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

If We Were Having Coffee…

beverage break breakfast brown
Photo by Pixabay on

If we were having coffee…it wouldn’t be in person because we are under a Stay at Home order due to the Coronavirus so we would have to meet online. It would take us a minute to get connected because we’re not super savvy with technology and would have to figure out how to navigate ZOOM or Hangouts which would probably involve a password or two and, well, we know how that goes. When our makeup free faces finally did pop up on our screens, we would squeal with delight not just because we figured out how to hook up virtually but because we’re so happy to see each other. We would laugh at how we used to complain about technology and now we are clinging to it for dear life because it’s the only thing that keeps us connected to the outside world. We would joke about how many days it had been since we washed our oily hair and then we would admit that sometimes we stayed in our pajamas all day.

If we were having coffee…our conversation would be saturated with new terms that have become a part of our everyday lives like droplet transmission, self-quarantine, PPE, essential activities, mitigation, community transmission and Novel Coronavirus. We would wonder how our world could have transformed overnight into something so unrecognizable and how we were doing our best to adapt to ever changing circumstances and new information being hurled at us in every direction on a daily basis. Over and over we would shake our heads and repeat phrases like, “Did you ever think something like this could happen?” and “Can you believe we are living in the middle of a global pandemic?” We would comment on this new world we find ourselves living in and try to make sense of it, noting how drastically our priorities have shifted along the way. But we wouldn’t dig too deep into that conversation because right now we’re simply treading water, trying to stay afloat in a sea of uncertainty. 

If we were having coffee…we would talk about how grateful we are to be able to stay at home and do our part to try and flatten the curve and we would understand how very fortunate we are to be able to do so. We would agree for the most part that we are happy to be at home, and feel safe there, but we would also recognize the different emotions we have been experiencing over the last few weeks that we have been in isolation. We would reveal that we have felt scared, helpless, afraid, depressed, angry, uncertain, frustrated, confused and hopeful sometimes all within the span of a single afternoon. We would worry about how people are coping and discuss measures we’re taking to protect our own mental health. I would tell you I go for walks in my neighborhood and before you could say anything, I would assure you I have been practicing physical distancing keeping six feet apart from people by zig zagging back and forth across the street. I would mention that while some people wave and smile back at me, others glare and how I have no idea what that’s all about, but I keep smiling and waving anyway. We would agree they are probably anxious and admit we are too. Then you would remind me the CDC recommends everyone wear a face mask out in public and I would realize smiles were one more thing we lost to the Pandemic of 2020.

If we were having coffee…we would discuss which friendships we think will survive being in quarantine and which will ones need proximity to survive. I would tell you how many friends I have already had to social media distance myself from and we would laugh about it momentarily, knowing there is nothing funny about losing friendships but also recognizing many friendships won’t endure what lies ahead. Then I would take a moment and thank you for being one of my people. We would talk about how much we appreciate those on the front lines and how frightening it must be to be a healthcare worker in this day and age and how no one could have predicted that restaurant and grocery store employees would become instant heroes and how much we rely on them for our survival. We would debate whether it is necessary to disinfect our groceries after they had been delivered and to what degree and then we would talk about how ridiculous it was that everyone hoarded toilet paper and how that became its own epidemic. We would express our admiration for Dr. Fauci and what a comfort he has been during these unpredictable weeks and go so far as to say he has been the father figure we have so desperately needed to help us cope with this nightmare. While we would feel confident the handshake will eventually make a comeback, we are certain Anthony Fauci is a national treasure and when this is all said and done, there needs to be a statue of him in every State Capitol. And we would promise to make that happen.

If we were having coffee…we would joke that we have stayed inside for so long that we are going to shrivel up like those kids in that book Flowers in the Attic and that would remind me how much I miss the library. We wouldn’t reminisce about the places we can’t go anymore because there isn’t any point. We know how important it is that we stay at home right now to try and prevent the spread of COVID-19. Especially with the lack of testing available. But we wouldn’t even go there because we have already consciously distanced ourselves from the anger we feel about it and know how negativity can be detrimental to our health and well-being especially when we are in isolation. Instead, we would talk about what shows we are binge watching on Netflix and give each other our recommendations. We would have both purchased Contagion online and watched it multiple times. We would agree that movie seems to provide the clearest picture of what we are experiencing in our world right now. We would wonder if the kids from This Is Us will be all grown up by the time they are allowed to go back to filming and speculate about what series we may never see again. We would marvel at how quickly the Coronavirus was incorporated into commercials but we might also be slightly skeptical that social distancing was actually practiced while those commercials were being filmed.

