The Playwright's Progress: Essay, December 2016

The following is an essay submitted for my creative writing class at Wheaton College with Dr. Jeffrey Galbraith in Fall 2016, succinctly telling the story of my growth from writing Good Knight and Goodbye/Knights of the Square Table to The Thousand-Year Rose, told from the perspective of having just directed the world premiere of Rose. Both Knights and Rose have since found publication with Heuer Publishing.

The presidency of Wheaton College’s Jukebox Theater was something you could say I stumbled backward into. It was kind of a blur that began with spotting my friend Peter Desrosier (the other Peter in Men’s Glee Club at the time) in the dining hall while he was eating lunch with Valerie Tewell, who I starred with in The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood. Somewhat True Tale was the Jukebox Theater production in October 2014. As I started to say hi, mainly to Peter I admit, Valerie intercepted. She launched into sort of a sales pitch to me, telling me that she was the outgoing Jukebox president with no planned successor. It sounded like a joke – but she suggested that I apply for the presidency. Being horrible at politely declining anything, I heard her out even though I knew I was planning to not think about it again. And I really did not think about it again until about a week later, when Valerie sent me a message on Facebook: “Hey, are you still thinking about Jukebox? It’s kinda the last week of school and nobody applied. It’s yours if you want it. If not… Jukebox probably won’t be a thing next year.”

Wheaton College Jukebox Theater's Cast of Robin Hood, October 2014. Back: Paul Vermeesch, Jon Frevola | Middle: Caetlynn de Oliveira, Lauren Laskowski, Rebecca Watkins, Jillian Hedges, Hannah Doan, Maggie Auffarth, Taylor Schaible | Front: Lauren Boughner, Valerie Tewell, Peter Fenton

Well then. Here’s an opportunity falling directly into my lap. I thought about the past couple weeks I’d had. In a manner like Hillary Clinton herself, I had emerged as the presumed frontrunner for an elected position on the cabinet of Men’s Glee Club. Even though some said my resume spoke for itself, I poured many hours into building a compelling case to elect Peter Fenton. In the end, to my surprise, I lost the vote. Just six days later, my girlfriend broke up with me, bringing an abrupt end to a short and confusing relationship that I had been convinced was a fantastic idea. Even if I had been the only candidate Valerie considered for the presidency, it certainly felt nice for someone to believe in me. Without much hesitation, I accepted the position. I called my mom to share the good news on a walk back to my apartment.

“Mom! I’m going to direct a play! You remember when you came out for the Robin Hood show? Yeah, I’m the new president of that club!” I then reiterated the whole story of how it happened.

She responded, “Well hey, that’s great, Peter! Do you know what play you want to direct?”

Good Knight and Goodbye. The rewrite.”

There was a pause on the other end as my mom gathered her thoughts. I wasn’t quite sure where she was going. I believed she was trying to find just the right words to phrase what she was about to say. She ended up taking a very direct approach.

“My god, aren’t you sick of that play?”

It was a fair question. As I still felt the sting of the lost election and the blindside of the breakup, I wasn’t in the mood to take any new risks. Good Knight and Goodbye would have been an easy and safe choice. It had been my claim to fame throughout high school, the life event I bragged about all the way to my Wheaton admissions interview.

When I was an eighth grader in Lancaster, Pennsylvania at Conestoga Valley Middle School, I was a star on the stage in our March 2009 production of Sahara Nights. “What’s Sahara Nights?” a person may ask, to which I answer, “Exactly.” Sahara Nights was a play from a generic middle school comedy provider. I had to imagine the company churned out plays like a factory, stringing together no less than fifty minutes of unoriginal jokes and placing them into a whimsical setting as the characters followed no more than thirty minutes of a phoned-in storyline. Sahara Nights was no disruption to formula, so much so that fourteen-year-old ‘sophisticated humorist’ Peter Fenton couldn’t stand it.

“Mrs. Fisher, I can write better than this,” I told her one day in February, with my nose buried in the script.

To this day, I’m still not entirely sure whether she really believed in me or if she just wanted to shut me up to keep rehearsal going. Regardless, Mrs. Fisher matter-of-factly responded, “Then write me a better play.”

