Transforming Words on the Page to Characters on the Stage
By Kevin Hodgson
There’s a moment in my play where the main character – a little, confused musical note — discovers an exact replica of himself in the musical manuscript through which he is traveling. The other note is exactly like him, except there is one major difference: the twin is happy. Giddy, even. Dancing around with a big smile on his face, the twin of B-Sharp ponders the question of why he is so happy.
“I am in the most perfect place in the most perfect composition by the most perfect composer ever. When I am played, the whole world shudders with joy because I am exactly in the right spot,” the twin states happily, to which the main character, B Sharp, replies: “I wish I could find my spot.”
The character of the twin was something I added in late to the story, and I did that only because another young actor joined the theatrical camp where the play was being produced had joined the cast and desperately wanted a speaking part. How could I turn down a request by this young man to get involved? I sat at the keyboard and thought. The director of the production suggested a few lines for the twin that B-Sharp stumbles upon after escaping the Meter Police, the treble notes, and the first and second endings.
“Maybe you could tell why the twin is happy,” the producer suggested, and that made sense to me, and so I went back to the script that I wrote three years earlier during a month-long Summer Institute for teachers as part of the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. The Note Who Got Lost in the Masterpiece originally came to form as a novella that I wrote chapter by chapter during that productive summer, and I fine-tuned it with the help of other teacher-writers. When one of my fellow writers said the story sounded like a play unfolded scene by scene (which I called “movements”), I experienced one of those blinding moments of inspiration. I went home to my acoustic guitar, wrote a few songs and then proceeded to convert the entire story into a piece for theater for young actors.
The script then sat around for three more years, always in the back of my mind – I really liked the story of a musical note who must find his place in a piece of music and feel important and special – yet never produced. Sure, I had toyed with the idea of doing it with the sixth graders I teach and even began producing fractured fairy tales with my classes two years ago with the idea of getting my feet wet as a producer of plays. But my musical was a big production, and one I was wary about taking on while still trying to teach what I knew I had to teach. There is such little room in the current educational environment for a long theatrical production and B Sharp was forced to sit off to the side of the darkened stage.
I was inspired to return to the play when I read about a writing contest being sponsored by the Mult-Arts organization in Amherst, which was searching for stories to produce with its youth summer theater camp, and lo and behold, somehow, I won the contest with my B Sharp play. I later learned there were about 30 play submissions from across the country.
When I was writing the story, I could see it all unfolding on stage, in my own mind, but I was as excited as the twin of B-Sharp to imagine that the story would come to life, with real actors, in a real production. Every request made of me as the writer – such as scaling back some of the musical theory – I agreed to in hopes of helping the young actors find meaning in their roles in the limited amount of time they had to rehearse and learn their lines. I added in the speaking part of the twin. I conceded that my songs, as I wrote them years ago, could be replaced by new compositions by the music director of the camp. I was open and willing for anything.
I just wanted B Sharp and the rest of my characters to find their place on the stage.
And so imagine the wonderment of the writer when I slipped into a dress rehearsal of the play and watched the characters I had nurtured begin to become alive on stage with the help of a group of talented young actors. Little B Sharp was this wisp of a girl but her face and body was all emotion, capturing perfectly the confusion and frustration felt by the lost note. The bass notes were two high school boys and as they talked to B Sharp down below in Bass Land, they towered over her and the effect was exactly what I was going for on the written page. And then the note who guards the first and second ending got increasingly angry at the repeat dot that follows her around everywhere and repeats half of what she has said, it was almost like watching Abbott and Costello trying out a new routine on stage. They nailed the humor just right.
The day of the first public performance, I was as nervous as the actors, I think. Some friends had arrived and I even saw some of my students from a few years ago when I began doing fractured fairy tales in my classroom. The curtains opened on the stage and the set design was perfect – the backdrop were all of a musical motif. Although I was videotaping the performance for posterity, I sat back and enjoyed the show from start to finish, even singing along in my head with some of the songs they used from my original ideas.
It made me feel good to listen to the applause at the end of the show and one member of the audience – another teacher, it turns out, who has taught music to younger students – shook my hand and said, “If only we had something like that when I was teaching … even I learned some new things about music today.”
I felt the warm glow of praise, as much for my writing as for my teaching, and silently thanked the young actors who encompassed my creations on the stage. Later, I actually did thank them and, even more, I thanked the producer of the show.
“I just hope we did justice to your vision,” he said.
That, he did.
Here is a scene from the first act of the play:
Meter Police: There’s been a bit of commotion in this sector of the score and we want it stopped right now. You chords have to know your place! I swear, sometimes I think you notes don’t even know the difference between the mad rush of Allegro and the slow drone of Adagio. What’s the problem here? Why all the fuss?
B-Sharp (stepping forward slowly): Uh, sir. I’d like to leave.
Meter Police: Leave? Leave? You can’t leave. You’re right where The Composer put you. Do you think you know better than The Composer what kind of chord is needed in this particular measure? Is this what you are saying? (glares at B-Sharp)
B-Sharp: No, sir. It’s just … I’m not wanted here. I’d like to leave.
Meter Police: That’s for The Composer to decide, young note, not us. You must remain where you are until The Composer decides otherwise, if he decides otherwise.
B-Sharp (in a pleading voice): Perhaps, I could just go to that rest over there for a little while? Until The Composer comes back?
Meter Police: Absolutely not. Now you stay in your spot or you’ll be one sorry tone. (and with that, the Meter Police buzzed off)
(B-Sharp sighs and seems depressed. Then he perks up, looks over to the four-beat rest one more time.)
B-Sharp (to himself): I’ve got to do it. I can’t stay here any longer. I’ve got to at least try to get to that rest, no matter what it takes. (pause). It will take courage, that’s for sure. (pause). OK. I can do it. I know I can. First, I just need to get away from this measure. (pause as he moves slowly). There. I did it. Now, on to the rest.
F Minor: Hey, what’s he doing. Look at B-Sharp – he’s moving. He’s not supposed to do that! What will The Composer think!
(The other notes begin to move about in excitement, pointing to B-Sharp, whispering among themselves about what B-Sharp is doing. Meanwhile, B-Sharp keeps moving when suddenly a Whole Note jumps in front of him.)
Whole Note (in a bulling tone of voice): Uh-uh, kid. End of the line. No note gets past me. You’re not going to make me the laughing stock of the symphony. Get yourself back to your chord like a good little tone. You heard me. Go on. Beat it!”
B-Sharp (looking frightened by the Whole Note but trying to remain brave): No! I won’t go back. And you can’t make me! I’m getting to that rest, one way or another. (And then the two notes begin to wrestle each other, slapstick comedy, with the Whole Note much stronger than B-Sharp. After a minute, B-Sharp falls to the ground, yelling out: Ahhhhhh!!! and the curtain closes as the lights black out.)