Sunday, May 6, 2018

Reconstructing Final Exam

Looking over the Fringe publicity material, I was asked if there was anything particularly notable about the creative process.  I didn't really know how to answer that.  There has certainly been a lot of rewriting (probably still not enough), and the piece has been subtly shaped by the various people who have read it and offered suggestions.  I decided that I might cover some of the major phases of the work here before I completely forget all the interim incarnations of the piece.

As originally conceived, Final Exam was a science fiction short story (and who knows, perhaps it will ultimately go back to that form).  But at least for the last couple of years, my fiction has been so dialogue-heavy that it seems pretty straight-forward to turn it into a play.  I had initially hoped to workshop this as part of the Seven Siblings Future Festival, but the piece wasn't accepted.  (While I haven't entirely decided, it is possible that I would expand my short piece The Re-Up and submit that if they decide they are doing the festival again.)

While the piece wasn't completed by that deadline, working towards the deadline was useful and got me to commit to getting it out of my head and onto the page.  I was able to get about half of it together and rough out the rest of the plot for my submission.  One thing that might be notable is that I wrote out the first few pages, then misplaced the notebook.  Later when I returned to the play, I couldn't recall if I had written the intro or not, so started again.  Naturally I found the original pages later on.  I tried, though probably not entirely successfully, to merge the two openings.  One played more with the idea that pop quizzes would be a thing of the past, but the other was pretty much centred on the concept of the Memory Palace.  I was very much inspired by Bennett's The History Boys at that time (or rather History Boys meets the Borg), and the first draft is in fact set in an elite English prep school for boys only.

I decided fairly early on that I didn't want that and opened it up to female students.  Then the opportunity to make this a site-specific piece came up and I got into discussions with the Danforth Tech principal, so I thought it would be appropriate to make the setting Toronto, but have it still be a class from a fairly elite school.  The main feedback I got was that sitting through a class, particularly an elite one, was boring and fairly alienating.  (Ironically, the alien only showed up on the last page of that draft.)  So after a fair bit of prodding, I cut way back on the school elements (maybe even a bit too much), and the alien now shows up just slightly after the halfway mark.  Perhaps even more tellingly, the class is just an average class and the teacher is not at all in control of this class.  Given that I cut a bit too much out of the play (it runs about 30 minutes and probably should be closer to 45), I should add more cruel classroom dynamics back in (at least somewhat inspired by the recent production of Punk Rock). 

Another key early inspiration was Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy.  In the Soulpepper production, essentially the whole cast sits on a bench and waits to be called into an office where it will be decided whether they are Jewish (or gypsy) or if they are free to go.  I found it quite fascinating to see the different dynamics between the cast as they wait.  One in particular was furious at his mother for not leaving occupied France in time.  I had a bit more of this in earlier drafts, but it was hard to maintain, as only one boy is all that worried about the alien invasion.  While this is somewhat hard to believe, there are also quite a few situations where people just go with the flow, particularly if influential people are going along.  There are not as many strong personalities to resist as we humans generally like to think.  The Amazon treatment of PKD's The Man in the High Castle was a good example of this, with most Americans (after losing WWII) coming to terms with the Nazis and their worldview.  Naturally there was some resistance, but, on a percentage basis, it was fairly low, even though the series naturally focused on the resisters.  (One could definitely say the same thing about life in Occupied France...)  In my piece, only one student and one teacher are clearly opposed to the alien invasion, and the rest have come to terms with it in one way or another.  Anyway, the result is that the dynamics are a lot closer to Twelve Angry Men than Incident at Vichy, though the play doesn't go on long enough for more than one person to be turned.

In the end, I also drew on the Facebook controversy, which has blown up recently, and the fact that most people are sticking with the platform, despite its well-publicized abuses of its patrons' privacy.  I have tried to embody the idea that the loss of privacy doesn't really matter for the younger generation, which does seem accurate to some extent, at least in broad strokes.  Finally, the way that one generation can make lasting decisions for younger ones, seen quite clearly in the case of Brexit but also in that the Boomers and Gen Xers are not doing nearly as much as they should to meaningfully deal with climate change, leaving this to others to cope with, since it seems to late to fix the problem.  I only fleetingly discuss climate change in the piece, but I am thinking of adding back in one or two lines about how the students had zero say in the matter.  I hope that these elements of the play resonate but don't dominate, as they should take a bit of a backseat to the classroom dynamics.  Anyway, that is a fairly lengthy discussion of what has been going on in my head as I have been refashioning the piece, based on the early rehearsals and other feedback I have received.

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