“No one ever has their first play published. It just doesn’t happen.” These were the words of wisdom from my writing mentor back in June of 2008, as I worked to refine and polish a project that had come to me unbidden in the dark of night. He didn’t want me to be disappointed if the play was rejected, even though he had repeatedly told me, “This story is a goldmine!”
I understood. No one felt more inadequate than I when it came to attempting a stage play. I had worked as a writer in information technology for years and held a B.A. in English from the University of Michigan, but I had never considered a foray into theatre. Writing for the stage was daunting. A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas was not something I sought to write. Rather it was the commingling of a number of experiences from that previous December that kept rolling over and over in my psyche until they spilled out, fully formed, into my computer one night in February 2008. I didn’t choose to write for the stage. It feels more like playwriting chose me.
The entire process had started with a church sermon that previous December. “Many of us think we are better than the inhabitants of Bethlehem. We believe we would open our homes to a pregnant woman if she needed our help, but I challenge you on this,” said our thoughtful pastor. “Mary was fourteen by most accounts. She was unmarried and very obviously pregnant. She and Joseph appeared during the census, a time when families were required to return to their places of birth. Imagine your house at Christmas when it’s full of relatives. Would you really take in a pregnant, unmarried 14-year-old in the midst of all that chaos?”
He had me there. I looked guiltily at my feet as I pondered the answer. I wasn’t prone to opening my home to strangers, especially when there were family members to pacify and impress. I wasn’t usually too thrilled at the idea of unwed teenage mothers either. Face it — I was a hypocrite. Crap! All during the Christmas season that year, the pastor’s words continued to haunt me. Would I show the kind of hospitality God expects of His believers if Mary showed up at my door on Christmas Eve? Probably not. The thought of my inadequacy troubled me and gnawed at my usual self-assurance. It was not putting me in the Christmas Spirit.
In the midst of this inner turmoil came an opportunity to sit and relax one night. The gifts were wrapped, the tree was up, there were no special events on the calendar for the kids, and we were able to eat at home and watch a little TV. As we flipped through channels looking for our seasonal favorites, I spotted something from the Blue Collar Comedy guys. I hate to admit it, but my simple upbringing in the wilds of rural Michigan make me supremely susceptible to their brand of humor, and I immediately thought, “Wow, I wonder if they’ve done a Christmas special. What a great idea!” Sadly, it was just their usual fare, and I again found myself thinking, “Too bad. They’re missing out on a great opportunity. Their fan base loves Christmas. They really should do something for the holiday.”
With that, I never consciously thought about the Blue Collar guys again. After all, Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy have done alright without a Christmas show over the years. If they don’t want to jump on the Christmas bandwagon, it’s no skin off my back. However, while my conscious mind quickly moved on, my subconscious must have attached itself to the idea of a Blue Collar Comedy Christmas special, because late one night the following February, I had the most amazingly vivid dream, melding the Blue Collar Comedy guys with the Bethlehem Christmas sermon.
Not much of a sleeper at this point in my life, I jumped out of bed and ran to my computer. A few hours later I had the core story on paper; forty-six pages that have remained nearly unchanged in all the years since. Now, what to do with the story? For some reason, I was certain this midnight visitation was intended for more than my own personal enjoyment.
Fortunately, my kids had always been involved in local theatre, so I turned to a fellow Michigan alum, who I knew from that community, for guidance. Gersh Morningstar is gone now, but on that day in February 2008, he knew exactly what I needed to do and who I needed to see. I took the forty-six pages to a local writing consultant, recently retired from his career as a script consultant on such programs as Benson and The Golden Girls. From there, as they say, the rest is history.
Leon Embry was president of Samuel French when this little-play-that-could arrived in New York City. He’d had his own rural upbringing in Kentucky, and the title A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Christmas immediately caught his attention. Years later Leon told me over lunch that his response to the title was this: “If there’s anything even remotely good about this play, we’re publishing it!” (Hearing this made me feel better, as I had taken quite a beating from more polished and better educated playwrights for giving my play what they felt was an inordinately long title.)
Flash-forward to today, and Redneck Christmas has been produced all over the U.S. and Canada to consistently sold out houses. It has been adapted as a musical and has two sequels that are both just as funny and touching as the original. The first sequel, A Good Old Fashioned Redneck Country Wedding, is also part of the SF catalog. (Hopefully number three will get there soon!)
The success of Redneck Christmas also opened a number of professional doors for me, and thanks to that first play, I have been represented by Gary DaSilva since 2009. Last year, one of my more serious dramas also found a home with another publisher in London.
The Redneck Country franchise includes stage plays, screenplays, and illustrated novellas, but most importantly it has allowed me to fulfill my purpose in life. Before the franchise, I was always a writer, but now I am a playwright. I’ve never been happier. Film producer Jack Lenz has made a serious offer to turn the plays into films, and I look forward to being part of that process. Most of all, I enjoy bringing unique stories to life for audiences that may not always be at the core of our normal theatrical community. I firmly believe that if a new play brings in new audience members, then it’s a win-win for all involved. And this is exactly what happens, according to many of the organizations that have produced my plays over the years. People who think that live theatre has nothing to offer them get dragged in by a friend or neighbor and find something to admire in these funny, touching stories brought to life by amazing actors everywhere.
I love being part of the Samuel French family, and while some of the faces have changed since my early days there (Ken is now Ben, and Leon has retired), the overriding premise of bringing the best in dramatic writing to their customers has never wavered. They are supportive of their playwrights, and they care about diversity of material. Everyone at French has always treated me like family.
So if you ever feel like writing a play, but someone tells you, “No one ever has their first play published,” just take it with a grain of salt. It’s unusual, but it can happen. I’m living proof. If you have a good story, and your heart is in it, write what you love, and let God and Samuel French handle the rest.