Putting It Together: How My First Staged Play Got On Its Feet

Putting It Together: How My First Staged Play Got On Its Feet

Last month, my first fully-staged play, “Too Hard A Knot” was performed at my college, as part of my major’s Playwriting Projects. Students in the third or fourth year of the Writing for the Stage concentration write twenty-minute plays which get professionally directed and performed in the black box theater on campus, three performances each. This past school year was challenging creatively and academically, but everything I did was working towards my first ever legitimately-staged piece as a playwright. To paraphrase the immortal words of Stephen Sondheim, art isn’t easy… but we put it together bit by bit. Here’s how it all went down!

Too Hard A Knot is about Regan, a “twentysomething gap year failure” waitressing at a Tudor-themed diner in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Practicing her Shakespeare monologues instead of mopping the floors, all she wants to do is move to New York and go to a drama school, where she can live her dreams of being a paid working actor. One late night while she works the graveyard shift, a Mysterious Man in sunglasses arrives, orders a milkshake, and piques Regan’s curiosity with his cool demeanor and vague answers to her questions. When Regan’s hapless boss, Mr. Dauphin, surprises her with a generous offer to help pay her way to New York the old-fashioned college-audition way, Regan has to make a choice between his offer and a tempting one this Mysterious Man presents her with. What choice does she make? Well… you can watch the full play at the end of the article and find out. 

When I finally finished my two-act opus For Leonora in October of 2018, I felt a massive weight leave my soul. I had finished my year-long experiment in how much I could tap into my deepest self and bare my soul in a piece of writing that was emotional, yet full of the fun and whimsical touches I love to put in my work. Finishing it led me straight to a writers’ block I hadn’t felt in months. Scrambling for ideas for what to do for the next semester, I went through every single one of the weekly homework scripts I wrote for my first semester of Intermediate Playwriting (my class the school year before) and tried to parse out which ones could be smartly adapted to fit the parameters required by Playwriting Projects - 20 minutes, three characters, and following the classical unities of time/space/action: no time jumps, one location, one plot. Only one or two of them fit the exact qualifications, but none of them proved riveting enough to expand into a 20-minute piece. So I dug a bit further, found my pitches from the end of the first semester of Intermediate, and went with the one I didn’t end up writing as a starting point.

Going into writing this play what I found most exciting was that it tapped into my darker side. I wrote this play to challenge myself from writing my usual brands of whimsy, comedy, or both. What starts out seemingly as a workplace character study suddenly morphs into a dark observation on how we aren’t truly in control of our fate in this world. My usual writing style tends to be full of references to things I love or find funny, and quite often does lots of time jumps or location shifts. But I knew this would be the first time any of my work would be staged for real, so I wanted to make an impact. I really pushed myself to go outside my comfort zone and wrote something a little out of my wheelhouse. Before really digging into the writing of this piece I listened to a lot of Hadestown and reread all my John Cariani scripts for inspiration. (“Hey Little Songbird” from Hadestown but set in New England is honestly one of the most concise ways to describe the tone I went with.) My mind sort of settled halfway into writing a slice of life piece that surprises the audience, and challenges them.

Writing characters that are fun to root for but lose everything is something I’ve never been comfortable doing. I kind of did that in my first play, What a Piece of Work is Ham, but with that script I was solely writing with the end goal that hijinks ensue until reality crashes in, leading to the start of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This piece doesn’t have the luxury of knowing the ending in advance. I struggled for a while on deciding how to end it - does Regan take the easy way out and go with her boss’s very kind offer, or does she dare to be a little rebellious and take the dangerous route with the Mysterious Man? It’s a lot to think about, and I’m pretty proud of the unorthodox option I chose.

When it came to gearing up for the rehearsal process, I was absolutely stoked to start working with a director and actors. The one time I got a piece of mine up on its feet at my old college, I gave the student director and actors notes on the characters in their entirety, to help inform their performance and directorial choices. When I wrote For Leonora, I made a separate document that detailed every little detail about each character so that when I wrote them, when they are eventually performed, the actors can really get into the characters’ minds to know exactly why they go where they do in the scenes, or what emotion or backstory is really motivating them in the moment. That way, the director and actors can keep my vision as a playwright intact while exploring their own choices in staging and performing the scene. Unlike For Leonora, this piece isn’t so much about wild and elaborate staging as it is truthful characters we care about on their twenty-minute journey. With Too Hard A Knot, I gave notes on the characters’ personalities and motivations, but also allowed for my actors to explore their own interpretations of the characters. I love collaborating with cast members; it adds a hint of devised theatre to the proceedings.

