I trolled Elon Musk with Shakespeare. Then I staged it for the theatre.
Introducing Trapped in Elon’s Mansion. Featuring: Elon Musk, Grimes, Azealia Banks, Jay Z, Jarrett Walker, the Princess of Norway, the SEC Commissioner, and more.
Last December, Elon Musk and I got into a Twitter fight. Musk’s minions made a mockery of me, my friend Jarrett, and our shared loved: Shakespeare.
We called Elon misguided. He, in turn, called us idiots.
Well well, Rocket Man. You fucked with the wrong verse playwright this time.
This is a story about how a dumb sequence of tweets produced the best (read: the only) iambic pentameter comedy of 2018. It’s a story of how a joke went viral, spiraled out of control, and took over a city. As well as my life. It’s a story about Grimes. It’s a story about Azealia Banks. It’s a story about Elon Musk on acid, hiding in bore holes, chasing around ladies with chainsaws, tweeting himself into jail, and ultimately being rescued by Jay Z and the Princess of Norway.
It’s also the story of how I took a stilted, ancient literary form (the verse drama) and fashioned it into something contemporary. It’s the story of solving writer’s block by cleaning out a crack shack. The story of amateur actors who pulled off “the event of 2018”, how they skirted near-certain disaster, and — perhaps most importantly — wreaked revenge on the maniacal Shakespeare-hating tunnel-lover, Elon Musk.
Without further ado…
TRAPPED IN ELON’S MANSION: 12 MONTHS TILL SHOWTIME.
[ENTER JOE BAGEL, IN HIS BASEMENT, DRUNK-TWEETING ELON, BORED OUT OF HIS MIND OVER CHRISTMAS BREAK.]
On December 14th, 2017, Elon Musk got angry.
The subject of his ire? None other than the most celebrated transit expert in the America, Jarrett Walker. Walker had just issued a scathing (but politely-worded) shakedown of Musk’s tunnel-digging startup, The Boring Company. The Boring Company hadn’t yet built its giant embarrassment of a tunnel in Los Angeles. But it was busy hyping up its “mass transit” solution that promised to shunt single-occupant cars around cities, underground.
A year before the media caught on to Elon’s shenanigans, Jarrett Walker was on the case. In 2017 he asked Elon: rather than building tunnels designed for elites traveling in single-occupant vehicles…. why not build tunnels for subways instead — which can accommodate 1,000+ people per train??? 🤔
It seemed like a reasonable question. Even the smartest cars in the fanciest tunnels will never be able to transport as many people, as efficiently, as cheaply, as public transit. Granted: It’s not the world’s sexiest argument. Jarrett was making a logical, wonky argument. And he expected only wonks would notice.
But then, he triggered the billionaire beast:
…after which Elon quickly apologized.
…but doubled-down, after a fanboy’s prodding.
It was the first of many gaffes Elon Musk would make in the next twelve months. He’d call a rescue diver a “pedo”. Get sued for fraud. Smoke a poorly-rolled joint with Joe Rogan. And lose his unsupervised tweeting privileges.
But what did I care? I don’t care about celebrity gossip. Unless of course, those celebrities start insulting my heroes. And Elon was insulting both of mine: my transit hero, Jarrett Walker. And my literary hero,
William Fucking Shakespeare.
Elon wasn’t just calling Jarrett an idiot now. Or a “human cat meme”. He started mocking Jarrett’s PhD in Shakespeare Studies — which he got prior to becoming a transit planner.
Worst of all? Elon dismissed the bard as “bad fiction”. What a bastard!
Immediately, I knew I had to strike back. Against Elon. Against his barely-literate techbro sycophants. But how would I get my revenge?
The opportunity wouldn’t come until many months later…
TRAPPED IN ELON’S MANSION: 6 MONTHS TILL SHOWTIME.
[ENTER JOE BAGEL, CLEARING OUT A MONTREAL CRACK SHACK, SO HE COULD FINALLY HAVE A WRITING STUDIO.]
Between my day job, a writing workshop, and a half-hearted attempt at the Great Canadian Novel, I spent the summer of 2018 with fifty friends moving garbage.
