How Magic Smoking Monkey Is Taking on Its Biggest Target Yet: Game of Thrones

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PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Photo by Steve Truesdell

I. Watch the Throne

Game of Thrones, like many figures in the entertainment biz, had to change its name before it really became successful. It began life as A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin's trilogy-cum-septology of high-fantasy novels. Martin is often praised for bringing realism to the genre, a compliment that should probably be taken as tongue-in-cheek, considering his realistic world includes dragons, icicle zombies, giants and a 700-foot-high wall of ice that spans most of a continent. (So, you know, just like Green Bay.)

The books were solid sellers that spread mostly by word of mouth, eventually growing into a cult classic that crept into the gyre of mainstream readers by the time the fourth volume, A Feast of Crows, was published in 2005.

But when David Benioff and D.B. Weiss adapted the books into a serial drama for HBO, Martin's baby hit the big time. The fantasy-reading cognoscenti who lauded ASOIAF, as it's often short-handed in online forums, suddenly discovered that hipsters, housewives, chick-lit lovers and young-adult readers were ready to play in Martin's big back yard. All it took was a weekly TV series with massive production values, a beautiful cast and more blood and tits than your average grandmother could tolerate in one hour and et voilaGame of Thrones became a pop-culture juggernaut.

So it would follow that Magic Smoking Monkey, the comedy cult hidden within St. Louis Shakespeare's voluminous robes, would choose to perform a live-action, low-budget send-up of the show. MSM has in the past skewered Star Wars, lampooned Lord of the Rings and roundly mocked Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

Game of Thrones is a big target now, and the big ones fall the hardest.

II. Building the Wall

Just how big is difficult to gauge from an outsider's perspective. The total number of Game of Thrones episodes currently stands at 48, each roughly an hour long. The five published novels total (more or less) 1.77 million words. There are literally hundreds of characters — thousands if you include all of Walder Frey's offspring. It's safe to say that Martin's tale of dynastic struggle requires a reader not only to recognize multiple names, but also to comprehend how each major character is connected to dozens of other people through filial and matrimonial bonds, as well as those of loyalty, enmity, amity or political expedience. And while the list of players is somewhat streamlined for television, the show still spends between $6 and $8 million per episode on cast and crew, costumes, props, special effects, fake blood and dragon insurance.

So, if you're going to parody a behemoth such as this, you damn well better have deep pockets and a solid grasp of who all those people (and dragons, and zombies) are, along with why they're doing what they're doing, before you even start writing your own version. Right?

Right?

Well, if you're smart and determined and perhaps just the slightest bit ambitious, you could limit yourself to just the first season of the show, and perhaps pull off a fairly convincing version with 17 actors playing 109 characters. Give it a respectable twenty full rehearsals and a budget one-tenth the size of what the average small theater company spends on a typical show, and perhaps you could still succeed, so long as you know your subject material intimately — like, Cersei and Jaime intimately (wink, wink).

Which is why it's surprising how very little Donna Northcott and Jaysen Cryer knew about Game of Thrones before they decided to direct and write, respectively, Magic Smoking Monkey's parody of Game of Thrones — a show they intended to mount with, yes, just seventeen actors, twenty rehearsals and a fraction of the usual theater-company budget.

"I'd taken on the challenge of writing this before seeing the actual show," admits Cryer. He adds helpfully, "And I have no knowledge of the books — but I know they exist."

"Oh, I hadn't seen it either," confirms Northcott.

There is a long silence — not long enough for Martin to finish the long-overdue sixth volume of the series, but pretty long — before the duo laugh innocently and Cryer continues the back-story.

"Way back when were rehearsing Harry Potter, I said to Donna, 'I'd really like to have a go at writing one of these.' I kept pitching her ideas, but it didn't go anywhere. And then one day she called and asked, 'What could you do with Game of Thrones?'"

