What all stories are about

Within a week of reading The Traitor Baru Cormorant I watched the whole of Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, the new episode of Rick & Morty: Never Ricking Morty, and Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Four pieces of fiction about fiction. Meanwhile Plandemic was igniting social media and making me think about why we believe what we believe. My thoughts were pushed from one to another so that these unrelated experiences became a five-pointed star holding within it conspiracies, rewritten history, and literary devices made literal.

Spoilers.

Why does anyone tell a story? The character Baru Cormorant in Seth Dickinson’s fantasy novel lives within layers of story spun around herself as camouflage, cocoon and prison. The empire of the book tells a grand story that anyone can recognise as the knife-edge of colonialism editing the history of the conquered. Familiar from the letters of Rhodes, speeches of Churchill, and poetry of Kipling. Baru Cormorant tries to unpick the story, but first she needs to become its author. The book is about conspiracy and power, betrayal and betrayal and betrayal.

“This is why I chose to write about the problem of powerful stories.” writes Seth Dickinson, “They work. Our world is full of them, and they continue to propagate forward. We must confront them.”

Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood has been described as ‘ahistorical’ but that would only be half-way to the truth. It is anti-historical. In imagining a group of filmmakers creating a diverse smash-hit film, Hollywood the show makes good on the promise of Hollywood the legend. When a young director begs a producer to let him cast Anna May Wong in a lead role he says, “Movies don’t just show us how the world is, they show us how the world can be.”

Hollywood is story as wish-fulfillment. History rewritten just as the film within the show is rewritten from tragic to hopeful as that same producer asks, “Is that what we want to say about the world?”

Meanwhile Tarantino tells an anarchic tale in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… History unraveled and rewoven for a character study of two men who may be at the end of their careers. Sitting on a tv lot Rick Dalton cries while describing the plot of a paperback novel he’s reading to a precocious child-(method)actor.  But while Hollywood and Traitor have a certain feeling of responsibility, for Tarantino story-telling is about saying something that only he can say. Having an unconstrained voice. It’s indulgence and freedom. It’s his.

Rick & Morty has that same ego-driving the story. In Never Ricking Morty the characters are trapped in a literal narrative device. They point this out themselves. They point everything out themselves as they try to break, subvert, and escape the möbius strip of story.  In this the meta-narrative isn’t about taking control of the story, or rewriting history, or having freedom… the story is about breaking story. Rick & Morty runs along the edge between nihilism and meaning. Dan Harmon has talked extensively about Campbellian structure and tropes. Well, I say ‘talked’ but I mean ‘ranted’. Harmon is one of those people who thinks he’s a piece of shit and also better than everyone else. He thinks tropes suck and also that he’s a master of them. He’s not wrong. In Never Ricking Morty the ‘rules’ of story are broken and ripped away to show… nothing? Storytelling is meaningless illusion.

Plandemic is its own kind of storytelling, existing only as a counter-narrative – a shadow-story of distorted shapes cast by the light of intense scrutiny on the real story. Conspiracy Theories exist because the mainstream story does not convince everyone. Sometimes these independent thinkers have spotted real flaws, sometimes they’ve misunderstood something, and sometimes the story being ‘mainstream’ is all the fault they need. Trust No One. Even before Plandemic‘s surge and subsequent purge, people were writing about the rise of Conspiracy Theories. And they were usually getting it wrong by making the same mistake as the theorists: linking different phenomena together into a grand psychological narrative.

The conspiracy theorist, the debunker, and the observer are all competing storytellers wrestling over the meta-narrative while claiming Facts.

Fiction doesn’t claim Fact, but it does claim Truth. And you can see the same fight play out over and again as audiences offer or revoke their suspension of disbelief to the tellers. They fixate on details, they chant, “well, actually” and they compose sweeping essays tying unrelated experiences into a single theory.

Maybe you could stick colourful pins in a cork board and graph meta-fictions on axes of ego and idealism. You could pick out constellations and clusters, but it wouldn’t mean much. Why tell a story? That can only really be answered in each telling.

 

 

 

 

Keep Your Quiztance

The Pub Quiz without the Pub

Writer, improviser, and geek Jon Keevy has hosted Let’s Get Quizzical for two years at The Courtyard Playhouse (formerly Alexander Bar). But all of a sudden he’s stuck at home with a stack of facts, a cupboard full of trivia, and no one to share it all with! (He tried quizzing his plants but they remained stoically silent – maybe they just don’t have any answers.) What’s a quizmaster to do? Go online obviously! Jon Keevy presents Keep Your Quiztance! the weekly quiz you can enjoy responsibly from the comfort of your home. Every Wednesday at 7pm he’ll be challenging audiences with tricky trivia and quirky questions.

