Well, it’s 2 days after we performed Before the Dawn “on stage” at the UK filk con and I still haven’t come down off the ‘high’. To finally – some 18 years after we kind of gave up on ever finishing the thing, let alone actually doing it - turn this “shared-world filk saga” into a practical show, and to perform it, costumed and staged, to audience acclaim is an achievement that just isn’t going to fade any time soon. Even those cast and crew members totally new to Before the Dawn were having an absolute blast during the performance and after, but to those of us who were there as it grew and developed, it just goes way beyond that to a deep and abiding feeling of joy and pride. We *did* it – and it was Good.
So I guess first off, praise has to go to Mike for having the vision to believe that we could actually do this thing, for thinking big and pushing us past the initial conservative scepticism that might have resulted in little more than a chain of songs sung into a fixed mic. No, Mike wanted costume and staging/acting and to make the thing into what would basically be a coherent stage musical. I think many of us initially doubted we could ever achieve this, but by aiming high we ended up achieving high and the joy is all the greater for it.
Fortunately, we had several things going for us, not least the mix of talents in the Before the Dawn “core team” – essentially Mike, myself, Valerie and Rhodri, with Zander as remote consultant. How it tended to work back then was that Valerie and Zander would head off, creating new characters or plot threads and that the rest of us would then follow behind trying to weave these together into a coherent whole, finding and identifying the ‘gaps’ or ‘opportunities’ where these created places for new songs or characters. That’s something of a oversimplification, but one with a big element of truth to it. And so it was now as we had to, fairly ruthlessly, prune down what had become an overburdened (60-odd songs and 15+ characters) yet still incomplete saga into a more manageable and coherent entity.
We agreed basic ground rules – that songs would be judged on a mixture of how essential they were to the plot, character illustration/ development or other songs; how popular/well-known they were; and to an extent just how good we felt they were as songs, helped balance style or performer load, or how much we’d enjoy performing them. Whilst all within the practical constraints of running time and how many performers we could reasonably use. Thus it was that large swathes of songs and characters end up “on the filking-room floor” so to speak – King Unto IV; the Vanessan Empire and their Ambassador; the Warlord’s daughter; the Warlord’s daughter’s Music Teacher; the barman at the Man in the Moon; the Knights of the Drunkard’s Moon and their leader, all ended up being quietly written out or reduced to narrative reference. As did a number of songs such as Deeds of War, I Cannot Understand, Magic Abroad, Thicker than Water, Shafts of Sunlight, Overcast and many more which just failed the tests of necessity or advocacy.
And it was that combination which tended to be key. Some relatively obscure songs such as Playing Soldiers or The Answer were “pushed” because they either provided an introduction to a key character or illustrated a key plot development. Whilst others – and Excuse Me is the classic example – were squeezed in, despite only actually having (immediately to hand) a set of words and a time signature, because without them another song wouldn’t make as much sense or wouldn’t carry as much meaning. And some just made it in because we liked them, or liked the insights they gave into the characters.
One worry I’ll confess I had was that this process would become partisan or heated. Songs are precious things to their creators, and obviously nobody much enjoys seeing their creative work discarded as being less-worthy or less-essential than another. Yet I can’t honestly recall an occasion on which we ever had this sort of strife develop, and, as I’ve said elsewhere, I particularly admired Valerie’s graciousness as she suffered far more than most in the pruning process (having written more than most!).
Not that this was without stresses of its own, amicability notwithstanding. Time, time, time was always the bugbear, and Mike in particular was worried whether we could really fit all the songs we really wanted into Act 2 and still stay within the running time – because we’d been Told that “No, you absolutely can’t have any more Time!”. The nub came down to what we thought of as the reflective section of Act 2 between War and Midnight at the Tower where there’s a whole string of reasonably quiet songs, all of which have lovely character illustration and development, but don’t actually advance the main plot terribly much. We really really didn’t want to lose any of them – indeed I even had an extra one in last-minute development for the Girl to fill an apparent obvious ‘hole’ – but equally, time just seemed to be against us, and various ideas were proposed such as cutting the number of verses, or taking individual verses from multiple songs to create a single composite song! Fortunately, a combination of shifting some songs back to Act 1, keeping the new ‘linking’ songs short, and (sadly) editing down any narration which duplicated that within a song meant that we were able to keep all of the old songs. But alas my new song just had to go – for now – being replaced by a single verse reprise of Dusk. (Then again, in the classic way of Before of Dawn, even at that late date we were still discovering new insights into the plot and characters, which meant if I had completed that song then I’d have had to then rewrite it again, so perhaps this was fated to be!)
