Guest Authors

Douglas Post on Writing Mysteries and Thrillers for the Stage

Mysteries and thrillers are amazingly malleable forms in which to write for the stage in that you can tell a good story, a good yarn as it were, and then subvert that story to your own serious ends … whatever they may be. If you do it right, your audience will latch on to the tale and stay with you. But along the way you can take them somewhere they might not ordinarily go and even give them something to ruminate on the next day.

With BLISSFIELD, I knew that I wanted to write a small-town conspiracy play that would focus on a circle of people who had been friends since high school, but were now facing middle age and dealing with mortgages, marital discord, needy children, aging parents, and the general business of being an adult. I placed Carter Bartosek at the center of my story. He would be a foreign correspondent stationed in Beirut, who returns to his Midwest hometown for the funeral of his best friend, a former congressman who apparently took his own life. Carter observes a rural community that, on its surface, has survived some tough financial times and, in the process, has grown, gotten bigger and gotten better. But underneath the spruced-up main street, the refurbished church, the shops, the malls and the new casino, there is a sense of corruption and rot. Carter comes to understand the truism that luxury can be more ruthless than war, but he doesn't get there easily. I was about halfway through penning this script, which I thought was pretty well mapped-out, when I realized that my main character wanted to go in a different direction than I had intended. If I followed him, I was fairly confident that the ending of my saga would make people angry, but if I tried to make my guy conform to my expectations and not his, I would simply be pushing my protagonist around. I made the decision to allow Carter to follow his own path and let the theatrical chips fall as they may. And when the play received its world premiere at Victory Gardens Theater, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the ending was the part of it people liked the best. They couldn’t see it coming because, of course, neither could I. That was a great lesson in terms of letting go of my preconceived notions regarding plot, and it is one I still carry with me.

Bethanny Alexander and Greg Hardin in City Lit Theater Company’s production of SOMEBODY FOREIGN.
PERSONAL EFFECTS came to me in flashes. There was a transient, a music box, strange phone calls in the middle of the night, a turning away of friends, and a cousin recently returned only to go away again. What did it all mean? I was as confused as Nicholas Barnes, the tax attorney I elected to place in the middle of my mystery. I knew that my hero, or perhaps anti-hero, would lose his assets, his condo, his career, his lover, and the life he thought he had. He would find himself out on the streets of Los Angeles, homeless and hunted by the law. And it would only be by making his way through a familial labyrinth that he would arrive at an understanding of what had happened to him and who he was. The piece was episodic and so when it was first staged at the Circle Theatre outside of Chicago, I was confident that the central playing area should be the attic of a farmhouse that would come to represent the past as well as the present. Our characters could move through this room swiftly, the way people advance and withdraw in a dream, and our scene changes would happen through light, sound and the shifting of a chair. In this manner we were able to guide our audiences with purpose and a sense of ease through this tale of retribution and grace.

I returned to a small town with SOMEBODY FOREIGN, though this one was a suburban locale where a heinous crime has been committed. A young man and his fiancée have been murdered in their home. The killer has left few clues, and the community is filled with fear. And one woman becomes the target of an investigation by the FBI, the local police, and the media. I knew that Liz Fletcher would be a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at a private college. I also knew that she would be a human rights activist. But because of her relation to the murdered man, who was her brother, and her connection to certain groups in the Gaza Strip, she would be the subject of a social inquisition and find herself standing outside the place she had always called home. Here was a thriller with a political bent that came alive at City Lit Theater Company, where it was first produced. Liz comes to know her friends, her colleagues, and the institutions they represent in a way she had never anticipated. She also comes to know a facet of her country and must finally decide what to do with the knowledge she has gained.

So there it is. There is no mystery as to why I continue to write mysteries. And it is always thrilling to embark on a new thriller. One never knows what waits behind the locked door. One never knows what strange world might be unleashed onto the stage.
Read more...

Happy Birthday, Frankenstein!

