“My Fan… Lady?” – Reflections and Resignation

Photo by Neil Ottenstein

Steven H. Wilson as Higgins, Chris Carothers as “Fan,” Christian Wilson as Elijah and Ethan Wilson as Pickering in “My Fan… Lady?” Photo by Neil Ottenstein

And when I say resignation, I mean it both in the sense of “The acceptance of something inevitable” as well as in the sense of “I quit.” But more on that second piece later, and don’t get too excited in either direction.

I’ve been writing and producing plays for the convention stage since 1987. I started out performing with a group called “The Not Ready for Paramount Players.” It was absorbed into “Cheap Treks.” Later, we called ourselves “The Usual Suspects.” The total output of this group, writing, directing, performing, producing, costuming, video-editing, scene-building–you name it, we did it!–is about 60 plays. One of these days I’ll share a list with you. I’ve written or co-written a good third of those.

Now, when I say, “plays for the convention stage,” I’m using what may be null terminology for a lot of people. “What kind of plays?” I’m often asked. “Do you dress up?” (And, for once, for me, the answer to that one is “yes.” I rarely put on costumes for their own sake at a convention, but I wear them for plays.) “Do you have to memorize lines?” It helps. “Are these comic-booky or Star Trekkie plays?” Often, yes.

Here’s the deal: Going, to my knowledge, back to the August Party cons of the 1970s, fans have written and presented plays which are almost always parodies of a TV Show or movie. They’re usually 30-60 minutes. They are usually performed once and only once, unless one convention asks the cast to re-present a play the committee saw at another convention. The level of effort and preparation ranges from writing a play on Friday night for a Sunday performance and having the actors carry their scripts on stage (and, in Fandom’s early days, the actors were largely female, including those playing Kirk, Spock and McCoy), to a multi-drafted script and a full 16-week rehearsal cycle which includes phases for discovery, blocking and polishing. Some of us take these things very seriously. Some are just having fun. (I’m of that strange breed that can’t have fun unless a project is taken seriously.)

The plays have historically been referred to as “showcases.” I believe that began with the Shore Leave Showcases of the early 1980s. The convention ended with one of these parodies. That name has faded, but I liked it as a way of remembering some history. I can tolerate any descriptive name for what we do. I bridle only at “skits.” That’s a demeaning term for something we put so much effort into.

Anyway, this past weekend, my group and I performed “My Fan… Lady?” a musical parody of “My Fair Lady,” itself an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion.” It’s one of my favorite works in the English language. Dave Keefer, T. Alan Chafin and I adapted it once before, 25 or so years ago, as just “My Fan Lady.” It was the story of a stuck up science fiction fan who meets a yuppie girl and tries to turn her into a fan. I was never completely happy with it as a written work. I loved the source material so much, and I didn’t feel we’d done justice to the language and the subtle humor of Shaw’s original. (No offense at all to Dave and Alan. It’s my own part in the writing I was unhappy with.)

So, when a confluence of factors dictated that the Usual Suspects would do a play at this year’s Balticon, I suggested that we do “My Fan Lady 2.0.” The factors? Well, for one, Balticon wanted us to do a play. For another, my youngest son, Christian, has become a very talented actor and singer, and it seemed a shame for the fan community not to see that on display. Finally, I guess I just wanted to prove I could still do it.

It seemed a bit silly to have Christian play Professor Henry Higgins. It’s not a singer’s role. The songs are wonderful, but you talk your way through them. Freddy Einsford-Hill, the young romantic lead, has only one song, so that was out for Christian. What role to give him? Well, of course Eliza Doolittle has all the best songs in “My Fair Lady.” So why not have Christian play “Elijah Doolittle,” and derive some of our humor from the fact that Higgins doesn’t realize his protégé is a boy? To add to the lunacy, my friend Renfield wanted to play Henry’s mother. So that left me back in the role of Henry, which I’d played 25 years earlier. Again, my favorite role in all of the world of the theater.

This time I left a lot of Shaw’s dialogue intact. Oh, I shortened the play considerably. We had to cram this into an hour, after all. But, largely, my Henry Higgins could simply have been Shaw’s character dropped into a convention in 2015. To make room, I wrote out Alfie Doolittle, Eliza’s father, and thus some of the longest production numbers from the musical. I also made the kernel of the plot, not the battle of the sexes, but the battle of generations. Elijah is just as much of a fan as Henry is, but Henry’s trying to turn him into Henry’s definition of a real fan–i.e. one who loves Asimov, Heinlein and Star Trek but distrusts Game of Thrones.

It was great fun to write, and I’m very proud of the script. I’m also very proud of the performances my cast gave, as well as the hard work put into sets and props by our faithful producer, Cindy Woods. I’m grateful for the assistance of a wonderful tech crew who sent their director to early rehearsals and took the entire project very, very seriously. They wanted this to work.

So, Balticon got their play. Christian got his vehicle. What was that other goal? Oh, yeah… to prove I can still do this.

