Friday, April 7, 2017

World Dominance for Beginners

I wrote a play called World Dominance for Beginners. Here’s how it came about and all the behind-the-scenes stuff involved in its production.

In the Summer of 2008, I wrote a short story about an organization that secretly runs the world, along the lines of the Illuminati. In the story, I toyed with the implications of an office romance in such a setting.

The idea of using it to make a play was on the back burner for a long time.

Along the way, Dad and I joked at one point that it might be fun to write a play that explained all conspiracy theories: Bigfoot, aliens, Elvis, etc.

In the Fall of 2016, I decided to give it a shot. I wanted the story to be an exploration of music and math, right brain and left brain. I started working on the outline.

I wrote the rough draft during Christmas Break 2016. We had the read-through in January. The students of Hyland were gung-ho and ready to go.

They took this weird idea and they made it work. At some points during the production it looked like the story was just too clunky to come together, but the cast was amazing and pulled it off big time.

I called the organization The Fulcrum. I made sure to present it as something very distinct from the Illuminati, since there’s a bunch of political and religious baggage with that. I scribbled a horrible rendition of a symbol to represent the Fulcrum and Ethan White made it cool. It was his idea to make the poster based on a manual.

The first scene involved Mr. and Mrs. Nitly, played by Matthew Christman and Caitlyn Taylor. They did such a good job of playing this troubled, silly couple. I knew I wanted to start with a famous conspiracy. I considered Bigfoot, but decided aliens would be easier on the costume department.

We made the alien heads with paper-mache and giant plastic Easter eggs (for the eyes). We used the pages of the trashy romance novels that were accidentally delivered to the building several years ago. (That’s another story.)

Leon’s shrug was meant to be a signature image for the character. I stuck it into the first scene and we didn’t end up using it that much. But it worked in a couple of unexpected ways. Ivy was able to use it against Leon sarcastically and a week or two before the performance we decided to use it for the very ending. This is why when Mr. and Mrs. Nitly meet Elvis, Mr. Nitly turns to his wife and shrugs.

All of the names of the characters came from people associated with music. Tennille was one of the more obvious ones (obvious to us older people), but I didn’t necessarily intend to draw attention to her name. However, during the final rewrite, because Emery was wearing goggles, I put three of the characters on a boat for whale-watching. At that point, the Captain and Tennille joke was inevitable.

I like inside jokes—or at least jokes that only a few people might get. The periodic table joke was one of those.

One more thing about the first scene—it’s very fun to play with the audience’s expectations. We talk a lot about how the audience is going to react when the lights first come up. A tiny, run-down cabin was designed to throw everyone off. With such a big-concept title, we wanted to start with the extreme opposite.

I left a spot open for a cameo by writing a short part for a librarian. I had no idea who might play it, but it worked out really well when alumni Tim Andrews and Matt Borgelt were able to get onstage again.

The script required a short elevator scene. But the actual elevator itself was an accident. We needed a larger planter for the Mandatory Garden, so the amazing set guys built it. However, it was hard to know what to do with it during the other scenes. The set guys started tilting it up on end to keep it out of the way. One of the girls casually asked, “Is that the elevator?” And we looked at each other and said, “Why yes it is.”

Matthew Christman’s lighting was just right. The elevator music (written and performed by Mark Phillips) was the theme song from a previous one-act play called She = mc2.

I wanted the supervisor of the Fulcrum to have an unexpectedly non-powerful name. So I called him Benji. The character constantly drank Pepto-Bismol. I figured that if you were in charge of running the world, an ulcer would just be part of the job. I was surprised to discover that Pepto-Bismol bottles nowadays are not pink. We couldn’t have Evan Vance (Benji) drinking Pepto-Bismol for two months. So the cast came up with a great solution—strawberry milk. That’s a pretty good gig.

The Gardener was a direct result of the Mandatory Garden concept. The character is at least distantly and loosing based on a character Anna Wilcox came up with for another play called Mobius. In that, Anna played a military-style yoga instructor (who she actually met in real life). I thought it would be perfect for the Fulcrum to have a very stressful person in charge of relaxation. Matt Christman made everyone break character many times during rehearsals. The night before the first performance I asked Daley Reitmair (Tennille) to cry when he yelled at her. She did it perfectly.

