Forever Christmastown started with a few days of improv, a reading from Noises Off, some dusty decorations I took down from the shelf, and a loose concept, and it became a beautiful, tinsel-eating monster of a play. Act I is fairly traditional as the crew attempts to put on a show to save Forever Christmastown, whereas Act II goes off the rails when they accidentally start a cult. This is shortly followed by them declaring the theme park a sovereign nation. It’s very Texas. And it’s very me.
In the end, while a few of the characters do have full arcs, there’s only one character who truly changes. Everyone else doubles down. Although a big reveal waves away some of the negativity, I wondered if the cynical elements that live beneath this comedy would make this too dark, and would impact our experience or the message to our audience. Instead, we found that it was joy to produce and perform. The play finds common ground between people who are jaded by commercial Christmas and people who love the holiday season. I drink black coffee, but this play is also for our Pumpkin Spice Latte-drinking friends.
I’ll post again once I’ve gotten pictures and have done my post-show revision of Forever Christmastown, my newest play.
Before I get into the summary, I want to take a moment to honor Bill Jacox. Bill was my boss when I was in undergrad, when I tried my hand at team building on a ropes’ course at UC Irvine. The funny thing is that, although what we did often involved dangling from a climbing harness 30 feet in the air, I owe him more of my pedagogy and dramaturgy than he ever knew. He died recently.
I mention him because one of the many things I learned from him was how to productively reflect: Pros, Lows, and Grows. The things that worked, the things that didn’t work, how to get better. Thank you, Bill.
As it’s set at a ren-faire-like theme park, the play works well outdoors. It becomes immersive. Saturday night was our final performance for a public audience. It was cold, though the lack of wind made it tolerable. (Incidentally, if we’d performed at the times and dates I’d thought we’d perform instead of what the kids wanted, we would have been SCREWED by the weather.) Although it’s set in Bastrop County, Texas, in June, the play has a strong Christmas aesthetic running through it, so as we kept the audience warm with blankets, hand warmers, heaters, and hot chocolate, it still felt right in the cold.
Y’all, it’s a Christmas play that can be done any time of the year. If it’s done ‘off season,’ borrowing decorations will be incredibly easy – and fun. Our production was, of course, during the holiday season, which meant we ended up buying stuff that we’d otherwise find in dusty garages. That did mean we had plenty of twinkle lights fresh from HEB, making the evenings spectacular.
Although what makes it a comedy is that it prioritizes the escalation and absurdity of the story, there are moments of heart and desire and sadness. I wanted to make something in the key of Noises Off, and I don’t think I achieved this; however, I think that I do manage to say some things I want to say about toxic nostalgia, the privilege of chasing dreams when most people are trying to survive, the play Everybody, Texas mythos, and Elon Musk.
My goal for any play is to make sure that every actor has something *interesting* to do. I think I achieved this with this play. I had an actor who was disappointed in their part, but put everything into the role they had, including my favorite fight scene I’ve directed.
The world is a joy to create. Although we’re making fun of Forever Christmastown, I’d totally visit a theme park based on Christmas in all its dorky glory.
Forever Christmastown is a comedy before it’s anything else. Although I go for the story before I go for the joke, I certainly go for the joke before I go for the thematic message. I love the play, but it’s never going to become the high school / college / community theatre Angels in America. Most characters simply do not have an arc – where they land is where they started.
The characters have simple objectives, so theoretically the plot is easy to follow. That said, so many turns happen that if the actors miss a line, a chunk of the story is lost. For example, when the Forever Christmastown becomes a cult, which then declares itself a sovereign nation, an FBI agent disguises themself as an elf. The reveal happens so quickly that the line was swallowed for two performances, which made it so confusing when the character was fed to wild boars.
I’ll have to cut a couple of the funniest jokes. For example, one of them works only because one of the leads is white, and I hate things that limit casting that much.
This is a play we produced with thirteen actors (including a chorus of middle schoolers who joined us late in the process). As is, it could easily include a much larger cast, but I think I can get a couple more named characters in there.
There’s a piss-poor monologue (or two) at the end that I know how to make work now.
If I were to do this again, I would luxuriate in all of the merchandise we could create. There are so many design elements that could have been fun to build.
One of my students asked for help with finding comedic monologues. I pulled a number of these for him and put them into a document.
One of those projects I always intend but never do is to compile a collection of monologues for young actors. I always think, oh, I should annotate the context for each one. I should break them down by gender, theme, genre. And then another project gets in the way.
But then I had my student D seek monologues for acting classes and auditions.
Here is the compilation, though I admit that it’s incomplete and disorganized, as it was constructed mostly for D. Email me or check out the New Play Exchange for any of the full scripts if you need it.
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.