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6 Questions with Dean O’Carrol, Author of the “Sally Cotter” Series

Dean O’Carroll’s Sally Cotter and the Quest We Follow, the third in a trilogy of satirical plays about fandom, fantasy, and a certain magical book series, was published last month. We sat down with the author to talk Harry Potter, high school theatre, and the art of writing parody.

Sally Cotter and the Quest We FollowWhat was the inspiration for this series of plays?

I was a Harry Potter fan from fairly early on. I had been writing children’s plays for a few years, always based on fairy tales or books that were in the public domain. I wanted to do a straightforward adaptation of the Potter books that could be staged by schools or small theaters. I even wrote to J. K. Rowling to ask for permission. I didn’t expect to get any response, but some of her “people” did respond, saying the rights weren’t available at that time. I wasn’t kidding myself that I would ever get the rights when they did become available, of course, but I was touched that they bothered writing.

Then in 2007, shortly after the last book came out and Potter mania was at an all-time high, I got the idea to do a parody. You don’t need permission for that. Growing up, I loved Mad Magazine, Weird Al Yankovic, and I really loved a self-parody Marvel Comics put out called Peter Porker the Spectacular Spider-Ham. The idea of parody always really appealed to me. Everything needs a little ribbing now and then, and it was a chance to exercise the sillier side of my comic instincts. And it would allow young people interested in theatre to play parts that were ALMOST like their favorite ones from the books they love.

So I started coming up with parody names like Harmonica and Professor Underdrawers (I think I was going to call him Professor Stumblebum but then I found that a different Potter parody had used that). At first I thought I would write one play that parodied all seven books. But I realized that play would have been about five hours long and there was plenty to parody in just the first two books, so I used those as the basis for Sally Cotter and the Censored Stone. I figured I could address all seven books in three plays, so I saw this as a trilogy from pretty early on. I recently found my old notes for the original one-play-for-seven-books idea and it included a joke I finally got to use in Quest We Follow.

I used the framing device of Sally dreaming the play to allow for more meta jokes about the fandom experience, and I put in the Censor character both to parody the weird ways the world was resistant to the Potter phenomenon and to address some of my own anxiety that J. K. Rowling or Warner Brothers might not be too happy about the play. I even contacted a friend of mine who is in entertainment law and asked if I could get in any trouble for this. He assured me it would probably be okay. And almost eight years later the play has been produced more than 100 times and nobody has come knocking.

I sat on the script for more than a year. I tried to get some theaters I had worked with interested and they weren’t, for whatever reason. So I took the then-unusual step for me of going straight to a publisher with the script. I knew Playscripts was an excellent organization that was really working to bring theatrical publishing into the twenty-first century. I found out just before Christmas of 2008 that they wanted to publish the play and it was in the catalog the following fall.

I wrote Prisoner of Ala Katraz shortly thereafter. One thing I heard from places that staged Censored Stone is that they wished I had included parodies of more of the characters. Some of them stuck in their own versions of the Weasley twins or Professor McGonagall, which was okay by me, but I could see a need I could fulfill. So I found ways to include a lot more parody characters in Prisoner, even if it was just a line or two. With a phenomenon like Potter, every character is somebody’s favorite. After a performance I saw, I had an actress tell me I had helped her fulfill a lifelong ambition by getting to play a version of Luna Lovegood. “My” Luna only has two lines in the whole trilogy, but for this girl it really meant something.

It took me forever to write the finale, Quest We Follow, because since I finished Prisoner, my wife and I have had four kids. I’m a stay-at-home parent, so finding time to write has been tricky. There’s a baby crawling on me as I write this. But I’m figuring out how to make it work.

The experience has been one of the best of my professional life. I try to email every production on opening night to wish them “break a leg.” I usually get very nice responses and sometimes they’ll send me production photos for the Facebook page. I have several t-shirts in my drawers from productions across the country. I’ve also done a lot to promote the plays in the Potter fandom and I’ve met some wonderful people whose passion for the books has driven them to accomplish some really impressive feats—whether it’s Melissa Anelli founding LeakyCon and BroadwayCon, or Andrew Slack starting the Harry Potter Alliance, or all these people creating Wizard Rock, I find it truly inspiring.

