Fearing the Marquis de St. Eustache

By now if you’ve been following the project, you may have noticed that the part of the French Marquis is played by a woman– the inimitable Lisa Wolpe.  Among many things, Lisa is the artistic director of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, and has made her mark locally by playing some of Shakespeare’s most powerful men as if she were a man.  It all stems from a very studied technique in which she is able to embody the essence of the male persona.  I won’t begin to describe her approach, my wife gave me an overview and I quickly knew it was out of my realm of comprehension.

I wanted to bring one aspect into Chesterton’s narrative and themes that I felt he left out.  Each tyrant on the high council of anarchy, the Council of Days, represents an aspect of life in this world that strikes fear into the heart of the Christian everyman.  As I elaborated in the post about Dr. Bull and the Professor, a couple of these aspects include science, accidents of nature, unexplainable miracles, or even death itself.  The sword fight between the Marquis and Gabriel is very clearly his battle with the fear of death, or put more nobly: martyrdom.

However, I saw an opportunity with the Marquis for another long-time fear of man.  The book describes the Frenchman as the only man who looks like he belongs in his fashionable clothes.  So I chose to explore our fear of femininity.  There are several aspects that play out in society.  Most obvious is when a man displays feminine qualities, whether that man is homosexual or not.  Also throughout history is men’s fear of the strong woman, or the woman in power.  Many men, and even conservative women have problems with female leadership.  Then I would even go so far to say that some men and women fear female femininity in its natural state in women.  This evidences itself in different ways, such as the medical system’s attempt to take birth out of the hands of women (an institution which historically has always been the sole domain of femininity).  Also society’s angst and battles over feminine sexuality.

Now you might guess what tweaks I made to the story to fit this in there.  I didn’t change any scenes or make much of a change to the lines of dialog, just a simple act of gender-bending that I won’t specifically outline.  But remember what happens thematically to each of these “fears of man”:  they turn out not to be the enemy, but an ally after all.

We had a lot of fun recording with Lisa.  Unfortunately, time didn’t allow for everyone to get in a room together to do some of the bigger, explosive scenes that she is in, but even with having only her and Jacob Sidney as Gabriel in the room, we got some great stuff on tape.

The Man Who Was Sunday

Over the last two recording sessions I’ve had the opportunity to record separately with two extremely fine actors involved in the show, however, both presented a unique recording challenge.

Peter Macon is a powerful actor who has been garnering attention recently up in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Last year he played Macbeth in a powerful rendition, and the year before he appeared as Othello.  This year in Oregon Peter can be seen in Throne of Blood, Merhant of Venice, and Ruined. In order to have Peter appear in our radio play as President Sunday, we had to find a way to bridge the gap between Los Angeles and Ashand, Oregon where Peter is on contract from March through next month.  It took very little convincing for me to move the recording session up north to Ashland, as my wife and I love visiting there and seeing shows at OSF.  We left on August 28th for what would be our 4th vacation in Ashland, and our second bringing our toddler up with us as well (my wife and I trade off seeing shows– its well worth it).

Monday, which is the Equity day off for actors, we scheduled a recording session with Peter Macon.  Thanks to the help of Claudia Alick from the festival (introduced to us through a new acquaintance Debra Murphy), we were able to reserve a quiet room in the festival’s offices for the recording.  This session was more difficult than the others, because we would be recording Peter by himself in scenes that he will be interacting with sometimes six other actors.  For the first scene like this, the “balcony scene” as I called it, Gabriel first meets the dreadful Council of Days, the seven princes of anarchy, led by President Sunday.  I had already recorded the scene a few times with other actors, everyone except the Marquis.  So I edited the scene together, minus Sunday’s lines, and brought it up on my iPod to play for Peter.  During the recording session, he would listen in headphones to the other actors performances, and then fill in his lines whenever there was a gap.

For the other scenes, which weren’t as long, I had to feed lines as the other characters.  This was fairly tricky, as I was also in charge of the recorder and the sound quality, since I had to record the session alone with Peter.  I also should have taken notes as we went, but I didn’t even attempt it so that my mind wouldn’t have multitask meltdown.

When I first imagined Sunday as I read the book, I followed Chesterton’s visual description, which was a large fat man with a huge frame and a long white beard.  But like many others, I’m sure, when I read the lines he had the voice of James Earl Jones.  I wanted a deep voice for Sunday, but I also wanted him to sound different than everybody else.  Perhaps a little international, with less of an accent.  I also wanted him to breath power and force.  As Peter read the lines he would occasionally slip into a type of British accent that was tainted with an African flavor.  I really liked it.  Sunday is not a product of a certain country, he could come from anywhere, or in fact, everywhere.

Then of utmost importance is the last line of the book– “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”  I think this will come across beautifully.  It’s in answer to Gabriel’s question, “Except you.  Have you ever suffered?”  It’s not an answer to the questions of the book, but Sunday’s answer does answer Gabriel’s question, and it also has to express his reaction to Gabriel’s final revelations.  We recorded the line about a dozen times.

