Fear leads to Hate.
Hate leads to Anger.
Anger leads to Writing Plays.
At first I wasn’t going to write about zombies. Zombies always seemed a bit, well, mindless, and I usually pride myself on writing intelligent comedy. (Usually.) And I had already tackled something like zombies in The Craving (which I will discuss later). So when a teacher wrote on my facebook page “If you wrote a comedy about the zombie apocalypse I would die of happiness,” I was inclined to let her continue her life and chalk up the fact that I had not written a zombie apocalypse comedy to one of life’s many disappointments.
But then I saw this: “Homeland security grants went to zombie invasion preparedness”
And then I got mad.
And then I could write the play.
Now it’s not as if my zombie play 10 Ways to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse is solely about the government’s wasteful expenditure on makeup (and it probably wasn’t that much money anyway), but the point is that comedy, particularly satire, works best when you’re good and angry. I’ve often heard that advice that you should write about “what makes you laugh or cry”, but I’ll also add that you can write about what makes you see red.
Another example. I recently did a talkback after a performance of one of newest plays, The Election. An audience member asked me what caused me to write the play. My answer? “Rage.” Who was I mad at? Let’s see: 1. Republicans. 2. Democrats. 3. Voters. 4. The Media. You know, basically everybody involved. And instead of simply stewing about that, it was not only cathartic, but it was honestly a joy to vent my spleen on the page instead of yelling at the television like normal. By creating a situation which allowed me to hold a mirror up to our behavior and point out its absurdities, I was able to not only write a play that was really funny and worked well, but it was a play that was saying something about our electoral system.
And yet another great thing about a play is that you can tackle all sides of the issue at once. So even though I was angry with the campaign financing system, the play isn’t all about that, and even though I was angry about media manipulation and sensationalism, it wasn’t all about that either. It was about all of those things.
Rage is a good emotion to write a play with, because it gets you up, gets you to the computer, and keeps kicking you in the backside until you finish. It’s a lot easier to write a play angry than to write a play while in love. Another good emotion to write a play from? Fear.
I wrote The Craving when I was in negotiations with a Hollywood Production company about one of my screenplays. Talking to actual movie people in Hollywood is something like finding yourself on the moon, looking around at how amazing everything is, and then actually realizing you forgot your spacesuit back on Earth. You’re probably going to implode in short order.
In order to deal with my unquenchable terror that my movie would be stolen, lobotomized, and I would essentially be left homeless and destitute, I wrote The Craving, which is about a screenwriter (me) who gets his love story taken and transformed into a zombie slasher flick. (See? The zombies were there for me all along!) In this case, I was taking my fear about how things would turn out and writing out a worst-case scenario. In some ways this was therapy. Things couldn’t possibly get this bad, could they? (They didn’t.)
I’ve only been using comedy and satire as examples here, but this works just as well for drama. David Lindsay-Abaire wrote the Pulitzer-winning Rabbit Hole about the thing he feared the most in the world – losing a child.
So if you’re out there trying to figure out what to write a play about, access your ugliest, most primal emotions. What terrifies you? What enrages you? What would cause you to go out into the street, pull up a chunk of concrete and toss it? If there’s something there that won’t let you sleep, you’ve got the genesis for a good idea.
-- Don Zolidis
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In the days when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, a play could be performed on Broadway and then make its way to the high schools of the world pretty quickly. And it would stay on that list forever. Think You Can’t Take it With You or The Crucible or Noises Off. Broadway used to do plays with large casts that everyone could enjoy.
Glancing at the current roster of Broadway shows, you get some idea of the challenge facing high school directors. There’s nothing there you could do in high school. Are you going to do a play with four characters in it? For your entire school? If you have a big, healthy program, that means turning down thirty to forty kids who might audition. Those kids will then swear revenge – can you imagine a theatre program with thirty phantoms of the opera lurking in the catacombs beneath your auditorium? Not a pretty sight.
There’s also the problem of subject matter. A lot of Broadway, and “professional theatre” is pretty racy and almost always contains language that would get most teachers fired. Even someone as seemingly innocuous as Neil Simon could get you in hot water.
So that’s the problem. We’re left with an aging roster of classics that we do again and again – Shakespeare (although there’s nothing wrong with Shakespeare), Arthur Miller, Kaufman and Hart, maybe the occasional Twelve Angry Men or Alice in Wonderland. Fifty years ago doing All my Sons or the Crucible was cutting edge. Not really that way anymore.
