Wednesday, 11 September 2019

The Pale Stage

This is a concept for a kind of Netflix Series/Streaming series which you are getting because, as this is the one thing I am *not* meant to be concentrating on or working on and that means, apparently, that its relatively easy for me to type up.



I started thinking along these lines when I was trying to work out how a Deep Carbon Observatory Film might work on a budget and Scrap showed me this surrealist theatre-film 'Holy Mountain' and I began to think that the best way to do it would be to film a kind of staged re-enactment of the events of the 'story' as related by those who survived it, and then to do postmodern jiggery-pokery with that.

That idea stuck in my head for a long time, neither leaving nor changing very much.

After that, binging charity-shop DvDs of 'The Mighty Boosh' which is an old British comedy show about a pair of men who go on surrealistic adventures each episode. The costuming, staging and use of back-projection have this comedic janky aesthetic but the show had a powerful and unique feel, it didn't look or feel like anything else, and the relative cheapness of the show, (they had minimal resources but they were also willing to *be* cheap, and to make use of that), gave them an infinity of places they could afford to go, as it was all made of tape anyway.

Then more recently, I watched Powell and Pressburgers 'The Red Shoes', which I had heard Scorsese banging on about in a bunch of interviews. I am very glad that I did watch it because it is very good. The film is a three-hander between an old impressario who is slowly fading, a young ballerina and a rising composer and the complex tug of influence and power between them. Central to the plot is a performance of 'The Red Shoes', a ballet based on the Fairy Story of the same name, and which becomes a mirror to the psychology of the story.

The key thing about 'The Red Shoes' is the visual and story language of the central performance. The director(s?) take the visual language of the stage and the visual ability of film and blend them into a new language. It’s a kind of pseudo-theatre, beginning as if it were 'filmed theatre', with a camera on the stage, but compressing the time of the performance and expanding the field of the stage through a complex space, without surrendering the representation that it is 'the stage', not a simulated other reality. Allowing the central dancer to essentially 'dance' through space and through the symbolised story.

The only thing I can think of that more of you might have seen is the nightmare performance bits of 'The Black Swan' where Natalie Portman is putting on a ballet performance but also having a meltdown at the same time, I think similar shifts in time and space take place, but to very different effect.

It (the Red Shoes section) feels like pure visual poetry.


So all of these are representative, partly symbolic 'cut-down' realities which enable you to compress and shift stories and to tell them quite powerfully (and, more importantly, cheaply).

The other influence for this was the Star Trek: TNG 'holodeck' episodes. Strange bottled para-reality dream-quests inside a larger reality, which was itself moving in a galaxy of quests. The holodeck is essentially a meta-theatre.

The Pale Stage Show Itself

It’s a dual-reality story about a life of a theatre, but also about the stories they put on. Or really a tri-reality story as it’s about a theatre in an un-named fantasy world.

Paradox here is that we never leave the theatre but that the world outside is much larger and more varied culturally and physically than any other fantasy world in any other mainstream TV series.


The core area, the 'Pale Stage' in question, is a huge, winding, old theatre in a major city in a fantasy reality.

  • The technological/social era here is Rennaisance/Regency/Victorian.
  • Maybe wigs and possibly gunpowder but definitely not automatic weapons or industry.
  • And it has to be an age of sail, or at least some other kind of globalisation/colonisation in which a wide world is being pulled closer together, this is because we are going to need to pull stories and performances from every corner of this world.
  • And it should have reasonably tight social hierarchies because I like the costumes and the manners.
  • Think about the theatre in pretty much any Gothic novel, or in Phantom of the Opera, all of those combined into one.
  • Its really big so there are lots and lots of secret and open spaces for drama to happen in.
  • And a key idea of the show is that the cameras never actually leave the theatre, all we learn about the outside world is the words and evidence that people carry into the theatre with them.


Lots of great things about telling stories about theatres. Like the Enterprise, they have hierarchies and formal roles, together with a sound reason for all of these types of people to be interacting with each other all the time. Personality type is 'artistic' so you don't need a lot of excuses for interpersonal drama. And new people are continually being rotated in and out, new directors, new writers for particular performances, star actors etc.

Impresario - The character of the Impresario is a little like Treguard from the first few series of 'Knightmare'. In later series he was more of a helpful challenger, but to begin with he was almost sinister, someone who was both the quest-giver and the challenger at the same time. The Impresario is meant to be a little distant and very powerful and possibly threatening. They are totally dedicated to Art, and to the survival of the theatre, and their energy and drive is the main reason it exists and is any good, but they are potentially quite a dark and threatening figure. No-one is sure exactly what drives them, they are quixotic and charismatic and could equally be the hero or villain of any episode depending on circumstance.

Female Star - Female star is hyper-talented, driven and relatively lower-class compared to most actresses. She's a 'music-hall favourite', and essentially lights up a stage and a role, but is intensely narcissistic and self-destructive, but also capable of learning. Female Star doesn't have a deep education so that gives people around her the chance to be 'explainer' characters, diving into the literary history and socio-politics of the Pale Stage world.

