You know the guy from the movie Memento? Who could only keep memories for a few minutes before they evaporated, stranding him helpless amidst a maelstrom of confusing events?
Well, that’s me trying to write a full-length play.
Ten-minute plays—a cakewalk. Once I reach the last page of a ten-minute play, I can still dimly recall everything I wrote on the first page. I can remember the purpose which led a character to walk onstage and can double-check that he completed that purpose—or at least gave it his best shot—before granting him permission to walk off again.
But if that character moseyed onstage two acts and 90 long minutes ago, I will be sitting there staring at him on the page thinking, “The name is familiar, but I just can’t place the face.”
As you can imagine, this leads to some embarrassing inconsistencies in the early drafts of my full-lengths. “Chris, I could have sworn that character was described as an albino sword-swallower in scene 3. Are you certain you want him to be taking his vows for the convent in scene 8?” Well, I was certain, but now I guess I’ll check my notes.
So I was always a little jealous of the Greek hero Argus. He had one hundred eyes that never closed. Because nothing ever evaded his gaze, the goddess Hera hired him to keep Zeus from getting his horny hands on a white heifer. (Zeus, the very first drunken fraternity brother.)
If I had one hundred sleepless eyes, besides being a Visine hoarder, I might be able to successfully keep track of the relationships, motivations, secrets, and confessions of my cast of characters throughout the entire length of a full-length play. But I don’t, so I can’t. Few playwrights can. And that’s why Dionysius (when he and Zeus weren’t busy playing Wine Pong or paddling pledges) invented staged readings.
A staged reading provides me with my own personal Argus: the audience. Their roving, restless eyes can spot all the inconsistencies and errors I’ve littered about my script. Have I described a character as a vegetarian in one scene only to have her emerge victorious from a hot dog eating contest in another? Argus the Audience will wildly wave their arms to alert me. Have I assigned three different names to a character’s childhood pet? Argus the Audience will shout out my error (along with their pick for favorite name).
On my last visit to Columbus, MadLab was kind enough to provide a staged reading of Scritch Scritch. The feedback from the audience helped me to write a new draft that was not only less riddled with errors, but teeming with richer characters, sharper conflicts, and more fully realized moments. Without that theater full of people willing to donate their much-pressed time and attention to sitting through a rough read of an even rougher play, I could have never shaped Scritch Scritch into a play worthy of a full-scale production. I couldn’t have done it alone.
Theater is at all points a community effort, even at that point where a playwright is sitting alone in a dark office staring at the latest draft of his play up on a glowing screen. Because he is not staring at it with just his own two eyes. He is staring at it with a hundred other eyes, lent to him by people who know about theater, who care about theater, who make theater possible. He stares at it with the eyes of Argus the Audience.
P.S. Got two eyes to spare on Saturday, September 3, at 5pm? MadLab will be putting on a staged reading of my newest full-length, Playground Rules. Directed by Jim Azelvendre with a cast of Colleen Dunne, Stephen Woosley, Shana Kramer, and Melissa Bair, the play peeks in on a summer night full of swingers and swing sets, see saws and seduction, Gummi Bears and growing up. Pizza, drinks, and the playwright’s gratitude will be served up in abundance.
P.P.S. Yes, I realize that Zeus eventually got his hands on that irresistible heifer by sending Hermes to lull Argos to sleep with a long-ass boring story and then slaying him with his sword. But I promise if you attend the staged reading, you will not be stabbed to death, even if my long-ass boring play puts you to sleep.
P.P.P.S. But I can make no guarantees of safety for your white heifer. Best to leave it at home with Hera.
challenge: what to do with 150lbs of dry ice?
Don't ask how we got it. Just know that it was put to good use....
There was a reading going on, so we used the fog machine to set the mood for them...
Then we went for the big time, dumping all of our remaining dry ice in the cooler and filling it with hot water.
We added lights. And props. We're theatre nerds, after all.
As a dancer, over the years I’ve come to realize what the true job description of being an entertainer is. For one or two hours it is my job to get people to forget about their worries and their strife (cue “The Bear Necessities” from The Jungle Book!). I don’t get to hear their problems, but I have the pleasure of getting them to let go and bring them into another world where they may be at their best happiness. Basically this to me is the definition of a caretaker. Through my writing experience, I’ve come to understand that the term ‘caretaker’ for an artist goes much further than that. Your art is not just about taking care of your audiences’ cares and concerns, but it’s also about taking care of your own.
Before beginning my senior year of high school, I had made the decision that I wasn’t going to go to college directly out of high school. From getting a taste of what the professional dance world was like I came to the conclusion that it was something I want to do for a long time, or really for the rest of my life. Talking about it with friends, family and others who would ask about my “plans for the fall”, I would always do my best to give them the most confident, well-rounded response that I could possibly give, for I am and was very happy with my choice. However, there was a little part of me that was maybe a bit scared. I understood that chasing my dreams might at times be more of a challenge and maybe not as such an easier or safer route as going straight to college, but starting my final year that thought continued to rattle in my head at times.
