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January 23, 2015

Right for the Stage

Do you know Herb Gardner’s 1974 play THIEVES? Although it wasn’t a moneymaking hit, it did run a respectable nine months and spawned a 1977 film. It concerned one Sally Cramer, now suddenly 33, in job trouble, financial difficulties and marital woes. Such distress sends you to your parents for advice – not that they’ll necessarily have any answers.

This time a father does. Sally’s dad tells her that she was one of so many children that her mother didn’t know what to do. So, with a little illegal finagling from a friend who worked for the city, the Cramers were able to lie and get Sally into kindergarten at four, not five, and got one more child out of the house.

As Joe explained to his daughter, “You were a kid, we were afraid you’d spill the beans at school, so we didn’t tell you. Coupla years go by, I kept meaning to tell you, but I started to notice I wasn’t rich, and I thought – what could I ever give you? I finally figured I’d give you time when you needed it. You need it now. So there it is: you’re not 33; you’re 32. You got a whole year. Don’t blow it.”

Isn’t that marvelous? I also mention it because it’s relevant to what I’m here to tell teenagers who already consider themselves playwrights, or ones who plan to be -- or ones who might consider writing a comedy or drama after reading this.

The Educational Theatre Association, The Thespian Festival, Samuel French and Dramatics Magazine collaborate on a terrific program for teenage playwrights called Thespian Playworks. If you have a one-act play ready to go on your computer, the deadline for submissions is Friday, Jan. 23, 2015.

Yes, you missed it. But now, like Sally Cramer, “You got a whole year. Don’t blow it.” Begin refining what you’ve written, or start rewriting or sit down and say what’s on your mind and structure it as a play.

If you’re one of four winning playwrights, yes, you’ll have to get to Lincoln, Nebraska next June on your own to see your play staged. But The Educational Theatre Association does cover the cost of room, board, and Festival registration. Says Julie York Coppens, Associate Editor of Dramatics Magazine, “Sometimes we can arrange for air or bus air travel with another troupe if students are coming on their own. We’re working on adding some kind of travel assistance to the prize package. But the students do get paid $100 when we publish their scripts, a few have been awarded Thespian scholarships of $500 or more and some receive a little royalty income from subsequent productions of their plays.”

That happens because, as Abbie Van Nostrand, Samuel French’s Director of Corporate Communications says, “We’ve participated over the past five years not only by sponsoring the program but also by publishing an annual collection of the four winning plays.”

You’ll also get coverage on Samuel French’s sensational new website: “Breaking: (Character)” --

Ready? Set? Go! Don’t be afraid to write fanciful characters. Caleigh Derreberry (of Brookwood High School in Lilburn, Georgia) certainly delivered in her THIS PLAY IS ABOUT PIRATES. The characters included Jim and James – two different versions of the same character, with the former being three years older than the latter. After she added Widowin’ Wallace (whom she described as “a pirate, a lover, a pain”), Pat (“a pirate with a limited vocabulary”), Sully (“a pirate with limited patience”) and Mary, a damsel who’ll encounter some distress, the dramatic possibilities became apparent.

Similarly, Francis Bass from Leon High School in Tallahassee, Florida, wrote THE TRIAL OF ADBOT 579, in which a robotic-like machine will be assessed to see if he-she-it is “indistinguishably human.” If not, it will be sold for parts. And while the judge comes to the conclusion that the adbot isn’t human, both adults and the students in the Nebraska audience weren’t nearly as certain.

Meanwhile, Derick Edgren dealt with a mythical creature of the sea in his play SKIN. While some of it did take place in the ocean, most of it was set in Northern Ireland – which should be a reminder to you to think outside the good ol’ USA for locales.

Edgren had a kid growing up with a dying mother and an alcoholic father, which brings us to our next piece of advice. Don’t be afraid of controversial subjects. Take WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT PLANNED PARENTHOOD by Alexa Derman of Westfield High School in New Jersey. When it was published in Dramatics Magazine, it was preceded by this announcement: “This play deals with issues of abortion, drug addiction, co-dependency and other mature subjects, and it contains language that may not be appropriate for the classroom or the school stage.” Also mentioned: “There are five instances in the dialogue where we asked the playwright to provide alternative language in place of one word (it begins with an ‘f’) we generally avoid publishing in this magazine; a single instance halfway through the play remains, because the playwright felt – and we agreed -- that any substitute phrase (such as ‘messed up’) would not carry the line’s full impact.”

