It never fails that people will like what you write if you add zombies.
Recently, I was selected as one of the playwrights of the NoCo 24 10-Minute Play Festival in Longmont. It was a 24-hour theater festival with a concept that was not exactly new, but something Id never participated in myself.
The concept of a 24-hour festival for theater involves a series of short plays going from conception to performance within 24 hours. It begins with its playwrights being given parameters for their 10-minute stageplays, the scripts of which must be turned into the festival after 12 overnight hours.
Now for me, being a freelance writer, I am always facing a deadline regardless of the client. So I am not estranged from having a 12-hour deadline for something Ive been asked to produce. However, Ive never turned around a stage play in such a short time.
The closest Id come until NoCo24 was a client entertainer having me ghostwrite a one-man stage play that ran about 30 minutes. By the time we were done developing it, I had three days to produce the play for his performance deadline in Orlando, Fla. I finished the draft in two.
Also, the first full-length play I wrote was produced in Colorado Springs in 2000. I had only written the first act of the two-act play when a friend of mine put it in front of the producer. The producer was highly interested and asked to see the second act to determine if he would produce it. I wrote the second act in less than a week and after the play got a greenlight, I performed revisions as it was being rehearsed over five weeks.
But a 12-hour deadline for something theatrical sounded like a challenge despite my experience, so I threw my name into the pot and the festival made me a part of it.
I decided to make it a weekend in Longmont. The festival was being performed at Jesters Dinner Theater, a quaint little cabaret-style theater on Longmonts Main Street. I booked a hotel room for two nights so I could have a place close to the theater where I could write comfortably and deliver the script easily the next morning without having to drive from Monument.
In accordance with the weekend schedule, the playwrights met with the festival director to receive the parameters of their respective scripts at 7 p.m. on a Friday. The parameters for each playwrights script were drawn from a hat. The first drawing was for the number in the festival lineup the play would be produced. This number also aligned us with a specific director for our individual plays. Next, we had to draw for our assigned genre.
The genres included comedy, musical, farce, mystery and others. I pulled melodrama for my script. Melodrama is a style of performance which presents outlandish, over-the-top characters and a situation which is usually just as crazy. The genre didnt scare me, although I hadnt written something melodramatic since I wrote for a television sketch-comedy show in the late 1990s that aired on cable in Denver and Colorado Springs.
The next drawing was for a twist. Each playwright was required to incorporate a designated twist into their scripts which came in the form of a person, thing or phrase. A clown, an explosion and a broken toilet were among the twists pulled from the hat. The twist I ended up with was brain freeze.
When all parameters were said and done, I was tasked to produce a 10-minute stage play for two actors (a man and a woman), which would be fourth performed in the festival, a work of melodrama which had to incorporate brain freeze as a twist.
By the time I returned to my hotel room at 9 p.m., I already had a few story ideas in my head. I began to take my ideas and create an emotional beat map for them. This is a basic outline of beats from key moment to moment, showing at what point the main problem of the play is revealed and how it is resolved.
After a handful of ideas were mapped out, I whittled my choices down to my favorite two. One was a hillbilly husband and wife at the OB/GYN office. The other was a man who visited a mentalist at a county fair. Slowly I gravitated to the hillbilly couple idea, but I still felt the characters could be more outlandish for it to be a solid melodrama. I struggled for a while with how to do that.
After a while, I fortuitously saw a television advertisement for the upcoming show Tales of the Walking Dead, the latest The Walking Dead spinoff. Thats when almost everything for my idea clicked. I had the thought to change the play into a couple of zombie hillbillies at an OB/GYN when they learn their expected child is going to be a living human, and the husband happens to be racist toward non-decomposing people.
By this time, it was 11 p.m. and I started writing the actual script. At that point I still had no clue how to incorporate brain freeze, but it was getting late and I had to start getting something on paper. It wasnt until about midnight, and reaching about five pages of the script, the brain freeze twist finally came to me.
I decided for the couples backstory to be that the husband was the one who made his wife a zombie when they first met. He fell in love with her at a Jamba Juice, and when she started to have a brain freeze from her drink, he panicked, thinking she was having an aneurysm, and bit her. It was all he could think of doing to make her a zombie like him, so they could be together forever.
Yes, the twist is far-fetched, but the genre was melodrama, so I felt I could get away with that kind of a backstory.
I was done with the script at about 2 a.m. Saturday. Five hours later, I was at the theater venue to turn in my script to my assigned director, Amber Salaz, who luckily had directed a handful of very outlandish works. She read through the script and started laughing. On the spot, she even came up with a couple additional gags and jokes which were right in line with my sense of humor and the social satire I mixed into what I came up with.
I left the theater so the director and actors, Brainard Starling and Devan Meck, could take over the project for the next 11-12 hours. I felt the play was now in good hands, and all I had in mind before the 7 p.m. showtime was sleep.
Back at the theater that night, the venue was almost full for the festival, and several works carried very creative ideas and a handful of laughs. Our zombie hillbilly play, however, was a highlight of the festival based on the amount of belly laughter that filled the room. Meck and Starling are both improv actors, and when there was a dropped line, they were able to riff with hilarity before they found their way back on track. Given the audiences response and the additional material the director and actors added to the play, I was beyond proud and felt our contribution was a success.
Afterward, I thanked the director for her work and immediately ran backstage to get a photo with the actors before they took off their zombie makeup. I thanked them for what they did with the material as well, and as I walked away I heard say they were excited they pleased their playwright.
With the weekend now behind me, Ive come to realize when Im stuck on a writing idea, looking to entertain an audience, adding zombies may be the way to go. As a result of our teams contribution, our play won the festivals Audience Favorite Play Award as well as its Best Use of Twist Award.
Zombies and comedy. Who knew?
Benn Farrell is a Monument-based freelance writer and playwright.
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