Who are we to disagree? The 1980’s are a rich minefield of influences and references we can explore to build our latest sweet dream. From Dynasty to slasher horror films to Madonna to Miami Vice to Murder, She Wrote to synthesizers to Jane Fonda’s workout tapes to yuppies on Wall Street to Princess Diana to aerobics to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to the ubiquitous shoulder pad, we mined many a priceless gem to create this show. Every show starts with a concept and a script, and writing this play gave writer/director Daniel Stallings lots of opportunities to sprinkle in as many references as he could while fashioning a story of survivors in the most totally killer decade we’ve played in so far. In this behind-the-velvet-rope blog post, we’ll explore the muses and meaning behind writing this homage to the 80’s.
SWEET DREAMS ARE MADE OF THIS: The Making of Closer to Heaven (Part 1)
Shows for Master Mystery Productions usually start with the venue. We are experts at creating site-specific theatre, a form of theatre that embraces unique venues outside of a traditional stage space. Think of Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution performed in a real London courtroom. These shows adapt these unique spaces like courtyards, businesses, or other structures into their theatrical playground. At MMP, we’ve turned bookstores into a nest for secret agents, tea shops into Parisian salons, and even an indoor fellowship hall into a shadowy campground for Bigfoot believers. When Moe’s Music opened its doors in Ridgecrest to become a potential venue for us, we leapt at the chance to create a show and an experience unlike any of our other projects.
Moe’s Music, located at 207 W. Ridgecrest Blvd., is a record and music store with a stage fit for live bands and acts to perform. The feel of the room is very raw, underground, and reminded us of a nightclub or a place to throw one bitchin’ party. Seeing the venue and its vibe, we knew we didn’t want to perform something too traditional or too buttoned-up. We like our shows to be sympathetic to their environments and work with the architecture and feel of the place. MMP has often done productions focused on glamour and luxury, but we never got to explore something a little more rough-and-tumble, a little less refined, something fun, a bit trashy, but vibrant, colorful and full of personality and spunk. And what fits that brief better than the 1980’s? It’s a dynamic period beloved by audiences with a striking sense of style that makes it an exuberant, creative challenge. In short, it’s fun. We deserve to have fun. And turning Moe’s Music into a rockin’ 80’s nightclub complete with an interactive murder mystery felt like a show we could not pass up.
But what would we pull from the 80’s to make the show? Writer/Director Daniel Stallings shares his thoughts: “I knew I wanted to embrace a lot of the references of the period, but I didn’t want it to feel like a parody of a specific piece of 80’s pop culture. I knew I didn’t want the characters to be based on the teen stereotypes from movies like The Breakfast Club or Back to the Future or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. While the teen reigned supreme in the 80’s, I wanted to steer away from that to focus on different sorts of character types. There were 80’s touchstones I wanted to hit, but I didn’t want to feel trapped by them. I had three clear ideas in my mind: a Los Angeles/Hollywood nightclub setting, a slasher-style masked serial killer with a signature M.O., and adult characters with 80’s flair yet adult problems and motives. So I began researching and dreaming up different 80’s archetypes mixed with Hollywood entertainment characters to create my cast. The Madonna wannabes of the period became a celebrity look-a-like paid to make the club look more prestigious, a hotspot for famous people. The struggling artist turned from the expected screenwriter to a special effects makeup artist, a new career type getting LOTS of love in the 80s as the first Oscar was presented to Best Makeup that decade. Our aerobics guru also is a spokesmodel for an energy drink, creating a link to commercialization, consumerism, and media proliferation in the 80’s. These sorts of characters provided fresh inspiration for me in writing this show, as I hadn’t explored them before now.”
Music ended up being the real jumping off point for the plot. Two songs ended up forming the DNA of the story: “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” by Belinda Carlisle and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics. The former gave us the concept of a heaven on earth, a shelter space for survivors. We pictured a nightclub that also functioned as an emotional and financial sanctuary, a place where employees came to work, to improve their lives, and to create a safe place to recover. Everyone who works at the club has a story deeper than their appearance may suggest. But the latter song gave us the idea of exploitation–chiefly in the lyrics, “Some of them want to use you. Some of them want to be used by you. Some of them want to abuse you. Some them want to be abused…”. It played into the survivor idea, people being used by systems or people and needing to find a safe place to be themselves. Gradually, the story of Dawn Schuyler and her “angels” grew. A person creating this haven for the wounded survivors of the world. And they all were to be hunted by the Half Moon Killer, giving us a celestial symbol for the scar he would draw on his victims which ties back to the “heavens” concept Belinda Carlisle inspired.