How do you approach writing parody?

When I was a kid I would write skits or comic books and I thought parody just meant imitating the source beat-for-beat but giving everything a silly pun name. That might get you a few laughs, but it’s like a burger that’s all ketchup, no patty. Maybe that’s okay if you’re parodying a three-minute song or if your parody will be a short skit for a talent show. But if it’s going to be as long as a full-length play, you really need to have a point of view about the source material.

Of course a lot of parody is about mocking the source material. But most of the things I’ve chosen to parody are books and movies I love and respect—Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Star Wars—so my “mockery” is little more than gentle teasing, like “there sure is a lot of camping in Deathly Hallows! Ha ha!” The exception is my play New Kids at Vampire High. It’s partly a parody of the Twilight series, which has a lot of good qualities, but I am troubled by the gender dynamics and the messages I think it sends to its readers, especially young women. So that parody is a bit more aggressive.

The other way I try to put a little more protein on the burger is to have a real theme for each play—so Sally Cotter and the Censored Stone is about the power of a good book. Prisoner of Ala Katraz is about the complexities of friendship. Quest We Follow is about moving on and growing up. Humor Games is about finding yourself. Star Stars is . . . well, you’ll see in a few months when it’s published, but it’s a fairly Star Wars-specific story about passing a story from generation to generation, which is something I think about a lot now that my kids are old enough to enjoy the things I loved as a kid, sometimes in their original forms and sometimes in their latest iterations. I should say that these plays are 90 percent ridiculousness and maybe 10 percent heart, but I think that 10 percent gives the people staging the play a little more to sink their teeth into and, I hope, will send the audience away with a bit more than just an evening of fleeting gags.

As for some of the specifics of writing parody, I love coming up with the parody names of people and things. I have a few approaches for that. Sometimes a name is just a silly sound-alike, like Hermione becoming Harmonica or Rubeus Hagrid becoming Reubenon Ryebread. Sometimes I’ll look at what the author was doing with a character’s name and try to play a similar game. The second my wife heard the name Remus Lupin, she said “So he’s a werewolf, right?” So my version of Lupin is a vampire named Dr. Acula Nosferat. And I like to sneak in references, so Katniss Everdeen becomes Katskills Wintergreen, Katskills for the old resorts in the Catskills mountains famous for “borscht belt” comedy, and Wintergreen after John P. Wintergreen, the lead character in Of Thee I Sing, the first musical comedy ever to win a Pulitzer Prize. Since it’s largely about the power of comedy, Humor Games is full of references to a lot of old comedy. My mother is a historian and when she read the script she thought she should write a concordance to explain all the references, though I don’t think you need to understand them all to appreciate the play—I don’t think anybody could get ALL of them, unless they happen to live in my brain.

When you’re parodying a plot you need to look at the source and think what plot elements you can cover with broad strokes and what specific moments you should send up. Katniss volunteering to take Prim’s place is such an iconic moment that I knew I had to parody it directly, and absurdly, since Katskills has to smear pie all over her face to save her sister. But other things you can cover in one fell swoop—the whole plot of Catching Fire gets pretty much boiled down to the first five minutes of Act Two in Humor Games. And, of course, I try not to stick too closely to the story of the original, or it stops being a parody and becomes an unauthorized adaptation.

How did you first get into theatre?

I grew up with it. My father is an actor and so is his younger brother, my uncle. I grew up seeing both of them act in a local summer stock that did children’s plays in the morning and stock classics—Neil Simon, George S. Kaufman, Agatha Christie, etc.—at night. When I could, I would tag along to rehearsals, too, and I loved seeing the whole process. Eventually, when local theaters and colleges were doing a play that had a part for a kid, they started saying “Hey, doesn’t the O’Carroll family have a boy about the right age for this part?” So I acted a lot in local stuff, usually with college-age actors.

In high school I started writing plays too, and when I went to college it was pretty clear that I had plenty of classmates who were better actors than I was, but not as many were writing plays. So that became my focus.

All this time, I was spending summers at that same summer-stock theater, acting and eventually writing adaptations for the children’s theatre.