We have great theatre for little kids. If you ever go to a performance at a children’s theatre, it’s amazing. The audience is screaming, laughing, crying out with fear – live theatre is unmatched in its ability to connect with an audience.
And then, when the kids turn about eleven or twelve, we forget about them. Sure, adventurous parents will take them to modern, professional plays, but for the most part the new shows are inappropriate for whatever reason. And there’s an even smaller chance that their middle school is going to attempt Angels in America or the latest Pulitzer-winner.
Why is this a big deal? Because most teenagers think theatre is old, and it’s not for them. They’re right, in a sense, theatre is old – but not quite as old as music, and they’re all over that. The problem is that shows written in the fifites are great, but they don’t exactly give the impression that theatre is a living, breathing, changing art form. And they certainly don’t convey a sense that theatre could impact them directly, be about them, or for them.
So there’s the problem: Lots of new plays for kids, lots of new plays for adults, very little in-between. Our potential audience concludes that theatre is dead, and as a result the people actually paying money to go to the professional theatre get older and older and older. When those people in their seventies were teenagers, they got hooked. Now, we’re killing our audience.
That’s where I come in. To single-handedly save America. Okay, well, not so much. And, I admit, a lot of the plays I write for teenagers are very, very silly, but there’s a place for that too. I write plays for young people that they can perform, that they can find entertaining, and in some measure can be about their world.
I want to make one last point. There’s a difference between a one-act and a full-length play. One-acts, thanks in some part to Playscripts, have become much fresher, and give schools a chance to do something new. There are a lot of reasons for this: Mainly, you don’t see a lot of one-acts making it to Broadway or being performed all over the country (except for David Ives – yay David!) so there’s not that much traditional material to look at. One-acts are also used in competitions or student-directed plays, so there’s a lot more freedom to pick something unknown.
Obviously, as I have about thirty one-acts for teenagers, I don’t want to disparage the form. As a teacher I found them indispensible. But if we’re talking about the full-length after school play that hopefully the entire school is going to come and see, traditional, old plays still rule the day.
A lot of my full-lengths are wild, silly fun – (and there is a place for wild silly fun! That’s what got the kids excited in the first place), but in most of them I’m trying to make a comment on the modern world. I’m trying to say something about how we live, or how we cope, or what new insanity is being unleashed upon us. I’m trying to do it in the most entertaining manner I can, but shows like The Craving or The Election or A Tiny Miracle with a Fiberoptic Unicorn are digging at something deeper
We need plays like that. Our kids need plays like that.
-- Don Zolidis
When I was starting out, I spent a lot of time at the post office. It made me feel pretty good. I’d go through my dog-eared copy of Dramatists Sourcebook, searching for theatres to send my plays to. I carefully wrote out my query letters, printed my ten page samples, polished my resume, and then it was off to the post office to send out the carefully pressed envelopes of hope.
I had a policy that kept me going: “Make sure that there’s never a day when something amazing couldn’t arrive in the mail.” I spent a lot of days staring at the mailbox, hoping to get good news.
It took theatres an eternity to respond, if they ever did, so every few months I’d send out another round of letters. On occasion I would receive a reply from a theatre. Almost always it was something along the lines of, “Your play does not seem like a good fit for our theatre at this time.” Which I accurately translated as “get lost.” Rarely, someone would say that they liked the sample and would like to see the full script, in which case I would race to print it and mail it off only to wait for the inevitable, “Your play does not seem like a good fit for our theatre at this time.”
Last month, flush with success from a couple of well-reviewed shows, I mailed out another round. This time I could quote newspapers, cite production dates, include pictures of the plays –- I thought I had a pretty airtight case to make that these important theatres should at least read the plays I sent.
My response? Crickets. Nothing.
When I was a freshman in college, I met a guy who would later become a very good friend of mine, Rick. Rick was in theatre and had seized my college’s liberal attitude towards directing shows to direct a play in the winter of our freshman year. I believe the play was Other People’s Money. Anyway, Rick auditioned the show, rehearsed it, and built the set himself.
