Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Posts Tagged ‘short plays

A few weeks ago, my 10-minute play “The Code” won first prize in the 2009 Front Range Playwrights’ Showcase at Coal Creek Community Theater in Louisville, Colorado.  “The Code” is the first play in Senior Moments, a series of 5 short plays I’ve written for Tim Englert and Ellen Ranson, two actor friends of mine, to present at senior residences.

Tim and Ellen — they’re “well-seasoned” adults — call themselves the “Silver Circuit” when they tour performing plays for older audiences.  Earlier this year, they told me that they were having difficulty finding two-person plays for one older male and one older female actor to present at senior residences.  They asked me if I’d be interested in writing something specifically for them. I jumped at the chance.

The last two plays I’d written were Shakespeare Incorporated and Postville. Both are large cast, large set, full-length plays and, frankly, I was burned out.  So the prospect of working on short, comedic plays was particularly appealing.  Especially something with strict requirements — one elderly male and one elderly female actor, minimal set and production requirements — and one which would have have more or less guaranteed productions when I was finished.

Senior Moments is now finished and Tim, Ellen and I are scheduled to present it in a dramatic reading at Golden West, a large senior residence in Boulder, on September 24th.  After that, they’ll start to perform it at homes for the elderly up and down the Front Range in Colorado.

Today there was a wonderful article in the Boulder Camera newspaper about Tim, Ellen, Silver Circuit, and “The Code.”  Take a look.

the-debate-3The opening of my play, “The Debate,” about Charles Darwin was this past Saturday night.  I’m playing the role of Darwin in it.  That’s me, hamming it up in the picture.

When Madge Montgomery, the Artistic Director of the Theater Company of Lafayette, spoke to me about submitting a script for their Lincoln/Darwin play festival (Lincoln and Darwin were both born on February 12th, 1809), I knew relatively little about either man.  Having lived 20 years in England, I was more intrigued with the idea of writing something about Darwin, and I had a feeling that more of the submissions were going to be about Lincoln.   So I went on-line and spent about 15 hours reading everything I could find on Darwin, his family, his colleagues, Victorian England, ….  Then I headed off to the University of Colorado library and got out Darwin’s autobiography, as well of that of Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s protege and self-proclaimed “bulldog.”

When I started the research, I didn’t have any idea what I was going to write about.  One thing that I was certain of was that I didn’t want to write about the controversy over whether or not evolution is scientifically valid.  (Of course it is.  Sorry, Creationists.)

But since I’ve started as a playwright, I’ve found that when I immerse myself in a subject, something invariably presents itself that has to be written.

In this case, I soon became caught up in Darwin’s description of his relationship with Huxley.  Darwin had formulated the bases of the theories of evolution and natural selection by the time he was 29, but he realized what social, religious and political dynamite he was dealing with.  So he spent the next 20 years gathering more evidence and biding his time.  Then a colleague named Wallace sent him a letter with many of the same ideas, and Darwin rushed “Origin of Species” out in a few months.  A year later an impromptu debate occurred at the Oxford Museum of Natural History pitting the supporters of evolution against the Creationists.   Darwin, who was ill and house-bound most of his life, wasn’t at the debate, but Huxley was and defended Darwin’s theories.

In Darwin’s autobiography, he talks about how he would constantly chide Huxley for being so aggressive in attacking everyone who dared to question his (Darwin’s) theories.  In contrast, Darwin was deeply into being a gentleman scientist and believed in dealing civilly with everyone.

The action of my play occurs a few weeks after the Oxford Debate, when Huxley comes to Darwin’s house to tell him about what had transpired.  And the “Debate” of the title refers to both the Oxford Debate and the heated debate that Darwin and Huxley engage in on a scientist’s responsibility to take into account the potential impact of his discoveries before making them public.

Thoughtful stuff for a loose cannon like me, who has a habit of deciding what he thinks needs to be done and declares “Full speed ahead,” huh?

