Playwriting 101
playwriting course

By EWING EUGENE BALDWIN

I had ruined my voice touring for three years in a bus and truck company of Jesus Christ Superstar. I had played Judas, and now I was a mute—doctor’s orders. I wanted to stay in theatre, so I started writing a play. The first draft was on staff paper, the characters like musical instruments. Music was what I knew.

On a warm Chicago night in spring, 1980, I walked to my bar, the Irish Eyes, on Lincoln Avenue, the only copy of my play under an arm. It was a Monday. A few regulars were there, plus a stranger sitting next to my friend George. The pipe-smoking stranger had a shaved head and wore tinted glasses. He was a dead ringer for Telly Savalas, the actor who played “Kojak” on TV—if Telly Savalas were a stevedore in a blue work shirt with the sleeves ripped off and shoulder tattoos.

I slammed my bound manuscript on the bar and called for drinks for the house. Luckily, that meant five drinks. George, from the Beat generation, stroked his long white beard with his right hand and smiled: “Did you finish your play?”

“Yes.”

George went to the can, and Kojak turned to me. He took some pipe puffs and exhaled.

“So, you’re a playwright.”

“Yes,” I whispered proudly.

 “I’m Dr Mel Slott. I’m chair of the theatre department at Governor’s State University.” He played his pipe like a piccolo. He had a Cheshire cat smile and used it to good effect.

I clenched my jaws. No way.

“Give me the manuscript, Mr ‘Playwright’. I’ll take it home and read it tonight. And I’ll call you tomorrow and tell you whether or not you’re a playwright.”

Kojak walked out of Irish Eyes with my only manuscript. George, as if on cue, came back from the can grinning. “Did Mel offer to read? I told him you’d be in today or tomorrow.” George had set me up.

The next morning, I walked into Dr Slott’s tasteful apartment on Diversey Avenue, abstract paintings hanging from the walls, the furniture stylish. Telly Savalas’ twin was dressed in khakis, loafers, and an expensive-looking long-sleeved pullover.

On his cream-colored carpet was my unbound manuscript, arranged in rows, twenty pages to a row. The pages had literally been slashed with a red pen; whole pages were bloody and mutilated. Slott the slasher had murdered my play.

I cried and wailed like a puppy left out in a blizzard.

“Shut up,” Dr Slott said calmly. “Shut the hell up, pick up the pages, read what’s left and let’s see what happens.”

I picked up and arranged the pile of bruised pages and sat on a couch, and began to read aloud from what was left. Pipe-sucking Dr Slott sat across from me, arms and hands raised like a supplicant, fingertips touching. I read between gulps of sobs.

Eighty minutes later, I read: “Blackout. We hear a shotgun blast. The End.”

Slott flashed the Cheshire cat smile. “Chekov’s gun theory—every element in a story must be essential; cut all unnecessary elements. Did we learn anything?”

“It’s the same play,” I rasped.

“It sounds like music,” my mentor said. After three pipe puffs, he added, “Retype, send the play to a director friend, Bill Hunt in New York. Oh, and Lesson Two, never ever give a stranger your only manuscript.”

I left Slott’s apartment, Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

The play opened Off Broadway in 1983, a flop. It was the start of my life as a writer.

About the Author

Ewing Eugene Baldwin is a playwright, journalist, fictionist, and history writer (Underground Railroad in Illinois, Tuskegee Airmen (Nation World War II Museum Archives). His short story “Catbelly Heat on My Knees” was recently published in Jerry Jazz Musician Magazine. The Yale University Climate Change Project featured his essay “The Fifth Season” on its national podcast. His “The Genehouse Chronicles” is at www.eugenebaldwin.com

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