Playwriting Teaching Drama

How I Ruined the World

Long-time Theatrefolker Jonette DeMarsico (Atlantic High School) offered us the services of an intern this year. Jillian, her student, has been a very welcome addition to our fold. This year she wrote an original musical about the oil crisis (How I Ruined the World) and we asked her to share her experiences with you.

Why did you choose this subject?

I chose the subject of an oil spill because it was an issue that hit close to home; I’m from Florida, and in the months following April 20th, there was a lot of talk of our beaches being ruined. I remember sitting in Ms. DeMarsico’s classroom late last year with her, the two of us staring at the live feed of the oil gushing out of the blown-out well in the gulf. That isn’t an image I’m ever going to forget, and I decided last year, as I sat watching it day after day after day, that I was going to write a play concerning it. I slapped a working title of “Slick Palms” on it and let it sit in the back of my mind over the summer while I waited to watch events around the real oil spill unfold.

Why did you decide to write a musical about it as opposed to a straight play?

I’d love to say that there was some amazing flash of insight that drew music out of me, but in all honesty, my best friend walked up to me early this year and said, “We’re writing a musical, just to let you know,” and then walked away with no explanation, leaving me rather confused. The next day he came back and said, “Okay, so I started writing music. Here’s where you enter your plot, and we’ll come up with lyrics that support the story.” I kind of nodded, went “Sure, why not!”

And that’s how my straight play turned into “How I Ruined the World,” a rock musical.

What was your writing process? How long did it take? How many drafts did you do?

When I wrote my first play last year, I went out and bought this big white-board with several different colored dry-erase markers. That board is the focal point of everything I write– I write down characters, scenes, situations, then draw arrows between them to indicate how I want the plot to move, and that eventually winds up on paper. With my friend, it was a little different, as we had the added variable of songs to consider, but that didn’t prove to be much of a problem– somehow, the songs just fit in with the scenes I had planned.

Overall, it didn’t take very long. My friend Spencer and I would chat for a few minutes here and there at school, then met up once at my house for a few hours to white-board it all out so we at least had an idea of where we were going and what kind of characters we were going to drag along with us. We met that weekend at Panara (because nothing motivates you to write like sitting in a public place) and spent half the day at a table in the corner there, typing it all out on my laptop. So far, we’re up to our second draft– I say “so far” because it’s still very much a work in progress, though a work in progress that we’ve managed to cast and put on its feet with Ms. DeMarsico, who is our drama instructor and director.

What was it like collaborating with another on the project? Did you always get along? Did you ever disagree?

Spencer and I work really well together– we grew up together, so it usually turns out that our ideas mesh together well. We actually did manage to get along the entire time, and our disagreements were usually short lived and easy to move on from. (Mostly, I think we disagreed about rhyming and lyrics, where it quickly became apparent that I should probably stick to the book and leave him to the music. I’m not very good at rhyming, it seems.)

What was it like to hear the piece for the first time?

It’s strange: You write it down, hear your friend play the music and sing it, and kind of get voices in your head for each character. You have an idea of how they should sound, what they should look like, how they should move, and so on… and then you have to hand it to actors who take it and do something else with it. And somehow, that’s a good thing, because when you think about it later, they did a far better job than the voices in your head did. I was very pleased when I first heard it, and still smile every time I hear our Johnny (the lead) sing any one of his songs.

What was the rehearsal process like? What was your most exciting moment? Your most frustrating?

Like I mentioned above, it’s sort of strange, because you get this idea of how it should be, and then these actors come in and do their thing with it. Much of the rehearsal process, at least early on, was spent trying to convince the actors why this mattered so much, and while we approach the problem in a light-hearted, almost comical way, it’s still a very black matter we’re dealing with and we had to get that point across… Oh yeah, and learn your lines and figure out your characters. Average rehearsal stuff.

Probably the most exciting moment was hearing the songs for the first time sung by our characters with the full band– guitar, bass and drums– rocking out behind them. (I try to pretend like I’m not dancing back stage while this is going on, but I am.) It was completely exhilarating to hear, and I smile proudly every time they do it right.

Most frustrating? Well, it goes with the “do it right” issue; our cast is largely composed of people with two left feet, so convincing them to dance was rather hard. It wasn’t so frustrating that they couldn’t dance as much as they wouldn’t dance– it’s a rock musical, and the story benefits so much when we have this strict divide between rocking singers in the song with the band playing behind them, to the stiff suits in the scene that are orchestrating an oil spill and trying to cover for it. It took the cast a while to understand this.

Talk about the audience response.

The audience response was largely positive regarding the script. We performed How I Ruined the World for the first time at the Florida Theatre Conference in Lakeland, which means it was a competition– which, of course, means judges that meet with you after your performance to discuss it. All three of our judges were completely shocked that two students hadn’t only written a show, but a musical, and not a musical about (in one judge’s words) “flippant crap,” but about a contemporary issue that was approached and shown in a mature way, yet “written in [our] language… so that even the stupidest adult could understand it.” The judges also complemented the music, admiring the clean lyrics and the variety of styles we Incorporated into the show. (While largely rock, the show involves other styles, like blues and even a waltz at one point.)

Unfortunately, thanks to a mixture of audio problems (our sound system and the theatre’s sound system didn’t quite mix well) and a rather crippled performance, (our lead was very ill, sick enough that his parents demanded he stay home and only let him go because he refused to let the cast down) our first showing was no where near our best. Luckily, we have more performances in the future at the district level competition, and we’re looking forward to smoothing out the audio issues and performing with a healthy cast.

About the author

Craig Mason