Today is the twelfth anniversary of the world premiere of my first children’s play, Twinderella. Since that day, I’ve published nineteen plays for young audiences which have been seen in well over 3000 productions worldwide. I’m no longer actively writing plays for children, but I still enjoy hearing from young performers who are involved in productions of my plays. On Twinderella’s birthday, I thought I’d look back to how it all started.
In the spring of 2001, my wife Janice was offered the job of third grade drama specialist at Summit School, in Winston-Salem. Summit is a K–9 independent school founded in 1933. I attended Summit for eleven years and spent many years as a volunteer in the school’s theatre program. For more than a decade, I was also a Summit parent.
Janice accepted the job—which included mounting an annual third-grade play with about sixty students in three classrooms. Before she had even joined the school’s staff, however, she began to realize that there was a dearth of fun, funny, appropriate material that could be performed by sixty third-graders.
“What if we write a play ourselves?” she asked. At this point I was the author of several books and held an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Vermont College, so the idea of writing an hour-long play for children was not particularly intimidating. Almost immediately we hit on the idea of a play in which Cinderella’s story was paralleled by that of her long lost twin brother. Twinderella was an obvious title.
For the next few months we discussed ideas for the play at odd moments. Christmas rolled around, the beginning of the rehearsal period in February loomed ever closer and, though we had spent hours over the past months discussing ideas for the play, we hadn’t actually written anything. I was between writing projects so, during the week or two after Christmas I sat down one morning and started typing.
I knew the basic story, I knew that I had to write a play in three acts, and I knew that each act had to have twenty parts, with a mix of boys and girls that correlated with the enrolment in the three third-grade classrooms. Within a few hours, I had finished the first act of Twinderella.
I felt a little self-conscious telling Janice that I had secretly proceeded without her and told her she was welcome to throw away what I had done and we could start over, but she asked me to read it to her. In a dark car, waiting for my daughter to get out of her dance class, I read aloud Act I of Twinderella. Janice laughed frequently and kindly and when I finished she asked, “So what happens next?” I had become a playwright.
The rest of Twinderella was written over the next two days. Students are frequently surprised when I tell them it took only three days to write my first children’s play, but I tell them that much of the writing process goes on before you ever type (or write) a word. I had been thinking about Twinderella, storing away ideas, for several months. Still, there is no denying the fact that I had a burst of creative energy, that unanticipated jokes appeared on my screen as I typed, and that characters took on lives of their own, often based on those serendipitous jokes.
Twinderella was a hit. The students enjoyed working with the material, the audiences roared with laughter, and Janice and I received many notes from teachers praising both the script and the production. The head of the school’s Junior High asked me if I would write a comedy for his students to perform the next autumn. By the end of the school year, I had accepted a job as the school’s first Writer-in-Residence, a position I held for eleven years.
Playwriting is unlike any type of writing I’ve done. When I write books, I sometimes hear from readers about their reactions, but with a play, I can actually watch that reaction take place in real time. Not only do I get to see the characters of my imagination brought to life, but I get instant feedback from my audience in the form of laughter and applause (and sometimes silence). It’s an exciting experience that I enjoyed for more than a decade.