Unfortunately, as this was the first show Rick had ever directed, he had somehow missed the day in technical theatre where they explained that you build sets with screws, not nails. (For those who’ve never built a set before, that’s because you want to be able to take the thing apart at the end and re-use the wood for something else.) Rick used nails. And the set he constructed in our tiny theatre was massive.
We did amazing things in our student-directed theatre, which was a tiny 99-seat space in the basement of one of the dorms. Unfortunately, since there was a new play every week, you could only begin building your set on Sunday of production week. And when you’re using nails, and no one is helping you, and you’re planning on building something massive, that means you hook up an IV drip of Diet Coke into your veins and never go back to your dorm room. Rick slept in the theatre for about an hour or two when he would pass out at seven in the morning. I’m sure the residents of our dorm could hear him at night, like some ghost, hammering away at three, four, five in the morning.
My friend Colin found him one morning, staring in exhausted horror at his hands, which were covered in blisters. Colin got some bandages and helped tape up his hands. Rick said, “Make sure you tape them so I can still hold the hammer.”
So, with his hands wrapped in tape like a mummy, Rick finished his stupidly constructed set in time for the show.
I think about Rick’s hands when I’m sending out my scripts. I’m doing this the wrong way, I’m sure. I’m using a hammer and nails when I ought to be using screws. I keep pounding away and it hurts, but I don’t know any other way to do it.
I take solace from the fact that Rick did manage to complete that set though, with a working donut machine, in time for opening night. So – even though you’re doing things wrong, stupid, dogged determination may yet win the day.
And I still check the mailbox every day.
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When I was in my formative college years, Margaret Edson won the Pulitzer Prize for Wit. There were a lot of unusual things about this. One, she wasn’t a professional playwright. She was a schoolteacher who went back to teaching school after winning the award. I remember watching a television interview with her where she said she had one story to tell, she told it, and then she wanted to do something else. Wow.
What was most striking and unusual to me was how long it took her to get the play produced. Wikipedia doesn’t back me up on this, but I remember her saying that the play was ten years in development. Just think about that: Ten years from conception to production. How could that possibly happen?
Another tidbit: I recently learned that one of my friends from graduate school, Lloyd Suh, who just happens to be a terrific playwright, had a show called A Great Wall Story open at The Denver Center for The Performing Arts. The play is a taut comedy about a trio of reporters who invent a newspaper story in 1896, which eventually leads to the actual Boxer Rebellion. It’s a great, funny show and I’m glad it’s getting a production. Thing is, I remember seeing the first scene of this play when we were in grad school together in 2001. Eleven years for it to make it to the stage.
And, of course, my own experience. I had the joy and relief to finally see my play, White Buffalo, appear on the stage of The Purple Rose Theatre Company this month. I began writing that play in the summer of 2002 – again, a ten year saga.
I’m just glad my references to eBay still held up after ten years. An entire passage glorifying *NSYNC had to go, though. (Just kidding!)
A lot of artists have stories like this. How their masterwork sat and was ignored and rejected for years and years and then, finally, impossibly, broke through. It's almost a cliché at this point, that in order for something to be awesome, it has to be rejected countless times. Even Herman Melville’s Moby Dick sold less than 3,000 copies during his lifetime. (Probably because people thought it was terrible and no one was forcing them to read it.)
It doesn’t always work that way. On occasion you write something and it immediately becomes a smash hit and then stays that way forever. Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven is a good example: within a year of its publication it was anthologized and soon it was required reading for every child, and has stayed on the list ever since. Or suppose you write a fanfiction S&M story based on Twilight and change the main characters' names in order to avoid being sued.
But usually, getting something done is a long, laborious, nearly impossible struggle. There are so many obstacles to getting a major theater to do a production of your play it’s staggering. You have to fight for it, again and again and again. You have to convince people up and down the chain of command – if anyone says no, it’s over. My play went to an intern first, who read it, and passed it on to the literary manager, who passed it on to the artistic director’s wife, who passed it on the artistic director himself. After the artistic director liked it, he had to send it on the Executive Director. And then we did readings for the public to make sure they liked it. And on and on and on… And mind you, this was after the play had been read and rejected by countless other theaters all over the country. For years. (And when I say “theaters” I mean interns or literary managers or artistic director’s husbands, or artistic directors, because they all have the power to quash your show.)
And after all that, after ten years of working on the play, after convincing everyone in the theater to love the play too, after getting the actors and designers together, and rehearsing the play for weeks, and then finally, finally putting in front of an audience, a single bad review can destroy it all.
