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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

WRITING INSPIRATION: How and Why I Wrote My Play "Citizen's Arrest"

A Production of My Play "Citizen's Arrest" as performed by Hettinger High School

Welcome to Theater is a Sport.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and today, I'm going to talk a bit about how and why I wrote my play "Citizen's Arrest".  I don't know if you're like me, but, if you are, you are interested in why and how writers write their work, and, even if you haven't read my stuff, I'm hoping that you find my experiences at least someone educational or slightly interesting.  If not, I'll aplogize in advance.  I'm a bit of an apologist.  (And and R.E.M. fan)


Inspiration is a crazy thing.  When you are a writer, you never really know when it is going to strike, so it is best to be aware of everything around you.  There's fodder for plays, stories, articles, and so much more in the simplest of events, occurences, happenings.... hey, even in just a consistent family joke.  So writers, store everything away... you never know when it will come in handy. 

So, let's see... in my life, I had published "Rumplestilskin the R-Dawg, Hip-Hop Minstrel", "Confession: Kafka in High School", "Death and Pez", and "Sky Baby and the Bedtime Story".  I was feeling pretty good about my growing list of publications.  At about this time, I started reaching out to other playwrights that I had found on Facebook, dropping them messages saying hi, asking for advice, etc.  It turns out, I've met a lot of nice people because of this, a large group of people who write in my market and who I consider wonderful colleagues and pals now.  It's nice to have a group of people to talk shop with, to share success and failure stories with, complain about the market with... and, what's great, is that we have all been there and had the same problems.  It's a nice group of people.

I digress.

In any case, I had reached out to a wonderful playwright in my market named Jerry Rabushka, who was one of the first to really reach back out and offer me encouragement and advice (Jerry has a TON of plays published with Brooklyn Publishers, and is a very talented and nice guy).  He mentioned to me that Brooklyn was always looking for one-act plays with a large cast, even casts of 20 or more. 

A one-act play with 20 characters?!  I didn't really think I could do something like that, unless maybe I made a Shakespeare adaptation.... I mean, how do you fit 20 characters into a play that's only 30 minutes long without making a number of them just walk-ons? 

Nonetheless, I stored this information away in my mind, just in case I ever came across and idea that could accomodate 20 people in a one-act play. 

One day, I was riding in a car with my parents.  I was reminded of road trips with the family when I was a kid, my two older sisters and I crammed in the back seat, my dad driving.  Throughout my life, there have been times when my dad is driving that he'll witness someone making a slight infraction, say, walking just outside of a crosswalk.  When this happens, my dad will say, in a silly voice, "Citizen's Arrest!"  It used to make my sisters and I laugh. 

I'm sort of fascinated by the idea of a "citizen's arrest".  I have never actually performed one, and probably never will, but I find it interesting the idea of an average citizen taking the opportunity to fight crime, brandishing themselves a temporary deputy to enforce the law. 

On this day in the car, I thought of my dad and his "Citizen's Arrest!" joke.  He has since told me he picked this up from an old TV show, either The Andy Griffith Show or Gomer Pyle, I can't remember which.  I was thinking of how silly it was, and I thought to myself, "how could I push something like this to this most ridiculous extreme?" 

That was the seed of the play, Citizen's Arrest.   How to make something ridiculous even more ridiculous.  I pictured someone placing anoher person under a "citizen's arrest", but not stopping there.  I imagined this person stopping passer-bys to form their own "citizen's trial", complete with citizen prosecutors, citizen defense attorney, citizen judge, citizen bailiff... the whole works.  Then, of course, they would need a juy of citizens to make a verdict, wouldn't they?

As soon as I thought of needing the twelve jury members, I knew I had a one-act play that could be 20 characters.  And, indeed, Citizen's Arrest has exactly twenty characters.

COMMUNITY/SCHOOL THEATER PLAYWRITING TIP:  Always try to write more female characters than male characters, as, statistically, more females audition for community and school theater than males. 

I had a great deal of fun writing the play, which, if I'm not mistaken, took about a week for the first draft.  Once the basic idea was in place, it kind of just flowed out of me.  Here's the basic story:  a guy named Dennis, walking through an idealized beautiful park, drops a candy bar wrapper on the ground without thinking about it.  Dana, a concerned citizen, places him under citizen's arrest.  Dennis tries to be a good sport about things, but Dana decides to stage a citizen's trial right then and there.  An out-of-work actress becomes the prosecuting attorney, a coffee shop employee becomes the defense attorney, a moody woman on her way to a quilting circle becomes the "sassy judge, like the ones on TV", a construction worker hunk becomes the bailiff, a very slow typist with a laptop becomes the stenographer, and a tour guide and her tour group become the jury.  It's a great deal of fun.

RANDOM FUN FACT:  At the time I wrote Citizen's Arrest, I had recently been in a musical revue of Johnny Cash music called Ring Of Fire.  Four talented ladies named Tracy, Nancy, Mary Kate, and Lisa were all in the musical revue with me, so, in Citizen's Arrest, four of the tour guide jurors are Tracy, Nancy Mary Kate and Lisa, an all-girl Johnny Cash cover band.  They keep coming up with silly song titles throughout the proceedings and wonder out loud "What Would Johnny Cash Do?"

If I had to pick a favorite character, it would be Miguel, the coffee shop guy who plays the defense attorney.  He wants very badly to do a good job.  He claims his hero is Atticus Finch, and he always wanted to spak out for justice just like Atticus.  Unfortunately for Miguel, when the time comes to make his big impassioned speeches, he's got nothing, except for a few metaphors about how justice is like a cup of coffee.  It even goes well with cheese danish.

So, I sent the play off to my editor at Brooklyn Publishers, a cool guy named David Burton.

He accepted the play less than a week later.  At the time, that was my fastest acceptance, and, actually is still the second-fastest acceptance I've had.  It makes me happy to report that David really loves this play of mine.  He talked at the time about how it made him laugh out loud, and I think it is still one of his favorites of mine.  I know he has recommended it to many places looking for a large cast one-act.  It always makes a writer feel good to know that their editor is really pleased with the work they are putting out.  To be honest, I think David's reaction to Citizen's Arrest really was the beginning of him thinking of me as a playwright who was going to go the distance, and opened him up to talk to me about different projects to pursue and things like that. 

Citize's Arrest has done pretty well for me since it has been published--- it averages about four productions a year, though David insists it deserves more.   It also seems to have had a good balance of school and community theater, which is nice.

I'm proud of it.  It made my friends laugh, made my ideal reader laugh, and that's what matters most to me. 

I hope you have found this little story interesting and helpful.  If you're looking for a large cast one-act, or would just like to read a sample of Citizen's Arrest, please follow this link:'S+ARREST  Just click on script preview to... you guessed it!... read a preview of the script!

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Thanks for reading.  I hope you are all well and happy and full of goo theater feelings.  Until next time, please remember that theater is not only a craft and an artform, but also a sport!


  1. Nice job. I do indeed remember those days. I like your play, too.

  2. It is a super fun play