When I was in college at Valdosta State, I wrote a one act play called “Reason” about my friend Jenny who passed away suddenly a few years earlier. The next year, it was produced at VSU as part of the Immediate Theatre Project. The whole process, between writing the play & seeing it produced, was cathartic for me & helped me come to terms with her death.
I’ve been wanting to revisit it since then, as I feel I can do it greater service & tell that story better, but I wasn’t sure how to build on it. Recently, while working on my found footage novel, I finally realized how I can tell this story in a way that will better allow me to explore the emotions that have been tugging at me since she passed.
I may already have a lot on my plate, but I’m going to see if I can fast track this project for this year. I’ve worked with great teen actors at three high schools in the area, so I know the talent is there. Now’s probably a good time to do this, seeing as I don’t know for sure that I’ll still be in Atlanta a year from now. More importantly, this is a story I need to tell, and it’s something I just feel I have to do.
This past March I was given the opportunity to direct a production of William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing at my old stomping grounds, Parkview High School in Lilburn, GA. I’ve worked with the students there several times before, including a 24 Hour Play Festival I ran for them back in December, however this was my first time directing a full play over there. But when your favorite teacher from high school asks for your help, that’s what you do!
I was only getting half the class for my show, and the class had significantly more girls than guys. I already knew the teacher was going to need a lot of the guys for hers, so I decided to go a non-traditional route with mine. As much as I love Much Ado, it suffers from an unhealthy dose of misogyny, being a product of the time in which it was written. I’m an unabashed feminist, so I decided that the overarching theme of the production would be “screw the patriarchy.” Rather than gender bend characters, I opted instead to maintain the genders of the characters and cast women to play the members of the patriarchy as pants roles. It created a dynamic that wound up working extremely well, changing up the power structure and highlighting the misogyny in the play. It’s so commonplace in media to see men making sexist remarks to women that it’s easy for those occurrences to skate by. When you have women making those same comments to other women, it shines a light on the absurdity of it. In the end, we did the show using only three male actors (for Benedick, Claudio, & Borachio.) As for the style of the play, we went with steampunk because I wanted something that was close to our world but different enough that it created a little separation. Also, I just like steampunk, and the kids jumped at the chance to make their own steampunk costumes.
I made some cuts to the script, both for time and because I needed to get it down to 16 actors. I condensed the non-Dogberry portion of the Watch down to Verges & Seacole, and cut Antonio entirely, giving most of his lines to Balthasar. The only doublecasting was with Ursula/Sexton, and the only full scene to get cut was Act I, Scene II (between Antonio & Don Pedro.) The majority of the other cuts were to remove lines that referenced older myths & legends, and other things that would have been completely lost on today’s audiences and didn’t do anything to further the plot. I also edited a couple of the problematic (read: racist & anti-Semitic) lines. “If I do not love her, I am a Jew” became “if I do not love her, I am a fool,” (borrowed that change from Joss Whedon’s version) and “I’ll hold my mind were she an Ethiope” became “I’ll hold my mind, e’en were she uncomely.” Just in case anyone is interested in using my edit of the script, I’ve made it available to download here. And if you use it, please let me know! I’d love to know how it works out for you.
This was my first time directing Shakespeare, and it turns out I was in good company because most of the kids had never performed it. They were understandably intimidated, so a big part of my goal was to help them feel comfortable with the language. We spent the first three weeks of rehearsal in the classroom analyzing the text and going through it line-by-line so they knew the meaning of every single word they said. It was a given that a lot of the language would be lost on the high school audience, so it was extraordinarily important that the actors knew exactly what they were saying so the meaning would come across through them. We also did a lot of work on physicality, because I’m a big fan of physical humor and wanted to inject a lot of that into the show.
I’m happy to say that the students absolutely nailed it. From watching them, you never would have known it was their first time performing Shakespeare. They were funny as hell, and by the time we got into dress rehearsals I was getting goosebumps every time we got to the dramatic scenes. I don’t think I could have been any prouder of them if I’d tried. I can honestly say that I’d hold this production up against any college Shakespeare performance I’ve ever seen, as well as a good bit of the professional Shakespeare I’ve watched.
I was blessed with a fantastic cast and crew who made my first experience directing high school theatre such an amazing, rewarding, and unforgettable experience. Watching them get it, really get it, made my day every single time it happened, and it happened a lot. And after it was over, having a student come to me and tell me how much my belief in them made a difference in their life… Well, that meant the world to me. That right there is why teachers do this. Sometimes I wonder if students know that the whole time you’re making a difference in their lives, they’re making a difference in yours as well.
My movie intake this month was just movies from the last year or so, but for the most part they were good choices. Between Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ex Machina, & Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s been some good movies in the theaters this month. I’ve also knocked out four of the Harry Potter books this month, and I’m currently working my way through The Half-Blood Prince. I’m surprised by just how GOOD those books are, and I know I shouldn’t be given the phenomenon surrounding them, but they’re just extremely well-written and engaging, and frankly a blessing considering how many kids they’ve gotten into reading. I think one thing I really like about them is, unlike a lot of other Young Adult novels, they never talk down to the reader, which makes them just as accessible to adults.
Michinoku Driver’s “Off the Record” is now open, every Thursday in August at the Public House Theatre in Chicago! In honor of that, I wanted to share the second show poster and the notes in the program from our fantastic director, Theresa Ohanian. Come check it out!
Tonight was The Buzz Feed Plays over at the Public House Theatre, which featured a short play that I wrote called “It’s All Relative.” Turns out that I really like the idea of a sitcom starring FDR & Eleanor Roosevelt with a pervy Albert Einstein as the wacky next door neighbor. The play was directed by Bobby Hoffman, and starred Bobby Hoffman, Nora Best, & David Wilhelm.
My two man sketch group, Michinoku Driver, opens our sketch show “Off the Record” this Thursday at the Public House Theatre in Chicago! This is a revamped version of our show from this year’s Chicago Sketchfest, and we’re really excited to get it out there for everyone. In between sketches in the show, we open up about ourselves and tell some very personal stories from our pasts. If you’re in Chicago, we hope you can make it out!
Michinoku Driver presents “Off the Record”
Written by & Starring John Ugolini & Brian Work.
Directed by Theresa Ohanian
Thursdays in August (8/7, 8/14, 8/21, 8/28) at 10pm
The Public House Theatre (3914 N Clark Street)
A short play that I wrote will be featured in The BuzzFeed Plays, a night of 5-minute plays based on BuzzFeed articles. My play, “It’s All Relative,” is based on the bastion of journalistic integrity that is 18 Photos of Albert Einstein Looking Super Chill. If you’ve ever wondered what a sitcom would be like starring FDR & Eleanor Roosevelt with Albert Einstein as the wacky next door neighbor, then this is your chance!
The movies, music, books, and more that have kept me entertained this month!
Check this out! At last night’s show, Kicking the Seat Podcast interviewed the cast & crew of my play, Once Upon A Rom Com: The Bill Pullman Story. The interview starts at about 25 minutes in; I talk about the play and my thoughts on romantic comedies in general. It was a really fun interview, so please give it a listen!
Received a great surprise tonight at Once Upon a Rom Com: The Bill Pullman Story: Flowers from Bill Pullman himself! I’d like to send a huge thank you to Bill, and to the entire cast and crew for doing such an outstanding job on this show.