Then last Tuesday I also had the pleasure of recording with Lisa Wolpe, the actor playing the Marquis de St. Eustache.  A woman you ask?  Yes.  More on that soon.

Ascending the House of Reason

Last week we recorded scenes with Dr. Bull, played by Stephen Alan Carver.  Now it is Gabriel and Professor de Worms who must confront him.  Something Martin Gardner pointed out in his introduction to his edition of the book, The Annotated Thursday, was that each of the anarchists on the Council of Days, the seven supposed worst men in the world, represented an aspect of life that the everyman Christian (Gabriel) fears.

Chesterton has it in their fairly clearly.   This is narration from the play just before Gabriel’s sword fight with the Marquis:

First the fear of the Professor had been the fear of the tyrannical accidents of nightmare, then the fear of the Doctor had been the fear of the airless vacuum of science. The first was that any miracle might happen, the second that no miracle can ever happen. But now I was in the presence of the great fact of the fear of death.

I wanted to run with that concept a little further.  In the book, the scene where we find Dr. Bull takes place in his home, in the morning.  I chose to move it to his office at a research hospital, even though hospitals at the time were very different places than they are today.  That’s a cheat, but worth it I think.  Here is the narration from the play as the Professor and Gabriel walk toward Dr. Bull’s office:

We reached the bottom of a huge block of buildings and began in silence up the naked, numberless stone steps. My head spun as they seemed to go on forever– like the empty infinity of arithmetic: something unthinkable, yet necessary to thought; like the meaningless statements of astronomy about the distance of the fixed stars. I was ascending the house of reason, a thing more hideous than unreason itself.

The visual of the steps is incredible, and I was excited when I re-read this description in the book as I was building this scene.  Chesterton makes it very clear in his book Orthodoxy that he believes that reason is the root of insanity, not irrationality.  He believes that man needs a healthy does of “unreason” along with his reason in order to survive this world.  It’s the people who can’t comprehend or become comfortable with the contradictions in life that will eventually drive themselves mad.  The whole concept of God is wrapped up in philosophical catch-22’s.  Those who rely solely on cold reason and logic may never fully be able to grasp the concept.

Another motive of Chesterton’s in the book is that before we are reintroduced to each anarchist on the council, he makes sure that we’re reminded of the dangers of this person.  I adapted the description of Dr. Bull a little further, especially relevant today because of many people of faith who see scientists as the enemy, and consider science to be the antithesis of everything that faith and religion represents.

Professor:  I don’t know if you’ve read much about this “scientific revolution.” It’s a reprehensible, Godless vocation. This facility is world-renowned for carrying out some of the most unchristian acts of science and medicine known to man… each a repulsive affront on God’s creation. No doubt that Dr. Bull is the driving force behind this evil place.

I was originally tempted to “name names” of our most feared scientific subjects:  test tube babies, cloning, abortion, stem cell research.  Alas, I decided it would be too political to mention specifics, because my audience might imagine that I’m trying to take a position on these, which I am not.  The point is that science seems often like the enemy of faith, and the work of God, but when we look behind those “black spectacles,” we find an entirely different truth.

Ben Stanton and Ananda Dillon recording the Dr. Bull scenes.

Stephen Alan Carver, William Dennis Hunt, and Jacob Sidney

The Great Unconscious Gravity of a Girl

There I saw Rosamond, Gregory’s sister with the goldred hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, laughing with the great unconscious gravity of a girl.

Rosamond is mentioned twice in The Man Who Was Thursday book.  Once, right after Gabriel’s first debate with Lucien Gregory “the real anarchist” as he’s known.  She catches his eye, and later asks him his advice on her brother’s anarchism.  He says,

“Now, sometimes a man like your brother really finds a thing that he does mean. And it doesn’t matter if it’s only a half-truth, a quarter-truth, or tenth-truth; he will say it much more than he means– simply from the sheer force of meaning it.”

The second appearance is at the very end of the book, after everything has faded away into something else that we’re not quite sure what.  Gabriel’s vision of her is the final line of the book.  But Chesterton himself almost alludes to the idea that he wishes she could have appeared in more places in the story.

In the wild events which were to follow this girl had no official role to play. And yet, in some indescribable way, she kept recurring like a motive in music through all the mad adventures afterward, and the glory of her strange hair ran like a red thread through those dark and ill-drawn tapestries of the night.

Hence the idea that I would literally follow that vein– have Rosamond keep recurring like a motive in music.  So I added two more scenes in which she appears and speaks to Gabriel.  In the narrative, Gabriel rarely gets a moment to breathe and collect his thoughts.  As he’s lost in this world where anything can take off its mask and become something else, Rosamond is the one constant.  She has no agenda, she has no artifice, nor is she put off by Gabriel’s penchant for wit and melodrama.  She has a genuine interest in who Gabriel is and cares about what he is going through.  She also serves as a beacon, reminding him of what might be in store for him on the other side of this nightmare, should he ever wake up.