Young Mary Shelley by Esao Andrews

2018 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, and although calling anything an “immortal creation” sounds like a cliché it seems uniquely apt in this case. Shelley tapped into something fundamental, fusing elements of the ancient Greek myth of Prometheus and John Milton’s early-modern epic Paradise Lost with 18th-century enlightenment thinking, 19th-century romantic poetry, and then-contemporary ideas about natural philosophy and scientific thought. Shelley wrote it on a dare, and what she thought was a ghost story became instead what some argue is one of the first science-fiction novels and the progenitor of the modern horror novel.

Trouble is, it’s just not very scary. Shelley’s novel offers many pleasures, but fulfilling the horror-movie expectations of the modern reader isn’t one of them. My goal in writing my stage adaptation was to be faithful to Shelley’s themes, structure, characters, mood, setting, and literary sensibility — while at the same time giving audiences some of the dread and horror they’ve come to expect from something called Frankenstein. In other words, I tried to blend George Bernard Shaw with Stephen King.

Though I didn’t write a comic spoof (which may surprise those who know me better as the co-author of nine (and counting) Complete (abridged) comedies for the Reduced Shakespeare Company), there are definitely moments of humor, some of it coming directly from Shelley’s highly intelligent characters, including — and possibly even especially — her Creature. The “birth,” development, and incredible literacy of Victor Frankenstein’s creation is moving, funny, powerful, and scary, as well as being a big surprise for audiences who only know this story through its many movie versions. With great intelligence comes great wit, and with great tension comes great release, either in the form of a laugh or — as in a horror story — a scream. Sometimes both.

Shelley’s slim novel contains themes and ideas that can support multiple interpretations. I hope my adaptation is faithful enough to Shelley’s spirit to allow actors, directors, and designers plenty of opportunity to create their own examinations of Shelley’s themes and ideas, and that it adds to the slim but growing library of horror and science-fiction plays.

200 years on, and for probably centuries more, Mary Shelley’s immortal creation lives.

Read more...

Everything Old is New Again: Tom Wilson Weinberg’s Get Used to It!

[quote]

Before Orlando, this show meant something different. Before that tragedy, a mere two weeks ago — just two days after Rainbow Theatre Project opened Get Used to It! — it would have been easy to think of this 20-song revue as a quaint history lesson, a peek back at the political fights and personal communities of gay men in 1993 when AIDS was raging, Ellen was not yet out, and Don’t Ask Don't Tell was freshly instituted.

Now, however, the view into the past is fractured. Tom Wilson Weinberg's Cole Porter/Stephen Schwartz-esque song cycle, written in the early 90s, is being presented to us right here, right now by three singers and a pianist. Do we take it as a review of how far we've come, or a reminder that the battles of last century are far from done? Is the church-and-state satire of 'Hymn' outdated because the terms it puts its conflict in are outdated, or is it painfully relevant because the conflict itself continues? Is the out-and-proud tenderness of 'Three-Letter Word' made bittersweet because its innocence is lost, or is it made bold because it testifies to what is universal across time?"

—Brett Steven Abelman, June 20, 2016, DC Theatre Scene

[/quote]
T

wo musical revues I wrote in the late 1980s and early 90s, Get Used to It! and Ten Percent Revue, had good runs in New York and a generous number of productions around the country. They attracted attention in the mainstream and LGBT press and won a few honors along the way.

The intention of both shows was to present a view of LGBT life and politics with humor, satire and urgency. I was influenced not by creators of musical theater but rather by gay and lesbian activists. The moment was dire. Conservative political and religious institutions fought to strip us of what few rights we had gained in the 1970s. And our friends were dying of AIDS.

Last spring one of the revues, Get Used to It!, was revived by a theater in Washington, DC. I had met with the director about a year before the show was cast, expecting him to share my view that the shows were now nostalgia pieces, quaint histories of LGBT life 25 or 30 years ago.

He thought they were still potent, funny and dramatic. He acknowledged that some of the references were dated but didn’t want me to change a word. (A few times over the years producers have inquired about revised and updated versions which I’ve politely declined.) He felt that if audiences were stirred by the history that would be enough, and if they found it topical, relevant and moving, that would be what he hoped for and expected.

