Of Moths and Men… (Part 2)

In addition to being a writer, I’m also an actor.  Primarily a stage actor, though I have appeared on basic cable in both Canada and the United states.  (It’s not that exciting, unless you consider footage from the same show being aired on different shows in both countries exciting.  You can see me in the included video, filmed for an episode of Creepy Canada in 2005, but shown more recently on Destination America under another title.  I’m the conductor.)  Most of the acting I’ve done in the past 15 years, though, has been on the stage at the Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg.  My first show there was in 2003, when I was cast in Ain’t Nothing Quick N Easy, by playwright David White.  White was directly involved in adapting his script for GVT’s production, and he was able to attend the show during its run.  Being involved in the production and seeing the fun he was having in watching his work realized inspired me to return to writing for the stage myself.

I’d written a couple of short plays in high school and college, but mostly cut my playwright teeth during several summers with a theatre camp in which the campers have to write a three act musical comedy in a week.  It’s a trial by fire experience for a writer, as well as for the script coordinator who has to ride herd over the process–which I’ve done all but one year since 2008.

When thinking of possible ideas to develop, I realized that I already had one in hand with “…to a Flame.”  As you can tell from the podcast version of it alone, the story is told primarily through dialogue between two characters, it has a single setting, and even the more pyrotechnic-infused parts of it happen entirely off screen.  It seemed to me like this would be fairly simple to adapt for the stage.

Of course, I was wrong in so many ways.

Sure, it was easy enough to adapt the dialogue of the story into play form, finding ways to incorporate some of the information from the prose sections into new dialogue.  However, even with the limited setting, my desire to keep as many aspects of the original story intact as possible nearly kept the play from being produced at all.  This is a tale of writer hubris, with a proper comeuppance at the end.  So just know any poor decisions on my part you will read hence shall be rewarded with hard lessons learned.

An example of my hubris: Virgil Hawks arrives at Jeff’s house in the evening, so I wanted cricket sound effects playing.  And since, in the story, he shows Jeff a dead mothman in the back of his pickup truck, my instructions in the script, in capital letters, bolded, was that the set was to include an actual pickup truck bed.  (Yessir.)  Theatres choosing to produce this did not have to have a full actual pickup truck, which I at least realized was ridiculous, but I felt that the truck bed was somehow key.  I just wasn’t going to be happy unless I could see and hear the tailgate being dropped and the tarp-covered body revealed.  (The balls on that guy!)  Almost as bad, since in the story Virgil’s pickup is parked in the driveway near Jeff’s front porch, and because the porch was supposed to contain both a swing set and a rusted out deep freeze, not to mention an old timey radio that was capable of being illuminated from within, I said in the script that a porch was also a necessary set piece.  This, to me, meant boards on the floor, a front door, window, support posts and a roof, though I didn’t go so far as to specify all that in the script, thankfully.  I did mention that a rocking chair could be substituted for an actual bench swing, but that was about as accommodating as I was prepared to be.

Yep.  All those requirements for a 12 minute play about a dead mothman.  And the real tragedy is that I didn’t see anything wrong with any of it!!  Theatres, I reasoned, should be able to build sets and secure necessary props.  And, after all, I was THE PLAAAAAYWRIGHT!!! (Sung in a Jon Lovitz Master Thespian voice!)  I had been taught in my college playwriting class that in the theatre the playwright is a god and his words are not to be deviated from.  (Mind you, this was taught to me by the then head of the theatre department, Jeffrey Elwell, who was a decent playwright himself.  However, it’s like the old Emo Phillips joke, which I’m paraphrasing, “The human brain is the most fascinating part of the human body–well, duh, look what’s telling me that!”)  I have since witnessed multiple theatres in multiple states make major alterations to the work of multiple playwrights–sometimes Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights.  Shockingly, playwrights are not gods.  But at the time, I bought it and reasoned that if a theatre wanted to produce my play, they should first consider the requirements within before agreeing to produce it. *HAUGHTY SNIFF*  

While my script had its definite flaws, it also had its fans.  I got some help from a local playwright named David Gibson.  I had acted in one of his plays, Y-Mains, in 2005 (not long before heading up to Durbin, WV, to film Creepy Canada) and he gave me some good pointers.  (Sure, he didn’t mention that requiring a damn truck bed in it was both a bad idea and wildly presumptuous, but he gave me good advice otherwise.)  He even arranged for a staged reading of the play.

After a few more drafts, I had a play that I liked, but I still didn’t really do anything with it–like, saaaaay, submitting it to any theatres.  Not for three years.

