Here’s the pitch: Claire is an unpaid intern at the Forever Christmastown, a holiday-based theme park in the style of a ren faire in rural Bastrop County, Texas. She’s excited for this job because she’s been told her entire life that Santa is her father. Unfortunately, the Forever Christmastown is known more for problems with wild boars and accidents, and while an Alamo-inspired play seems to be the key to bringing audience members to the park, it’s a viral miracle that brings forth a Santa-worshipping, uh, cult-like group of followers. Pretty soon, things spin out of control.
Currently, characters include Chewy the Elf, Santa Tyler, Mrs. Claus, Crispy the Snowman, Comet and Blitzen, and Santacolytes. Future drafts will add a bit more to the population.
Now, one thing making theatre from scratch with a group of teenagers teaches you is how to avoid the sunk-cost fallacy. I spent the first couple weeks devising around a different play, and I had to pivot when the words on the page felt dead, and I think about how the temptation would have been to keep throwing energy at a project that was falling apart. Deadlines have a way of doing that, particularly when the stakes are high, at least artistically.
If you’re reading this blog for advice on creating work with young actors, then please take that – one of the keys to making thing happen is to be conscious of the sunk-cost fallacy, be wary of it, and find ways to test yourself. I have my own tricks when I need to figure out if I’m putting money into a lemon – find out what works for you.
I have a handful of productions going up in various corners of the country, and it’s truly delightful. Even as we’re delaying Small Steps, the work for young people finds homes. Last week, I had a conversation with a director producing The Apocalypse Project whose students had a handful of suggestions for ways to edit and evolve the text. When I was younger and more insecure, I don’t think my ego could have handled that, but I’d asked for their thoughts. Some edits are specific to the group, some will wind up canon, and others I pushed back on, but it felt exciting to collaborate from such distances.
We’re deep into the creation process of the high school fall show now, and it’s a delight. We start rehearsals by turning traditional vocal warm-ups (“To sit in solemn silence…”) into Christmas carols and stumbling through improvised and Texas-specific versions of “Twelve Days of Tex-Mas”. (“On the first day of Tex-Mas my true love gave to me: a $50 Salt Lick gift card”). I’ve been handing out character descriptions and having the actors improvise specific ideas for scenes, and I’m 100% certain we’ll be sick of Christmas by the time the show goes up.
Incidentally, while we’ll be producing this in December, I would love to see someone tackle this in May.
One of the challenges of working with an ensemble is navigating between the world/words I create and the material that I co-create with the student actors. Do you write the scene that’s in your head, or do you wait and see what the actors make? Last year the challenges of hybrid teaching meant that I created more material myself from scratch than usual, and I am having to relearn folding the devising-with-ensemble into the process. And I wonder, I send this question to the void, who else contemplates these questions in their praxis?
Well, Covid caught up with Small Steps. We’re delaying the world premier after an actor had a breakthrough infection. No one else caught it in our rehearsal room, so that’s good. Masks and vaccinations worked.
THE APOCALYPSE PROJECT
In addition to the college, a couple high schools are producing The Apocalypse Project. It’s a play about young people living in an apocalypse that wasn’t their fault, eating dirt, and hearing the words, “go on, my dears.” Y’all gotta know that it means the world for get that one out there a bit. And if masks are needed, they fit the world.
The Hyde Park Theatre workshop was a blast, and a new draft has emerged. Check it out here. It’s certainly for far more mature audiences.
THE NEW PLAY STUFF
In other news, I’ve started my newest play for teenagers with my high school collaborators. Austin moving to Covid Stage 5 – which is the “there are negative ICU beds available in Travis County” stage – means the theatre space remains storage and we’ve built an outdoor theatre so I can safely make work this semester.
We decided to produce a comedy. I have never written a broad slapstick play for the high schoolers, and an outdoor space works. The concept will involve Christmas and theme parks.
After a month of playing around and creating the messy stuff, we’re at a point where the devising can start to hone in on specific stories and characters. I’m asking the young folks to bring in ‘tropes’ from holiday narratives, from which we’ll mine characters to smash into each other in improvised scenes.
Before we crank out this list, we’ll begin with a narrative-building improv warm-up that teaches heightening. It’s pretty simple: go around the circle and come up with a series of escalating rumors about the setting.
