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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Writing With a Message: How and Why I Wrote "The Re-Programming of Jeremy"

The Poster from St. Paul's School's Production of my play, "The Re-Programming of Jeremy"
So, once upon a time, I wrote this play...

Actually, if you're familiar with this blog, you know I've written a number of plays.  I rarely shut about it.  In fact, in the interest of self-promotion, I will occasionally write things like "You can learn more about my plays by clicking HERE or HERE or HERE," and, of course, please feel free to do so if you're of the mind.  However, you can click on all of those links and check out all of those pages, and even though you'll learn about many of the plays, you won't learn about the play I'm going to talk about today.  This one, The Re-Programming of Jeremy remains unpublished.

But unpublished does not mean without a life of its own.

I wrote The Re-Programming of Jeremy, in its original form, back in 2010, at a rather feverish pace. The play is about a gay teen named Jeremy, who has killed himself after bullying at school and home, and then being sent to a "straight camp," that was designed to "re-program" him, cure him of his homosexuality.  The play is a series of monologues told by Jeremy's friends, family, a teacher, and the woman who ran the straight camp he was sent to.  In the first draft, Jeremy appeared only once, near the end of the play, and gave the longest monologue of all, about tolerance and acceptance.

I wrote the play in two writing sessions, at the Thompson Free Library in Dover-Foxcroft, ME. There was company at my house, and a lot going on, which made it difficult to write, and I had this burning idea I had to get down, so I brought my computer to the library and wrote fast.  The play has gone through a number of drafts since that day in 2010, but it a good deal of what I wrote over those two days still remains.

I suppose the question is, why did I feel it was so important for me to get this story down on paper? Here's the thing--- every time I heard a news story about a gay teen who committed suicide, my heart would break.  Whenever I heard a news story about a gay teen who was being bullied and ostracized, my heart would break.  Whenever I heard a news story about a so-called religious group picketing a funeral of a homosexual, not only would my heart break, I would become so angry and disgusted that people could be so cruel in the name of God.  You see, I do identify myself as a Christian, and I think Christians who spew hate speak are not really Christians at all.  Certainly they have the right not to agree with a certain type of lifestyle, no matter how much I disagree with them, but how does hate solve anything?

I had been thinking for a number of years about writing a play that deals with the subject, but every time I did, it was a piece that was attacking the issue from a very angry, overly satirical way, a way that was just as political as it was sarcastic.  A painfully dark comedy type of play.  And while I enjoy a play like that, and have written others about different subjects in that vein, that style didn't feel right to me inside for the story I wanted to tell.

I knew I wanted it to be a HUMAN story first and foremost, where the characters weren't exaggerated.  I knew I wanted the play to transcend the idea of politics, or, at least, blend the political and the personal.  And, of course, I didn't just want to be writing "with a message".  Yes, all playwrights have something to say, and all playwrights, because they are human beings, have thoughts, opinions, and issues they hold very dear.  But to attack a play just from an issue is a tricky proposition, and, at times, an empty one.  Political theater is great, and can make a difference.  It's been around since theater began.  But, if you don't have characters you can relate to, a strong story, and genuine humanity, then you are not serving any message you may be trying to impart.

I was thinking about my idea one day, when suddenly, I just knew I wanted a character to be named Jeremy, and that Jeremy didn't want to be re-programmed.  I have a female friend from college who's name is Jeremy, though she's always been called Mimi. I think that's why the name Jeremy was so strong for me, even though the character is male.  Just having the name for the character made him real to me, a human being, especially since he was named after someone who has always been a great friend to me.  And so I began to imagine Jeremy.  I didn't want him to be flamboyant, or stereotypical, but just a normal teenager with fears, joys, and hopes like any other.  But also knowing he was "different" from the norm.  And then I began to imagine his family, and how is mother wanted to understand him, but couldn't, and how is father tried so hard to love his son, but had his own demons he couldn't conquer.  And it just sort of spread from there.

There's a play I've always liked a great deal called The Incident at San Bajo by Brad Korbesmeyer.  It is a long one act that won the Heidemann Award from the Actors Theatre of Louisville.  It tells the story of a man who tried selling an elixir to residents of a trailer park.  Turns out, this man then poisoned the water of the park, and what he was selling was the antidote.  Only seven people bought it from him.  These seven people tell the story in a series of monologues.  It's a great show, captivating, and I had the chance to direct it once with a high school group.  I love how the show has a documentary feel to it, described by its publisher as a 60 Minutes segment.  The actors answer unheard questions, and tell their story.  They are in different locations, represented by different areas of the stage, and are very different types of people.

I thought this aesthetic would serve the story I wanted to tell very well.  So I decided to give it that same "documentary" type feel in my script.  When Jeremy, who is dead when the play begins, finally does appear, he is somewhat otherworldly, a complete break from the documentary, which had an effect I thought would prove to be powerful.

By writing the play as a series of monologues, it allowed me to get deeply inside each of the characters.  Now, I've never been a teenage girl, or a jock, or a gay teen for that matter, but every character, in some way, came alive for me in some way.  Even the Rev., who's views on homosexuality were the complete opposite of mine.  I found myself digging deep for the humanity of each and every one of them.  Trying to understand their beliefs and opinions, even though it was difficult at times.  And by doing so, not only do I feel the play has a strong message for audiences, the act of writing reinforced a strong message to me--- we are all people.  And though sometimes people are capable of being cruel, even without knowing they are being cruel, they are still people. It is so easy to lose sight of such things when we focus strictly on the political side of an issue.

Even though Jeremy has never been published, it remains one of my favorites of my scripts, and contains some of the best writing I have ever done.

I have a great deal more to say about The Re-Programming of Jeremy--- the initial production, which I self-produced, the wonderful people who believed in the show and helped make it stronger, and how, even now, I am working towards getting the script into as many hands and venues as possible--- but all of this will be reserved for tomorrow's blog post.  So if your curious to learn more about it,  and how it's been rewritten after different productions, and how it's changed over the years, come back tomorrow and read PART TWO of my discussion on the play.

(CLICK HERE to read part two)

And if you are a producer, or teacher, or community theater director who might be interested in reading the show and producing it, drop me a message at theater.is.a.sport@gmail.com.  The licensing rates are very negotiable and fair, and I have seen first hand how audiences react to the piece (which I'll discuss tomorrow).

Until next time--- remember, it's great to write with a message, but make sure the message comes packaged with deep characters and a good story.  And don't be afraid to let your writing teach you something along the way--- it's a great feeling.

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