The celestial motif spread to each of the characters as well. As Stallings says, “I wanted each character’s first name to be inspired by the heavens: sky, air, stars, celestial objects, angels, demons, and so on. The first name that came to me was Dawn Schuyler (pronounced SKY-ler). It was perfect for the boss of the club–the owner, operator, and HBIC. But while I still wanted the other characters to have heavenly first names, I wanted Dawn to stand out, so she became the only one with a heavenly surname as well. Schuyler for sky. The rest would have a surname inspired by the 80’s archetype they represented.”
Therefore, he came up with:
*Madonna look-a-like Erin (for air) Rochester (the town where Madonna grew up)
*Slasher-loving Valley girl Crystal (as in crystal clear as well as an homage to Crystal Lake) Cunningham (named after the producer of the Friday the 13th film)
*Preppy, neat-as-a-pin, starry-eyed new girl and starlet Stella (meaning stars) Spencer (named after Princess Diana)
*Aerobics guru Hallie (as in Halley’s Comet) Sheppard (named after the woman who founded Jazzercise)
*Greed-Is-Good-touting evil investor Lucas (as in Lucifer) Carrington (the wealthy family in Dynasty)
*Miami Vice devotee and wannabe actor Angel (as in…angels) Archer (an homage to the modern TV show Archer who did a season inspired by Miami Vice. It made an effective actor name.)
*Wannabe special effect makeup artist Gabriel (named for the archangel) Baker (named after Rick Baker, SFX makeup artist and first recipient of the Oscar for Best Makeup)
*And finally, Dawn’s daydreaming assistant and office worker Ariel (both for air and an homage to the daydreaming mermaid from Disney’s The Little Mermaid)
Each homage also acts as a clue to their character, a kind of shorthand for the audience to grasp the interests and backgrounds of each of these personalities.
The result of these careful deliberations led to a very layered and nuanced script and storyline where even the exact time of the show is significant to the plot. Stallings writes, “A lot of the elements fell into a beautiful pattern as I was writing them. The choice of the exact month and year was deliberate. June 1986. It’s a crucial time in one of our major storylines in the show. I was exploring ideas about exploitation, impostor syndrome, Hollywood illusion, and feeling like a fraud. This key month and year will represent a near-cataclysmic shift for a character that will lead to one of the most dramatic scenes I have ever written.”
But don’t think that all of Closer to Heaven is a tragedy. There are tons of spoofs, references, and jokes about our favorite 80’s media and pop culture. References to Back to the Future, The Golden Girls, Jane Fonda, and more are legion in our script, balancing the drama with a healthy amount of high-octane humor. Stallings writes, “One of the funniest (and most fun) parts to write was the Roidorade pitch. Energy drinks really took off in the 80’s. I thought of Lucozade, the first mass-market energy drink in the UK of that period, and it made me think of the fast-paced, highly-caffeinated, work-until-you-have-a-cardiac-arrest pace of the decade. Why not have a character market a mostly, not-quite, almost all-natural, synthetic chemical energy enhancer kinda beverage? For laughs, I named it Roidorade (after ‘roid rage) and made all these goofy flavor names and ingredients. It was one of the funniest audition pieces we ever got to do. And it’s going to be so much fun to see live at the show.” Ever seen a live action infomercial spoof before? Closer to Heaven will pop that cherry soon enough. The twists, turns, shocks, surprises, jokes, and callbacks made even our cast gasp, cheer, laugh the first time they read it. This is going to be one wild ride from start to finish.
That’s the skinny on the script, but who plays these party animals with plenty of secrets stuffed under their shoulder pads? Get the scoop on this standout cast of characters in our next behind-the-velvet-rope blog post–Calling All Madonna Wannabes: The Making of Closer to Heaven (Part 2)!
And remember to snatch your tickets before they disappear! They are on sale now at Red Rock Books in Ridgecrest.
–Master Mystery Productions