My friends Austin, Evan and Jason had just scored the lease to a giant two-story venue/studio space in the Plateau. It’s the most gentrified neighbourhood in Montreal — one where the divey bars, cafés, and concert spaces have all been going out of business. When the boys heard there was a cheap lease available, they jumped at the opportunity: they’d be running the Plateau’s only (and perhaps last) DIY artist space, blocks from Leonard Cohen’s house.
After work and on weekends, we’d all drop by to help the boys pile out junk that had been accumulating over the years. (It was being used as storage space by a former sports bar tycoon.)
Altogether, we moved more than 10 U-Hauls of shit, laboriously trekking up-and-down the four story building with chairs and fridges and tables and whatever the fuck else. Then everyone painted, welded, sawed, and pizza’d their way to the finish line.
After all was said and done, I got one of the studios.
TRAPPED IN ELON’S MANSION: 3 MONTHS TILL SHOWTIME.
[ENTER JOE BAGEL, AT HIS WRITING STUDIO, DRUNK TWEETING SHAKESPEARE.]
In between summer garbage piles, I was working through another difficult pile: the collected plays of William Shakespeare. I’d always been a huge fan, but for some reason this summer I starting downing plays like I had an iambic pentameter affliction. I couldn’t read them fast enough. Titus Andronicus, Hamlet, Comedy of Errors, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Troilus and Cressida.
Then in August when Azealia Banks the rapper showed up at Elon Musk’s mansion to collaborate with Grimes the pop star and got herself into a hostage situation where she couldn’t escape from Elon for days and days — I came to the natural conclusion:
I need to write a play about this in Shakespearean verse.
I fetched some beers from the studio fridge, and got to work on the first scene:
Then once I had it together, I tweeted it out to see what people thought. The reaction was universally positive:
Okay. I was onto something…. maybe.
But how would I go from a 250-word fragment to a fully-fledged play?
(Till then, I’d never finished anything longer than a short story or blog post.)
The answer was guilt-tripping myself: I set up a Facebook event. Scheduled the play for November 2nd. Then I invited 50 friends to come. One of them asked if she could be in it, and I said yes. Now shit was real.
Game on, Elon.
TRAPPED IN ELON’S MANSION: 1 MONTH TILL SHOWTIME.
[ENTER JOE BAGEL, SLEEP DEPRIVED, RECENTLY BROKEN UP WITH HIS GIRLFRIEND, IN A MAD WRITING FRENZY, TRYING TO HIT HIS DEADLINE.]
The next few months were extremely painful. I’d wake up, write, go to work, write, go to the studio, write, go to the café, write, go home, write, all while reading Shakespeare for inspiration in any spare moments I had.
I’d message my friends Fawn, Jory, and Elena with snippets of the play to see what they thought of my jokes and plot lines. Then I’d go for long runs and walks to figure out improvements. As November 2nd neared, I knew I wouldn’t hit my deadline, and I was stressing out. My girlfriend told me to drop the play… which didn’t go over well. While I knew I was working on a joke — the joke was becoming more real each day. Word was spreading that a Shakespeare addict named Bagel was writing a revenge play about Elon Musk. The 50 invited friends had ballooned into 1000 people “attending” on Facebook. If I bailed, it would be a giant embarrassment.
So I pushed the play to December 14th. (One year, to the date, of Elon’s anti-Jarrett tweets.) I wrapped up the final scenes. I asked Austin and Evan if I could book the venue downstairs. They said “sure”.
The writing was over. But turns out: writing the play was the easiest part.
TRAPPED IN ELON’S MANSION: 2 WEEKS TILL SHOWTIME.
[ENTER JOE BAGEL, PULLING OUT HIS HAIR, DESPERATELY TRYING TO FIND 11 ACTORS FOR A STAGED READING, A CHAINSAW, AND A PRINTING PRESS THAT COULD PRINT 300 COPIES OF A BOOK ON 10 DAYS’ NOTICE???]
It turns out that hosting a staged reading of a “play” requires more than just a play. It requires actors. It requires scripts. It requires props. It requires stage directions. It requires rehearsals. It requires ticket sales. And it requires books.
I had always intended “the play” (the staged reading) as my incentive to finish “the play” (the book) which I’d give to everyone who came.
Books! I was gonna be a Real Writer™ now!
Of course, I had absolutely no experience printing books — and the staged reading was closing in fast. I made a couple of desperate calls to printers, one of whom agreed to print my books on 10 days’ notice. But they said I had to get them the files that day.