Is it any wonder so many playwrights became alcoholics?
My point, though, is that it is possible after years of struggle to succeed at this.
One last story to illustrate this point: When I was a teenager, my friend drove a pretty crappy Volkswagon Scirocco. When you’re a teenage male, you have a tendency to try to race any other car that comes close to you – it’s not like we were drag racers – I’m talking about simply starting at a red light and gunning the engine to see who could go the fastest. Now, the Scirocco was never the quickest car out of the gate, but my friend had a philosophy: It’s not who starts the fastest, it’s who’s willing to go the farthest. He’d always be behind, but he never gave up, and when the other car hit 70 or 80 and decided that it was logical to slow down so as not be pulled over or destroy their vehicle, my friend would keep going.
And that’s how you win. You keep going farther than the other guy.
And hope there aren’t any cops watching.
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/
A few decades ago, theatre educators in Texas looked around and said, “Why isn’t theatre more like football?” And thus, the one-act play competition was born. (I may be oversimplifying here.) Many states have followed Texas’ lead and developed one-act tournaments of their own, but the Texas competition remains the granddaddy of them all. Each spring, hundreds of schools from around the state compete in a bloodthirsty tournament of death, in which losers go home crying and winners advance in six rounds of competition that last months. If you keep advancing, you get lots of time off from school, which is a bonus to both students and teachers. Eventually, in the finals, you perform in a theater that seats thousands. It’s crazy.
When I taught middle school, we had our own minor version of this. Our district (typically 6-8 schools) would hire a judge, get together on a Saturday, and have a great, “not overly competitive” day of it. (By “not overly competitive” I mean that we didn’t adhere strictly to the Texas rulebook, which dictates how many uses of a chair you can have, what constitutes a “level”, and disqualifies you if you run one second over the allotted time.)
So here’s what I told my kids: This isn’t a competition. We’re here to have fun. We’re not here to beat anyone else. We’re here to celebrate theater.
What I thought was: DESTROY THEM! THE RIVERS SHALL RUN RED WITH THEIR BLOOD!
You see, I’m something of a competitive jerk.
Now, I figured I had an inherent and unfair advantage over my fellow teachers, which I intended to exploit fully: I wrote the plays I intended to direct. I could look at my actors, write parts specifically for them, and basically manipulate the process in order to make sure my school came out on top.
Here’s the thing, though: Writing plays for a competition I was going to be in, forced me to write better plays.
You know who else forced me to write better plays? Jen. (Not her real name. Okay, fine, it was her real name.) First, let me say that Jen was a much better theatre teacher than I was. It was ridiculous; every year she’d bring a group of thirty ridiculously enthusiastic and happy students, who would then proceed to beat the snot out of everyone else in the theater with the most amazing show anyone had ever seen. She always won. She had costumes, she had sets that looked like they had been built by union workers, and somehow her actors were always incredible. And they were nice, which made it worse.
I wanted to beat Jen. So every year I tried to outdo myself to write a better play that would offset my disadvantages ( my total lack of costumes, set, and after-school rehearsal.)
The first time I beat her was with The Audition. I had an extremely talented group that year (the kind of kids who show up to the first rehearsal with all their lines memorized) so I decided I was going to adapt a musical for the middle school stage. What better choice than A Chorus Line? (Incidentally, this was the show that I told everyone else I was bringing to the festival just to see the looks on their faces.) My kids that year, in addition to being talented, lovely students, were also just as bloodthirsty and competitive as I was.
They were thinking things like: OUR TOUCHING AND BEAUTIFUL PLAY WILL WIPE THE FLOOR WITH YOU AND BREAK YOUR SPIRITS!
Anyway, since The Audition requires no costumes or set and we could sing and dance, we took home top honors that year. I should mention here that no one officially “won,” but believe me, we all knew who “won” every year.
We won again two years later with Oz, when I again followed the formula of slapstick humor + heartbreaking sadness = win.
In any event, the plays I wrote in order to destroy my fellow teachers and send their drama kids home in tears have been some of my best plays. The seven plays I wrote – Miss Polly’s Institute for Criminally Damaged Young Ladies Puts on a Show, Snappy’s Happy Half-Hour, The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon, The Audition, The Greek Mythology Olympiaganza, It’s not you, It’s me, and Oz, have now been produced more than 1,750 times. They’ve won competitions, sure, but more importantly, they’ve been enjoyed by countless audience members, which is actually the point.