Male Star - Male Star is a fading Olivier type, a powerhouse actor from a just-previous generation. Someone steeped in the theatre but with an acting style which is just a little out of fashion.

Female Star - is rising and Male Star is setting so scenes between them are also struggles for power, with her grasping more to her and him trying to hold on, and also arguments over aesthetic, tonality and who a performance is for and how it should be done.

Rude Mechanicals - These are kinda soap-opera characters from the lower rungs of the society outside. In the periods before we meet the actual audience, they are a penumbra or interface between the closed world of the theatre and that of the city beyond. They react a little more like normal people and have normal people problems like bills and housing. They tell us a little about how the main theatre people are seen from outside but also tell the viewer about the society and world of the Pale Stage.

Newb - The 'this is how a theatre works' and 'let me describe the cast and what they do' character. An audience stand in for the first few episodes. Maybe they will become 'the understudy' and then 'the hero' or maybe not.

Fixer - The saner, more likable person who interfaces between The Impresario and the Cast. Not an insane, charismatic para-genius but a relatively stable, intelligent and more empathic personality. Someone reasonable for the audience to like and essentially a 'quest giver' for the show.

Patron - The rich person who is partially funding the theatre. A little glimpse of the higher rungs of society outside and a window into the meta-politics of the world beyond. So if the Rude Mechanicals are discussing some political shift in the news-sheet in the bottom row, this person may actually be directly involved in, impacting and impacted by, those events. This is also the only person possibly more powerful than the Impresario. This person may also have political and social desires and designs and the funding of the theatre may well be part of these.

The Audience - The Audience, high and low, is like a character or chorus for the show. We see them crowding in at the beginning of a performance, we might shoot long extended sequences of micro-drama of them actually watching the show and we are with them int the interval and as they leave.

The audience actually comes in two parts, the mass, who are like a kind of impressionistic blur of sound and movement, voices and fragments of speech, like a great beast, and the elite, who get box seats, and who are like para-characters in the show (the meta-show we are watching, not the one on stage).


The shows or stories or performances would be fantasy 'stories', but original ones. More like the slightly dark fantasy adventures in late-period OSR adventure design. MotBM would fit neatly into this.

In relation to the outside world, these could be actual real events, re-enacted, like a Georgian Theatre doing 'The Death of Captain Cook'. Or they could be legendary historical stories like a Shakespearian History play. Or they could be pure fantasies like The Tempest. This is a time of world-system building so they could be like Sinochure or Pseudo-Arabic plays which came into fashion in Victorian times as stuff like 'The Arabian Nights' was translated and then for a few years, everything is pseudo-Chinese or pseudo-Arabic.

The key element of this is that *everything is invented*. Its not just a replay of a Victorian theatre, its a theatre on a completely different planet with a completely different history and this is one culture 'discovering' or at least finding out about and integrating cultural elements and stories from all over that world and all over its history.

And I'm thinking here more like OSR-syle fantasy, so there might be Slug-Men somewhere beyond the equator and an actual city of Glass.

And ABSOLUTELY NOT either happy hippy soft-ass 'Standard 5e Fantasy' or 'Game of Thrones boring-ass fantasy'. (And not that soft-looking 'Urban Fantasy' CGI show I keep getting shown ads for recently and which I don't like the look of at all.)

The whole point of the thing is to be able to make highly original fantasy stories on TV that are not like any other stories, and to be able to do a lot of them and have them all be different.


That's where the shows come from, a more complex question is how they actually work in the episodes.

There are essentially three layers to the show;

- The Outer World, its politics, society, age of discovery etc, sensed only through inference. This is quite world-buildy and quite 'historical drama' "Bad news from Vervire, there's been a revolution - gasp".

- The world of the cast, this is the most emotionally vivid and clear to the viewer. This is like a soap-opera or melodrama, full of relationships etc, it could segue all the way from low-level relationship drama to full-on Phantom of the Opera Gothic Melodrama.

This also gives a TV audience the thing they want; familiarity. They have the same cast of characters turning up regularly and their stories have internal coherency, but for many of the actors, they are playing actors, and get to 'act' in stories of different quality and nature each week.

- The pocket realm, or simulated world of the 'story' or performance they are putting on.

Ideally, all three layers of reality should interact with each other in an interesting way, producing a kind of pressure-cooker or refraction/amplification effect in each episode.

Of course, that's harder said than done. Its 'easy' to do in something like 'The Red Shoes' when the whole nature of the psychogeography and moral meaning of the story is built around this reduction/amplification effect, but you can't have every episode being 'The Red Shoes'.

Probably you would have to have different 'types' of episode, based on the nature of the interaction between the pocket reality of the performance and the outer reality.

- A 'Red Shoes' episode where it’s an amplifier for what's going on outside, and a creepy prognostication of what's going to happen.

- A 'comedy' or 'fishbone' episode, something like 'Noises Off', where the emotional and moral nature of the reality outside is opposite or cuts across that of the pocket realm (drunks trying to put on a tragedy or everyone is sad due to actual tragedy and they have to put on a comedy, or theatre culture split and the story is a romance). Results could be comedic, or telling and deep.