So I made another desperate call to friends who run a Montreal publishing house. They hooked me up with an InDesign template, and I wrestled with it for hours and hours until I had something workable. A few days later, I got the proofs. (I asked if I could make a few minor changes — the printers laughed and laughed.) Nevertheless, the proofs worked. I’d have my books in time.
All that was left? To find me some actors.
When you’re writing your first play, you kind of just go with the flow. You don’t really worry about the fact that your play has 12 different roles. Until it’s two weeks before your staged reading. And you haven’t had any rehearsals and you have to find 12 different people to recite flawless iambic pentameter.
In the preceding weeks I got my outgoing friends liquored up and coerced them to be in my play. Fawn was first on board, as Grimes. Then Iain, as my Mayor of Los Angeles:
Tom would be the Mayor’s Page. Phil, Azealia Bank’s banker. I asked Guillaume to do his best Christoph Waltz impression as the SEC Commissioner — and he nailed it.
Then his girlfriend, Suzanne, signed up to be my bewitching Princess of Norway. My old friend Fabrice would be the Saudi Sheik. Chris was gonna be Jay Z. That left us with: Azealia Banks, Siri, and Jarrett Walker to cast. (I was going to be Elon, of course.)
Siri fell into my hands from the highest of heavens: a slam poet goddess/copywriter/model named Ellana sent me a friend request on Facebook — ostensibly excited that a man named Bagel was about to host a cybercomic roast of Elon Musk.
(She said she’d dated a member of the PayPal Mafia. Maybe she had a score to settle, too?)
I asked Ellana if she wanted to be Siri, we met for a drink, had a rehearsal, and she knocked it out of Earthly orbit.
Now it was time to find our Jarrett Walker. Our hero. Our wonkish wonder. I made a post in a Montreal Actors facebook group, and Gabriel showed up at my studio a few hours later:
HelloOoOoOooooo Jarrett Walker.
It was two days before showtime. We had sold-out all our tickets. People were going to come. And yet we STILL didn’t have anyone to be Azealia Banks.
I was desperate. I was having nightmares: visions of play night, bribing audience members to stand-in and read the part of Azealia. I asked an actress who did Shakespeare in the Park (“talk to my agent”, she said.) I asked mutual friends. I asked an actress who was in Are You Afraid of the Dark? I asked an old hookup. I even asked Azealia herself.
We held a few rehearsals without Azealia cast — and my actors were getting nervous. Were we going to have a full cast???? Was play night going to be an unsalvageable mess??? Then, out of nowhere, a professional wrestler named Anna materialized from the ether and said she was interested.
TRAPPED IN ELON’S MANSION: 24 HOURS TILL SHOWTIME.
[ENTER JOE BAGEL, PLACING CHAIR ORDERS TO IKEA, HOPPING IN A TAXI TO THE PRINTERS, PICKING UP A TUXEDO, RUNNING TO STAPLES TO PRINT OUT SCRIPTS, TRYING TO FIND A JAY Z REPLACEMENT????]
Murphy’s Law states: “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”
Joe Bagel’s Law states: “Whatever can go right — won’t.”
It was 24 hours before the play and my actors were dropping like flies. An act of God beset my Grimes — I’d have to cast another. And my intended Jay Z messaged me the night before, hinting that I should find a replacement.
Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit.
I got drinks with my friend Lauren that night to mope about how my play was going off the rails.
“So…. you just need an actress?” Lauren prodded.
“Yeah — but the lines are super byzantine because it’s fucking Shakespeare, yo.”
“Ah. Cool. So let me do it. I was a theatre kid in university. It’s totally in my wheelhouse.”
After drinks with Lauren — Grimes finally cast — I headed off to field a radio interview for a local theatre program. Then my phone died. So I found a café, whipped out my laptop, and answered the call. My battery was at 10%… the interviewer finished the intro. 9%… she asked the first question. 8%… 7%…
We finished the interview with barely a volt to spare. It went wonderfully. That lead to other outlets picking up the story of our verse-play-on-crack, including Cult Montreal:
A small problem though — in the lead-up hype to the sold-out show, I was getting hit up by people for extra tickets. Friends. Coworkers. Local legends. I’m a Yes Man, so I went ahead and opened a bunch more seats…. more seats than the venue even had. 👀
So I placed calls to local chair rental spots. I needed 60 extra chairs, for 2 hours. One company quoted me $400. Another quoted me $450. Shameless racketeers! I bit the bullet and bought 60 chairs from IKEA for $650 instead.