What this means, young playwrights, is that if your work is good enough, you’ll get much of what you wrote and won’t have to fully capitulate – just as Tony-winning and Pulitzer-prized playwrights have learned to do.

In Lincoln, you’ll also get a professional dramaturg who’ll give advice. Last June, Nicholas C. Pappas stressed legendary director Peter Brook’s “acid test” – where an ingredient in a play is so unforgettable that it makes an imprint as long-lasting as an acid scar on a face. The expressions on the four playwrights’ faces varied from “I’ve GOT to have that!” to “I THINK I’ve done that” to “I’m SURE I’ve done that” to “If I change one thing, then I WILL have that.”

Not bad, kids – being published and licensed while you’re still in high school. Now it’s up to you to do the rest. When you’re done writing, apply at

Suddenly I’m thinking about another Herb Gardner play: THE GOODBYE PEOPLE, his 1968 comedy. Arthur is glumly telling his new friend Nancy that “I’m 41 today,” to which she instinctively responds, “Come on – 41’s not old” – to which he winces and says, “I know, but it just happened the day after I was 21. I should have left a wake-up call for 30.”

So what about you writers who are far from teenagers and, for that matter, are working on musicals, not plays?

Tim Jerome, who’s currently Monsieur Firmin in Broadway’s THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, is looking out for you. Main Street Musicals, which he started in 2010, is pro-active in getting new musicals noticed around the country.

“And it’s cost-free,” says Jerome, who three decades ago began The National Music Theater Network, a forerunner of this company. “All the key operations involve volunteers.”

Submit a script and score both of which will be given to two directors – but only after your name(s) have been removed so there can be no hint of favoritism. “The directors read a show and fill out six-page evaluation report of book, music and lyrics as well as assessing the presentation materials,” says Jerome. “It’s meant to be valuable in the rewrite process.”

If you get two thumbs-up, you’re a semi-finalist – 14 were last year -- and you may even find a director who’s interested in working with the material.

Whatever the case, a jury of 19 – writers directors, actors and affiliates – narrows the selections to six. Says Jerome, “I give those half-dozen to eight ‘guest artistic directors’ – Graciela Daniele, Patricia Birch, Martin Charnin, John Lithgow and Michael Mayer have been among them – and they pick the three to which we give staged concert readings.”

Don’t look for the selected shows to be seen in New York – at least not for a while. As the name Main Street Musicals implies, part of Jerome’s mission is to bring shows to the regional communities. Thus, Main Street’s festivals take place in such big hubs as Houston and Seattle and such “Where’s-dat?” places as Waterville (Ohio, in fact).

Says Jerome, “We’ve even done some shows as benefits in Sarasota and Cleveland. Such readings are essentially backers’ auditions for the town. The regionals double, triple and quadruple the number of possibilities for these shows,” says Jerome. “My feeling -- which goes back 30 years -- is that only by volunteer efforts can we get these works to the point where regional producers can commercialize them. Otherwise, many of these works won’t go anywhere.”

The real surprise is that Main Street Musicals isn’t out to own a work or even take a cut of its future earnings. “We’re not producers,” says Jerome. “We have nothing to do with the shows once they’ve left our stage. After a reading, if someone from a theater wants the show, we send them to the writers.”

So does Jerome’s mission stem from the goodness of his heart? Yes and no. While altruism is involved, he’s also doing this so that artists who work in other capacities can be employed. As he says, “Because most writers write on spec, directors and actors must wait for something to happen. Now they can help develop a work so that it can be produced in an expanded market.”

Indeed. Taking those scripts out of a hard drive or drawer and onto a stage puts that many more people on a payroll. And as we’ve all known from bitter experience, being unemployed doesn’t make anyone feel good about himself.

Two of the 2014 winners -- MERTON OF THE MOVIES by Donald Brenner and Doug Katsaros and UNDER FIRE by Barry Harman and Grant Sturiale -- were recently shown at Temple University in Philadelphia. And given that the 2015 musical winners have been announced – THE GIG by Douglas J. Cohen, A GOOD MAN by Ray Leslee and Philip S. Goodman and HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY by Roger Ames and Elizabeth Bassine – the best you can be is a 2016 winner.

You’ve got a whole year. Don’t blow it.

         — Peter Filichia



You may e-mail Peter at

Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at

and each Friday at

His book, Strippers, Showgirls, and Sharks: A Very Opinionated History of Musicals That Did Not Win the Tony Award,
is now available at

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