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A FEW MINUTES WITH: Playwright Joseph Zettelmaier

By Donald V. Calamia

One of the busiest local playwrights these days seems to be Joseph Zettelmaier, a familiar name and face at many professional theaters throughout Southeast and Mid Michigan - and an occasional (and popular) contributor to this Web site. Zettelmaier is juggling multiple projects this month, including three new works that will be seen on stage for the very first time, and he spoke recently to EncoreMichigan.com about all of them - with hints of what's yet to come!

You've got quite a busy few weeks ahead of you. Eastern Michigan University is presenting staged readings of not only the original All Childish Things, but also its two sequels and Performance Network Theatre begins previews of Christmas Carol'd. Have you been getting much sleep lately? (laughs)

Sleep has become something I read about in books. I basically just drive around until I find a house that I think is mine, and pray for the best.

Did I leave anything out?

No, I think you got everything. All Childish Things trilogy, Christmas Carol'd and teaching at EMU and Pioneer High. Oh! I'll be talking to the kids at Greenhills later this month as well.

Only the original All Childish Things a 2005 nominee for The American Theatre Critics New Play Awards has been professionally produced so far. Did you always have a sequel or a trilogy planned? If not, how did the two follow-up scripts come about?

Honestly, the sequels came after the fact, but not long after the fact. I think we first started discussing them as a goof in like our second week of rehearsal for the original production. It was one of those jokes that was clearly testing the water as well.

The fact is, ACT is a play about Star Wars, and there were indeed some lose threads dangling after Part I. So the sequels just made sense.

Also, it allowed me to tell the larger story I wanted to tell, to delve into the themes more deeply.

The original All Childish Things is about life-long friends and Star Wars enthusiasts Dave, Max and Carter who plan to break in to a warehouse at Kenner Toys and steal a small fortune's worth of Star Wars collectables. What territory do the two sequels cover?

A major theme in Part I is indeed about life-long friendship. These guys met when they were little kids, and have been largely inseparable since. But as we get older, those relationships change. They have to.

The larger theme that carries throughout the plays is the journey into maturity, and what it means to be an adult. On some levels, Max, Carter and Dave never really grew up until the events of Part I.

Part II deals with the fallout of Part I. The life-long friendships are, putting it mildly, very strained. It's a year later, and some of them haven't even spoken since Episode I. Carter and Kendra (his girlfriend) are now married, but are already having trouble. Part II touches on why we need those close friendships, and that sometimes our mistakes continue to haunt us if we continue making the wrong choices. The gang is forced back together, and have to figure out how to work together again.

Part III...the finale. Again, dealing with the fallout of the previous two plays. Things have gone from bad to worse for the three guys, except now, lives are on the line. Part III comes full circle with the theme - What does it mean to be an adult at this point in time, and what do we have to sacrifice for the sake of those we love?

Most of your work has been with Michigan's professional theaters such as Performance Network, the BoarsHead, Planet Ant and Williamston. Why did you choose to work with EMU for the staged readings?

Super-simple answer: They asked.

I've been blessed to work so much with EMU. I really love the theater program there, and those who make it work. Two years ago, EMU started doing staged readings of my plays. They asked me for one this year, and I pitched them the entire trilogy. We'd done table-reads of them at the BoarsHead, which were great, and it was time for me to see them on their feet. Ken Stevens supported the idea from the get-go, so here we are.

Your previous productions starred some of Michigan's best talent, including Joel Mitchell and Aral Gribble. How different is it to work with college students rather than professional actors?

It's a little tricky to draw any real comparisons, as the productions are all so wildly different. Both of the previous productions of ACT Episode I were just glorious. You said it right, some of Michigan's very best. Both casts made me feel like I'd won the lottery. Twice.

The readings are wildly different, mostly because we've only got nine rehearsals to put together three staged readings. We're working fast and furious. Luckily, we again landed some great college actors.

What are the challenges and what are the rewards?

The biggest challenge is the time-crunch, but the reward is the dedication.

These kids (I say kids, though one of them is older than I am!) are as dedicated as you could possibly ask for. They recognized the challenges we faced, and hit the ground running. I'm really thrilled with their work.

Planet Ant's artistic director, Shannon Ferrante, is working with you as director of the staged readings. How did this come about?

Shannon is one of my closest friends, and one of the best directors I ever worked with. She was the assistant director of the original production of ACT, and ended up running rehearsals for like a week. The cast and I were amazed at her insight and communicative skills. She has an amazing gift for finding clues in a script, and leading everyone through them, to a great production. I truly think she's one of the top directors in this state.

She got involved at my suggestion to EMU. I thought the students would really benefit from working with an artistic director, and that it might help open them up to the community after graduation.

Shan has also been a champion of this show since the very beginning. She understands it on an very deep level.

Luckily for you, your next project is also in Washtenaw County at the nearby Performance Network Theatre. What inspired you or possessed you to write a Christmas play?

Let's see...last December, the Network did a concert-reading of A Christmas Carol, using an adaptation by Dickens himself. They brought me in to help edit it, and to play Fred. The fact is, I adore A Christmas Carol. It's one of my favorite stories, and it's just so damn theatrical.

So when the Network decided to do a new adaptation, I was thrilled to be offered the job. And I'd never really done an adaptation before, and one of my main motivations as a writer is to constantly try new things. Truth be told, that was a large motivator for the All Childish Things trilogy, too. I'd never written a play-cycle before, so I thought I'd give it a try.

Since the concept was conceived less than a year ago, how different was your writing process? Was this one of the quickest scripts you've written?

Yeah, I cranked out the first draft in about two months. It helped having so much glorious source material to draw from, but I ended up adding a lot to it as well. I also had Christmas carols cranked as I wrote. It's a strange thing listening to O Come Emanuel in June.

Since the plot is based on Dickens' work, what was your goal in crafting the story?

Our mission from Day 1 was to create a version of A Christmas Carol unlike one you'd seen before.

The two main goals I set for myself were to reconnect with the wonderful prose, and to fill out some of the unanswered questions the book asks, particularly with Scrooge's past. The book isn't as long as you might think, and Dickens leaves lots of clues to things he doesn't fully touch on.

What or whose story are you attempting to tell?

In the end, it's absolutely Scrooge's story. I think, in Christmas Carol'd, you learn more about him, and see how relevant his times are to the ones we live in now.

How difficult has it been to juggle not one, but four plays at once? Have you had to do much re-writing?

Absolutely. Rewriting is essential.

With Carol'd, we've had a four-week rehearsal process, which is nice. I've had time to shape and mold it, and the cast is really top-notch. They'd start to riff on something, it would give me a brainstorm, and off I'd go. I like to do rewrites on the spot, so no one has to wait. I'm at rehearsals a lot.

With ACT, we've had a lot less time, as it's being done as staged readings. But still, I've been typing away. Episode III, which had been giving me the most trouble, has really benefited from this process. As soon as we got it on its feet, I began to figure out how to solve the problems I'd had with it. I've done a lot of rewriting on that one.

I'm almost afraid to ask this next question: What ELSE are you working on? (Or should I ask, how many new projects are you working on right now?)

Don't be afraid, Don. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to...something. I forget how that goes...

Well, I'm working on a new script right now, a two-hander set in Detroit, dealing with how far one might go to turn one's financial ruin around. And I'm working with the Network and Williamston on our co-production of my newest one, It Came From Mars, which goes into rehearsals in January. We've done a reading, and a workshop is possibly on the way. Much fun is being had.

AND I've got a big announcement on the horizon, but have been sworn to secrecy. I can say that I have another project going up this year, and the theater involved will be announcing it very soon. In this galaxy. And not far away.


ABOUT JOE ZETTELMAIER:

Joseph Zettelmaier is a playwright native to Michigan. He is a two-time nominee for the prestigious American Theatre Critics Award for best new play, first in 2006 for All Childish Things (Planet Ant Theatre) and then in 2007 for Language Lessons (Performance Network Theatre). Other plays include All Childish Things (BoarsHead Theater), Dr. Seward's Dracula (Planet Ant Theatre), Snow Angels and Blackwater Ballad (Eastern Michigan University), Night Blooming (Blackbird Theatre), Point of Origin and The Stillness Between Breaths (Performance Network Theatre). Point of Origin won Best Locally Created Script 2002 from the Ann Arbor News, and The Stillness Between Breaths won Best New Play 2005 from the Oakland Press. The Stillness Between Breaths was also selected to appear in the 2005 National New Play Network's Festival of New Plays, and his newest play, It Came From Mars, also appeared in the same festival in 2008. Language Lessons was named Best New Play 2007 by the Ann Arbor News, who also called Zettelmaier "the Playwright to Watch." This season, he will be co-writing the second part of the "Voices of the Midwest" series for Williamston Theatre. Zettelmaier is an associate artist at Performance Network Theatre, and director of student productions at Pioneer High School.


SHOW DETAILS:

All Childish Things - Episodes I, II & III will be presented as staged readings, one per day and in sequence, at the Sponberg Theatre on the campus of Eastern Michigan University, East Circle Dr. & Best Hall, Ypsilanti. Episode I will be read on Friday, Nov. 13 at 7p.m.; Episode II will be read on Saturday, Nov. 14 at 7p.m.; and Episode III will be read on Sunday, Nov. 15 at 3p.m. Tickets: $7. For information: 734-487-2282 or www.emich.edu/emutheatre.

Christmas Carol'd previews Nov. 20-22 & 25 and then runs Nov. 27 - Dec. 27 at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor. Preview tickets are $22-$32; all others are $25-$41. For information: 734-663-0681 or www.performancenetwork.org.


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