All the actors made their characters distinct and memorable. During rehearsals, we tried to come up with ways to develop their quirks. All of the actors made their characters come to life so quickly.

Emery is a good example of how a character grew during rehearsals. At the beginning, we only knew she would wear goggles. That developed into whale-watching as her facade. We also worked on her being annoyed with Maynard’s constant quotes.

I decided that anyone working for the Fulcrum would have to be there all the time, but since it is a secret organization, they couldn’t their loved ones what they were doing. The solution was that they would contact their loved ones with a fake story about where they were. That’s what led to the “facades.”

At one point, we considered developing a love triangle between Leon, Ivy, and Maynard. But there wasn’t enough time.   

Maynard ended up being a composite of two characters and the end result was a very unusual bad guy—which was great.

The first Mandatory Garden scene was extremely hard. Between the Yahtzee and the Italy façade and all the character interaction, we worked very hard to make it work. It ended up turning out really well.

We ended up using one of those hammock chairs that sink way down when you sit in it. It turned out to have a very funny part in the play. I have Anna Wilcox to thank for that. I was getting ready to replace it because I thought it was a distraction. Then Anna came to the first run-through. Afterwards, she recommended not only keeping the chair, but emphasizing. It was a great idea. Lydia took the idea and made it work. Anna helped upgrade the play in many ways like that.

My daughter Ippi got to be in the last scene of Act I. Allie Becker (Dara) did such a great job of making Ippi feel comfortable. We weren’t sure what Ippi would do on stage. Even though she was very talkative in the audience and back stage, once she was out in the lights, she immediately clammed up and just looked around. Originally, Benji was supposed to yell at Dara for bringing her niece in, but I was afraid it would make Ippi cry.

Ethan White and Lydia SunderRaj did such a great job with the romantic story line. Since it was so essential to the main plot, it was vital that it work in an effective way. Their interactions leading up to triggering the crisis was exactly what I had hoped for.

Once we had the characters somewhat fine-tuned we developed specific interactions between characters. Nachelle and Matilda are a good example. I kept thinking that if quirky people were under the stress of running the world, they would definitely get on each other’s nerves. Tiffany Bennett did a great job of expressing Matilda’s frustration. And Abbie Vance (Nachelle) had some of the most difficult lines. Believe it or not, I think she was the first of the actors to memorize all her lines.
Every play needs some good bad guys. Maynard and Nadine did it exactly right. I gave him the nerdiest name I could think of in order to make him seem the least threatening. Later, more than a few people commented about how from one point of view, the Razers were actually the good guys since they wanted the world to run itself. I had considered that too. If we had had time for an Act III, we could have explored that dilemma.

Victoria was the only editor in the story who reveals what country she’s running. She did wonderful at learning how to speak Canadian. While working on the outline, I decided to not reveal who was running what country. On one hand, it would have been tempting to make jokes about who was really running certain nations. But I ended up not wanting to go there. The play was more about love and power—not really about politics.

The desks in the Button Room had crisis lights that needed to come on at specific times. My original idea involved these lights coming on after people had left their stations or even after they left the room. But that would have required running wires to the stations. This was one of the first complications we ran into. Marcus Christman solved the solution by giving each desk its own switch. This required the actors to slyly turn the lights on at the right moments. Which they did wonderfully.

The planter in the Mandatory Garden ended up being a real challenge. We had to block the action so that it wasn’t obvious there was no actually no passage leading down. We worked on that many, many times and it worked better than I expected.

The biggest complication of the play was not what I expected at all. It was the suitcase.

In order to make the climactic scene work, we needed two identical cases. Originally, I wrote the scene, imagining the character inside an equipment case of some sort. When I realized a suitcase would be more feasible, I went back and made the suitcase relevant to earlier scenes.

It was hard finding two identical suitcases that big without costing an arm and a leg. Virg and LeNae West saved the day. They found the suitcases at a thrift store. Even though one was blue and one was black and red, Sierra Martinez (Gabrielle) and Lydia SunderRaj (Ivy) painted them perfectly.

