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!
On Sunday, I saw Hamilton in Chicago. I'm not quite sure of the full extent of what I learned from the experience, but it's lingering in my mind, and it's making me think.
I've listened to Hamilton a lot. Not as much as some, but more than others. I'm a mid-grade Hamilfan. I can't sing all the lyrics of "My Shot," but I can do a good job with "You'll Be Back." For me, Hamilton has been a solitary experience, usually while wearing headphones, sometimes in the car. But theatre, by its very nature, is a communal experience. You experience it with others, with both those you know and those you don't.
Seeing Hamilton live has had a massive effect on how I see the show and has shaped the way I originally heard specific songs. Songs that I usually would skip, such as "That Would Be Enough," are now essential. My wife rested her hand on my knee at the lyric "I relish being your wife," and that did it. The song's meaning changed. It became personal. Now, it's not simply a song about Hamilton and Eliza, it's also about Chris and Rachael. It's about us. And you have to believe that Lin Manuel Miranda inserted much of himself in there as well. Moments of the show feel vulnerable, too vulnerable to not be personal.
Another observation. There was this survey going around on my Facebook about musicals. It asked people to list the musical they loved, hated, thought was overrated, thought was underrated, and more. A lot of my friends filled it out, seemingly angry that their friends would put things considered to be solely entertaining or trite or fluff. God forbid if someone were to enjoy Cats. Some friends never filled it out, afraid of someone passing judgement on their tastes or their intelligence for what they love. It's crazy, man.
What does that have to do with Hamilton? The audience on Sunday laughed a lot. And cried a lot. The show shifts on a wide, emotional spectrum. Also, the show is both low art and high art. It's entertaining and smart. It's playing in two worlds at once: hip hop and musical theatre. Those two traditions are at odds with each other at times, but they allow for something new to be created. To adapt a Hamilton lyric, theatre is wide enough for entertainment and emotion. A piece of theatre is wide enough for comedy and drama. An audience is wide enough for laughing and crying. We forget that. We forget that high art and low art don't have to be mutually exclusive.
If we make art that is not simply for ourselves, but of ourselves, then the success of something like Hamilton isn't surprising. It's not that Hamilton rewrote the rules of theatre. The rules of theatre have mostly been the same: write what you know, bare yourself onstage, be vulnerable, and tell a good story. Instead of doing things "traditionally," Lin Manuel Miranda did things his way. He was true to himself and the way that he expressed himself. It's the authenticity of expression that grabs me every time.
Be true to yourself. Be true to the way you express yourself. Don't jump on bandwagons. Express yourself with authenticity and heart. Open wounds. Give a sly smile. Put it on stage. Allow your audience to laugh. Allow them to cry. Allow yourself to laugh. Allow yourself to cry.
One more thing. An hour or so before I saw Hamilton, I saw news on Facebook that my theatre professor, steven marc weiss, had died. steven's first year at my undergraduate college was my senior year. I didn't know what to make of him at first. steven was one of the very few people who called me Christopher instead of Chris. (I’m not capitalizing his name because he wrote in all lowercase. Once he was asked why, his answer? “I’m pretentious.”)
I often spoke to steven about animation and cartoons; he spoke to me of German art films and classical music. He impressed me with his knowledge and artistic integrity. I remember going to his house for the first time and walking into a small dining room that had built in bookshelves on each wall, floor or ceiling. They were filled with CDs of classical music, organized by composer, then by conductor. He surrounded himself with what he loved. I always saw him as superior in a way, but he saw me as an equal. Me with all my low art tendencies. The world is wide enough for me and steven. And he knew that. He relished that. He supported that. He supported me. And I'm going to miss him.
Here's a portion of an email from steven that I received in 2011. I'm so grateful to him.
"you remain, for me, one of the special "elite" among coe's theatre alums, one whose dedication to his craft is virtually limitless, who cherishes ensemble and puts his work before himself. for me, you are the embodiment of stanislavsky's charge to "love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art," and i shall always respect you for that!
The day is here! Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras is now available for purchase!
It’s been a long road full of self-doubt, self-exploration, and a lot of fun. When I first envisioned this “simple” book, it was a project that I thought I’d get to “someday.” I don’t know if I believed I’d ever get to it; there was always something more important to work on.
This book is special. This book came out of my love for my son, Jack. When Joe Bishara invited me to write a play for children, I scanned through my list of ideas and the most appropriate one for a play was actually an idea meant for a children’s book. As you can probably guess, that was Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras. I knew I’d be writing the play specifically for Jack, so I made a list of what a play written for Jack would need:
Jack is intensely excited for the play! He asks about going "backstage" a lot. He can't wait! After I created the play, I decided to change that play back into the children’t book I had originally wanted to write. It’s been a long process, but it’s here, it’s real.
What’s been most difficult in this process, I mean, beyond overcoming the self-doubt, was actually finding a process and a workflow. This was my first time creating a children’s book. I watched a lot of YouTube videos about process, but there weren’t too many that were helpful. I spent a lot of time reading children’s books, even without Jack! I read them, trying to understand how many words to put on a page, how large my words could get, how simple my sentences should be. I learned there’s no hard and fast rule for this. There’s no real pattern. A lot depends on reading level, so I went back to the reason for writing the book and concentrated on creating the book and its text for Jack at his level.
I did have a lot of difficulty with the text of the book. The original book idea was very, very simple, but I had expanded it into a play. I liked the expanded characters and new plot of the play. I had to find some way to take that expanded plot and stage business and whittle it down into a simpler story. It took a lot of time. Each time I read the text, I cut it down more and more. Even as I was finishing the artwork, I’d cut the text down.
It would have been ideal to have the text completely frozen while working on the illustrations because it turned out I needed two more drawings than I had storyboarded out. And making last minute revisions to the text meant making last minute revisions to the illustrations. Live and learn.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed drawing as much as I have. I’d missed having drawing in my life considerably. Having finished the book, I haven’t drawn as much. In fact, I’m starting another play. It’s been so long since I’ve started a play, I’m re-learning how to be a playwright again!
There’s a lot of talk about labors of love and this book is truly that. It was conceived of love for my son and created through my love for my son and my love for drawing. Yes, I made it for Jack, but I also made it for me.
Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras the children’s book is now available.
The play premieres in March! For more information, check out CATCO’s website.