deborah magid, private eye

So you got a commission – hooray!

So your specialty is fluffy modern pop musical comedies, and you’ve been tasked with – and will be paid for – generating a play about/related to a centuries-ago political figure.

So what do you do now?

I’m exaggerating slightly about my recent experience – my plays and musicals run the gamut from modern to historical, from jargon to prosody to verse.  I’d actually read a few novels set in the required period and had picked up a titch of history along the way, I was already fascinated by certain aspects of the very long period the commissioned play was to encompass.

I came up with a terrific idea that would permit one character to span the entire 150 years… and the folks commissioning the play hated it.  Time to scramble.  In a collaborative conversation, a character was found, or rather, insisted upon.  No clue as to how I’d stretch her to three times a normal life span or elucidate the history I was hired to help teach, but they were happy, so I was happy.

Fortunately, I love research.  When I was a kid, I would read the dictionary for entertainment.  I have files and files of words, just words, their etymologies, their sometimes antithetical meanings, synonyms, antonyms, concepts, idioms.

Writing a piece set hundreds of years ago, I added word origins to many of my files, researching almost every word in the first draft, refusing to use words that hadn’t yet been coined.  When the play was read aloud for the first time, some words sounded modern, so I couldn’t use them despite their historical accuracy.

The puzzle aspect of playwrighting is one of my most favorite, so finding le mot juste became a lovely game.  Adding layers of complexity to a basic story is likewise hugely fun, I love rewriting, there, I’ve said it, I love the whole process of meeting new people who wouldn’t exist if I and then the actors didn’t give them breath.

I can get curious about anything.  This is a weakness when under deadline, as you might imagine, so many interesting paths to pursue!  But it’s also a strength, and in these halcyon Internet days, I was able to find letters written by that pivotal historical figure.  I’d already decided to have the only character onstage read letters from various others to help progress the action, and the missive dispatched by this pivotal character – a rather long letter, the denouement of the play – is made entirely of phrases from the real person’s correspondance.

Oddly, it’s the best scene I wrote.

Research led me to the right path and gave me a familiarity, an appreciation of people and places I wouldn’t otherwise know.  And helped me to give air and form to a whole new person in the world.  Just last night, the actor and I were discussing the character’s forebears and history, as if she had truly existed.  And who knows, maybe she did, and I’ve just channeled her.

But I couldn’t have done that without researching her words.

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