If You Go
• What: “Dead Beats,” written and directed by Jaynie Roberts.
• When: 7:30 p.m. Oct 27-28.
• Where: Magenta Theater, 1108 Main St., Vancouver.
• Tickets: $12 in advance, $15 at the door
• On the web: www.magentatheater.com
• Box office phone: 360-635-4358.
Jaynie Roberts feels like a million bucks when an audience laughs at her. But when they laugh at her words — the words she wrote herself — it’s more like a billion.
“The joy I receive, it’s almost like giving birth and you get to see your child for the first time,” she said. “You don’t feel that when you’re producing somebody else’s works.”
Roberts, the British-born founder of Vancouver’s downtown Magenta Theater, says she launched the company in 2002 as a hobby project — to stage the original comedy scripts she loved writing. She used to write a couple a year, and kept being surprised by the healthy turnouts — even though Magenta didn’t have a permanent home and kept hopping between rented church sanctuaries.
But Magenta grew into a success anyway, building a reputation for people-pleasing performances and eventually remodeling an ample Main Street storefront into a spacious theater. And Roberts, while thrilled that her dream became a busy and beloved theater company, also became a victim of Magenta’s success. As founder and artistic director, she was too busy herding theatrical cats — directing, producing, acting, fundraising, rustling up real estate and permits and licensing — to keep writing, she said.
Don’t worry, a friend reassured her: “Magenta has moved beyond your writing.” It was meant as a compliment for the growing company, but it just about crushed Roberts the playwright. “It was like a knife in my heart,” she said.
She decided not to let the inadvertent wound fester. When a musician in last year’s production of “Little Shop of Horrors” eagerly asked what Magenta’s next musical would be, Roberts accepted the challenge. She hadn’t been planning another musical, she said, but that guy’s excitement — plus the earlier remark about her writing — changed her mind. The 2017-18 Magenta season was already scheduled when she decided to squeeze in an “add on” Halloween production: a musical spoof about a monstrous band — a band of monsters — called “Dead Beats.”
What do you do if you want to rock the Transylvania Music Festival, but your castle has no house band?
Not a problem for the resourceful Professor Frankenvalley, who assembles — literally — a group of musicians from spare parts unearthed at the local cemetery. But he’s got no singer, and the lovelorn-yet-severe Frau Bloomer schemes to grab the role, until — well, we won’t spoil the plot. Let’s just say some monstrous sibling rivalry is revealed, and a torch singer’s feather boa emerges from the unlikeliest of hiding places.
The music in “Deat Beats” is the only thing not original here; Roberts took suggestions for popular Halloween-appropriate songs (and licensed it all legally, she said); you’ll hear everything from Rocky Horror’s “The Time Warp” and Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” to something called “Dead Man’s Party” by something called Oingo Boingo.
Seasoned actor and musician Michele Glover, who’s been with Magenta for a decade, said she happily sacrificed a speaking role in order to dive into the “Dead Beats” dance company.
“I just wanted to learn the ‘Thriller’ dance,” Glover said.
‘Give my creation liiife!’
In the classic 1931 horror film “Frankenstein” — and also in the classic 1974 Mel Brooks spoof “Young Frankenstein,” which Roberts (mostly) avoided copying while penning her own monstrous play — the creature is transformed from sewed-together parts into a living whole by a storm of electricity.
It’s not too different with Roberts’ writing, she said. When she starts writing a play, she said, she has precious little idea where she’s going. She assembles parts and sees what sticks together. “You might think you’re on the right track, but you don’t know” until other people start getting involved, she said.
That’s the electricity. When she’s finished a draft, Roberts pulls actors together for an initial reading. She listens for what works and what doesn’t, what’s funny and what falls flat. (She writes only goofy comedies, she said; serious stuff depresses her.) She invites critiques and suggestions from the cast. She takes all that inspiration away and keeps writing drafts. It’s not unusual, she said, to be rewriting and polishing even as the cast is rehearsing and opening night is nearing.
Fortunately, a big jolt of electricity brought “Dead Beats” to life right away, Roberts said: Her cast started laughing during the first read-through. “This is the joy I’ve been missing for years,” she realized. “When they take my words and make them into something so much bigger than I ever imagined.”
There were plenty of suggestions, too. Somebody said the jokes were good but the story didn’t add up; Roberts opened the monster back up and rebuilt the plot. Meanwhile, because Magenta’s fall season is well underway — with Roberts herself also directing the whodunit “Prescription for Murder,” onstage through Oct. 21 — somewhat frantic rehearsals of “Dead Beats” have been limited to Sundays only.
What rehearsals are for
That’s why the first full run-through of “Dead Beats” — featuring the whole cast, musicians and technical crew — ignored the current “Prescription for Murder” stage set. (That’s the set in the photos on Page D1. By opening night, “Dead Beats” will be set inside Prof. Frankenvalley’s laboratory.) While rehearsal was underway, lighting designer Ed Warner took notes and diagrammed, on graph paper, the “hot spots” on stage — where the band stands, where doorways are located, where the dancers dance.
An initial run-through is always chaotic, and Oct. 8 didn’t disappoint. For one thing, star Matt Thoreson (Prof. Frankenvalley) was out of town, so understudy James Stevenson, who knew most but not all of his lines, had to step in. Stevenson and “monster” John Branch also improvised some hilariously awkward dancing and finger-snapping — delightedly discovering and rediscovering the beat as if playing Whack-a-Mole — but Roberts’ bemused reaction was to plan some actual choreography rehearsal.
“Everybody’s going to be looking at you,” she said. The awkward finger-snapping was funny, she figured, but not funny enough to carry a whole song.
Entry and exit cues were missed and reviewed; Roberts stayed busy ushering actors here and there. (“You have to leap like a gazelle,” she told one actor, prompting a series of truly silly skipping experiments from several more.) The band started, stopped, worked out some bugs, started again. “Sorry,” somebody said.
“That’s what rehearsals are for,” Roberts reassured. Then she prompted the band of monsters to stay in character and groan appropriately when Dr. Frankenvalley compliments them.
“Just remember, you’re all dead,” she said. “Cue the gutteral noises!”