Last August I mentioned meeting up with Phil Fox the creator of Gratisphere while I was vacationing in Myrtle Beach with my family. I have hopes to produce* the Gratisphere video production Phil put together on public access here in Charlotte. It’s an amazing piece of creator owned and created cinema. Charlotteans need exposure to this caliber of production. It may be a little longer before I can share air dates as of yet, so for the meantime please enjoy part 1 of our correspondence interview.
JCT: Hi Phil, how’s it going?
Fox: Well, thanks for asking! Producing a musical is an all-absorbing affair; you wake up every morning for months and ask yourself: “What five things do I have to do today to move the ball down the field?” You can’t just turn that intensity off like a light switch once the show’s over, so I’ve learned to build de-compression into the weeks that follow; catch up on domestic things I’ve let go, see friends socially, and check out a band now and then. Let the mind quiet and be receptive …
JCT: So … since I saw you last you put on a play, “Returning Tide”. Can you tell me anything about that?
FOX: Ha! It’s called “Eventide”. No worries … we sold all the seats for all three shows, so THAT was cool.
It was far and away the most complicated thing we’ve yet done; involving hoop dancers, a full chorus, two child actors, a four piece band, (I played keyboards), and an original script and score that have never been presented anywhere before. Pretty crazy.
We DID have some scheduling issues with a couple cast members, and that week of downpour we had here in SC rained out a couple key rehearsals, so the first night was a little on the hairy, scary side. It all hung together, though, and the audience laughed in all the right places. It was smooth sailing after that.
JCT: Was the creative process behind this show similar to the “Gratisphere” shows?
FOX: Surprisingly, (because the two projects were very different), I’d have to say, mostly yes. In each case I knocked out the written script in something like ten days, after having first given serious thought as to how I wanted the story arc to go. I started with the scene titles and played with the sequencing before getting down to actually writing the scenes themselves. I didn’t write them in sequence, (I rarely do), and I always know where I want to end up, (although not necessarily how I’m going to get there), before I even start.
With “Eventide”, I already had most of the songs in my catalog, (I only needed a couple new ones), so that also helped suggest the action in the various scenes. Because of the “Medieval Faire” theme, I knew I’d have archetypal figures; (The Minstrel, The Knight, The Evil Jester, etc.), so it was largely a matter of matching each character with a defining song. It was a lot of fun; I enjoy that kind of thing.
For the “Gratispheres”, I pretty much had to write all the music from scratch. The challenge there was writing in the different genres, (Mid-eastern, Salsa, Barrelhouse Jazz, etc.)
With all these theater pieces, I went directly into the recording studio next, directly after writing the script, before even thinking about casting, or anything else. I’ve learned actors get nervous if they don’t have a CD to work from. Lol!
JCT: One of the things I loved about Gratisphere was how well the artwork in your comics was represented in the production. Some of the actresses were dead on. How much of the community or Myrtle Beach do you think reflects in your work?
FOX: Well, it HAS changed over time. “Gratisphere I” was written during a high water mark for the local music scene, so I mainly just enlisted friends I knew from shows, (many of whom turned out to be way talented), for the cast.
I knew the existing band audiences would all show up out of curiosity, if nothing else, and they did.
Over the next couple years, though, without a dedicated venue, the “existing band audiences” dwindled away to virtually nothing, so every time we’d stage a show, we’d have to promote it literally from the ground up. It really demonstrates how a thriving original music scene supports all kinds of artistic efforts.
On the upside, I’d gradually accumulated a core troupe of proven actors over time, so at least part of the cast for “Eventide” was already in place.
The biggest problem I ran into this time around was getting new people to actually show up for auditions. I’d contact a prospect, they would show interest, we’d set up a date and time, and either something would (repeatedly) “come up”, or communication would just drop for no obvious reason, leaving me hanging, (for days), unsure if someone had lost access to the net or just interest in the project.
It was really frustrating; I can totally handle a polite decline, but it’s a lost art, apparently.
JCT: You once told me that Gratisphere as a comic book was an afterthought. How was that again? Some of the people from the play worked on the comic book too, right?
FOX: Yup, Jesse Mosel, (who played our “Mistress of Ceremonies” in Grat I), was our digital colorist for the Grat I Comic, and for the first part of Grat II, (The Graphic Novel). Alyson McKellar-Clardy, (who played “Queen “B” in Grat II), was our inker and text writer throughout. NOTE: Most comics you’ll see these days use computer-generated texting, Alyson hand-lettered every single dialogue balloon to achieve the “retro” look we were going for. Probably the last time she’ll ever do THAT. ☺
And yes, the comic WAS an afterthought. Only Alyson among us had any previous experience. It was a totally nutty thing to do, took over two year to accomplish, and I don’t regret it for a second.
In the process I learned Photoshop, (at least enough to color with), which will stand me in good stead should I decide to do an illustrated children’s book version of “Eventide” Some day …
*Being a public access producer simply means I have asserted the right to air programing on public access cable cast by becoming legally authorized to do so here in Charlotte, NC.