We’ll even have some Christmas cookies…
The cookies could be important. One of the keys to working this way is for the young actors/student/collaborator to not feel like they’re pressured to perform – that we’re goofing around being silly when we’re creating story and character.
After dozens of plays, I have a good grasp of my process. I know how long things take. That said, this calendar-based creativity has the potential to compromise the art, couldn’t it? Theatre takes time, and I could see the rigorous schedule as potentially harmful. Instead of introspection or expression, there’d be filler.
But I am an anxious creature, which means that deadlines have always been my greatest ally. Even in grad school, deadlines cut through my perfectionism.
Make a choice.
Make it now.
Make it good.
Get the words down. Get them on the page.
On your mark. Get ready. Go.
I’ll see you on the other side of the draft.
If you want a quick spreadsheet for easy access to my work for teens, check it out here.
And for a downloadable PDF of my catalogue of theatre-for-teens, check it out here.
I’ve completed a post-show revision, uploaded it to the NPX, and created a page for it. I’ll do a post mort breakdown of the development process as a resource for theatre educators / collaborative theatremakers, but first I have to edit/upload the videos so the community can see it.
I’m also working with Acme Theatre Company to do a 10-hour workshop of the play this summer. Every play needs a few voices, including this alt Ren faire, 80s fantasy, immersive bonkers play.
I finally figured out my ending and my title for the newest middle school play. On the Other Side of the Mirror.
As I’ve mentioned, this play takes place in two locations on campus simultaneously. On one side, we see Nigel, who wants to slay the dragon; on the other, we see Geeri, who wants to use the dragon to enhance his sorcery.
I stumbled on the ending for a while. It’s hard to end two stories simultaneously when each one has the same weight and the audience hasn’t seen half. Because it’s a play where the audience moves, the audience takes on roles in the narrative, albeit passive, and I think I found a way to get it to work.
Below is a draft of the poster, created by a student. The black boxes cover places where there will be edits.
A few weeks ago, I was feeding my addiction to social media when I was supposed to be working on a play for middle schoolers.
It was the project’s fault, you see! It was kicking my ass. The play is site-specific and has the audience divided into two as they follow parallel stories on opposite sides of the campus. So, hard, you know?
An so when an old friend on facebook reposted a meme, I pounced on an opportunity to distract myself.
Sure, I should have been tapping away a tale of an odyssey involving a dragon around the fictional New Dominoso, but I started writing a response… and I kept going.
I screenshot posted to Twitter, mostly for my friend Justin and a couple other folks.
Then it blew up.
I’d never had anything go viral before. And the responses have been overwhelmingly positive.
Usually I see the internet loving snark and incisive owns, tear downs or controversy. This was the opposite. I learned one of the original puppeteers for Statler had died of AIDS, which added another strange and sad element. I had something show up on Towleroad.
Anyway, if you’re stumbling on this website because of the gay Muppets tweet, welcome. Let me introduce myself, though that Tweet is kinda my brand.
I write plays and fiction. In the last few years, I’ve focused on playwriting. About 2/3rds of what I write is for teen and young adult actors. In my theatre-for-young-actors, my goal is to push the form. Theatre-for-Teens can and should be art, and until I am cold and buried, I aim to prove this.
If you want to know more of my work, here are some recommendations. All of my plays are available on the New Play Exchange:
I have a number of short stories as well that I may post links to in the future.
In other news…
The draft for the middle school play is DONE. It’s about two sides to a story about, well, a last dragon. Which emerged from our devising process – Disney had nothing to do with it – and so I don’t have a title for it yet. I’ll drop some details on the creative process soon.
I finally wrote the site-specific play I’ve been itching to make. This means that every actor gets a different script. And so there’s gobs of color coding.
OTHER OTHER NEWS
My ten-minute play The Last Human Person on Earth is being adapted into a short film. So that is awesome.
For the past few months, as I’ve been attempting to teach theatre in a mixed in-person/remote outdoors experience, I have been working with Bike City Theatre and the UC Davis Catalyst Festival (formerly Ground and Field Festival) to rework Small Steps for a virtual production.
