BWW Blog: NYNW Theater Festival Finalist Advises 'Write What You Know'
When it comes to writing, there's a well known adage that advises, "write what you know." Three years ago, I embraced that age-old wisdom and set out to write my first play. It wasn't hard to figure out the subject I "knew" enough about to compose a 90-minute script. I had just dropped my second child off at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania where she would begin her undergraduate experience. The entire college admissions process had been a piece of cake, well, at least compared to the ordeal we suffered through with my older child, who had applied to a whopping 21 colleges. Yet despite these differing journeys, both experiences shared one thing in common, namely that the undergraduate college admissions process, fraught with stress, pressures and an abundance of unintentional yet inherent humor, brought out the worst in both the applicants and the parents who raised them. With only a limited number of coveted spots being offered by the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities, the situation was a story begging to be written.
I sought out the help of my long-time creative partner - my sister, Amy Pappas. Okay, perhaps the writing team of Robbins & Pappas doesn't ring a bell with you, but among our family members, we are legendary. Our writing partnership began over 20 years ago, not so much by choice, as by necessity.
You see, each year, I hosted the family holiday party, a highly anticipated event featuring family sing-alongs, a light hearted White Elephant-style grab bag and of course, a non-stop array of gourmet delights, from appetizers to desserts. From the beginning, a regular feature of the evening was a show, created and performed by the children of our clan, initially ranging in age from newly born to five years old. Needless to say, the "show" was an agonizing 30 minutes of disorganized dancing, singing, gymnastics and instrumental offerings. After enduring the chaos for one year too many, my sister and I decided it was time to take matters into our own hands.
Our first endeavor was a simple talent show, yet with our gentle guidence, the presentation at least
offered minimal costumes, recorded music and a hint of organization. Howver, as the years went on, and the kids got older, calmer and dare I say, more talented, our shows became more and more sophisticated. My husband joined our creative team in Year 2 as our lighting and sound coordinator. Another cousin volunteered to take on props and sets. Commercials soon became a popular segment of our shows, which now spoofed everything from 'Dr. Phil' to Prince William and Kate Middleton's 'Wedding of the Century'. One year, in a parody of 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire', we set up a live feed to our cousins in California, who served as the "phone a friend" lifeline to our contestants.
We assembled Playbill facsimiles, complete with cast bios and faux adverstisements, recruited an uncle as a videographer, and began the practice of asking audience members to donate to a selected charity in lieu of paying for a ticket. And speaking of our audience, each year we secretly recruited one adult audience member to be a part of the show, standing up in the middle of the performance to add a bit of comedic schtick to the dialogue. At the onset of each performance, family members found themselves eying each other suspiciously, wondering who this year's surprise participant would be.
Because my sister had also recently taken the college admissions journey with her two sons, our combined experiences offered a wealth of inside information, anecdotes and real-life characters who were sometimes more colorful and pompous than anyone we could ever have created ourselves. The result was "Admissions", a 90-minute 'Glee Meets Chorus Line' comedy, featuring six high school seniors, all vying for a spot at "Canterford University", a fictionalized amalgam of Harvard, Duke, Williams and any other prestigious collegiate institution. We wanted the students to represent all walks of life, from the entitled Upper East Side private school teenager, to the 6th generation Canterford legacy who was completely unqualified for the school's high academic standards, to the recruited star athlete, to the inner city student who would be the first in his family to seek a higher education.
As the story lines and colorful characters unfolded onto our laptops, it quickly became evident that the project cried out to be a musical. But how? Neither of us had any musical background whatsoever. And as noted above, none of our family members showed any sign of musical inclination. Enter, the extremely talented Michael Hicks, a successful musician and composer who we were fortunate enough to have been introduced to. We met with Michael at a Starbucks on W 48th Street in New York, talked to him about our project and gave him a draft of our script. Within 10 days, he came back to us with our opening number, '50 Words or Less', a phrase which refers to the often mandated restriction on the number of words colleges allow applicants to use when responding to their essay prompts. Allow me to elucidate:
"If you could be raised by a dinosaur, a robot or a visitor from another planet, which would you chose and why? Please answer in 50 words or less."
"If you were deserted on an island and could only have one item with you, explain what that item would be and why. Please answer in 50 words or less."
From the moment we heard Michael's clever lyrics and catchy tune, we knew we had something very special on our hands.
Since those early days, 'Admissions' and its talented cast, Casey Drane, Morgan Bartholick, Gregory Waldren and Jenny Robbins, its award-winning director, Jodi Beck and its gifted pianist Rob Cookman, has gone on to become a 5-time winner at the 2014 West Village Musical Theater Festival. Our show was selected from over 200 entries to participate in the 2014 New York New Works Theater Festival, in which we are about to compete in the Semi Final Round on Thursday, September 4th. We have been in discussions with some of the Broadway producers and Emmy winning writers who make up the Festival's distinquished Judge's panel regarding the prospect of bringing the production to an off-Broadway stage in the future.
So to those of you who have dreams of creating a play, a novel or a screenplay of your own, I strongly encourage you to follow that time-tested wisdom from all those who have come before us - write what you know. Based on my own personal experience, it's the key to any successful creative endeavor.
For more information on ADMISSIONS the Musical, visit: Admissionsthemusical.com
Caryn Robbins is Managing Editor of BroadwayWorld/TV/Movies/Music. She is also a features writer for BroadwayWorld, covering the best of Broadway theater.
Click here for more information on the New York New Works Theater Festival