So what, you haven’t asked, is the deal with the ellipses in the title “…to a Flame”?
Well, of course, it’s a reference to the phrase “Like moths to a Flame” which you no doubt knew from the start. Beyond that, the ellipses denote the play’s inclusion in a series of plays that I think of as the Ellipses Cycle due to their titles all possessing them. Three of these have already been produced, “…to a Flame,” “…and Tigers and Bears,” and “A Game of Twenty…”
Each of these plays has three things in common beyond the ellipses… they each cover strange and unusual material (monsters, legends, the paranormal), and they each have ties to West Virginia.
“..to a Flame” you already know about. “…and Tigers and Bears” I wrote about last time, as it’s the African Lion loose in West Virginia play, with absurd overtones. “A Game of Twenty…” was produced in 2013 and features a man who finds himself in the waiting room of the afterlife who, because it’s going to be a particularly long wait, is given the chance to ask twenty questions to receive answers to things he’s always wanted to know. Most of the answers he finds disappointing. I plan to adapt “A Game of Twenty…” into a short story at some point in the near future. It’s a play I like and which works very well in the performances I’ve seen of it. Might just appear in a future collection.
The three plays, however, also have in common references to national radio host Rik Winston, who generously penned the introduction to A Consternation of Monsters. Who is Rik Winston, though? And why haven’t you heard of him before? Or have you?
Fun fact: my on-air name, back when I was a radio disc jockey, in both Tupelo and Charlotte, was Erik Winston. I chose that name because the first commercial station I worked at, Sunny 93.3 in Tupelo, used to have a policy that their DJs had to have the name of a county as part of their name. They didn’t have that policy when I worked there, but the notion was suggested when I was on the hunt for something to call myself–other than my college on-air-name of Juice (which didn’t really work for soft hits radio). I chose Erik Winston because there was a Winston County in Mississippi and, more to the point, because my cat’s name was Winston. Later, when I moved to Charlotte, the Winston name had more resonance with North Carolina and auto racing, so I kept it there too. For the fictional version of Rik Winston, though, I just removed the E from Erik, forming Rik in tribute to comedian Rik Mayall (who, sadly, recently became the late Rik Mayall last year). So there you have it. The now not-so-secret origin of Rik Winston. (And while we’re on the topic of Rik Winston’s reality, the story he tells about going to Durbin in the foreword to A Consternation of Monsters is also largely true, right down to the guy who saw a headless horseman. It all happened during a certain trip to Durbin, W.Va., to film my episode of Creepy Canada.)
There are as yet many more legends in West Virginia that I could cover in future Ellipses Cycle plays. I imagine the Flatwoods Monster, more UFOs, Bigfoot, and maybe even Gray Barker will have to turn up some time. Good ol’ Rik Winston himself might show up, too.
The other question you haven’t asked is what I really think about the Mothman legend? My answer is complicated, though not as much as the legend itself. I really REALLY want to believe in the Mothman. I really want to believe there are strange things beyond our kin that occasionally pop up and make life a little more interesting and maybe a little more scary. And I see plenty of evidence toward that point in the world, though I cannot bring myself to commit to believing in a great deal of it. I want there to be creatures in Loch Ness. I want to believe in mysterious hairy primates roaming the wilderness. I want to believe in ghosts, and UFOs, and thunderbirds, and African dinosaurs, and even the men in black. But, as with most thing in life, the evidence for these things, beyond eyewitness testimony, tends to be thin on the ground–perhaps by design.
Do I really believe there was a flying, glowing-eyed creature that terrorized Point Pleasant in 1967? Welllllllll, I wasn’t there and I didn’t see it, so it’s hard to rule it out entirely. I do think it’s just as likely that a very large owl could have accomplished most of what is claimed to have been witnessed. However, there’s just enough of the case that is said to have been accomplished by the Mothman that a very large owl probably couldn’t. Nor does it explain the men in black, nor Indrid Cold, nor the UFO sightings, nor any of a number of other parts of the case. The question then arises, how accurate were all those other elements of the case? We’ll probably never know for sure.