In 2008, my wife and I moved to Princeton, WV.  It was a seemingly good move for us professionally (though we learned some valuable lessons about what not to do and who not to believe in the long run), but it meant that I could no longer act at GVT, particularly in the annual festival of short plays they produced each February.  I’d had some of my favorite stage experiences there, playing such roles as Trotsky, in Variations on the Death of Trotsky, and composer Phillip Glass in Phillip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread, both by my idol David Ives.  The Ives plays were particularly inspirational and motivated me to try and write more, but it was slow coming.

I began a draft on a thematic sequel to “…to a Flame” called “…and Tigers and Bears,” a light comedy about an African lion terrorizing a family.  This was inspired by some sightings of an actual African lion over on Bald Knob, elsewhere in Greenbrier County.  However, I didn’t pick that play back up until after we moved to Princeton, when the receptionist at my wife’s clinic came to work one morning and said, “You will not believe what I saw eating a cow in a pasture this morning on my way to work!”  Yep, African lion.  Big mane, giant claws, puff ball on the end of its tail, lion.  I was the only one who believed her with no problems.  That got me working again on the play, in which a lion not only traps a family in their house, but also cuts the phone lines and the power and picks the lock of the front door.  Both sets of sightings were incorporated.

Our move to Mercer County coincided with GVT shifting gears on their annual short play festival.  Instead of producing established, published plays, they put out the call in late 2008 for area and WV-based playwrights to submit short plays for a new festival.  The plays, they stressed, should be limited in setting and characters and be under 15 minutes.  This, I thought, was my way back in.  If I couldn’t act in the plays, I could submit one to be produced.  I didn’t have a solid draft on my lion play yet, so I submitted a new draft of “…to a Flame.”   It was accepted.

Now, I have no doubt that my history with the theatre probably played a role in the play’s acceptance, but other than the unreasonable set requests it is a funny play.  Any other theatre looking at the set requirements, though, would have laughed at me and then sent me a rejection letter with a page and a half of “Bwah ahha ha aha ha!” printed out as well.  But accept it they did, God love `em.

Soon I began receiving emails from the director, Curtis Donnelly.  The play was perfectly cast with two actors I’d shared several stages with: Jim Norris was cast as Jeff and Dr. Larry Davis as Virgil.  Jim and I actually auditioned together for our very first play at GVT, and both got the parts we auditioned for in Ain’t Nothin’ Quick N easy, and is one of my favorite people in the world.  Dr. Davis is another favorite person–a very talented comedic actor and one of the more generous and helpful souls you’d ever care to meet.  I knew they would bring a lot to the roles.

Meanwhile, I think Curtis also began gently hinting to me that perhaps there were some less important set pieces in the script that might be trimmed.  He mentioned that they were having difficulty finding both a truck bed as well as the rusted out deep freeze.  Part of me knew the truck bed was going to be problematic, but I was shocked they didn’t already have a deep freeze in their prop department.  (I don’t know why, because it’s not like there are a lot of musicals that involve a rusted out deep freeze, but I just assumed there would be one.)  I tried to help by making phone calls to people I knew in the area who I thought might know of where to get either of these items, but I too came up nil.  Days away from the debut of my first solo play, I got word from Curtis that they had, glory be, found a truck bed!  He seemed pretty excited.  They were still having problems with the chest freezer–even a small one–so he wondered if I minded if they just fabricated one in the scene shop?  I said, “Cool beans.”

Now, the fact that Curtis was keeping me in the decision-making process was down to him being a cool guy and probably a hope that I would see the light of day and write around the problem rather than keep them jumping through hoops.  I did have a script change to request of my own, though: I asked if I could rewrite the final line of the script, as spoken through a radio broadcast by the character Rik Winston, to include a note about African lions roaming West Virginia.  Furthermore, I asked if I could play that part, recording and producing the broadcast section to send to them to use as a recorded sound cue at the end of the play.  (In reality, I wanted an excuse to buy a $170 studio mic and a mic-to-usb pre-amp to start my podcasting career, but it was nice that this was the first project for it.)  Graciously, Curtis agreed.  And you can hear that very audio clip at the end of the podcast version of “…to a Flame,” featuring lines that are not in the original short story found in A Consternation of Monsters.

In February of 2009, we went to see the show.  And it was a big deal to me–my first solo-effort play produced.  My parents had flown in, as had my sister, and my inlaws had driven up from North Carolina.

...to a flame

Jim Norris & Larry Davis as Jeff & Virgil, seated beside the fake freezer


Jim Norris, the playwright, Larry Davis, & the mothman (beneath tarp). Note the truck bed.

