While directing my play, “Sausalypso Houseboat Wars Murder Mystery,” I was reading Save the Cat Writes a Novel, in which author Jessica Brody lays out the various “beats” in a novel, one of which is “All is Lost.”
Three days before Opening Night, when three cast and crew members got covid, that was how I felt. All is lost.
Every evening, I do pushups and back exercises, and on this particular evening, as I gritted my way through my routine, I sobbed quietly. How could we possibly open our show in three days with two cast members and our stage manager out? We couldn’t.
Oh, and all four shows were sold out. Which was great, except a full house without a full cast is not great.
We were going to have to cancel a show I’d been working on day and night for months, years if you count writing and rewriting the script.
I was, as I said in an email to the cast the next day, ready to impale myself on the Toys-R-Us sword from our play.
In Save the Cat, “All is Lost” is followed by “The Dark Night of the Soul,” but then, “Gathering the Team,” “Dig Down Deep,” and “Executing the Plan.”
After a brief, but necessary wallow in despair, I shifted into problem solving mode and after several calls that evening with Jeff, our technical director, and Camilla, the producer/events coordinator for the Tamalpais Community Services District, we came up with a plan to push Opening Night from March 3 to March 10, which would have been our closing weekend, and add two shows the following weekend. This created problems with the tickets, but there was no other option.
The next day, three more cast members notified me they had covid and on Saturday came our seventh. By then we had switched the show dates, canceled our in-person rehearsals, and were practicing on zoom. Crossing our fingers that enough of us would be healthy to mount the show on our new Opening Night.
This story begins nine years ago, when I suggested to my wife that we attend the murder mystery dinner theater at our local community center in Tam Valley. In 2013, I got married and moved from Berkeley to Tam Valley, where my wife has lived for thirty years. She’d been to many events at the community center, but never the murder mystery.
We sat at one of ten round tables that seat ten and ate dinner before the show. During a break in the play, each table is asked to name a table captain and identify the suspect they believe committed the murder, and why. Later they get a chance to stand up and make their accusations.
We sat at a table with the wife of one of the actors and I talked about how I wrote and performed in a theater troupe back in the 1980s. She suggested I try out, and the rest, as they say, is history. Since then, I’ve acted in seven murder mysteries with the Tam Valley Players, and wrote and directed one six years ago.
When the pandemic began, we had just finished “Death of a Hot Sauce Salesman,” and I pitched my idea for a play set during the houseboat wars in Sausalito. I got the green light and started writing the play, not realizing how profoundly the pandemic would change our lives and how long it would be before live theater came back. The upside of the delay was that I rewrote the script many times, and kept tightening it, making it better.
The play features a greedy developer with the maniacal laugh, his vengeful ex-wife, defiant daughter, pregnant ex-mistress, and hiccupping henchman, not to mention a pretend pirate, peacemaking woman police chief, and hippie comedian. Of course, there’s a sword fight. Because, you know, pirates. Here are some photos from the rehearsals and the show. (Please note the fabulous set painting by Melodi Zaret, an artist I met playing pickleball.)
Though the play is a farce, all made up, it is based on real events in the 1970s, when city leaders tried on multiple occasions to evict houseboaters, citing public health reasons. (You can see a compilation of news reports below — what happened in real life and what didn’t on the TCSD website.)
There were other challenges mounting the play, though they pale next to our covid crisis. When we started auditions, I feared we would not have enough people to fill the roles, but a bunch of people showed up at the last minute to try out. Once we cast the show, one actor had to drop out and I had to ask someone who had auditioned but not been cast if she would take the role.
When I got discouraged, I reminded myself, “I chose this.” No one forced this on me. Of course, I didn’t choose covid.
The cast was wonderful, not only because of their performances, but because of their positive attitude and good humor in the face of our challenges.
Over the course of the rehearsals, I wrote a lot of emails with acting notes and schedule reminders, but as we dealt with our covid issues, I started a text thread of fourteen people, and the actors had fun with it. I was concerned about how we might manage if we were not all healthy enough to perform, and because of my familiarity with the play, I was the logical understudy. Here’s one text exchange.
Our performances were not perfect, but the energy was high, there were a lot of laughs, and the audiences were loud and raucous. It was so much fun. And even more gratifying after overcoming our covid challenges.
Plus one wrinkle to our schedule change was that one of the twelve actors could not make it on the second weekend, so I had to play the part. And that was fun too.
Community theater is for the community, but it also builds community — not only the cast and crew, who are all volunteers, but the dozens of other volunteers who served dinner, painted sets, built props, and more.
Now for my next challenge — adapting the play into a novel, which is far harder than I anticipated. I started writing this novel, my fourth, after I finished the play, when the realization that it might be a long time before performing it would be possible. Progress has been slow — at one time, I had this delusion that the book would be finished and available by the time we performed the show. Not even close.
I’m not ready to jump back into writing and directing another play, but that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it. What if the murder mystery were set within a theater troupe, maybe during a performance? Hmmm.
This story was originally posted at johnbyrnebarry.com.
wendy bartlett says
Well done. Perseverance is heroic!
Pauline Wiles says
Loved the list of character descriptions, and happy to know the performances took place in the end!