Since the suitcase was a pretty significant aspect of the story, we made sure Lydia was okay with being inside a suitcase for an extended time. I’m so glad she was up for it. One of my favorite moments during the performances was when Leon first opened the suitcase and Ivy crawled out. There was no doubt the audience did not expect it—not even a little bit.
When we first started working out how to put the suitcase up on that first high ledge, we were very cautious. Initially we considered Lydia simply standing on a ladder, but that was too precarious. Instead, the set crew built ledges on the back of the stage for her to sit on. She assured us she felt safe and it worked so well.

Long before we actually worked on the climactic scene, we tied a rope to a much smaller suitcase and swung it downstage—to see how far out we could get it to swing. The rest of the Ganglion set was designed around that moment. From what I understand, when the suitcase first fell from the ledge and swung out over the edge of the stage, we fooled a lot of people. We fooled far more than I hoped for.

The climactic scene in the Ganglion ended up being divided into two parts. The suitcase and the fight between Leon and Maynard was Part I. The subsonic waltz was Part II.

Part I was choreographed and then rehearsed I bet twenty to twenty-five times. The lines in the actual script were minimal so many of the lines were improvised by the actors. Even during the performances, improv continued.

Part II was also rehearsed twenty to twenty-five times. Ethan and Lydia had waltzed together before in a production of The Sound of Music, so that part was already ready to go. We worked on the fight over and over. The slow-motion part was a result of lots and lots of hard work. The challenge was that all the action had to submit to the soundtrack. Once the track began, everything had to move forward at the right speed and in the right way in order for it to all culminate into the big reveal.

We split up the fight into two sections—stage left and stage right. We brainstormed about what each character would be doing during the struggle. As a last minute decision, I decided to put Nachelle up on the ledge, sipping espresso. I thought that was pretty funny.

Here’s where I need to give lots of acknowledgement to Mark Phillips. Months before the play, I asked him to make a subsonic waltz. He said, “Okay.”

All the music is from scratch. But he said that he probably spent over twenty-four hours just on that piece. And it was his idea to use the Daisy song. He was also the one who told me about the Daisy Bell computer-generated song from 1962. I only knew I was going to use the song because of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mark’s input took it to a whole new level.

This is where I should also mention—get the soundtrack! Pay attention and you will be amazed how many times he worked in the Daisy snippet in subtle and elegant ways.

The ping-pong subplot was mostly inadvertent. It just kind of surfaced along the way, so I used it in the final scene as a symbol of Leon’s love for Ivy. Before the performances happened, for Valentine’s Day, I gave my wife Sarah a ping-pong paddle with a bow on it. I didn’t tell her what it meant. But when she went to the play, she figured it out.

I decided it would be fun to bookend the play with another conspiracy. I thought it would also be nice to see Mr. and Mrs. Nitly once more time—this time in love and happy. I should also mention it was a happy accident that Sierra’s red hair gave Gabrielle a kind of Scully / X-Files presence to the play.

We decided on Mr. Nitly giving a banana to Elvis, partly because a banana would be more visible and partly as a nod to Ice Cream and Bullets.

It was fun ending with Elvis.

Here are my favorite moments for each actor:

Marcus Christman (Maynard)

     slo-mo fight with ropes

Matthew Christman (Harvey the Gardener / Mr. Nitly)

     “And no Twilight!”

Ethan White (Leon)

     improv during the Ganglion

Lydia SunderRaj (Ivy)

     angry about “subtraction”  

Caitlyn Taylor (Rhona / Mrs. Nitly)

     “Hello…my name’s Rhona…”

Sierra Martinez (Gabrielle)

     being Scully-ish in the first scene

Evan Vance (Benji)


Allie Becker (Dara)

     “This delete button says, Delete!”

Tiffany Bennett (Matilda)

     “Muhammad Ali”

Dailey Reitmair (Tennille)

     crying when the Gardener yelled at her

Jenna White (Nadine)

     “Shame on you, Maynard!”

Hannah Gutierrez (Emery)

     “They’re laughing hysterically.”

Abbie Vance

     the dead cat speech

Aubrey Reitmair

    “And you’re over there—with no one.”

Cambrey Reitmair

     “Would you like some horse-do-overs?”

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