On Tomkat by Brandon Ogborn

Last month, I was talking with Jason Heidemann (editor of Time Out Chicago's comedy section, for which I occasionally freelance) about exciting shows he and I had seen recently and he mentioned he'd caught a performance of The Tomkat Project, a spectacularly high concept show that I had only heard of after finding out that every night of it's four week run at the Upstairs Gallery was sold out. He could not speak highly enough of every aspect of this reportedly mind-expanding theatrical experience, which is being remounted for an encore run at The Playground Theater every Wednesday this month, starting tonight, Wednesday, March 6.

In advance of the revival, Brandon Ogborn, the show's creator, writer, and narrator, sent over this glimpse into the creative processes that went into making the show, as reflected by material that was ultimately cut from the finished product.

ON TOMKAT

NARRATOR: When asked in ABC's Primetime about his involvement with stopping the South Park episode rebroadcast on Comedy Central, Cruise stated—
Tom sits with Press 1.
TOM CRUISE: First of all, could you ever imagine sitting down with anyone? I would never sit down with someone and question them on their beliefs. Here's the thing: I'm really not even going to dignify this. I honestly didn't really even know about it. I'm working, making my movie, I've got my family. I'm busy. I don't spend my days going, 'What are people saying about me?’

Above is a short piece of dialogue cut from the final show. It was kind of the point of the show for me, that after all this searching into Tom and Katie’s life, it ends somewhere around Tom saying he actually doesn’t give a shit what people think about him.

Aside from short trims like editing that scene, surprisingly, not much was cut between the table read of The Tomkat Project last September and our debut at Upstairs Gallery this January, (the run that actually sold out before the opening, as I am required to state in all TKP materials and now have under my Gmail signature).

Narrator, (Brandon Ogborn), watches a scene on the sidelines of The Tomkat Project at their sold out Upstairs Gallery run in January 2013. 

Narrator, (Brandon Ogborn), watches a scene on the sidelines of The Tomkat Project at their sold out Upstairs Gallery run in January 2013. 

There was a chunk of the play on Nazanin Boniadi, (the woman who “came before Katie”), that was condensed. Originally, that part of the story was a ten page reenactment of Maureen Orth's Vanity Fair article, "What Katie Didn't Know," that was at the beginning of the play. We later decided it was best served as a surprise element to the story, crunched it into a brief monologue for actress Brianna Baker, and stuck into the last act with creepy music from Eyes Wide Shut, (an idea from our sound guy, Matt Pierce).

But the scene that gave me the most trouble was called "Moment: Airplane!"

I borrowed the use of theatrical "Moments" from The Laramie Project, which was a huge inspiration for the format of Tomkat. I don't think they can sue me for that. Parody's protected under First Amendment, foo!

Anyway, TKP is a two act structure that uses real interviews and imagined (mostly) funny scenes about Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise. Act One is their individual rises to fame, their initial meeting, courtship and wedding, (and Tom's supposed fall from grace publicly and at Paramount Pictures). Act Two basically covers the dissolution of their marriage, then the gods of meta-comedy arrive for the end, which I just can’t spoil. So come see the show!

Without further ado, here is the short scene that got cut that I will explain and relate to the education of improv and comedy in Chicago, story structure, working with a real deal British theatre director, and the lessons of killing your babies and fitting a square peg into a round hole.

MOMENT: AIRPLANE!

Tom flies a plane with Katie as co-pilot. She is bored. They have to scream to be heard.
TOM CRUISE: WOOHOO!!!! WE’RE AT 18,000 FEET!
KATIE HOLMES: ARE THERE PARACHUTES?!
TOM CRUISE: THEY’RE IN THE BACK! WHY WOULD YOU NEED A PARACHUTE?!
KATIE HOLMES: I FEEL CLOSTROPHOBIC!
TOM CRUISE: HOW CAN YOU FEEL CLASTROPHIBIC?! WE’RE IN THE SKY!
Katie presses play on a recorder. “Father Kolbe’s Preaching” plays. Katie goes to the back of the plane and straps on a parachute.
TOM CRUISE: WOOH! I’M TAKING US UP TO 20K! THIS IS HARDCORE LIVING EXTREME! I NEVER DO THINGS HALF WAY!
Katie opens the door and jumps. She falls through the sky. She pulls the parachute. She snaps back and floats down. As she descends…

So, it's not terrible. There's some jokes there. Tom loves to fly planes! We are led to believe that Katie is more of a museum and zoo day tripper so I wanted to see those two in a plane. The scene also comes right after another imagined scene, where Tom, after crushing bits on the MTV Movie Awards as Les Grossman, gets into a fight backstage with Katie because she wants to do a Dawson's Creek reunion movie. The airplane scene was meant to further emphasize their growing distance.

Further, the tape recorder. That existed because I originally thought this would be a two person show. Me and Joanna Feldman juggling (at the time) 60 characters, and handling all props and tech on our own. Hence, the use of the recorder for music. We would also switch out cassette tapes throughout the show to play audio of other characters for 3 person scenes. And we would use puppets. My first note was from Joanna and seconded by Elly Green, who would become the director: There’s no way two people can do this, for two hours.

