Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Now what?

I'm never as interested in what I'm doing now, as I am in what I'm doing next.

Now that I have finished Les Voyages Fantastique, I'm on the lookout for my next creative project. I took out my notebooks and determined that I have 53 ideas I would like to pursue.
It might seem like a lot, but it's pretty easy to narrow these things down. In the years that I've been making lists of projects my tastes have changed, my style has refined, my interests at this time have a particular leaning and my current working conditions make some projects more do-able than others.
I've narrowed it down to about a half a dozen projects I'm really interested in, and one that particularly strikes my fancy is a project I started a couple of years ago - Flash Gordon.
When I performed King Kong as a storytelling show, I presented it as a ninety-minute story and as a three-part serial. After that I wanted to do a longer serial, and since I love of old-timey science fiction, I decided to start work on Flash Gordon.
I worked out the first episode, but then I got busy with other projects and just left poor Flash to languish until someone booked him.
Well, time's have changed: my POV is much more focused, my style is more mature and I have a my own monthly venue where I get to perform whatever my heart desires.

Flash Gordon comes with his own challenges, firstly is setting. Not the physical setting, that's the planet Mongo, but the temporal setting. And not just the temporal setting of the story, but the temporal style of the writing. You can only guess what the future is like based on the present.

Case in point, a different Buster Crabbe serial, Buck Rogers: Buck and his buddy Buddy wake up in the 25th century. Dr. Huer verifies their story by looking it up in a book. In 1939 when the serial was developed there was no such thing as a computer, let alone an interconnected network of computers containing every bit of data, so the writers could imagine things like teleportation and inter-planetary travel, but not something really far-fetched like the digitization of personal data.
Or, in the 1956 movie Forbidden Planet, Leslie Nielson and his crew fly to Altair IV in a faster-than-light vessel, but when Nielsen addressed his crew, he did so by talking into a big microphone with a long cord. A radio that transmits to a ship flying faster than radio waves is imaginable, but a hand-held wireless microphone just simply didn't occur to the writers.

So, I want to portray the story as if it was told in a different time period. In the 1930s there were no man-carrying rockets, heck the only rockets didn't even look like rockets as we know them. The only flying machines anyone might have even a passing notion of was an aeroplane (not even an airplane, an aeroplane).
Things like this were just guessed at, and that is what makes it so gosh-darn charming.

In addition to the temporal style of the telling, there's an aesthetic quality that I need to take into consideration as well. I talked a bit about this when I covered the development of LVF, there's a "look and feel" that applies when a story is told.
Sometimes you can throw this to the wind for affect - when I tell the story Cobweb Christmas, it's obviously an old-world setting, but when Father Christmas sneaks into Tante's house late at night, I describe the TV as going "ssssshhhhhhhh" which is so out of place that it's jarring, but anyone who grew up in the world before 24 hour cable TV laughs out-loud.

For look and feel I'm toying with three different ideas, each one brings it's own temporal setting:

The classic 1930s serial - sparkler-spouting rockets, lots of fisticuffs, and every scientific device has a Jacob's ladder sticking out of the top.
1980s plastic toy setting - big, colorful spaceships, chunky ray guns, TV screens and big, clunky computers - think Buzz Lightyear.
19th century - Jules Verney, HG Wellsy. Imagine the original illustrations from War of the Worlds, and 20000 Leagues Under the Sea - big clanky machines with lots of rivets (remember, welding wasn't used on a wide scale at that time), rocket pistols and the mysterious power of electricity. Again, the attempt is to portray the story as written in the period, not in retrospect. In the book the Nautilus is plain and cigar-shaped, not at all like the cool Disney version.

With all that in mind, I must also remark that I'm honestly not interested in doing science fiction, I'm more interested in what they call "Sword and Planet" - not so much science as romantic high adventure - which is really what I'm all about.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

It was a brilliant battle!

At Escondido, well at all of the libraries in San Diego, the average age of a daytime audience is usually pre-K, so I was a little concerned about performing Les Voyages Fantastique. It's a thirty-five minute story with lots of kookie things going on and a climactic battle of four men versus an army of ten thousand sabre-wielding infantry, five thousand musketeers, two-thousand mounted cavaliers, hundred of mahouts on the backs of great war elephants, generals in their silken tents, and the Sultan of Zalidan himself, standing atop a great white war elephant, his scimitar flashing in the air.
This is the kind of thing that can easily get out of hand. Telling the tale of a battle in graphic detail is fun, but it involves great quantities of violence, gore and death. I had many months ago decided that a bloody battle is not the sort of thing for this story, and perhaps something I should avoid in general. I wanted this to be a heroic escapade, told in lots of thrilling vignettes speeding at the audience like a machine gun, but my fear was that a pre-K audience would be overwhelmed.
Like the GI Joe cartoon from the eighties, wherein if a helicopter was blown up you always saw parachutes, so was my battle against the Sultan - sabres were shot from hands, elephants spun about by their trunks and thrown like bowling balls scattered men, unharmed, in all directions, and musket balls caught speeding through the air before any chance of an injury. It was a brilliant battle. I, of  course was armed with a sabre in each hand, and took on as many men as were willing to face me - because it was only sporting to give them the advantage of numbers.
All in all, it was a fantasy story, and the battle was a fantasy battle. I have a bad habit of wanting to explain everything. But, with this story I learned that, in a fantasy, you don't need to explain everything, things just are the way they are (Yes it's a pirate ship suspended from balloons. No, I don't know how many hot air balloons would actually be required to lift a pirate ship. But, I do know that the hot breath of a hundred elephants won't actually lift a hot-air balloon - it just paints a cool picture). And, it's more fun to narrate the clashing of sabres than to describe a man being hacked apart with a battle ax.
The audience turned out to be older than I expected, about 6 through 10, plus parents, and I gave them the best delivery of my life, keeping them on the edge of their seats the whole time. I was incredibly pleased with myself. And, although the battle was furiously delivered, it was fun, funny and exciting - it wasn't a real war in all it's bloody detail, it was a heroic escapade, the kind of adventure that stirs the soul of a young boy.

Friday, July 6, 2012

And the verdict is...

After nearly eight months in development, I performed Les Voyages Fantastique last week at my local library in Escondido.
Towards the end I was getting a little worried. I had only practiced it once or twice with my bucket. (For those of you who haven't seen me perform in person, I have a five-gallon bucket with a state of Texas License plate on the side, and a seat for a lid, that I use to transport my gear to shows) I was using my bucket as a prop - the cannonball upon which I rode, the place I set my head while awaiting execution, and the seat I could "pop up" from when I needed to appear bigger than life (more on that later).
Besides only getting one or two practices with my bucket, I was beginning to worry that the show might not appeal to the audience. This wasn't standard fair, there was no repetition, not a lot of obvious laughs, the entire story is first person and it grows more and more complex as the characters interact with each other. I was also worried in that I didn't get time to make an outfit for the show, and that I dropped the music.
In the end it worked - fantastically. The literary tie-in worked great for the library, the framing story of me, as a young boy, perfectly meshed with summer reading, and my delivery went great.
I started out talking about reading adventure stories, or as Jules Verne called them, Les Voyages Fantastique, in bed and then segued into the actual story (I thought it was a great segue too). As the story progressed, over the next thirty-five minutes, my "Charles Emerson Winchester" accent grew thicker and thicker until the climax, and then into the denouement I dropped it - indicating the return to the normal world.
I have never received a response like this from an audience that young, they literally exploded in applause.
I learned a great deal about project development and story writing with this program. But, most importantly, I learned a lot about delivering this type of action-adventure story to a gentler audience without the constant barrage of scary-violence.
A great time was had by all!