mall Santa have to do with that? Consider that all of the Yule monsters (with the exception of maybe Grýla and the Yule cat) have been enslaved by Saint Nicholas and made lesser. So here’s a mall Santa, embodying the person of Saint Nicholas, and what if he accidentally sets them free of their servitude? What then? What would he do? And what could make him go so far? What would make him do something so terrible?

Well, it would take an extremely terrible child….

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Writing my as yet untitled November solo play

I had an idea. And the idea was really just that: the barest hint of an idea. But it was enough to start something, to start the wheels spinning in my head. I’ve talked about this before, about writing the poem that inspired me to dig deeper and research more. And I’ve talked about the process, and filling a notebook and then seeing what I’ve got. Now I’d like to talk about putting it together. Because I’d filled a notebook, and I transcribed what I had and learned about the themes I was looking at. I’d done some research and learned more about the Yule monsters and the companions of Saint Nicholas. I learned about more than just Krampus, but of Perchta with her knife and her thread, about Pere Froutard and Belsnickel, and about the Yule Lads, Gryla and the Yule Cat. And more.

So how to put all that into a play? Could that become a play? These were ideas, and they certainly interested me, but were they enough to make a play with? I wasn’t sure. I still needed a starting place. And I found it in what became my thesis, and this idea formed the backbone of everything else I wrote. The idea, went like this:

Christmas is a lie. The whole peace and joy, goodwill to men thing; Christmas Joy, Santa Claus, elves; these are things added to sanitize the season, a salve to soothe the fear, to cover the danger. But it is still there. You can hear it in the howl of the wind, the crunch of the snow, the bay of the wolf. And you can feel it in your heart. You know its there. We all do. Deep down, we feel it. That’s why we cling so desperately to the idea of Christmas joy, Santa, elves, and goodwill to men. Because without those, we’d have to give in to fear. Because the truth is, the season itself…it wants to eat us alive.

 Is that going to be how the play starts? I don’t know yet. I know its an important part, but whether I actually need to have those words in the script is still up in the air.

What else have I learned about the play from transcribing what I put in that notebook? Well, for one thing, I know there’s a mall Santa.

More on that next time.

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So, how did you write your solo play?


So how did I write my solo play?

A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me that very question. I had mentioned that I was working on a new one, and she asked how I do it. Now, there are lots of people who will tell you how to turn events from your own live into a one person play, and if that’s something you want to do, then I highly encourage you to look at them. But that’s not what I did with the Commandment, and that’s not what I’m doing with the new piece. I write characters and stories, so turning my life into a solo play wasn’t something I wanted to do.

I’m not an expert (I have only written one and a third of solo play so far), and I can only tell you about what has worked for me. And I’m going to be honest this method isn’t fast. It took me eight years to write the Commandment, and I have until September of this year to finish the new one. There’s a big difference between these two time frames too: for The Commandment, I spent 7 of those years with absolutely no deadline, which meant that there was nothing driving me to finish it. So I didn’t, until I had a deadline. Deadlines are a powerful motivator.

But to begin: I had an idea for the Commandment: An atheist finds out that he’s been chosen by God to deliver His new commandment. That was the beginning, and a constant from the start. The first line I wrote, also remained unchanged: “The first time God spoke to me, I was on the toilet.” Of course, I didn’t know at the time that those things would remain the same, but that’s how it turned out.

I had a concept, and a first line. And the next thing I did, was I got a notebook, and I started writing around my idea. I say “around my idea” because that’s more accurate than saying I wrote about it. Because I didn’t write in any linear fashion. I would think about the idea, and write a bit. As I wrote I learned a bit more about the my character and who he was, as well as what happened to him in the world. I also wrote different little stories on the topic. Sometimes I wrote as my character, Thomas, and sometimes, I wrote from another point of view.

