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I really appreciate Playscripts and their work toward creating better theater and theater experiences for all. Jay Muldoon Theater Teacher, Fairfield, OH
General Information
Full-Length Plays For Student Actors

After nearly a decade’s steady diet of university theater productions in which at least one actor if not dozens required aging via makeup and mounds of gray hairspray, I got it into my head to write a play where no such tricks were required––where young actors could play people their own age.  The result was Acts of God (now published by Playscripts, Inc.), in which a dozen high schoolers cope with the emotional detritus of an F-3 tornado strike.

My dislike of forcing young actors to “play age” has not diminished.  Since the advent of Acts, I have penned four full-length efforts where adults, “Peanuts”-style, are largely left out.  My considerations in tackling these scripts are quite different than when I conjure plays for “grown up” theaters.  To wit:

1) When writing for a professional company, economics necessitates a small cast.  When writing a play intended for college or school groups, the exact opposite is true.  How will we train our next generation of stage artists if we only write one- and two-handers?

2) When designing plays to be produced by cash-strapped schools, I have to consider the possibility that the producing venue might have a very limited budget.  Thus, it behooves me to rely heavily on props, the kind that can be found at garage and rummage sales.  The sets I devise (or should devise) are flexible, dependent not on great big flats or slamming doors but on negative space, the clever use of lighting and sound, and scenarios sufficiently powerful to lift an audience (I hope) out of its natural state of cultivated disbelief.

3) When thinking about young actors and casting, it seems to be an ongoing fact that more girls than boys are ready to audition.  It’s my job, then, to write a play that’s easy to cast––or, as my mentor Chris Kazan once said, “Write parts that actors want to play”––girls included.

4) When writing for school systems, I must consider the possibility that they have no lighting grid other than a table lamp, no sound system besides a boom box, and no control over their environment beyond, perhaps, the closing of doors.  So what can I offer?  Challenging material, first of all, with strong emotional stakes.  The play has to be about the situation and what its characters stand to lose, not about technological gimmickry which, let’s face it, can be outdone any day of the week by Hollywood (or even, most days, by the worst app on my iPhone).

5) Make ‘em laugh.

Now that I’ve laid down the law, here’s how my post-Acts efforts break the above rules.  (Not that I had any choice; the muses made me do it.)

Nightjars, with a large cast of seventeen, quickly found a production slot at the Y.E.S. Festival (Northern Kentucky University, 2009), but has failed to find a publisher or a second home.  I cannot entirely account for this.  It contains what to me is the finest scene I have ever written, one that I cannot read without crying.

These Lonely Daughters of Liberty has gone nowhere except back into a bottom drawer where it will hopefully never again be read by man, woman or beast.  It’s an attempt to tell the story of a high school girl whose father is an Aryan Nations survivalist, but it’s a bad play.  With a cast of seven (one adult, six teens) it should have worked like gangbusters.  It didn’t.  It doesn’t.

Two much newer efforts remain largely untested.  Ten Red Kings deals with on-line gaming addiction, and its collegiate heroine, Margot, is sent in short order to a wilderness-style rehab camp.  No phones.  No computers.  No iPods.  Margot, a skilled World of Warcraft player, is so close to her on-line avatar that said avatar, Nightwatch, becomes part of the on-stage action (along with several trolls and a smitten wizard who thinks Nightwatch is the hottest thing since butter).  By story’s end, Margot is back at home and ready to put the brakes on gaming, but Nightwatch, unsurprisingly, has other ideas.

So here’s a story that speaks, I hope, to young people’s actual experience.  The subject is certainly ripe for hilarity, but it’s also quite serious, and I have made no attempt to provide a pat ending.  Margot, just like an alcoholic waging an ongoing tug-of-war with drink, is engaged in a battle that will last a lifetime.  Is this appropriate for teen drama?  Absolutely.  Teens, like most savvy adults, know that the really hard questions don’t come with ready-made answers, and they are rightly suspicious of those who provide them.

