Writing: Act I is giving me trouble…

While I was on vacation over Christmas, I took an opportunity to review all of my notes for the actual events of the Uprising and to organize the events into some preliminary scene summaries. Right now, I have everything set up and organized into six scenes for Act II, but I’m sure that once I continue to dig in and see how the events of Act I influence the events of Act II, there might be a few more scenes.

Speaking of Act I: There’s SO MUCH INFORMATION and I’m not sure how to dig into it and find out what is relevant, what would make good drama, what can be staged, and how it will all work out.

As I was plotting out Act II on vacation, I had a thought for how I want Act I to play out. From my notes:

Scene one: musical scene — may review major events/struggles for Irish independence.

REST OF SCENES

  • [Bulmer] Hobson and [Patrick] Pearse at one of the first meetings of the organization they both created (1911?)
  • As more meetings are held, followers fall into two camps — “wait” and “take action”
  • Closer to 1916, plans are made to take action
    • Hobson and Pearse disagree on time to act. Hobson is clearly stalling
    • Call to action is made, countermand issued, Hobson is kidnapped
    • Act ends with a song in which those who will act psych themselves up for battle

Now, do the actual events play out this conveniently? Probably not. I’m trying to work my way through Charles Townshend’s Easter 1916: The Irish Rebellion, a book that is full of primary documents and wonderful information. My only issue with it, as someone with an already short attention span, is that there is almost TOO much information. It’s all good information, and I’m taking a ton of notes. But between a busy work schedule and lack of focus, it’s hard to get through it all.

Rather than labor over making my way through this thick a book of information, I’ve decided (rightly or wrongly) to switch up my tactics. I’m trying to find some barebones overviews of what went into the planning of the Rebellion, and then I’m going to supplement my research from there.

Basically, that means I’m spending today reading the Wikipedia article of the rebellion to see what sort of plot I can make for the first act, then try to follow the research to flesh out some of the details.

My dream would be to go back to Ireland to explore the different locations where the Rebellion happened, and possibly to be connected to local historians to review and get more information about some of the primary documents and meeting spaces. For now, I have Wikipedia and my public library. They’ve gotten me this far; I’m sure they can carry me the rest of the way.

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Research: I think I’ve plotted out Act II

A couple of days ago I finished the book Agony at Easter: The 1916 Irish Uprising by Thomas Coffey, which is a minute-by-minute account of the events of the Irish Uprising on Easter Week 1916. It’s an interesting and fascinating read, providing behind the scenes accounts of the emotions, conversations, and events of the Irish Rebellion. In fact, this book was such a dramatic account of the events of Easter Week that Act II of this musical has basically written itself.

Just in taking notes based on reading this book, I identified 18 potential song ideas. This is a significant number to me, since I came into this portion of the writing process by wondering how I was going to find the “right” number of songs. These 18 song ideas include a couple of reprises, but for the most part, it is all original music, covering a gamut of emotions: dread, fear, love, bravado, among others.

This books has also helped generate a couple of unique staging ideas. I’m not sure how entirely feasible they would be on any given stage, but, as I mentioned in a Facebook post a couple of weeks ago, theater is magical in that it can be whatever I want it to be.

An example of a staging idea that may not be “kosher” in the theater world is that I would have an entire scene of no singing. From what I read in the Cohen and Rosenhaus book is that there shouldn’t be a long period of drama between the music — I forget the specific amount of time they mentioned, but it was something like, “If there is more than 10 minutes of dialogue, it means you’re overdue for a song.”

However, the events of the latter part of Easter Week — specifically, I noted, Thursday, April 27 — are the most tense and most dramatic of the entire rebellion. This is when the Volunteers and the IRB are realizing that they are dead, that the British are going to rise up and quash this merry band of men, and they’re all going to die. They realize this almost right away in the morning, when a British artillery shell strikes the building where the Volunteers published the Irish Times, a revolutionary newspaper, and the building starts on fire. Eventually, the fire spreads to Wynn’s Hotel, where the Volunteers first met to discuss this rebellion plan.

April 27 is also the day when the leaders of the rebellion realize they need to come up with a retreat and evacuation plan. They were so dead set on this being the event that will lead to their independence that the thought of needing to retreat never crossed their minds. Yet, here they are, with the city on fire and artillery shells striking their command center in the General Post Office, needing to leave as quickly and safely as they can in order to continue the fight.

There’s a lot of drama and significance in all of this, and, to me, trying to contextualize all of it in a series of songs doesn’t seem like it will do it the justice that silence and pure dramatic acting can do. So my plan, for at least the scene(s) for April 27, are to have no music. No songs, no incidental underscoring. Just the weight of what is about to happen hanging throughout the room.

One of my strangest fears when I’m writing is to do things “wrong.” There’s a novel project that I’ve been working on for years that I don’t think will ever be finished, because I have these weird ideas of shifting between past and present and hallucination that are “wrong,” and I feel as compelled to find the “correct” way to write them as I do to say, “Screw it, this is how it’s going to be done.”