The answer is no.

It was rough. We didn’t know our lines well enough. (And I pride myself on never blowing lines.) We hadn’t ever actually run the whole show with full tech and all scene changes and the full cast. At one point, we got confused as to which scene was next. My son Ethan took his place for the scene after the one that was supposed to be on stage. The lights came up. There he was. We couldn’t play the scenes out of order because the sound crew wouldn’t know what the hell was going on. So I ran out on stage, in character, and ad libbed, as did Ethan. We got off the stage and let the correct scene play. Later, I understand, the crew asked why their script was missing pages. Apparently, we didn’t even appear to have totally blown our cues. Score one for our improv ability.

It was a fun show that accomplished its goal of entertaining the audience. You can get a sense of the fun we were having by watching the above video — out obligatory Eighties film training sequence, where Elijah learns to be a classic fan. But it wasn’t the product that I set out to produce. I don’t really need to go into why. Suffice to say that, when you do something you don’t really have time to do, and it’s something that, by rights, merits months of very hard work and focus, it’s not going to turn out the way you wanted it to. Time was what it needed, and that’s something I just don’t have any more.

I’ve considered alternatives like handing the direction of my plays to others. Indeed, a friend urged me yesterday to do just that. I’ve done it several times in the past. I’m not going to do it again. With the best of intentions, people like to take finished products and “re-finish” them: add scenes, delete scenes, re-write dialogue. I put a lot of time and effort into plotting the scenes, choosing the right words, setting the narrative flow and making sure that the staging allows for set changes and other business without making the audience wait in the dark. I also use different techniques for telling the story, like video and voice-over. I don’t really want someone taking my work and saying, “Well, I can do this better.” Maybe they can. But I didn’t write it to be the best work someone else could produce. I wrote it to be my work. For better or for worse.

Which is not to say that I can’t collaborate or write to suit an editor. I’m cooperative with editors almost to a fault. And yes, I understand that, in professional theater, the director and the playwright are almost never the same person, and that the director traditionally takes a lot of liberties with the script. But those playwrights are paid for their trouble. I do my writing as a labor of love–for love of my work, for love of my cast and crew, and for love of my audience. My charge, my fee, is that I want to see my work produced just as I envisioned it.

I learned a valuable lesson many years ago about making changes and writing by committee. I’d written a Star Trek comic script for DC Comics. It was commissioned by one editor, the plot was approved by Paramount (which was necessary), then it was delivered to a second editor. That second editor didn’t stay in the job long enough to read it. So a third editor came in, hated the script, and wanted to rebuild from the ground up. We had some long phone conversations, and he told me how he wanted me to re-plot the story. He was an experienced, New York editor. I was a young writer who just wanted to make a sale. I followed every single one of his instructions and re-wrote the script. I didn’t like it as well as my first one, but, hey, he was the editor.

After I turned in my second draft, I got a call from my friend Howard Weinstein. Howie was the regular writer of the monthly Trek comic. Alan, the editor, had called him about my story. He was so unhappy with the second draft that he decided I wasn’t capable of writing Trek comics. He had asked Howie to please re-write my script. Howie, being a longtime friend and mentor, had felt it only fair that I know what was going on. He asked me to deliver my original script to him. He read it, and, God bless him, called Alan to say that it was one of the finest Star Trek stories he’d ever read. He thought it needed minor polishing (as all first drafts do), but that it proved I was perfectly capable of finishing the job.

When Alan and I spoke directly after all this, I asked him why he hated the second draft so much, since it was written to his specifications. He told me that that was just the problem–once he saw the story he’d proposed to me actually written, he realized it didn’t work. He thought that I, as a writer, should have known it wouldn’t work. Well, I had known that. I never liked the proposed changes. But, again, young, eager writer. Next time, Alan told me, young writer or no, experienced editor or no, I should trust my storytelling instincts and stand up for my craft. A lot of editors would probably disagree, but that experience boosted my confidence and ability to stand up for my work. A writer’s vision means something. An editor can improve it. An editor can also muck it up. It’s hard sometimes for writer or editor to know the difference.

So, yeah. The live performances at cons are my babies. I’ve proven I can do them well. I’ve also proven that maybe they’ve become a little too much for me.

Am I quitting? Of course not.

But I don’t think live plays are the thing for me anymore. “My Fan… Lady?” drew laughs, but it was frustrating to produce. My Lux Radio Theatre parodies draw bigger laughs, but they don’t require costumes, sets, or nearly as much rehearsal. Nor do they require a middle-aged man with a fading memory to memorize dialogue. (To my credit, I blew only one music cue and one couplet in the lyrics. Not bad for minimal rehearsal.) And, honestly, it’s very possible I’ll adapt “My Fan… Lady?” for audio.

So, while I want to keep performing at cons, I think the live radio format is where I’m going to stay. It’s what I can manage. And it still lets me do what I love with and for the people I love.

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