Not that the close of Ten Red Kings is grim.  It isn’t.  Negativity isn’t any more useful in theater than is Pollyanna optimism.

What else does Ten Red Kings offer?  A flexible set designed around a few primitive benches, a “window,” a campfire circle, and a computer hutch or desk.  The play also requires computers and peripherals, several fairly specific masks, and, to top it all off, a lethal-looking sword.  I have rationalized my inclusion of these items as being A) artistically necessary, and B) less expensive, even in aggregate, than a “kitchen sink” set.

That takes us to My United Nations.  Like Ten Red Kings, the play features a female lead and a mid-size cast (eleven).  One character is intended to be played by a real adult, not a student; the rest play high schoolers.  Samantha (Sam) Morgan is having trouble keeping her facts straight.  Is she the Secretary General of the United Nations, or is she simply the Secretary General for her school’s Model United Nations, an involved but ultimately “pretend” after-school club?  Either way, her classmates are behaving very strangely, as is her assistant, and there’s a voice in her head urging her to do some very scary things.  Act Two begins on a quieter note, with Sam admitting to her in-hospital psychiatrist that she understands she is a schizophrenic, and that at least half of what she’s been experiencing is delusional.  The question becomes, will continuing her United Nations scenario put her fantasies to rest, or will they send her permanently over the edge?

With My United Nations, I have shucked off my rule about solid sets.   The play requires a realistic interior––half classroom, half hospital ward––together with one window and two firmly emplaced doors, one to be used by those who inhabit Sam’s fantasies, the other by those who are undeniably real (her physician, et al.).

Further, to really make the set successful, Sam should have a hospital bed.  An impossible build for a high school, yes, but not so hard to rent (from a medical supply company).  Is the play appropriately cheap to produce?  Overall, probably still.  At least it’s not a “costume drama,” requiring rentals of everything from ballroom gowns to top hats and bustles.  But I have clearly strayed from the straight and narrow of my own precious playbook.  (Wretched muses.  It’s all their fault!)

So, in terms of sensible playwright behavior, I’ll give myself a B+ (or a C- if we count These Lonely Daughters…, which I do not).  And of course I’m hoping that the dramatic merits of each piece outweigh any and all set-related, cost-related or cast-related drawbacks.  Ten Red Kings has drawn serious consideration from two colleges so far, but is not yet set in stone for anyone’s season.  My United Nations is too new to have reached beyond my basement office, although its first concert reading will be scheduled shortly (relying, as I always do, on the perennially talented performance majors at the University of Evansville).

Will either play follow in the footsteps of Acts of God, and appear under the auspices of either Playscripts, Inc. or some other publisher?  Perhaps.  But the Catch-22 of theater remains firmly in place: To get published, a play must first be produced.  And to be produced, a play must first be published.

Now, if anyone would care to step forward and break that fateful chain, please, give me a shout.  That’s how Acts of God got going.  Two venues, the Evansville Civic Theatre (Evansville, IN), and Thomas Worthington High School (Worthington, OH) agreed to produce Acts despite its newness and despite my, at the time, marginal track record.  (Thank you, Chris Tyner, and thank you, Bronwynn Hopton!)

Time now for me to get back to work.  A grown-up piece, my current project, all of ten minutes long, featuring a state-employed arborist attempting to measure a whopper of an oak.  Will it be good?  Or, more to the point, will it have a cast of thousands, or require an on-stage tree the size of a house?  I surely hope not.

Until next time, dream hard.  Write harder.

"Acts of God" - King's West High School, 2009 (Photo by Peggy Whelan)

–by Mark Rigney

Mark Rigney is the author of Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets and a Classic American Musical (Gallaudet U. Press), some thirty-five published stories and numerous plays including Acts of God, Cavers, Roots in a Grey Garden, Bears and Burning Mona Lisa in the Reptile House (winner of the 2004 Panowski Playwriting Contest).

Visit Mark’s website: http://www.markrigney.net

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