As the lights came up, and the cricket sound effects began, I could see that the set differed a bit from the script in that there was not a full front porch.  (The playwright is god!  The playwright is god!)  But the basic pieces of that set that were used (a glider seat instead of a swing, the suspiciously box-like deep freeze, the radio) were all present and the porch was perfectly understood to be just that and didn’t need porch posts or a roof.  It was an economy of set!  Why hadn’t that occurred to me?

The play began and I heard my words being spoken first by Jim Norris.  It was odd hearing my words with different inflections than those in my head.  But nothing felt wrong.  If anything the differences made the dialogue better.  He was soon joined by Larry Davis, and a huge honking pickup truck bed that took up half the stage.  Its tailgate fell with a clank and in the back was something mothman-shaped covered by a tarp.  It was wonderful.  Jim and Larry were brilliant and their delivery and timing perfect.  The jokes were all landing with the audience, too, particularly those that involved cussin’.

“I think it was taking a shit,” Larry said.

“You shot it when it was taking a shit?” Jim replied.

The audience howled.

And after 15 minutes, it was over.  It remains one of the best theatre experiences of my life and is, to date, my all time favorite production of one of my plays.  (Courtney Sussman’s direction of “A Game of Twenty…” being #2.)  I even returned to Lewisburg for a second viewing a week later.

A few months later, I submitted the play to a play festival put on by the Independent Theatre Collective in Wheeling.  It was accepted.  (In fact, my play was in the same festival with one of the plays of Jeffrey Elwell, my playwriting teacher from college at Mississippi State.  He had relocated for a while to Marshall University where he’d been an instructor for ITC’s head honcho Jeremy Richter.  Small world, eh?)  I drove up for the show and was presented with an experience that was quite different than the GVT production.  And, keep in mind, this was a VERY good thing.

Jeremy Richter both directed and starred in their production of “…to a Flame.”  He played Virgil and was fantastic in the role.  Where the major differences happened were in the set, which was even more bare bones than at GVT.  The deep freeze, for instance, was instead a large Coleman cooler.  The porch swing was a chair.  The crickets were asleep.  And the truck bed was unseen, assumed to be entirely off stage.  When it came time for the reveal of the mothman beneath the tarp, Jeremy, as Virgil, simply drug the body in the tarp onto the stage–no truck bed necessary!  And instead of a recorded Rik Winston at the end, they just had a third actor read it from off stage.  It was definitely a low-budget production, but it was brilliant all the same.  More importantly, the ITC production provided me with some of the most valuable lessons I’ve received in the craft of playwriting, not to mention performing.

The job of a playwright, I came to realize, is not to dream up the uber ideal version of their story, with all the bells and whistles, shooting for the stars.  The playwright should instead try and tell his or her story as honestly and completely as possible, but also to realize that not every theatre has the budget,  technical capabilities, or (evidently) patience of a place lke the Greenbrier Valley Theatre.  Not every theatre is going to go out of their way to making your fully-realized vision a reality when realizing that full vision is not necessary to the telling of your story in the first place. Your story should be able to stand on its own feet without relying on set dressing to sell it.  Eliminating the unnecessary (and unreasonable) elements and making your play as easy-to-produce as possible should be a major part of the process of writing a play.  At least for 10 minute plays like the ones I write.  Once you’re Thornton Wilder you can start doing things like demanding dinosaurs and wooly mammoths as characters in your play.  Until then, you’re just Joe Schmoe wannabe playwright and you’re going to have to work to get your plays produced.  Therefore you should never add anything extra that might give a theatre an excuse to pass on your work.

A truck bed was not required to tell my story.  A porch was not required.  Even the freezer, a major part of the plot, could be merely referred to and was not necessary to show.  Sound effects, also not necessary.  The entire play could, if done correctly, be accomplished with no set or props at all, including the dead mothman. Every bit of the set and props could be implied by the performance of the actors and the whole thing could be just a two man show.  Hell, I do it as a one man reading, doing both voices, and it works just fine without the music or sound effects I added for the podcast.

Tthis has become my philosophy in writing for the stage: to try and make my work as easy to produce as possible.  This can also be read as: I try whenever possible to make my plays impossible to screw up.  I haven’t always succeeded and I haven’t always been completely happy with the productions of my work, but I count far more hits than misses.  And to me when the writing and the directing and the acting work in combination, and everyone has a bit of their vision in play, the work can become greater than any one of its parts.  And anything that’s going to elevate my work and make me look better as a result is fine by me.

One more part to come… a short one.

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