Two reviews published early in the run confirmed this director’s instincts. Both wrote of the shows as if they were new. Then, in the second week of the run, the killings at Pulse nightclub occurred. Shocked, as were people all over the country, I asked him if he wanted to acknowledge the tragedy from the stage. He wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea. Later that week, I went to Washington, saw the show (okay, three times) and realized it had addressed Orlando as written 25 years earlier.

After seeing it for the first time I met the cast and realized how brave they were despite the challenge of going on stage with the tragedy fresh in their minds. These young actor/singers could have been blasé after nearly eight years of acceptance and support from Barack Obama and his administration. Orlando changed that. Their commitment to the material reminded me of the passionate, confrontational and funny way it was sung in the early 90s.

Now we find ourselves in a dire place once again, something I didn’t imagine during the run of Get Used To It! in Washington. I couldn’t picture an election result or an administration that would attempt to define itself by limiting human rights in the name of making America great again.

Like so many progressive people here and around the world, I mourned, lost sleep, felt depressed, then angry and finally energized. The process took a few months. Now I’m writing letters and calling legislators, demonstrating, picketing and going to meetings to help build coalitions and stand up to the new reality that faces us. And I’m writing songs.

Read more...

Hunting and Gathering, Nearly a Decade Later

Brooke-Berman-Blog-Photo

R

ecently I had the great pleasure of experiencing my play Hunting and Gathering at Rep Stage in Columbia, Maryland, ten years after I initially wrote it. It was great fun revisiting the source material as I'm currently married and raising a child, theoretically stable (although we did just move last summer), and in very different circumstances.

Hunting and Gathering is a comedy about rootlessness, four characters who for different reasons are between housing options and figuring out their logistical and emotional/spiritual homes. When I wrote it, I myself was living in much this way. I'd been happily settled in an apartment in Soho before 9/11 and then, after the attacks, I lost my job and my apartment and was suddenly couch-surfing and subletting until I could afford what felt like a monumental outpouring of money — first month's rent, last month's rent, security deposit. (Forget real estate agents! For a self-employed New York artist and writer, such people are luxuries we can't afford.) Once I was settled again (with a roommate for whom I wrote the character Astor), I started drafting the play. And by the time it was produced, I was yet again out of a place – my belongings in storage, my work in New York City, and my long range plans in Los Angeles. I was often pathologized for moving so often, people would patronizingly ask if they should write my address in pencil because it changed so often and/or if I planned on landing at any point soon — as if my sad income and its accompanying frugality were character defects and not a byproduct of working in the theater.

But in 2016 this is not the case. Whereas in 2007 (when we went into production), this play spoke of a particular group of people — the "Creative Class" — it now speaks to everyone. Before the 2008 financial crisis, only artists lived like I did. Now, we have a generation of young (and some middle-aged) people down-sizing material holdings, moving to smaller quarters and shedding extraneous belongings, living "at home" with parents or older family members, taking in roommates, becoming a roommate, looking for solutions to problems that we once thought would stop plaguing us as soon as we (got a job, got married, sold a pilot, got settled on a tenure track) and so on. This is a play for a new generation of Americans. Which made it particularly thrilling to see onstage in Columbia this Spring.

Before the 2008 financial crisis, only artists lived like I did … More and more people today are finding that the promise of Permanence — in home, in relationship, in job security — doesn't pan out the way it did for our parent's generation.

It used to be that you found your spouse, your home, your place in the world in your late twenties and early thirties and then settled down to enjoy them and build equity for retirement. That model no longer holds. More and more people today are finding that the promise of Permanence — in home, in relationship, in job security — doesn't pan out the way it did for our parent's generation. The center cannot hold. Things are shifting. Daily. People are losing their jobs, having to sell their homes, downsize, streamline, move across the country, start over, start again, redefine, re-brand, re-imagine. Which has everyone talking about home: from mortgage rates to foreclosures to refinancing to gentrification and finding the right downtown loft, home is on the brain. How to get a home, find a home, pay for a home, and lastly — how to decorate what you've got.

Hunting and Gathering at Rep Stage
Rex Daugherty, Katie Tkel, Daniel Corey, and Alina Collins Maldonado in the Rep Stage production. Photo by Katie Simmons-Barth.