One day during my writing class Michelle Batt visited to talk about the Young Writers Short Play Festival. When I was making my school schedule the year before I had saw that there was a writing seminar being offered, so in an attempt to get out of gym and being that I’ve always had a love and appreciation for writing, I went ahead and signed up for the class (and was still put in gym, only one semester, but still!). I already had some knowledge of the Young Writers Festival from my junior year, but at the time just didn’t want to submit anything. When Michelle came to my class to talk about it I just kind of thought to myself ‘Well why not? It’s senior year, I’ll try everything!’
What I’ve discovered about who I am as a writer is I am very personal. My style, I’ve come to discover, is very vulnerable and revealing of who I am. I don’t think I ever intended for it to be that way, but it just happens and it’s nothing I can really control. It’s all very natural really. I can remember Michelle told us to “write something you care about”, so when I began writing the script I knew right away that I wanted to write about the decisions I’ve made on my future.
Setting up the script felt simpler than I had anticipated. I just took a conversation I had with myself and basically split myself into two characters. Gave these characters backgrounds and names, turned the conversation into a plot, slapped on a title and Ba-Boom, a play was created! In reality it was built around a line that I had already thought of; what I wanted to say to all the naysayers out there really.
Submitting it I honestly didn’t thought that it wasn’t going to get chosen as one of the lucky 10 plays to get produced. I believed in my work and what I had wrote, I’m just the type of guy that never gets their hopes up just in case things may fall through and not having to face even more disappointment. I will never forget it – the night of January 5th I was packing my bags to go live in Milwaukee by myself for a month because I had recently gotten into a professional dance company and had to leave to begin rehearsals right away. Then all of a sudden I get a call from Michelle saying “Hi, I’m Michelle Batt with MadLab Theatre and we want to produce your play with the 2016 Young Writers Festival”. When I went to go tell my parents they were actually completely flabbergasted because I guess I never told them I wrote a play and they were also dealing with sending off their 17 year old to live by himself for a month… so I guess I understood their shock.
Going to the first read-through and seeing it come somewhat to life, I was honestly a little concerned. I felt like my show was in no comparison to any of the other shows, my story line was corny and predictable, lines were a mess – it’s safe to say I was somewhat stressed. It took me a few more attempts to finally come to a draft I was happy with, but with the help of the MadLab ensemble actors and my amazing mentor Jason Beehler, doing re-writes was actually very pleasing to me in ways I wouldn’t understand until I was doing them.
My two very good friends Devante Brown and Lake Wilburn played the two characters. I’ve known Lake since I was eight, my freshmen year I went to the same school as both of them at Centennial HS before switching to Fort Hayes HS and developed a stronger relationship with Devante, and also was given the privilege to choreograph Centennial’s musicals in my junior and senior years and was honored to work with both of them, Devante for both years. Our first rehearsal together with director Jim Azelvandre was so thrilling to me, and to have the characters be played by two of very close friends of mine whom I adore made this experience that much more amazing.
All in all, what I’ve learned through this experience with MadLab is that my art, my piece, truly is my own personal care. Hearing it, and seeing it performed and put on I’ve realized that writing it was really my clarity with the whole situation. I never knew how somewhat insecure I was about my decision until I actually sat down and wrote it out for others to hear and see being enacted. Artists truly are caretakers, and the beautiful thing about art is we get to learn how to take care of ourselves.
I don’t know what all the future has in store, but I’m excited more than ever to see it unfold, and you can believe there is going to be a lot of writing involved with it. I really just have MadLab to thank for that.
Chris Colgan was set to make his MadLab debut last summer, in the 2015 Young Writers Program, when disaster struck. Here is his story:
All the good actors were busy. MadLab looked way down into the bottom of the barrel and there I was. Honestly I was shocked to get the call from Andy telling me they had a role for me. I had auditioned in 2014, which was my first audition ever, and wow did I stink. I didn't get a role that year. I didn't think the 2015 was much better but it must have been. I was offered the role of Louis in Cards by Julia Stonerook.
The best way to describe the experience is new. It was all new to me. I was taking classes with ATC which was more of a training experience and had done a Christmas show with WCT with my boy which was a big family production. Cards was not a comedy. Four friends meet for a weekly card game. The fifth friend didn't show. Turns out he died earlier that day. Heavier stuff than I was used to dealing with. Michelle and Lexi (the director and assistant director) were very patient and were able to guide me to where I needed to be in the role. And it really helped to be surrounded by an awesome cast. RJ, Mike, and Joe were fantastic to work with and as the only rookie in the cast I knew I could learn a lot from them. Oh, and we all had to learn how to play poker. Not one of us knew how to play, except for the high school girl who wrote the play.