If we were having coffee…I would confess that the reason I haven’t reached out to you sooner is because I’m scared. I would tell you that I’m not as afraid of getting the virus as I am about losing loved ones to it. I would tell you how frightened I am to be living so far away from my parents and my children and that I am terrified of the thought that people I love could die alone. I would also admit that I have been going through a mourning period lately and how heartbroken I have been that I never got a chance to say goodbye to the world that used to be because everything changed so quickly. Tears would fill my eyes because the life we knew no longer exists. I would assure you that in my heart I know it won’t be like this forever, but I also know when we do emerge on the other side of this, things will look very differently because every single person will have been affected by the Coronavirus, even the ones one don’t get sick. Then we would take a sip of our coffee and share a moment of silence, acknowledging our world will never be the same.

If we were having coffee…we would consider that while we may currently be living in very dark times, we would also notice there is a glimmer of light shining through all that darkness and that gives us hope that in the end we will be okay. That light that is shining on us right now is creativity and the world is absolutely bursting with it. From Italians singing to teddy bear scavenger hunts and hearts in windows to sports alternatives to families creating  incredibly entertaining You Tube videos and everything in between, people have been sharing creative ways to cope and we have enjoyed watching every minute of it on our computer screens. We would express our faith that all this creativity will be used in innovative ways to lead us into our future and define the new world we will be embracing. And maybe when the destruction of this pandemic settles, we will look back on this time and realize we truly did work together to get through it all.

If we were having coffee…the economic uncertainty we both face would make us mindful that our free forty minutes on ZOOM were almost up. We would tell each other how thankful we are to have been able to spend this time together and vow to never again doubt the awesome benefits of technology. We would remind each other to be sure we had written down our passwords so we can do this again while assuring each other that one day, hopefully, in the not too distant future, we will have coffee again in person.

And when we do, I can’t wait to give you a great, big hug.

Melle Signature


In the Blink of an Eye

Back to school

Today marked the day of three of the most dreaded words in the English language: Summer Is Over. Back to school went many of the children across the state of Missouri, including mine. I proudly plastered photo collages of my children all over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. As unbelievable as it seems, my baby is in high school. High school. It doesn’t seem possible and yet the reality is undeniable. It seems like just yesterday the tiny faces in those pictures were looking up at me and now all of my children tower over me. It went by in a heartbeat. A millisecond. In the blink of an eye.

Twenty-one years ago, when I first became a mother, I was living in northern California in a small town near Napa. Once a month, there was a Tea Dance at the Community Center. The young and old would co-mingle for an afternoon of refreshments and ballroom dancing. It was delightful! My very best friend Mimi (we met at a Lamaze childbirth class; she had her daughter shortly after I had my son) and I took our newborns to one of these Tea Dances. I can remember sitting in the lobby, breastfeeding our little babies, two timid first time mothers trying to navigate our way through unfamiliar territory. Two elderly ladies came over to us. They smiled knowingly, women who had been there, done that, but long ago put those tee shirts away. They heralded experience and were anxious to share with us things that were good to know.

Much of the advice bestowed upon new mothers is the kind which suggests doing things a certain way. Make sure they sleep on their tummy, don’t let them have the bottle in the crib. But these veteran mothers had a different message. It was simple and to the point. Mimi and I didn’t completely buy into it at that particular moment in time. In fact, it may have seemed a little far fetched. But from where we are standing now, it all makes perfect sense.

Mimi and Me

Melle and Mimi All Those Years Ago

They told us to enjoy every single minute. That was their advice. Enjoy it all because it would go by quickly, before we even realized itthey assured us. They promised us that in no time at all, we would be standing where they were, giving new mothers the very same words of wisdom.

I’ve never forgotten that because it DID go by fast. I never expected it to, never believed it was possible. In a blink of an eye, my babies grew up. Now when a baby announcement pops up on Facebook, the first thing I always tell new mothers after “Congratulations” is “Enjoy every minute!”  I savored every moment just as I promised those ladies I would all those years ago at the Tea Dance. I’m so grateful to them for pointing out such an important part of being mother: It goes by fast. Enjoy!


Curiosity…well, there’s that.

I see you

I have a propensity for curiosity. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t. We’re not talking about the kind of curiosity where the girl in the scary movie goes investigating the noise she heard while home alone babysitting two sleeping children. It’s the kind of curiosity where maybe there’s a line, and maybe you’ve crossed it.

Now at the end of the day, one could argue that we live in a curious society. Reality shows, for example, have us boldly delving into the abyss of strangers’ lives where we clearly have no business going.

And yet we’re begging for more.

There’s a story in William Bennett’s Book of Virtues for Children about a little boy who never uses the Please that resides in his mouth. The Please decides to escape from the brother who never uses him and run over to the brother who does use his Please. That’s what I feel about my Curiosity. She pries my mouth open whenever she pleases and asks whatever she is dying to know….

 It’s no wonder curiosity killed the cat.

Kitten trying to get at a goldfish

I have always been a curious soul. If something doesn’t make sense, I like to get to the bottom of it.


