The following is based on a post I originally wrote for Dane101.com.
Yesterday I was at the Bartell to hear the five Participating Theatre Companies announce their 2010-2011 seasons. I heard some intriguing plans, among them Jeffrey Hatcher’s Jekyll and Hyde, A Christmas Carol performed in the style of an old time radio drama (a “surprise” announcement from MTG), The Seafarer, and the theatrical psychological thriller Dead Certain. The big highlight for me, though, was when Mercury Players Theatre Artistic Director Rachel Jenkins-Bledsoe announced that Mercury would be opening its sixteenth season with You’ve Ruined a Perfectly Good Mystery!, an interactive, choose your own adventure style play Rick Stemm and I wrote.
The two people we faced in the Blitz Smackdown Round III finals, Megan McGlone and Sam White, are also involved: Megan as co-producer with Bryan Streich and Sam as director. For the benefit of other playwrights I have written generalized steps corresponding to the series of events and connections that led to this very exciting news, along with annotations specific to my experience.
1. Join a playwriting group 14 years before you want to see the play go up.
In 1996, two years after Mercury’s founding, I joined Playwrights Ink, a monthly writing group. It was an indirect route that led me there. Earlier that year attended a writing for radio workshop by Mind’s Eye Audio Productions and from that, a writing group formed that produced shows for WORT’s Access Hour. I wrote and performed short sketches for that project and one of the other writers suggested Playwrights Ink to me, which at the time was workshopping one-minute plays.
2. Write short plays produced in your community.
My first two produced scripts were performed in 1997 for Playwrights Ink’s Festival of One-Minute (or thereabouts) Plays, at the estimable Tom Peterson’s Brave Hearts Theater. I had other short plays produced by Playwrights Ink as well as by Mercury: in 2004 for Gotterdrama-rama and later for Short Shorts.
3. Obtain employment at a company where you’ll meet creative people at least 5 years before the play is to debut.
I met Rick Stemm in 2005 at the Dane County software company where we both work.
4. With a coworker from the company in step #3, collaborate on at least three scripts. If you’re an ISFP or INFP, find someone who’s more on the extraversion side. At least one of the scripts should feature an iconic character from detective fiction.
The first script Rick and I collaborated on was for a short movie to open a mystery-themed conference and featured three great detectives: Holmes, Spade, and [Nancy] Drew. We later worked together on 48 Hour Film Project scripts in 2007 and 2008.
5. See enough productions in your community to acquaint yourself with the abilities of local actors.
6. Respond to a “24-hours from page to stage” call for writers 4 years before.
I had been aware of Mercury’s Blitz for years but it wasn’t until 2006, Blitz VII, that I felt I was ready to write for it. Rick wrote for Blitz in 2007 and 2008.
7. Based on the work produced in steps #2 and #6, obtain an invitation to participate in a competitive variant on #6, where writers and directors meet and select cast members before the writers start the script. By step #8 this event should take place the night before the “standard” event.
In 2008 I was invited to write for Blitz Smackdown Round II, where Megan McGlone directed the play I wrote.
8a. Respond to the general call for writers for the “standard” “24 hours from page to stage” event if the following conditions are true:
i) You must write with a partner to participate
ii) You receive the call before receiving confirmation you’ve been invited back to write for the competitive variant event described in #7.
8b. Respond to the invitation and tell the producers you’ll be writing with the co-writer from step #4.
8c. Obtain an invitation for you and your co-writer to participate in the competitive variant event.
8d. At the event, get assigned a director with improvisational experience.
8e. Select an actor who, based on what you’ve seen of him in other plays (step #5), you know will be a good fit for a role modeled on one of the iconic characters from step #4.
8f. Write a well-received choose your own adventure mystery in under 12 hours.
Steps #8a – #8f reflect my experience with Blitz Smackdown Round III.
9. Begin expanding the play created in #8f.
10. Attend a performance of a play whose staging will provide an influence for your play.
In our case this is The 39 Steps. I had seen a production prior to its Madison run so when I was offered comps to see it and write about it for Dane101, I suggested Rick go in my place.
11. At the performance in step #10, tell a board member of the theater company that produced the events in steps #6 – #8 of your plans for the expanded script.
At the performance of The 39 Steps Rick attended he saw Mercury board president Bonnie Balke and told her of our Smackdown script expansion project.
12. Go to a benefit for the theater company referred to in step #11 and pitch the script to the Artistic Director. Obtain an invitation to submit your play by a deadline that’s tight but doable.
This is what happened between, Rick, Rachel Jenkins-Bledsoe, and me at Mercury’s benefit at High Noon Saloon in December, the day before my birthday.
13. Work on the script earnestly, making use of a cork board and index cards to keep track of scenes, and submit it by the date requested.
The diagram in the photo illustrates the structure we devised and put on the board. So, SPOILER ALERT, I guess.
14a. Go to a performance where you see a director you met when you joined the writing group from step #1 and who…
i) Has been telling you for years to write a full-length play
ii) Has years of experience with new play development
iii) Directed for the event where the initial version of the play was performed
iv) Lives close to a performance space used by the company from steps #6 – #8, #11, and #12.
I met Sam White when I joined Playwrights Ink and he acted in one of the first things I wrote, a one-minute play in which he played “beer incarnate.” In expectedly saw him at Lone Star, where he told me he’d be interested in directing the expanded Smackdown script.
14b. Obtain a statement that the director is interested in directing your play, especially if it’s performed at the space near the director’s home.
Sam’s known for espousing “big choices” in actors so it’s eminently appropriate for him to be directing a play where choices are among its biggest features.
14c. Notify the Artistic Director you talked to in step #12.
And so it was that at the end of April, Rachel told us Mercury would be producing our script at MercLab, 930 Fair Oaks. In addition to having Megan and Sam involved we also have Bonnie has stage manager. Our writing duties aren’t completely finished: we’ll be listening to script readings and making adjustments to create an exceptionally hilarious one-of-a-kind experience starting September 9th.
And if, after reading my Blitz Smackdown III post and this one, you still don’t believe in the theater god(s), I don’t know what’s going to convince you.