KYQ Patreon Banner

How does it work?

Visit Twitch.tv/jonkeevy at 7pm on Wednesdays, the show will be streamed live.

That’s it? But how do I play?

That part is up to you. You can get a group together on a chat platform (like Zoom, or Google Hangouts, or even Whatsapp, Signal, Telegram, or Discord – whatever works for you). With your group assembled you can compete amongst yourselves, or play as a team. Just follow along and answer the questions!

But what about points? Prizes? Do I have to log in or register?

Keep track of your points and feel the pride of knowing things! There are no prizes, just an opportunity to spend some time playing a game with friends in the virtual company of a charming host. You don’t even have to register, unless you want to post messages in the chat.

Then how do I pay?

I am really glad you asked! Payment is by donation and there are a couple of different ways to go about it, the easiest if you’re a South African is donate via Snapscan, but there are other methods available and explained on Twitch.tv/JonKeevy. The suggested donation is R50, but times are tough so pay what you feel is fair. In fact knowing how tough things are, 20% of all donations will go to the bar staff of the Courtyard Playhouse who aren’t earning during the lockdown and need support.

More about Jon Keevy

Beyond hosting Let’s Get Quizzical, Jon Keevy is a writer who dabbles in a bit of everything. He’s written about a dozen plays (he’s bad at keeping track) from serious solo shows to raunchy sketch comedies, he’s done a handful of short films, and spent half-a-year writing a fantasy novel about rebels and sentient plants. Probably his highest achievement was writing the script for Free Live’s Genital Jousting… a game about a squishy penis searching for love and meaning. The story was even nominated for an international award. Weird. He does other things too but frankly this seems like enough for now, and you can always google him if you want more. Or go to his website: jonkeevy.com

Some quotes from the live show at the Courtyard Playhouse about how rad Quiz is:

“Just the right combination of tricky and creative questions, strict but just guidance from the quizmaster, and merry competitiveness between the teams. Always a treat.” – Johan

“The quiz is super fun, challenging and entertaining. The quiz master is hilarious and the atmosphere is great!” – Matthew

“Love the quizzes here. Nice crowd, great host with interesting questions and just the perfect blend of subject matter!” – Alastair

“I would give this 6 stars but it only lets me rate out of 5 :)” – Carla

“Really had an awesome time! Super tough questions, but had a good laugh through the bonus round” – Laura

Fight Write

Some thoughts on writing fight scenes

My novel, War of the Unbound, is an action fantasy in an African-inspired setting. So there are a couple of fights here and there. I love a good fight scene and a bad one makes me cringe – especially if I’m the one who wrote it. Here are some things I learned while writing the book.

There are two parts of a fight scene: the actions and the words.

The action is the mechanics of the fight, from the details of each punch thrown and techniques of the combatants to bigger arcs of upper-hand and reversals. For this I research the combat styles by watching whatever fights and demonstrations I can find online. I think about the characters’ training, skills, weapons and their bodies, and how those would interact. Then I consider the space they’re fighting in. I draw out floor plans and move the pieces around. Are there levels to exploit, or cover, or improvised weapons at hand? The choreography brings together all these elements into movement that tells a story. Do I want the hero to kick ass or almost die? Do they win by grit, cunning or luck? If they win at all. The fight needs reversals, and rise and release of tension. If the reader can tell who will win and how then the fight is boring.

All of this action needs to be expressed – scraped off the notes and doodles and shaped into prose. The first priority is clarity, then rhythm. I usually overwrite the first draft often by more than triple the word count I need. The aim is to have the bodies and their actions in the space absolutely clear. Then I start cutting to create rhythm. Writers control the time it takes to see a drop of sweat fall or a bone splinter under a strike. Or things can happen in a blur and panic of movement. Does the rhythm serve the points of tension in the story of the fight? Slow to build, fast to release is a good guideline.

A great fight scene comes down to tension. If it’s not believable, tension is lost. If it’s predictable, tension is lost. If it’s confusing, tension is lost. Pull your scene tight as a bow string and it’ll fly like an arrow and hit just as hard.