"My girlfriend is a fan of the show, and she has HBO Go, so I started binge-watching them," says Cryer in his Cornish accent. "She was able to contextualize the shows for me, and I really got into it because the writing is so good. The actors, the production values, it all sucks you in. I've now seen everything up to the most recent episodes."

"I've only watched the first season," Northcott interjects. "You watched all of them?" It's a toss-up whether she's impressed with Cryer's enthusiasm or ashamed of his time-wasting.

Next: How the company is attempting to pull off the impossible.

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Probably the latter, because the plan for the Magic Smoking Monkey version of the show is to stick to just the ten episodes of the first season, hitting the highlights in roughly 60 minutes.

Cryer wrote his first play, a one-act, for school when he was seventeen and growing up in the United Kingdom. (Cornwall raised, he was born in Essex.) "It was very pretentious," he confirms. But that was about it as far as his playwriting career went.

In 2006 he moved to St. Louis "to get married to a girl I met online, and it worked out for about four-and-a-half years. Luckily, St. Louis is a really cool city, and I've really found a place for myself here."

That includes both acting and writing. On the writing front, he's done a bit of everything — "a few unpublished novels and some short films/video sketches." He says, "I almost see writing for Magic Smoking Monkey as a great editing and adaptation exercise as opposed to actual writing."

As Cryer acknowledges, he went about his scriptwriting duties with the worst shortcut of all time.

"At the end of November, beginning of December, I started think about how to write it," he says. "I discovered a website that has transcripts of each episode, which helped immensely."

The problem is, the transcripts came from the subtitles provided for the hearing impaired. That meant nothing was attributed to the person speaking.

"I had to watch episode by episode again with my transcripts to determine who was speaking. By February I had a first draft. And then it's just the slog to cut it down to a one-hour script. It's more editing than writing."

"And a lot of improv," Northcott throws in.

"But the story [of that first season] has to remain intact. We've lost stuff that fans are going to hate. And we're keeping stuff that's funny but doesn't serve the plot," Cryer explains as he opens his notebook to reveal a page of the still-gestating script.

It's a palimpsest of typewritten sides overlaid with penciled notes, questions to himself and abstract scribbles in the margins. Dead center in the page is an entire unblemished scene comprising all of two lines of dialogue.

Cryer deliberately puts a question mark by the scene. "I meant to ask you about this," he says in an aside to his director. It's two weeks till opening night.

III. Bloody History

"Someone told me that the Starks and the Lannisters are really just the Yorks and the Lancasters from England's War of the Roses," Northcott says, referring to Game of Thrones' two warring families.

The idea clearly resonates with Northcott. She founded St. Louis Shakespeare in 1984 after studying at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and was the artistic director for the first 30 years of the company's existence. And while Northcott stepped down as artistic director last year, she remains on St. Louis Shakespeare's board and will continue to direct shows.

Shakespeare covered the War of the Roses in his Henry VI trilogy of plays (and he really did stick with the trilogy, Martin). Earlier this year St. Louis Shakespeare condensed those three plays into a single show, Blood Reign: The Henry VI Trilogy, which completed the company's run through the Shakespearean cycle. It was only the seventh American theatrical company to do so.

Northcott's directorial style is both clear and kaleidoscopic. She delights in working with a big cast, and she expects the actors to trust the script; if they don't know what their characters are doing and why, she can't indulge in her other great delight, which is choreographing massive set pieces with all of her actors onstage at the same time. Then she sets them whirling and spinning around one another, creating a sense of controlled chaos that looks and feels very much like life. It is a form of kinetic sculpture as storytelling, one that dazzles without being artificial or forced.

So how does a serious director of the greatest playwright in the English language end up overseeing and producing goofball versions of pop culture darlings?

"Oh, I'd been doing St. Louis Shakespeare for about fifteen years," Northcott offers. Her mass of red curls and contagious enthusiasm for stagecraft — and talking about comedy — give Northcott a frequent smile and a youthful energy. "I lived part of the year in Chicago then, and there were these small storefront theaters everywhere doing crazy and off-beat shows. I wanted to do something like that here.

