that you suspend / Will come down in the end.*
I'm not sure exactly what the above couplet means (it's a line from our song Dream of the descending satellite), but we seized on it for the tagline of our rock opera 404, which we performed at the 2003 Saskatoon International Fringe Festival.
404 was directed by Jason Arnold and starred Damien Bartlett, Sarah Barss, Charlotte Brandrick, and Scott Kuemper.
Complete script of 404
Michael's rock opera diary
404 poster (spaceman version)
Illustration by Troy Mamer
What went wrong, part one
Andrew and I weren't altogether satisfied with the way things had turned out with our rock opera Room to Breathe, which was produced at the Mendel Art Gallery in June of 2002. First off, we didn't like the title, which had been chosen over our objections. We found it schmaltzy and decidedly unrock-n-rollish. (Though to be fair, there weren't any strong alternative candidates for the title at the time.)
Secondly, in order to get the show produced, we gave up a certain degree of creative control, and the director imposed changes that we were never really comfortable with. The songs were shortened, and the show evolved into a musical - a play with musical interludes - rather than a sequence of songs bridged by minimal narrative, as we'd envisioned.
Lastly, the tone was off. We'd conceived the rock opera as a dark fable of teenage weltschmerz. The show was intended to follow the traditional rock opera narrative arc established by Tommy - young protagonist is repressed by society, finds means of self-expression, goes crazy and smashes stuff, and finally liberates himself to a higher state of consciousness. Only in our version, the "higher state of consciousness" is a retreat into fantasy, a kind of symbolic death.
The inexplicable climax of "404 - a rock opera".
Gloomy stuff, y'see. On the other hand, Andrew and I were well aware that rock opera is an inherently comic genre, lending itself to bombast and silliness; our unofficial slogan was "It's a rock opera. It's supposed to be ridiculous."
Now, obviously it was a challenge to resolve these tonal contradictions in the script, and I'll admit right now that I wasn't up to the task. But the director pushed much harder on the "silly" lever than Andrew or I would've wanted. Maybe I should've pushed back harder - but I felt grateful to the Mendel for putting their faith in the project, and I didn't want to create trouble by grandstanding about so-called "artistic integrity" (of which I have little). My few stabs at asserting myself seemed only to cause bad feelings. So after a little token resistance, I gave up and went along with the director's changes. And that's how we wound up with a character called Frenchy the Bartender. Don't even ask.
Here's another example. The rock opera was conceived as a tie-in with an exhibition of paintings and artifacts called Qu'Appelle: Tales of Two Valleys. The exhibition explored how artistic depictions of Saskatchewan's Qu'Appelle Valley differed, depending on whether it was Indians or settlers holding the paintbrush. (Hence the "two valleys".) When I turned in my first draft, it was told exclusively from the perspective of the white hero. The Mendel said I should include some stuff showing a native perspective. Not an unreasonable demand.
Sarah Barss as Hallie
So I came up with a character called Joe Hump, who was supposed to be a parody of that old Hollywood trope, the Wise Indian Who Teaches the White Man a Valuable Lesson, Usually In Riddle Form (his first song was called You can't hold up a mountain with a teepee pole). I was trying to upend a cliché. I didn't really feel qualified to attempt to write from "a native perspective", but I thought I could at least do the world the favour of undermining a trite stereotype.
Again, I can only blame myself for failing to convey my intentions clearly. But by the final draft, I was disappointed to discover that, contrary to my best intentions, my Riddle-Talking Indian had wound up Teaching the White Man a Valuable Lesson. What was I to do? It's very difficult, when you're working for an institution that is attempting to demonstrate Cultural Sensitivity, to stand up and say, "Couldn't we take all the Indian stuff a little less seriously?" I guess this is how trite stereotypes get started.
By the way, despite all these complaints, I'm not trying to pin the blame on the director, Warren Cowell. I approved his hiring. He was in a tough spot - he was given a first-draft script and a minuscule budget and he was expected to cobble together an hour-long show in a month and a half. He made a lot of choices that Andrew or I would never have made, but that's what he was hired to do - make choices. The Mendel had proposed that I direct the show myself, and I turned them down, because I didn't know the first thing about being a director. Probably the right decision. It would've been an even bigger mess if I'd directed it - only a different sort of mess.
So we did the show, and it lost money, but it wasn't our money, and that was that.
Then, early in 2003, I started thinking, "What if we did it again? Our way? With our money?"
|:||"Dream of the descending satellite" - illustration by Troy Mamer|
wrong, part two
Let me first say that I loved the cast we put together for 404 (which is what we renamed the rock opera for the 2003 Fringe Festival). Although adding the additional responsibility of de facto producer, on top of composer and performer, created massive stress - for Andrew and Olin no less than for myself - I still had more fun working on this show than I've had doing anything else, ever.
With the first show, I can blame at least some of its failures on the fact that we allowed ourselves to deviate from the original "vision". I have no such excuse for the failures of the second show. Within the limits of our budget, this was the show I, at least, had visualised. And it still didn't quite work out.
We had every break. We had the comfiest, most spacious, least acoustically-challenging venue in the Fringe - the newly renovated Broadway Theatre. We had pretty girls in the cast. We had knockout posters. Most importantly, we had complete creative control - no more Frenchy! - and we still couldn't draw a crowd.
To be fair, by Fringe standards, we did okay - roughly average attendance. But we needed to do much better in order to break even. Between the filming trip to Fort Qu'Appelle, and renting sound equipment, our show was already many times more costly than the average production. And then, in our inexperience, we neglected to market the show as well as we should have. Hell, we were busy up until the last minute just trying to make the stupid thing make sense. My fault. So we wound up deeply in the red, which naturally colours one's recollections of the whole adventure.
"You mean I get to spend the whole show in my pyjamas?
But it's not about the money. The problem was, our audiences didn't get what we were trying to do. Here's our sole review, which, while I take objection to certain passages, I can't really argue with. The show was messy, ungainly. Even if our presentation had been more professional - better sound would've helped - I still think the crowd would've walked away shaking their heads, going, "I don't get it."
I'm not sure if this is solely a failure of the writing. I think the lyrics are pretty strong, actually. The problem was more fundamental: we were trying to squeeze a story that is told in feelings and sensations - a long dream, basically - into a linear structure. In the early planning stages, before I began the rewrite, Olin and I sat around talking about how there needn't be a straightforward narrative, how the story could be advanced by abstract or disjointed imagery instead of dialogue. But when I sat down to write, faced with the challenge of moving actors around a stage, I opted once again for the linear approach. That was probably a mistake.
(On the other hand, would audiences have really flocked to see a show with no narrative at all? Maybe this is one of those concepts which, if it were finally presented in a manner that did it justice, would completely alienate people.)
Our director, Jason Arnold, did a great job pulling something almost coherent out of my script. His digital video segments, which were projected on a screen behind the stage, were the highlight of the show. I think if we ever attempt another revival of 404 (I can hear Andrew grinding his teeth right now) it might work better if it were done entirely on video. That might have to wait till we're rich and famous, though...
If you'd like to learn more about how to put on a money-losing Fringe show, check out my rock opera diary.
"It's a rock opera...! And there's a nurse in it...!"