Why do you think high school theatre is important?

I don’t think I’d be adding anything to the conversation if I said what so many other people have said about it giving kids an outlet for creative expression, though I agree with that wholeheartedly. Better people than I have explained how it broadens horizons and encourages you to look at the world in different ways. I probably don’t need to tell you how students putting on a play often learn about history, art, philosophy, and literature along the way (not to mention all the practical, technical, and artistic skills they can pick up from working backstage). And I actually don’t want to encourage any young people to pursue theatre as a career because it’s incredibly difficult and full of heartbreak, disappointment, and poverty—seriously, it’s okay to get a regular job and do community theatre at night.

So I’ll say the reason why I love high school theatre. It’s fun. All of my best memories from high school are from doing plays and from hanging out with the friends I made doing those plays. And the thought that my plays could be bringing today’s students as much fun as I had back then is tremendously heartwarming.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

All the things you usually hear are great advice. Read a lot, and a wide variety of material. Write every day.

A few things I don’t hear quite as often:

Be willing to throw things away if they don’t work. Don’t kill yourself trying to fix something that isn’t worth fixing.

“Write what you know” is somewhat dangerous advice because a lot of young writers don’t really know that much. Telling them to write what they know can result in a lot of navel-gazing plays about young playwrights trying to write plays. My modification is “write what you care about.” Everybody has some theme or topic they’re passionate about. Your audience will appreciate that passion coming through in your writing. Don’t think that passion has to be about something “important.” If you can write a compelling play about climate change, bravo. But if you’re really upset that your local sandwich place always uses too much mayonnaise, you can bring an audience into that drama, too.

Writers love words, and they should. (I highly recommend studying Latin to learn more about words.) But remember that you don’t just write words, you write WITH words. Words are the tools you use to express a story, a thought, a feeling, what have you. As you can see from my parodies, I love words and wordplay, but I need to remind myself that it can’t just be “words, words, words,” as Hamlet put it.

Learn the rules before you break them. I know we all want to revolutionize our art form and do things no one has done before. But you need to have some understanding of convention and tradition before you overthrow them. Picasso was a gifted realistic painter before he became PICASSO. So read Aristotle’s Poetics. Learn about dramatic action, about a three-act structure. See why these things work. Maybe try imitating them for a little while. Then you can take the training wheels off and change the world.

Plays can be funny, sad, scary, realistic, surreal . . . anything. The only thing an audience will insist upon is a journey. They want to be taken somewhere. We don’t have a lot of communal experiences left in modern life, so sitting in a theater and going on a journey with your fellow audience members is rare and special. Your audience won’t mind if you take them somewhere brand new or somewhere they’ve been before. They won’t mind if you drop them off at the end in exactly the same place they were when they came in. They will only mind if they feel like you leave on your journey without them. We’ve all seen that play where the cast seems like they’re off in some wild world but the audience is sitting their tapping their feet. Audiences only get bored when they feel like they’re left out.

And lastly, if you’re writing a play, the script is only the beginning. You are in constant collaboration with actors, directors, designers, and audiences. Don’t ever get too married to what you think your play is supposed to look like in your head. You’ll be denying yourself the great, scary, thrilling surprises of your art form.

Have you seen the new Harry Potter play?

No. With four children under the age of seven, jetting off to London is not in the cards for me at the moment. I have read it, though, and I liked it very much. And I’m grateful that the one-two punch of that and the Fantastic Beasts movie have brought Potter mania back in force. There had been a slight droop in productions of the Sally plays in 2015, but they’ve had a major comeback this school year. The fact that Harry is onstage and in people’s minds probably has a lot to do with that.

Cursed Child has a particular resonance for me. I know a lot of kids and now young and not-so-young adults who felt like they grew up with Harry—like maybe they read Sorcerer’s Stone when they were 11, just like Harry is in the books. I was already in college when the first books were published so these were always “books about a kid” not “books about me” except for my ability to think back to my own adolescence. But I turned 40 last summer and suddenly here’s a play with a 40-year-old Harry Potter. It felt like “Hey, he caught up!”

Dean O’Carroll is a playwright and satirist who has had plays produced in more than 40 states, and four continents.

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