New Stories, Old Stories, and New Old Stories with Actor’s Factory — Novel Ideas

(Originally published in Dane 101, by Christian Neuhaus, March 9, 2011.)


Post by Christian on 3/9/2011 12:35pm


This weekend, Madison residents have an opportunity to participate in the tourism aspect of the arts (or is it the artistic aspect of tourism ?) by visiting the grand Stoughton Opera House for a performance by youth theatre company Actor’s Factory : Novel Ideas, a collection of new plays and monologues featuring works by local writers. One of those writers would be me — I’ve seen previous Actor’s Factory shows and have been impressed by their quality, so when director Deanna Reed asked me to write a short script I was happy to accept. The theme was retelling classic stories, which is something I have a good history with.

I decided to go with a comic take on a vintage story and came up with the following list:

  • Sherlock Holmes story
    • 1970s cop show
    • Sitcom (My Roommate Sherlock)
  • Dr. Faustus as an after-school special or 1950s social guidance film
  • The Monkey’s Paw
  • The Purloined Letter
  • The Most Dangerous Game

The 70s Holmes and 50s Faustus were the two I thought had the most potential, and I decided to go with Holmes (this was before Rick Stemm and I created “ The Adventure of Oskee Wow Wow ,” so well before reimagining Sherlock Holmes became a cool thing to do). Rob Matsushita’s use of a TV show concept for his 2006 Actor’s Factory script gave me assurance that such an approach would work onstage. The specific story I wanted to use was the fourth Holmes adventure and the second short story, “ The Red-Headed League ,” which had some comic elements built in. In my retelling, “Danger Has Red Hair,” Sherwood Holmes and Joan Watson would be mismatched partners on the police force.

After seeing last year’s Actor’s Factory production, The Diviners , I was confident that Deanna and her cast could handle stage directions like “Kung Fu duel ensues” and intellectually provocative dialogue like “When these two cats eliminate the impossible, whatever remains is an action explosion!” or “The Red-Headed League has everything to do with the Disco Bandits.” I could find 70s slang resources online easily enough. My main concerns were devising a plot to sustain a 20-minute play and a cast of at least seven actors.

I’m much stronger on dialogue than I am on plotting, but the ability to use the plot of the original story helped me out a lot: I essentially used it as-is and transplanted most of the story’s scenes to the script. Also, the TV conceit gave me an opportunity to introduce a B story and commercials if needed. I did the former — writing scenes that followed Holmes & Watson’s rival detectives on the force — but didn’t need to do the latter. Number of characters turned out to not be a problem since I was able to create thirteen, including an angry police captain —I neglected to have him demand that Holmes turn in his badge but I did have him call Holmes a loose cannon and complain about getting all kinds of heat from the mayor’s office. (And I didn’t realize until this week that “loose canon ” is kind of a clever meta pun.)

There were two read-throughs with the cast this summer, to give the writers feedback that we would incorporate into subsequent drafts, so I got a chance to hear the three other plays that are part of Novel Ideas : Terese Kattner’s modern-day version of Don Quixote in a humorous classroom frame, Nolan Veldey’s use of storytelling as a catalyst for a media and music biz satire, and Doug Reed’s retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the male characters’ perspectives. I don’t have the depth of Jane Austen familiarity that your average theatrically inclined Stoughton-area teenager has, but was able to recognize that Doug had accomplished something quite impressive in the annals of reinvention and condensation, with the added challenge of writing convincingly Austentatious dialogue.

I made revisions based on the feedback I received, dropping the holodeck-style “flashback room” for the story’s exposition — which, like many Holmes stories, is based on the client reporting information — and attempting to be more clear about what the actual mystery was. At the end of August I turned in the script that Deanna and the cast would work from over the next few months. (This was my first time using Final Draft scriptwriting software instead of a Microsoft Word template by the way, and I found it to be quite useful.)

As is typical for me I stepped back from the process, so except for a positive report from Deanna about the climactic fight scene and some fantastic photos , all of what I see in the Opera House will be new to me. Nonetheless, I fully expect a charming and talented performance.

Novel Ideas will be at Stoughton Opera House, 381 East Main Street , March 11 and 12 at 7:30 and March 13 at 2:30. $5 donation suggested.

Image by WDW .

Christian Neuhaus Contributor

Christian Neuhaus is a writer whose comic short plays have been produced by local theater groups. At Stoughton Opera House March 11 – 13 his comic retelling of the Sherlock Holmes story “The Red-Headed League” will be among the plays in Novel Ideas , performed by Actor’s Factory . You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery! , a play he wrote with Dane101 contributor Rick Stemm, sold out its world-premiere run at MercLab in September. Christian participates in the Film101 podcast and the old-time radio performance group Radio Active , and posts fiction at Detling Adventures .

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