When I was starting out as a playwright a few years ago, I had the great good fortune to work with Kenneth Kay, then the creative artistic director at Blowing Rock Stage Company, a professional theatre in Blowing Rock, NC. He mentored me through that first experience – the musical comedy “Crossroads” -- and premiered the work at his theatre. I was already an established novelist and screenwriter, but had never attempted a work for the stage. Ken’s great gem of wisdom: Remember, it’s all about the audience.
As I wrote scenes and dialogue and songs, that one piece of advice guided me. If the audience got it, I was successful. If they didn’t, I failed. So I wrote as if I were sitting in the audience: what do I see, hear and feel as I watch what’s transpiring on the stage? Is it clear to me who these characters are, where they’ve been and where they’re going, and why they and their story matter?
Ken also told me to trust the audience, to make a connection with their imaginations and give them a solid foundation from which to make the leap of faith into the story. The audience is smart; they’ll go with you, and all you have to do is suggest. If I’m writing a scene that takes place in a church, the only prop I need to ask for is a stained glass window, or a good representation of one. “Okay,” the audience says, “we get it. We’re in church. Now we’re ready to see what’s going on here.”
I thought about all this as I sat in the audience at the Haywood Arts Regional Theatre in Waynesville, North Carolina Saturday night, watching a talented theatre company perform my play “Welcome to Mitford.” The cast and crew were superb and the staging and direction were imaginative. We in the audience knew where we were at each moment, and why we were there. The theatre company took my modest words and made magic on stage and drew the audience into the story.
I actually had two audiences in mind when I wrote “Welcome to Mitford.” It’s an adaptation of the nine Mitford novels by Jan Karon – her masterful and intimate creation of a close-knit mountain community peopled by folks you can truly care about. Jan’s Mitford books have sold 26 million copies worldwide, so there’s a vast audience out there who know and love the story. My adaptation has to be true to Jan’s work and familiar to her legions of fans. But there are also folks in the audience who aren’t familiar with the books, and the play has to work for them, too. The play has been produced by theatres across the country and Canada since Dramatic Publishing Company published it, so its success would indicate that no matter what audiences bring to a performance, they get it.
As I’ve continued my playwriting career over the years, I’ve realized how much Ken Kay’s advice applies to all of my storytelling – novels, movies, plays, essays, a blog. It’s all about the audience. If I write with my audiences in mind, and trust them, I’m likely to get it right.
A note for audiences: “Welcome To Mitford” will be performed by the Neuse Little Theatre in Smithfield, NC May 31 through June 8. www.neuselittletheatre.org
Robert Inman’s plays and musicals – Crossroads, Dairy Queen Days, The Christmas Bus, Welcome to Mitford, The Drama Club, A High Country Christmas, and The Christmas Bus: The Musical -- are published by Dramatic Publishing Company and available for licensing and production by theatres worldwide. www.dramaticpublishing.com.