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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Teen Angst, The Grim Reaper, and Candy Toys: How and Why I Was Inspired to Write "Death and Pez"

A Skull Pez Dispenser, Like the One Given to Me by My Friend Darald Long Ago
Greetings everyone!  My name is Bobby Keniston, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  For people who have been reading my posts fairly regularly, I want to apologize for missing the last few days.  I was going through upweek and opening night for an evening of one-acts with my high school students.  Come upweek, it seems that my whole life is nothing but making sure my plays go off as smoothly as possibly. 

Of the blog posts I have missed, one would have been an interview with a theater professional, the other, a piece about the inspiration behind one of my published plays.  I have decided to take this opportunity to get us somewhat back on track by talking about how and why I wrote my third published play, a ten minute piece called Death and Pez.

Of my plays, Death and Pez has the longest history.  When I was a lad, back in high school, I was fortunate my freshman and sophmore years to be a part of a program called Gifted and Talented Theater.  I knew back when I was in middle school that I wanted to be a part of this program, because my oldest sister, Shannon, had been, along with her good friend Kenny.  The Gifted and Talented program consisted of other arts as well:   Gifted and Talented Visual Arts, Gifted and Talented Writing, Gifted and Talented Dancing... but I was certain I wanted to do Theater.  When the time came around for eighth graders to audition for Theater and submit work for the other GT programs, I decided I'd play it safe and also go out for GT Writing.  The work I submitted for the writing was a very strange mock newspaper called The Journal:  Swarms of Unhappiness, which, in my fandom of SNL, read like a Weekend Update routine.  It was around the time of the Rodney King verdict and ensuing riots in California, and there was a lot of dark humor in it.  For my audtion piece for GT Theater, I wound up doing a dramatic reading of The Owl and the Pussycat, as if I was a guest lecturer for an old ladies' poetry club.  I had roped my friend Sean into audtioning as well. 

Long story short, we both got in.  I also was accepted into GT Writing, but I had to choose one or the other, so I chose theater. 

The way the Gifted and Talented program worked was for one day, every other week, we would get bussed to Guilford High School and spend a day studying theater with kids from surrounding school districts.  The theater class was taught by David Greenham, a graduate of Syracuse, and a very funny fellow, who went on to be the Artistic Director for the Theater at Monmouth here in Maine for quite some time (I believe as of this writing that he has moved on from there).  Sean and I were both nervous our first GT class, and, really, remained nervous for much of the first year.  I remember the first class, and my first real introduction to Dave:  he had everyone new to the program speak about why they wanted to be involved.  I gave this big speech about how I had been acting since I was a little kid, and how I felt so alive and wonderful whenever I was in a play, how nothing else had ever compared, blah, blah, blah, and the entire time Dave was listening to me with a serious expression, nodding his head, and when I finished, he kept the same serious look on his face and said, "Huh.  Just wait until you start having sex, Bobby."

Gifted and Talented Theater was some of the most fun I ever had in high school.  We spent a great deal of time playing theater games, learing to improvise, learning monologues, some forays into theatrical make-up, stage combat, all kinds of good stuff.  When it came to near the end of the year, we put on a final presentation with all the other GT programs on a special night.  The first year it was done in Dover-Foxcroft, and Dave wrote a short piece called "The History of Dover and Foxcroft", where I had a very small part. 

The second year of GT, Sean and I were a lot more comfortable, and our friend Jeff auditioned as well and got into the program.  I knew most of the people this year, many good friends returning, and, somehow, Sean and I were far more confident, participating a great deal and having a lot of fun.  Jeff was kind of known as the quiet guy, which would play a big part of how he was cast in the final productiion that year. 

The final production that year.... ah, alas, it turned out to be the final production of Gifted and Talented program ever.... came from a series of improvisations and a short skit I had written about the Grim Reaper visiting a stressed high school boy, and the high school boy trying to bargain for his life by giving Death a skull Pez Dispenser (which the boy called a "Death" Pez Dispenser).  My friend Darald had kind of gotten me into collecting Pez dispensers--- I actually still have quite a collection, though I don't actively collect them anymore.  Sean played the Grim Reaper, I played the boy.  The imrovs started growing around my boy character pre and post... well, dying, leading our production to be called Bobby's Dead.  Catchy title, huh?  My folks loved it. 

The production opened with our narrators, TJ and Dan, lampooning the other Gifted and Talented programs.  Throughout the show, a group a of cast members would come onstage during our scenes saying, "So, sorry, we're the school board, and there are budget cuts", and then remove our furniture set pieces.  After I died, I didn't appear anymore, but the Grim Reaper did.  I remember lying on the floor, dead, while Heron, the guy playing my father, yelled at me for being lazy and how I hadn't mowed the lawn, before everyone in my family was distracted by Pez.  Jeff, the quiet one, would sit off in the corner saying nothing, and his thoughts (usually sarcastic ones) were pre-recorded.  At the end, the Grim Reaper killed the narrators, and Jeff stood up and silently applauded. 

In any case, I guess the middle piece, the scene with the boy and the Grim Reaper, was the first thing I had ever written that was put on its feet.  After Rumplestislkin the R-Dawg, Hip-Hop Minstrel and Confession:  Kafka in High School were picked up for publication, I was going through an old box and found a copy of Bobby's Dead.  It brought back the great high school memories, but I also really still liked the premise for the little play.

Not much but the premise remains in Death and Pez.  It is still funny, but I removed a great deal of the irreverent humor to make it publishable for my market (including removing the exchange "I can't believe I'm going to die a virgin!", with Death responding, "Hey, you've got five minutes, and that girl next door--- whoo-hoo!").  And, of course, now, the boy in the script, who has been renamed Reggie, lives at the end.   Death was trying to teach him a lesson all along, about not taking hiimself too seriously, about gathering rosebud while ye may and all that.  It's actually one of my best-selling ten minute scripts, and has been produced quite a few times and used at forensics competitions.  I'm very fond of it and think it is a good piece (though a part of me still misses the anarchist spirit of the original). 

Yes, after we fictionalized the school board taking our sets, well, funding for Gifted and Talented went away (I don't think it was our fault though), which made me very sad.  I missed getting on a bus every other week and spending a day honestly exhibiting how theater can be a sport.  But I am thankful to Dave for all the fun we had in that class, and for teaching me the building blocks of how to really be a theater professional.   That's why I dedicated Death and Pez to him, the only one of my plays thus far that is dedicated to someone other than my ideal reader. 

I hope you've enjoyed reading about my inspiration for Death and Pez.  If you would like to read more about it, you can follow this link here:

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Okay, once again, I'm Bobby Keniston, back in action, and until next time, please remember:  theater is not only a craft and an artform--- it is also a sport.  

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