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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Taking Matters in Your Own Hands: Self-Producing and its Benefits for Playwrights

The Original Cast of  The Re-Programming of Jeremy rehearsing

Greetings everyone, and welcome to Theater is a Sport.  Yesterday, I talked about writing a play with a message, and how and why I wrote my play The Re-Programming of Jeremy.  If you would like to read that post before reading this one, you can click HERE.  Today, is kind of a Part 2 about the life of a play of mine that means so much to me, and still remains unpublished.

So, to pick up:  I had written the first draft of Jeremy, and rather quickly.  I let a few special people read it, and then sent it to an editor of mine to see about publication.  Yes, I know that might seem strange--- in the professional theater, writers always seek productions long before publication.  I must confess, though, that, as a writer for the amateur market mostly (schools and community theater), most of my plays are published before there is ever a production of them.  It's just the nature of my little slice of the business.

In any case, the editor didn't want to publish it.  While he admitted it was a good play, he thought the subject matter a bit too dark, and way too controversial for the school market.  I disagreed, and still do--- gay teen suicide is something that happens. Bullying is something that happens. Misguided religious zealotry is something that happens.  And plays can be a great way to open up discussion about all of these matters.

I did have some doubts, though, not about the subject matter, but the play itself.  Did the structure work?  Would this series of monologues actually play, or would it drag?  And really, with questions such as these, there's only one way to find the answer.  You have to see it in production.

So I decided to produce the play myself.  Something I had never done before.  And, of course, I had no start up capital, and no real idea on how to go about it, but, what the heck?  I had to see the show on its feet, and do my best to get it in front of an audience.

My first step was to create a little production company, which was really a "Bobby Keniston Doing Business As" company.  I went to the Town Office and filled out the paperwork, so I could open a bank account for my "business".  I opened it with $25, the minimum amount out of my own pocket. And then I got to work.

I figured, since I had no money to pay anyone, I would direct the play myself.  I am blessed to have a great number of actor friends I have met over the years with my experiences in community theater, and I asked people to read the script and to be involved with the show.  I was elated that so many said yes.  The original cast was Alyson Saunders, Michael Pullen, Hannah Weston, Sue Burke, Lucas Bret Boffin, and Raelene Keniston (my mom).  I had difficulty finding someone to play the role of Jeremy's father, so, I wound up playing the part, because time was ticking away.

The theater I grew up at, which was literally my summer home all through my youth, and now, my adult years, is a beautiful, historic place called Lakewood Theater.  (You should CLICK HERE to learn more about them, after you read this post).   The general manager is Jeffrey Quinn, who has watched me grow up, and is a dear friend of mine.  Even still, I was nervous to approach him with a proposition.  You have to understand, one of the most expensive parts of mounting your own production can be rental fees for a stage or space.  And Lakewood Theater, which was designed way back in the day to be a Broadway style venue in Maine, would normally cost quite a bit of money to rent.  Much smaller venues, even in Maine, can charge up to $500 a night.  So, I was nervous about making my pitch to Jeff, which was basically, "Hey, Jeff, after Lakewood's last show of the season, can I use the space before you close up for the winter?  I'll split the door with you, 50/50."  He told me yes immediately.  I will always be grateful to him for that.

It helped tremendously that the play was simple to stage--- all we had to do was represent seven different spaces with a piece of furniture and a few props.  At the last minute, a cast member got a friend to run the spotlight for us, and we were good to go.

Though I had never done it before, I jumped into marketing.  I emailed someone I knew from the Morning Sentinel, a newspaper out of Central Maine, and he got me in touch with a reporter who came to one of our rehearsals and talked to us and took pictures (the photo above).  I expected a little story in a sidebar somewhere, and would have been happy with that, but, to my surprise, the story of my play was on the front page, the picture above the fold, with the headline:  "A Play For Our Times at Lakewood Theater".  Above the fold!  My cast and I couldn't believe it.  (I could believe a lot of the negative comments on the online article's page, though--- people writing in that the play was a "gay fluff piece", and that bullying wasn't really a problem.  I expected that.)