After we learned Joanna was going on a boat for Second City, casting began. Elly broke down the script and designated parts. Narrator, Katie, and Tom stuck to those singular parts. The other 51 characters would be between two male and two female actors. Rehearsal began in October 2012 at the Annoyance and Upstairs Gallery. Ever since doing ensemble building with Susan Messing, (Level 2 at iO), I wanted to do something really scenic (like having the Tomkat cast turn into an airplane). But with Tom and Katie in the AIRPLANE scene, and me to the side narrating, that leaves four people. Not a plane does that make.

Plus, the whole of the script, it's the only moment where anything that "big" on stage happens. It is mostly a talking head play. But I really wanted that scene in there so bad for some reason. In part maybe because that was the part of the script where Tom and Katie begin to fall apart.

After running it ten ways with the cast in rehearsal, it just felt so sticky. There was no drama there and little comedy. I kept trying different music cues but soon, I had to give in.

I was reminded of some of my past failures, particularly the short films I did, like Corey Wilson in 2009:

...and Unmarked White Van in 2011.

I love both of these and stand behind them, but in hindsight, I can see that my eye for comedy and drama isn't always that sharp. I always want the big Philip Glass or Carter Burwell music cue over the funniest scene, which usually lessons the funny. Or, I tend to fight too much for that deep, sad chuckle over a broad belly laugh, (as I'm sure Micah Sterenberg - who play David Miscavige among others and is literally a comedy robot - will tell you), I miss a golden opportunity.

I'm sorry, I love the Coen Brothers, Alexander Payne, and Henry Koster's Harvey. Sad funny. But even these directors will lose a chunk of audience in order to do the story they want. Brad Pitt and George Clooney wanted the lead roles in Sideways, but Payne said no, he wanted Thomas Hayden Church and Paul Giamatti. Yeah, the movie is a classic in my mind, but don’t you think they would’ve made another $60m at the box office with those marquee names, sad comedy or not?

When I made those shorts films, a lot of Chicago comedy folks were doing sketch videos. I wanted to do something more substantial. It did not pay off. They were accepted into no film festivals, and still only have a few dozens hits online. Unmarked White Van even offended some programmers from festivals because it’s a comedy about a pedophile. One called me with notes from the judges and said simply, “What were you thinking?” And those shorts weren’t cheap.

That fear of another big failure was so palpable that after I finished the first draft of Tomkat, I gave it to my wife to read and said something like, “Look, I don’t want to drag us into a year long project and blow money on another crazy idea. I don’t want to be that husband. If you think this thing sucks at all, I will throw it out and get back to improv shows.”

My wife came on as producer a month later.

Elly gave me the choice to cut that airplane scene. I remember lying in bed thinking how much of a failure this play would be. And how with my shorts, I wasted people’s time. Cate Freedman, Nick Leveski, Barry Hite. How they believed in my idea but I mucked it up by getting too high brow. Now, I had this director, this cast of truly incredible performers believing in this story, and me believing that making a fucking airplane on stage while Katie Holmes descend through the clouds and a song from The Truman Show blinds the audience with emotion would somehow take this show from a 5 to a 10.

I even tried to protect how lofty that airplane scene was by adding the Narrator capping it by exclaiming to the audience, "This is meant to be a metaphor."

Bottom line was, no one got the scene but me. And that meant the scene was stupid. You can't always protect your comedy by commenting on it as it’s happening. That may have been part of why I got cut from my Harold Team, I'm sure. It was well deserved.

Looking back at that airplane scene now, I want to punch myself in the balls. In addition there's no character there on their choices. Why the fuck would Katie jump out of a plane? I know it's a little magical realismy, but is my aunt from Farmington Hills going to get that in the back row?

Narrator, (Brandon Ogborn), confronts Vanity Fair Journalist Maureen Orth, (Allison Yolo), over her article on Tom Cruise, (Walt Delaney).

Narrator, (Brandon Ogborn), confronts Vanity Fair Journalist Maureen Orth, (Allison Yolo), over her article on Tom Cruise, (Walt Delaney).


So, we cut the airplane scene. And it works without it. In fact, that scene would have been the part where we lost audience and the play died. It would have just been one step too far into high drama. Just like there were jokes we cut because they were too mean. 

Walt Delaney and Julie Dahlinger (Tom and Katie) were able to channel through their acting that the relationship was souring. All the information was there in the “Backstage At MTV” scene preceded the airplane scene. Tom wanted too much control over Katie, (or so we are led to believe by US Weekly), so Katie then strategizes an escape. They do that scene turn it in four or five lines, no props, no airplanes, no music. 

The Tomkat Project is the best work I've done in Chicago, what I'm the most proud of as a writer, and with the tenacity it took to get people involved and the piece on its feet. I realize too, that any success the play has is because I surrounded myself with people smarter than me that helped chisel down a draft I wrote in two weeks into a standalone play. A play that – as Alex Honnet from Chicago’s experimental comedy valve Upstairs Gallery says – "is also funny. Really fucking funny." (Also on my Gmail signature).

This is a supportive comedy community – now more than ever. That support doesn’t always mean you have to say, “Great job, dude!” It also means telling the truth when something just doesn’t work.

-Brandon Ogborn, Brazil, 2014