And really, theatre isn’t and shouldn’t be football. But sometimes, when you put the word “competition” in front of it, it really does bring out the best in you.
And remember: theatre began as a competition. If the ancient Greeks hadn’t named winners, the world might be an entirely different place.
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/
I’ve worn a lot of theatrical hats over the years: actor, director, playwright, assistant to the assistant stage manager (I just wanted to go to the cast party), and one disastrous turn as prop designer. (Side note: I saw that car crash coming from miles away. Why didn’t anyone stop me from trying to build a phone instead of buying a phone?) But one thing stays the same: opening night is always a nerve-wracking, stomach-churning joy.
I say joy because I’ve been pretty lucky over the years. I’ve been involved in nearly a hundred opening nights now, and I don’t think I’ve ever had one be a complete disaster. Sure, there have been times when I’ve forgotten my lines as an actor, or we skipped five pages of the script on accident (which completely eliminated one person’s part – not fun!), or the bicycle we were supposed to ride zoomed off the stage and landed in the first row, but after every opening night, I still felt that mixture of relief and joy. I guess there’s a surge of dopamine in your brain that causes you to forget all the mistakes you’ve made, but overall, the worst case scenario never occurred.
As tough as it is to be an actor or the director, I think the playwright has it the worst. I recently attended the professional opening of my newest play, Current Economic Conditions, at the Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis, and it was pretty great, (if I do say so myself), but it was also just like every other opening night: a smorgasbord of neuroses.
I say “professional” as if it makes a difference. It really doesn’t. I felt the same way I felt when I was opening a show at the middle school, or in college. It goes like this:
First, I try to sit next to people who don’t know I’m the playwright. I don’t sit with friends. I try not to acknowledge people who wave at me and say, “if the show sucks, I’m blaming you!” (They actually say this. They are trying to be funny, but they say this! I usually want to respond with, “If the audience sucks, I blame you!” but I hold my tongue.) Now, if you’ve read this blog before, you realize that I’m an egotistical schmuck, but before the opening, I want to be anonymous. This allows me to hear honest opinions from people sitting next to me, and to escape unnoticed in the event of disaster. Really, though, it’s an act of bravery. Your friends and family will always tell you they like it (unless they’re my Dad – thanks Dad!), but random strangers will let you know if the play is actually any good.
I spend about ten minutes staring at the program. I don’t know why. I adjust my coat. I sit up unusually straight. My stomach creates an extraordinary amount of gurgling noises. Sometimes my head starts tingling – (I’m not sure if this like spiderman’s danger sense, or if I used the wrong shampoo, or it’s the feeling of my hair falling out – maybe all three.) At this point, I usually distract myself by counting audience members. I try to see if they’re already having a good time. I pray there’s a “big laugher” out there somewhere – (the “big laugher” is the second-best person you can have in the audience next to the rare and beautiful “weird laugher” who makes everyone else laugh because their laugh is strange).
The worst thing about being the playwright on opening night is that you have no control over anything that is about to happen. It’s like being strapped onto a rocket and told that it’s going to launch somewhere, but not being told where the actual destination is. At least as an actor, you can try to cover for someone if they forget their lines, or a director can give a pep talk at intermission, or the props guy can (well, okay, there’s nothing the props guy can do), but you have some tiny measure of influence over whether the night is a triumph or a disaster. As playwright, you just watch. And believe me, when an actor forgets his lines, and there’s a one minute pause on stage where nothing at all happens, the playwright suffers more than the actor. Mostly you think: Why didn’t I write a more memorable line!? What is wrong with me? Why am I so terrible!?
Anyway, the show begins and the actors can relax a bit while they perform. The playwright continues to suffer. It gets worse, because now, if I laugh at a particular joke and no one else does, I look like a total moron who laughs uproariously at their own jokes. On the other hand, if I don’t laugh, then I’m part of the reason the show is dying a slow death.
You would think the best part of the night is the applause at the end, but even then, there are things to be neurotic about. Is the audience clapping loudly enough? Are there enough people putting their hands over the heads and clapping? How many people are standing up? Why aren’t they standing up? Why is the reviewer leaving so quickly? Why can’t I stop worrying?