"So I came back to St. Louis and looked at our budget and thought, 'How much would it cost to do a show like that if no one bought a single ticket?' And then I carved out that much space in the budget and started working."

Magic Smoking Monkey (named after the novelty toy monkey that "smokes" a specially manufactured "cigarette" of celluloid and potassium-nitrate soaked paper) embarked on its weird journey with a production of the Ed Wood film Glen or Glenda.

"This started our tradition of doing the show in black and white," Northcott laughs. Magic Smoking Monkey quickly developed the stubborn habit of adhering to every detail of the original that's being parodied, no matter how ridiculous or difficult it is to recreate. For Glen or Glenda, that meant scenery and props all being painted shades of gray, and all costumes being either black or white. It's a subtle joke, one that flew under the radar of many audience members — which was all the more reason to do it.

Despite Northcott's wariness regarding ticket sales, Glen or Glenda's run sold out, which proved to her that there was a homegrown audience hungry for irreverent theater that was antipodean to St. Louis Shakespeare's timeless classics. While the company's Shakespearean works are performed in 300-seat venues, a Monkey show is designed for a 100-person room. Ticket prices, though, are comparable — top price to see Macbeth is $20, while every Monkey show is a flat $15.

From that initial foray on, Magic Smoking Monkey has staged a single show each year at the end of its Shakespearean main season. Much like the early days of Game of Thrones, Monkey shows run on word of mouth and repeat business, because for the most part the critics don't review the productions.

But that doesn't hinder ticket sales. Even with two shows a night, there is a line of punters waiting to get in at almost every production. For truly big hits, such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, extra seats are added within the bounds of fire laws.

"We did Plan Nine from Outer Space, The Ten Commandments, Challenge of the Superfriends, the Star Wars trilogy" — "the good Star Wars trilogy," Northcott clarifies — "The Lord of the Rings and It's a Wonderful Life," she says, reeling off a small list of the company's successes.

The list is frequently interrupted so she can relay something ridiculous that happened in one of the shows. That includes the time Superman broke free of a Kryptonite trap ("a green Hula-Hoop he had to spin on his arm because the actor couldn't hula hoop to save his life") with disastrous results.

Northcott says, "Every other time Superman did it he 'threw' the hoop with his arm so it bounced and rolled offstage. This time it bounced once and wedged itself in the crack of The Flash's butt, who was surprised but clenched hard enough to hold it in place for the rest of the scene. The cast were just barely able to hold it together through that show."

There is a ramshackle nature to every Magic Smoking Monkey production. To Northcott, the model is "a bunch of really smart and enthusiastic high schoolers wanting to put on a show." Props are cheap, costumes are borrowed and many productions take place in the cement blockhouse that is the Regional Arts Commission's second gallery space.

And when it comes to the special effects inherent to the Star Warses and Lords of the Ringses, creativity is the order of the day.

Magic Smoking Monkey's Millennium Falcon raced through an asteroid field of paper balls thrown by other actors. In The Ten Commandments, Northcott realized late in the rehearsal that Ramses needed to be in a chariot in a key scene — "and we didn't have a chariot budget," she says. The Hail Mary solution: a 50-gallon rubber trash can was painted gold and two actors hopped inside.

Sets as well are supremely chintzy, often being nothing more than magic markered outlines of background objects on cardboard. In Plan 9 from Outer Space, an airplane cockpit was implied through the magic of two plastic chairs sitting side-by-side, with the pilot wearing a special hat. The alien spaceship was the corner of the stage, near a sliding door cut in the cardboard backdrop that represented a "technologically advanced" viewscreen.

Northcott is proud of being cheap. "Take out what we pay personnel, and for Reefer Madness the set cost less than $10. That's probably about average for any show. But that's because we get better solutions by not throwing money at problems. Instead we think our way out."

Cryer's blood is a trifle richer. "I don't get out of bed for less than 4K. And I mean that — four Special K in a bowl or I won't do it."