TRAPPED IN ELON’S MANSION: 12 HOURS TILL SHOWTIME.
[ENTER JOE BAGEL, CREDIT CARD FULLY MAXED OUT, STILL DESPERATELY TRYING TO FIND HIS JAY Z REPLACEMENT.]
Chairs. Tuxedo. Venue. Tequila shots. Complimentary bagels. Taxis. Books. And printouts of scripts (I paid Staples $400+ for printouts — $100’s worth which never even arrived, because the printer ran out of paper, and their receipt machine broke.)
I was at the end of my rope. Manic. On the verge of a mental breakdown. The chairs had arrived, the books were picked up, the tailcoat was freshly pressed, and I almost had enough scripts to survive the night. But I still had no Jay Z.
I made a final, Hail Mary post on the Montreal Actors facebook, hoping for a Christmas miracle.
It turns out, Justin lived right next door to the Diving Bell. He showed up, we went through his lines, and, well…
He could do a perfect Jay Z impression.
TRAPPED IN ELON’S MANSION: 30 MINUTES TILL SHOWTIME.
[ENTER JOE BAGEL, BACKSTAGE, KIND OF TIPSY, PUTTING HIS CHAINSAW TOGETHER AND GOING OVER STAGE DIRECTIONS.]
We finally had all of our cast. Incredibly, they were nailing their lines. The chemistry was there. Except for one problem: because everything was so last minute, we had never gotten the chance to go over stage directions.
People were already lining up around the block, waiting for the doors to open. And here I was, for the very first time, backstage, telling my actors how to sit, stand, gesture. And finding someone to do lights — till Niamh volunteered.
The venue started filling up. It was gonna be a full house.
(We ended up improvising the stage directions.)
What could have been a train wreck ended up being a hilarious, off-the-cuff farce. All the flubbed lines. All the milliseconds of stage-direction-confusion. They ended up making everything exponentially funnier.
Thirty minutes-in, the show was going perfectly.
That is… until Siri fetched my chainsaw.
There is a scene in my play where the hallucinating chainsaw maniac Elon Musk chases Azealia Banks around his mansion — having mistook her for the Saudi Sheik.
One of the stage directions I forgot to tell Azealia? The fact that to get on stage… I was gonna kick a door down.
I only realized my omission as the door was flying through the air. Would it hit Azealia? Was my nascent career as a playwright already over?
Miraculously, the door fell into the curtains.
After that, it was all smooth sailing. We ended up finishing right on time, just before the metro closed. A solid, sold-out, hour-and-forty-five-minute show.
We even had time to get a minute-long standing ovation!
TRAPPED IN ELON’S MANSION: POST-SHOW
[ENTER JOE BAGEL, PATHOLOGICALLY HUNGOVER, WAKING UP ON A COUCH AT SATELLITE CITY, EMPTY BOTTLES OF CHAMPAGNE, GLENFIDDICH, AND WILD TURKEY ALL AROUND HIM.]
We did it.
After months of interminable work, writing, organizing, revising, rehearsing, practicing… it was over. The book was in people’s hands. The play was a resounding success.
Somehow, my friends believed enough in me to agree — script unseen!!! — to act in the play of a first-time playwright. Somehow, it wasn’t a disaster. Somehow, despite the insane time constraints I forced upon them, they pulled it off with flourish and brio.
Post-play, we piled upstairs to Satellite City. And we danced until 4 in the morning.
I woke up on the couch at 2PM. Most everybody had already left. I corralled all the empties, and started checking Twitter.
Since then: the play’s blown up!!!! 💥💥💥
It helped that Elon Musk “launched” his infamous bore hole, just a few days after my play. While other Twitter accounts were roasting Elon in 140 characters or less…
…I’d come prepared with a 17,000-word PLAY.
The timing couldn’t have been better. Urbanist twitter was eating it up:
We not only nabbed a co-sign from the LA Times’ very-own transportation reporter…
…we got a shining endorsement from Jarrett Walker HIMSELF!!! 😱
In summary… Elon Musk: my play > your tunnels.