It’s like being Woody Allen for a night.
But then there’s joy. And relief. It’s over.
Until the second night.
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/
I was in a supermarket the other day and was shocked to learn that once again, I was not named People magazine’s sexiest man alive. How many times do I have to go through this? In any event, I plan to use this snub to fuel my creative process for years until that magazine comes to their senses and realizes that my sultry brown eyes and prominent forehead are every bit as attractive as that guy from The Hangover.
I’ve failed a lot in my life. A lot.
Anyone who tries to do something artistic, or something difficult, or something challenging, is going to face a lot of failure. If it were easy, everyone would do it. And the people who succeed are the people who allow failure to fuel them, rather than destroy them.
At this point, it’s easy to wander off into clichés. Such as:
Never give up. Ever. Even after you are dead. Especially not then.
I think we can all take a page from Hamlet’s father and realize that if he had given up after he had been poisoned and buried, he never would have gotten his hollow revenge from beyond the grave.
But clichés become clichés because they’re often true.
There are so many examples from my own life – here are a few:
- In college, I signed up to be in a short story writing class, and I was not even allowed to be enrolled in the class because my story was deemed to be too bad. (Who knew that a story about a talking bagel being attacked by a pigeon wouldn’t strike the fancy of the professor?) Now, I am a creative writing professor and I yearn for the day when someone writes a talking bagel story for me.
- I got rejected from every grad school I applied to. (except one.) In fact, one day I received a rejection letter from a school I really wanted to go to, and when I set it down, I realized I had also gotten a second rejection letter at the same time. I was so upset that I threw the opened letter as hard as I could against the wall. (Do you know what happens when you try to throw paper really hard? Yeah. A whole lot of stupid.)
- Every year my college gave out an award for the best humorous writing to a graduating senior. The year I entered, for the first time in a decade, no award was given because “no one was deemed worthy.” Yeah. That one stung.
I could go on and on. Now it’s not like I think about these perceived slights every day (only most days), but because the artistic life is so difficult, you need something to keep you going. And believe me, the desire to “show `em” is a pretty strong motivator. I still fantasize about those people who rejected me looking in the newspaper and cursing themselves as I win my fourth-consecutive Pulitzer Prize and, almost unimaginably, my second Nobel. Hopefully, they’ll all still be alive and will have just enough faculties left to rend their hair and wail piteously as I make yet another acceptance speech.
I want to make one other point, one that is perhaps less clichéd than my first point. Most of the time, the reason you fail isn’t because of other people not believing in you, it’s because you simply aren’t good enough at what you’re doing. I probably didn’t get into that short story writing class because my story was actually pretty bad, and I didn’t get into grad schools because my play wasn’t very good.
Happily for me, I got better. And the reason I got better is that instead of blaming everyone else (I blamed them a little bit), I also blamed myself. And while that can lead to lots of sad nights, it can also help you learn and improve. You can’t learn anything if you give up.
So – embrace failure. Learn from it. And show `em.
Darn you Bradley Cooper and your piercing blue eyes and boyish grin! (Notice, however, that we have an equal amount of scruff. Hmm.)
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Flipping through the TV channels or on a trip to the movies, you might notice that fairy tales are everywhere this fall. ABC and NBC are in on the action with Once Upon a Time and the darker Grimm, and last year’s Red Riding Hood was just the start of a slew of fairy tale films being produced for teenage audiences. Just outside our office here at Playscripts, Inc., a shiny two-story billboard has gone up, advertising Universal’s Snow White and the Huntsman--we can’t seem to get away! But then again, why would we want to? Fairy tales endure for a reason: they’re compellingly simple at times, but can also be deeply symbolic. They’re familiar, but also endlessly malleable, able to adapt for any audience or storyteller. It’s no wonder they’re making such a comeback on both the big and small screens. But take a look through the Playscripts, Inc. catalog, and you’ll find that fairy tales have been going strong on the stage for quite a while! In fact, with so many different types of fairy tale plays available through Playscripts, you won’t have any trouble finding a fairy tale adaptation that will work for you and your theatre’s needs. Whether you’re looking for short plays or full-length, plays performed for young audiences or by young people, or whether you want to create a fairy tale just for adults, here are some plays that will have your audience charmed:
For schools who’d like to give their young actors some fairy tale roles to chew on, but who aren’t looking to tell the familiar traditional tales, Jodi Picoult’s musical Over the Moon or the rollicking play The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon by Don Zolidis are both large-cast comedies that bring together characters from many different stories into one zany plot. Both shows are appropriate for schools, with Over the Moon recommended for middle and high school actors and audiences, and The Brothers Grimm Spectaculathon, available as a full-length play and as a one-act, recommended for high schoolers. High school fans of NBC’s crime drama Grimm will also get a kick out of Jonathan Rand’s Law and Order: Fairy Tale Unit, which combines comedy, crime, and big bad wolves galore. Forensic teams or one-act competitors will find a lot to love in Charming Princes by Emily C.A. Snyder, a clever and empowering Cinderella story with a twist, that runs only 15-25 minutes.