House Stark welcomes you (not you, Jon Snow). - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Photo by Steve Truesdell
  • House Stark welcomes you (not you, Jon Snow).

In fact, Magic Smoking Monkey actors are paid the same amount St. Louis Shakespeare pays its actors. Both companies are non-Equity, but Northcott points out that actors in Monkey shows collect more money when the show runs for more performances — as is the case with Game of Thrones.

Perhaps unsurprisingly considering those perks, casting for Magic Smoking Monkey shows is fairly easy.

"We cast Game of Thrones and Blood Reign at the same time. We probably got more actors who wanted a part in Thrones than Blood Reign," Northcott confirms.

Ben Ritchie is a veteran of both St. Louis Shakespeare and Magic Smoking Monkey (Game of Thrones will be his twelfth Monkey show). He has that rare combo of masculinity and handsomeness that (along with his comedic talent) has carried him to the mountaintop — he's played Odysseus for St. Louis Shakespeare and Han Solo and Aragorn for Monkey productions.

Still, he says, the tradition of mixing veteran Monkey actors with first-timers comes with its own perils.

"It's totally trial by fire. They are thrown right into the deep end, and we all work together to keep any one person from going under. Not everyone is cut out for this type of fast-paced comedy," Ritchie says. "It's important to stay positive and encouraging, but at the same time, we often have to curb that drive for grandstanding that many newbies come in with. They often want to prove themselves comic geniuses when what we really need is a solid team."

Next: Great actors making it work in cost-conscious productions.

Arya and her direwolf, Nymeria, share a happy moment. - PHOTO BY STEVE TRUESDELL
  • Photo by Steve Truesdell
  • Arya and her direwolf, Nymeria, share a happy moment.

Incidentally, Cryer maintains that Ritchie is one of the toughest actors to break during a performance.

It's not easy, Ritchie says.

"Having to maintain eye contact with someone during this type of absurdity is one of the hardest things to do onstage," he says. For inspiration, he turns to the master.

"One of my comic heroes is Buster Keaton who was known as 'the great stone face' for rarely showing emotion even in the most outlandish of circumstances. I try and be him."

Cryer himself got his start in a Monkey show and then segued into St. Louis Shakespeare productions. Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, a riff on the made-for-TV-cult-classic starring Jim Ousley's pitch-perfect impression of Paul Stanley, was Cryer's debut with the company.

"I hadn't seen the film until halfway through rehearsals," he explains, in what certainly must be considered a variation on a theme. "After that show I took a break from acting, because...I couldn't apply myself to a non-Magic Smoking Monkey show."

IV. All Men Must Laugh

Richard Lewis is one of St. Louis' most accomplished dramatic actors. In 2010 he played the Orthodox Jewish leader Reb Saunders in Mustard Seed Theatre's production of Chaim Potok's The Chosen, which is set in World War II. During the second act, Saunders (and the rest of the world) learn what has happened to the Jews in Hitler's death camps. Lewis' body imploded at this moment, his shoulders sinking into his chest as he groaned with incomprehensible pain. It was one of those small, perfect scenes that only an actor with excellent technique can manage — a gutpunch of inchoate sorrow and loss that rippled throughout the audience.

It was also a far cry from his portrayal of Treebeard the Ent in Magic Smoking Monkey's Lord of the Rings parody. Audiences roared as Lewis, draped in a fur-trimmed ladies coat, portrayed the leader of Tolkien's sentient trees by slowly trudging across the stage, talking to the two Hobbit action figures grasped in his branchlike hands.

Meanwhile, the actors playing those Hobbits were perched on the edge of the stage, blithely kicking their furry feet while speaking directly at the painted tree next to them, which represented Treebeard. The whole scene was a brilliant riff on the forced perspective Peter Jackson used to convey the smallness of Hobbits throughout the film.

Later in the show Lewis moved only slightly more quickly when Treebeard caught fire in a pitched battle — a fire represented by red plastic sheets pinned here and there on his coat.

