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….

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.

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.

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.

The Commandment: Breaking the Silence in More Ways Than One

Since 2005 much of the theatre I have created has been with Keystone Theatre, a Toronto theatre company that takes its inspiration from silent film. The plays that we create have all been in Keystone’s signature silent film style, which means that when I appear on stage, I wear white makeup, and most notably, I don’t speak on stage. My character might “speak”, but at no time do I make a sound. My “lines” are expressed through gesture and physical detail, but never through the spoken word. I have not spoken aloud on stage in nearly 5 years.

Rehearsing The Commandment has been a process of relearning how to do a lot of things I used to take for granted. Things like how to breathe and speak on stage. And how to remember lines. I went into this thinking that remembering lines would be easy, because I wrote the play. But writing isn’t the same as acting, and so the process of learning was not made any easier by having written it. I struggled with learning these lines more than I have with anything I have ever written or performed before. I think there are two reasons for that: first, its more lines than I’ve ever had to learn before, and second there’s some personal stuff in the play that has never been easy for me to talk about.

When I say personal stuff, I don’t mean that the play is autobiographical (I’ve never had god speak to me while I was using the toilet), but I did use writing the play to deal with the suicide of someone I loved very much.

When I first came up with the idea for The Commandment, I told myself that there was no way that I was going to turn it into something that might have any elements from my own life in it. This wasn’t going to be theatre as therapy or anything like that. It was going to be a somewhat silly, completely fictional story about a guy who finds himself in a bad situation. But it wasn’t working very well. It was missing something.

I had the idea for The Commandment, the premise, and I’d been trying to write it, but something wasn’t working. At the time, it was reading a little more like stand up act than a play. It had no emotional core. And I didn’t know where to find one. I didn’t have anything that I could draw on because I was fine, right? So I put the play aside and told myself there was nothing there.

In 2006, I picked up a copy of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. I’d heard about the play and was told it was blowing audiences away. I knew I had to read it. And it was good. But it didn’t blow me away. Until the last few pages of the play. Judas speaks to Jesus, for the first time, and he’s pouring out all his pain, and I feel something. Because he had this anger that I felt, and he is, in many ways, saying what I’d been hiding from. And then, he says “All I know is that you broke me unfixable – and I’m here”, and that’s what breaks me. Because that’s what I was, that’s what was pushed way down inside that I’d been hiding from. I couldn’t even start reading the final monologue of the play, because the floodgates opened. And I started to weep the same way I did at the funeral. And then I got angry. And I had to do something with that anger. I had to deal with it somehow. And I channelled it into The Commandment, and then I had the core of the play, its heart.

I had been so mistaken about my own emotional state. I thought that I was fine. I thought I had dealt with it because I had wept so much trying to deal with Erika’s suicide. I had known about her depression, it wasn’t a secret, but when she took so many pills that she died, that was a shock. I had assumed that she was in control, that her depression wasn’t as bad as that. But I had been so wrong, and in the days before and after the funeral, I wept until I didn’t have any tears left. And then, I thought I was fine.

But I wasn’t. I was angry at Erika, but it’s hard to be angry at the dead. We tend to forgive the dead and make them saints in our minds; we don’t “speak ill of the dead”. So how to deal with the fact that I was angry at Erika for what she did? I didn’t. I buried it. I held it in. And I told myself I’d forgotten it, that I’d dealt with it.
We’re a society that doesn’t do a great job of talking about death. We have lots of euphemisms that help us avoid the topic. Someone “passed” or is “no longer with us”. And when the death is a suicide, we have even more trouble with it. We don’t talk about that part. We don’t even have good euphemisms for that. The obituary might say that they “died unexpectedly”, but it will never say that they died by suicide. Even at the funeral itself, we’ll dance around the topic. And in the end, because no one is comfortable talking about it, the people left behind, the friends, the loved ones, end up feeling more alone and more lost, because they just can’t talk about it the way they need to.

The Commandment isn’t a play about suicide. It’s a play about someone in a bad situation, coming from an even worse situation. Its comes at the topic from the side. It’s not a play that throws suicide at you right away. The main character is dealing with some pretty big stuff. Like being a reluctant prophet, and his life being ruined. The play has this comedic premise (An atheist who finds he’s been chosen to deliver God’s new commandment), which provides a few laughs before it ever deals with the serious stuff. But when it comes, it doesn’t turn away. It says the words. And it looks the aftermath of suicide in the face, and finds some peace in the end.