The production team at Rep Stage asked me about the theme of "gratitude" in my play (the final line is: "Thank you." Which is also parenthetically true of Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha — written and produced a few years after Hunting and Gathering). When everything physical is shifting, what else do you have? Gratitude becomes key. If our homes aren't meant to be permanent; if there's no blame attached to impermanence, in a very Buddhist sense, then there is nothing wrong with us for drifting. Thank God or whomever else is responsible — and give thanks! I always think, let's be grateful for what we've got while we've got it. Because you never know what's coming …

Hunting and Gathering comes from a period in my life in which I wondered: where is stability? And how do I negotiate my own feelings about what I've left behind while proactively creating some place to land?

The director Kasi Campbell and cast, most particularly Kathryn Tkel, were amazing. And I'm grateful to them for loving my play as I did and for bringing it to life for a new audience.

Brooke Berman
Queens, New York, 2016

PS: The Queens neighborhood Ruth makes fun of is where I now call home. My husband and I bought a coop in 2015 and are happy Queens-dwellers. Who knew?

Video Player Icon Hunting and Gathering

HUNTING AND GATHERING at Rep Stage in Columbia, Maryland, 2016.
Read more...

The Universal Appeal of Robin Hood

BPPI playwrights Jon Klein and Laura Shamas discuss Jon's new play Young Robin Hood.

Laura: When did you first get the concept for Young Robin Hood and what was your inspiration?

Jon: I had always known that the legend of Robin Hood tapped into some basic themes and emotions that had the potential to affect young people. There's the adventure aspect, of course, but mostly the themes of rebellion and questioning authority that naturally become a part of growing up. Those issues are very specific to this story, and to both Robin and Marian (in this version, anyway) as they begin to enter adulthood. So this became an origin story, much like the recent reintroductions of other popular heroes like Batman or Spider Man.

JonKleinBlogPhoto
Author Jon Klein

Robin doesn't have super powers, but he begins to learn what power he does have, and how to use it. All kids of a certain age can relate to that. So can most adults, so I took pains to include an adult audience into the mix. Fatherhood and Motherhood have great importance in this version. How do parents deal with their kids when they begin to question the values they were taught? What happens when kids think their parents are wrong — and with good reason? Those ideas are in the play, but implied rather than preached. I wanted to make sure to add plenty of good old-fashioned fun and action, to make this play equally accessible and entertaining to both kids and adults.

Laura: Did you love Robin Hood as a child? Do you remember who you saw as your first Robin Hood or did you read about Robin Hood?

Young-Robin-Hood-Illustration
Illustration by Howard Pyle

Jon: My first exposure was reading the tales. I remember that there was a wonderful book of the stories that had drawings by the master illustrator Howard Pyle. (I have his drawing of Robin getting dunked in the stream after the pikestaff duel with Little John, as a poster on my wall — a metaphor for playwriting if there ever was one.) But these traditional stories were of an adult Robin, who has already achieved notoriety in Nottingham. My exposure to the classic Errol Flynn movie came much later — and it's still the definitive version (sorry, Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe). But I was highly affected by Richard Lester's film Robin and Marian, which depicts those characters — played by Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn — in late middle age. That film makes me cry whenever I watch it, and I've watched it a lot. Thinking about those characters at the end of their lives no doubt inspired me to wonder about them in the beginning of their adventures — including how they may have met. Also, I don't want to leave out one of my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoons, Rabbit Hood. Bugs outwits the Sheriff of Nottingham as he tries to steal carrots from the "Royal Garden." Errol Flynn (in a film clip borrowed from his famous movie) swings into a tree at the end of the cartoon. Bugs says, "Nah — couldn't be him."

Laura: How much research did you do into Robin Hood and what materials did you look at?