This culminated in performance that went up via Zoom a couple weeks ago.
It’s kinda perfect for the moment. In Act I, Skip cannot be touched – he’s on quarantine. In Act II, he’s alone traveling through space to Mars. It lines up with our social distancing, but can still allow us to escape.
In other words, you can watch this play online and instead of missing something from the experience, you get to add something.
Our tech ninjas, director, and actors took this play to the next level.
We added four additional actors, though another production wouldn’t be forced to keep this. This is partly because the medium, in its hybrid, sorta-like film way, works better with different actors playing multiple roles. This was partly because we wanted to provide more opportunities for actors.
Here are a few shots of the results:
I am forever grateful to the brilliance and energy of J.R. Yancher and Brady Brophy-Hilton, who captained this ship, as well as to Bike City Theatre. To have this play planted and grown in my hometown, well, that was quite a thing. I’ve spent years advocating for making work in the places you’re from, and this feels right square in those values.
It’s an open secret that this play is a love letter, in both the metaphorical sense and in a very real way. When you write something that costs you, the mounds of rejection can feel like wounds. And I’d finally found an enthusiastic ‘yes.’
Since the pandemic began, a few eggheads have done the clickbaity thing and produced essays poopooing virtual theatre. Y’all. It’s a form of theatre, not a replacement for “real” theatre. And as such, it has its own idiosyncrasies and aesthetic. And the best part is that you get to keep a piece of it when it’s done.
This is our process as I remember it. If you’re considering making work in a similar fashion – a ‘Zoom Theatre’ play – this may be useful to you.
NOTE: To read a description of the play, click here. If you want to read the script or watch the performance, contact Briandaniel.
Preamble: Before the Writing Process
As the world slows in March, I adapt my middle school production of Spin the Lonely World to a remote reality. Like every theatre teacher adapting to our sci-fi world, I learn to use OBS to capture the screen, and we film the thing. While I master the contours of the form, filming this instead of performing live proves to be a mistake. Months and hundreds of hours editing later, and I’m still waiting for a collaborator to finish the final edit.
And yet, when the new semester begins and I’m ready to make another play, I’m excited.
Things are shitty. I’m constantly terrified. This virus is ripping through the Latino community, of which I’m a member, and I’m old and queer enough that this isn’t my first pandemic, and my neuroses flare up. Concentration is hard.
And yet, as I’ve mentioned on my blog, problem-solving excites me as an artist. As much as my focus is shot to hell, there are puzzles to figure out, discoveries to make. Specifically, how do we make theatre at a distance? How can we be inspired by our limitations without dwelling on the crappy situation?
Part 1: The Given Circumstances
When I write a play, I start by the identifying what I call the container. These are the limitations that we place on ourselves as writers, what OKGo calls The Sandbox. The rules to create the rules.
Here they are:
1. As our process is conducted over Google Meet, the form is not the problem. The form is the container itself. The play will be made up of scenes that work over video. We are not fighting video: it is our canvas.
Therefore: the actors never pretend to be in the same room with each other. (And we will not record the scenes beforehand.)
Therefore: my challenge is to figure out how to make moments of tension, love, disconnection, drama, and comedy that use the form. A mic breaks at an inopportune time, someone turns off their camera out of rage, a devastating hang-up, someone is live during a disaster someone else can only witness… These are what we can do online better than onstage.
2. Covid does not exist in this world. This is not about Covid, this is an escape from it.
3. Distance is a theme.
4. As always, the play is for and with my students. The quarantine decimated my department, but I have five stalwart actors ready to be part of our process. And the needs/desires of these five also define the container.
What I ask the five:
How much rehearsal do you have the energy to do? This dictates the length and complexity of the play. (Answer: a full-length, but not a long one.)
Do you want to play many characters, or do you want to play one with a full arc? (Answer for all: one.)
Note: they also offer they prefer a realistic tone.
Part 2: Creating the Play
I start with their strengths and our experience. My students have all worked with me before. One has been in five of my plays. I know they are fearless improvisers, and that they are great at being present in a moment and creating characters; however, long form is not in the wheelhouse.
We generate lists.
One list: What kinds of scenes use video? Video calls, of course; Twitch / gaming; Youtube videos; cooking shows, etc.
