February 6, 2011

It’s Never David O. Selznick


I don’t know if this is a recent development or not. It seems recent to me, though I generally don’t pay attention to such things. An awful lot of American industries all but completely shut down during the holiday season. There’s a flurry of activity just before Thanksgiving—deals are made, contracts are signed and what have you—and then all is silent until the second week of January. I’m not sure why this is. I doubt it’s piety. Laziness seems more like it.

            The publishing business is like that, and seeing how the publishing business has been doing lately, I can understand why shutting down for a month and a half during the busiest time of the year might seem like a good idea.

            Anyway, given that I didn’t hear anything about any new contracts in that week before Thanksgiving (not that I was expecting to, but it would’ve been a nice surprise), I knew I had no choice but to hunker down, budget carefully, and wait for January to roll around. And sure enough, the second week of January I received a note from my agent informing me that this coming spring, a San Francisco-based theater company wanted to produce a stage version of one of the stories from a collection of fairy tales I’d written.

            That was a surprise. It also struck me as a little odd. They were cutting things pretty close, weren’t they? Doesn’t it usually take some time to pull a stage play together? Scripts, actors, costumes, rehearsals, all that. They had their work cut out for them if they were just now looking into obtaining the rights and expected to premiere the play in three months time.

            Well, I figured, these were professionals, and undoubtedly knew what they were doing. I was happy to learn they’d chosen “Schotzie,” the story of a pinheaded sock monkey. I wrote “Schotzie” back in 1997, long before the idea of a fairy tale collection was ever suggested. I’ve always had a soft spot for that story, if only because it gave me a place to drop all my pinhead jokes. That someone saw Broadway potential in it, well, that was really something. They could get Angela Lansbury or one of the few remaining Redgraves to play the lead!

            The punch line—there had to be a punch line in all this—was hidden in the letter my agent had forwarded from the troupe’s director. The punch line, see, was that the “theater company” was actually part of a non-profit youth program, and the three performances of the play would take place in a local high school auditorium. The place seated 200, and tickets would sell for about five bucks a pop.

            Yes, well. That seemed much more believable, I guess. Why is it always non-profit youth groups who want to do these things instead of, oh, say, David O. Selznick?

            It’s a question I asked my agent, who replied quite logically, “Because the young put on better shows than the dead.”

            Unfortunately, while the young may put on better shows, the dead usually have more money.

            I know plenty of people who are involved in the theater in one capacity or another. Good, interesting people who do interesting things. Still, I remain no fan of theater, never had any patience for it, and I must admit the idea of that story being acted out (clumsily) by a bunch of vacant-eyed fifteen year-olds with braces made me wince a little bit. They’d probably turn it into a damn musical. They turned everything into musicals these days, bleating out awful rhymes to some bland tune, prancing around like idiots. Who wants their work associated with something like that? Prancing, bleating, acne-scarred children? I mean, I took their money—I’m a desperate man—but I was wincing while I did so.

            Then after I agreed to take the money I got to thinking. First of all, “Schotzie” is a much darker story than it may appear on the surface. It is in my mind, anyway. If the wee folk and their adult handlers realized this, well, good for them. It takes some guts. Maybe San Francisco was a fairly enlightened town after all, in spite of their smoking and Happy Meal laws. But if they didn’t realize how dark things are for poor Schotzie, well then it’s just funny.

            At some point long before the fairy tale book came out, some moonpie suggested that I tone it down a bit to make it more child-friendly. The idea, I guess, was to market it to the young adult crowd. It was a mortifyingly stupid idea, of course, and so never happened. In fact after the suggestion was presented to me I went back and made things nastier. Yet despite my best efforts, here were those young adults anyway.

            Corrupting the youth had always been part of the demonic joke behind the book—if an unspoken one—from the beginning. But the idea was that the young people would keep that corruption to themselves, save it for later in life, not go parading it around on stage for their drooling, Alzheimer’s-riddled grandparents to enjoy. And certainly not with my name attached to it, for chrissakes.

            But in a world that’s outgrown subtlety, a world of flat screens and high def, what the hell did I expect? Maybe this is funnier still. And forcing these children to live with poor, hopeless, retarded Schotzie for a few months might be a more effective way to teach them that life is nothing but dull, pointless agony than if they simply read the book once before returning to their texting and Freon huffing. Especially if there are some catchy song and dance routines involved.

            By day’s end I was feeling much better about the whole deal. The only thing that could make it better, as Ryan Knighton pointed out to me, would be if it turned out to be a high school for blind midgets.

            (I went back and read the original letter after Ryan brought this up, but could find no mention of any specific deformities—but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.)

            So if you happen to find yourself in the Bay Area around the end of March, keep your eyes open—it might make for a rare and unusually entertaining evening of amateur theater.


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