Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Good Things Come To Those Who Wait: On Half-Past Eight PM (Part Three)

A few years after the video version of Half-Past was made, I was in a different place in life. I had finished the two-year Journalism course I took after high school and, after deciding I didn't want to be a journalist, enrolled at University of Toronto for a highly useful, very worthwhile Bachelors program in English Lit. I was growing out of my self-imposed outcast ways, nearly as likely to go out for drinks or board game nights with friends as I was to be sitting in front of my computer on a Friday night.

Early in my second year there, I was standing in line for a Metropass when I saw a flyer advertising open submissions to the Victoria College Drama Festival, encouraging student-writers to get in on it. A lightbulb went on over my head. I had, after all, written the greatest, funniest, most original one-act play in history, Half-Past Eight PM. Surely the people in charge of this festival will be salivating for my inclusion once I submit my 20-pages of genius.

In the years since high school, I had lost the original version of the Half-Past script completely, but still had the video shooting script, which contained most if not all the original dialogue, plus my expansions, so I worked from there, rolling it back neatly into a usable form as a one-act play, trimming back most of the story moments that had not originally existed - Beth no longer has a chance to reject Mark, Billy's "job" is never called off because Louie is forced to kill Mikey, Perry's fiancée never officially finds out about his infidelity. All would be put right with the world.

I did take the chance to tinker under the hood some more of course as I worked the play into the best version of itself. I polished up the banter to keep it fresh. I reconfigured a few scenes to help the flow along. I spent time thinking about what I could really be saying with a character like Mark who idealized a woman he hadn't spoken to since high school, and who suspected that because of one night of bad behaviour he might not be worthy of her love. After knowing these characters for five years, I knew where the strengths of the play lay, and where the opportunities to improve were.

Shockingly, the Victoria College Drama Council opted not to recognize that I had written the greatest piece of contemporary theatre in the English language because my submission dropped with a dull, wet thud. I never heard back.

But that was okay. Someone else saw the potential there.

Cary was a friend of mine who had been just on the outside of this entire story. He was Mr. Drama in High School. Remember when I played the butler in The Importance of Being Earnest? He played the lead. He directed a play in the Fringe Festival the year after I had staged mine, while also appearing in our school producton of Twelve Angry Men (he was the second or third angriest one.) Most importantly, he had been in the audience of Half-Past Eight PM the first time and was openly impressed. And that meant something because based on our relative stations in high school he was under absolutely no obligations to spare my feelings if the play wasn't good. Instead he was a big booster of the project. in its various forms.

I found Cary haughty when we first met in Grade 10 - talented and smart and worldly and annoyingly aware of it. But I eventually found haughtiness was part of his charm. And his sense of self was so well-developed it felt like there was never any danger in genuinely hurting his feelings, so it was endlessly fun attempting to deflate him. (Deeply insecure people like me, we run the risk of people getting too real with us and touching a nerve.) As I grew more confident over the last year of high school and slowly developed a personality, we became friends, and hung out regularly through University - a neat trick considering he went to school three towns over from me. The Internet was good for keeping that going.

Cary remained involved in Drama both at University and in the community of Hamilton, Ontario. The previous year, he had appeared in a version of Alice in Wonderland as the Mad Hatter, for a small theatre group called Black Box Fire, who produced a small festival called Emerging Artists Series for local creators. With my blessing, Cary submitted the script to Half-Past for the next incarnation, and it was accepted. Half-Past Eight PM would live again for four shows in July of 2009.

Cary and I continued to develop the script. At his request I included a homeless character, and various in-jokes relating to people we knew - two additions that, having not come from my own brain I had a hard time paying off, but wanted to make my collaborator happy. He was great as a sounding board, always pushing me to develop things or rein me in as needed. He had liked the original play, but that didn't mean he thought it was sacrosanct - an important line to walk.

Although the movie was more expansive on a surface level, being that we saw more of the characters and their world, this was to be, in fact, the deepest incarnation. It carries a stronger emotional resonance, and gives a richer, more developed version of the backstories for Mark, Beth, and Perry, as well as the prostitute (now named Nancy instead of Carol, to avoid confusion with Perry's fiancee, who was now Kara instead of Karen.) Given how much I had matured even between 18 and 21, it was also more emotionally rich, delving into Mark's personality, analyzing his behaviour more.  (On the flip side, it's possible the play almost gets bogged down as character after character tells Mark essentially, "Here's what your problem is...") And it was funnier, with sharper back-and-forth that went to more interesting, unexpected and risque places.

