In a few short hours, I'll begin my trek to one of my artistic havens: Nashville. The Music City has been more than gracious to me on the playwriting front. This weekend, the talented folks at Street Theatre Company will open my latest full-length play, The Legend of Robin Hood. Yep, that Robin Hood. Sword fights. Archery. Ballads. Kings. Queens. Family. Love. Betrayal. Heroes. Outlaws. It's my take on the legend, so you know there's going to be some twists and surprises. It's, hands-down, the most epic thing I've ever written. And two years ago, I never could have predicted myself writing it.
Since finishing grad school, the plays I've written have surprised me, inspired me, but are nothing that I expected to be writing. If you've only come to know me recently, then you'd probably know me by my literary and historical reimaginings (yeah, I made that word up, but it aptly describes what I've been writing). Whether it was Ichabod: Missing in Sleepy Hollow or my Grove City History Play, or my new take on the merriest outlaw in Sherwood, my plays of late have focused on bringing audiences an old favorite story and showing it to them in a new light. But what's the real surprise of all this? How about who I've been writing for? What I've been writing? But probably not for the reasons you think.
When I was in school, I was always trying to write heavy family dramas, plays that I thought would stand up against Death of a Salesman or Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. (No, I wasn't aiming big or anything.) I wrote about the collapse of journalistic ethics, the destruction of mom & pop businesses, and the state of hydraulic fracking in the Heartland. And I love those plays, but in looking back, I think I might have let the auspices of grad school fill me with some notion that I had to write about world-changing issues; I had to make a statement; I had to write importantly. Yeah, importantly.
Then, last year, as grad school finished up, I heard about a contest in Nashville. A theatre was looking for a new version of the classic The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. For their youth program. To be performed by kids. Fun fact: the first play I was ever in, ever, my first true theatrical venture (not counting the middle school "musical" I was forced into by my choir teacher) was a play by adults for children called I Didn't Know That. It was fun. It was informative. It was exhausting (it was a bunch of grown-up playing a zillion characters to teach youth audiences the little known facts about the stuff in our world). So now, more than a decade after that, and after three years of trying to write importantly, I had the chance to write this play, my version of Ichabod and Sleepy Hollow, and I told myself to relax. To have fun. To write a play that I'd watch now and that I'd watch when I was 12 and that I'd want to perform at any age. To write a play that was just... engaging.
Important. Engaging. These are buzz words we use. The bottom line is, Ichabod was the first play I'd written in a long time that I could watch over and over. Again, I love my grad school plays; but anyone who saw them knows they're not the kind of play you watch over and over. You watch them. You take them in. You talk about them. You move on. But that seems weird to me because I love watching my favorite movies over and over ---- shouldn't I want to watch my plays over and over? And over? Yeah. I should. As I came to that realization, I came to another.
When I started writing plays like Ichabod and Robin Hood, I didn't know how to classify them. Children's theatre? Theatre for youth audiences? Yeah, and then no, on both. Yes, these plays have been developed to be performed by a youth acting troupe. They're also written to be performed by adults. And who's the audience? Kids? Yes. Adult? Yes. I call them "Theatre for ALL audiences" --- because I'm a firm believer that these plays should be enjoyed by families. They should be plays that kids enjoy, but that the adults in the audience enjoy as well. And I say that for two reasons.
One, young people should experience the theatre. That is, by far, the most rewarding aspect of working with Street Theatre Company ClassAct Dramatics --- knowing that, right now, tonight, almost three dozen youth actors, ages 8-17, are performing a play together. I wasn't in a play until I was in college. I didn't know the theatre very much until I was almost 20. And some people don't come to know it until much later, if at all. My friend Eric Coble, a wonderful playwright, recently mentioned in a Facebook post (and I'm sorry, Eric, I'm gonna butcher this in paraphrasing), there is sometimes an attitude towards "children's theatre" --- that it's not as "important" as the kind of theatre that wins Pulitzers or Tonys. It's not Death of a Salesman. But really, isn't it more important? Plays for kids to perform or see should inspire them. We should put everything into them to make them engaging, real, and the best example of our craft. If theatre isn't accessible from the start, why would kids grow up to enjoy it later?
They have TV, movies, ipods, Xbox, Netflix, Hulu, and so many things that bring them digital and virtual experiences, entertainment piped right to their hands; it's easy to see why people would forgo a theatrical experience. Especially when playwrights come out of grad school trying to write importantly. As my mom likes to remind me, she goes to the theatre to relax. To escape. To get lost in a story. And that brings up my second reason: plays need to be engaging to kids for the reasons I said, but they also should be engaging to adults. And not just the theatre crowd. Not just the art crowd. All audiences. There is no reason that a stageplay cannot be as amazing and moving and fully engaging on a fun, thought-provoking, heart-pounding, tears-inducing level as any blockbuster film or event television. And it should be more so, because it's all happening live, in front of an audience, with nothing but a few feet of air and imagination separating them. For too long, I thought my plays had to be statements. They had to be worthy of critical praise or refined enough to be taught as high-art and literature. I kinda forgot that plays are designed, first and foremost, for one group: an audience. For people who spend their hard-earned money for a night out. They come into a dark room, asking for a story.
Not to say there isn't a place for statements and art. There is. In the story. The best theatre teaches us while it entertains us. It's like a magician. Slight of hand. We're learning about the world and ourselves, like art teaches us, but we're so engaged in the story, in the play, in the characters, that in the moment, that we don't notice. I think for too long, I didn't put that together. No matter what I'm trying to say as an artist, if people don't want to see the play over and over, they probably won't hear the message. It won't stick with them. So lately, I haven't been writing many super-issue plays as I used to think of them --- I've been writing stories. About people. There might be issues. But they're stories about people. To get lost in. And while I'm sure my grad school self would be confused, I'm loving it. I'm excited.
Like I said, Nashville has been good to me. The people are wonderful. The talent is amazing. They have embraced my writing and I've learned quite a bit about craft and editing and structure. The biggest lesson, so far, has been letting go of all the preconceived notions of what "importantly" means. At the end of the day, a show is only as good as the audience remembers it. Do they talk about it? Does it sit with them? Do they come back to see it again? Do they bring friends? That's always the best compliment. Writing Robin Hood and Ichabod, and working on my next project for the City of Grove City about their own stories, has been invigorating and reminded me what I love about theatre; what drew me in; why I get on stage; why I sit in an audience. To hear a story. To see a show. To experience the magic.
Nashville, and by that I mean all the theaters there that I've worked with---from STC to Nashville Rep to Playhouse Nashville---has taught me so much about embracing the audience and giving them a good show. I hope they like this one. Break legs to the cast and crew! Can't wait to see it.
Street Theatre Company ClassAct Dramatics presents
The Legend of Robin Hood
by Jeremy Sony
November 14-22, 2014
Thoughts. From my brain. Anything to do with how we tell stories and the stories we tell each other. Literally and figuratively.
Writer. Husband. Father. Effulgent dreamer. A Fightin' Irishman (@NDdotEDU '01). A playwriting Bobcat (MFA in Playwriting, @OhioU '13). I write plays. I'm a geek. I wanted to be an astronaut. I go places in my head.