I guess I’m sitting firmly on the fence for the matter. The mothman side of the fence looks good to me. But then again… there are monsters over there.
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.
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.
The original short story version of “…to a Flame” began life in the early mid-oughts as a story prompt given to me during an eight-week writing workshop taught by writer Belinda Anderson. Her prompt was simple: your character finds a dead body. Now, the story did not fall into my head at that moment, as other stories have on occasion. In fact, the basic kernel of it didn’t pop until I was on my way home from class. It was about 9:15 at night, foggy, dark, and I was driving up Highway 63, a stretch of road which winds its way along the side of a series of hills that rim a bowl valley. There was a curve in the road not far from our neighborhood. As I began to round it, I imagined a circumstance in which I reached the other side of the curve and found not just a dead body in the road, but the dead body of a mothman.
Now, for those of you who’ve not yet read the story or have not yet listened to the podcast: A) shame on you; and B) you may or may not be familiar with the legendary Mothman of West Virginia. I, on the other wing, have been from an early age.
Let me back up.
As a kid, I was a huge cryptozoology nerd. It started the day my dad showed me pictures in a magazine which were of underwater images from Loch Ness reputed to be of the monster that lived there. He seemed pretty convinced that not only were the photos the genuine article, but that the Loch Ness monster was, in actuality, a plesiosaur–an aquatic dinosaur that supposedly died out 205 million years ago. I didn’t know the 205 million years part then, but the idea that a dinosaur might still exist in the world was delicious. From that moment on, I devoured every book I could find about our world’s mysterious monsters. (Which, now that I think about it, is a fact that would have been appropriate to have mentioned in my dad’s part of the dedication at the front of my book, but I digress…) From Loch Ness, to the Yeti, to Bigfoot (one of which had been famously sighted as close as Arkansas, which put it in my neck of the country), to giant squid to… the Mothman.
I didn’t think that much of the Mothman at the time. Sure, a flying, winged man (which is what the image in the book on American monsters in my 5th grade library depicted him as) is definitely intriguing, but the whole mothman tale itself was a slippery customer for a 5th grader to catch.
The broad strokes of the story is that a winged and frequently flying creature was reported to have been sighted in the area of Point Pleasant, W.Va., from late 1966 to December of 1967. During this time there were also a lot of UFO sightings as well as appearances by men dressed in black suits who supposedly turned up–driving black cars, naturally–to behave oddly, threaten witnesses, and generally muddy the waters. (The whole concept of the Men in Black, while not originating with this case, was certainly shored up in paranormal cultural awareness by their reported appearances during that year.) The year of sightings culminated in the December collapse of the Silver Bridge, spanning the Ohio river, killing 46 people. Some people tied the Mothman’s appearance in the area as a harbinger of this disaster. After that, there were reportedly no more sightings of the creature.
I wasn’t a big fan of the mothman story as a kid. There were just to many moving parts to it for me at that age. I liked the idea of the Men in Black, though, but the creature and the harbinging of doom was more difficult for me to grasp than the idea of a missing link hominid wandering the forests of the Pacific northwest. The mothman, therefore, was not even in my top five favorite monsters and I didn’t even bother to read the textbook on the case, The Mothman Prophecies, by John Keel. But the ideas of the Mothman incidents stuck with me.
statue of the Mothman as it appears in Point Pleasant, WV, today.
Cut to 2001. My wife and I were about to move to West Virginia and before we could even leave our former home of North Carolina I was looking up how close to Point Pleasant our new home would be. This wasn’t so much because I remembered that the case took place in West Virginia, but more because I had heard there was a Richard Gere-starring adaptation of The Mothman Prophecies that was soon to be released and that brought the whole West Virginia connection back to front of mind. If I was going to share a state with a monster, I wanted to know where he hung out. Not real close at all, it turned out, as Point Pleasant was 160 miles away from where we were moving–a nice buffer. What surprised me when I started looking into the case again, though, was that Point Pleasant took the legends very seriously–at least to the extend that they were trying to capitalize on tourist trade from it and had recently erected a Mothman statue.