And as a matter of fact, that is exactly what I did. Over the next four months after Sahara Nights completed its run, I wrote a play. I started out by calling it Knights of the Square Table. I neared the end of the first draft as my dad prepared our annual 4th of July Barbecue. As we flipped burgers at grillside, we talked about the manuscript. He suggested I call it something catchier. After some twenty bad medieval puns came back and forth from father and son, we settled on one we both loved: Good Knight and Goodbye. To her shock, I then marched into Mrs. Fisher’s classroom one sticky day the next week with a completed script.

“I wrote you a better play,” I said, slyly answering her challenge.

Mrs. Fisher read Good Knight and Goodbye over the summer of 2009. In turn, she left a voicemail on my family’s landline phone. She was amazed by the final product. She said I should seek publication, but first, she asked if she could have the seventh and eighth graders perform it that year. She wanted to direct the world premiere of my writing. I nearly hit the floor. I immediately consented and the rest, as they say, was history.

In the following April, I had a nice little fifteen minutes of fame in my hometown: Anne Shannon from Channel 8 invited me onto the local news and there I landed on live TV. Teachers wanted to learn about me. My classmates started to be a little star struck when they spoke to me. Jane Holahan from the Lancaster New Era interviewed me during the week of the show and I saw my face the next day on the front page, above the fold. My picture was actually bigger than the Pope’s on the same page. Every performance of the show was sold out. I had a euphoric grin on my face for all fifteen of those minutes. For my impressionable teenage heart, Good Knight and Goodbye became the image of success.

For my impressionable teenage heart, Good Knight and Goodbye became the image of success

Four years later, in the spring of 2014, I was now a freshman at Wheaton College. I felt ordinary. Everyone else on my dorm floor, Traber 6, seemed to have that ‘thing’ that set them apart as interesting or likable, but I was just Peter. It was now April again, nearing the end of my first year, and I felt like I hadn’t impressed anyone. As a bit of a Hail Mary to generate some popularity, I decided to update Good Knight and Goodbye. I took the original script scene-by-scene, line-by-line and rewrote the story, now from a nineteen year old's perspective rather than a fourteen year old's. Characters and themes were developed in such a way that my eighth-grade brain could never have dreamed of. The plot twists were now foreshadowed and made sense in the context of the story. Altogether, it became a better play. It even felt appropriate to revert the title to Knights of the Square Table.

I never really did anything with that new script. Nobody read it, either. It just sat on my laptop for a couple months until that September, when I was named the sophomore class film director. Without any serious exploration of new story ideas, I decided to cash in once again on my fourteen-year-old self’s intellectual property. It was time for Wheaton College to be introduced en masse to this legendary story. I condensed the updated Knights of the Square Table script into a glorified plot overview of a screenplay. In homage to the original’s pun name, my roommate Brendan and I titled the new project Late Knight Request. The ragtag crew that came together ended up creating a well-intentioned, stripped down ‘film adaptation’ of Good Knight and Goodbye.

It was a mistake. Maybe I thought presenting this story would create a fame rush like it did five years earlier. After all, the film festival was to be held on the fifth anniversary of Good Knight and Goodbye’s closing show. A year removed from that freshman spring, my hunger to find a foothold at Wheaton had turned to desperation. My friendships from Traber 6 weren’t playing out nearly as I planned they would, and I had few others developed. I prayed that God would give me a shiny pat on the back for surviving that hellishly lonely first half of college. I prayed I would stand up on Edman Chapel stage on April 10th, 2015 and say that in spite of what I went through to get there – I won. And just like that, the attention would have made everything worth it. It was then only salt rubbed in very fresh wounds when the class film awards committee spread the ten awards between three of the four films submitted. The film that was left out and unappreciated, of course, was Late Knight Request. I left that night in tears, crushed and alone over such a silly event.

Walking into the Class Film Festival 2015 with a fake smile.

As my mom and I were on the phone after I had accepted the Jukebox presidency, we were both well aware of how much I’d grown in the year since the film festival. Life remarkably had seemed to figure itself out: I moved off of Traber 6 into an apartment. I joined Men’s Glee Club. I became willing to explore friendships beyond an arbitrary dorm assignment. Things had been on an upswing that entire junior year - and this was an opportunity to actualize myself.

My mom and I were also well aware that the film had been the most recent iteration of Good Knight and Goodbye at the time I accepted the Jukebox presidency. When I looked once again at Knights of the Square Table, I saw an easy story that I knew very well that would save Jukebox Theater some money and finally give that updated script a chance to breathe in a full-length production. What my mom saw was a loaf of once-impressive creativity that had grown sad and stale over seven years.