That fear has creeped up as I’m rounding out my research and making the beginning plans to write this musical. It is “wrong” to have a scene in a musical that has no music. It is “wrong” to have an antagonist that doesn’t ever make an appearance (the Coffey book talks a lot about how the British soldiers never really attacked the GPO, but hid back behind barriers and in surrounding buildings to snipe the Irish Volunteers). It is “wrong” to start a scene with your actors in the audience. It is “wrong” to try and do anything outside of the confines of the musicals that are popular and/or I’m familiar with.

But, then again, maybe “Screw it” is my mantra. Who’s to say I can’t tell a story however I want? Hasn’t the rise of experimental and avant-garde theater shown that anything is possible on (or off) the stage?

I’m sure I’ll be wrestling with these ideas throughout the year. But as I wrestle with them, I’m hoping that I will also discover and create an amazing, powerful, and moving theatrical experience.

Research: This musical might be longer than I thought…

There have not been any posts since my book review because, at this point in the process, I have switched gears from “learning about the artform” to “learning about the topic.” As part of this early dive into research, I’m reading Thomas Coffey’s Agony at Easter, which is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour account of the events of the Easter Uprising in Dublin in April 1916. A more full review will come once I’m finished with it, but I will say that I’m very impressed both with the amount of information present in the text, as well as how it’s written. At times, it reads less like a historical account and more like a novel; Coffey states in the foreward that “[t]he events and conversations [in the book] are related exactly the way careful research indicates they happened. The precise wording of quotations has been used wherever it could be established, and even when the precise words were unascertainable, the sense and tone of each conversation was preserved.”

In fact, this careful attention to detail might be a little too informational: as I’m reading through the book and taking notes on what I might or might not include in the musical, I’m getting the feeling that I might have to readjust how I approach writing this thing. There’s so much that is important to the story that, at this point, I’m not sure what I would have to cut.

As my plans stand now, the general arc of the story was going to be Act I being all of the stuff that happened before the actual uprising — an overview of the events that would lead to the Irish people wanting to rebel against the British, followed by the events leading up to the Uprising, including planning, arguments, recruitment, and the tensions that rise from the high amount of stress that comes from figuring out how to fight against an entire British military system. Act I was going to end with the night before the actual occupation of the General Post Office, with Act II being all about the events of Easter Week.

But I’m starting to rethink this plan. Maybe Act I ends with the end of Day One of the occupation of the GPO? If you’re “supposed” to take an act break on emotional uncertainty and tension, based on this book alone, the Volunteers are pretty confident in themselves after Day One. They fought back against the British Lancers (a cavalry unit meant to break up the occupation almost immediately after it started), they raised the new Irish flag, they’ve occupied several strategic locations throughout Dublin, and they’re getting new soldiers every moment (most of them arriving late due to various reasons). “My God, we might actually do this!” they cry! Act Break, with Act II being all about how they eventually get their ass kicked by the British Army, and many of the leaders are executed. Curtain.

But it’s not just the structure of the musical that I’m rethinking; there’s information that I’m learning that I just never suspected in my basic understanding of the Uprising that I briefly learned about on my trip to Ireland last year. For example: Did you know that the GPO occupation was not well-received by the general public? Patrick Pearse and his militia were openly mocked when they took over the GPO. Usually when you hear stories of revolution, they just kind of gloss over any public outcry against it, as if everyone was on the same page. And I’m debating whether I include much, if any, public resistance in the final product, because I think it tells a truer story than trying to deify these men and these events.

A note that I made about how to incorporate this comes after a song idea: Pearse and potentially others sing the official proclamation that Ireland is an independent nation, and as this major event reaches it’s climax, have someone as a citizen (potentially even someone in the audience), shout “feck off!” at the stage. It’s an idea that I will fight hard to keep in the show, but I ultimately have no idea if it will actually stay in.

Speaking of Patrick Pearse, there are also a lot of people involved in the Uprising. My main character list as it stands now include Patrick Pearse, James Connolly, and Joseph Plunkett, as they are the Commandant Generals of the Volunteers that occupy the GPO. They are in charge, so it makes sense to focus on them. But there are also so many other characters involved, each with their own stakes and their own beefs with everyone else, that if I wanted to go with emotional tension, I’d have to include all of them, which is virtually impossible. There are seven main conspirators when it comes to these events — Pearse, Connolly, Plunkett, as well as Michael Collins, Thomas Clarke, Sean MacDermott, and Thomas MacDonagh. With them, there are several other leaders within the Irish Brotherhood (where many Volunteers came from), including Michael O’Rahilly, Desmond Fitzgerald, and Bulmer Hobson.

Ten people. And that’s not including other soldiers, British soldiers, the women’s faction of Cumann na mBan, townspeople, etc. So many characters, and I know I’m going to have to cut and condense some, but in this preliminary research stage, I’m not sure who that would be at this point.

I know, as I’m gathering information, that I shouldn’t have these answers yet; in fact, I probably shouldn’t even be thinking of these questions in the first place. But this immediate discernment has also led to several song ideas, including six from the Monday events alone. Naturally, some of those ideas will be cut as I start writing, but it’s kind of fun to be doing this sort of planning.

Per the timeline that I created for myself, I’m in research and information gathering mode until the end of January. By the end of February, I should have my acts and scenes outlined, as well as my characters identified and sketched out so that I can dig into writing the book by March.