Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Torpedo Serenade


Here is an account of how this play came to be.
Dad and I came up with the basic idea back in November 2010. We had been doing a musical every three years, but schedules didn’t allow for that this time. Any decent musical would be impossible without Mark Phillips and he was just as busy as all of us. But Dad and I did discuss that it would be cool if we could have at least some music. I mentioned that we should definitely use Virginia Wittman’s voice before she graduated. I remembered her performance in Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch and how well she sang—in particular during the song “Scallawag.” Dad and I also discussed that Clark could play guitar.

We then tried to narrow down the possible time periods. Since last year’s Mr. Nosey was contemporary, we wanted to do a period piece of some sort. I can’t remember exactly how it came up, but we started talking about espionage during World War II.
That led to the idea of musicians being recruited to help in some kind of effort with the French Resistance or some group such as that. We liked the basic idea, but it still lacked that certain something that would make the story more interesting.
About a month before this brainstorming session, my niece Rachel texted me, saying it would be cool if the play took place on some sort of boat. I casually mentioned this to Dad, without any real idea of how it might fit in. But in a few moments we realized we could have this whole musician / spy plot take place on a passenger ship during World War II. Dad knew several details about this particular time in history and we then felt like we had something we would like to develop.
We usually let an idea simmer for a day or two to see if we still like it. This idea stuck and we started working on it.

Next, we started trying to come up with an outline, based primarily on what would be interesting settings. The first image that came to mind was the deck—where the passengers would be looking out over the ocean. A ballroom of some sort came to mind. We even talked about something happening up in the “crow’s nest” or in the engine room, but those didn’t stick. For a while, we debated about the bridge, but it ended up remaining in the play.

It wasn’t long before we thought of having a side plot taking place in a submarine. These would take place during the scene changes on the main stage.
As the outline developed, we included the plot device of a code machine. That would be the primary object of concern in the story.

Research also revealed that there actually was a passenger ship that was sunk by a u-boat at the beginning of World War II. It was called the S.S. Athenia, named after a Greek goddess. We called our ship the S.S. Minerva (also a Greek goddess).
We begin to get really enthusiastic once we realize we would sink the ship. That would be the big climactic scene.

Next, it was a matter of going through all the potential actors and trying to develop a cast based on their age and past roles and even their own input.
At this point, the students did not know what the play was about. But we did take various requests. Clark Woodfin was interested in a comedic role but with humor based primarily on dialogue. Shelby Stewart wanted to be a bad guy and so did Caleb Oehlert. Josh Darnell also wanted to be a bad guy. Jenni Murphy wanted something different from what she had done in the past. And there were other ideas that influenced the development of the characters.

Just before Christmas break, we told the kids the basic plot. “It’s 1939. World War II has started and the last passenger ship is desperately headed for home.” We did not have a title yet.

We got names for the characters from famous old movies that were along the lines of what we wanted to write—Casablanca, The Third Man, etc. We took first and last names and rearranged them to make new ones.
Using a rough outline, Dad and I both wrote separately, throwing in new ideas as they occurred to each of us. Most of the writing was done during Christmas break 2010.

Brief flashback:
Last year, on the way to church, Dad and I told Mom that we were having trouble coming up with a title for the play. The working title was Nano Dog and we didn’t like that. We said we needed a word that had to do with being curious like a bloodhound. Mom said, “nosey.” So we put “Mr.” in front of it and we had our title.
It happened the same way this year. The working title was Secret Agent Serenade. On the way to church, Dad and I bounced this title off Mom, saying we weren’t necessarily going to stick with it. We told her a little bit about the plot and she said, Torpedo Serenade.
Thanks, Mom.

We fell behind schedule in getting the script finished for the students to start rehearsing. They were already working on Act I while we were finishing Act II. For a while, even they didn’t know how the play ended.
All the scenes go through re-writes. But we re-wrote the final scene the most. After several drafts, we came up with something we liked.

The first week of January we had a read-through. Dad and I had only the first half finished and we continued writing after rehearsals started. The final draft of the last scene was completed two weeks before the performance.
We averaged about one or two rehearsals a week, often using my classroom because the stage and gym were unavailable.

We lost two or three rehearsals due to bad weather and several students were sick. This production probably had the highest body count as far as colds and the flu. At one of the most important rehearsals we had almost 50% of the cast missing.

Before rehearsals, I asked the students who could play what instrument. I knew Clark could play guitar, but was pleasantly surprised to find out Tim Shimp plays bass. Mandy Chaney found an upright bass on Craig’s List. That was the hardest item to acquire.

It was also an exciting discovery that Briana Akins and Michele Moorlag both had experience with piano. Neither one of them had ever played an accordion, but ironically enough, Briana’s grandmother did play and also graciously provided the accordion. Dad and I had decided on the accordion being the machine and therefore the key element in the play long before we told the kids anything about the play.
So with Virginia on vocals, the band started practicing and it didn’t take long for them to get the songs down.

In February 2011, I met with Mark Phillips at his studio to discuss what we would need for the play. Since we would both be limited on time, we decided to use royalty free music for the scene changes. He would focus primarily on the sound effects we would need. I gave him a list and he went to work, often emailing me samples of what he had developed. It was all very cool and added a great deal to the realism of the production.

For the two songs, I tried to focus on the general feel of music from that period (late 1930s, early 1940s)—songs that I like in particular, such as “What’ll I Do” and “It Had to Be You.” Using these basic rhythms as a guide, I came up with the tune for “Lost at Sea.” I think the realization that we would be using an accordion influenced the tune of “Farewell.” To me, it made me think of a Scottish type of song. One night, I started going over the basic idea of the tunes and wrote the lyrics.

Clark Woodfin put in many, many hours, working on the set. Dan Murphy was an incredible resource, not only providing an essential wall on the stage, but the submarine itself. The submarine was built on top of one of the cafeteria tables and lined with cardboard. The hatch was made from an old cardboard barrel.
The primary wall onstage had to be extremely stable. That meant flats wouldn’t be good enough. Dan put up drywall and Clark added to it. It was important that the actors be able to lean on the wall in order to make it look like the ship was tilting in the climactic scene.

In January, I asked Scott Anderson if he would be available to help us with the special effects for the play. He has helped us often, through years, going clear back to his help with the sword fight in “Green Eggs and Hamlet.”
I told Scott, in this play we would need to drag someone across the stage to suggest that a ship was sinking and that the room was tilting. With Larry Grampp’s help, Scott set up a pulley system that would drag Clark as needed and also drag several chairs. We had a lot of trouble getting the cart to cooperate—to roll in a straight line. The pictures and vases moved by means of fishing line. We practiced that scene many, many times. We used the distraction of the chairs moving to provide a few moments for Clark to hook himself up to the cable. When we first started testing this particular effect, the carpet on the stage was not conducive to dragging Clark. Eventually, we ended up laying down sheets of plastic on the stage to make it more drag-friendly.

Due to the numerous sick actors and the complexity of the production, more than once we had some doubts about being able to pull off the whole thing. Several of the actors had many lines to memorize. I also began to wonder if the whole submarine idea was too “big” for our play. There were other odds and ends that made me think the play would stumble at least in some aspect or another.
But I’m glad to say I was wrong. The actors and crews pulled it off and both performances ended up being a fun and memorable time for everyone there

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