Guiding Mose Eakins

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Originally posted at The Evan Dara Affinity
December 2021

1. Pseudonymous

I came late to Evan Dara. You see, to entertain myself and a few like-minded others I blog pseudonymously as the pseudonymous author of certain plays and poems written in the 16th century. This requires a lot of homework, a perpetual pile of nonfiction meant to keep me from making an utter hash of my alter ego. There isn’t much time left for novels. The few I purchase tend to collect at the bottom of the pile.

2015, September. An American northwesterner named Jeff (not a pseudonym) followed my pseudonymous new Twitter account. We began a running, random conversation. He and some friends of his had a mysterious connection to a writer they clearly revered, whose name was not really Evan Dara. Another pseudonym! I was intrigued. I bought The Lost Scrapbook, and I didn’t put it on the pile.

In a nutshell: TLS blew the top of my head off. The Easy Chain and Flee weren’t relegated to the pile either. I now had a favourite living pseudonymous author to go along with the dead one I played on the internet.

2016, April. Jeff was my proxy in obtaining Dara’s permission to include a substantial excerpt from The Easy Chain in one of my blog posts. My topic was four hundred years in the making, yet Dara’s witty, insightful invention, skonk, was the perfect illustration.

Authors’ lives both inform and fingerprint their work. As the poet Wallace Stevens put it: It is often said of a man that his work is autobiographical in spite of every subterfuge. It cannot be otherwise. Evan Dara was a fascinating puzzle, despite and because of the missing pieces.

(fast forward)

2. Foreshadow

2018, July. Dara published Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins, a two-act play in progress. While drama’s terrain was more familiar, this was drama by Dara so I kept my hand on my hat. Mose was worlds away from (let’s say) Hamlet, yet I felt a resonance. A protagonist disadvantaged by unexpected new circumstances. His deep struggle to come to terms with the changes, find a way forward. Who is threatened, who threatens, how he responds, what happens as a result. Not verse but Dara’s extraordinary voice, spoken through Eakins, those close to him, and uncounted if not uncountable others. Dozens of workers, bosses, doctors, vendors, pedestrians, police, several guys named Bob, and a shifting collective called the Swirl. Dara didn’t know how many. Nor did he specify the size of the cast, only giving a minimum with a note that all the actors but one would play multiple parts. In progress, indeed. Insanity to sort out in three dimensions, but on paper it didn’t matter. I read it again, marvelled some more, then returned to my homework.

(fast forward)

3. Mose in the time of Corona

2020, beginning of March. Email.

Jeff: By the way, ED just made a request. I might need your help.

Me: Okay, Mister Cryptic. Whatever it is, I am IN.

ED’s request: was Jeff interested in taking the Mose playscript and distributing the near-infinite number of parts among what would likely be a finite number of actors? He was. Jeff’s request: was I interested in participating? Yes.

Insanity had become challenge. Set up a framework, figure out a process for nailing down the variables. Work together in the cloud. Have some fun. To hell with time zones.

At that moment a protagonist was disadvantaged by unexpected new circumstances: SARS-CoV-2. Jeff was literally at ground zero in the US’s first frightening viral hotspot. Priorities changed almost overnight. I’d have to work alone on the framework, and Jeff would return to the project once things settled down. If they settled down.

They didn’t, until much later. Our collaboration became an early, though fortunately metaphorical, Covid casualty.

Dara trusted Jeff’s trust in me. Duo became solo.

4. The sheet’s the thing

Note: The terms character and part are used interchangeably.

I needed a framework, an organised structure for breaking Mose down into its fixed and variable components. The solution was a large table, a gridded spreadsheet with time on the vertical axis. The play’s dialogue running line by line down the long page. Columns for each actor and the as-yet-unknown number of parts.

It works like this. Time on the piano roll runs up from the bottom but the idea is the same.

Instead of 88 keys, eight actors. Why eight? Because you have to start somewhere, and ED wanted the smallest workable cast. Seven felt too small, and busier actors would have less transition time between characters. Transitions mattered. Most of them take place on the stage, visible to the audience. A conventional play has a 1:1 ratio of parts to actors. Mose’s ratio would be more like 9:1. This was choreography as well as casting.

The gender split was another initial condition. Mose had two girlfriends (not simultaneously), while most of the other characters were men or nonspecific. I’d need all the men I could get, but I wanted to include a woman who wasn’t a girlfriend. A cast of nine would have made the job easier and given the Swirl more heft, but the task was to see whether eight was enough. I set up the spreadsheet for five men and three women.

5. Nuts and bolts

A small slice of the filled-in sheet, early in Act One:

EDA spreadsheet screencap

To the right of the text is the Piano Roll, each of the eight actors in a colour-coded column. The Roll indicates who is active in the scene at any moment. The coloured squares at the left identify which actor has been assigned the character speaking that line. To the right of the Roll are columns for all the characters, also indicating the assignments. Spoiler: the final tally was 68.

Musical digression: Once the player piano became the analogue for the framework, I realised that you could, as a thought experiment or with real instruments, assign a unique note or chord to each actor and play the play. It might sound like John Cage’s worst nightmare (my mind’s ear hears Mose as the constant low drone of a bagpipe), but the music would be a coded version of the action of the actors on the stage. The Provisional Symphony of Mose Eakins.

Some characters have to be men, some women, and others can be either. For instance, most of the police are women because the men are busy causing all the trouble. Recurring characters have to retain the same actor. Allow time for transitions and movement. Distribute the lines as evenly as possible. With all these balls in the air, start at the first unassigned line. Decide which available actor should speak it. Colour it in, and any others tied to it. Move to the next. Repeat. It wasn’t always that linear, but that was the process.

One tricky spot was the Bob Problem. It was important that none of my decisions changed the play in any material way, but in this borderline case serendipity made a virtue of necessity.

Bob1 and Bob2 work cleanup in a restaurant kitchen. Bob Weaver is the cook. The restaurant’s owner is present, as is Mose. That’s all five male actors. Then Bob2 is sacked, to be replaced by Bob3. What to do? The actor given the boot as Bob2 has to return as Bob3, there isn’t anyone else. Specify a prop disguise? Not my call. But did I really have a problem? As I interpret the Bobs, they signify an imposed perception of the working underclass who serve the fortunate from behind doors, out of sight. They are indistinct and replaceable, with little external identity. If you’re not attentive they might even look alike. It will rest with Actor 7 to differentiate Bob3 from Bob2, but any confusion enhances the message. Bullet dodged.

(fast forward)

6. Production Guide, if not yet production

row 2142:                BLACKOUT

Mose was now a stageable play with a cast of eight. I transferred the spreadsheet’s new information back into the original script. Sent a proof to ED. A bit of back-and-forthing over details, then at last: the Production Guide for Provisional Biography of Mose Eakins by Evan Dara. In progress no more.

What will happen to Mose & Co in a Covid-filled future? What’s past is prologue. My 16th-century pseudonym lived through times of plague when the theatres were closed. His work survived. Mose Eakins belongs on a stage in front of an audience. He’ll get there. Hold onto your hat.

Production Guide enquiries:

Quote from The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination [] by Wallace Stevens, 1951, page 121

Details and links for Dara’s published work can be found on my library page, Learned Books.