Another list: What words and phrases do you associate with distance?
Another list: Stories and movies where distance plays a major role.
These become ingredients. We begin with improv, using the different prompts built from combining elements from those lists.
These are not gelling because much of the online improv we’d previously done pretended that they were in the same space. I realize that the strongest scenes are the ones where the concept is predetermined.
So I do more prep work and bring scenarios to class. I say, “Your job is do a puppet show for your friend, and when you want to tell them you got engaged, the mic goes out.” And then we see what they create.
With a bit more structure, we mix improv and devising. For improv, I use those specific prompts and invite multiple versions of the same concept. For devising, I send the students to breakout rooms to rehearse moments.
Sometimes I email them before class with attributes for their characters. I ask them to invent a character name, and a screenname, and a bio. Then, in class, I ask to see certain characters interact with each other with specific intentions.
I look at what we create and find narrative threads that intrigue me. A scientist on the other side of the planet, for example. An astronaut going to Mars.
Early on, I was intrigued by the idea of a romantic comedy over distance. “The movie Contact, but like You’ve Got Mail,” I’d thought. And yet, as we build the play, scenes that are awkward or sad or angry have the greatest heat. More than one storyline about familial distance bubbles up.
One day, they pretend to be gamers. And the activity is electric. This will be important to the play – if not the backbone, then at least significant.
There is a day when I realize the energy is gone. I scrap my plans, and instead ask them to spend 20 minutes coming up with theatrical ‘gifts’ for each other. I teach them the Macarena. One student shares a bunch of pictures of his cat.
I realize this is the energy we need. That no matter how dark the play gets, we need to embrace this idea that we’re creating gifts for each other.
Part 3: The Writing
As these tensional moments and storylines emerge, I realize I want them to all feed into the same story. Even the TV-based A-story / B-story structure is unsatisfying. I reluctantly abandon the idea that we’re creating a comedy. Mysteries and grief stories allow us to fold multiple narratives into the same thread, as the story of the ‘now’ is figuring out how it was caused by the ‘then’. A family working through their grief and uncovering secrets left behind by the missing family member – it’s not new territory, but it’s rich.
Importantly, the theme of distance makes more sense with a grief story. A character is missing in the present, so we can only see the pieces of her left behind online.
I know that there are other plays shaped by similar themes – a famous one everyone is producing, for example, falls under the Bury-Your-Gays trope that I hope to subvert- and I borrow from my far more mature Small Steps.
As the story emerges, there are practical things to consider. I want to be able to rehearse multiple scenes at the same time, so the play is built to accommodate that, and most scenes require only one or two characters. I also structure the scene order to give actors time if they need to move sets or change costumes. Finally, I want the play to challenge the actors to make bold choices, so I push big emotional turns in there.
I rarely precast, and this is no exception. I have four boys in the class of five, so I wind up writing every character with male pronouns knowing one will change. This is also useful in the devising process, as the role belongs to the play, not the actor. Some of my students are LGBTQ+, an element that they and I want to bake in to their roles, but an element that I know to hold off until the re-write.
The play is nearly finished, and I share the script with the students. Their enthusiasm is… quiet. We do auditions, but after warm-ups our 50 minute classes make this virtually impossible. I decide to do something a bit dangerous: I have them rank their personal preferences. The theory is that a) I can tailor the script to them after casting, so it’s not about having a perfect fit, and b) every bit of enthusiasm is vital to this process, the play will live or die by the energy they put in, and casting based on preference will give us the greatest chance of enthusiasm.
There are some idiosyncrasies. For one, I cast the role with the most scenes to the actor who is in an RV heading to California. My actor who is best at physical acting is largely a voice. And yet, whenever I give the students the option for more rehearsal, they go for it.
Part 4: Tech Week and the Performance
Tech is hell. The traditional headaches are non-existent – my tech students send the actors their costumes and props and lights and makeup well before they’re needed, and I jerry rig a sound set-up. It’s the internet, them’s the problem. The internet is fussy for two of the actors, and for me, too. We’re using a program that has great camera resolution, even for the rickety Chromebooks (something that thwarts Zoom), but needs more bandwidth than the actors’ families have available during the rehearsals. I create three or four backup plans if the live performance should buzz out.