As with most low-no budget theater, the cast did far more than was expected of them, including securing their own costumes and many  of the props.  It is not hyperbole to say that each one of those wonderful people owned that first production just as much as I did.  It belonged to them, because they came to it with such love and belief in the story (and belief in me), and they will always be some of my favorite people in the world because of it.  I count them all as my friends, and something even more, something that can only happen when a group of people create something together.

During the rehearsal process, I decided that we waited too long to see Jeremy, the title character. He had one big monologue near the end.  I came up with the idea to have him almost "haunt" some of the other characters speeches, and even say lines with them.  I found this to have a poignant effect, and it got the wheels turning for a re-write.

We performed at Lakewood Theater September 30th-October 1st, 2011.  We had a good turnout, which included a Catholic youth group, and members from Equality, ME.  As advertised, after each performance, there was a discussion between cast and crew and audience, which was magical.  We talked about the issues of bullying, tolerance, acceptance,  The audience would ask questions and I would try to answer them as best as I could.  I was, once again, very impressed with my cast and how eloquently they answered questions directed at them, particularly the seventeen year old boy who played Jeremy.

After the success of those two shows at Lakewood, I brought Jeremy to my hometown theater, Center Theatre, in November of that same year, with most of the same cast.  Hannah was unable to reprise her role, but another excellent actress stepped in and took the part, by the name of Marisa Murray. Marisa immediately gelled with the cast, and her own take on the role, which, while different from Hannah's, was equally effective.

So...

I had performed the play four times, and had some ideas.  I let a few more people read the script.  A good playwright friend of mine named Bradley Hayward (you should check him out by CLICKING HERE) read it, and said he liked it a lot, but was wondering if there were a way to make Jeremy more active.  I agreed.

I wrote subsequent drafts, and started the play with Jeremy, talking directly to the audience. This improved the play's structure as well.  Now, we had a Jeremy who WANTED something.  He wanted to know who he was, he wanted to hear his story through others' mouths, so that he could put it all to rest.  This made a big difference.

This revised draft sat on a shelf for a while, until I was contacted by David Valdes of St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, who wanted to read the script.  He had somehow heard of the play through the different articles written about it in Maine newspapers. He read the script, asked if he could produce it with his high school group, and I had the pleasure of travelling down to see it.  St. Paul's was very kind to me, providing me a lovely guest room, and the opportunity to talk to some amazing students who worked really hard in bringing my play to life.

Since then, there has been interest in The Re-Programming of Jeremy in other places and media. Some wonderful folks in Delaware are trying to raise money to make an independent feature film of it.  I adapted the play into a screenplay, and found the opportunity to address other concerns about the piece.  I had received criticism that the play was against religion because of the extreme character of Rev. Becky Martin.  I never intended this, of course, as I actually identify myself as a Christian.  So I added the part of Pastor Tom, who was only mentioned in the original script, as a more compassionate view of Christianity, and, I added the character of the Vice Principal at Jeremy's high school, again, only referred to in the original, to take some of the heat off of Rev. Becky, by being someone who truly didn't care for Jeremy.  I incorporated a great deal of these changes into the stage play as well.

Right now, I feel, after five years and several rewrites, that The Re-Programming of Jeremy is in great shape, and, it remains a play that I am very proud of.  Had I never produced it myself, I may have never been able to make it the best play that it could be.  This is why I encourage playwrights who are frustrated to find ways to produce their own work.  It teaches you so much, and, you get to see first hand what works and what could be stronger in your script.  It also gives you the joy of seeing your creation come to fruition, and you can't really put a dollar sign on that.

So, while it's true that the play has never been published, The Re-Programming of Jeremy has taken on its own life, and is a play that has effected audiences.  If you're a producer for community theater or school drama, and would be interested in reading the script, feel free to drop me a line at theater.is.a.sport@gmail.com.  The licensing fees are negotiable, as it is a play that I would love to see reach more an more audiences.

Thanks for taking the time to read my post.  Have a great day.

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