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These Local Playwrights Want 15 Minutes of Your Time -- & Then Maybe 15 More

If you give Know Theatre’s “episodic theatre party” Serials! 4, Thunderdome 2: Beyond Thunder a try on Feb. 22, you’ll see a five-part program of 15-minute scenes by local playwrights.

What makes Serials! a Thunderdome is that the audience gets to vote two shows off the stage at the end of every evening, with three continuing and two new ones coming in. Now that’s drama. Will anyone make it through to the end???

Feb. 22 is the second “episodic theatre party” in the series and picking up the two newly available slots are first episodes by two writers with strong Northern Kentucky ties:

Chris Wesselman (who spent his formative years in Highland Heights and continued there for Northern Kentucky University) presents pit, “a drama surrounding the heroin epidemic in Cincinnati and the extreme difficulties addicts face returning to the real world following rehab.“

Covington’s Paul Strickland, storyteller extraordinaire and Fringe favorite, begins My Messed Upera which he describes as “serialized Chaos in which the Creator in my brain attempts to kill the Organizer in my brain, thus allowing many of my unfinished and previously unrealized play ideas to mingle with each other.”

And incoming in Episode 3 on March 7 will be NKU ’15 grad (playwriting degree!) Robert Macke with The Redscare. “After Pete Rose fails to get into the ‘Ballbase’ Hall of Fame for the umpteenth time, Reds' fans take to street, forming their own militia to combat this gross injustice. Facing humanitarian disaster, Violet, a Cincinnati resident and Cyclones fan, must find a way to escape the city before the streets run red.”

Macke, Strickland, and Wesselman are all Serials veterans, and Wesselman is a producer of Know’s annual Cincinnati Fringe – where Strickland’s performances are SRO.

Wesselman entered the first Thunderdome and “I presented a late-night talk show titled The Next 15 Minutes with local musician Randy Proctor. We lied about having Drew Lachey as our special guest and got booted after our first episode. Ha!” 

Strickland is a nationally touring stand-up comedian and storyteller and can be heard daily on XM/Sirius Satellite Radio. His first Serials entry Andy's House of [blank] was presented as a full-length play with music as part of Know’s current season.

They do some quick talk about the Serials format:

RCN: What do you like about the serials format? 

Wesselman: By presenting an entire story in 15-minute chunks, the format really allows playwrights to focus on the overall arc of a show. Knowing how many episodes -- and therefore how much time -- you have gives you an excellent way to begin outlining beats and plot points and forces you to structure your show in some way.

Plus, the necessary minimalist approach to tech and the cozy venue allow for intimate, in-your-face theatre that focuses more on the characters and story than anything else...which is just how I like it!

Strickland: It's a challenge to write in 15-minute episodes. There's an urgency to create quick but sturdy arcs that is not necessarily there in a longer show. 

Macke: I love that the Know has provided Cincinnati's writers a fun place to play. I can't imagine making a full-length play about a mother having to tell her son that his pet rock passed away while he was at school. I love that I can take a goofy idea and transform it on stage of the course of a couple of weeks.

RCN: If you write as you go, how on earth do you write as you go?

Macke: Every episode that I have written has been written after the previous episode has premiered. Audience reaction plays a big part. Sometimes accidents happen on stage that you want to keep. I think it's better to be focused on one episode at a time.

Wesselman: Planning and outlining is important, especially if you have a million other things fighting for your time. I try to have following episodes completed immediately following performances of preceding episodes, but a great benefit to Serials! is the ability to gauge audience feedback and take their post-performance commentary into consideration with future episodes.

Did they really like a certain character you weren't planning on bringing back? Now you will! Are they really intrigued to discover a piece of information? Maybe you'll drag it out one more episode to keep them guessing.

I'll keep tweaking and changing until director and cast say, "No. We need the time we have left to memorize this stuff, fool. Shut it down." It's a delicate blend of being prepared and addressing things on the fly. It's not easy, but it sure is fun. 

Strickland: I do not "write as I go" exactly. I write the major pieces of the episodes weeks in advance, and then revise and adapt the interstitial material as it seems necessary. But the songs are the songs, most of the time, and do not change.

RCN: If the evil audience votes you off the island -- do you finish the play?

Wesselman: I will definitely be finishing this play even if we don't make it past Episode 1. It's an important topic that I have close ties to and think it's a story worth seeing to its end, even if that means never having it mounted, which I obviously hope wouldn't be the case. 

Strickland:  If I get voted off or don't, there'll be more opportunities to see this Whatzit I've made. I've worked too, too hard to let it die so young. 

Luckily, the only other Serials! I've been involved with was incredibly successful, Andy's House of [blank] ran all five weeks and was picked up as part of this mainstage season.

Macke: I honestly don't know. At least for this piece, I think it's intended for the audience as a serial -- a nice piece of episodic theatre. If I find another venue in another town that does something similar, then maybe I'd rework it to see how they respond.

Serials! 4, Thunderdome 2: Beyond Thunder, 8 p.m. Feb. 22, March 7. March 21 and April 4. Know Theatre Underground, 1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine. Limited seating. Tickets $15. 513-300-5669 and here.

Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts