by Teresa Burns Murphy
I spoke with Lisa Nanni-Messegee this spring on the campus of George Mason University about her work as a playwright and screenwriter.
TBM: When I saw your play, RADIO VEGA, I got a real sense of the spirit and grace of the small Midwestern town in which the play is set. Can you talk about your inspiration for that play?
LNM: Thank you for seeing my play. It was a nostalgic play about my youth. And any time you say the word nostalgia, you know that things are going to be a little bit murky in places – a little more romantic.
I grew up in Geneseo, Illinois. It's a relatively small town with a population just over 6,000. There was - and continues to be – a deeply rooted tradition in the town. It’s the annual Geneseo Queen contest. The contestants are high school senior girls. I remember watching these contests as a kid, thinking that one day I’d be up on that stage. There is a little pressure put on you to be part of this contest – I mean, you’ve been watching it your whole life. The contest included modeling a sports outfit and your prom dress. There’s also an interview portion. As a side note, I wound up being second runner up! Another big part of my high school life was my job. I worked at a local small market radio station, WGEN AM / FM. It was my first “real” job and I started when I was fifteen. So, these two experiences became the inspiration for RADIO VEGA. In a way, the characters of Louise and Charlene are two versions of me.
The other characters in the play aren't really based on real people. I just wanted to get the spirit of a small town and then add an element of comedy.
TBM: Your plays STREET SMART: THE ADVENTURES OF POLLY PEDESTRIAN and SALLY SURFER AND THE WILD WILD WEB are currently touring in Virginia and Washington, D.C. Who is your target audience for those plays, and what was your impetus for writing them?
LNM: SALLY SURFER is a play about internet safety for middle grade students, fourth through sixth grade. POLLY PEDESTRIAN is a play about traffic safety. The target audience is kindergarten through fifth grade. The younger kids are really drawn to Ricardo Raccoon, the puppet who teaches a lot of lessons. The older kids can relate to Polly because she's thirteen and a half and has purple hair and wants to be a rock star. Writing POLLY PEDESTRIAN was an interesting journey. In 2006, the Department of Transportation wanted to do a traffic safety program for kids. Clayton Austin was the Chair of the Theatre Department at George Mason at the time, and he asked me if I'd be interested in developing something for them. Three months later I had a play. Unfortunately, there had been a change of management at the Department of Transportation and the opportunity didn’t pan out. I liked the play and the message, so I decided to produce it. I told Mary Lechter (Artistic and Executive Director of A Class Act – Acting for Young People, Inc.) and Mary wanted to produce the project through AFYP. It was unlike anything AFYP had ever done before and we quickly realized that touring a play with adult, professional actors would require a different business model. So we created a sister company of AFYP called AFYP Stages. AFYP Stages produces original work that is geared towards family audiences, includes a repertory of touring shows for schools and provides opportunities for young actors to perform in a professional setting.
I am currently in rehearsals for a new touring show, THE FISHERMAN AND HIS WIFE, based on the Grimm Fairy tale. I wrote it for kindergarten through third grade students. POLLY and SALLY are a part of our “Safety Series.” FISHERMAN focuses on character education.
TBM: Shakespeare's influence is evident in DOISTER 2000, CAROL VS. CHRISTMAS is a modern take on Dickens's A CHRISTMAS CAROL, THE ADVENTURES OF PETER PAN is based on J.M. Barrie's classic tale, and THE FISHERMAN AND HIS WIFE is an adaptation of a Grimm fairy tale. What other writers have influenced your work?
LNM: I am influenced most by writers whose plays I have adapted. Interestingly, Nicholas Udall was a bigger inspiration for DOISTER 2000. Nicholas Udall was an English playwright in the 1500's and wrote a relatively obscure play called RALPH ROISTER DOISTER. My play is very liberally drawn from that original, but the main difference is my script is a play within a play. Students go back in time and get stuck in the play RALPH ROISTER DOISTER, and they have to play out the drama in order to get back home. Shakespeare was a big influence too – but in a different way. I did a lot of research to see if I could put together pieces of history and fictionalize it in a way that made you feel it could have actually have happened. I love playing around with plausibility in this regard. As a result, I was able to bring real people from history into the play including William Shakespeare, Thomas Sackville and Queen Elizabeth I.
THE FISHERMAN AND HIS WIFE is not the first Grimm tale I've adapted. I've also adapted JORINDA AND JORINDEL; THE TWELVE DANCING PRINCESSES; THE BIRD,THE MOUSE AND THE SAUSAGE; and a new one I’m currently writing, THE GOOSE GIRL. For me, adapting fairy tales is a great writing exercise.
With all the plays that are based on some kind of adaptation, I get as much information as I can before I write. I try stay true to the story in the chronology that everybody remembers but beyond that I pull from my own creativity. There is also a logistical side for me. I do things a lot of playwrights don't do for my job as Resident Playwright for AFYP Stages. I have very specific boundaries: for our bigger plays (like DOISTER 2000). My cast size needs to accommodate a cast of thirty-six, and every role needs to have some kind of challenge added to it. It should have nutritional value, so the young actor has something good to work with during the process. I also know I only have a week to direct this play – so I try to make sure I write what I can handle. I also like a challenge and want to raise the bar each year as far as what can be accomplished. For example, in PETER PAN we had a massive battle on stage with over twenty young actors fighting – some with swords and others doing hand-to-hand combat. That was a lot of fun for both the actors and the audience.