And when I finished the note book I transcribed everything I wrote. I learn a lot about the themes of what I wrote when I transcribe. And I get my first inklings of what might be working and what might not. Stuff just didn’t work, I put aside. Once I’ve transcribed I started arranging the sections that made the cut into some semblance of a product that might be performed. And then…I get a new notebook. And I fill that too. Rinse. Repeat. And Repeat.

Once I got into Hamilton Fringe with the thing, I knew that if I was ever going to get it into performance shape, I needed some people to hear it. So I got some trusted people together and read it to them and got their feedback. Which I used to keep working and refining: writing new bits, making changes to existing ones. Once I brought my director Richard Beaune into the picture. Things got a lot more focused, and we refined and then refined some more.

And eventually the play was ready.

I find myself repeating this process with the piece I’m working on for performance in the fall. I have filled a notebook, I transcribed, I arranged, and now I have a new notebook.

But there’s a different kind of urgency this time. When I started The Commandment, I had no deadline. I could write as long as I needed to. This time, I booked some performance time at The Red Sandcastle for the end of November of this year, so there’s a finite period of time. There’s more pressure to write and to make it into something sooner. But now that I’m looking at it, even with a more compressed time, the method is essentially the same.

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I booked the space before I had a play – bad idea or best idea?

I had an idea for a new play, a new solo piece (because apparently, I caught “the bug” with The Commandment), and I wanted to make sure that I didn’t spend the next eight years writing it, like I did with the last solo piece, and so I knew that I needed to light a fire under my ass. Because I know that I need that. If I don’t have it, it will be a thing I want to write, but that I don’t really have to write, which means that I won’t.

But I’m getting off topic. I had an idea. First I wrote a poem about a Christmas monster, and then I started to think about all the other Christmas monsters, the ones who were once gods and the ones who were always just monstrous, and what they mean to the holiday we cut and pasted over Yule and Saturnalia. And so, I started to read about them and their origins. I started with this book, and then found more. And so I started to write. I spent some of the time over my Christmas break writing. And then I booked a space. I called up Rosemary at the Red Sandcastle Theatre, and rented the space for the end of November 2018.

And that lit a fire, let me tell you. Every time I look at a calendar, that adds some fuel to the fire. Because it sounds like a long way off, but it comes up quicker than I’d like.

So I’m writing, with a deadline, to make a thing to perform in November. And I don’t know what its going to be yet. And that’s exhilarating and frightening.

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There’s Audience Enough for Everyone

A number of years ago, I was at the Montreal Fringe with Keystone Theatre. On our first day, we attended a seminar by solo performer Cameron Moore about how best to promote your show at Fringe. Cameron gave some great advice, but one thing that she said stood out for me. She said: There’s enough audience for everyone. And for me, that one sentence was transformative, not just in the way that i look at Fringe promotion, but in the way I look at promoting theatre in general. See, I believe that this concept, the idea that there’s enough audience for everyone applies to all theatre. Because the people who are inclined to see something that I am producing, are (in my opinion) likely to be inclined to see something that you are producing. They just have to know about it.

Sometimes, in theatre, and especially in indie theatre, we’re a little precious with our audiences. Its almost like we treat our audience like little birds, and if we open the little cage we keep them in, they’ll fly away and never come back. But I think that this is completely wrong. I think that an audience member who sees the work of one artist, will be hungry for the work of other artists. This doesn’t diminish the work of the first artist. It helps everyone grow.

I’ve approached a lot of what I do theatrically with this phrase in my mind: there’s audience enough for everyone. I’m always happy to talk about other people’s productions, even if I have my own in production. And I’m going to continue to do this. Its one of the reasons I started Stageworthy Podcast. Because I want to expose the work of many artists to as wide an audience as possible.

There’s enough audience for everyone.

So that’s my challenge to everyone this week: share the work of another artist or company this week. Talk about someone who’s work you have enjoyed.

this is the text of my Stageworthy Podcast opening thought from the episode published March 21, 2017

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