So when Facebook came along, I couldn’t wait to discover what had happened to all those people I knew Way Back When. Did they get married and live Happily Ever After? Were they successful in their careers? What kind of lives were they living? Did all their dreams come true? Each new friend request that popped up meant an exciting new adventure of discovery was about to begin!

And as with most everything, one thing led to another and each friend led to another and so on and so on and so on…

Well, it turns out you can make a living out of “Getting to the Bottom of What People Are Up to Since the Last Time You Saw Them.” I just haven’t figured out a way to get paid for it.

But it has a price and oh, will it cost you.

It will cost you memories you once cherished.

It will cost you redefining  what you believe you knew Way Back When.

All because things don’t always turn out how you perceived they would and sometimes that’s a really big bummer.

He puts the wedding ring on herFor example, I momentarily (we can define that later) got REALLY hung up on why a friend of mine from childhood didn’t marry the man I was certain (as I’m sure many others were as well) she was destined to. They SO seemed like they were heading straight toward Happily Ever After. When I clicked on photos and saw a different man standing next to her at the altar I was perplexed. How did this happen exactly? What went wrong?

Why? Why? Why?

So I did what any person located in my predicament would do. … I kind of creeped on her Facebook page a bit searching for clues to this unimaginable mystery. C’mon, you know you’ve been there, done that, got the Creeper McGee tee shirt. Deny it all you want but I know.

But there were no explanations to be found.

No indication whatsoever of why she married someone completely different! I briefly toyed around with the idea of asking her in a roundabout way what happened to Happily Ever After but quickly came to terms with the fact that there was no tactful way to accomplish this. In a moment of complete insanity, I contemplated asking her point blank what the hell happened but figured the response I would get would probably come in the form of being un-friended.

So I just left it.

More or less.

I mean with 900 plus friends on Facebook there is plenty to choose from as far as creeping* goes.

young woman in computer lab

So my creeper escapades on Facebook basically led me to the following conclusions:

  • people I thought would DEFINITELY march down the aisle and walk straight into the Land of Happily Ever After either a) didn’t or b) ended up getting divorced just like I did
  • complete fly-by the-seat-of-their-name-brand-pants idiots ended up getting better jobs than I did because of WHO they knew instead of WHAT they knew, and, yes, this REALLY pisses me off
  • good friends I should have keep in better touch with, I didn’t, but instead of feeling guilty about it I can at least like their posts and wish them Happy Birthday and occasionally post a memory on their wall
  • people I suspected were gay, are
  • some people who seemed really cool Way Back When ended up being Super Staunch Republicans and I had unfriend them because of their Super Scary Political posts
  • some people didn’t really deserve the lots in life they got and that really sucks
  • some of my ex-boyfriends ended up being exactly where I never wanted to be and I am SO grateful we didn’t end up together
  • some of my ex-boyfriends married REALLY beautiful girls and look REALLY happy in their  profile pictures and I have to admit this sometimes makes me feel REALLY (ugh!) jealous
  • some of the girls who weren’t so nice to me in school and who I friended only to see if they failed miserably in life turned out to have similar Parenting Perils and we ended up having a lot in common in the Raising Kids Department which, in the end, makes all the ugly snarkiness on both our parts disappear (LIKE!)
  • sometimes, people FINALLY got what they deserved and although I know smirking at this revelation requires me to ante up to the Karmic Tollbooth, I secretly think it’s worth it 😉
  • some friends I would LOVE to reconnect with have never materialized on Facebook (or perhaps more accurately, I am not savvy enough to locate them) and this makes me sad
  • Some people who said they were going to do something or said they were going to be something ARE and that’s REALLY awesome and inspiring

The bottom line is, things didn’t turn out the way I thought they would for a lot of people I knew Way Back When. Just as my own did, their story veered off the course it was set for and went in a totally unforeseen new direction.

And at the end of the day, that’s ok.

Perhaps those same people are creeping on MY Facebook page wondering why I didn’t become this or that, how come I didn’t stay married or, let’s be honest, why on earth I am STILL living in the Midwest when everyone knows you can take the girl out of California but nothing on earth can take the California out of the girl.

So, when you’ve finally logged off  Facebook, maybe you have to Byron Katie it back to you and realize you probably didn’t turn out the way you thought you would either.

And that’s ok too.

Byron Katie

*For my mom, the definition of creeping courtesy of

Following what is going on in someone’s life by watching their status messages on Instant Messengers such as MSN, and their updates to their social networking profiles on websites like Facebook or MySpace. Akin to stalking in the real world, but usually done to people who are your friends that would normally share this information with you, however you’re just too busy to keep up conversation with them.
I see you’ve got a new cat, dumped your girlfriend, moved to a new apartment, had a fight with your sister, and your goldfish died. Yes, it’s true, I’ve been creeping you, just been so busy with finals that I haven’t had a chance to call or write until now.