It’s been officially announced! My play, Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras, is premiering in March 2017 at CATCO is Kids in Columbus, OH! There’s a website! It’s real! This play has been a journey and continues to be a journey for me. The idea for the play began as an idea for a children’s book. My son, Jack, loves the zoo, loves animals, and when he was a little younger, we picked up a zoo membership and frequented the Columbus Zoo. (Side note: we’re probably heading to the zoo later today!) At that time, Jack was also intensely interested in ducks. We bought a “Duckumentary” that was narrated by Paul Giamatti, which Jack loved. Somewhere between all the zoo visits and the ducks, my brain flashed the image of a little duck in a cowboy hat, sitting on a zebra. I honestly can’t remember what I was thinking about before this image flashed into my mind, but I remember the cartoon image that emerged very clearly: the tiny, yellow duck perched on the back of a zebra. The zebra had his head turned to look at the duck with a look that said, “What the heck are you doing?” I knew this duck and zebra were something that I wanted to explore further, but was already deep into other projects, so I added it to my list of projects. “Cowboys Don’t Ride Zebras.” In my mind, I saw a children’s book that followed the story of this duck, sitting on different animals at the zoo, not understanding the concept of being a cowboy.
Every so often, I’d find myself making a quick sketch of a duck wearing a cowboy hat, playing around with varying levels of anthropomorphism: dots for eyes, eyes with pupils, wings to the side, arms and hands, clothes, no clothes. A baby duckling in chaps is a little odd.
The project stayed firmly on the back burner, something that I would return to when the right time came. Then, the plan changed. I had lunch with Joe Bishara, Associate Producing Director at CATCO, with whom I'd worked on the staged reading of my play Books & Bridges. Joe asked if I’d be interested in writing a play for kids. I’d never considered it before, but being a father and wanting my son to see theatre, I said, “Yes.” I didn’t know what story I had that would make a fun play... I’m sure you know where this is going... “Hey, what if I take that children’s book idea about the duck and turn it into a play?” Done. With that decision, the idea transformed and it transformed quite significantly.
First of all, the story had to expand and gain a plot. The children’s book idea was simply going to be pictures of a duck sitting on different animals with text explaining why the animals wouldn’t be helpful to a cowboy: “Cowboys don’t ride flamingos. They can’t run on one leg.” In turning the book into a play, I’d have to come up with more characters and come up with a dramaturgical reason why this duck was going to each of these animals. In addition to that, I had made a personal promise that I would assume all main characters of my plays to be female unless it was specifically necessary to the plot of the play. There aren’t enough roles for women, so that’s my small contribution towards equality: assume the default main character is female instead of male. With those thoughts in mind, the play became "Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras" and was the story of Parker the duck who loves books so much, she tries to emulate whatever she reads. If she reads about astronauts, she finds a way to be an astronaut. I gave her two friends: Cassandra and Jack. It was difficult to add dialogue and to expand each interaction. I had a rough time at the beginning. Once I got into it, however, the flow was steady, and I knew what I was doing. I started sketching pictures of three duck friends. With hair? Is that how to make a female duck?
After finishing a few drafts and a period of waiting, I sat down with Joe again. It was at this time I learned that the play would premiere in March 2017. Joe had some great notes, including one small, yet big one. Could the ducks not be ducks? Could they be children? He imagined a production with children playing the roles of Penny (name change!), Cassandra, and Jack, while adults would play all the animals they encounter. The initial image of that duck on the back of the zebra flashed in my mind over and over as I considered Joe’s question. I had held onto that image since the play was a children’s book... But I made the change. Penny, Cassandra, and Jack are children, and I feel great about that decision.
The journey continues as I’m now trying to take the play and adapt it back into a children’s book! My hope is to be able to have copies of the book for audiences to buy and take home when they see the play. It’s been hard to reduce the story now that I’ve expanded it. I’ve been struggling with the text of the book to bring it halfway between the very simple idea it once was and the expanded, play version that exists now. I’m very close. And now, instead of ducks, I’m sketching three kids. I have a long way to go, but I’m getting the work done and loving it.
Keep creating and, as always, be excellent to each other.