By Thomas Crone
Seldom will this site post things of a bragging nature, but we feel comfortable in staying that this piece will serve, as the headline suggests, The Ultimate Primer of Fatal Bus Accident’s upcoming presentation of Beowulf. The production’s set for June 2 at the Improv Shop and info can be found by clicking this “hotlink.”
The quick version of the evening is described by FBA like so: “We are doing Beowulf, the oldest English story and second most famous English story about Denmark. Unlike literally every movie adaptation, we found a way to make it better, instead of worse. Get excited.”
For further information, we sent a series of questions to the show’s four creators: Jeremy Hellwig, Amy Milton, Stryker Spurlock and Jon Venegoni. In reading through them, you’ll get a sense of how this upcoming stage play came together and what to expect on the night of production, though Spurlock’s appear to clash with the others with some regularity. Within the context of all four, truth will be found.
What’s each of y’all’s background with Beowulf? Favorite story? Saw the movie(s)? “What’s Beowulf?”
Hellwig: Stryker and Amy started talking about doing a Beowulf adaptation over a year ago. I didn’t know much about the story, so I picked up the phenomenal graphic novel adaptation by Santiago Garcia and David Rubin. After finishing that, and doing some Wikipedia research, I became concerned that 1. The story is kind of terrible, and 2. I had no idea how the hell we were going to do it onstage. So, I asked Amy and Stryker how much they knew about the story. Stryker had seen the movie in 2008, and Amy read it back in high school or something. They literally knew less about it than I did. After some deliberating, we decided to scrap our original idea of doing a straight adaptation with our recurring characters playing characters from the poem (think Muppet Treasure Island, or when Family Guy adapted Star Wars) and instead wrote a show where the story of Beowulf happens to our characters (think the times that Bugs Bunny or The Animaniacs stumbled into a classic work or moment from history). Beowulf is a really old poem, in fact the oldest known story in English. In it, a monster attacks, a hero arrives, he kills the monster, then he fights a couple more monsters until it is over. Tolkien loved it. It is extremely influential. It is also a really dumb story that is structured more like a crappy video game than an actual story.
Milton: I read it as an undergrad, half-remembered how ridiculous it was, and didn’t give it much more thought until we started writing the show.
Spurlock: In 2007, I wrote a short story. A big time Hollywood manager told me it felt like Beowulf. So I watched the motion-capture cartoon and it was dogshit and I was offended. I wanted us to adapt it as revenge.
Venegoni: I had to read Beowulf in my Senior Literature class. I remember thinking it was water trash. I think I saw the movie in 3D and it gave me a headache.
Who are some new faces to appear in this episode? What are their roles and why did they seem good fits for said roles?
Hellwig: We have 4 guest actors in this episode. Meredith Hopping is making her first FBA appearance as Grendel’s Mom. We thought she would be really great at playing a character that is alternately passive aggressive and extremely angry, so we wrote the role toward those strengths. Nick Tacony is playing a couple different peasants in this episode, which are his first FBA speaking roles (he previously played a wolf). We thought he could look the part and do the accent we wanted. Casey Paulson will be playing Beowulf and Emily Hickner will be playing the monster Grendel. In both cases, they 1. don’t look the part at all, which we thought was funny, but 2. we knew they could pull off the exact kind of energy that we needed for the roles. After a week or so of rehearsals, all of them are already amazing in their roles.
Spurlock: This month, our cast consists of Emily Hickner, Meredith Hopping, Sam Lyons, Casey Paulsen, and Nick Tacony. I shannot tell you who they’re playing, but if you’re familiar with Beowulf and these performers, it should be obvious. As with everyone we cast, they are chosen by God to fit their roles perfectly.
Let’s dial things back, actually. Episodes and the like. If I’ve missed the last, say, four or five shows (confession: I’ve missed the last four or five shows), how difficult will it be to reacquaint myself with the feel and vibe of FBA?
Hellwig: It shouldn’t be difficult at all. We have serialized/recurring elements to the show, but we always work hard to make sure new audience members will be able to follow everything that happens. Plus, this is pretty much a standalone episode, and there will be narration. You don’t have to know anything about FBA or Beowulf to enjoy it.
Milton: Since the show is only very lightly serialized, you should be able to drop back in without confusion. The main changes in the past 9 months or so are 1. We’ve gotten better at writing around one central idea instead of trying to mash disparate ideas together and 2. We’ve gotten much more explicit about the fact that Jon’s character is a bird.
Spurlock: Not difficult at all. FBA is a font of wonder, for everyone to enjoy, whether they’re newcomers or old fans. Though you should feel absolutely ashamed for missing our best 4 or 5 episodes.
Venegoni: First of all, I forgive you for missing the last four or five shows. I still love you. Since then, the show has grown a mustache, and you missed the episode when Skully got abducted. You will be fine! It’s always written to be accessible to everyone every episode. The advantage of seeing each one provides little easter eggs. It’s fun. Good stuff.
Writing for these is done how and by whom? Do guest performers have some improvisational room within this? Or would you like them at least somewhat-grounded in the script?
Milton: We usually spend a month or so writing as a group, and once we have a script, we do readings with the cast. If a guest performer has a better way of phrasing a line or an idea for a joke that fits with the rest of the script, we make the change. We work hard on the scripts so we like to stick pretty close to them, but we cast the people we cast because we want to hear their ideas and trust them to bring something to the characters.
