My playwriting career began with a typo.
As a child fevered with constant creativity, I lost hours flipping through dictionaries, fascinated by the meaning and sources of words. I conquered the competition at spelling bees, relishing in my power to spell grown-up vocabulary like humanitarian and sassafras. I read everything I could get my hands on: TV Guide, cereal boxes, countless Nancy Drew books. While my friends tattooed the playground asphalt with chalky hopscotch squares and x’s and o’s, I devoted recess time to scrawling smudged haikus about sunsets and crocodiles.
I wrote my first short story at the age of seven. The assignment from my second-grade teacher was to write a few paragraphs about Halloween. I was charged with a sweet surge of adrenaline, the rush of a previously unknown exhilaration. No one had ever asked me to write a story before. I accepted the challenge and sharpened my No. 2 pencil. Lead hit paper and I experienced a state of reverie. While other kids wrote about ghosts and candy corn and haunted houses, I wrote a five-page story titled The Blue Witch. The mini-epic told the tale of a sad witch named Isabelle who was suffering from a deep depression. Shunned by others, Isabelle decided she didn’t want to be a witch anymore. She was craving friendship and true love. The reaction to my story was one of shock and awe. My teacher kept me after class. She looked down as I sat at my desk, paralyzed with fear. I watched her mouth. Her lips curled up into a proud smile as she breathed on me, “You have a special gift.”
If writing was my best friend, television was my secret crush. I was thrilled by the plights of Electra Woman and Dyna Girl, mesmerized by the escapades of Charlie’s Angels. Unlike my friends, I wasn’t drawn into these shows because of the action and the actresses. I loved the stories. I would faithfully tune in to watch each episode, captivated by the story arcs and plot twists.
By the time I was ten, I graduated from reading young adult books by Judy Blume and Norma Fox Mazer to the risqué worlds of Danielle Steele and Jackie Collins. My television viewing habits shifted, too. Summer vacation became a boring blur of reruns of The Jeffersons and One Day at a Time. It was around this time that I found a new passion: The Young and The Restless. I discovered the show by way of my grandmother, Dorothy. She introduced me to her favorite program and I was instantly hooked. The show appealed to be on many levels; the parallel storylines, the emotional conflicts, the nail-biting suspense. It was by watching The Young and The Restless that my voice as a writer began to form and emerge.
At the age of eleven, I unintentionally wrote my first stage play. As my devotion to The Young and The Restless was bordering on an obsession, I was inspired to write my own soap opera. For months, I filled up spiral notebook after notebook with characters existing in a fictional world I titled Life Isn’t Easy. The epic story was set in a small town in Georgia (although I was born and raised in California), rich with love triangles, conspiracies, lustful doctors and nurses, god-like private investigators and ingénues that could have been canonized. My characters had glamorous names like London Crèbach and April Montgomery. The dialogue was riddled with backbiting insults and heated innuendo. The settings were decadent and populated with the affluent.
In sixth grade, I was a student at Theodore Judah Elementary School in Sacramento. It was there I would meet a woman who would forever change my life: my first drama teacher. When the sign-up list for after school acting lessons circulated around class, I eagerly penned my name, anxious to discover a new universe that would eventually become an extension of my soul. Mauvey, the curly haired drama teacher, was everything I wanted to be: hip, cool, bohemian, artistic, and fearless. She inspired, challenged, listened, and most importantly, encouraged. I delved head first into the world of drama and I swam like an Olympic medalist.
Two weeks after afternoons consisting of charades, improvisational games, and trust exercises, Mauvey announced to the twelve of us in the after-school program that she’d decided we were ready to produce a play. In her professional opinion, we’d each learned a mutual respect for drama and possessed the potential to become great actors. To my eleven-year-old ears, this was the first form of assuredness I’d received that being creative was a good thing. While the words of my second-grade teacher stayed with me, this felt much bigger, more important, as if I were being initiated into a secret society.