There are two alterations of which I am especially proud in this version. Although the idea of bringing Karen and Elaine onscreen had taken the movie in a weird direction, the Elaine scenes were enough of a hit that I left her in. She returns to the stage to advise Mark in his dream sequence. This is something I changed in every version - from a random appearance by an unnamed dead Beatle, to a fourth-wall-breaking ghost, to now Perry's sidepiece who was in the back of Mark's mind. The scene was something that always felt necessary to leave in  yet never seemed to have reached its true incarnation. Even though Elaine, here, is the product of Mark's subconscious, she has the chance to speak for herself, even saying that she and Perry never slept together despite his testimony. (She describes a scene very much like what happened in the movie, where she storms out upon learning Perry is not single.) Of course this is all a dream, so either Mark is a psychic, or he, like the audience, just wants an excuse to absolve Perry - a subtle ambiguity I like.

The other tweak concerns Beth, who began life five years earlier as a stock template dreamgirl. After Alyssa's performance in the movie I continued the work of making Beth into a person, at least as much of one could exist in this farce. I gave her sharp back-and-forth with Perry in a flashback scene, some of which were taken from real conversations I had with female friends, which demonstrate where she fits in with that little trio of friends. I also gave her probably the biggest laugh in the whole thing with a line that singlehandedly explains why Mark might love this person. But I won't spoil it, in case someday the script surfaces and you get to read it for yourself.

Cary found an absolutely great cast from top to bottom - a Mark who hit the right balance of insecure and sweet, a Perry who was like a clone of Ryan Reynolds in how charming he could be while sleazing it up (and was given my blessing to improvise as much as he wanted wherever we though might fit,) a Billy who was physically imposing but able to hit the really fine comedic and emotional notes for the role, and sprightly, loveable Beth. The only issue was that the actor playing Louie the Mob boss hit his role a little too intensely, causing his abuse of Billy to come off less as mild annoyance and more as genuine bile. I was intimidated by him, not just because he seemed to relish cutting loose with Pacino-esque intensity onstage, but because his parents were a very accomplished Canadian comedy writer and a well-known actress.

Given I was living two towns over, I kept my distance during the creative process. I attended rehearsals intermittently, mostly just to watch the progress, and to feel my soul cringe as these highly-capable thespians had to make greatness out of the dreadful words I had put in their mouths. I offered few notes, leaving that to Cary, but provided alternate dialogue when it just didn't seem like something was working. I did go out for drinks with them at times, and had fun doing so, but being that I was not a constant presence, I sensed the cast and crew didn't regard me as much of a part of the ongoing process.

Cary had it all well in hand, not that it's a hard play to direct. I was in awe by the time the show reached dress rehearsals. That's when I heard the song. The tune Cary had selected to open the show began with a bouncy, almost sardonic brass fanfare, and a voice crooning - "They say that good things come to those who wait / If you snooze then you lose, so don't h-h-h-hesitate." I asked Cary immediately what this sonic alchemy was, which sounded great and lyrically encapsulated the theme of the show. It was "Through & Through & Through" by Joel Plaskett, which became one of my favourite songs of all time, and not just because of sentimental attachment.

A few years later I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Plaskett backstage at a charity show. Stammeringly uncool, I related this story the best I could. And with great graciousness he wished me well and told me to keep writing. We took a photo together, but you can't see me in it because he's 8 feet tall.

I made sure to wrangle as many of my family members to come see the show during its three-night run in Hamilton. However, when I suggested it would be okay if my Grandmother didn't come see it because of the sometimes raunchy content, she was offended. "You think I don't know how to swear?" the then-80-year-old matriarch of my mother's family asked, galled. She ended up enjoying it, I think.

Our play was partnered with another one-act comedy written by its director, called Cast Party, which was a bit of insider stuff about the drama that happens behind the scenes of a community theatre production (like this very show!) It was a fine-enough piece, but I felt bad they had to follow us night after night, given this was the exact kind of play Half-Past had been designed to destroy. It wasn't a contest, but audience members - and casts alike - mostly agreed that ours was the superior production (Cast Party had a vein of sentimentality running through it that ours deliberately lacked.)

There were four performances - Thursday, Friday, and twice on Saturday. Owing, I think, to both casts being sizable, and Cary's prodigious ability to self-promote, all but the Saturday afternoon show were packed houses. As much as I always think the material could be better, it is an incredible feeling to have over 100 people walk into a room, barely knowing what they are about to see, and leave gasping for air from laughing so hard. The toughest crowd we encountered, in fact, was when we brought our high school friends on Friday night. They sat in the front row and I watched from the booth since the house was so full. The laughter was incredibly slow to come, possibly because they knew the material so well - or because they thought they did and were maybe lost with the changes to the particular dialogue they remembered. I was tearing my hair out in the booth, crying, "Laugh already! You're supposed to be my friends!"

Eventually they did, and all swore up and down that the play was a success. The only person who was openly lukewarm about it was my brother Eric, who has never spared my feelings when it comes to my writing. I wouldn't want him to - he's a smart guy whose tastes I value, but having a theatre full of people eating out of my hand (four times in a week) really helped put his feedback into perspective.