When I went to meet Richard Hutzler for our first meeting as director and playwright, I didn’t know what to expect. I had never had anyone direct my work before in a capacity like this, and I didn’t know what he’d be like. It was such a delightful relief to know that after that initial meeting, Richard and I were a match made in theatre creative heaven. After I asked him some icebreaker questions and he asked me about my background in the theatre and the major influences on my writing (not just in Too Hard a Knot), Richard immediately began gushing over my play. He asked me about textual references in the script - why these Shakespeare monologues? - and my script’s similarities to Twin Peaks, and David Lynch in general. He then broke down his vision for my play, which involved interesting sound and light cues and an emphasis on breaking the fourth wall during Regan’s soliloquy bits. Our visions matched, which was nice - I’ve never had a professional director before but having one with similar tastes and visions to mine was a lovely bonus. I was game for it all. We ended up talking for two hours about our taste in theatre and what we’d seen recently, in addition to our mutual visions for the play. 

Our mutual passion for this project really started to take hold in the audition room. During the audition day for Too Hard A Knot, Richard and I agreed on nearly everything! Jeffrey Penton Jr. walked into the audition room and gave a deliciously sinister-sounding monologue. by the time he said thank you and left, Richard and I were gripping each other’s hands! We KNEW he was our Mysterious Man, and would fight tooth and nail for him. Richard really battled for Leah Cloninger as Regan; I loved her (and loved working with her.) I was partial to having a Regan who already was familiar with the script since I knew a lot of the monologue work would be tricky, but Leah had this great innocence and charm that worked really well in her favor. The wildest part of the casting process was finding our Dauphin, of all characters. We wanted three different guys but either their schedules didn’t work for us or they somehow weren’t academically okay’d by the head of the theatre department to be involved with projects; going with Jeffrey Sewell was a surprise decision but it worked out well!

When we got our cast finalized and began the rehearsal process, I was giddy with nerves. My first staged play! It was really, truly happening! The first rehearsal was a read-through and Richard and I gave the cast our thoughts on what we wanted our end product to be. I was immediately struck by how quickly my actors jumped into their characters.  Every rehearsal afterwards that I went to (I went to maybe 2/3 of the rehearsals in total, scheduling was tricky for me because of work and school) I took note of how my actors took notes from Richard, and their quick absorption of the text. From the handful of times I observed rehearsal, I learned that I was stronger at writing unique relationships than I realized. The scenes between Regan and the Mysterious Man, and Regan and Mr. Dauphin got stronger and stronger as the weeks went along. I also noticed that my actors liked to ask me extra world building questions on occasion when they felt scene work call for it. I distinctly remember Jeffrey Penton asking me what kind of car the Mysterious Man drove to the diner in; he wanted to know what kind of energy he exuded when entering the first time. We decided on a black sports car with a big trunk instead of an unmarked white van - we didn’t want the Mysterious Man to be obviously untrustworthy. One last thing I started to notice during rehearsals was the day my playwriting professor came in to observe; up until that point we never considered the play to be a comedy, dark or otherwise. Maybe a little funny here and there, but not a comedy comedy. His reactions helped us all realize what the true tone of the piece was. Too Hard a Knot wasn’t just a weird and unsettling piece about the choices we make in this world - it was also pretty funny.

After watching the first round of my classmates’ Projects go successfully at the end of April, my ease and calm surrounding my Project vanished. My anxiety and nerves skyrocketed. This was really, truly happening. This was the first time any of my work was going to be actually properly staged, not a half-assed staged reading like my Intro to Playwriting final at my old college. Leading up to tech and opening I was so nervous I was afraid my nerves would impact my homework and grades in my other classes. Would people actually like my play? Would it get a good response? Am I a good playwright? These questions bit at me during the whole week leading up to opening night. Watching the dress rehearsal and the supportive response from my classmates and the casts of the other projects was helpful in calming me down and preparing myself for the first full audience. And the rest, they say… is history. The three performances happened, and they were absolutely beyond anything I could imagine.

(if you haven’t watched the video of the play yet, proceed with caution of spoilers!)

