Not long after I wrote my last post celebrating the 1 year anniversary of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras, I was catapulted into two new worlds: Neverland and Oz. I’m only just now coming up for air, even while still in the midst of my travels to Oz.
In late January, I directed a production of Peter Pan Jr. for the Worthingway Arts Program in Worthington, OH. I worked with about 30 seventh and eighth graders to put on the show. That’s the cast and crew in the pic above. I’m ridiculously proud of what the students accomplished. And, yes, what I accomplished. Not just as a director, but as a teacher. And as a human.
I was doing my best to prove a point to myself and the students. I wanted to prove to them that a director doesn’t have to be a jerk in order to get a great performance from someone. I wanted to show that silliness and kindness is at the heart of theatre as much as drama is. Drama stays on stage. And the reason that it can stay on stage is that the theatre is safe and hospitable to everyone.
I remember throwing things when I directed my first show. Yes, I was a high school student. Yes, I was immature. But that’s what I was taught. I learned that directors get frustrated and shout and yell and throw things. During Peter Pan Jr., I did my absolute best to protect everyone in the process. I wanted the actors and crew to be physically safe and emotionally safe. At the start of tech week, the crew was confused when I was sitting calmly on stage, not panicking, not looking stressed out of my mind. First of all, I was exhausted. Second, as I told them, “we’re just doing theatre.” And that’s it, isn’t it? We’re just doing theatre.
I don’t say that to belittle the art form that I love so dearly; I say it to get at the core of what we’re doing. We get caught up in tech or costumes or performances or precision, but it’s just theatre. It’s putting a story in front of an audience. It’s a connection between the people on the stage and the people in the seats. That’s all. If you have that, then so what if a transition takes longer than I want it to? So what if Peter Pan or Wendy say a line in strange way. Are they telling the story? Are they connecting with each other? Are they connecting to the audience? Are they having fun? Is that fun palpable? Yes? Great. Boom. Done. It’s just theatre.
It was a meaningful and enervating experience for me. I’m still recovering from it! I would leave the house at 6 am to get to work at 6:30, then would leave work at 3 pm to get to rehearsal at 4 pm until 6 pm. Sometimes I would go home after that! In April, I started going to rehearsals for The Throne of Oz after Peter Pan Jr. rehearsals.
It wasn’t every night; I was glad to only be the playwright and not the director! I wish I could’ve been more involved in the process, but the director, Joe Bishara, and the cast and crew have created a beautiful and epic production! When I write plays for all audiences, I tend to think of writing a Disney or Pixar movie. I try to write comedy for small children and adults. I try to keep the proceedings light and bouncy and silly. With The Throne of Oz, I thought I had written a comedy with a laugh a minute, zany and silly. I was wrong.
Watching the audience, I was confused. They were quieter than I had expected. Then, I realized it’s not a silly comedy. It’s an adventure! It’s not a Disney movie! It’s a Star Wars movie! Silly me. I should’ve known. When I was writing it, I was studying Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens with the Storyclock Notebook. I was trying to figure out how to tell a story with new characters and tons of backstory that could stand on its own. I wanted the new characters to be just as interesting, if not more interesting, than characters from the original story. Tip was Rey. Jack Pumpkinhead was BB-8. Mombi was Kylo Ren. I should’ve known!
I eavesdropped on parent conversations, hearing things like, “she loved it” or “she was over the top for it.” So, I know it was having an effect on the audience. One father even brought his daughter to Joe after a show and said, “She loved it so much, she wants to know how she can be involved in a show.” Joe introduced me as the writer of the play, and her eyes grew to the size of pumpkins. She was in shock. Hopefully, she didn’t think I was L. Frank Baum...
The audience reactions mean a lot to me. Seeing kids come down to interact with the characters after the show, posing for pictures, smiles across their faces, it’s unreal. I can’t wait for more audiences to see the show this weekend. Then, I can finally slow down a little. It’s been wonderful being a part of so much theatre. Next year, I’m directing Singin’ in the Rain Jr. and will hopefully be visiting Baker Street.
My book, Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras, celebrated its one year anniversary of being published in January. I didn’t get to celebrate with too much fanfare since I was preparing for rehearsals of Peter Pan Jr., which I’m directed for the Worthingway Arts Program. I look back at my journals and see the planning of the play version of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras beginning to be created. It really is a situation of the chicken and the egg: which came first, the book or the play?
Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras began as an idea for a children’s book. You can read more about the evolution of the story of a baby duck to a book-loving girl named Penny here. My old journals have characters that were cut from the original version of the play: penguins and a giraffe. Cowgirls don’t ride penguins, they don’t want their tuxedos to get dirty. Cowgirls don’t ride giraffes, they’re too busy knitting scarves for winter. The giraffe existed somewhat to get a “winter is coming” joke in there, but also it’s ridiculous and funny to see a giraffe knitting a scarf worthy of the Fourth Doctor.
As we near the year anniversary of the CATCO is Kids production of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras (March 10), I’m proud of the 9 Theatre Roundtable Award nominations the production received! We won two for acting: Abbie Ogilbee (Jack) and Ben Tracy (Ostrich, et al). It was remarkable to see a production that was written for families and young audiences get so much recognition.
I’m working towards getting Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras its next production. The audiences had so much fun with it, I can’t wait for the next time I get to watch it with an audience!
Of course, most of my energy is focused on Neverland (Peter Pan Jr. opens April 20). And on Oz (My play The Throne of Oz opens May 4). Then, I’ll be heading back to Baker Street.
There’s always another project!
The past few months have been busy, intense, and full of blessings. But it’s been grueling. I have more to say about what I’ve been up to soon, but first I need to get some thoughts out about the musical Waitress.
I’ve loved the musical Waitress long before I saw it yesterday. When I first heard they were creating the musical, I wasn’t initially interested in it. I had enjoyed the movie very much when I’d seen it years ago in theaters, but it didn’t feel like a musical to me. However, when I heard the music for the first time over a year ago, it clicked for me. My heart opened up. I got goosebumps. I cried. I was in the break room at my old day job, crying. It had been a long time since a musical affected me in that manner. Yes, I was a mess during Les Miserables, but I don’t cry when listening to the cast album. When I listen to Waitress, I cry every single time. When I’m in the car, I’m walking, I’m at work, it doesn’t matter, when the character Jenna sings the line, “She used to be mine,” and hits that note on the word “mine,” I break. She holds that note as a beautiful, primal scream. Everything that’s been building up in her breaks and it comes out in beautiful pain. I’m tearing up just imagining it; I don’t have to listen to it to cry!
But Waitress isn’t simply about pain. It’s about vulnerability and believing in yourself and finding what’s right in your heart. It’s about expressing yourself honestly in an art form be it pies or plays or printmaking.
Having seen it in person, Waitress officially joins the list of my favorite musicals. It’s sweet, but not saccharine. It’s hopeful, but not trite. It’s honest and genuine. And I can’t help thinking that the answer to its emotional and dramatic success lies in its all-women creative team. I usually find myself drawn to women playwrights such as Caryl Churchill and Sarah Ruhl. My Apple Music has a playlist of Sara Bareilles, Anya Marina, Kate Nash, Norah Jones, and Regina Spektor. There’s something that’s more genuine, richer, and more interesting in the writing of women; that’s been my experience.
I was discussing this with my wife after watching Waitress. The characters were so full and multi-faceted. Even Earl, the villain of the piece, is drawn with strokes where you can see his hurt, his trauma. It doesn’t excuse his behavior, but he’s not one-dimensional. Many of the things he sings and says would be heartwarming if they came from someone else’s mouth.
The ideas baked into Waitress are expressed in such a fresh way. The love song is “You Matter to Me.” It’s the core of what a relationship is: what your partner says, believes, or feels matters. It matters. They matter. They are important to you and you are important to them. Love songs don’t sound like that on Broadway. But they should. Part of this has to do with Sara Bareilles not being a Broadway composer. You don’t feel the musical theatre rules being checked off when you listen to the music of Waitress. The songs stand on their own. But they also fit perfectly, naturally, and, yes, dramaturgically into the musical itself. To make a pie analogy, tart and tangy strawberries are a beautiful, tasty snack on their own, but are also scrumptious in a strawberry pie. (I’m not really a dessert or pie person, but this musical makes me want to eat pies. So many pies. All the pies.)
The other thing that’s striking is the prevalence of the book and script by Jessie Nelson, with much brought over from the film by Adrienne Shelly. In most musicals, the book is so spare and uninteresting. Even in something like Wicked, the dialogue and plot is about half a page before you get a song. Most times, you don’t need to see the show to get the full story, just listen to the music. In Waitress, there are character moments and growth and emotion that happens outside of the music. The script isn’t just a way to get to the next song. It’s necessary for the story and characters.
I can’t say enough about Waitress. There needs to be more musicals, films, plays, and tv shows like Waitress. There need to be more musicals, films, plays, and tv shows written, directed, and created by women.
I look forward to seeing Waitress again. And again. Thank you to the creators of the musical.