The next day, I did a gig as Darwin at a Unitarian Universalist service in the area.  The Unitarians, and the Universalists in particular, claim Darwin as one of their own.  After speaking with the Reverend, I made up an extract from the play that seemed relevant to the theme of their service.  In costume and with my phony British accent coming and going, I addressed the congregation.  They seemed to enjoy it, and it was a real kick for me.

I’d never been to a Unitarian service before, and I must say that it was a revelation for me.  Much of what I heard was what has been going through my head for the last 50 years.  It was a lot like coming home after a lifetime away.

After the service, a woman came up to me and said that she thought she’d worked with me many years earlier.  It turned out that we had trained together in Chicago in January, 1974 (!!!) before flying together to Iran and teaching English as a Foreign Language in Tehran for the Iranian army.  (See “Up close and personal — with your chicken thighs” and “Banging on doors, yelling ‘Those Bastards.’ “)

Small world, huh?  Amazing that she’d recognize me after all these years.  I guess it’s because I’m succeeding in my obligation to live forever and stay young and beautiful all that time.  On the other hand, I do have a painting in the attic that’s getting old and ugly!

I’ve been puttering around with a small start-up theater group in Boulder for the past couple of months. The vision for this year is that the group will call for previously unproduced, one-act plays from regional playwrights.  The “reading committee” will select the best plays and present them in public reading evenings from February through September 2009.  Then, the best scripts would be produced in an evening of short plays.

We’ve posted listings in several playwrights’ newsletters and arts events calendars and so far have received about 10 scripts.  So far, so good.  The problem is that that all anyone seems to want to write about is unhappy people sitting around at funerals agonizing over their relationships with the deceased and bitching about their unhappy lives.  No kidding, a significant portion of the plays have somehow managed to have that same plot line.  And most of the rest of the scripts are about unhappy people somewhere other than a funeral agonizing over their relationships with still-living people and bitching about their unhappy lives.

One of the cardinal rules for playwrights is that all of your characters must have strong desires, and something must get in the way of their achieving their desires.  They will struggle to overcome the obstacles, and sometimes they will succeed (comedy) and sometimes they won’t (tragedy).  In my book, desiring to sit around bitching about how unhappy you are just doesn’t satisfy that instruction.

wayne-newton1A few months ago I submitted a short play for a call for scripts.  The requirements were that the plays had to be between 30 seconds and 4 minutes long, they had to be about Las Vegas, and they had to use the words “Wayne Newton.”  Wacky, huh?  I thought so.

In response, I wrote, “Tough Town.”   In “Tough Town,” a down-on-his luck Wayne Newton comes into a seedy booking agent and tries to get a job as a Wayne Newton impersonator.  At first, the booking agent doesn’t believe that the person he’s talking to really is Wayne Newton.  He’s just another kook star impersonator who’s gotten carried away in the role.  In any case, there’s not much demand for Wayne Newton impersonators, so the agent tries to give him a gig as an Elvis impersonator.  But Wayne doesn’t do Elvis; he really is Wayne Newton!  The elvis1agent is unconvinced.  If this really is Wayne Newton, he must be worth millions of dollars and have people breaking down his door to offer him concert gigs.   So now Wayne must persuade the agent that he is short of cash and that he can’t get a job anywhere.  At the play’s conclusion, the agent has convinced  Wayne to don a honey-blond wig, and is training him to be a Celine Dion impersonator.

Over the course of the play, Wayne needs to convince the agent: a) that he really is Wayne Newton; b) that he really is broke and needs a job; and c) that even if there is infinite market demand, he isn’t going to lower his standards to doing Elvis.  The agent: a)  needs to convince this seeming madman that he believes him; b) needs to find him a job that is in demand and that will earn them both some money; and c) needs to get him to agree to do something (someone) other than Wayne Newton.  Wayne Newton’s character goes from being somewhat arrogant and inflexible, to humbling himself and compromising his principles.

All this happens in about 3 minutes. Lots of high-stakes needs from the characters, lots of action, lots of humor.  Nobody sits around bemoaning their unhappy pasts.

Sure, good scripts usually come from what the playwright cares about.  But writing plays must also be about entertaining the audience.  Wallowing in morbid, autobiographical self-pity rarely does that.