Meanwhile, there was the whole much-put-off issue of the narration. Knowing that we needed a narration and that Hitch would be a Good Choice for doing it was the easy part. Actually getting around to somebody actually writing it was quite another! Until in a mixture of maybe-he’d-do-it, we-know-he’d-do-it-well and it’d-be-nice-to-get-him-more-involved we decided to ask Zander if he’d write it. What I don’t think any of us expected was that we’d get back, a matter of days later, a narration in blank verse which was practically a work of art in its own right, one which would not just link together the songs but provide an epic feel to the entire production. I don’t think I said as much to Zander at the time, but whilst we subsequently had many and heartfelt debates over individual phrases or even words, they were always just that – discussions on the margins and in the depths of the detail – not for one moment was there ever doubt that one of our greatest dilemmas had been solved and in such a way that this performance was now going to be Something Special.
Furious plot polishing, in-filling and editing continued. One of the most dramatic changes occurred at an early stage when Rhodri casually remarked that he’d always expected Dawn to be sung by the Captain. According to Rhodri, he’d been saying this to Mike ever since he wrote it, but somehow this idea had never been mentioned to me – I’d always thought that it was written for the Prince and so it’d always been noted. But if it it were the *Captain* singing it then That Changed Everything – the song goes from a reasonably upbeat one of “Cheer up, let me show that life is not all dark and can still go on” to a big romantic Happy Ending of forgiveness, hope and reconciliation. Plus I’d get to sing Dawn, a definite and quite unexpected bonus. Woot! *big beaming grin*
Except, I couldn’t quite see how we could make it seem plausible. Okay, so she’s an Empath [long story, but all the main characters have some degree of psychic ability, though usually manifesting only as "instinct" or "feelings" rather than a conscious power] and so knows that he really does love her and really does regret having killed her love; and it was war, and her love was a soldier too and the Captain had been honest and honourable about the whole thing, even down to personally digging a grave out of respect for the Watcher’s courage and honour. But whilst all that might perhaps (in the fullness of many more weeks or months than our storyline has available) have meant an eventual reconciliation, it seemed ludicrous to believe she could do it this quickly or completely just because the Sun’s now come up and he sings a rather pretty song! And in any case, much of that is Back Story and so would be no use at all in making it seem at all believable to the audience. And so, amidst all the other chaos, I started fretting and worrying at this issue in the hope of finding a practical fix.
First-off, and with Rhodri’s gracious tolerance, I needed to change some of the lyrics to Dawn. Yes, I know, that’s a bit like touching-up the Mona Lisa or stopping Han Solo from shooting first, but I just couldn’t see the Captain singing some of those lines as written. Some, like “make your fears melt away” seemed to trivialise her grief and his culpability; others like “I’m waiting here for you” would have felt to me like he was tapping his foot and saying “When you’ve *quite* finished moping there”! So I rewrote a few lines and changed the odd word here and there – which some might say is nothing new for me! – but the result was one I felt far happier with in reflecting what he might dare to say. But it still fixed only part of the problem – I felt that for it to seem reasonable for her to forgive him, he needed to have demonstrably Changed from the man he was when he came to this City.
And so, bit by bit over a few weeks he was indeed duly Changed. We let him choose to spare the Sergeant (rather than just stopping fighting) and indicate he was tired of making war. And in a sudden burst of insight I realised that there was no way that the Captain wouldn't repeatedly have offered the Watcher a chance to surrender; and though one might rationalise this simply as a matter of Just-Too-Damn-Honourable it'd be far more interesting if we made it so that the Watcher had foreseen this death (psychic power again!) and so *chose* this death instead of an honourable surrender. And maybe even said something to that effect to the Captain. All of which ties up neatly with the "promise me - you'll never forget" wayyyy back in Dusk, and leaves the Girl in even more misery because now she knows he chose death in preference to coming back to her, yet she has no idea why. Which is all good juicy angst (and why I would have needed to rewrite that new song!) but it also makes the Captain that much less "to blame" for his death because he'd tried, and repeatedly, to avoid killing him. So with this concept slipped into the narrative we were nearly there.
The final touch came in the last rehearsals where we figured out that a nice way to fill the instrumental before the last verse of Dawn would be for the Captain to remove his sword and sword-belt and place them on the Watcher's grave before once again reaching out to the Girl, this time to be accepted. And that, bar belatedly realising that my radio mic belt-pack was clipped to the sword belt I'd just removed (oops!) and changing the penultimate line from "sword no longer drawn" to "sword no longer *worn*" - was the ending that finally appeared on stage.
However, I seem to have digressed! But this does show how we were still tinkering and refining things up to (and quite possibly beyond!) the last minute. The order of some songs was changed; extra narration verses were squeezed in; and when we could, we squeezed in whatever rehearsals we arrange for band and cast. Terminally unhelped, it must be said, by the plague of colds and flu which struck down several cast members during January, which combined with busy lives meant that for some cast members the final rehearsal would be the only rehearsal! Not good, but fortunately these were the minor roles with only one or two tunes to actually learn and practice, even if they then appeared multiple times. Still it'd surely have been a better and more polished performance had some people had more healthy time available to work on it - but c'est la vie. It still rocked.