To be a beta reader of War of the Unbound, drop me a line at freelancer@jonkeevy.com

San Francisco days, San Francisco Nights

GDC Jon at the IGF Awards 2019

This is me at the GDC award show in San Francisco, part of a team nominated for Best Narrative at the Independent Games Festival. How I came to be there is a story that goes back a few years and involves friendship, honesty and dick jokes. Evan Greenwood and Richard Pieterse had a weird and super fun game featuring squishy penises with little butt-holes that they called Genital Jousting. I’m not sure why they decided to put in a story (probably a joke or a punk whim) but they did and decided they needed a writer. They got me.

After that the mission and the team got bigger. Robbie Fraser joined the core. But it wasn’t getting bigger that made Genital Jousting something to be proud of… It was how much deeper it went. It was a process of challenging ourselves and our ideas of masculinity and what it means to have a dick. The meetings with Ev, Richard and Robbie where we discussed and shared were sometimes close to therapy… These three men have taught me a lot. About games, but really about being an empathetic and reflective person. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but that’s what Genital Jousting is about, and I think that’s what life is about.

We didn’t win the IGF award. But we still won.

Thank-you from the Underground

Soc Med FdC

Above all to my (now) wife Suzanne, thank you.

On the evening of Sunday the 18th of March 2018 The Underground Library won Best Theatre Production for Children and Young People at the annual Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards. I was told I accepted the award and made a speech, but all I can remember is how hard my legs trembled.

From reports it seems I stuck close enough to my notes. If you had seen them, you would have read one sentence writ large across everything: There are too many people to thank them all.

Here then is my attempt to rectify that.

Tara Notcutt announced the award and that was very appropriate – she was the person I first pitched the idea to 4 years ago in Grahamstown. Tara, thank you for encouraging me from the beginning.

I wrote the first draft in early 2015 for a radio play competition (I didn’t win). Thank you to the people who read and gave me feedback: Marc Kay (who did win), Jon Minster and Melissa Loudon (who called my hacking scene ‘vaguely plausible’).

From there the script was adapted and submitted to the African Youth Theatre and Dance Festival hosted by Artscape and Assitej SA. Thando Doni directed a staged reading with a group of students. Thank you for your time and for firing me up in the talk-back. That festival was the first time I met Victoria Gruenberg, an American intern who gave me thorough, insightful and challenging notes, and my introduction to the roll-up-your-sleeves-and-work attitude of US writers.

From that festival it was selected to be a part of New Visions / New Voices in the USA – an opportunity created by Assitej SA and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. Most costs were covered but I still had to raise money for flights.

As part of fund-raising we hosted a reading of a new draft at Alexander Bar. Jason Potgieter directing Faniswa Yisa, Mvelisi Mvandaba, Callum Tilbury, Richard September, Sive Gubangxa, Maggie Gericke, Cleo Raatus. You can listen to that early draft here: alexanderbar.co.za/undergroundlibrary

Fundraising for New Visions / New Voices (NV/NV) was an outpouring of support from family, friends and peers. Thank you all so much: Ma and Pa, Helen and Fumi, Malc and Jill, Sarah and Simon. Sanjin Muftić, Jayne Batzofin, Carla Lever, Andrew Whiting, Jennifer Downs, Karl Haupt, Aleida Heyns, Sandy Jeffery, Fred and Joy Boerlage, Ann and Jannie Wiegman, Blythe Linger, Melissa Loudon, Gaëtan Schmid, Helen Moffett, Wenda Redfern, Natasha Norman, Simon Cooper, Teri Davidoff, and Suzanne Duncan – who 2 years later is my fiance and my wonder every day.

(I may have missed donors, not every deposit had a decipherable code. Please let me know if you’ve been skipped.)

That got me to America for the first time in my life. The process was split into 2 parts, both rigorous examinations of the script. I lost track of how many drafts I was on by the end of it. I need to thank the fellow writers I went on the journey with: Vinati Makijany, Deepika Arwind, Sunil Bannur and my South African peers Tamara Guhrs, Lereko Rex Mfono, Mojalefa Samson Mlambo, and Koleka Putuma – whose talent as a poet and theatre-maker I am in awe of.

