Writing for the Inner Child: OK, but What About Marketability?

When I was about halfway through my year at Walnut Street Theatre, by chance a retired playwright and medical professional (he was a guy with a really interesting life!) had called into the Audience Services Department and I took his call. I answered whatever question he had but then we got talking about our respective careers and he invited me to lunch later that week. When we met up and I described to him what kind of writing I do as a playwright, he said to me, “Peter — you seem like you’d have been a very successful playwright ... in the 1960s”.

Me as an Outer Child

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I’ve thought about that comment ever since. I think he was describing a Neil Simon or a Tennessee Williams for me to have joined the ranks of in the ‘60s, and he’s probably not wrong. Allow me to take the following blog post to unpack why this might be the case. Basically, the conclusion to this post will be: I’ll always be a writer and comedian, but I’m not sure if I’ll stay primarily a playwright. I’m a comedy writer first, who has had experience and meaningful success as a playwright. What makes me come alive is making folks smile and laugh and want to be a better person — and while I want the largest platform possible to make that happen, I don’t believe fame itself is really a motivator for me (but fame in some capacity is inevitable if I’m going to be successful on a making-a-living scale in the world of entertainment).

Headshot by Jenna Pinchbeck, 2019

A lot of people try to pigeonhole me as a children’s writer when they hear the general topics of my plays: A knight’s quest to marry the princess. Witches trying to find the lost treasure. A Snowman’s story at the North Pole with Santa and Mrs. Claus. And — sure. I wouldn’t argue that any of my plays are something you could not bring your kid to. It’s certainly not to say I don’t see value in being a children’s author — what kind of Cindy Wang Brandt Top Fan on Facebook would I be if I didn’t believe in the sharp need for quality content* for children? (*That doesn’t also come with a dehumanizing message from a problematic distributor?) But I would still maintain that I’m not writing directly to the children in my audience. Behind the bright colors and fantasy adventure stories appealing to my inner boy, I’m writing to appeal to your inner child, as well. We grow up and our senses of humor sophisticate over time, but our sense of wonder and appreciation for fairy tale-ish stories shouldn’t have to.

Prior to last year, I would describe my style as the point where Disney meets Arrested Development. More specifically, I’d say my style emulates the hypothetical final product of a scenario where the writers of Arrested Development were to write one of the Disney animated musicals from the ‘90s like Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. There’s such wit and attention to detail in Arrested Development. The continuity is airtight and the dialogue is so exact, jokes are executed effortlessly and running gags are embedded everywhere. It’s a show I’ve been able to come back to again and again to find new things that had been there the whole time. To put that style of writing into fantastical settings like a Disney fairy tale has always been to some extent what I’ve been trying to do.

A less-convoluted illustration of the type of writing I try to do (that also actually exists) comes in the Paper Mario trilogy of RPGs (yes, I stopped counting after the third one — but that only matters for the gamers reading this post). What I loved about the Paper series as a kid and still to this day is that in this bright, beautiful world following a familiar storyline (gotta save Princess Peach and/or the universe... again), there’s an exorbitant amount of witty dialogue given to everyone: non-playable villagers, Mario’s party members, and even characters showing little expressed personality in the main game series like Bowser and Princess Peach. I’m sure this series influenced my abilities as a writer and helped shape my vision for what kind of stories I wanted to spent my time writing (let alone the fact that The Thousand-Year Rose started off as my love letter to the series).

The problem, of course, with using a video game like Paper Mario to illustrate what kind of genre I write in is — well, nobody really takes that seriously unless they intimately know the game series... which is fine! The games are super niche. But then I discovered The Good Place, which kind of is the genre creator for a writer like me to emerge from. The Good Place is a plot-heavy, highly serialized sitcom set in a heaven-like afterlife with airtight continuity and highly witty, exact dialogue. Bright colors abound and the characters are quirky but I don’t think a single person would call it a children’s show. It airs on NBC at 9pm on Thursdays. Your kid could watch it with you, sure, but The Good Place is a show for the inner child. The success of The Good Place over its four-season run tells me there is a market, today, for the kind of writing I am skilled in.

But I may have spotted the thread that unravels my thought process here: people can’t accidentally get themselves into a play. Nobody stumbles upon a theatrical production the same way they may have stumbled upon The Good Place on Netflix. Theatre as a medium is somewhat limiting, there are many people who have never or will never see a stage production in their lives, much less an original stage production by an unknown like Peter Fenton. Sure, See Amid had a wildly successful premiere in September, but I’d be kidding myself to avoid saying I didn’t personally know over half the people in the audience. People chose to get out of the house to watch this show because they believed in its potential because of their knowing of me as a writer and/or as a person. That’s not a bad thing at all! It’s just sort of a fact.

I go back and forth on what thinking about all this means for my career. I write in a genre (comic fantasy for the inner child but not necessarily for children) that has few examples. I write in a medium (theatre) that’s risky, with not a ton of money in it unless we’re talking about Broadway or Off-Broadway. I think film, television, or books would probably be a more inherently lucrative home for the stories I tell — but how and where do I make that switch? Do I make that switch at all? I have a film project I’m working on and I guess we’ll just have to see where it goes. As these days go by, I don’t have a lot of answers, just a stronger sense of who I am and what I do.

© 2019. 2020 ByPeterFenton.com. all rights reserved.
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