Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to other writers

I am a self-identified "writer of middling success". I take writing seriously as an art, as a craft and as an intellectual pursuit. And, with a number of professional publishing credits to my name, hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles out there as well as a series of surprisingly successful self-published collections of children's stories to my credit, I think I have some grounds to feel I can comment on the writing accomplishments of others.

Jonny and me with Abigail Vol 1
But what I witnessed this weekend in McAdam, New Brunswick, is a feat to which I can only tip my hat and offer a sincere "Well done".

Jonny Harris, Fraser Young and Graham Chittenden, from the CBC show Still Standing, supported by a cast of producers, directors, camera, sound and lighting folk, strolled into McAdam, New Brunswick a week ago and, over the course of just those several days, researched, wrote, rehearsed and staged a truly remarkable set of stand-up comedy that focused entirely, and affectionately, on the Village and its people.

I was aware of the concept of the show going in: host Jonny Harris arrives in a small Canadian community that has managed to survive all the challenges of our modern world, talks to a representative cross-section of its citizens, then takes the material collected through those visits/interviews and turns it into stand up comedy to entertain the townspeople.

The show's own promotional material calls it "an entertaining and affectionate love letter to small-town Canada" but the worries of those of us who were interviewed for the McAdam episode (called "contributors") still surfaced:

  • were we being suckered into participating in a show that would mock and insult us for our efforts?
  • would the final stand-up routine be simply a rehash of canned "how ridiculous are small town people" jokes with a couple of mean-spirited shots at the people who opened their hearts, their homes and their community?

To be honest, it took only a brief chat with the show's advanced rep to assuage any fears I might have had on that first count. It became clear very quickly that there exists a genuine interest, respect and affection among the show's crew for the people with whom they were interacting.

The second concern remained with me right up until show time. As a writer (and one who has tried and failed to write "funny" on several occasions) I simply could not believe that Jonny, Fraser and Graham could turn around an extended, detailed, specific and genuinely funny set of comedy about McAdam and its people in so short a time.

I thought for sure that the show Saturday night would be rife with retread material about small-town life and that the local content would take the form of a shot here and there at the people who participated as contributors. And I think my concerns were echoed throughout McAdam.

How else could they possible turn things around so quickly?

Me, acting calm before the show
So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that we all filed into the McAdam High School gymnasium Saturday night for the show, especially among us contributors.

And, I think it's safe to say, we were all blown away.

The show was exactly what Still Standing's promotional material promised and more.

Fraser opened things up with a very funny review of the rules of the evening, followed by a hilarious set from Graham that covered everything from the joys of being old to the challenges of loving a dog. Then it was back to Fraser again, with a very funny set that seemed oddly fixated on eating meat, and finally the introduction of Jonny as the headliner and McAdam comedian.

As hard as we were all laughing at that point, I think those of us who had contributed to the show drew a collective intake of breath in anticipation of what Jonny Harris was going to say about us.

Now, I have been asked/directed not to discuss the details of Jonny's set nor of the information and material that will be covered in the Still Standing episode when it airs this summer and I will respect that restriction. I won't go into any details here.

I will say, however, that I was impressed in the extreme by the quality of the stand-up set that Jonny delivered and that Jonny, Graham and Fraser had written. It was smart, it was funny, it was creative, it was respectful and it was affectionate. The audience was in stitches and the contributors walked away feeling tickled rather than attacked.

The set was also of extremely high quality from a comedy standpoint, with strong internal structure and jokes that built off each other and referred back to each other over the course of the 45-minutes during which Jonny delivered it.

I love stand up that isn't just a series of jokes but that actually has movement and development throughout and this set delivered all of that.

I take my hat off to these three writers and comedians. Well done. What you accomplished this week, I didn't think was possible. And the fact that you will do it over and over again over the course of the show's season just blows me away.

We may have to re-subscribe to cable TV, just to watch Still Standing this season.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Creative tension helps make better scripts

To make matters even better, as I work to produce the first five scripts for The Station, I am coming to the realization that I have really lucked in to a fantastic creative partner in Nancy Lynch.

Thanks to her exceptional training and experience as a screen writer and short-film producer/director, Nancy brings to the table a great many skills and abilities that I lack. That's very important to the creative process -- a diversity of talents.

Our process to date has been as follows:
  1. We met first to talk through the themes, structure and characters of our proposed show. In this meeting, we also came up with an outline of the first five episodes, both in terms of individual plots and overarching story;
  2. I then drafted episode one and shared my draft with Nancy;
  3. Nancy read, reviewed and revised that first episode while I went to work on episode two;
  4. I reviewed Nancy's revisions to the first episode, gave her my feedback and she went through and did another polish based on our discussions;
  5. I submitted episode two, draft one to Nancy and we started steps 2 and 3 again, this time with the second episode as the subject of our work;
  6. I, meanwhile, drafted episode three. I sent it to Nancy but, in light of an intense discussion we had on episode two, three now needs extensive revision.
It's an amazing process. We are both creative people who respect each other's input and neither of us is afraid to challenge the other and his/her ideas.

For example, episode 2 involves a bit of a mystery and I, with my children's book sensibility, thought it important that we wrap up the mystery by the end of the episode. Nancy thought otherwise: let's leave some question as to whether or not the obvious resolution was actually the correct resolution so that we can play with the mystery -- and its impact on the people involved -- in future episodes.

I never thought of anything like that. And I love it. It means that episode three needs to be revised but I think it is going to be much stronger as a result.

On the other hand, I find myself having to challenge Nancy's instinct to add extra conflict/action to every story. I agree conflict is important and action is absolutely necessary in the visual media of a web series but I also think that one of the strengths of any good show is character development and the introduction of more thoughtful, emotional story lines to the series.

I don't think Nancy would disagree with my position, to be honest. But I think we are going to continue a respectful debate on how much action is required. And that debate, like any conflict of that kind, is going to be healthy for the final product.

Monday, February 15, 2016

In the groove with a more mature Abigail storyline

After complaining about being tasked with writing five scripts for the proposed web series, The Station, I find myself in the position where I have to offer an apology. I shouldn't have complained.

I am actually quite enjoying the experience. And I've completed the first drafts of three scripts already.

It's an interesting challenge, to be honest. My colleague, Nancy Lynch, and I have agreed that the web series should be based on the Abigail Massey children's stories but should aim for an older, more mature audience. As a result, I basically need to re-write the larger Abigail story arc, adding depth and detail and a great deal more conflict.

Where Abigail Massey of the children's stories responds to tense situations with an "Oh, golly" and a can-do attitude, Abigail of the web series will be forced to face much more difficult situations and much more challenging moral questions.

I'm having fun with the project. I don't want to give too many details away -- we are hopeful of securing funding for the series and then revealing details over the course of the show's first season -- but I will say that Abigail's family relationships aren't quite so rosy in the new series, her love life is more complicated and the group of young women she meets at the Station include not just a couple of nice girls like Jenny and Alice but also a group of "Mean Girls", as I've dubbed them in early drafts.

My sister, Lynn, suggested that I should name the two main "Mean Girls" after her and my other sister, Janice. But, when I explained to Lynn some of the things the Mean Girls get up to, she quickly retracted the suggestion. Yes, they are that mean...

What's fun for me is that, now that I have made the adjustment from writing stories for 8-12 year olds to writing scripts for teens and adults, I am finding myself in the same writing groove I have so enjoyed over the first five books of Abigail stories.

I feel I have a strong understanding of the characters, the setting and the overall arc of our storylines -- and that makes the writing easy and enjoyable.

Let's hope it keeps flowing along so well for the final two draft scripts.