Mauvey said she wanted suggestions: what play did we want to perform? Most of us had never read or seen a play, so the group fell mute and shifted with a collective awkwardness. Finally, I spoke, “I wrote a soap opera. It’s called Life Isn’t Easy.” I shoved a few of my ratty notebooks across the shiny wooden floor of the school auditorium. Mauvey raised an eyebrow and took the notebooks. We all sat and watched as she thumbed through pages. My best friend, Caroline, sat next to me squeezing my hand. She’d read every single word. She knew how important the moment was to me. Finally, Mauvey closed the notebooks. “You wrote this?” she asked. I was scared to answer. I nodded in reply. She smiled, seeing something in me that would take me years to discover on my own. “This,” she said tapping the cover of the notebook on top of the pile of others. “This will be our first play.” I gulped. Caroline tightened her grip on my damp palm. Mauvey looked at me and with her words, my confidence was boosted. “You’re a wonderful writer.”
I had an identity then. I was no longer just another face in the school hallway or the boy in the back of the classroom lost in an elaborate daydream. There was now a description, a bon-a-fide explanation describing who I was. Mauvey had anointed me a writer. I suddenly had purpose, a sense of being, a new soul. Immediately, I started to see the world from a different perspective. I noticed the occupations of people around me: a waitress, a secretary, a doctor, a teacher.
I was a writer.
Mauvey put us to work at once. We spent three weeks painting vividly detailed backdrops, building ornate sets, making glamorous costumes, casting roles, learning lines, and rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. Each day when I walked in to the auditorium after school, my mind swam with excitement and pride. Through Mauvey and my classmates, a world I had imagined was coming to life. It was overwhelming and I floated through my life in a permanent state of wonder.
Two days before opening night, Mauvey came into the auditorium looking a bit dismayed and flustered. She had a stack of lemon colored papers in her hand. “Look at what they’ve done,” she told us. She put the stack on the floor for all of us to see. They were promotional fliers for the show. They looked wonderful but the printer has made one awful mistake: he had changed the title of the play to Lice Isn’t Easy. “Oh my God,” Caroline said to me, who had been cast in the lead role of Lisa McGall. “Everyone will think we have lice.”
We all started to scratch our heads as if we’d been simultaneously infected. Caroline whipped out a comb from her backpack and ran it through her hair violently. Dustin, a future hottie with a body and the hero of my play, ran to the nearest drinking fountain and tried to maneuver his skull beneath the spigot. Stacey and Whitney, the inseparable best friends who only spoke in unison, declared at once, “We’re gonna die!” and held onto each other as if our plane was going down.
“No,” Mauvey said, exuding authority. “We can fix this. It’s a minor setback, but as they always say, the show must go on.”
Caroline stopped combing. Dustin returned with wet hair. Stacey and Whitney let go and began to breathe again.
Mauvey, the miracle worker, pulled out a black permanent marker from her mirror beaded purse that reeked of patchouli. With one single glide of her hand, she saved our reputation. She changed the “c” to an “f”. It took hours but we all changed every flier.
Friday night the auditorium was packed. Parents and siblings and teachers filled the room, all of them anxious to see Life Isn’t Easy. My mother worked the concession stand and sold her sticky Rice Krispies Treats for a quarter a pop. My younger brother, Jamin, had to be blackmailed into being on his best behavior with promises that someone would take him to see Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo.
I was backstage, where Caroline and I and our co-stars clung to each other in terror, wracked with nerves and fright. Mauvey, our creative mother, calmed us down, sky rocketed our spirits with a positive pep talk, and reminded us what a talented group we were.
The curtain rose. The lights came up. The actors took their places. Their mouths opened and I watched and listened as my words filled the air around us. I know, I know. The play was only produced in a school auditorium at an elementary school, but in my eleven-year-old opinion, Life Isn’t Easy was way better than any episode of The Young and the Restless.
Today, the faded lemon flier hangs in my home office. Each time I look at the scripted black “f” that covers the botched “c”, I am reminded that even a typo can’t stop destiny.
The plays in this collection are time capsules, each written over the course of my life and career, since that fateful day in sixth grade when a teacher believed in me and forever changed the trajectory of my life.
To her, I owe everything.