I began to look into the Mothman in earnest, reading about it in some UFO books by the late WV-based UFO researcher Gray Barker, and finally reading the Mothman Prophecies by the then not-so-late John Keel. I even interlibrary loaning some documentaries that had been made about it. What was already a strange story became stranger still.
During the course of his investigation, Keel became convinced that what had happened in Point Pleasant went beyond mere alien visitation or a lurking cryptid. In addition to men in black, Keel reported about some encounters with a person called Indrid Cold that had reportedly spoken with a local man after having climbed out of a lantern-shaped UFO. Keel himself claimed to have encountered Cold as well as having spoken to him on the phone on a number of occasions, and claimed that Cold proved to be quite prophetic himself.
The Mothman is a rabbit hole with lots of twists and turns and side tunnels. I won’t go into it further here, but if you have any interest in the topic I would highly recommend you first read The Mothman Prophecies and follow that up with a viewing of the documentary on Gray Barker called Shades of Gray. (If the movie you watch turns out to have lots of bondage sex in it, you’ve probably got the wrong one… or, come to think of it, maybe not.) Between these two works, you can probably get an explanation for some of what went on in 1967, not all of which was otherworldly.
The ambiguity of the case, though, made for a good story. It has the same sort of feel as shows like Twin Peaks and Lost. Those shows were popular partly because they were like a big jigsaw puzzle, with pieces that seemed to fit together, but with other pieces left out of the box, and when you assembled the pieces you did have they didn’t quite form a satisfying cohesive picture. Still, it was a fun story to research.
By the time I was on my way home from writing class, potential dead body discoveries nibbling at my mind, I realized I had my story when I imagined the dead body found to be that of a Mothman. While that scenario does not appear in the story in that precise form, the idea behind it does.
Artist’s depiction of the Flatwoods Monster
Within short days I had a draft of “…to a Flame.” I think the title came first, which I thought was clever and layered. The characters of Jeff, Virgil Hawks, and the inclusion of UFO All Night radio host Rik Winston followed closely thereafter. What I was trying to do was drop these characters into a heightened version of West Virginia, in which Mothmen aren’t so uncommon a sight that one might not be too surprised to find one crapping behind the tool shed. (The Flatwoods Monster–or, probably more accurately–the Braxton County Monster also mentioned in the story falls into that category, too. “Flatwoods Monsters always were the damndest looking things.”)
While I didn’t design him to be, Virgil is quite a lot like me, though I imagine him to look kind of like Dale from King of the Hill. He’s a guy who is fascinated by tales of the strange and Fortean, who probably grew up reading about monsters, like I did, and listening to Art Bell late at night. Rik Winston was, of course, inspired by Art Bell. And the story Virgil tells about the “doctor guy” who calls in to Rik’s show was inspired by a real series of calls to Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM from the 1990s. The real story turned out to be a complete hoax, of course, which the “doctor” guy eventually admitted on Art’s show. However, this hasn’t stopped him from trying to make money off of it to this day. (UFOWatchdog has more about the real story and the “doctor’s” actual identity HERE.)
After workshoppiHng the story with my class, and penning a few more drafts, I submitted “…to a Flame” to the 2005 West Virginia Writers Annual Writing Contest. It took third place in the Appalachian Writing category, which was the first time I’d ever won anything in that contest. I’ve won a handful since then, often in the Appalachian Writing category, which, being a boy from Mississippi, I find a little amusing.
The story was ultimately published in the anthology Mountain Voices: Illuminating the Character of West Virginia, a publication for which I’m indebted to its editor Chris Kuell. However, this was not to be the only form the story would take. It would be a few years off, but my Mothman saga would eventually find another life on the stage.