- The socio-political drama story where the nature of the performance actually impacts on actual events happening outside and suddenly larger social forces and power agents are interested. So it supports/doesn't support one side or another in a sociao/political argument, or its about a particular world culture and is considered regressive/too avante guarde by the outer world. We could call this a 'twitter' story.

- A 'Magic Powers' story. Because it’s an actual fantasy world out there, you could have actual genre elements intrude, like para-reality elves turn up or the performance of the story produces actual noetic effects or some immortal force, like a dead wizards soul, or a ghost, takes and interest.

Ok, that's all I've got right now.



Could be better. It's here in this image if you want to click through;

Essentially, I asked for what might be quite a lot of money for what is essentially a very Niche project. It might not (probably won't) make its target.

There are still reasons to click through though;

- I am reading the whole poem on Youtube day by day and have moved on to talking about the verses a little on the KS.

- Daniel is doing a breakdown of his art and how he approached each image.

My current plan is to try to do this KS as well as possible, knowing it (probably) won't reach its goal, and then basically launch another, much smaller, much shorter one, with a much lower figure for an absolutely minimal print run. The price to just 'print' 500 books isn't actually that large, its just the add-ons like postage and trying to make a profit that make it difficult.

So I think its possible we might actually get a print-run on the second Kickstarter? Which makes this one promotion for that one?

Well I basically put Daniel and Maeto in a crap situation and have to try to make the best of my screwups. Whatever happens, a PoD version and PDF version will definitely be available and anyone who was into the KS gets notified about those.


  1. ok yes this sounds like a lovely TV series but honestly couldn't it ALSO make a totally baller narrativist game? like some sort of PbtA meets Microscope or something. I'm not in deep enough with the narrativists to know how the hell to make it but I DO know that sitting down and playing out interpersonal drama while ALSO doing a fuckton fuckton of improvised worldbuilding as we go could be fun as all shit...

    1. Oh god no, not another whole new game. I've got enough on my plate.

  2. Love this post.

    If you haven't seen Avatar: the Last Airbender, I want to give it a heart recommendation. That's the only show I've seen that does something like this: there's an episode fairly late in the series where the protagonists attend a play, and you get exactly the three levels of reality you describe above interacting with each other. The focus is a little different -- the play is essentially state propaganda re-telling the story of these same protagonists from the point of view of their enemies, i.e. it's a recap of the story of the TV show up to that episode with different characters playing the parts and from the opposite point of view. It is not only fascinating and hilarious; it also ties in with the themes of the show that are coming to a head at that point in the narrative, namely that there are two sides to every story, the need to forgive and understand your enemies, etc. Can't recommend it highly enough.

    1. I have seen Avatar and its fucking Boss, and yeah the theatre episode at the end is probably the best 'clips episode' ever. Fuck I will never forgive Shyamalan for what he did to that IP. MOTHERFUCKER.

  3. That one Sandman when they watch Midsummer Night's Dream is another good example.

    One more POV character I would add (though this could just be the newb) is, say, an orphan, who starts sleeping in the rafters. A chance for nighttime drama when a mob or thieves or some other malevolence in the world makes its way in by force.

    And over time there can be many creative ways to get around the limitations of only filming inside the theatre to give hints of what is outside - lingering on an open door, someone climbing out or releasing a bird from a window, or even going as far as to watch a sunset from the attic

  4. I suppose I've got to mention Eschatology and Genesis from The Book of the New Sun - simultaneously a money-making activity for our protagonist, a way for him to interact with the other characters, the nearest thing to an exposition of in-universe religious scripture and a parody of that scripture.

  5. "to film a kind of staged re-enactment of the events of the 'story' as related by those who survived it" -> makes me think of The Act of Killing, the documentary in which the perpetrators of the indonesian mass murders of the sixties act out scenes from their memories in the style of their favorites movies, from westerns to musicals.

    1. I think that might have been on my mind also, though I haven't seen the film, just reviews and trailers.

  6. how do you feel about the film Baron Munchausen? that's the first thing to come to mind when i think about movies that are also plays

    1. Its fun, I like Ian Holm as Napoleon.

    2. Ah shit no, that was Time Bandits.

      I think Baron Munchausen is fun but like a less-good Time Bandits.

    3. Have to say, I'd be interested in your take on Time Bandits.

  7. Belatedly read this via your 10 year retrospective. This reminds me of the old Warhammer novella Stage Blood, by Jack Yeovil (aka Kim Newman.)

    The vampire Genevieve is watching a theatre company make a play about one of her previous adventures. I think she's playing herself, too. There's a lot of Phantom of the Opera references and a character who has dwarfism but isn't a Dwarf, which leads into how "mutation" and disability worked in the old Empire.

    I think this would work as a YouTube series. Get a small rep theatre group, use a lot of back projection and Brecht- black leotards with the odd prop to show when they're in character.
    A theatre of the mind in a theatre of the absurd. Or vice versa.