Write on Wednesday: Soul: the Stax Musical

Going to the theater is always a treat. For Laura Ambler and for me, it’s also educational. As playwrights we watch to see if there’s something to learn — and there always is.

Sunday afternoon we saw the World Premier of Soul: the Stax Musical by playwright Matthew Benjamin. It was a great show. The narrative arc was the origins and life of Stax Records in Memphis. Stax began as Satellite Records in 1957, founded by Jim Stewart — a banker by day and a country fiddler by night. Stewart had a dream, but no knowledge of the recording industry. With the help of his older sister, Estelle Axton (who mortgaged her house to buy recording equipment for the studio) they set up shop in an abandoned movie theater in Memphis, Tennessee.

STAX marquee__Soul_v4

These two white people (who didn’t know that what they were doing was impossible)  launched the careers of of iconic artists—Otis Redding, The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, Booker T & The MG’s, Rufus & Carla Thomas, David Porter, Wilson Pickett, Johnny Taylor, and Eddie Floyd—artists who made American Soul Music mainstream. What a great story!

This show had a large cast — twenty people were on stage at the standing ovation curtain call. We were interested to see how that many people were handled as our two plays also have large casts. Many of the performers in this production had multiple stage, tv and film  credits but were having their debut at Center Stage Baltimore. These actors had to be outstanding singers as well as great dancers. The show featured exceptional choreography by Chase Brook. I predict it will be a hit on Broadway and then tour. The music will keep you clapping. See it if you get a chance.

The two plays Laura and I have written were Christmas shows written with Community Theatre in mind. Community Theatre works with limited budgets and local (often exceptional) talent. But these theaters have constraints. Christmas shows are frequently fund raisers so in the case of our first play, The Santa Diaries, anybody who wanted a part got one.  Large casts are great for ticket sales to grandparents, aunts and uncles and next door neighbors, but large casts create staging problems and parts that were written originally for one theater may not work for another.

The idea for our next play has been germinating for a while. It will have just four cast members. We’ll start work on that soon. In the meantime we see as much theater as we can. We have a lot to learn.

 

Minnesota Calling or Why You Should Read Messages to the Bottom

Three years ago Laura and I went to Faribault, Minnesota to see the Merlin Player’s production of our play, The Santa Dairies. We’ve kept in touch with the director and some of the performers.

That’s characters Sandy Hawes, who has the ‘Santa calling’ and Martha, one of the Hot Dish ladies.

At the beginning of September I received a text from Julianna Skluzacek who directed The Santa Diaries in Faribault. She asked if Laura and I had a new Christmas play. We didn’t have a new play and knew we couldn’t do something in a month. I replied, “Sadly, no.”

Then a week or so later I reread the text more carefully and sent an email:

Julianna, I just reread your message and realized you said 2018. What do you need? Laura and I would love to collaborate on something. Mala Burt

Julianna replied:

I’m looking for something that is like “Santa Diaries” in that it has a great love story, funny, some kids maybe but not necessary. I would need a title by October as that’s a deadline for a Paradise publication for 2018. Do you have something you could turn into a holiday show?

Laura and I talked. We had a funny holiday movie script called #Santa. We thought we could turn it into a play, so I sent an email to Julianna attaching the script, synopsis and cast list.

Julianna, we have a Christmas movie script that we could turn into a play. It’s called #Santa. It’s the story of a celebrity PR “reputation manager” who is arrested and sentenced to community service answering childrens’ Letters to Santa.

And we would work with you to make any changes you’d need for your geographic area. Cast list is based on the movie script and would be pared down. This would be fun!

Then we waited impatiently. After a week or so I forwarded the email above with this message.

Julianna, I just wanted to confirm you got our email. (the one with the script, etc.)

She replied she wanted to talk, so we set up a phone call for September 28. Julianna told us that she loved the script, but had some concerns. Our script was for a racially diverse cast and the Minnesota community wasn’t very diverse. She also thought there might be some expensive production challenges.

Toward the end of the converstion Laura wondered out loud what it would be like to do a play with the Santa Diaries characters but five years later. Light bulbs ignited in our brains. Who is Timmy’s father, anyway? It turned out the October deadline was really in November so we suggested sending her a one page synopsis of the arc of a new play.

Laura and I met, brainstormed, pulled together a synopsis and sent it off to Julianna. Then we waited.

And waited. (We aren’t very patient.) I knew Julianna was in a two week production and figured she was too busy to focus on our proposal. Waiting was hard. Laura and I really wanted this to happen.

Yesterday, early in the morning, I sent an email to Julianna. I knew her show had closed over the weekend and wanted to congratulate her on that, but I really wanted to know if she had any response to the synopsis. After all, this was not just her decision. It had to be presented to the theater board for approval.

She said she’d met with the board and they’d approved moving forward with the project. Then said she’d had a dream about the play and outlined an addition she thought might work. Actually it was brilliant if we can pull it off. (It invovles some cast diversity.)

Laura and I are over the moon! Of course we will go to Faribault, MN next December to see the premier production of our play – name to be determined. We would have missed this opportunity if I hadn’t gone back and reread that original text. Read to the bottom, folks.