Thursday, August 26, 2010

Exceeding the work that made your mark

My Lusternia character, Lendren Starfall, is arguably that world's best-known playwright. Though he's written in produced several dozen plays over the years, many times more than anyone else (the next highest number is four), and though he's accomplished so many other things, he's still often thought of as just "the guy who wrote Nifilhema's Tear", the first play he wrote. Sometimes I wonder if anything he does can ever get past that.

Nifilhema's Tear is a good play and I'm proud of it for a lot of reasons. At the time I started writing it, no one had ever done theater in Lusternia, and there was no coded support for it. There's an incredible amount of behind-the-scenes work I did to make it possible to put on a play within the limitations of Lusternia as it existed then, things like the lack of props, that you can't see a costume unless you think to look at it, limits in what constitutes a "room" in Lusternia, etc. I had written into the script hooks to let the characters find reasons to say each other's names since the audience would have nothing else to establish who was playing what. I had arranged a team of illusionists, along with a secondary team of people able to help them heal the mana drain from casting illusions in such a way that the audience wouldn't see them healing it and be distracted, to do the effects. There's dozens of things like that I had to prepare, and some of my solutions were quite clever. In essence, I had to invent theater for Lusternia, work out everything from the format of a script to the way actors would deliver lines within the medium of a MUD.

Unfortunately, I was never able to get that version of the play performed, though I got pretty close a few times. It just took too many people. However, the play itself inspired Estarra, the head producer and Creatrix Goddess of Lusternia, to get a theater system implemented that handled things like effects, costumes, entrances and exits, etc. and recorded the performance for later replay. Tear was the first play ever produced with that system, and its premiere performance was attended by dozens of players as well as Estarra and two other of the gods, an occurrence that has never been matched since. The cast and crew got the blessings of those gods for doing it as well.

I'm also proud of Tear for the content. It's a history, depicting events that happened earlier in Lusternia, which involved huge quantities of research and interviews with people, even some spying to obtain a few bits of information that were kept secret. But it's a fictionalized history, and I'm very proud of how it hews to what actually happened but condenses and modifies things to convey those events better than a literal retelling would do, as well as more entertainingly. It's on a large scope, three acts and nine scenes, and with a cast twice as large as anything made since. It's a tour de force of theater as it exists in Lusternia, and that's even true now, despite various advancements made since its production (such as the addition of new tricks to the stages). And generally, I'm pleased with the writing; there are, of course, things that I groan at, but that's true of anything I write when I go back to it later.

But for all that, it's not, by any means, my favorite of my works, or the one I think to be best. I've done so much since then. I've done bigger works, smaller works. I've done avant-garde and experimental works. I've done histories, tragedies, comedies, illusion shows, speculative fiction, bedtime story fables, action adventure, even a Bollywood-style musical romantic comedy. I've done lush highly realistic effects (even ones that fool audience members into thinking that things are happening in Lusternia instead of in the play), and plays on a bare stage where you can see stagehands working with props. I've done so many things that, by comparison, Tear seems very straightforward, mainstream, plain.

And amongst them, there are two plays in particular that I think are far better. One is a history, and the third part of a trilogy, but it's also a bit of a... there's a word I want to use here that's probably worth censoring, but it starts with "mind" and the second half rhymes with "truck". The play is pretty dark (though one of the scenes has some of the dryest comic relief I've ever written) and grim, and the people who lived through the events it depicts have agreed (privately; they can't really say this kind of stuff in character) that it's an evocative and realistic depiction, in spite of or perhaps because of how surrealistic it is. Long after I wrote it, I still think it's my best work ever. It also was the first work I ever wrote that won all three of the awards it could win, simulataneously. And yet few people know of it and no one ever thinks of it when they think of Lendren.

The other one is the Bollywood-inspired musical romantic comedy. Let me note that I don't generally like Bollywood movies, or musicals, or romantic comedies. And anyone who does would probably be highly dubious of the idea of one of those presented as a stream of text in a text-only medium; conveying large-scale production dance numbers and lyric-opera-style songs that way is very challenging. Nevertheless, of all my plays it's the one I most enjoy re-watching. And there's a lot in it of which I am proud, including most notably a few bits where game mechanics are adapted not just to the play form but also to musical form. (There's a game mechanic for debates, which are like battles of will wrapped around a two-layer rock-paper-scissors game, that I managed to depict accurately as an actual debate that's done in song and dance, and if you study it closely you can figure out what commands the participants were using at what points, but if you don't, it just looks like an actual debate being done in song, and it works perfectly well on both levels, I think.)

I'm very gratified by the respect and recognition I've earned for my writing in general, and for Nifilhema's Tear in specific, but at the same time, I feel like no matter what I do I'll never escape it. And that's also true of things other than plays; Lendren has tried to make a mark in many other areas, some more successfully than others, but to most people he's nothing more or less than that guy who wrote that one play. I shouldn't complain, of course, since many people would envy the recognition I do get, but I sometimes wish there was a way to direct it to the more deserving works. It's not so much that I feel bad for me, as I do for the plays themselves. It's not me that's not getting the recognition I deserve; it's the plays that aren't getting the recognition they deserve.

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