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!
I’ve been trying to think of what I want to say about the production of Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras and how things ended up, but there's so much that I don't know where to start. So, I’ll just ramble and see where I end up!
Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras was the first play of mine to be professionally produced. Yes, I’ve had plays produced, but not “professionally.” And the fact that it was a play for families and young audiences doesn’t diminish that experience. Some people have asked me if it’s strange to me that my first play to be produced was a “children’s play.” My answer is no; it’s not strange. First off all, I didn’t write a “children’s play.” Yes, I wrote the play with my son Jack in mind, but I also wrote it for me, an adult (as far as I can tell). I also wrote the play for all the parents that are bringing their kids to the theatre, maybe for the first time. And I wrote it for adults without kids who are curious about what the title means or who love theatre.
What I’ve done is essentially write a Disney movie (maybe Disney Junior tv movie...) for the stage. In a way, I’ve returned to my first love, animation, and used those ideals to create a play that was, hopefully, entertaining to all audiences. There was enough laughter from adults and kids each time I saw it to know that I did have some success! And the fact that my son Jack wanted to see it over and over (I think he saw 5 of the 10 performances) tells me I succeeded in my original intent: write a play that Jack loves.
It went by so fast: the rehearsal process, the growth of the actors into their characters, the performances, the events surrounding the play (interviews, book readings). It all went by so quickly. I feel as though I’ve bungee jumped, and now I’m still springing up and down after the main jump has happened.
Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras isn’t finished. The book is still out there! I have some small rewrites to do and then the play is going out into the world in search for a second production. And third. And fourth...
For me, I still have to work on the next plays: Tatterhood for Columbus School for Girls and, as announced, The Throne of Oz for CATCO is Kids. I’m a working, professional playwright. Yes, I still have a day job, but it’s a good gig. My goal from grad school (over 10 years ago now) was to someday have a relationship with a cool theatre in whatever town I called home. It was a small, simple goal that I had started to fear would never come to fruition. But here I am. You have to define your success. For me, it’s having my plays in front of audiences.
And you know what’s cool? I’m writing for future audiences. I’m writing for audience members who may become lifelong theatre lovers because of my work. Some of the best moments of the production was seeing all the kids, excited about the show before, and even more excited after. Some girls came dressed up as cowgirls, some had boots, some had hats, one came out completely decked out in full regalia! It was awesome. On opening night, I sat in front of a boy named Silas who was 2 1/2 and Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras was his first play. That’s beyond special. It was also great to see so many girls at the show.
After each show, I signed copies of the book and spoke to the parents and kids about the performance. I asked them if they enjoyed themselves and what their favorite animal was. They had a great experience. I had a great experience. The final day of performances, I had run out of books to sell at the performance, so I'd created a way for parents to order a copy that I would then sign and ship to them. My wife offered to hand deliver a couple of them for me since they were near her various errands that week. At one house, a confused mother answered the door. “I’m delivering Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras,” my wife said. From behind the mother came a young girl, “Cowgirls Don’t Ride Zebras! It’s here! It’s here! Can we read it now?” “I guess we’re going to read this now,” said the mother.
My heart is overwhelmed with satisfaction. Thank you to the director, Joe Bishara, for inviting me into this place. Thank you to the actors, designers, and crew who brought this show into being. Thank you to Columbus Makes Art and the Greater Columbus Arts Council for supporting my work.
And thank you to all the audience members who helped this show become a success.
Be excellent to each other.