It was about 5:30 pm on our 2-show day when Piper Curda returned from a dinner break at the Chipotle down Roosevelt from campus. “Yo — Peter. I hate to tell ya this but I definitely spilled guac on my pants.” We had no budget for costumes, so everything worn in our world premiere was simply street clothes. “But that’s all right though, right? ‘Cause Kimmi would definitely be the kinda person who would show up with guac on her pants” “Yeah — totally fine!” This was October 29, a day I’ve quietly celebrated every year since 2016, the day my second play completed its world premiere. In my mind, this day means it wasn’t a fluke that I wrote a halfway decent show when I was 14.
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At the time of publishing this post, we are nearly three years to the day from the world premiere, and by extension, Piper-Curda-guacgate (which really and truly, not a single person noticed). There’s any number of reasons I can pinpoint why The Thousand-Year Rose is a special play to me: my mentor and the first non-Fenton to believe in my ability as a writer, Sue Fisher, commissioned me to write her final play before retiring from teaching and directing at Conestoga Valley Middle School and this was what I wrote; It was the first play I ever directed, and the cast ranged from people who’d never stepped on a stage before all the way to a moderately famous television actor; In a way like my brother stepped on the baseball field to play all 9 positions in a single game his senior year, I played just about every offstage position making this show happen, between selling tickets, managing the house, running sound and light cues, figuring out the projection elements we had in lieu of a set, designing and hanging posters all around Wheaton College, among other things (I recall on October 30, 2016, all I did was sleep).
And I agree — all of those things make Rose very special to me. But the biggest reason I find The Thousand-Year Rose special is, it all comes back to what I accomplished within the script itself (I mean, duh, I’m a writer). For those of you unfamiliar, here’s basically what happens in the play — I can’t imagine any of you care about spoilers, but:
—SPOILER WARNING: READ THE PLAY FIRST IF YOU CARE—
Abigail is a wicked witch trying to find the lost treasure of Desrosier in Hanenbough, Ireland along with her witch sisters, Ciera and Vivian. The treasure is sealed by the Thousand-Year Rose which will only bloom this year for one with a pure heart.
Knowing this, they decide to kidnap someone with a pure heart so they can drag them down to the altar, get the treasure, leave Vivian in the dust and take over the world. Kimmi arrives in Hanenbough in search of the treasure and the witches comedically stalk her through the city and plot to kidnap her. Abigail constantly mocks Vivian and belittles her often rational perspective, leaving Vivian pretty aloof and unsure of herself. When Vivian gets separated from Abigail and Ciera toward the end of Act One, she decides to go after Kimmi herself — to kidnap her so no one else has to get hurt.
In the Act One finale, Vivian observes how Kimmi treats her friends and realizes there’s no reason Abigail should be the one to get the treasure, and hands over the treasure map to Kimmi, vowing to help her find the treasure to cap off a scene aptly titled “The Good Kind of Betrayal”
VIVIAN: I know this map leads straight to the treasure. I’ve been there. I’ve seen the cave already. But I think the person to find the treasure should be someone who deserves it... a pure heart. So... you take this, Kimmi. P-please find the treasure.
Vivian hands Kimmi the map.
VIVIAN: You can trust me. I’m on your side from now on. There’s no going back.
Vivian has a big moment there, handing the map over in a demonstration of trust while still opening the possibility Kimmi will beat her senseless because she’s part of that gang of witches threatening her life — and luckily, Kimmi sees through to the human behind the wicked witch and brings Vivian in to the fold with her group.
CIERA: Wait, but the rose didn’t bloom for me.
CIERA: But... I have a pure heart — don’t I?
ABIGAIL: We’re witches, Ciera — do I really need to answer that question?
While the above is a joke at the end of the opening scene in Act One, that’s the crux of the play: how is goodness defined? What does it even mean to be “pure of heart”? Clearly, Abigail is wicked. She’s a witch. But Vivian’s actions as the play develops challenge this “if/then” thinking Abigail represents: “If someone is a woman who can do magic, then they must be a witch, then they must be evil”. Vivian brings her defiance of this thinking to completion when it is she who turns out to be the pure heart to make the rose bloom in the end, rather than Kimmi.
So let’s put The Thousand-Year Rose into the context of my life for a second: I was a student at an evangelical college and had grown uncomfortable with the ways evangelical culture at-large talks about knowing the objective answers about being righteous and pure of heart while talking about women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community the way they do. At the time of writing The Thousand-Year Rose, I hadn’t quite accepted my sexual orientation, but of course it bothered me when I would hear people say things insinuating, “if someone is gay, then they’re going to hell, then they must be evil”. I believe humanity to be more complex than that. I believe God to be more complex than that.
In the final scene, Abigail and Vivian have a moment of confrontation on the altar of the Thousand-Year Rose.
ABIGAIL: Oh, Vivian — I almost forgot about you. What do you have to say for yourself? Disgracing the family and all?
VIVIAN: I did what was right.
ABIGAIL: But you are a witch. Doing what is right is a little different when you’re evil — which is kinda, y’know, the point of being a witch.
Vivian responds with my favorite line I’ve ever written. (And by that I mean, my favorite non-joke I’ve written — the best joke I’ve written is obviously when the Snowman in See Amid asks, “y’all ever been outside when it’s snowing? When it’s raining my flesh everywhere?”)
I wrote The Thousand-Year Rose as a rallying cry for understanding that being pure of heart looks different on each person (because we’re all different) — and there’s no person who is fully incapable of being good. I believe goodness to simply start with seeing the humanity in others. That’s not going to look the same coming from everybody, but that’s kind of the point. We’re not beholden to if/then stereotypes regarding the kinds of people we are — if you can value the inherent humanity of the people around you, I believe you have the makings of being a good person. Full stop. It could not matter less whether or not you’re a witch.
I’m proud of the story I told in The Thousand-Year Rose. That’s why it’s special to me. I’m ecstatic that it’s been published via Heuer Publishing this year and I can’t wait to see another school or community theatre group take it on (or an equity production, but I don’t expect that to happen anytime in this universe unless Peter Fenton becomes a Household NameTM). I try to practice the underlying philosophy I preach in the script, but it’s not easy and I’d never pretend it is. But it’s always worth a try. I’ve never once regretted treating another person like a person.
PS: I’ve never shared this poster design we made for our Wheaton World Premiere broadly, but I still find it hilarious:
I’m gonna take a wild guess that if you didn’t go to Wheaton you won’t find this poster as funny as the population at Wheaton did. Being that we had a conservatory on campus, there were always senior recital posters just — everywhere. I consulted with my friend Peter Desrosier who designed at least a few of those recital posters to riff on that. It was a good ad campaign and I stand by it.