Note: This is a cross-posting from PerformInk’s 3-part INSIDE series, where they’re taking readers behind the scenes of Lifeline’s production of Her Majesty’s Will through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes.
By David Blixt
Her Majesty’s Will was born because I needed a good laugh.
In Spring 2009 I was in Washington DC, performing in the re-mount of the Goodman’s King Lear starring Stacy Keach, directed by Bob Falls. I’m proud of that show, and it’s deservedly famous. But it was pretty damn dark.
My writing world was pretty dark, too. I’d just finished a draft of a novel called Colossus about the Roman/Jewish wars of the first century. Now in DC, I was rooming with my old pal Steve Pickering, whom I was helping with an adaptation of the grisly sci-fi novella Diamond Dogs.
Man, I needed a laugh. So I thought I’d write one.
Now, all my stories are inspired by gaps. Negative space. Holes in stories we think we know. I started my first novel, The Master Of Verona, to explore the origin of the Capulet-Montague feud. Colossus was the space between the death of Christ and the birth of Christianity.
To me, one great unexplored gap was Shakespeare’s ‘Lost Years’, the eight years after he left Stratford but before he appeared as a playwright.
I’d read Stephen Greenblatt’s fantastic Will In The World. I’d also read Park Honan’s Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy. On a lark I picked up Elizabeth’s Spy Master, Robert Hutchinson’s biography of Sir Francis Walsingham. And all at once I had my story.
The inspiration went like this:
Marlowe was a spy. What if Shakespeare was a spy?
What if Shakespeare and Marlowe were spies together?
What if Shakespeare and Marlowe were spies together, and really bad at it?
Suddenly it was a Hope-Crosby Road Movie starring young Shakespeare and young Marlowe, brilliantly bumbling their way through a world of Elizabethan espionage. Only there was no need for a love interest, because Marlowe would be chasing Will the whole time! And Will? Well, read his body of work (especially his sonnets) and you get a sense that he was, shall we say, a lover of the world?
For the story I settled on The Babington Plot, the trap that sent Mary, Queen of Scots to the axe. Thanks to a chance meeting with a ‘dark lady’, our hero Will is dragged by the wily Kit into a ridiculous plot to save Queen Elizabeth that ends with them being hunted by Catholic rebels, Spanish agents, London scum, and Elizabeth’s own men!
As I wrote, I set myself a challenge – I was not allowed to contradict anything in the historical record. Everything I wrote had to fit the facts as we know them. More, my cast had to be real people – not the nobility, whom we see depicted all the time. No, I wanted the thieves, villains, and fools of London, the dregs of society. You know – theater people.
The first chapters wrote themselves, and Steve posted them on his Shanghai Low blog. Then Lear ended, I went home, and the project was shelved for a couple years. Which seems to be how I work – I’ll write the first third of a novel, then leave it to stew for years before coming back and finishing it in a rush.
In 2011, once more in need of a good laugh, I dusted off the manuscript and finished it in three delight-filled months. In addition to laughing, I found myself crafting a couple moments of heartfelt honesty. All an author can hope for.
That summer was my wife Janice’s second year as the Artistic Director of the Michigan Shakespeare Festival. She hired Robert Kauzlaric to direct the MSF’s production of Tartuffe, a decision that was equal parts shrewd business and fond nostalgia. We had first met Rob in a production of Tartuffe at City Lit, where Jan, Rob, Rob’s wife Elise, and I had shared the stage with Don Bender, as well as the late and sorely-missed Page Hearn and Will Schutz, all under the direction of Kevin Theis. It was one of ‘those’ shows, the ones where you delight both your audiences and yourselves. Jan and I discovered part of our Chicago theater family in that production. Years later Elise and I would both be in the Goodman’s Lear.
Rob, of course, was a longtime ensemble member and playwright at Lifeline Theatre. After a couple years at MSF, Jan made him an Artistic Associate there too. Each February they road trip to Detroit for auditions, and on the car ride they play Pinky and the Brain, plotting the takeover of the world. Or so I imagine.
Four years ago, out of thin air, Rob said, “I’d love to adapt one of David’s books, but they’re all so epic! I just don’t see doing them justice.”
Jan replied with a laugh. “Have you read Her Majesty’s Will?”
He hadn’t. He did. The moment he closed the cover he pitched it to his fellow ensemble members at Lifeline.
Which is how, eight years after my desire to laugh, Her Majesty’s Will is poised to bring a laugh to a world in desperate need of one. It feels like serendipity. Stacy Keach is once more in town to collaborate with Bob Falls. The audiobook of Colossus came out last fall, read by Brian Gill, who was also in that Lear. Just a few months ago the House produced Diamond Dogs, starring Christopher Hainsworth – the director of Her Majesty’s Will. Don Bender, who was in that long-ago Tartuffe, is playing Walsingham, Elizabeth’s Spy-Master.
And me? I was astonished when Lifeline asked me to direct the fights for the show. I immediately called Hainsworth and said, “Chris, you don’t really want me in the room, do you? The author?”
“No,” replied Hainsworth. “I want you the fight director. Because the author saddled us with a lot of fights.” He paused. “We’re keeping the bear-baiting.”
He wasn’t kidding about the number of fights in Her Majesty’s Will. Rob has kept every fight from the novel, which means there are nine distinct sections of combat, most involving four or more people. Each night before the show the actors have a fight call to prepare. Even for violence-heavy shows, most fight-calls last fifteen minutes. The fight call for HMW lasts forty.
Chris gave over the first whole week of rehearsal to choreographing the violence. Which meant I had to hit the ground running.
Being a fight director on a comedy is always an interesting challenge. Like every other aspect of a play, violence is best when it tells a specific story. In a drama or tragedy, that’s fairly straightforward. But in a comedy, it’s about finding the right balance of tone. As they say, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.”
One example – in Act One of HMW, there’s a nine-person tavern brawl. For the first iteration of the fight, I leaned hard into the comedy (one actor was making himself a sandwich while sword-fighting). After a week or so, Chris decided it wasn’t quite the right story – we had lost threat of the villains. So, with just a few adjustments, the fight became more desperate. There’s still humor, but the threat remains palpable. The fight maintains the tension, while the laughs burst in to briefly relieve it.
A lot of which is due to the actors more than me. Many excellent fight directors come in with all the moves mapped out in advance. I prefer to see what the actors bring to it. No two people move the same. Every actor has their own set of skills, and the best fights capitalize on them to tell the story.
Then there’s the fun of working on a new script. As Chris has watched the show take shape, he’s added or subtracted elements of the violence to better tell his story. Meanwhile Rob’s been altering the script, in some cases with major revisions, as the needs of this story become clearer. Often fights changed for the script, or for tech, or simple clarity. But every once in a while it went the other way, the fights birthing a few new lines, and even one running joke. It’s great having that much flexibility and collaborative spirit in the room, where every idea is valued. Until it comes time to murder your darlings.
Thus I’ve had the unique experience of being part of the process all the way along. Rob kept the script out of my hands for as long as he could – at the fight auditions the actors had read more of the play than I had – but I can say with honesty I’m delighted. Rob and Chris and the ensemble have crafted a fast-moving, hilarious romp through the ribald underbelly of Elizabethan theater, so like Chicago’s own.
And in between the laughs, there are a few moments of heartfelt honesty. All an author can ask for.