Kristopher Frithjof Peterson is the playwright of WHERE THE WHANGDOODLE SINGS. He's a playwright from Saginow, Michigan who believes in the truly transformative place of theatre. In articles about Kristopher (who goes by Kris to those who know him), he has spoken about the effects theatre can have on an audience in comparison to the effects that film can have on an audience. Kris is a bartender, playwright, and philosopher. He has received his Masters degree from Western Michigan University, his plays have been performed in DC, Chicago, NY, and Saginow, as well as winning the Jury Prize from Fusion Theatre Company in 2009 and being a finalist for the Kennedy Centers ten minute play award and the 2010 Heideman Award. He is a tall, bearded, tattooed guy who can not only speak eloquently about the state of new play development and theatre in this country but can sling a good beer down at the local bar and talk about life and love with anyone that sits down. This is our kind of guy.
Below are Kris's thoughts about the showcase reading and the first date comparison (something that THE BODY playwright Steve Moulds also wrote about
), but what Kris examines here is the honesty factor. Not just how you present the idea to others, but how you look at a process that could be different - and even a little scary. The mentality and thought process of going out on that first date, or first step in development, and how to do what we hope the person sitting across from us at the table will do: trust.
When the Inkwell approached me about doing a Showcase Reading of WHERE THE WHANGDOODLE SINGS for the Kennedy Center's Page 2 Stage festival, I was a little leery about the format. The Showcase Readings call for a playwright to choose a 20 minute excerpt of their work for a development process and staged reading. It's also described as a sort of "first date" between the playwright and the company. I'm not a great dater. On dates, especially earlier ones, I think the notion of honesty is a nebulous one. It's usually more dangerous to be completely honest than to take slight editorial liberties. It's not that different being a playwright for these Showcase Readings. Like a perfect dinner companion, the artists at the Inkwell seem genuinely interested in you. They want to know all about the history of the play, the seeds of inspiration, the trials that have helped shaped what it's become. Then they ask you to be honest with them, "What 20 pages would you like to work on?" And then you're faced with Nick's dilemma at the opening of DARK PLAY, "Do I tell the truth / Or do what I do so well: / Make some shit up."
I knew the problematic areas of my play going in. I'd even pin-pointed them down to the crucial 20 pages. So, the answer should have been easy. But like being on a first date you A) want to look a little bit better than you probably are, and B) wonder how much of you they really want to take on during that first date.
Here was my thought process - "If I give them the 20 most problematic pages, the play will look really bad and probably won't make sense thematically, tonally, structurally. Also the problems aren't really contained neatly within those 20 pages so how much will I really accomplish by working on them. This theatre is also inviting people to come see the reading. Do they really want my shittiest 20 pages on display? Aren't donors and supporters of the theatre going to be like 'we wrote a check last year for that?'. Maybe I should just make some shit up about what I want to work on for 20 good pages and then people will laugh and understand what's going on and they'll fall in love with me and invite me back and then I can really work on what I want to after they don't hate me. Maybe I'll pick 20 pages that need a little work. Stuff that I know the next move on so that the development will be easy and I know the finished product won't be terrible. Or maybe... god forbid... I trust these people I've never met. I trust their mission and the words they are saying to me over the phone right now. I trust the way they are handling these other playwrights in the conference call. I trust their impressive track record of taking risks with new plays and playwrights and I look them in the eye and I say I'm a bit broken, I'm a bit of a mess, but I'm going to trust you not to make a break for the door and give this thing a chance."
I ended up reminding myself how all those dates I've screwed up ended over the past decade or so. My car was never as clean as that first dinner in Detroit. They never saw me in a suit coat again. My coffee table didn't have papers and books and overflowing ashtrays. So, ultimately, I either ended things because I got tired of keeping up things I didn't care to keep up, or they woke up one morning, sick of navigating the blast radius of dishes and mail to make a simple cup of coffee, and walked out the door for the last time. Inkwell got my 20 most problematic pages. I was terrified. I rewrote like a bastard. Jenn Book Haselswerdt, my dramaturg, kept up with my steady stream of new pages - new pages that extended well beyond the confines of my 20 pages - and my paragraph long strings of new questions that the rewrites were sparking. Over that month of online discussion and rewriting, I had a substantial rewrite of the whole play and questions that I couldn't ever quite pinpoint or articulate had gained clarity.
What I realized is that by focusing on those 20 pages I was better able to triage issues in my draft. There were some larger issues in the work, some big questions that I didn't worry about answering right away. I kept my focus on those 20 pages. What I found was that the macro issues had been clouding some smaller issues that were actually right at the heart of the big questions and also much more manageable to conceptualize. Instead of asking the "right" one or two large questions about the draft, I asked a couple dozen smaller questions that put those larger issues into focus. After those 20 pages shaped up, the more extensive goals for the next draft took shape and I had a clear plan to tackles those.The excerpt that was read wasn't entirely tonally or structurally cohesive with the feel of the entire piece. But Jenn set up the excerpt effectively before the reading and my actors and director gave me a wonderful look at what I had on the page which is the best thing for development. They didn't try to smooth everything out or make everything work or keep everything tidy. They showed me what I had and let me see what work still needed to be done. They never expected me to overhaul my living room or take my car in for a complete detailing, but they got me organized enough to not risk bodily harm while trying to make my morning coffee.
And they left me hopeful for a shot at a second date.