Jon: This was the fun part. There was historical research, of course, but when it comes to Robin Hood, you're dealing with a fictional character. He never existed, or else there were dozens of him, since "Robyn Hode" became the frequent pseudonym for a thief or scoundrel who entertained local townships by defying the regional laws, which were often considered to be unduly punitive. That affection for such scoundrels eventually evolved into stories about a thief who shares his loot with the local populace — quite unlikely! These stories were not written down but sung by wandering minstrels in the middle ages, and finally set down in print a couple of centuries after they were originally performed. The purely oral origins of these stories explain all the many variations of the tales. The only common factor appears to be Robin himself, a thief who safely hides in Sherwood Forest. Even his antagonist changes from tale to tale — sometimes it's the Sheriff of Nottingham, sometimes it's the conniving nobleman Guy of Gisbourne (portrayed by Basil Rathbone in the Errol Flynn version; the Sheriff only has a small, ineffective role in that film). As for Marian, her character was not part of the original ballads, and was added much later. That's why I felt free to make her the daughter of the Sheriff himself, so that she too can question his authority as a teenaged daughter — one who is also interested in a future legal profession. She is one of my favorite creations for this play. I borrowed some other characters from the original tales and tweaked them in different ways. The result is (I hope) a play that feels very contemporary but is still true to its literary sources.

Laura: The production at Round House Theatre in D.C. was gorgeous. One of the themes that was clear was care of the forest and ecology. Is that a theme you've written about before?

Young-Robin-Hood-1
Craig Wallace as William Fitzooth and Joe Isenberg as Robin

Jon: Derek Goldman, who directed the wonderful production at Round House Theatre , noticed that I had lots of references to the natural wonders of Sherwood Forest — trees, rivers, and several animals. He decided to embody these in a single actor with wonderful mimetic and movement abilities — Emma Jaster, who played the "Spirit of the Forest." Her extraordinary ability to transform herself into Marian's falcon, a stag, a bear (even a river!) gave several scenes a magical quality. The play does not require human embodiment of these natural elements, but it's one that I would like to encourage if possible. I guess my other famous foray into the world of ecology would be my play Betty The Yeti, which was introduced at the Humana Festival in Louisville and still gets produced (especially on college campuses). That was another play (I even subtitled it An Eco-Play) set in a forest — in this case representing the endangered old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, where I lived for a number of years. There's something pretty wonderful about moving a play out of the living room and setting it outside, in nature. Shakespeare discovered that when he wrote A Midsummer's Night Dream — magical things can happen in the forest.

Laura: The young people in your play have a great deal of agency. They create the action in the play. I know you have a strong philosophy about writing family plays and plays for youth audiences. Can you explain your philosophy a bit and why you think it matters to write plays for a youth audience?

Jon: Yes, it's the young people who really drive the story in this play. The parents are full of caution, restraint and warning — but if they got their way, that wouldn't make for a very interesting play! Again, I want to emphasize that the themes of responsibility and risk taking go hand in hand with the simple process of growing up. Theatre for young audiences is a marvelous thing to write and develop. Kids have a voracious appetite for good stories — they'll even read books if the stories are good enough! (Harry Potter, anyone? Hunger Games?)

They want to be entertained, they want to be excited, and they want to relate to the characters. As a result, they get very invested in the decisions that those characters make. And that creates very vocal responses in the audience, that endlessly delight me. They can hiss, boo, cheer, yell "watch out," and become completely immersed in the performance. And believe me, if kids get bored, I guarantee you it's the writer's fault! It's a challenge to write shows that entertain adults as well as their kids. The unexpected success of my stage adaptation of the fanciful novel Bunnicula is another example of that. The parents often dread accompanying their children to a show that has been advertised for kids, but they end up having just as good a time. I strived for that in Young Robin Hood as well and was pleased that its premiere occurred during the winter holidays at a theatre that was well known for its adult fare. It felt great to have my play featured in the midst of a season with plays by Rajiv Joseph and Gina Gionfriddo.

Laura: What was it like for you to finally see it with audiences?

Jon: It was a holiday show, and people were in the holiday spirit! Kids were off school, and parents were in a celebratory mood. These were very raucous audiences — how wonderful! During the run of the original production at Round House, I got a letter from a father who had seen Young Robin Hood with his son. The boy had been so enthralled with the show that he had been asking his dad to tell him the story every night at bedtime. So this father asked me for a copy of the script, so he and his son would be able to act it out. I was so happy to oblige! And even happier that this script will now be made available to the general public — I hope they'll enjoy reading it too!  

Read more...