I just could not see it that way. The tale of Sir Galahad was a story that literally grew up with me. The romance between Sir Galahad and Lady Heron resembled a very self-centered puppy love in Good Knight and Goodbye, but by the time it was retold in Knights of the Square Table, the leads were both desirable, capable human beings plagued with poor timing. In the first big rewrite during that freshman spring, I wrote in a character named Sir Traber to serve as a sidekick for Sir Galahad. Of course, I had also just seen Frozen at the time, so I became intentional with creating a strong, empowered woman in Lady Heron, who conveniently developed a characterization similar to Kristen Bell’s Anna. Being that the script had never been published, the door was always open to making edits as life experience stockpiled. How could I possibly grow sick of this little extension of myself?

When I told my dad about wanting to direct another iteration of the play, he would not tell me what I wanted to hear either. “Good Knight and Goodbye worked when the middle school did it. Frankly, it didn’t work when it was the class film. Audience, Peter. You’ve got to think about your audience.” Audience. My dad was always talking about audience.

Disregarding my parents’ advice, I began to plan my production of Knights of the Square Table, starting with a critical reread of the script. To my own surprise, after setting it down for a year, it was funny again. I was able to have a true nostalgic laugh as I trekked through the world I created – the kingdom of Slekochovakia.

A reality began to wash over me little by little as I reread my own script. I don’t remember quite when I fully realized what was happening, but once I did, it could not be denied: I’m still trying to milk a story that is primarily a reflection of my imagination and talent from when I was fourteen. I was about to turn twenty-one that summer and here I was, once again letting myself believe this was an amazing, revolutionary story. Seven years of life experience had grown and shaped me in such a way that demanded new stories to be told. It was all right to let this first play just be a fond piece of history. A first play.

I'm a writer. I've known that since I was fourteen years old.

I’m a writer. I’ve known that since I was fourteen years old. With this opportunity afforded to bring a play to life through Jukebox, it was almost inevitable that we would stage a Peter Fenton play. That summer, once I laid Slekochovakia down at my side, I took a deep breath and put pen to paper. For the first time in seven years, I began to write a new story.

I learned two valuable nuggets as I wrote The Thousand-Year Rose: First, writing drunk and editing sober is terrible advice. Second, and more importantly, writing is hard. It was not so much a challenge to create new characters – the sassy, kind-hearted heroine, Kimmi Larkin, practically wrote herself – but what I had to grapple with was that my role in The Thousand-Year Rose felt less like God and more like a documentary filmmaker. I never felt like I was in comfortable control. More so, I found myself alongside Kimmi, having to hash out the riddles and clues to discover the lost treasure of Hanenbough. There was never an exact knowledge of where we were going or what these scenes would look like beyond the rough itinerary I had drawn up. To embrace my twenty-one-year-old self’s imagination meant letting it veer into the uncharted waters of the seedy port city of Hanenbough. Sometimes that meant getting hopelessly lost and confused. But I knew I couldn’t back down. Nobody has ever grown inside their comfort zone. No matter how terrifying the adventure got, the exhilaration always propelled me forward. The third draft of The Thousand-Year Rose was completed in August, just before my Wheaton College senior year began in full swing.

Two months later, it was Saturday night – October 29, 2016. On a rickety makeshift stage in the basement of the Billy Graham Center, the world premiere cast of The Thousand-Year Rose took their final bows. The Wheaton Record didn’t care to do a story on the play. The college’s literary journal had rejected printing an excerpt from the script, commenting that the writing was weak and the characters clichéd. There were sixty-four people in the audience – a mere fraction of the crowds for Good Knight and Goodbye or Late Knight Request.

None of that mattered. After their bows, the cast happily brought me on stage. I then took a bow. I looked out for a moment on the sixty-four who were there, applauding: Mom and Dad. Aunt Lynn. Uncle Mark. Brendan, Jake, and Jake – my roommates. Scott, Max, and Ryan from Glee Club. Jeff and Daniel from Traber 6. Nathaniel, RJ, and Harris, also from Glee Club. “Thank you all for coming,” I managed to eke out. I was crying again, but this time it was different. There was a smile spread across my face from somewhere deep within my soul. Thank you, Jesus.

"Thank you all for coming," I managed to eke out.

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