Adding words to Chesterton is one of the most harrowing and risky things I can do.  It’s much safer to cut things and streamline the story and dialog without changing the nature of it.   Adaptation is a special kind of art, and can be approached in many different ways, but the one thing I consistently believe is that the artist needs to find a way to personalize it to their own point of view.  There are certain things in Thursday that speak to me, and ideas that I latched on to while reading it.  These are the things I try to bring out in my radio adaptation.

Narration Complete

Yesterday we had our sixth recording session, the forth session of only narration, performed by Jacob Sidney as Gabriel.  All together it took about ten hours to get through itl.  The average takes for each line was three, with many coming at two, and a few coming in at eight.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the book is Chesterton’s voice when it comes to his description, which when adapting the story to radio, I knew would need to be translated into narration.

The book is told in the third person, though only from the perspective of Gabriel Syme. Adapting it to the first person, with Gabriel as the narrator was fairly simple. The difficult part was resisting the temptation to not include everything. There are so many great passages that Chesterton frames the story in terms of a larger battle between the forces of good and evil, with Gabriel as humanity’s chosen vessel to hold back the devil.

I’ve kept at least a part of  every thematic block of description, but had to shorten some of them drastically, in order to keep the action moving forward.  Most are intrinsic to the story, bringing out important themes, and others are just way too clever to lose.

Some highlights from our last session:  “having been first forced to fight for two factions that didn’t exist.”  Describing the Colonel, you don’t realize until you’re reading it aloud the repeated “F” sound.   It sounded great, though.  There are also a few repeated word gems, for example “we six tireless, though exasperated travellers broke through black thickets and ploughed through ploughed fields till each of us was turned into a figure too outrageous to be mistaken for a tramp.”

Chesterton nearly always includes two adjectives in each sentence that he’s describing something.  A favorite from yesterday:  “The next morning the five of us bewildered but hilarious people took the boat for Dover.”  Hilarious is a great way to describe the way the detectives feel once they realize how duped they’ve been.

Next we’re moving on to the scenes between Gabriel and Professor de Worms.

Scriptshadow Book Review

Scriptshadow.com’s Matt Bird recently included The Man Who Was Thursday as one of six books that have yet to have a movie made (or have one in serious development).  The book is cool, what can I say?  There probably is a head-trippy contemporary version that could make a smash at the box office.  In fact I tried to write one myself, but I never was happy with it.  I cane to realize that the book itself is extremely engaging as is, in the time period it is and with the dialog and characters in place.  Why mess with a good thing?

This audio play adaptation of the book remains faithful to the original that everyone fell in love with.  Of course there are liberties taken, and I’ve inserted a couple of surprises that I think the fans will like.  Oh, and the ending will be just as surreal, so no Hollywood-ization there.

We’re only a few couple sessions in, so there’s a lot of work to go.

Here’s the link to the article.

Recording Begins

This is the humble beginnings of a long journey of recordings.  We’re borrowing a quiet classroom at our local church, doctoring it up with a little sound absorption to dampen reflections, and giving ourselves room to move around.  In this scene Lucien Gregory introduces Gabriel to the underground lair of the London anarchists movement.  We’re using a Zoom 4-track recorder, which records a stereo matrix of the room sound, as well as two shotgun microphones that follow the actors movements.

Welcome to the lion’s den

“Oh, believe me you are not dreaming. In fact, you are close to the most actual and rousing moment of your existence.”

Reading G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday was kind of like that for me… the most actual and rousing moment of my experience reading fiction.  On one hand a detective mystery, on the other, a metaphysical thriller with a heartbeat of philosophy.  This is a line from the character Lucien Gregory before he introduces Gabriel Syme into the underworld of anarchy.

It’s London, turn of the century.  Bombs go off in the street, destroying coffee shops and the innocent lives that happened to be there.  Who is behind these random acts of violence, this deep pain handed out indiscriminately?  Is it people, embodied by the anarchist movement?  Or is it something bigger than ourselves– perhaps the universe itself.  These are big questions to be grappled with, and vital even today.

I’m a filmmaker based in Southern California, and I’ve made it my goal to bring this story to life.  Someday there may be a full-fledged feature film, but I can’t accomplish that right now.  What I can do is produce a radio play featuring the best acting talent and dress it up with music and sound effects to put the listener inside the story.

I held out for awhile, but eventually we became a two iPod family, and haven’t looked back.  In Los Angeles we spend a lot of time in our cars, and the wonderful podcasts and audiobooks we’ve found keep transportation interesting.  There’s a built-in distribution network, and a high demand for quality work.  This project will be released as a four part podcast, for free, online.

There isn’t any money to do this, and it’ll take the majority of 2010, but slowly and surely we’ll get this done.  This is the website home for it, and this is the first post, so welcome.

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