The Road to Finders Keepers: My Starting Gate New Play Festival Journey

The Director and Cast of Finders Keepers

Straight Out the Starting Gate

Back in April, I applied to be a playwright in the 2020 Starting Gate New Play Festival at Talking Horse Productions. I submitted my one act play, St. Joan of Druthers, as my example after it had been well received at the Mizzou New Play Series. Shortly after applying, I received an email from the Selection Committee. The pandemic had made the process more challenging and there were more submissions than any other year. Towards the end of May, it came as quite a surprise that I had been chosen as one of three playwrights to participate in the Festival. I had been on the phone with my father before I got the good news. I called him back immediately.

He was ecstatic.

My dad showered me with compliments filled with pride. My dream of becoming a writer was coming to fruition. And this was proof positive.

I familiarized myself with the Festival guidelines. Playwrights were required to develop two original ten minute plays using the dialectic Blessing/Curse, interpreting it as they saw fit. Each play was expected to encapsulate its own voice and style and encouraged to focus on story not spectacle. Plays would be limited to a single scene. There would be two workshops and then auditions, rehearsals, and a performance in November. Thrilled to be a part of the Festival, I began to entertain ideas, eagerly writing rough drafts and scribbling notes, determined to write my best plays yet.

And then suddenly, my father died.

In June, I flew to California to face the devastating reality of my loss. I was uncertain whether I would be back in time for the first workshop, let alone have time to complete my two plays. Enveloped in sadness and overwhelmed by everything I had been through, I returned to Missouri in July. Twenty-four hours before the workshop, I scrapped the first play I wrote and started from scratch.

And that’s where Finders Keepers began.

*Fun Fact: The line “straight out the starting gate” in Finders Keepers was written as a nod to the Starting Gate New Play Festival.

A Theme is Born

I knew I wanted to incorporate my father’s memory into the play. I also knew it was too soon and I was too vulnerable to write about him. I somehow had to find a meaningful way to include him that wouldn’t emotionally devastate me. I also had to take into consideration that with twenty-four hours until the first workshop, there wasn’t much time for research so I needed to write about a subject I was highly familiar with. As I pondered the dialectic Blessing/Curse trying to come up with an idea, I reflected on how blessed I was to have so many friends reach out to me over the loss of my father and how much that meant to me.

Friendship quickly became the theme of my yet untitled play.

Character Development

The dynamics of friendship have always fascinated me. I was intrigued by the idea that even after death relationships can have a profound impact. Losing someone catapults your own mortality into consciousness. It makes you relentlessly obsess over what will happen after you die. Going through my father’s belongings made me realize that one day someone will be going through mine. This became the backdrop of my play.

The ten minute time constraint and the threat of Covid-19 kept my cast number at a minimum. While my characters aren’t based on anyone in particular, they reflect the archetypes often found within circles of friends. The Jennifer character, for example, is the voice of reason, the peacekeeper, and solver of problems. Rebecca, on the other hand, embraces the “enough about me what do you think about me” mentality, concerned mainly with herself and her own outcomes. Betsy falls somewhere in between the two.

All I needed was some conflict to stir things up.

The Homecoming Crown

About the time I became a part of the Festival, I was reading Glennon Doyle‘s book Untamed. In the chapter Tick Marks, Glennon reveals her experience rigging her way to the Homecoming Court during high school. It made me consider what being a Homecoming Queen meant and the influence it might have on a person. I began to explore the idea of building your life around something that didn’t exist. This became the conflict of Finders Keepers. While the ten minute parameter didn’t allow me to develop this idea to the extent I had hoped, it posed the question: “Is it a blessing or a curse to discover you aren’t actually the person you thought you were?”

The Fireproof Safe

After my father passed away, I found myself in unfamiliar territory (and still do). Like a Jenga game with a missing piece, I was wobbly, unstable, ready to come crashing down at any minute. In an effort to separate myself from the unbearable feelings I was experiencing, I became obsessed with getting my affairs in order in the event of my own untimely death. Things I had put off, like having my advance directive readily available, became of utmost importance. If I was going to die tomorrow, I was determined to be prepared for it.

I soon found myself overwhelmed by the dauting task. I became paralyzed and unable to do anything but binge watch Netflix in my pajamas while concurrently missing my dad and agonizing over not having a living trust.

And that’s when my friend Jenni came by.

*Fun Fact: I dedicated Finders Keepers to Jenni

After twenty plus years of friendship, she can assess my needs on any given day better than I can. Swooping in to save me is one of her super powers. She must have sensed my need on that particular day because she not only came bearing condolences, she also brought a fireproof safe. I had been wanting one for ages but never got around to buying one. As Jenni began helping me organize the important items I needed to put in my new safe, I remembered the body bag.

The Body Bag

*Fun Fact: The actual bag Jenni gave me is the one used in the play.
After filming, I put it in my new fireproof box for safekeeping.

The Christmas after my divorce, Jenni gave me a Christmas tree storage bag with my ex-husband’s name on it as a gag gift. She had been assisting me with the heartbreaking process of dividing up all my Christmas ornaments and wanted to provide me a much needed laugh. I have kept it all these years not because I wish ill will on my ex-husband but because that bag continues to bring a smile to my face every time I see it. It was a ray of light at a very dark time in my life and I will always be grateful to Jenni for that moment.

Beloved Spatula

There are several times I tip my hat to my father in Finders Keepers and those who knew him will know exactly where those moments are. For those who didn’t know him, I will give you this example.

*Fun Fact: This is Beloved Spatula!

Since I can remember, I have always made singing and dancing a priority. While living with my father during my senior of high school, I incorporated using a spatula as a microphone while my friends and I danced around the living room singing Madonna songs. It became affectionately known as my Beloved Spatula.

It remained at my dad’s for all these years where I would lovingly dote on it when I came to visit. Several years ago, I victoriously declared to my sisters that I was stealing Beloved Spatula fair and square (with my father’s approval of course) and it now resides proudly in my kitchen.

*Fun Fact: I gave these to the actresses and the Director as a token of my appreciation.

The Starting Gate New Play Festival

The title of the play, Finders Keepers, organically evolved. The dialogue you hear in the play is dialogue you can hear in any given living room at any given moment in my life. I literally wrote this play straight from my heart as a tribute to the friendships I have cherished and the losses I have suffered.

It has truly been an honor to be a part of the Festival. I am forever grateful for this opportunity. Unfortunately, I couldn’t attend rehearsals because I had to return to California this Fall to finish settling my father’s estate. While I was disappointed, I knew my play was in good hands under the marvelous direction of Dana Bocke and her extremely talented cast.

It wasn’t until the night of filming that I finally had the chance to see Finders Keepers. As I sat there watching my characters come to life, listening to the words I had written that were sprinkled with reminders of my father, tears streamed down my face. It didn’t turn out how I imagined.

It was better.

*Fun Fact: You can click here to purchase tickets.

My dad would have loved Finders Keepers and I hope you will too. The 2020 Starting Gate New Play Festival will premiere online Friday November 20th at 7:30 pm. Tickets are $10.00 each and will be available through the end of November.

Me and My Daddy

6 thoughts on “The Road to Finders Keepers: My Starting Gate New Play Festival Journey

  1. Melle, your play was a gift during a time when performance opportunities have dried up and we are isolated from our theatre family.
    Becoming your Jennifer gave me interaction with 3 ladies I love to spend time with, and explore the friendship and history you created with these characters.
    Sincere thanks,
    Nora

    1. Nora, I am so grateful you were a part of it. Your performance was truly magical and the Festival couldn’t haven ended on a happier note.
      Thank you sooooo (a million more o’s!) much!
      Melle

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