Of all the moments of my play, one of the ones that came across the most effective for myself was where Regan tries and fails to get to know the Mysterious Man’s backstory. Leah’s perfectly awkward delivery of lines like “I don’t know what that means!” and “Oh! Okay…” whenever the Mysterious Man would reply with “Where do you want me to be from?” and “None of your business, unless you want it to be,” landed exactly how I imagined while writing the scene. The audience response to these exchanges each performance was the right kind of uncomfortable laughter, which matched my intent with the text of those moments. Another moment that felt incredibly effective in performance and execution was the climactic moment at the end of the play where the Mysterious Man harvests Regan’s soul and leaves the diner with her limp, soulless body. Not only was the staging phenomenally realized by my actors and director, but the intense flashing lighting and sparking sound cues were pitch perfect accents to the scene as played. I was always stunned by the staging in the rehearsal room, but it was heartening to see that the audience genuinely seemed shocked after it happened every performance.

I think most - if not all - of the play, seemed effective every performance - but if I had to make one small quibble about a moment in the performances it would be the delivery of the final “Hello?” of the play. For some reason, at the third show, it got a HUGE laugh where it really shouldn’t have. In that moment, Dauphin is worried and concerned for where his favorite waitress has gone. In performance, at least that one performance, it came across as kind of sassy and nonchalant. The second show (where the final light cue came late) Sewell got to add an extra, worried “Hello?” that really helped emphasize how worried Dauphin suddenly became. As much as I hate directing my actors through the text, perhaps in a future production I’ll add a note asking for a specific delivery of this vital line so it hits just right.

I mentioned this when I discussed how the play went in rehearsal, but the piece as a whole landed more as a comedy than I was ever expecting. In writing this play, I wanted to challenge myself to write something that makes people uncomfortable and leaves them with a shocking final image. Turns out, the dialogue was actually pretty funny after all and this was more of a dark comedy than just a weird little character study. Lines I didn’t think were that funny (such as the reference to AMDA) got consistent laughs every performance! Some of my actors’ choices made their roles funnier than I anticipated, too - the Mysterious Man’s traffic patterns just being tank controls were the right blend of menacing and just plain absurd, and Leah’s sweet cluelessness made Regan’s character arc all the more heartbreaking, but funnier too.

The audience response every performance was pretty consistent - words like “creepy” and “spooktacular” were tossed around, and I definitely got a “this is the funniest thing I’ve ever seen” from someone, which was nice. I’m still overwhelmed by the fact that my best friend/mentor John Cariani took time out of his extremely busy life to come see our plays. Him coming was one of the kindest things anyone has ever done, and I was so grateful to talk about the process with him afterwards. He really loved how authentically New England I made everything in Regan’s character and in the descriptions of the area of the Berkshires she’s been living in. (John’s from Maine, and iconically brought his home state to life in his play “Almost, Maine.” If the state of Maine had a spirit animal, it’d just be John.) After the fact, now I kind of wish I leaned into my Massachusetts upbringing a little more in the play, especially in Regan and Mr. Dauphin’s interactions. I think it would add a nice flavor. John expressed interest in a sequel or continuation to this story; I intended this to be a one-shot, but perhaps it could be fun to see what happens to the now-soulless Regan - and perhaps other soulless victims of the Mysterious Man locked in his car trunk - once they get to New York City.

When I set out to write this play, the big question the play asked was “are we truly in control of the choices we make in this world?” By the final evening of Playwriting Projects, I still hold to that description of the piece. If I ever get this play published, I’d summarize my play with this short description: “Twentysomething Regan is a bit of a savant when it comes to Shakespeare, but her dead-end job as a graveyard shift diner waitress is getting her nowhere in life... until a mysterious, sunglasses-wearing man with a taste for milkshakes shows up in the middle of the night. When both her avuncular boss and the mysterious stranger present her with choices that could alter her life... what choice does she have in this world? What choice does anyone have in this world?” Before this production, I’d sell Too Hard a Knot as a weird homage to David Lynch - now I’m proud to call it an experiment in modern Theatre of Cruelty designed to make you so uncomfortable you end up peeing yourself laughing.

The Playwriting Project was my only official opportunity as a Writing for the Stage major to see my work done at school, unless a school club decides to produce one of my scripts. I’m immensely proud of my work (and everyone in my class, too! Holy SHIT am I in love with my classmates!) Now what to write next? Time will only tell. Whatever it is, I can’t wait to see it finished and hopefully on its feet, for an audience of any kind, ready to tell its story to whoever wants to listen.

You can watch Too Hard A Knot here!

Photo of creatives, cast and crew of Too Hard A Knot