|[Note: Doug Rand wrote this article in May 1999, before he and his brother Jonathan decided to formally establish Playscripts, Inc. as a new publishing company. The first Playscripts catalog was launched in March 2000.]|
Have some candy
The internet turns a short play into a global phenomenon
Doug Rand, Dramatics magazine
|My little brother has conquered the English-speaking world, bless his heart. It was about two years ago that Jonathan phoned me up at college, and the ball got rolling. "The spring show's going along okay," he said, "But the deadline for the Night of One-Acts is coming up and I have no idea what to write."
"You've got to write something," I told him. "Once you've put pen to paper, who knows how far it could go?"
I was being the big brother, and speaking from what I fancied to be my vast knowledge of successful playwriting. Back in high school (Stanton College Prep in Jacksonville, Florida), I'd put together a parody of Greek drama for the first annual Night of One-Acts. A few years and a publishing contract later, The Idiot and the Oddity had received productions in high schools as far away as the remote wilds of Canada. Why not expect Jonathan to enjoy similar success?
So I offered brotherly encouragement as Jonathan spun a simple sketch into a coherent string of scenes about ludicrous job interviews. I was psyched with brotherly excitement when this one-act, Hard Candy, squeaked by the district festival on its way to the next level -- just like mine had. I swelled with brotherly respect when Jonathan's revisions earned him a superior rating at the Florida State Thespian Festival -- just like mine did. I beamed with brotherly glee when he was named a finalist in the Thespian Playworks competition, worked with a professional dramaturg at the International Thespian Festival, saw his play published in this very magazine (October 1998), and started receiving production requests -- again, the same success I'd enjoyed. By this point, Jonathan had just started college, and he had the notion to put his play on the internet. This is where our stories start to seriously diverge.
Last November I visited Jonathan at school, entirely unaware that I was standing in the swollen womb of an international commercial nerve center. "The fall show was pretty fun," he said, "but I'm having problems with Hard Candy. It's impossible for me to figure out who's actually looking at my website."
Jonathan had a link on his university-sponsored personal homepage that zapped visitors to the full text of Hard Candy. He'd stuck a little counter on the bottom of the page, and although there were plenty of hits, he had no idea who these visitors were, or whether they liked what they saw. If they did want to produce the play, of course, it would be a simple matter of hitting "Print" and giving the cast some freshly-pirated scripts, bringing neither glory nor money to poor young Jon-Jon.
"You're giving people too much," I suggested. "Maybe you should put just the first four or so scenes on the web page. If folks like this little teaser, they can e-mail you to get the rest." People could still rip him off, of course, but at least he'd know that they were interested.
This idea was my sole contribution to the subsequent global takeover. Jonathan did more than make a teaser; he set up a well-spun net. His first tactic was to get himself listed by the Yahoo search engine. At this very moment, were you to type "one-act" or "high school comedy" or "candy, hard" at the Yahoo prompt, here's what you would get: "Hard Candy: a one-act comedy envisioned for high schools and low-budget theatre organizations."
This pitch, along with its product, quickly started to do strange and effective things. Requests to see the full play rolled in from all over North America and from other places. Places that were far, far away. Every few days, Jonathan e-mails our family with the latest round of the Nation Game: Lola from Kyrgyzstan dropped a line. The Banana Research Institute in Taiwan expressed interest. The Dhahran Theatre Group at the Saudi Aramco Oil Company wanted to see more (though I have difficulty believing that they're a low-budget organization).
But with international popularity came intercultural conflict. Jonathan hadn't quite written the play to make sense within all creeds, customs, and contexts. Fortunately, however, many eager overseas script-doctors were happy to fix any obscure Americanisms. Thus, in the U.K., "I was starting quarterback at Idaho U" became "I was scrum half for Southampton Uni," and Hard Candy itself turned into Boiled Sweets. An all-girls school in Taiwan censored a scene involving a Chippendale dancer, for the sake of casting limitations and good taste, yet inserted a rather racy female striptease. Jonathan's still waiting to hear how the play went over in Kyrgyzstan.
I've been lucky enough to enjoy some international travel this year, doing research from New Zealand to Australia to South Africa to the U.K. -- and no matter where I wander, every destination has felt the inescapable kiss of Hard Candy. It has been read by more than four thousand hooked-up play-hunters in Ireland and England, Israel and Lebanon, Yugoslavia and Bosnia, and beyond. It has received over one hundred confirmed productions, bringing poor young Jon-Jon more than two thousand dollars to date -- a better deal than most campus jobs, hands down. With this much exposure, why go to a publisher?
My own play's success wasn't simply outstripped by Jonathan's -- it was obliterated. And how do I feel about lurking in my little brother's shadow, you may wonder?
When the St. Mary's School puts up their production of Hard Candy in Perth this month, I want a front-row seat.
Doug Rand was a Thespian Playworks finalist in 1994, the first year of the student playwriting program.