The experience was made possible Assitej SA, the Kennedy Center, The University of Maryland. Thank you people n all the organisations who made it possible: The leaders, the administrators, and the directors, dramaturgs and actors who gave notes, perspectives and their voices to bring the plays to life. Thank you Kim Peter Kovac, Patrick Crowley, Moriamo Akibu, Jeffrey Kaplan Lew Feem, Justin Weaks, Teresa Fisher, Karin Serres, Scot Reese, Meg Lowey, Faedra Carpenter, Deirdre Lavrakas and more, more, more (I want to name *all* of you individually but I didn’t keep careful enough notes.)

Returning I applied for funding supported by Maggie, my fearless assistant in all things bureaucratic and tea-fuelled.

We received funding from The Department of Arts and Culture and everything was on track to put together a full production at ASSITEJ International’s World Congress in 2017 at the Artscape.

Koleke Putuma led the creative team as director. Merryn Carver designed and made the wonderful costumes. Philip Kramer built the steel set. Dylan Owen did sounds and score. A special thanks to Shen Tian, whose otherworldly command of LEDs gave us a unique lighting feature that pushed the play into the dystopian future (10/10). Dara Beth was a excellent stagemanger to herd the talented cast: Thando Mangcu, Tankiso Mamabolo, Kathleen Stephens and Dustin Beck joining Maggie and Cleo from the first reading.

And the audiences who came to watch. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

So much of this process has been made possible by Assitej South Africa. Yvette Hardie and her team (special shout out to Yusrah Bardien and Jaqueline Dommisse) have built up theatre for young audience in this country and made a mark globally. Through their opportunities I have visited Rwanda, Sweden, Austria, India and the US. I have made new friends, found inspiring collaborators and insightful peers. I have been supported in the creation of new works – some of which continue to generate income for me.

It is in recognising how much I have gotten from Assitej SA that I pledge the prize money to them. I believe that we need organisations that grow and develop new writers, directors and performers. We need more theatre because theatre can change lives. It has mine.

Thank you for reading.

Green Peas

The knife chases the pea around the plate trying to herd it onto the fork, which is sloped in the correct manner. There’s already some food loaded on ready to go. The knife seems to have control of the defiant pea and onto the fork it goes – but it’s a trick. The pea leaps upward, knocking his captured brothers out of their bondage to scatter across the plate, knife in pursuit. The girl’s mouth is scrunched in frustration. She doesn’t even want to eat the gross green goblins but she’s furious that they would defy her. Their rebellion shows the weakness of her control and, like any despot, she cannot appear weak. The knife courses after the peas, a tireless hunter. The fork waits. One of the escapeas is isolated, cut off from the rest. With a wild screech the fork pounces, tines crashing down to impale the pea once and for all. But somehow fate grants a reprieve to the undeserving legume – instead of piercing the green skin, the plunging prong sends it into the air. The pea soars like a green comet over the little planet of the dinner table, a majestic arc accompanied by the praise of brass music. The diners could almost hear at its apex the scream of pure joyous defiance before it descends to golden paradise – splashing down in the patriarch’s flute of champagne.
The table is silent, all eyes fixed on the kamikaze pea.

“Emma,” the patriarch rumbles, “don’t play with your food.”

He fishes the pea out of his glass and pops it into his mouth, the sparkle of champagne still on its green hide.

The Tea Shop

The smell was a beaded curtain she had to push through to enter. At first it seemed unified but once her nose got over the shock she could parse different scents in the mix. The most powerful were the coffees; robust and earthy textures, some just released as the wood and iron grinders crushed the beans. Then there were spices, the distinctive sting of cinnamon, cloves, star anis. Cocoa sprawled lazily under it all, dark and heavy. Above these scents floated the teas, almost ethereal. They were farthest from the door and that’s where she headed. There were deep racks of loose leaf with prices by weight and a little scoop to fill the brown paper bags. Pre-weighed, paper-wrapped parcels were stacked in line with the teas, their labels plain. No cute colour-coding here. Just the names of the tea and their origins.

“We closing,” his voice was deep as the cocoa, his accent from as faraway as his wares.

“It’s only two,” she said, confused.

“Not today. We are closing shop. Permanent.”

He picks the syllables as carefully as she picks her tea. She looks around, searching for some sign of the end. But the store is as it ever was. She returns to her task, and after some deliberation pours a hundred grams of honeybush into a bag. It’s a reassuring flavor, a comfort. She goes to the counter and he rings up her small purchase on the battered register.

“You come for more. Next month we are closed.”

She nods him and thanks him. At the door she turns to look back, to breathe it in. Then she steps out into the street, the door chimes shut and the wind brushes away all the scents except for what she takes with her in a little brown bag.