We were ready to go. I was ready to go. I was proud of what we were about to show the audience. But it turns out the script was a bit too prophetic. The morning the show was to open I went to the hospital with what I thought would be something painful but minor and I would be home in a few hours. Instead I was admitted, told it was something that could have been life threatening but the threat had passed, and that full recovery would be closer to six months.
Upon finding out that Chris would not be able to perform, Andy Batt stepped into the role at the last minute. Chris was able to make it to a performance, and he watched the show he should have been a part of.
It was seriously bizarre, like seeing yourself in the third person or something. Andy Batt was in my role and he did a fantastic job. How he was able to accomplish in 8 hours what took me 6 weeks is beyond me. That's some talent right there.
Chris came back to audition again in 2016, despite being nervous.
Auditions were just as intimidating. I thought I stunk just like the previous times but somehow I got another role. These people at MadLab just won't give up!
(This year) I'm just a tiny bit more relaxed and the play is a comedy. At least I think it's a comedy. Mike and I have turned it into one so I hope it is or the writer will be very upset.
On MadLab and the Young Writers Program:
First, the YW festival is fantastic and so important. What an incredible opportunity for young people. Everyone involved in this should be very proud and I hope the festival is around for many years.
Second, it's the people. Theatre is the most open and accepting community. Everyone is welcome, you just have to try. I was a bit apprehensive about returning this year after what I did to opening night last year, but far from being rejected I was welcomed as if I had been here for years. It's a good feeling.
*Extra credit - do you remember any of your lines from LAST year's show?
For fuck's sake.
I'm not swearing, that was my favorite line from last year.
MadLab's Young Writers Talk About Playwriting and Being a Woman in the Theater World.
This year marks the fifth year of MadLab Theatre’s Young Writers Short Play Festival. Young Writers participants Maddie Conley and Hannah Woods talked to 2017 (and 2012) MadLab playwright Tira Palmquist about being a female in the theater world and about their experiences in the Young Writers program.
Maddie Conley and Hannah Woods: What made you want to start writing plays?
Tira Palmquist: Before I was a playwright, I was an actor. I also used to be a poet. I have always loved writing, and writing poetry was challenging and satisfying as a means of self expression, but
limited in terms of the kinds of issues, stories, themes and ideas I wanted to write about. The transition from writing poetry to writing plays was a relatively easy transition, though, because of my background and training in theater.
MC and HW: How long have you known about MadLab?
TP: When I lived in Columbus back in the 90s, I started working in the theater, and I knew several of the original MadLab folks. I recall their wild Bacchai, which I loved. I've always admired their dedication to new plays and playwrights. I answered a call for scripts a few years ago, and they selected my play Age of Bees for their 2012 season (directed by Jim Azelvandre. I also wrote a short play (Edward Snowden Died for Our Sins) for a 3 in 30 show in 2013.
MC and HW: What advice do you have for female young writers?
TP: First, keep writing. A lot of girls give up because of the stupid and awful resistance they'll get from people who don't take these girls seriously, or who don't value the stories they have to tell.
Second, tell your stories! Tell the stories that you must tell, the stories that, without which, your life would mean less, be less. Third, surround yourself with people who get what you're doing, and who value that. I don't mean that you should surround yourself with people who love you and love everything you're doing: I mean that you should find people who inspire you to write better, write
more, write harder who inspire you to improve and grow and change and evolve.
MC and HW: Why is it important to have female voices in theatre?
TP: Well, we're half the population! But seriously: If we shut off any voice, we become smaller.
What did it feel like to see your play come alive?
MC: It was magical. It was like going to DisneyLand for the first time, almost. It was surreal. There's nothing like being able to mouth the lines along with actors, you know?
HW: I remember sinking back into my seat in a blend of shame and pride. There was a little bit of they are saying the words I made up mixed with why would I write that.
TP: Can you describe your experience with the Young Writers project at MadLab?
MC: Young Writers was one of the best experiences of my life. From the first moment I stepped inside the theater, I felt welcomed, believed in, and understood. I learned so much from the entire process, from editing and balancing my script to the audition process and how a show comes to life onstage. I bonded really closely with my fellow writers, and I made friends who I know will be friends for life. There is no opportunity for high school writers that can match the Young Writer's Festival. Getting involved with this project could honestly change your life. It changed mine.
HW: The Young Writers Short Play Festival is truly a once in a lifetime experience. As soon as I stepped into MadLab I realized that this was a place filled with people who cared about what young people had to say and cared about amplifying the voices that others don't hear. MadLab truly values a collaborative spirit and the process of building great shows together. Anyone who has ever had a fleeting thought about writing a play should experience how much their creative ability will be stretched and strengthened by this program.
TP: What's next for you (in the world of theater)?
MC: Who knows! I hope to keep writing, learning, and lurking around MadLab until they kick me out.
HW: I have no idea! But I know that I'll keep writing and hanging around MadLab until they make me sweep the lobby or something.