Hellwig: Every show is written by Stryker, Amy, Jon, & me. Amy’s answer is better than the rest of what I had typed, but I would like to add that one of the most exciting parts of producing this show is seeing actors make unexpected decisions, such as accents, lines, or suggestions for their costumes, that make the show even better.
Spurlock: I write every script in my head and dictate it to the other three members of FBA, who tirelessly type for me. They work in shifts. They are good typers.
Venegoni: It used to be all them and I only did music and interrupted dialogue with silly comments, but they slowly guilted me into helping with writing the plot. We all contribute and argue equally. I’m really lucky to work with such talented writers. They have taught me a whole lot and have always been receptive to my ideas.
To what degree will elements like live musical accompaniment or pre-recorded video have play within this Beowulf edition? Or do we need to attend to find out?
Hellwig: We have one video segment. Also, Jon will be live scoring large portions of the show. We’ve had Jon play a decent amount of music in the past, but this will be our first time utilizing a score. As always, there will be a running slideshow the whole time.
Spurlock: We’ve all signed an NDA on this.
Venegoni: I am so excited and nervous for this one. I plan on live scoring the whole thing using my keyboard, iPad and loop pedal. I’m also in a narration role this time, so you’ll see me
True lightning round:
a. Single moment that stands out to you, either as performer or viewer, for whatever reason, be it profundity or hilarity?
Hellwig: My favorite single moment was Amy getting punched in the face by an eagle while “I’m Like a Bird” by Nelly Furtado played over heavy metal drumming and bird shrieks.
Milton: We had a show that was centered around the Pope (Pope Toby, played by Keith Hughes) visiting, and Jon converts to Catholicism because it sounds fun, but then he finds out about Hell and original sin and is distressed to find out that he is not a good boy because “good boys isn’t real.” I like that we were able to do a comedy show about religious participation that dealt with the pros and cons pretty fairly (in my opinion) without getting preachy.
Spurlock: During January’s Fatal Beach Accident, Ryan Dalton played Officer Holstein, the Cop Who Is Constantly Shitting His Pants. He threw turds at us and many people in the audience screamed, which brought me great happiness.
Venegoni: Performing FBA at Flyover Festival
b. Single performance by a guest that’s a standout in your mind?
Milton: This is a hard question because we’ve had a lot of great guests, but I’m going to go with Cameron Keys as Prime Minister of the World, Dr. Columbus Whaley, D.D.S., who has only appeared on video. Coincidentally, Cameron is the stand-up guest on the Beowulf show.
Spurlock: Andrew Mihalevich is one of our most versatile and dependable guest actors. In March, he played The Faun, a thief who haunts our stage, and he excelled at it.
Venegoni: Tom Cook killed it last show playing Alb Balbert.
Hellwig: This is so hard to answer. Oh wait, Amy said Cameron as the Prime Minister and I have to agree.
c. Story line (or even wisp of a thread of a gnat’s thought of a storyline) that was scuttled, but screams for a return?
Hellwig: Stryker will probably disagree with me, but we haven’t done a time travel heavy episode in a while. That’s an aspect of my character’s backstory that I am always trying to bring back.
Spurlock: We’ll do time travel over my dead fucking body, Jeremy. I will say no more, because every idea I like eventually gets used. As I said earlier, I am the sole author.
Venegoni: The mouth will rise again.
d. With all due respect to former space, what makes the current space “work” for the show?
Hellwig: The stage is much bigger, and there are overhead mics. I love Heavy Anchor, and I still do Sorry, Please Continue there, but FBA often has too many characters onstage to have them all using hand mics. Also, the main stage at IS seats a lot more people. We stuck with Heavy Anchor until we were consistently filling the room, then moved on to a bigger venue. Oh, and lastly, we didn’t realize how much nicer it would be having the projector screen to the side of the stage. It’s a lot easier to see the PowerPoint slides without stage lights shining on them.
Milton: The main advantage of the new space is the stage, which is larger and mic’d so we don’t have to have 5 corded microphones on stage with us while trying to do a play.
Spurlock: No one walking behind us to use the bathroom. A bigger stage to accommodate my big ole dick. And of course, tons of Improv Shop Boys to use as human furniture.
Venegoni: Heavy Anchor was our first home, and they allowed us to grow into what we are today. I can’t thank them enough for being the most amazing people and allowing us to do whatever. we. wanted. to. do. We got to fly drones in their venue with guests inside and had a drone attack on stage to kill a character. It’s hard to express how rare it is to find a place that will allow you the liberty to do such a dumb thing. They helped us to get to the point where we outgrew the venue. Improv Shop has treated us better than we could ever have imagined. Their setup at the venue has brought a level of production value that we couldn’t have imagined having access to. We are so happy in our new home.
And for any, where can folks find more information on this show, this concept, etc.?
Hellwig: The facebook event is here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1874308115970459/
You can get tickets at http://theimprovshop.com/calendar/
If someone wants to learn more about Beowulf without having to read it, all the movies are dogshit and unhelpful. However, this made for tv cartoon from the ’90s is actually very helpful https://www.youtube.com /watch?v=QKjcoFZmKuA
Hey Stryker, what’s the link to the youtube channel?
Spurlock: The YouTube has not been updated in a while, but this is the link. Look upon the great works. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5OkBOURMKxofHH5Zdg36yw.
This post brought to you by the Saint Louis Video Society, dedicated to enriching the cinematic selection in St. Louis through screenings and, eventually, a lending library.