One curious trend emerged. Occasionally, actors, crew, audience, or producers, would ask me about my inspiration. Where did it come from, and frequently, "How much of this actually happened?"

I didn't know how to take that question. As a young writer, am I expected to only be writing about things that happened directly to me? Is it so hard to imagine that I invented something out of nothing? Which parts might have happened - being in love with someone who is far away, having a friend who cheats in their spouse? Having a heart to heart with a snarky prostitute or potentially being targeted by a transgendered mafioso? Even the parts that are emotionally true are wholecloth fiction. It's both a compliment and an underestimation of my writing to come away assuming I was just reporting things that happened in my life. The truth is, when I came up with all this, at 16, nothing had happened to me at all yet that was worth writing about. I had to imagine what might happen, if I ever got out there.

People also liked to ask how long it took to write, and I equally was unsure how to answer that one. A few months? Five years? 10,000 hours? It came to me in pieces in drafts - when can I be said to have written the play they saw that night?

After the final performance, we had a cast party in one of the actors' houses. Cary and the crew - Assistant Director Erika and Stage Manager Kat - gifted each of the castmembers with Dollarama-bought Wall Clocks to commemorate the experience. The castmembers gifted them each with a Dollarama Wall Clock in reciprocation. The guy who wrote the thing didn't get anything from either side. There's a poetry to the fact that I had written the play to put myself out there to people and prove my worth and make friends at a time when it was so hard to reach out and express myself, had become this whole big thing to so many people and yet, in the end of this final version, left me on the outside, where I began. That's pretty much how my life worked, and if I hadn't known that, I couldn't have written a play about it. Doesn't make it easier, though.

There was a lot of talk about what I was going to do for a follow-up to Half-Past, as castmembers both from our show and Cast Party were eager to work with Cary and me. The Blackbox Fire people all but gave us a guaranteed green light. I had plenty of ideas for things that would hit similar notes but with notable differences. I set to writing my next piece, but draft after draft I never produced something that I thought really coalesced into the same level of greatness, and Cary and I weren't willing to settle for something half-baked.

We could have done it. I had a fine script, but it was not one that came from as meaningful of a place and would have just amounted to 45 minutes of amusing distraction. All my best ideas were used up. The new stuff like a hollow echo, like going back to the same well and finding it dry, like the supermarket brand version of what we had already done. Privately I was worried people would sense I only had one idea and was just re-doing it, but if I strayed too far it would be a let down to people who loved Half-Past. It was a textbook Curse of the Follow-Up. So we dropped it.

Half-Past is indeed in the past -- fully, I think. It will always be the embodiment of my greatest triumph, something I did that made a lot of people happy for a night or a month or whatever, something that proved my belief in myself, time and again, in a way I have never really been able to capitalize on beyond it. More importantly, it helped me bridge the gap between myself and others in a way I wouldn't otherwise have been able to do. It's only mildly bittersweet to have it all but confirmed that I had one big thing, and only one, in me. That's one more than a lot of people, and I got to see it play out three times. Not too shabby.


In the time since, I have written, and written, and written, and yet never seemed to get anything done. But I've also become a lot better with people, so my need to reach out that way has diminished. I haven't had to swear revenge on anyone in a while.

I have never completely left behind the idea that I have a destiny as a writer of great things, an entertainer of people, somewhere down the line... but it's a lot harder to see now than it was back then. It's more hypothetical, an appraisal of potential I still have that has never materialized and maybe never will. I have much more experience to use, but that cuts two ways since that experience comes at the expense of the angry youth I am no longer living.

Even if I had time to write all I want, without an outlet, who knows where it goes? If it's all just for me... is that okay?

I don't know what the full extent of my potential was then or is now. Was my success at the local theatre level an indicator that I could have pursued bigger things, or was I never going to play to a larger audience? It would have been hard to find out. I'm still the guy from high school who won't work extra hard for anybody's approval. The one who thinks the world should come to him.

In writing this epic, I re-read the 2009 version of the script. It's funny. It has moments of inspiration. It has some enjoyable surprises, even for the guy who originated it half a lifetime ago. There's a lot of potential there. An older, wiser, more seasoned writer might be able to take a fun little play like that to the next level.

You know... it really gives me some ideas for what we can do differently next time..

To be never concluded, on and on and on, for the rest of my life probably.

In telling this story, I have relayed the facts as I remember them, and as indicated by contemporary accounts. When necessary I have abridged, omitted, or obscured, whether for simplicity, for staying on some form of narrative, or to protect people's feelings, including my own. No story is complete, as there are parts of my memory that have fallen away, there are things I might not know or realize due to the limits of my perspective, and there are things I do know, or remember, that seemed important at one time but aren't today.

I want to give a last Special Thanks to everyone who ever helped me do this any of the times, whether as a castmember, crew, audience, lender-of-time or materials, or well-wisher. Every one of you gave maximum effort and did such good work and I am not sure I was ever able to truly repay that.

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