The last rehearsal weekend was … busy. It was Rhodri's first rehearsal (though he'd been in on the early planning), Paul's first rehearsal and likewise the first one where we'd had enough people there and a complete enough script to think about planning out actual stage movements and other acting-type stuff! And it wasn't until Sunday afternoon that we were ready for an end-to-end run-through, with whatever stage-stuff we could manage in the confines of the Mill House playroom and given we were running only off fixed mics and not the headsets we hoped to have on the day! Oh, and we'd meant this to be a dress rehearsal but most of us hadn't got our costumes sorted yet, or if we had, somebody else was bringing them to the Con!
However, much to our relief it went pretty well. As noted, time had been our biggest worry but Act I came in a 55 minutes and Act II at a couple of minutes over the hour, so all in all that seemed close enough given adrenalin "on the night". And most important of all, it had kept going and produced a coherent production, occasional mistakes notwithstanding. Which meant we were essentially good-to-go and I think for the first time we stopped worrying about whether it was going to work - it was - and started to actively enjoy looking forward to it and speculating on just how far it was going to exceed audience expectations. Because it had certainly exceeded ours!
And so came the Con, and we were right - people had no idea just what was coming. Mention of "costumes" or "armour" produced boggled looks and regrets at forgotten cameras! Discussions of headsets and projected backdrops furthered this, as I think did a slow spread of the sense of anticipation and eagerness in the cast, band and crew. We knew (or at least profoundly hoped!) that it was going to be something special, something well beyond anything previously staged - even for those of us who still remember Dan Who! And meantime we all hoped our voices would last until Sunday…!
Sunday morning - my voice is claggy. Lots of sub-bass but definitely scratchy and cough-y anywhere else. Can't cough with a headset mic - aaarghh! Need to get into costume; need to test radio mic and work out fitting; need to warm voice up and de-clag. Fortunately I didn't actually need to sing until almost the end of Act I which gave me a couple of walk-on appearances to get into the swing of things before I actually had to try and sing anything.
My first song was Not for Sale, very much a story song with lots of plot to explain as it tries to tie up threads from the previous several songs! Probably not one that many people remember as I haven't done it in circles much for years and years, but one that's kind of fundamental to the plot. I'd made an effort to get the lyrics into my brain, but know myself way too prone to getting distracted and forgetting where I am in the song. So I'd made up some ultra-miniature prompt cards for each song, Ariel 8pt and double-sided so that even the longest song fitted on a 4" x 2" card which, whilst still visible, would be less obvious and less restricting on gesture than carrying a script. And they seemed to work fine, though their use generally was more paranoia in case I forgot than because I already had. Though I was amused to find GK had been wondering whether I had an iPhone in my hand with my lyrics loaded on it…
It went well - or at least so I thought. Alas when Tim and Rika came on stage they were chatting nonchalantly rather than staring defiantly but sadly that's the not quite enough rehearsal striking again. We'd added this after the run-through but hadn't thought to rehearse it as they didn't have to do anything but stand there - memo to self for future that sometimes how you just stand there matters too! But overall it seemed to kick and snarl and generally go down really well. Later reports also suggested the plot twist here of the Captain's defection to the forces of Good had a certain "Whoa, I wasn't expecting that" quality to it. Whilst it was also apparent that the song was easier to understand once in context and staged than it had been before.
A whisk through backing Bright Copper and then for the first half closer. A deadly serious dramatic narrative promised a dark and menacing second Act. A brief pause. And then a loud common-accented voice bellowed from the back "Awwwwwwright, we may be mercenaries but damnit we're PROFESSIONALS!" and Simon's Sergeant character brassily walked up through the audience to the stage as the bouncy piano intro to the rather silly "Something's Going On" started up. We'd been aware of and indeed looked forward to this sudden contrast, but Simon's wonderful and appropriate total hamming-up just polished it to perfection and the audience simply loved it.
The interval was just a huge mutual high in Green Room. I think a lyric stutter in Rumour-Monger was the only significant error I'd noticed, and we ran pretty much to time too. Whilst the audience reaction looked to be everything we'd hoped for, Mike was beaming fit to bust, and I doubt any of the rest of us looked much different. The GKs had been doing a damn fine job on a massively complicated tech task, about the only glitch being an occasional lateness in fading up a new headsetted singer as they came on stage - and if offered that beforehand as the worst tech problem, we'd have more than settled for it! And we were raring to get stuck into Act II.
But seeing how ludicrously long this commentary has already become, I think I'll leave that for another day!