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Thursday, April 11, 2013

ARE GYM TEACHERS CRAZY SCARY FOR SELF-PROCLAIMED GEEKS?: The Inspiration for Writing My Hit Play, "How I Learned To Stop Being Afraid of My Gym Teacher"

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I will be your host this evening at Theater is a Sport.  I am a drama teacher at Foxcroft Academy, and a published with playwright with 21 titles for the youth, high school and community theater markets.  I hope you feel at home at my blog if you are a theatre-lover or a drama geek.  I am both of these things, and I mean the terms in a good way. 

From time to time, I like to share a little bit about the plays I write.  This is not for self-aggrandizing, although it is nice to toot your own horn once in a while (it's good for the self-confidence).  The real reason I like to share a bit about how certain plays were written and published is because I, as a writer, love to read about how writers write what they have written, their process, their thoughts while writing, etc.  I find it educational and pretty encouraging for my own work, so, I figure I will offer the same thing for anyone out there who might be interested in how and why I write what I write, and how I went about getting it published.  At the very least, I hope you find it interesting, or, if not, that at the very VERY least, it might give you some hope knowing that if a guy like me can get his work out there, that you can too with a little patience and hard work. 

How I Learned to Stop Being Afraid of My Gym Teacher was the eighth play (if I remember correctly) I was fortunate to have published, and my very first with Eldridge.  Like all of my plays, I have difficulty pinpointing the exact moment that the inspiration hit me.  I knew I wanted to write something that was about "geeks".  In fact, the "geeks" in this play use the term in an empowering fashion.  I also knew I wanted to address the issue of bullying, but not in a preachy way, and to explore the idea of an adult bully as well. 

Then one night, as I sat down to write, I just wrote out the sentence, "How I Learned to Stop Being Afraid of My Gym Teacher."  It made me smile.  And I thought of a young man who was afraid of gym class.

I should jump in right here and tell you that I never had a cruel gym teacher.  I was lucky.  In elementary school, my gym teacher was very kind, in middle school, my gym teacher was very fair and nice to me, and in high school, my gym teacher was actually very encouraging to someone like me who was not, shall we say, a natual athlete (except when it came to volleyball, interestingly enough). 

Having said this, I think I should now point out that I was afraid of gym class, however.  As I said, I was not a natural athlete, I didn't immediately take to sports.  I wasn't plain awful, per se, but it took me time to get my bearings, and I often felt embarrassed and a little useless in my gym classes.  And yes, there boys who were much better than I was who would pick on me.  I can't say I was terribly "bullied" because many people have gotten it much worse than I have, but I did often feel like dirt, which made me wish I could just skip out on gym class for the rest of my life. 

In any case, the protagonist of How I Learned to Stop Being Afraid of My Gym Teacher, a young man named Will, was based off of me to some extent.  He is a good student, a friendly personality, who happens to be afraid of going to gym class.  Will, of course, has an extra reason:  the formidable gym teacher, Mr. Breakwater, who, in his last year of teaching, is just as ferocious as he was when he first started.  Mr. Breakwater hates weakness and hates excuses.  He also appears to hate Will. 

Lucky for Will, he has a girl in his gym class named Riley who is always there to help him out (and, she's cute, too!).  He also has two wonderful friends named Ellard and Margie, who help him get through the day.  It is his friend Ellard who calls them "The Geek Squad", as though they were superheroes (Ellard and Margie are also a bit obsessed with Star Wars, which plays a part in another play they appear in). 

Will's father had Mr. Breakwater for a gym teacher, and is still traumatized about it.  In fact, upon hearing Mr. Breakwater's name, he has to go and hide in the bathtub.  Thus, Will's mother decides to talk to Mrs. Puffin, the soap-opera addicted principal, but doesn't really get anywhere with it.  You see, Mrs. Puffin happens to think Mr. Breakwater is the bees knees (she likes his "buns of steel"). 

Will eventually finds help from his older sister, who had found a way to deal with Mr. Breakwater when she was in school.  She shares a secret with him that holds the key to taming the beast.  But what is most impressive, I think, is how Will decides to handle this secret.

I am fond of this play and actually remember having a great amount of fun writing it.  The first few scenes flew out of me rather quickly.  I do remember I became a little stuck about midway through the writing, thinking to myself, "how is Will going to give Mr. Breakwater his comeuppance?"  It was at that point that I thought about giving Will an older sister who was in college, and who  knew some things about the harsh gym teacher. 

If I were to pick a play of mine that is my funniest, this one would probably be it.  Aside from the characters I have already mentioned, there is also a child psychiatrist named Dr. Brattigan who I had such a good time writing--- she is a stitch and a half, loves to play Jenga, and is probably much better at her job than she lets on.  There are also the characters of Alexis ( a lip gloss covered texting fiend) who Will misguidedly has a crush on, and Marco, a flat-out bully, who leads a Jock Chorus in his attacks against Will during gym class.  Both Alexis and Marco also show up in another play as well. 

After I figured out that Will had an older sister who would be able to help him out, the rest of the play came together rather quickly.  I would say the total writing time for the first draft was about two weeks.  I then read it out loud with a group of people who were doing a grown up play I had written, and hearing it out loud confirmed that I had a winner, even though it needed some adjustments.

That may sound egocentric, what I just said, but I don't mean it to be.  Every once in a great while in your life as a writer, there are some pieces that you know are winners.  They have a certain feeling about them--- for one thing, they read well, actors can jump right in and bring it to life pretty easily. 

I think what tipped me off the most is that my goal to make the play really funny, but have a semi-serious, poignant ending, really worked out well.  It felt like a satisfying conclusion.  I was very proud of it. 

I decided to send it to Eldridge because I was, and am, a big fan of Eldridge's catalogue.  My dad was a drama director as I was growing up, so I remembered always flipping through the Eldridge catalogue when I was kid.  Playwrights seemed like some magic far away beings back then (when, in fact, we're actually pretty darn accessible).  I had submitted to Eldridge twice before and been rejected, albeit with kind, constructive notes from real people, and not just a form.  I figured I would give Gym Teacher a go with them.  So, I once again followed their submission guidelines, wrote a little cover-letter e-mail with my bio and a paragraph synopsis of the play, attached the play as a word document, wished myself luck and sent it off.


This was, and still is, the fastest turnaround I have ever had for a play being accepted for publication.  The title caught their eye, they read it, liked it, and made an offer.  I signed the contracts, wrote up some stuff for them, and, before you knew it, How I Learned to Stop Being Afraid of My Gym Teacher was an Eldridge play by Bobby Keniston, and my name was next to some of the all time big writers in my field (Tim Kelly, Craig Sodaro, Pat Cook, etc.)  It was a very exciting and gratifying experience for me.

The play has done well.  It holds the record so far for highest number of productions in a single year.  I have also received some very nice fan e-mails from students, which is always rewarding.  I got an especially nice one from a student in a drama class who had to read a play and write a report about it, and he chose mine.  This young person was so complimentary about the play, and what it meant to him, that I misted up a bit when I read his message. 

Again, not trying to toot my own horn, but if you're looking for a proven winner one-act for your school or community theater, I do recommend How I Learned to Stop Being Afraid of My Gym Teacher--- it's very easy to stage, has flexible casting with doubling possible, and very funny and touching.  And if you do produce it and like it, please let me know.

Thanks for reading about my play.  I hope you are all happy, healthy, and full of the sport that theater is. 

This is Bobby Keniston, saying good night until next time.


  1. I truly like to reading your post. Thank you so much for taking the time to share such a nice information.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading the post! I'm glad you enjoyed it!