“Lexington, if the internet fails, you jump in and improvise a Drama Llama episode for the Public Access Portland. It doesn’t matter where in the script we are.”
Fortunately, the kids know their characters so well that when hiccups happen, they’re prepared.
The internet holds.
We’re live, focused, and the audience is blowing up the chat. Every mistake reminds us that it’s live, and the last performance is nearly flawless. For the first time in months, it feels like pre-pandemic theatre.
People who have never seen my work with teens catch the show. Grandparents watch it. Out of state cousins and friends. Artists and writers. Teens in theatre programs. We have a bigger audience than anything we’ve ever done.
And then we rest.
In ten years time, I probably won’t have too many productions of The Secret Lives of Gamers and Dead Astronauts. High schools don’t often need small cast plays. But I will still have the Youtube recording of this production, a special one. A play that meant the world to me.
And one that I hope helps others make their own work in this weird time.
It’s been too long since I updated. When things fell apart, I let this website sort of rust. I also put on ten pounds.
I’m back to report that making theatre in a pandemic is hard, but still possible.
Piper received a reading via the Hyde Park Theatre.
Small Steps has an elaborate workshop at UC Davis, and with an Austin-based company, I’m looking for partnering organizations in hopes of a rolling world premier. It started as a play about someone who struggles romantically and offers to go alone to Mars. Act I, he’s on quarantine, and Act II, he’s going to Mars, so it makes sense both thematically and as a play that can be practically produced.
I was a playwright for Camp Shrewd, a mixed media piece that involved authoring letters, which were also turned into podcasts. I also made a piece of virtual theatre with the Vortex as part of the CoviDecameron project.
Theatre in educational spaces is still happening, so I’ve had a handful of productions.
I’ve continued teaching. Our school is mixed in-person and remote, almost entirely outdoors, which has made for the most difficult semester of my life.
Funny enough, while the circumstances are miserable, I love problem-solving, so there are these constant spurts of joy. Figuring out different improv games that we can play that are mixed in-person and online, for example. Creating a piece of devised theatre that is specific to the format. Even just jury rigging a microphone to work in a way no one ever intended. We are solving problems that never existed, and we are making bits and pieces of art that was unimaginable a year ago.
One major piece of art is my new play for my high school actors titled The Secret Lives of Gamers and Dead Astronauts. I wanted to make a play for the online format, one composed of Zoom calls, Instagram posts, Twitch Streams, even public access TV moments – and to write a play that took place in a world where Covid didn’t exist. There are some thematic crossovers with Small Steps, both because I’d already done some of the intellectual and artistic work to related to distance and because there’s some cool shit in Small Steps that I wanted to do with high school actors (like using a camera to artificially remove gravity).
Our performance was last week. We performed online, from six locations that we’d sent props and set pieces and costumes to. And it felt alive. Because we were streaming, we had all of the danger of a live performance – things could fall apart, we’d need to improvise, we’d need to problem-solve. And people from all over the country could watch the play.
I don’t know if anyone else is ever going to produce this play. My cast was tiny – five actors – thanks to Covid, and this is hardly optimal for high school plays.
And yet, what we made was something I’ll value until I’m dead.
Long time readers, you know the drill. I’ll revise the play, make a page, and post it ASAP. Also, I’ll do a longer summary on how we built this play. Contact me if you’d like to either watch the performance or read the pre-performance draft of the script.
I have an affection for the occasional obnoxiously long title. I don’t care if it comes across as pretentious, I don’t care if there’s no space in the imaginary marquee; the ridiculous title declares that the play is significant, and I WANT that for middle school actors.
I’ve finished polishing the Virtual Performance draft. I have spent hundreds of hours on Google Meet / Hangouts over the last 100 days, and I’ve figured a few things out. For Spin the Lonely World, I left most of the original dialogue and scenes intact, annotating suggestions to Zoomify it. The one exception was a piece that was originally supposed to be improvised and slapstick, something that fell apart in the virtual performance rehearsal room.
I’m working on editing the filmed version of the play with one of my high school collaborators. It’s a slow job. It’s unlikely that I’ll be sharing screenshots.