Community theatres or high school troupes interested in telling a more traditional story should take a look at Bob May’s Snow White and the Magic Mirror or Timothy Mason’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. These two tales draw less on Disney and more on their European ancestors for inspiration, and subtly update the tales for the stage while remaining true to their original forms. Both are full-length, and could be performed by either young actors or adults.
For adult troupes who perform for young audiences, a sure winner in the fairy tale category is Elizabeth Wong’s Amazing Adventures of the Marvelous Monkey King, a wild 45-minute comedy loosely based on Chinese folklore that is full of, as the main character says, “crazy excitement!” A darker, full-length take on Eastern folklore for young audiences is In a Grove: Four Japanese Ghost Stories by Eric Coble. These four haunting tales are not light fare, but can still be performed for a younger crowd, and give any audience a taste of magic. If comedy and more widely familiar tales are still your taste, Marjorie Sokoloff’s adaptation of Snow White, meant to be performed by children’s theatres, is a fun and forgiving look into the mind and motives of the evil Queen.
Finally, even adults get to have grown-up fun with fairy tales--why not?--in Billy Aronson’s “thoroughly bastardized,” dark comedy version of Little Red Riding Hood, in which any inappropriate insinuation is laid bare, and no path left un-wandered-from. At 20-40 minutes, this fairy tale is a delightful bit of adult nonsense.
So don’t let all the magic happen in Hollywood--there are fairy tales to be told by every kind of theatre group, for every kind of audience!
-- Cate Fricke, Playscripts Intern
Just over a month ago, I received a phone call from a prominent Artistic Director at a major regional theatre. (As you can imagine, this is something like getting a phone call from Santa Claus.) It went something like this:
PROMINENT ARTISTIC DIRECTOR: What are you working on right now?
ME: Oh lots of things. Lots and lots of things. So many things it would blow your mind.
PROMINENT ARTISTIC DIRETOR: Can you send me a copy of a new play?
ME: Um… Yeah, just give me three or four weeks.
PROMINENT ARTISTIC DIRETOR: Great. We want to choose our season for next year by the end of the month.
Now, as you may have guessed from my suspicious use of the ellipsis, there was no such play in the works. At that moment in time I had exactly nothing in the works. I had essentially given myself four weeks to write a new play from scratch worthy of production at a major regional theatre. Not easy.
So, faced with an impossible deadline and the highest stakes imaginable, I did what I always do: procrastinate. I spent some time on facebook, I commented on writing forums I had no business commenting on, I checked the baseball stats from the 1985 season (I wish I were making this up – I was actually doing this), and generally wasted time until panic set in.
Panic is usually enough to get me going. I spent three weeks in panic mode, wrote about forty-five single-spaced pages of terrible notes, started and abandoned three terrible plays, and spent quite a bit of time smashing my head against the floor in hopes that such an action would result in a fine, well-made play that would win me awards and make me famous.
When I don’t have a good idea, my thought process usually goes like this:
I suck. I suck. I am a fraud. Coyotes will devour my corpse.
That was my mental state on Wednesday, two days before my deadline, with a pile of unusable garbage on my computer, and coyotes circling ever nearer. Then, as fate would have it, I came up with something. I can boil it down to this: I let go and decided to just have fun.
Fun is important. It’s what got me into playwriting in the first place. When I was writing ten-minute plays in college, the entire point was to make people laugh (and theoretically make one of the pretty girls in the audience laugh so much that she would fall in love with me). I had a lot of fun doing that, and over the month that I was breaking my brain trying to come up with something, I had forgotten about fun.