TBM: 25 ARK LANE is about a group of teenagers who find themselves locked in an underground shelter. Can you talk more about that play and where the idea to write it came from?
LNM: Last year I saw a headline on-line about a very large asteroid heading toward earth – this particular asteroid caused some concern with some scientists. Meteors and asteroids hit us all the time – but I thought, What if there was a massive, planet-altering asteroid heading toward earth? What would we all do? I liked the idea of a drama involving kids under the age of 18 being in a shelter to avoid the destruction from the asteroid. It’s reasonable that young people would be selected to start civilization over again. It was a compelling and scary thought and I wrote the play in four days. I pondered the idea of alliances being formed among the young people in the shelter like you have in LORD OF THE FLIES. 25 ARK LANE premiered in December of last year. When I directed the play, I didn't give the kids the last page of the script until dress rehearsal. They felt very conflicted, wanting to know what was going to happen, but they also liked the mystery. I think that keeping that information from them allowed the actors to become more emotionally invested in the play. It was so powerful when they finally did learn the truth in dress rehearsal and that response was sustained throughout the performance weekend. Spoiler alert: the kids were chosen by a lottery. Anyone who didn't survive the asteroid blast was included in the LOL (Loss of Life) room, which is a huge room filled with files – basically a paper graveyard. I wanted to challenge the students with this play and I think I succeeded. I heard that it produced a lot of thoughtful conversations among the audience members and the actors themselves.
TBM: You have written several plays for young people. Is there a paucity of plays written for this age group? What are the challenges and rewards of working with young actors?
LNM: There are some great plays for kids out there – but in my case, it's a question of fitting in with what I need. One thing that's disheartening to me is that a lot of plays involving teenaged characters are inappropriate for kids that age to perform. At AFYP Stages, we want to provide a safe environment for our actors and that includes content that is conservative and age appropriate. I think it’s easy for many playwrights to just include sexual situations and mature language in a plays about teenagers because they just assume that is how all teenagers behave. I believe that the vast majority of teenagers are better than they're often portrayed. They have a lot more integrity, and I think they can be portrayed as thoughtful and intelligent and not so depraved. I strive to find other ways to bring conflict into a script without having to fall back on mature language and subject matter.
As far as challenges and rewards - I love working with this age group (ages thirteen – seventeen). As far as the challenges of working with young actors, there are two things I can point out. The biggest challenge is that a lot of kids are overscheduled. In a lot of these cases, they are spread so thin that they can’t fully commit to the project. Missing rehearsals impacts other people and damages the collaborative process. The other challenge is developmental. There are limitations for young actors as to what they're able to understand. I teach difficult concepts that they sometimes don't fully understand. Somewhere down the road, though, it kicks in. I believe as a teacher you shouldn't wait to tell students about these big concepts. Having an introduction to theatre training early in their acting career helps them with their future stage performances and gives them a leg up if they decide to major in theatre in college or go into the profession.
TBM: Before moving to Northern Virginia, you worked for several years in Los Angeles. What were your experiences in the television and film industries like, and how have those experiences shaped your work as a playwright and screenwriter?
LNM: I sort of fell into TV producing and was lucky to be able to incorporate my writing and directing skills in that field. I didn't go to LA with the intent of working in television. I considered my time in LA as being a way to enhance my experience as an artist. I also always knew I wanted to teach and thought it would be a great way to bring even more knowledge into the classroom. My first producing job was for GREAT DAY AMERICA on PAX TV. I originally was interviewing for the job of personal assistant to a man named Michael Young (people my age may remember him as the host of a 1980's show called KIDS ARE PEOPLE TOO.) While he was looking at my resume, he noticed I had done theatre. We began talking about theatre when the phone rang. It was the sister company based in Florida, asking if Michael had found a producer for some client- based segments. He turned to me and said in the speaker phone, “Larry, I want you to meet Lisa. She’ll handle that.” Working as a Segment and Field Producer was a trial by fire. I had no idea what I was doing. The only thing I could rely on was my writing and directing skills. Typically my job involved coming up with a segment idea, researching it, pitching it to my boss. If it was green lit, I would then organize how the segment would be structured, interview the talent and write the script. On show day, I would direct the talent and direct my camera crew in terms of how and what to shoot. Then I’d go back to the office and start over again. I was not a screenwriter when I lived in LA. My husband, Todd, was the one in the family writing screenplays and was fortunate enough to have one of his films made. Todd has been my biggest influence as far as screenwriting. He’s an amazing writer and teacher. A couple years ago an opportunity came up, and Todd and I started working for Larry Levinson Productions, based in LA. I still find it ironic that I had to leave LA in order to start writing movies! As co-writers, we found that our strengths complement each other – and it makes for a very exciting writing process. I would say my strengths are dialogue and character. For Todd, it’s definitely story structure.
To learn more about Lisa Nanni-Messegee's plays or to book a tour of an AFYP Stages show, contact email@example.com. Nanni-Messegee's next touring show will be a play about financial literacy, slated to premiere in the spring of 2011. AFYP Stages currently tours in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Teresa Burns Murphy's fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine, Pulse Literary Journal, Southern Women’s Review, THEMA, and Westview. She won the 1996 WORDS (Arkansas Literary Society) Award for Fiction and was a semi-finalist for the 2005 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel. Her short story, “Halloween Gifts,” was a finalist for the 2006 Kate Braverman Short Story Prize, and her poem, “Geometry Lesson,” was a finalist in the 2009 Janice Farrell Poetry Prize. To learn more about her writing, visit www.teresaburnsmurphy.com.