Friday, February 9, 2024

George Washington Ate My Homework to be published

I have a file in my playwriting folder titled "Story Ideas." It's where I dump all the plots I've come up but haven't been able to break just yet.

Whenever I finish a play, I go through the file again to see if any of those old ideas click.

Filed away

Whole Latte Love spent a couple of years in that file. It started out as a You've Got Mail wannabe, with a large unnamed coffee chain trying to put a smaller shop out of business. I played around with that concept for a long time, but I still couldn't break the story.

Then I thought maybe it would serve a magical coffee. That didn't help either, because I couldn't decide which magical spell to use.

It wasn't until I got the idea of having the shop serve six magical coffees which get mixed up by a newbie barista that the story took off.

It Happened on Route 66 also spent a lot of time in that file, back when I thought of it as a 1950's version of Waiting for Godot. The idea was that the denizens of a greasy diner were waiting for a rock star, but he never shows up so one of the soda jerks is drafted to pose as him.

The problem was that it was too close to the previously published Pioneer play The Nifty Fifties. The solution was to flip the conflict, making it revolve around a celebrity (now a movie star) who arrives by accident (he car breaks down(, doesn't want to be recognized, and is forced to pose as a waitress in order to escape the press.

Time passages

But no idea spent as much time in that file as my time travel comedy. The concept was to make a historical Enchanted Bookshop, with several famous figures from history making their appearance and much of the humor coming from the anachronistic interaction among them.

There's one thing that all time travel stories have in common. They take place over several locations and several eras as our heroes travel through time fighting evil, righting wrongs, or just trying to get history back to the way it was before they screwed things up. And that was my approach too--at first.

But I soon realized such a play would be difficult to produce, requiring often cash-strapped schools to create dozens of sets and possibly dozens upon dozens of costumes (after all, those historical scenes would have to include at least a few background characters for authenticity). So I rejected it.

Besides, I prefer writing single-set plays. The format poses a fun challenge, and I love seeing the incredible detail theaters put into their sets when they only have to build one of them instead of dozens. 

Of course, the fact that my single-set plays sell a lot better was also a huge plus.

But how can you make a time travel play single-set? I racked my brain. I scribbled ideas. I deleted those ideas. I scribbled some more.

Nothing worked.

Stormy weather

Then one day I had a brainstorm. What if the entire play took place in a mad scientist's lab? What if the time machine he invented broke? And what if, as a result of that, our heroes timeport more and more historical figures into the present so that they have to figure out how to get them back?

Everything clicked. Except for one problem. How would our heroes know they changed history if they're stuck in the lab?

That's when I had my second brainstorm. What if there's a hamburger restaurant upstairs and our heroes realize something's wrong when a couple of employees come downstairs to complain about the noise and it turns out the restaurant has become a very British fish-and-chip shop?

I loved it. There was plenty of conflict. The situation was a gold mine for humor. And it would be a piece of cake to produce, with a single-set centered around a simple, boxy time machine and period costumes required for just nine historical figures.

A non-working title?

But what would I call it? Well, my working title was Hysterical Figures, but I knew that was corny as heck and didn't really communicate the fact that it's a time travel story.

For a while I went with Time Warped, which gets across the time travel idea but doesn't let potential customers know that it involves historical figures. (It was also the title of a short-lived Trey Parker show in the 90's, but I'm pretty sure nobody remembers it so that wasn't a concern.)

Then I remembered a middle-grade novel I'd written in the early 2000's titled George Washington Ate My Homework. The book only had one historical figure travel through time--the titular President--but it never got published so I figured I was free to reuse it.

The title was perfect for the play. It tells you it's a time travel tale. It tells you that at least George Washington travels through time. And it passes the smile test

And so, with the manuscript completed and a title selected, I sent it off to Pioneer and they accepted it 17 days later (second only to the 7 days it took It's a Madhouse! to get accepted).

Science stuff

There are so many good scenes, it's hard to decide which one to share with you. So let me give you an excerpt which shows how the three students who form the comical heart of the play find the time machine in the first place:

NAOMI: So what does Dr. Bizwang have you doing? Cleaning up and stuff?

JUNIE: No, of course not! I have a lot of responsibilities around here. I'm--I'm his research assistant. 

NAOM: His research assistant? What does that mean?

JUNIE: Well, um, it means I assist with his research. And stuff.

NAOMI: Stuff?

JUNIE: You know, like science stuff.

WARNER: So you understand what all these gadgets do?

JUNIE: Oh, yeah. Most definitely.

WARNER: All right. What does this thing do? (Picks up a random gadget.)

JUNIE: That? Uh, it's very technical. You wouldn't understand.

WARNER: Well, what does this thing do? (Picks up another gadget.)

JUNIE: Um, that's pretty technical too. You wouldn't understand.

WARNER: Is there anything I would understand?

JUNIE: Yes. Whatever you do, don't push the red button.

WARNER: What red button?

JUNIE: The one under the "Do Not Push the Red Button" sign.

WARNER: (Turns to the time machine.) Okay, you've got to know what this thing is!

JUNIE: I sure do. This happens to be a time machine.

WARNER: Whoa! You mean it can send us back in time?

JUNIE: Well, yeah. But I wouldn't recommend it.

WARNER: Oh, come on! We could skip surfing the web altogether! Do all our researching in person!

JUNIE: Listen to me, Warner. Last week, Dr. Bizwang tested the time machine by sending a mouse back to 1492 and it never returned. Do you know what that means?

WARNER: It found the world's biggest hunk of cheese?

JUNIE: No! The mouse is stuck in a time warp! Do you want to be stuck in a time warp, Warner?

WARNER: That depends. What's the cheese situation like?

The play should be released in time for the new school year in the fall, if not sooner. In the meantime, you can read the synopsis and cast list by visiting the play's web page on the New Play Exchange.

And if, while you're there, you check out some of my other plays, I'm not going to complain.

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