So I went for fun. And the idea came to me. Now, when I have a good idea, my thought process is this:
I am awesome. I am the best ever. I will eat those coyotes for lunch.
Happily, by the time I’m done with the play, I usually settle somewhere in the middle so I’m not completely insufferable.
Anyway, even armed with a great idea and convinced of my own awesomeness, 48 hours is too short a time period to write a 100-page play, so I begged for three more days and got them, and hammered out a play in five days. I don’t mention the five days by way of bragging, remember it took 30 days of mind-smashing to get to my five days, and eighteen years of writing for the theatre to get to those 30 days
The point, which I had forgotten, is that you can’t think of the outcome when you’re writing. You can’t say, “I’m going to write a funny and beautiful play that will be loved by all and provide jobs for six actors and win the Pulitzer Prize and some other kind of award that hasn’t even been invented yet.” If you think that way, you paralyze yourself.
I sent the play in. The Prominent Artistic Director read it with his actors, loved it, and might just produce it. Whew.
Now if I only I had another idea.
Here’s an artist’s rendition of me writing a play and thinking about how awesome I am
--by Don Zolidis
Visit Don's website: http://www.donzolidis.com/
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I think it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I’ve done a lot of stupid things over the years. I’m going to limit this to my experiences as a director of my own work, though, to narrow it down.
To start with, I’ll admit that I’m not a great director. I’m decent enough at getting good performances out of actors, but I made a lot of mistakes in my first years. Here’s a few of them.
1. Use plastic chairs to stand in for your set. At the middle school, I didn’t have a shop. I didn’t even have a hint of a shop. There was no wood. So, if I needed a bed, I put three plastic chairs next to each other and draped them in a blanket. Problem solved. If I needed a coffee table, I tipped one of the plastic chairs over and put it in front of the couch, (which was also made of three plastic chairs next to each other.) The only thing I didn’t use plastic chairs for were walls, which I conveniently left off.
2. Tell kids to "find their own costume". Another facet of having no budget was having no costume budget. Our "costume closet" was really an underground space where someone left a pair of sweatpants once. Incidentally, that pair of sweatpants appeared on stage frequently. Of course, I hoped that kids would be able to find their own costumes and bring in amazing things. As you can imagine, results varied widely. Sometimes parents would spend hours and hours carefully crafting a tapeworm costume, (not kidding), or other times kids would bring in a pair of jeans to play Santa Claus. Some of my first shows looked pretty darn ugly.
3. Don’t practice lights and sound. I was lucky enough to have a light board – which was connected by a cable to backstage, so I could operate the lights by standing to the side of the stage. We had six areas we could use and no colored lights. If I turned all the lights out, the entire theatre went pitch black (which caused two things to happen simultaneously: 1. The middle school audience starts to scream "ooooh!" with the teachers threatening to send everyone to the office, and 2. One of the actors trips over a plastic chair thereby destroying the entire set and making a lot of noise.) My “sound system” was a boombox that I placed in front of the stage. Again, without practicing this, (and since I was both light op, sound op, director, and playwright), I made quite a few gaffes.
4. Don’t time your show. Our plays were normally performed during the school day, which meant they had to fit into a 50-minute class period. It usually took nearly twenty minutes to get three or four hundred middle school kids seated, so realistically, our plays needed to be thirty minutes or less. Well, since we were just finishing shows right before performances, I never had the time to actually see how long they really were. Most performances I kept one eye on the boombox, one eye on the light board, and one eye on the clock. I was never worried we were going to forget our lines; I was terrified that the bell was going to cut us off. (Because once that bell rings, it doesn’t matter if someone is saying, "and the killer is –" the kids are going to charge out of the theatre like a rampaging herd of water buffalo.
I didn’t make all of these mistakes for every show. In fact, I got a lot better at things. I started paying attention to costumes. I started finding ingenious ways to build sets – (I made an entire forest out of nine Christmas trees one year) – I managed to get some band kids to run light and sound (band kids are trustworthy, and they’re usually passing all of their classes, so you can pull them out to run the show.)
Eventually, I even figured out how to relax during the play. A little bit. Just remember: even if you have a great script (which I always did, thank you very much) and even if you’ve got a bunch of great actors (which I always did), mood and atmosphere are crucial to a truly exceptional show.
--by Don Zolidis
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