Despite the cost-conscious approach to mounting a show, there's one area of the creative process in which there is no corner-cutting or shirking: Northcott and Cryer are dead serious about the quality of their comedy.

"We went into this show with a joke for each scene. It has to be funny, and hopefully move the plot forward at the same time," says Northcott. "Actors then come up with stuff, and then Jaysen adds stuff during rehearsals. At the end of that we have maybe six jokes in a scene, and we choose the top three. The three most satisfying jokes are what you keep."

But it's harder than you might think to figure out which bits comprise the top three, particularly when the cast is free to help figure out what's funny.

"It's true, I have to be the comedy police. The cast just can't make each other laugh up there," Northcott explains. "The audience paid $15 for this, you need to focus on them. And there are lots of different kinds of jokes in play. Some are subtle, some are physical. Some are things actors throw in there that two people in the audience will get. But you can't belabor those kinds of jokes, or any of them really. You just throw them out there and keep going, and you always have to do what's right for the character in that scene."

"Physical comedy is very precise," Cryer jumps in. "You can't improv those things."

"There's an art and a science and a precision to good comedy," agrees Northcott. "I put as much thought into these as I do Shakespeare."

Both writer and director are leaning forward in their chairs. Northcott's elbows are on the table, her hands jabbing and circling emphatically, while Cryer scratches more marginalia into his master script. With the play still a work in progress, the amount and quality of laughs in the show are pressing issues for both of them. The thought of jokes that don't land, actors unsure of what new lines they'll have to learn after the next rehearsal, and every moment in the show that still doesn't work is there just below the surface.

"You feel it as an actor," says Cryer quietly. "'I feel uncomfortable in this bit because there's no joke, no information.' Losing ten seconds from a scene can speed up the whole show..." He makes another note on his script.

Despite the high-wire act that is low-budget, high-comedy, live theater, Northcott believes most of their shows have found favor with the audience — save one.

"We made a mistake with The Love Boat," she says, grinning sheepishly. "Young audiences weren't familiar with it, so it wasn't funny. That's when I knew we had to leave behind the classics from my childhood."

On that front, Game of Thrones is a sure-fire crowd pleaser. But its popularity stems in part from its relentless savagery. That's become controversial for HBO — Claire McCaskill recently tweeted she was done with the show after a particularly brutal rape, and some feminist writers have come to the same conclusion.

It's even more problematic in a comedy.

"There's nothing funny about rape," Cryer acknowledges.

"And it's hard to make fun of spousal abuse," agrees Northcott.

What about good ol' ultraviolence?

"Uh, we have a couple of beheadings..." Northcott begins.

"Lots of entrails. The Dothraki Wedding!" laughs Cryer.

"Oh, yeah, and the horse!" they both laugh.

Is it bloodier than St. Louis Shakespeare's Blood Reign, which showcased the extinction of one royal house and the near-annihilation of a second?

"Gallon per gallon we win," Northcott boasts.

"We definitely have more laughs," Cryer says.

"And more arterial spray."

Lest you think Northcott and Cryer are overselling the sanguine spectacle of the show, Northcott lays out the Monkey law when it comes to spraying anything on stage.

"We get a little stylized with it. You have to be careful not to soak a costume, because there's another show at 10:30 p.m."

At this point, those first two shows for this production are still in the future. Before she gets to opening night, Northcott has a ritual to complete before she truly knows that the script works and the cast is locked in.

"Always with a show I get to the point in rehearsal when I think, 'This sucks. This is terrible. Why are we doing this?'" I always have at least one night during tech week when this happens.

"And I keep telling myself I should keep a journal when I'm doing the show so I can look back at it and see, 'Well, this is the week you're gonna hate the show.' I can just make a note on the page that morning that says 'Don't. Overthink. It.'"

See also: Who's Who in Magic Smoking Monkey's Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones Performed at 8 and 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, June 12 to 27, at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Boulevard. Call 314-361-5664 or visit www.stlshakespeare.org.

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